St Agnes Beacon and Wheal Coates circular walk

St Agnes Beacon and Wheal Coates

A circular walk between St Agnes Head and the engine houses of Wheal Coates via St Agnes Beacon, with spectacular panoramic views

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The walk begins from what was a bustling Army Camp in WW2 but has now been reclaimed by the heather. There is a gentle climb to the Beacon from which there are spectacular views in every direction. The walk then returns via some of Cornwall's most photographed engine houses at Wheal Coates, perched on the cliff edge.


  • Route includes paths close to unfenced cliff edges.

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Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 104
  • Distance: 3.0 miles/4.9 km
  • Steepness grade: Easy-moderate
  • Recommended footwear: walking boots, or trainers in summer

OS maps for this walk

OS Explorer 104 OS Explorer 104 (laminated version)

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


  • Iconic engine houses and mining relics at Wheal Coates
  • Views along the coast to Porthtowan and Portreath
  • Spectacular 360 degreee panoramic view from St Agnes Beacon
  • Vibrant art scene and traditions including Bolster Day and the World Bellyboarding Championship


  1. Make your way to the information board in the final car park at the very end of the lane. Go through the gap to the right of the information board and then immediately turn left onto the path heading inland towards the Beacon. Follow the path to reach a crossing of paths with the path ahead leading along a fence.

    Heathers and heaths are members of the Ericaceae family. The formal definition of a heather is a member of the Calluna genus within this family whereas heaths are members of the Erica genus. Bell heather is actually an Erica and therefore technically not a heather but a heath.

    In July 1885, the SS Cheerful left Falmouth for Liverpool with a cargo of two tonnes of Cornish tin ingots. On the way along the North Cornish coast, she collided with the HMS Hecla off St Agnes Head in a very dense fog. The Cheerful sank within four minutes. Thirty-six of the passengers were rescued by the Hecla, but nine went down with the ship, and three more perished shortly after being picked up. The wreck was salvaged in 1994 and a small piece of the cargo is now on display in the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth.

  2. Continue ahead to follow the path along the fence and reach a flight of steps.

    During the Second World War, the 10th Light Anti-Aircraft Practice Camp, Royal Artillery was built on St Agnes Head which included an anti-aircraft battery as well as an army camp. It was known locally by the more snappy name "Cameron Camp", from the name of the landowning estate. After the war, the camp was used for housing but this was all levelled in 1971 and has been reclaimed by the heather. Concrete foundations of the gun emplacements are present in the cliff-top car park.

  3. Climb the steps to reach a rough tarmac track. Follow this until it ends in a gate with a waymark to its left.

    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.

  4. Pass through the gap on the left of the gate and turn right onto the lane. Follow the lane until it ends in a junction with the road.

    In mediaeval times, blackthorn was associated with evil. This may also tie in with the English word "strife" which has Celtic origins. Straif was the name of a letter used in Celtic Ogham script and was originally the word for "sulphur". Some of the other letters in the script corresponded to tree names. In late mediaeval times, a retrospective assignment of trees to the letters in the alphabet used for Ogham that weren't already tree names became popular (sometimes known as the "tree alphabet") and blackthorn was chosen for Straif.

  5. Cross the road to the St Agnes Beacon National Trust sign opposite and take the right-hand path in front of the sign. After a few paces where the path splits a second time, keep left to stay on the major path leading uphill. Follow the path until you reach a fork at the top of the hill.

    Before the Industrial Revolution, gorse was valued as a fuel for bread ovens and kilns as it burns rapidly, very hot and with little ash. It was in such demand that there were quite strict rules about how much gorse could be cut on common land.

    In more recent times, due to reliance on fossil fuels, this is now out of balance and gorse has increased in rural areas which have been abandoned agriculturally.

  6. Keep right at the fork and follow the path to the summit.

    The original name for the settlement of St Agnes was along the lines of Breanek or Bryanick, a Cornish name which may mean either "Agnes hill", or more mundanely "pointed hill". Either way, this is likely to refer to St Agnes Beacon. Since prehistoric times, the area was a centre for mining copper, tin and arsenic.

  7. Take the path leading from the opposite side of the summit and keep right at the fork to descend from the hill and reach a crossing of paths.

    St Agnes Beacon is 630ft above sea level allowing a view of roughly 30 miles out to sea, and a wide panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. Many of the landmarks that can be seen on a clear day are indicated on the topograph on the summit.

    More about the St Agnes Beacon.

