Portreath to Tobban Horse circular walk

Portreath to Tobban Horse

A circular walk along the rugged coast from Portreath towards Porthtowan passing small coves and remnants of the clifftop mines beside the old RAF base, and returning via the horse-drawn tramway that brought fortune to Portreath harbour, where its "lighthouse" and "monkey house" remain from the shipping activity.

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The walk follows the coast path from Portreath towards Porthtowan passing the small coves and remnants of the clifftop mines. The route turns inland at Tobban Horse and follows small lanes across Nancekuke Common. The walk then joins the Mining Trail back to Portreath which was once a tramway along which goods were moved by horses between the port and the mines near Camborne. The last leg is past the harbour and lighthouse.


  • Route includes paths close to unfenced cliff edges.

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Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 104
  • Distance: 6.8 miles/10.9 km
  • Steepness grade: Strenuous
  • Recommended footwear: Walking boots

OS maps for this walk

OS Explorer 104 OS Explorer 104 (laminated version)

Click or tap on map for more info (blue=laminated)


  • Rugged coastline overlooked by the "lighthouse"
  • Wildflowers and wildlife on the coastal heath and along the wooded tramways
  • Mining heritage and minerals on the waste tips
  • Sandy beach at Portreath

Pubs on or near the route

  • Portreath Arms Hotel
  • The Basset Arms
  • The Waterfront Inn

Adjoining walks


  1. In Lighthouse Hill car park, head for the coast path signpost and go through the gap in the wall. Bear left onto the coast path and follow this around the headland until you reach a gate with an MOD sign.

    The wartime buildings are the remains of RAF Portreath.

    RAF Portreath was opened in March 1941 as a base for bombing raids against the occupied French Channel ports and fighter escorts for shipping convoys. Later in the war it became the main "jumping off" point for equipment headed south. The airfield was closed in 1946 and taken over by the Ministry of Supply where it was used a secret base for chemical weapons manufacture. Long after its closure in the late 1970s, it emerged that former workers there had died of exposure to the nerve gas, sarin. As a precautionary measure, a large cleanup operation was mounted in 2000, though no residues of toxic materials were found to be remaining.

  2. Go through the gate and follow the path down into the next valley to reach a footbridge.

    The Sea Campion flowers from June to August and can be recognised by the white petals emerging from the end of a distinctive inflated envelope. Their grey-green leaves are fleshy, which protect them from drying out in salt-laden winds.

    According to folklore, to pick a Sea Campion was to invite death. This might be something to do with the precipitous locations in which they grow! Consequently another name for the plant is "dead man's bells".

    The weed-covered reefs provide a habitat for small pollack to ambush prawns and sandeels.

    Pollack spend much of their time around weed-covered rocks, ambushing small fish as sandeels. On offshore reefs and wrecks, pollack can grow up to a metre in length but close to the shore you’re most likely to see young fish of a few cm in length, which there was a word in Cornish specifically for: dojel.

    Pollack is a member of the cod family but until recently was an unpopular culinary fish. There are two reasons for this: as well as having a name that sounds like an insult, when the fish is dead, its flavour deteriorates faster than many other members of the cod family, so fish which is not very fresh smells "fishy". However pollack is excellent to eat when very fresh, and since it is pretty much the only member of the cod family that hasn’t yet been overfished, has made more of an appearance in supermarkets in recent years. It used to be marketed as "coley" which was a fishmongers' collective term for either pollack or its close cousin, the coalfish, but more recently it has been appearing as pollack.

  3. Cross the footbridge and climb the steps. Follow the path past a pair of waymarks just past a small concrete building. Continue for a further half a mile until you eventually reach a waymark beside an inlet and an "MOD Property Keep Out" sign.

    Between the two species, some gorse is almost always in flower, hence the old country phrases: "when gorse is out of blossom, kissing's out of fashion" (which is recorded from the mid-19th century) and "when the furze is in bloom, my love's in tune" (which dates from the mid-18th century). Common gorse flowers are bright yellow. Western gorse flowers are very slightly more orange - more like the colour of the "yolk" in a Cadbury's creme egg. Also like creme eggs, gorse flowers are edible but are significantly better for use in salads and to make a tea, beer or wine.

    Thrift is known as a "hyperaccumulator" of copper: it can concentrate copper by over 1000 times more than other neighbouring plants. This makes it potentially useful to clean up contaminated land but this be done over many years. In principle it's even possible to mine for minerals by concentrating them in plants and then extracting them (known as "phytomining"). It's currently far from economical to do so for copper but for rarer high-value metals it may become economical, possibly in conjunction with chemical soil additives to increase bio-availability.

