St Stephen, Tregargus Valley and Coombe walk

St Stephen and Tregargus Valley

The Tregargus Valley had a landslip in 2020. Safety fencing was subsequently erected around the affected area (near the middle of the valley). You enter the valley at your own risk.

A circular walk from St Stephen along a tributary valley of the River Fal to the hamlet of Coombe via some of Cornwall's best preserved remains of the Victorian and early 20th Century China Stone industry

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The walk starts in St Stephen churchtown and leaves the village via the mediaeval church to enter the Tregargus Valley. After exploring the remains of the China Stone industry, the walk continues downriver to the hamlet of Coombe. The walk then climbs out of the valley and returns to St Stephen through Resugga along the high ground above the Fal valley.

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Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 105,106
  • Distance: 5.8 miles/9.3 km
  • Steepness grade: Easy-moderate
  • Recommended footwear: Walking boots in summer. Boots for mud+farmyard in winter (wellies or dung-proof walking boots)

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  • Remains of the China Stone industry in the Tregargus Valley
  • Industrial heritage of the wider area around St Stephen
  • Riverside walk to Coombe

Pubs on or near the route

  • The Queens Head


  1. Make your way to the bottom of the car park beside the road and exit via the ramp. Cross to the pavement opposite and turn left to follow the road to a junction with a Queens Head Inn sign beside the church.

    St Stephen is known to date from mediaeval times - the first record of St Stephen is from 1200 as Sancti Stephani and the parish lay in the royal manor of Brannel (which is the origin of "St Stephen in Brannel" to distinguish it from other churches dedicated to St Stephen in Launceston and Saltash). The only surviving mediaeval fabric is in the churchyard (the church itself and also some mediaeval crosses likely to have been salvaged from elsewhere). From records of field names, it's thought that there might have been a mediaeval amphitheatre (plain-an-gwarry) where the school is now.

    In Victorian times St Stephen was a fairly small, compact village with relatively few houses. The old school, Methodist chapel and Queen's Head Inn are all from the Victorian period.

  2. Cross to the iron gate into the churchyard beside Church Cottage and go through this. Follow the path alongside the church to reach a gate on the far side of the churchyard.

    St Stephen Church stands on the site of a Norman church, dedicated in 1261 from which the font and south doorway survive. The remainder was rebuilt in the 15th Century and restored twice in Victorian times. The tower originally consisted of 3 pinnacles and a small spire over the stairs but was struck by lightning in 1784 and subsequently rebuilt with 4 pinnacles instead.

  3. Go through the gate and turn right onto the lane. Walk a few paces to a junction then turn left onto Trevear Road. Follow the road to where a track departs from the left immediately after the gates of Moor Cottage and beside a black litter bin.

    On one of our walks we encountered a schoolteacher telling a group of children holding a celandine that they had found a buttercup. Children can correct their teachers by noting that that "normal" buttercups have wide petals that overlap whereas celandine petals are thin spikes with a large gap between each. Also whilst celandines are out from mid-February, buttercups are normally seen from mid-April and their peak flowering is in May and early June. Their flowering periods do overlap slightly in late April but by May, celandines are past their best.

    Cow parsley, also known by the more flattering name of Queen Anne's Lace, is a member of the carrot family. Over the last few decades, cow parsley has substantially increased on roadside verges: there is more than half as much again as there was 30 years ago. The reason is thought to be to an increase in soil fertility caused by a few different factors. In the more distant past, verges were grazed or the grass was cut and used for hay. Now when it is cut by mechanical devices, it is left to rot in place forming a "green manure". In the last few decades there has also been an increase in fertilising nitrogen compounds both from farm overspill and from car exhausts. Whilst this extra fertility is good news for cow parsley and also brambles and nettles, it is causing these species to out-compete many other wildflowers along hedgerows.

  4. Turn left onto the track and follow this to a gate into Tregargus Valley.

    Tregargus Valley contains the remains of a china stone industry that operated from around 1870 until 1965. Unlike china clay (kaolin) which is soft and can simply be washed out of the rocks, china stone is a fairly hard rock. It therefore had to be quarried and then ground down by mills to make the fine powder that was used as one of the ingredients to make porcelain.

