Porthtowan to Chapel Porth circular walk

Porthtowan to Chapel Porth

A circular walk from Porthtowan, along the coast, valleys and woodland passing engine houses and other relics of Cornish copper mining.

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From Porthtowan the walk follows the Coast Path to the remains of the engine house at Wheal Charlotte and crosses the copper lode to Chapel Porth with spectacular views along the coast to St Agnes Head. The route turns up the Chapel Coombe valley, passing the engine house of Charlotte United Mine and follows a footpath to the ridge at Towan Cross. The walk descends again to Banns Vale where it follows the wooded stream. The final leg follows the valley from remains of the Tywarnhayle mine to the sea, passing Wheal Ellen's castellated chimney and other mining relics.


  • Route includes paths close to unfenced cliff edges.

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Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 104
  • Distance: 4.7 miles/7.5 km
  • Steepness grade: Moderate
  • Recommended footwear: walking boots

OS maps for this walk

OS Explorer 104 OS Explorer 104 (laminated version)

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  • Long, sandy beaches at Porthtowan and Chapel Porth
  • Iconic engine houses and mining relics
  • Minerals and crystals along the footpaths
  • Panoramic views from the Coast Path
  • Vibrant art scene and traditions including Bolster Day and the World Bellyboarding Championship
  • Riverside walk through broadleaf woodland along Banns Vale

Pubs on or near the route

  • The Unicorn Inn


  1. Turn right out of the car park and follow the road past the beach and the cafés until it ends at a barrier.

    The name means something along the lines of "beach with sand dunes". During the 20th Century, dunes have suffered erosion from large numbers of beachgoers. To help restore the dunes, residents donated their Christmas trees and these have been buried in the dunes to help hold the sand in place and give vegetation a chance to re-establish.

    At low tide, a number of coves join together to form a mile-long sandy beach, and on a low Spring tide it's just possible to walk all the way to Chapel Porth along the beach.

  2. Pass the barrier and keep right along the coast path. Follow the main path past where a fence descends the cliff and continue uphill until the main path forks.

    On 28th November 1897 a coastguard spotted wreckage and then bodies in the huge waves breaking on the cliffs at Porthtowan. With the help of volunteers, six bodies were brought ashore and the name of the vessel was identified from their clothing. In total, there was a crew of eleven and the remaining bodies washed ashore in the following weeks. The ship had been driven onto rocks and the emergency flares had been hidden by lightning from the storm.

    More info

  3. At the fork, turn left and follow the path to a junction of paths just before a granite bench on the end of the headland.

    Thrift is tolerant of metals such as lead and particularly copper in soil so it is able to colonise coastal mine tips. It has been suggested that the heavy metal tolerance may be partly down to not transporting much dissolved metal up the shoot of the plant (since thrift grows in a desiccating salty environment, there is less water to transport it than in many other plants). However thrift also has mechanisms to sequester metals and excrete them through its roots and leaves.

    Gorse is present as two species along the Atlantic coast and size is the easiest way to tell them apart: Common Gorse bushes are up to 10ft tall whereas Western Gorse is more of a mat - less than 1ft tall. Common Gorse flowers in spring whereas Western Gorse flowers in late summer - early autumn.

    Keep a look out for choughs which are sometimes seen on this stretch of coast as their range begins to spread further east.

    If you think you've seen a chough, take a photo if possible and email choughs@cbwps.org.uk to report the sighting. This will help the "Chough Watch" team keep track of the growing population.

  4. Turn right just before the bench to follow the (inner) path around the headland to rejoin the coast path near a waymark. Bear left onto the coast path and keep left at the fork. Continue where it joins a larger path.

    Porthtowan's tidal pool is at the bottom of the cliff. From the beach, it's quite hidden by the surrounding rocks so not many people on the beach discover it.

  5. Bear left onto the larger path and follow it past the Wheal Charlotte sign, down a valley to where it splits into a stony and grassy path. Follow either of the paths up the other side towards the top of the hill to where the two paths briefly meet and the stony path then departs to the left from the wider grassy path.