    The rocky shore is ideal for molluscs.

    Winkles and Whelks are marine snails which can often be found on rocks exposed at low tide. Some species were widely eaten in England, rivalling France's snail-eating reputation. If you're considering foraging for these, you'll need to know your whelks from your winkles.

    Winkles (also known as periwinkles) are vegans which graze on algae on the rocks. They are fairly small and have a rounded shell, similar to a land snail but much thicker. They were a staple part of the diet of coastal communities in the past and were popular takeaway food at many English coastal resorts until recent years.

    The term "whelks" is applied to a range of shellfish species that are predatory, eating other shellfish by producing chemicals which dissolve the shells of their prey. The Common Whelk is another edible species. It is larger than a winkle and with a more elongated, wavy shell resembling a small, fluted ice-cream cone.

    The Dog Whelk, as you might guess from the name, is not regarded as edible by humans. It is more similar in size and shape to a winkle but with a notably more pointy shell (resembles a winkle with a church spire). It was collected to make purple dyes used for cloth and even to decorate the manuscript of St John's Gospel.

  4. Keep right as indicated by the waymark and follow the path past a waymark by the fence to the next waymark on the other side of the inlet.

    The weather-beaten coastal heath is a good habitat for some salt-tolerant species of orchid which can get their flowers out above the low heather.

    The orchids are one of the largest families of plants with over 28,000 recorded species, many of which live in the tropics. It is thought that the first orchids evolved somewhere between 80 and 100 million years ago. The word "orchid" comes from the Greek word for testicle on account of the shape of the plant's tuber. Consequently, in mediaeval times, the plant was known as bollockwort.

    Plants such as gorse and heather which are able to grow in soils contaminated with heavy metals such as mine waste tips are known as metallophytes.

    There was a concern that if the plants accumulated the metals, whilst themselves being unharmed by them, these might still pass into the food chain e.g. via rabbits eating the plants and then onto buzzards eating rabbits etc.

    However, a study of plants from the Carnon Valley found that gorse and heather do not accumulate large quantities of trace metals or arsenic in their tissue. A separate study for a PhD thesis found that for some metals such as zinc, the amount in the plant's tissues (though far lower than in the soil) increased steadily with the levels in the soil. However for certain heavy metals such as lead and copper, the amount measured in gorse tissues appeared to barely increase at all with increasing levels in soil.

    Therefore it's thought that there are unlikely to be harmful effects of rabbits eating gorse and heather both directly to the rabbits themselves and indirectly to the food chain of other wildlife.

  5. Keep right at the waymark and follow the path to another pair of waymarks.

    Heather can grow in soils which have concentrations of metals normally considered toxic to other plants and they are also tolerant of salty (high sodium) environments on the coast. Their symbiosis with fungi restricts metal uptake through their roots.

    One of the most common fish on inshore reefs is the wrasse. The name for the fish is from the Cornish word wragh meaning "old hag". This is probably based on its lack of popularity for culinary consumption and is the reason why it is still quite common whereas most other species have been depleted by several centuries of fishing. Recently, wrasse has been "rediscovered" as a good eating fish if not overcooked. However, wrasse are very slow growing so are not an ideal culinary fish for conservation reasons: they cannot reproduce until they are 6-10 years old and large individuals may be over 30 years old.

  6. Keep right and follow the path along the fence and down to the bottom of the valley to a waymark beside the remains of a stone building.

    We've seen choughs along this stretch of coast.

    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.

  7. Keep left at the waymark to reach a stream crossing just after another waymark. Continue on the path to one more waymark and stream crossing just before a large flight of steps.

    Wheal Sally was situated on the east side of Kerriack Cove and Bottom Shaft was sunk to a lode containing zinc and lead, both as sulphide ore and also in metallic form. A drainage adit runs from the shaft to a hole in the cliff, just above the beach.

    When the biological weapons programme at Nancuke ended, waste materials were disposed of in one of the side shafts connecting to the adit. Given how water drips down the shafts into the adit and then runs out onto the beach, the potential flaw in this strategy should be apparent. Fortunately, after an extensive clean-up operation was carried out, no traces of hazardous materials were found. The adit is now blocked by a very substantial grille.

  8. After crossing the stream continue ahead to the fork, then take the right-hand path to follow the steps up the headland to reach a waymark at the top. Follow the waymarked path past an enclosed mineshaft on the point to reach a kissing gate.