    The valley is now managed by the Tregargus Trust - a small local charity who can be supported via Amazon shopping via Smile. There have been problems with littering and vandalism in recent years. You can help to combat both by picking up any litter you can and depositing this in the black bin by Moor Cottage when you exit the valley and reporting any antisocial behaviour to Devon and Cornwall Police.

  5. Go through the gate and keep right at the junction to follow the path alongside the fence. Continue keeping right along the fence to reach a junction of paths beside the ruins of a large building.

    Trevear Mill is one of the earlier China stone mills in the valley, first recorded in 1880 and used until the 1930s. There were two grinding pans powered by a waterwheel. At the southern end was a pan kiln for drying the ground stone.

    The separate building at the far end was a cottage to provide accommodation for the miller and his family. This continued to be used even after the mill closed and was finally abandoned in the 1970s.

  6. Turn left at the junction and keep left at the fork to follow the path over a bridge over the river to the ruins of another building. Continue following the path uphill to reach a junction with the remains of a chimney to the right.

    China Stone is a term used to describe granite which has partially decomposed, but not all the way to china clay. Porcelain can made by mixing china clay (kaolin) with ground china stone and then melting these together in a kiln to form the ceramic. The china stone lowers the melting point and forms a less crumbly and more glass-like structure. In fact, pure kaolin alone is pretty much useless for making ceramics.

    After much trial and error in finding suitable sources of china stone in Cornwall, a patent was filed in 1768 for the manufacture of porcelain using entirely Cornish materials; previously this was only available from China. China stone is consequently also known in some parts of the world as "Cornish Stone".

  7. Keep left and follow the path uphill to a junction.

    Big Wheel Mill was built in 1898, making it one of the later period china stone mills in the valley. This is reflected in the use of brick for its construction rather than solely granite. It was one of the largest mills in the area, originally with 6 grinding pans. It was in operation until 1965.

  8. Bear right and follow the path to the ruins of another building with a waterfall just past the top end.

    Wheal Arthur was one of the earliest china stone mills in Tregargus Valley and consisted of two grinding pans either side of the waterwheel.

    A separate larger waterwheel was located to the north which transferred power via an arrangement of flat rods which is thought originally terminated at a pump.

    Alongside the mill are the remains of a pan kiln for drying slurry from the ground stone produced by the mill.

  9. Turn around to retrace your steps back to the junction.

    Porcelain was first developed in around 620 AD in China (which is why it was called "chinaware" or "china"). A clay was formed by mixing pure kaolin with a powdered local "pottery stone" rich in mica and feldspar-derived minerals. The vessels made from the clay were first fired at a low temperature and then heated to an exceptionally high temperature, creating a glass-like ceramic that is very hard and tough. The word "porcelain" is from the French word for cowrie shell (which is itself thought to derive from a slang Latin word for female genitalia!).

    Bone china was invented in England by Thomas Frye in 1748 by combining around 30-50% bone ash (typically from cow bones) with roughly equal quantities of kaolin and powdered Cornish china stone. This special form of porcelain is harder still, allowing it to be formed into even thinner, translucent structures and has a cream (rather than white) colour.

  10. The path to the right just leads to an old quarry. Bear left to follow the path downhill to the junction with the remains of the chimney on the left.

    The quarries provided the china stone for the mills in the central area of the valley, and were already being worked in 1840. A tramway is record in the 1880s linking the quarries to Trevear Mill and by the early 20th Century this had grown into a more extensive network supplying the newer Tregargus mills.

  11. Turn left and follow the winding path to the other side of the stream and continue to pass a section of railway track and reach a junction of paths beside a small building.
  12. Turn left and follow the path over the bridge and past the remains of a building with a fireplace in the centre. Then continue to emerge next to the ruin of a complex of buildings that you passed earlier on the walk.
  13. Turn left and keep left to follow the path around the back of the building.

    The simplest design for a waterwheel is known as an undershot wheel where the paddles are simply dipped into flowing water. This works well in large rivers where there is a strong current.