    Ravens can also sometimes be seen on the coast here.

    Ravens are the largest member of the crow family and have a bigger wingspan than a buzzard. They are most easily distinguished from other members of the crow family by their very large black beak which has a hooked top. Other members of the crow family have straighter beaks. Their call is a deep croak.

  6. Bear left onto the stony path and follow this along the coast to where it forks.

    Heather plants can live up to 40 years and over time they form woody stems. This provides them with a way of excreting heavy metals that they absorb by locking it up in the layers of dead wood (found by researchers as the areas in the plant with the highest concentrations). Their woody stems have also found many uses over the centuries including fuel, thatch and ropes. One other use has made it into the genus name for heather - kallune is Greek for "to brush".

    The sandy seabed is used by flatfish for camouflage.

    Flatfish such a turbot and plaice are sand-coloured on their upper surface so they blend into the seabed and can both ambush passing prey and hide from predators.

    Flatfish begin life as a normal (non-flat) fish with one eye on each side of their head. As they mature, one eye gradually migrates over the top of their head to the other side. They then spend their whole adult life lying on their side.

  7. Take the right path towards the stone ruins on the skyline and follow it to a junction of paths just before the engine house remains.

    Wheal Charlotte was a copper mine first opened in the late 1700s and early 1800s to mine the shallow deposits where the lode meets the surface (known as the "strike" in mining jargon). In the late 1820s, the mine was reopened under the name Great Wheal Charlotte and the engine house was built to pump out a deep shaft which met the lode further underground (which is why the engine house is back towards Porthtowan) and tunnels followed the lode underground.

  8. Turn left at the junction of paths and follow the path to the bottom of a large spoil heap, where a number of other paths intersect.

    The mounds are the remains of earlier mining activity before the engine house was constructed.

    The mounds alongside the coast path approaching Chapel Porth from Porthtowan mark the presence of rocks bearing copper ore. The seam of ore-bearing rock (known as a lode in mining jargon) hits the surface along the line of heaps and then slopes down into the ground towards Porthtowan. The copper minerals can be seen as orange stains on the white bedrock within the cliffs.

  9. Bear right onto the coast path and follow it along the bottom of the spoil heap. Keep left along the main path until you reach a waymark post at a junction of paths.

    Deep in the earth's crust where there is lots of sulphur and little oxygen (hence the smelly sulphur compounds around volcanic vents), copper occurs as crystals of sulphide compounds. Nearer the surface, chemical reactions with air and water form brick-red oxide and blue-green carbonate compounds and also copper sulphate. The latter is the blue stuff from school science lessons which you may vaguely recall is soluble in water; thus it became concentrated at the water table. In the Ice Ages that followed, Cornwall was scoured by glaciers which bulldozed away many of these concentrated deposits. Early copper mining took place on the few remaining areas of these surface layers, but it was not until innovations in pumping technology that copper mining could be carried out on the deeper sulphide deposits and these account for the bulk of the ore mined. The most common ore (called chalcopyrite) is a copper-bearing version of "fool's gold"; when pure it looks like gold but where it meets air and water, patches of iridescent green, blue and purple form and so it was known as "peacock copper".

  10. Take the path ahead indicated by the yellow arrow and follow this down to the bottom of the valley to a junction beside a wooden rail.

    The beach and surrounding coastal land at Chapel Porth is owned by the National Trust who run the café and toilets in the car park. The beach is a narrow gully at high tide that opens out to a mile long expanse of sand at low tide. Due to the shape of the beach, it is very easy to get cut off by the rising tide. There are are a number of caves along the length of the beach arising from a combination of mining and erosion by the sea of faults in the ore-bearing rocks.

  11. The route continues to the right to the path leading along the valley, but first you may wish to visit Chapel Porth beach/café. Once back on the route, follow the path along the valley until you pass the engine house and reach a waymark post with blue and yellow arrows.

    The Engine House in the valley marks the remains of the Charlotte United Mine.