    The rectangular structure on the point north of Kerriack Cove is a cover over Kite's Shaft, part of the Wheal West tin mine which extracted the ore cassiterite. If you look through the bars, you can see down the shaft. Please resist the temptation to drop stones down the shaft as bats nest down there - being hit by a rock and knocked down a mineshaft whilst you sleep is not a good way to start the morning.

  9. Go through the kissing gate and take the left-hand path. Follow the path between the remains of the buildings to rejoin the upper path along the fence. Continue past a field gate and some more capped mineshafts to reach a waymark.

    The chimney on the coast between Portreath and Porthtowan was part of the mines here that worked several lodes of tin and copper. Close to the chimney there were originally 2 separate mines known as Wheal Sterran and Wheal Tye which together had four shafts known as Eastern, London, Caroline's and Vivian's plus some others of unknown name. The raised box near the chimney covers Vivian's Shaft and some nice samples of ores have been found on the waste dumps below this.

  10. Continue ahead from the waymark and follow the path along the wall to reach a gate.

    The large triangular rock on the beach below is known as Tobban Horse. The beach stretching beyond this is Porthtowan.

    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.

  11. Go through the gap on the left of the gate and continue a few paces to a junction of tracks. Turn right (as indicated by the red arrow on the waymark) and follow the track until it ends on a lane.

    Public byways are rights of way down which motor vehicles may be driven depending on how brave you are and how expensive your car is to fix. You are also permitted to use a horse-drawn carriage, should you own one. Byways tend to be surfaced in an ad-hoc manner either with gravel or occasionally with a smattering of tarmac, but still leaving plenty of room for a good crop of grass to grow down the centre. They are conventionally marked using red waymarks or a "Public Byway" sign. There are 130 miles of byways in Cornwall.

  12. Turn right onto the lane and follow it to where it ends in a large metal gate into the MOD area (with a sign about being searched).

    The thing that resembles a giant golf ball is known as a "radome" - a weatherproof enclosure that protects a microwave RADAR antenna from the elements. In particular, if ice forms on the antenna, this can detune it. Often the antenna inside rotates, hence the need for the round shape.

  13. Turn left in front of the gate and follow the lane along the fence. Continue until the lane ends at a T-junction.

    Hawthorn grows along the hedgerows providing shelter for small birds.

    The hawthorn tree is most often found in hedgerows where it was used to create a barrier for livestock, and in fact haw was the Old English word for "hedge".

  14. Turn right at the junction and follow the lane until it also ends at a T-junction.

    The hill in the distance is Carn Brea, on top of which is the Basset Monument.

    The 90ft high Celtic cross on the top of Carn Brea was erected as a monument to Francis Basset and is inscribed "The County of Cornwall to the memory of Francis Lord de Dunstanville and Basset A.D. 1836."

    Basset gained the title of Baron for defending Plymouth from the combined fleet of the French and Spanish in 1779, and calming a miners' food riot in 1785. Towards the end of his life, he was part of the group who petitioned the House of Lords against slavery in 1828.

  15. Turn right and follow the lane for half a mile to where a small lane departs from the right by the postbox, a few metres before the lane ends in a T-junction.

    The building on the skyline to the left of the Basset Monument is Carn Brea Castle.

    Carn Brea Castle is on the site of a 14th Century chapel dedicated to St Michael. In the 18th Century it was rebuilt as a hunting lodge for the Basset family in the style of a castle. During the 1950s to the 1970s the building fell into disrepair but was renovated from 1975-1980 and is now in use as a restaurant. There are panoramic views which include St Ives Bay and the coast around Portreath. Consequently, from the sea, the building is a clear landmark and formed an important beacon for shipping: a lease from 1898 stipulates that the tenant must maintain a light in a north-facing window.

    More about Carn Brea Castle

  16. Turn right onto the narrow lane beside the postbox and follow it to a junction of tracks outside Laity Vean.

    The tall trees provide perches for crows to survey what's going on.

    Birds of the crow family are considered to be among the world's most intelligent animals, displaying a high learning ability and are able to use logic for solving problems. Researchers have found some crow species capable of not only tool use but also tool construction. Crows have also demonstrated the ability to distinguish individual humans apart by recognising facial features. If a crow encounters a cruel human, it can also teach other crows how to identify that individual.