    However, in hilly areas with smaller streams (such as Cornwall), the overshot design is more common where the water is delivered via a man-made channel (leat) to the top of the wheel where it flows into buckets on the wheel, turning the wheel through the weight of the water. An overshot design also allowed the mill to be located slightly further away from the main river which had obvious advantages during floods.

  14. Walk down the slope to the path along the wall and turn right to walk all the way along this to a junction. Turn left to follow the path back to the junction before the gate into the valley.
  15. Before leaving the valley, you may wish to have a look at Lower Tregargus Mill to the right then return here. To continue the walk, follow the track through the gate to return to the lane.

    Like the other mills in the valley, this consisted of a waterwheel driving grinding pans. Rather than drying the slurry with a pan kiln, it is reported as being transported by pipeline to Gwindra for further processing.

  16. Turn left onto the lane and follow this until it eventually ends in a T-junction.

    The first record of Trevear is from 1327 as Tre Mour. It's Cornish for "big farm". Both "-veor" and "-meor" are fairly common in Cornish place names and mean big/great in both cases (similar to "major"). The change from m to v is an example of the initial consonant mutation in the Celtic language. This was done to "agree" with the word in front of it and also sometimes occurred from a change in usage over time.

  17. Turn right (signposted Gwindra) and follow the lane until it ends in a T-junction with the main road.

    According to folklore, it's unlucky to bring bluebells into a house and also unlucky to walk through bluebells as it was thought that the little bells would ring and summon fairies and goblins.

  18. Turn left and walk along the verge by the stream until you are opposite a track then carefully cross the road to the opposite side. Continue along the verge of the main road to a junction and bear right onto the smaller road signposted Gwindra Industrial Estate. Follow this towards Hall's Car Centre to reach a public footpath sign on the right.

    Two pan kilns with a chimney and settling tanks were located near the river. This was presumably where the pipeline from the Lower Tregargus Mill is said to have terminated and would have carried ground china stone rather than pure china clay.

    Up until about 1850 china clay was dried in open-sided sheds known as air drys. This was a slow process: in winter, it could take as long as eight months.

    From 1845, pan kilns were developed and became standard in the 1860s and 70s. Flues led beneath a floor of porous tiles on which the cream-like clay slurry was dried. The moisture was drawn down into the hot fumes and vented from a chimney.

  19. Turn right at the footpath sign and cross the stile. Follow the path around the bend to the left and then follow it alongside the river to reach a gate at the opposite end of the meadow.

    There are several different reasons why passing walkers should never feed horses. A range of plants can make horses ill and many human foods such as chocolate also contain cumulative poisons that build up over time. The horse could also have allergies to a normally safe plant or have an underlying medical condition such as blood sugar issues. A horse may have behavioural problems that feeding it can make worse, and singling a horse out for "special" attention can also cause it to be attacked by jealous herd members. Some horses may also accidentally bite a hand containing food even when held flat.

  20. Go through the gate and keep following along the river to reach a stile at the far end of the meadow.

    The Barn River is a tributary of the River Fal.

    The River Fal begins in the marshes of Goss Moor at Pentevale and runs for 11 miles to its mouth between St Anthony Head and Pendennis Point. It is little more than a stream passing through the china clay areas near St Stephen and a fairly small river at Grampound and Tregony. At Ruan Lanihorne, the river enters the huge flooded river valley forming the creek system known as Carrick Roads. Within this, it is the former river valley of the Fal which separates the Roseland peninsula from the neighbouring land.

  21. Cross (or pass around) the stile and bear left to follow the track a couple of paces to a junction. Turn right onto the lane to continue downriver. Follow the lane into Coombe to reach a junction with a "Coombe 2000" signpost.

    Hemlock (also known as water dropwort) is a member of the carrot family (related to cow parsley and alexanders) and is common in damp, shady places, particularly near streams. The stems are tubular and quite thick like alexanders and the leaves look quite like coriander (more toothed on the edges than alexanders). New leaves begin to shoot in early winter and by February these are starting to grow into quite noticeable small plants. It flowers in April and May with white flowers similar to cow parsley. It has a deceptively pleasant sweet smell but don't be tempted to try eating it: this is the most poisonous plant in UK. Just a handful of leaves can kill a human and a root contains enough poison to kill a cow.