    The Engine House beside the stream in Chapel Coombe marks the remains of the Charlotte United Mine (not to be confused with the mine of the same name at Perranuthnoe). The shaft was built in the 1870s to mine the copper lodes which run across the valley. The mine was not very productive as the concentration of copper ore was quite low in this section of the lode compared to those near Wheal Charlotte on the top of the hill. It is thought that the mine was a speculation on the concentration of copper increasing in the direction of Wheal Charlotte, but this gamble did not pay off.

  12. Keep right at the waymark post to stay on the path leading ahead up the valley. Follow this until it eventually emerges onto a track.

    Make sure you stick to the path as there are unfenced mineshafts in the valley on either side of the path. The wooden poles with small black-and-white signs depicting a figure disappearing into an abyss do indicate this but approaching one to read it more clearly is not a good idea!

  13. Bear right onto the track and follow it until it ends on a lane.

    Cornwall's iconic engine houses were built to house huge beam engines - a type of steam engine with a pivoting beam. This configuration was particularly suited to powering pumps to stop the quarry pits and mines from flooding as water trickled into them from above. Inside the engine house, steam from a boiler would push up a piston, causing the beam to tilt downwards, pushing the pump down into the shaft. The steam would then be shut off and cold water would be used to condense the steam within the piston back into water, creating a partial vacuum. Atmospheric pressure then pushed the piston back down into the vacuum, raising the beam and lifting water out of the shaft. The valves to apply the steam and cold water were mechanically automated, maintaining a steady rocking motion of the giant beam.

  14. Turn right onto the lane and follow it to where a path departs from the left, just past the house.

    The ferns with solid leaves are appropriately called hart's tongue as the leaf resembles the tongue of a deer. It's an evergreen so leaves can be seen all year round but there's usually a flurry of new growth in mid March when new leaves can be seen gradually unfurling over a number of days. The Latin name for the species means "centipede" as the underside of the leaves have rows of brown spore cases that form a pattern resembling centipede legs. The plants thrive in shady places and are tolerant of the lime used in mortar so are sometimes found growing in old walls.

  15. Turn left onto the path and follow it until it eventually emerges onto a road.

    During late winter or early spring, if you encounter a patch of plants with white bell-shaped flowers, smelling strongly of onions, and with long, narrow leaves then they are likely to be three-cornered leeks. Once you're familiar with their narrow, ridged leaves, you'll be able to spot these emerging from late October onwards.

    All parts of the plant are edible by humans and the flavour of the leaves is relatively mild so they can be used in recipes in place of spring onions or chives. They are at their best for culinary use from November to April. By mid-May, they have flowered and the leaves are starting to die back.

    The long leaves can be mistaken for bluebells or daffodils which are both poisonous but do not smell of onions. However, fingers that have previously picked 3-cornered leeks also smell of onions and so mistakes have been made this way.

    Crocosmia (also known as Montbretia) is a garden plant in the iris family with bright orange flowers in summer. It has South African origins and was bred in France as a garden plant, then introduced into the UK in the 1880s.

    It has spread into the wild, particularly along the west coast of Britain and is extremely invasive. It is now a criminal offence to cause it to grow in the wild.

    Crocosmia means "saffron scent" and alludes to the smell of the dried leaves (the crocuses which produce saffron are also members of the iris family).

    The Old English name for the blackbird was osle and up to the 17th Century this survived as in alternative names for the blackbird ranging from ouzel to woosel. One of these is used in A Midsummer Night's Dream by Shakespeare: "The Woosell cocke, so blacke of hew, With Orenge-tawny bill".

  16. Turn left onto the road and follow it carefully for a short distance to a junction on the right with a weak bridge sign.
  17. Turn right at the junction and follow the road down to the bridge at the bottom of the valley. Cross the bridge and follow the road a short distance until you pass Ross Cottage and reach a track departing from the right, creating a Y-shaped junction with the road.