  17. Join the small path ahead, passing through the gate, and follow it until it ends at a gate onto a lane.

    Copper ore required large amounts of coal to smelt it so it was shipped from ports on the Cornish coast to South Wales. In 1800, it was estimated that 15,000 mules were used in the copper trade in west Cornwall. They required a regular supply of fodder and when the cost of this increased during the Napoleonic War, it caused difficulties for the mining industry. The transport problems were solved by a set of tracks built between Portreath and the mines near Scorrier for horse-drawn wagons, which were extended in 1815 to Poldice mine. The wagon wheels ran along L-shaped cast iron tracks known as "plates", and the smooth-running wagons allowed much more material to be moved per horse.

    There is a replica wagon in Greenfield Gardens.

  18. Carefully cross the lane to the path opposite and follow it for half a mile until it joins a track at a waymark.

    In the early 1820s, a young man called John Taylor obtained the lease on abandoned mines in the Gwennap parish, and after re-working some of the old deposits, discovered what was at the time the richest copper deposit in the world. Initially, the ore was shipped from Portreath but the transportation fees started to grow as news of John Taylor's good fortune spread. This greed backfired, as in 1824, John Taylor built his own tramway through the Carnon Valley to Devoran, and Devoran began to take over from Portreath for servicing the mines in the Redruth and Camborne area.

  19. Bear left onto the track and follow it past the cottage to a granite post marked for Portreath. Turn right up the path indicated by the post and follow the path through some pedestrian gates. Once the tramway resumes, follow it until it ends via a gate at a lane.

    The problem with exporting ore from Devoran was that it required sailing around the treacherous waters of Land's End to reach South Wales.

    In 1837, a branch line of the Hayle Railway was built to connect the port of Portreath to mines in Camborne and Redruth. In order to transport wagons from the top of the valley to the harbour, the Inclined Plane was built. This was a massive 1:10 slope running all the way from the top of the valley which was cut into the bedrock and over the viaduct that Glenfeadon Terrace passes beneath. A steam engine at the top of the valley hauled a wagon up with a cable, whilst a wagon was lowered at the same time to act as a counter-balance. It was typically ore being brought down and (in much larger quantities) coal was taken up to power the many steam engines, including the one for raising the coal. Letting that one run out of coal would have been a major mistake!

  20. Carefully cross the lane and follow the path opposite for half a mile until it ends via a gate at a lane.

    Portreath is situated on the coast north of Redruth. The name Portreath was first recorded in 1485 and is from the Cornish Porth Treth meaning "sandy cove". As with many coastal villages, there was a fishing fleet who fished mainly for pilchards. Mining for tin and copper nearby led to further development of the port. There are records of tin being extracted from the valley stream beds at least as far back as 1602 and the proximity to the mines of Camborne and Redruth resulted in large amounts of ore being exported during the 18th and 19th Centuries.

  21. Bear right onto the lane and follow the lower lane until it ends beside the Portreath Arms in the village square.

    During Victorian Times, the pollution from the harbour and tin streaming in the river meant that Portreath was not a location of leisure. When the Portreath Arms Hotel was originally built in 1856, this was for use by those involved in commerce at the port. The first recorded Landlord lent out his brewing furnace to the Illogan Temperance Society for use at community gatherings, regattas and fairs... as a tea urn.

    The anchor outside the Portreath Arms is from the Escurial - a steamship that went aground in a storm after taking on water which eventually extinguished the boilers. After this she drifted helplessly onto the shore, grounding at Portreath. The people of Portreath rushed to the beach and managed to pull seven of the drowning crew from the breakers, saving their lives. One other crew member was rescued by the lifeboat, but the remaining eleven perished.

  22. Turn right in front of the pub and pass the anchor. Follow Cliff Terrace and then Lighthouse Hill and around a bend to reach a coast path signpost.

    The first quay was built at Portreath in 1713 near Amy's Point, though it was destroyed by the sea before 1749. In the late 1770s, during the American Revolutionary war, the harbour was fortified and shortly after this, in 1786, the pier was built. In the 19th century, Portreath was one of the main ports for the export of copper ore. In fact, in 1827 it was described as Cornwall's most important port. The two rectangular basins that today make up the harbour and the long breakwater just below the cliffs were built for the copper trade.

  23. At the coast path sign, stay on the lane to reach the car park and complete the circular route.

    The path to the left at the signpost leads to the "Lighthouse" (of Lighthouse Hill fame), also known as "Pepper Pot".

    The small white tower overlooking the harbour is known either as the Pepper Pot or The Lighthouse but it never had a light. A notice over the door reads "HM Coastguard Board of Trade" which gives an idea of its original purpose - as a lookout as well as a daytime navigation aid (daymark). It was built in the early 19th Century and originally had a door and window; the knob of granite on the top is for the weather vane.

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