  22. Continue ahead (signposted for Trenowth) to reach a junction to the right signposted St Stephens.

    Formerly known as "St Stephen's Coombe", much of the settlement dates from Victorian times when there were 2 Methodist chapels, a school and a Sunday school. A new Sunday school was built later in Victorian times which is now the chapel.

  23. Turn right and follow the lane over a bridge and uphill to reach a junction with a grassy triangle with a signpost for St Stephen and Grampound.

    Before the bridge, just downstream of the lane is where an adit draining the water from St Austell Consols and Dowgas mines meets the surface. The mines are located on much higher ground so although the adit runs very gradually uphill from here (so the water flows down from the mine to exit here), within the mines it is about 85 metres below the surface.

    A stamping mill for crushing tin ore and a "blowing house" for smelting it were situated beside the road out of Coombe, recorded in 1748 and in 1840. Near the road through Coombe itself there are a couple of old mineshafts that may be associated with this.

    As the lane levels out, in one of the fields to the right was an iron mine, known as Bodinnick mine, which operated from 1848 to 1863. It was connected to the Cornwall Railway by a tramway.

  24. Keep left at the fork to reach a crossroads. Cross to the lane opposite (signposted Trelion) but after a couple of paces, before reaching the cottage, turn right onto the track leading to a gate and stile. Cross the stile (or go through the gate if open) and follow the track to reach a barn on the left.

    South Terras Mine was located across the fields to the left.

    South Terras Mine began in 1870 as an iron mine but when pitchblende was discovered it was worked instead for uranium in the 1870s and again in the 1900s and 1920s under the name Resugga and Tolgarrick Mine. A radium recovery plant was built in the 1920s.

  25. Continue a few paces further on the track past the barn and yard and then where the track bends to the right, go through the gate on the left into the farmyard. Once in the yard, turn immediately right to exit through another gate onto a concrete track, closing this quickly behind you to prevent any naughty cows from sneaking past you. Follow the track to a junction with a track leading to a barn on the right.

    Most rocks contain trace amounts of uranium but in granite, the amount is often a little higher (still only around 10 parts per million). As the granite cooled and cracked, warm water circulating though cracks in the granite dissolved some of the minerals causing these to be concentrated in veins - this applies to uranium as well as tin and copper.

  26. Continue ahead (via a gate if across the track) and follow the concrete track until it ends in a Y-shaped junction.

    Uranium is unstable (aka "radioactive"). Occasionally one of the uranium atoms will fall apart and a particle (which we call radiation) gets flung out from its atomic nucleus. Having lost a bit of its atomic nucleus, what's left behind is often a different chemical element. This element is often also unstable and so has a tendency to fall apart in a similar way. The process repeats until a stable (non-radioactive) element is eventually reached. Uranium's decay chain includes radium (which was sought-after) and this subsequently decays into radon. The non-radioactive element at the end of the chain is lead.

  27. Turn left and follow the track between buildings to a bend with a waymark post.

    Resugga is first recorded as "Rosogou" in 1304. It is thought to be from the Cornish word "ros" (which can mean a few different things but probably "moor" in this case) and the Cornish word for "cave". The farmhouse is thought to contain some remnants of a Tudor mansion.

  28. At the bend, continue a couple of paces from the waymark to pass the field entrance then immediately keep left where the track forks. Continue to where the track bends to the left to enter a field with a gate leading ahead onto a grassy path between hedges.

    Orange tip butterflies are one of the most noticeable and memorable due to their brilliant orange wing tips, but it's only the males that have orange-tipped wings. The striking orange is a warning to predators that they taste highly unpleasant. Intelligent birds such as crows will avoid repeating culinary disasters by remembering the colour pattern associated with it.