    The valley is known as Banns Vale although the "vale" is redundant as Banns (originally the name of the farm from which the hamlet has taken its name) means "hollow" in Cornish.

  18. Turn right onto the track and follow it a short distance to a waymark where a path joins from the left. Follow the bridleway around the bend to the right and continue to reach a spring on the left, festooned with decorations. Walk a short distance further from the spring to where a path departs from the right along the river's edge.

    Before Christianity, the Pagan Celtic people of Cornwall worshipped wonders of the natural world. Where clean, drinkable water welled up from the ground in a spring, this was seen as pretty awesome. The sites were seen as portals to another world, and is why fairies are often associated with springs. Where the springwater dissolved minerals, for specific conditions (e.g. deficiency in a mineral) or where the minerals present had antibacterial/fungal properties, the water appeared to have healing powers.

  19. Either continue on the bridleway or take the more scenic riverside path (with a few tree roots and slopes to negotiate) and follow this until it eventually rejoins the bridleway. Continue along the bridleway until you reach a waymark post next to a footbridge.

    Lesser celandines are common plants along woodland paths recognisable by their yellow star-shaped flowers. Despite their name, they are not closely related to the Greater Celandine. Lesser celandines are actually a member of the buttercup family and, like buttercups, they contain the poisonous chemical protoanemonin.

    There are over 280 species of hoverflies in Britain. As the name of the family implies, they are very good at hovering completely stationary in flight and can switch from very fast flight to a perfect hover in the blink of an eye.

    Many have colour patterns that mimic stinging bees and wasps so predators avoid them even though they don't sting. They are quite convincing con-artists and when caught will push down their abdomen in a simulated stinging action to keep up the illusion.

    A thick outer bark on a tree helps to protect it from frost damage during the winter. The bark, which is often textured to trap air, and forms an insulating "buffer zone" that shields the living part of the tree, keeping this above freezing when there are sub-zero temperatures outside. The mass of dense wood inside the tree also acts as night store heater, absorbing heat during the day which is gradually released at night.

    A mature tree can absorb tens of kilograms of carbon dioxide each year adding up to a tonne over a number of decades. However, burning one litre of petrol produces just over 2kg of carbon dioxide so it takes about half an acre of trees to absorb the average amount of carbon dioxide produced by one car in a year. When trees die and decompose, the majority of the carbon is gradually released back into the atmosphere depending on how fast the various bits of tree rot (the woody parts take longer).

  20. At the waymark, turn right and cross the footbridge then follow the path uphill to a fork. Bear left beneath the rope swing and follow the path to reach the other side of the ford.

    Plant nutrients like phosphates and nitrates are used to improve the fertility of soils to make crops grow well. These chemicals dissolve easily in water and can wash into rivers where they stimulate the growth of algae. This uses up the oxygen in the water, suffocating the other aquatic life.

    Phosphates are also used in many laundry and dishwashing powders. These cannot be fully removed by the sewage treatment process and the remainder is discharged into rivers, causing serious damage. You can help to reduce this by switching to low or phosphate-free dishwashing and laundry detergents (Ecover brand is particularly good and their dishwasher tablets seem to work amazingly well). Other things to be on the lookout for around the home are waste pipes that go into drains instead of sewers (these don't get any sewage treatment so any phosphates go straight into rivers). It's worth ensuring cesspits/septic tanks are emptied regularly otherwise all kinds of nasty things including phosphates will seep from these through groundwater into rivers.

  21. Bear right onto the bridleway and follow it until it eventually emerges onto a track next to a metal gate on the left.

    The mine workings on the hillside on your right are the remains of the Tywarnhale Mine.