  8. Turn right and walk to the wooden gate with a red sign.

    Due to the curvature of the earth, the distance you can see to the horizon depends on your height above sea level. This increases with the square root of height (i.e. with diminishing returns). An adult typically sees the horizon about 3 miles from the beach. From the top of a 100 foot lighthouse, it is about 12 miles away. At the top of the highest cliff in Cornwall it is roughly 33 miles out but if a 100ft tower were built all the way up here, it would only allow an extra 2 miles to be seen.

  9. Cross the stone stile on the right of the gate and follow the right hedge until it bends away. Then continue across the field to the wooden gate to the right of the large standing stone.

    If there is an electric fence across the path, look for a plastic handle to unclip it. This is insulated and you can safely pass through if you take care not to touch the rest of the fence. Make sure you re-clip it afterwards to avoid the herd of cattle doing their own St Agnes Beacon walk.

    The Ramblers Association and National Farmers Union suggest some "dos and don'ts" for walkers which we've collated with some info from the local Countryside Access Team.


    • Stop, look and listen on entering a field. Look out for any animals and watch how they are behaving, particularly bulls or cows with calves
    • Be prepared for farm animals to react to your presence, especially if you have a dog with you.
    • Try to avoid getting between cows and their calves.
    • Move quickly and quietly, and if possible walk around the herd.
    • Keep your dog close and under effective control on a lead around cows and sheep.
    • Remember to close gates behind you when walking through fields containing livestock.
    • If you and your dog feel threatened, work your way to the field boundary and quietly make your way to safety.
    • Report any dangerous incidents to the Cornwall Council Countryside Access Team - phone 0300 1234 202 for emergencies or for non-emergencies use the iWalk Cornwall app to report a footpath issue (via the menu next to the direction on the directions screen).


    • If you are threatened by cattle, don't hang onto your dog: let it go to allow the dog to run to safety.
    • Don't put yourself at risk. Find another way around the cattle and rejoin the footpath as soon as possible.
    • Don't panic or run. Most cattle will stop before they reach you. If they follow, just walk on quietly.
  10. Go through the gate and bear right across the gravel to the barn. Join the track and follow this away from the farm until it eventually ends on a road.

    The word "farm" has the same origins as (e.g. law) "firm". Both words are related to the mediaeval Latin word firma meaning "fixed payment". Its original use in English was to do with contracts and leasing (which is why "to farm out" means "to subcontract"). In fact the word "farm" had no association with food production until the 19th Century. In the 16th Century it began to be applied to leasing of land and the association with farmland developed from this.

  11. Turn left onto the road and follow it a short distance to a car park entrance on the right with a green Wheal Coates National Trust sign.

    Many Cornish mines have names starting with Wheal, and it is a common misconception that Wheal meant "mine". In fact, Wheal simply meant "workplace". The word for "mine" was bal and the women who worked on the surface were known as Bal Maids.

  12. Turn right and keep right past the barrier. Follow the path to a junction of paths.

    Wheal Cotes is an area of mine workings between Chapel Porth and St Agnes, now preserved and owned by the National Trust. Wheal Coates is reported as working from 1815-1914, although small-scale extraction of copper and tin has occurred in this area since prehistoric times. The surviving buildings date from the 1870s when deep underground mining began on the site. The complex consists of a cluster of buildings at the top of the cliff with another engine house mid-way down the cliff next to the Towanroath mine shaft. Both tin and copper were extracted here and it is said that in its heyday, Wheal Coates employed around 140 miners.

    More about Wheal Coates

  13. Join the stony path and keep right to follow the main path to reach an information board beside the chimney in front of the engine houses.

    The two engine houses in the upper area of Wheal Coates, nearest the isolated chimney were used for hoisting the tin ore up from the mineshaft and for crushing it. These were the most modern of the engine houses. One was built in 1880 and the other in 1910 when there was a last attempt to work the mine. The isolated chimney was part of the boiler system for these.

    Hoisting devices were referred to as "whims" and before steam engines were available, these were powered by blindfolded donkeys turning capstans.

    In order to be processed, ore-bearing rock mined from mineral veins needed to be crushed to a powder. In earlier times, millstones were used to grind down lumps of ore but later it was done using a process known as "stamping" where the ore was crushed by dropping heavy granite or metal weights to pound it against another hard surface (often a piece of granite known as a mortar stone - as in "pestle and mortar"). The crushing was automated first with waterwheels and later with steam engines. The process was far from quiet and could often be heard from a number of miles away.

    Once rendered into a powder, the tin ore was separated from fragments of less useful rock, usually using water and taking advantage of the heavier tin ore sinking more quickly out of a suspension than the other minerals. The slurry was sometimes run slowly down an inclined wooden board: the heavier tin fragments would settle near the top and could be scraped off whereas the fragments of lighter rock could be discarded from the bottom, and the material in the middle could be recycled into the next batch. Conical structures (known as "buddles") with rotating brushes were also used. It's possible that the Cornish mining word for the waste sludge of rock fragments - gange - is the origin of the English slang word "gunge".