    The females are mainly white with a bit of black at the wing tips. There will be an evolutionary reason for why it's not worth the females bothering with the orange warning pigment. This could be because the males spend much more time in flight (looking for females), and the resources needed to produce the bitter chemicals and orange pigment are better spent instead on making more eggs.

    As additional protection from predators (especially for the females), they have also evolved a green camouflage pattern on the underside of their wings that makes them quite hard to spot when they land and close their wings.

    Orange tips overwinter as pupae so they are able to emerge in April, making them one of the first butterflies to be around in the spring. They can be seen until mid-summer then their caterpillars spend the remainder of the summer feeding ready for the winter.

    The genus name for campions - Silene from the often-drunk Greek woodland god Silenus whose name derives from the Greek word for saliva. The name is thought to be based on the froth on the female flowers used to trap pollen although its habitat preference including semi-shade within woodland also fits fairly well.

  29. Go through the gate and follow the grassy track between the hedges to emerge on a surfaced track near a house.

    During late April, St Mark's flies occur in quite large numbers. They are recognisable by their shiny black colour, slow flight and dangly legs and have a habit of landing of anything in their path, walkers included. The larvae live in the soil feeding on roots and rotting vegetation and hatch around St Mark's Day (25th April), sometimes later into May in a cold year. The adults only live for about a week but they do feed on nectar, making them important pollinators. Each of the males eyes are divided into two parts by a groove and each part has a separate connection to their brains. This allows them to use one half to fly whilst using the other half to look for females.

    From April to June, white flowers of Greater Stitchwort can be seen along hedgerows and paths. The petals are quite distinctive as each one is split almost all the way to create pairs - most of the flowers typically have 5 pairs. The name comes from alleged powers to cure an exercise-induced stitch. Other common names include Star-of-Bethlehem (due to the shape and perhaps Easter flowering time) and Poor Man's Buttonhole for budget weddings. It is also known as Wedding Cakes but that may be more due to the colour than anticipation of what a buttonhole might lead to. The seed capsules can sometimes be heard bursting open in the late spring sunshine which gives rise to another name: Popguns.

    The biggest discrepancy between distance shown in fitness apps and true distance on the ground comes from the app trying to measure distance by accumulating GPS positions. Since each GPS reading on a consumer device contains several metres of error, the accumulation of errors over the whole walk causes an overestimation of distance of around 10-20%. By contrast, the iWalk Cornwall app gives a more accurate measure of distance along the route because it already knows the exact route in advance so it doesn't need to accumulate GPS positions to measure distance along the route. Some locals might choose to summarise this as: "it's because the fitness app is an emmit".

  30. Follow the track ahead until it ends in a T-junction on a residential road.

    Spanish bluebells have been planted in gardens and these have hybridised with native bluebells producing fertile seeds. This has produced hybrid swarms around sites of introductions and, since the hybrids are able to thrive in a wider range of environmental conditions, the hybrids are frequently out-competing the native English bluebells. Sir Francis Drake would not be impressed! The Spanish form can be fairly easily recognised by the flowers on either side of the stem. In the English form, they are all on one side. In general, the English bluebells also have longer, less-flared flowers and are often a deeper colour. However, the easiest way to tell the difference between native and non-native bluebells is to look at the colour of the pollen: if it is creamy-white then the bluebell is native; if it is any other colour such as pale green or blue then it's not native.

  31. Turn right and walk a few paces to the main road. Turn right and follow the pavement/path alongside the main road. Cross over the junction to Park Gwyn and continue to the end of the path, then cross the road and follow the pavement opposite to a junction signposted for the car park.

    Houses in granite areas such as St Stephen are often fitted with radon detectors.

    Like all the elements before it in uranium's decay chain, radon is radioactive too. However unlike the previous elements (which are solids), radon is a gas so it can move about and collect in low-lying areas (as it's a heavy gas). The fact it can be breathed-in is what makes radon more dangerous than the rocks that produce it. Most particles of radiation don't travel very far until they get stopped by crashing into something (like an air molecule) but if they get inside the body they can crash into DNA instead and mangle it.

  32. Turn left and follow the road back to the car park to complete the walk.

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