    Tywarnhayle (which means "House on the Estuary") began as Wheal Rock in 1750 and was renamed United Hills in 1809, finally becoming Tywarnhayle in 1906 when a company was formed with the intention of using new technology to extract the copper from the surface dumps and part-drain the mine in order to work the remaining ore in the higher areas. A building housed the world's first froth flotation plant - a method used to extract small amounts of copper from large amounts of rock (such as the mine waste) - which has since been widely employed by the mining industry as they have been forced to mine deposits of decreasing concentration. Meanwhile Cornwall's first submersible electric pump was used to drain water from the mine. Unfortunately, the sulphide ores react with water in the mine to form sulphuric acid and this quickly corroded the pump. Despite the innovative technology, the operation failed to make a profit and was aborted. After this the mine was used as a training mine by London's Royal School of Mines and there are some videos from the 1980s of mining students in action on the Imperial College website.

  22. Continue ahead onto the track and follow it alongside the fence. Continue following the track ahead until it merges with another track from the right.

    Early copper mining took place on surface deposits that were of relatively high concentrations. As these were used up, mining moved onto deeper and increasingly less concentrated deposits requiring ever more sophisticated techniques to be developed, to sift the ever-lower concentrations of copper ore from the tonnes of surrounding rock.

    The waste tips from early mining are becoming of increasing interest as these contain copper ore at a concentration which was uneconomical to recover during Victorian times, but with increasingly sophisticated techniques, recovery may once again become economically viable.

    One such method is to use sulphuric acid to dissolve copper out of the mine waste in the form of a very weak copper sulphate solution (the blue stuff familiar from school chemistry lessons, but in this case so weak that it wouldn't be noticeably blue). Special bacteria can then be used to precipitate the very low levels of copper out of the solution which can then be recycled for use on the next batch of mine waste.

  23. Bear left at the junction of tracks and keep right to reach a road.

    The tall trees higher up the valley and engine house chimneys make good perches for buzzards, which hunt for small mammals in the low scrub on the valley floor.

    In a natural habitat, buzzards perch at the top of trees to survey the surrounding fields. Their brown-and-white pattern camouflages them quite well so it's quite common for walkers to inadvertently disturb what turns out to be a huge flapping monster just feet away. Telegraph poles provide a perfect alternative to trees without any cluttering branches so buzzards can often be seen perched on the top, unfazed by cars passing beneath.

  24. Turn right onto the road and follow it downhill to a junction.

    The engine house with the castellated chimney marks the site of Wheal Ellen.

    The engine house with the castellated chimney on the left side of the road from Mount Hawke to Porthtowan marks the site of Wheal Ellen. Wheal Ellen was a copper mine created in 1834 by a merger of two former mines. Over 24,000 tones of copper were sold before the mine closed in 1862. The engine house was built for a re-opening in 1866 but a nationwide financial crisis resulted in the project being aborted. The engine was never fitted and it is rumoured that the builder of the engine house was never paid.

  25. Cross the road to the white building opposite and follow the driveway along the right side marked with a public footpath sign until you reach a fence at the end of the gravel.
  26. Keep right along the narrow path to reach a residential road and follow this ahead until you reach a public footpath sign just as the road turns left over a bridge.
  27. Bear right down the path indicated by the public footpath sign and follow this parallel to the road, to emerge further down the road.

    When the acidic solution containing dissolved metals from mines (known as Acidic Mine Drainage) meets other water, it is diluted and the reduced acidity causes dissolved iron to precipitate out as orange or yellow hydroxides, colouring the water and sticking to anything in the watercourse. In the case of copper mines, copper stays dissolved in the water and at higher levels this can be toxic to wildlife, particularly fish.

    Where there is a large amount of water coming from a mine which is not rendered harmless by natural dilution, reed beds have been found to be very effective in treating the acidic water. Plants and bacteria in the reed bed convert the dissolved metals into insoluble compounds that are trapped within the reed bed. There are even suggestions that the metals may be commercially recoverable after they have been concentrated in the reed bed over a period of time.

  28. Turn right on the road to reach the car park.

    Ice Cream is made at Tremedda Farm using milk from their dairy herd (whom they term the "Moomaids of Zennor") combined with Rodda's clotted cream, which itself is made from local milk including that from Tremedda. The Tremedda cows have names that range from the traditional (Daisy and Primrose) to the less traditional ("Sid Vicious").

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