  14. Continue ahead to follow the stony path between the two engine houses then bear left to join the narrow path departing along the coast. Follow the path past some small quarries and onwards until you reach a distinct fork in the path just before a deep valley ahead.

    The building located downhill slightly from the two engine houses at Wheal Cotes was a calciner furnace used to roast the tin ore.

    The granules of ore were heated in a furnace to remove impurities such as sulphur and particularly arsenic. By heating the ore in air, the arsenic impurities could be driven off as a vapour. As the impurities escaped as gasses, the particles of ore melted into grey crystalline lumps of tin oxide known as "black tin".

    The exhaust gasses were cooled and condensed to form a white powder deposited in the flues or purpose-built condensers. The white powder - arsenic - was collected and sold. A few grains of pure arsenic are enough to be fatal but the majority of arsenic workers managed to protect themselves by stuffing cotton wool up their noses and painting their faces and any other exposed areas of skin white with fuller's earth to prevent arsenic being absorbed through the pores of their skin.

  15. Take the path to the right and follow this downhill to a bench.

    An annual festival called "Bolster Day" is held at Chapel Porth, starting in April and culminating on 1st May. Giant puppets are used to re-enact the Cornish legend of the young girl, St Agnes, who slays Bolster - the fierce giant, who was rumoured to eat children and overcame the Knight, Sir Constantine and a procession of local dignitaries and heroes. Bolster's Blood has given its name to one the ales brewed by the Driftwood Spars pub and brewery.

  16. At this point you can take an optional diversion to Chapel Porth beach by following the path to the left, returning here to continue the walk. The walk continues to the right. Follow the path from the bench, past the engine house to a reach a fork at a waymark.

    The engine house beside the coast path near Chapel Porth is known as the Towanroath Pumping Engine House and was built in 1872. It was used to pump water from the 600 ft deep Towanroath shaft adjacent to the engine house. The shaft was used to access a vein of tin just below sea level.

  17. Keep right at the waymark on the rocky path leading uphill to reach another waymark.

    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.

  18. Bear left at the waymark onto the coastal path. Follow this until it ends in a junction with another path at a waymark.

    The headland is known as Tubby's Head and there is a blowhole in the headland which emits a plume of spray during a large swell.

    An Iron-Age fortification is situated on Tubby's Head near Chapel Porth. The flat area on the top of the headland is separated from the mainland by a metre-high bank approximately 20 metres long. The exact function is uncertain: it could either have been a promontory fort or possibly a defended landing area as there is a flat rock by the waterline which could have served as a natural quay.

  19. Turn left and follow the path to a fork as you approach a mineshaft - take either path as they rejoin. Continue to reach a wooden bench at which the path forks.

    The pyramidal cages and coarse grilles covering mineshafts allow bats to be able to roost in the shafts. Shafts which are fenced and completely open are one of the favourite nesting places of the Cornish chough. Therefore resist the temptation to drop stones down the shafts otherwise you may unknowingly be stoning bats or chough chicks to death.

  20. Keep left past the bench and follow the path until you reach a National Trust St Agnes Head sign in a piece of granite just before a waymarked path departs to the left.

    Pasties became popular with miners initially as a meal that could easily be carried to work though some mines eventually had stoves so a batch of pasties could be lowered down raw and baked fresh at the bottom of the shaft. Mines were very wet places so keeping a pasty dry for several hours would have been a real challenge.

    The popular story of pasties eaten in mines being held by their crimped crust which was then discarded is likely to be an urban myth. As well as the difficulty of holding a "man size" pasty by its crimp without it snapping off. You can try this experiment for yourself with a "large" (enormous) size Philps pasty (but not on a harbour wall). Miners were generally too poor and hungry to throw away food. Photos from the 1890s show miners with pasties wrapped in a cloth bag to keep them clean down a mine. Some researchers (very dedicated to the pasty cause) have checked through thousands of photos and found none where a miner is holding a pasty by its crimp.

  21. Keep right on the larger path and follow this back to the car park.

    The coastal lookout on St Agnes Head was built by the National Trust in 2008, replacing an earlier lookout at the same location which was built in 1926 but had become unsafe. The lookout is run by volunteers from the National Coastwatch Institution who reopened it in 2007, 16 years after its closure as a Coastguard lookout. The volunteers on watch, unless engaged in an emergency, welcome walkers and non-muddy dogs to see inside the lookout.

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