Twelveheads and Chacewater

A circular walk in the Copper Kingdom of the Old World where the majority of world's copper came from during the 18th and 19th Centuries

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The route follows mining trails through Poldice valey to Todpool and through Poldice Mine workings to Little Beside. After passing West Poldice Mine, the walk passes through Unity woods to reach Killifreth mine. The return route descends from Wheal Busy into the Carnon Valley to Chacewater and follows Carnon River back to Twelveheads.


Great walk which I did today and did the shorter poldice valley walk several weeks ago.

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Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 104
  • Distance: 6 miles/9.6 km
  • Steepness grade: Easy
  • Recommended footwear: walking boots

OS maps for this walk

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  • Mining Heritage
  • Bluebells in Unity Wood

Pubs on or near the route

  • The Kings Head Inn


  1. Follow the lane from the lay-by into Twelveheads to reach a bend at the Playing Field sign where a mining trail departs ahead to Portreath.

    The Mining Trails are a 60km network of walking, horse riding and cycling trails opened in 2010. The routes are largely based on the trackbeds of tramways and railways that were used to transport ore from the mines to the ports on both coasts. For this reason, the project was originally known as the Mineral Tramways.

  2. Join the Mining Trail to Portreath and follow this until you reach a fork in the track next top Killicor Stamps.
  3. Keep right at the fork to reach another junction.
  4. Continue ahead to stay on the main track and follow this to where a path departs to the right at a granite waymark.

    A large proportion of buzzards diet is earthworms and carrion and consequently they have a reputation for being lazy and scavengers. However, when they need to be, buzzards are formidable predators. Diving on rabbits and small mammals from a slow or hovering flight, or from a perch, they nearly always make the kill on the ground.

  5. At the waymark, keep left on the main track and follow this to where a path departs to the left at a wooden waymark.

    The barren areas of the Poldice Valley are known as "The Sands" and contain arsenic which inhibits the growth of most plants.

    Arsenic disrupts the production of the ATP (energy carrying) molecules vital in the metabolism of multi-cell organisms. Due to its toxicity, arsenic was used as an insecticide and rat poison, and by the ruling class to murder one another.

  6. Continue on the main track, crossing over the stream to reach the granite marker on the track ahead. Continue on the track in the direction indicated for Portreath until you reach a junction in the track at Poldice Mine.

    Mining at Poldice (pronounced to rhyme with "spice") was initially for tin. A document from 1512 about a theft of tin "near Poldyth in Wennap" indicates that mining was probably taking place at that point. In the 1690s, Poldice was described as "that unparalleled and inexhaustible tin work…which for about forty years space hath employed yearly from eight hundred to a thousand men and boys."

    By 1788, the output of copper ore exceeded that of tin, and by the 1790s it was making a good profit. In the early 19th Century, it was merged with Wheal Unity.

    Like many others in the area, the mine was very wet and in 1842 the pumping engine was raising an average of 887 gallons per minute. In the 1860s, mineral prices dropped when large reserves were found in Spain and in the 1870s Poldice became uneconomical due to the cost of pumping water out of the shafts. The engine houses and most of the structures associated with this period of mining are gone. Most of the remains visible today are from a period of re-working for arsenic from the end of the 19th Century until 1929.

  7. Turn left onto the path indicated for the Car Park and follow this uphill to reach a marker opposite the mine buildings.

    During the 1730s, the water-powered engines at Poldice Mine were unable to pump the deeper levels dry. In 1742, the mine owner, John Lemon (whom Lemon Street and Lemon Quay in Truro are named after), bought five steam engines but his main plan for drainage was to drive a 4km long adit known as the Poldice Deep Adit from near Twelveheads to the deepest point possible on the edge of the Poldice sett. Tunnelling began in 1748 and was carried out using gunpowder and hand tools and the adit was in use by the mid-1750s.

  8. You may wish to have a look at the mine buildings and return here afterwards. The walk continues on the path along the tree-line. Continue until you reach a granite marker and a barbed-wire fence where a path departs to the left.

    The temperature of the rocks increases by 1 degree roughly for each 15 fathoms that a mine is sunk so mines were unpleasantly hot places to work. The deepest mine in Cornwall was Dulcoath where air temperatures of 43°C were recorded at the 550 fathom level.

    Chemical reactions between air, water and the ore could also increase temperature. In the Hot Lode in the United Mines at Gwennap, water was recorded at 52°C.

  9. Turn left onto the path indicated by the black arrow. Follow this until you pass a pedestrian barrier and reach a road.

    The isolated chimney stack and remains of a labyrinth above the main mine buildings are from an arsenic works built initially in the late 19th Century which continued to be used into the early 20th Century.

  10. Carefully cross the road to the path opposite indicated for Portreath and keep right to follow the path past a walled-off mineshaft to an open area.

    In America, during the 1870s, Colorado beetle was devastating cash crops including cotton, tobacco and staples such as potato. At the time, the most popular pesticides were arsenic compounds so this led to a sudden increase in demand for arsenic. Since this was soon after the collapse in copper prices, this delayed the closure of many mines and during this period, over half of the world’s supply of arsenic was produced from mines in Cornwall and Devon.

  11. Bear right to follow the path between the low banks to merge onto a track and reach a road.

    This is all that remains of Wheal Unity.

    Wheal Unity was one of the richest mines in the area with profits over £100,000 (very roughly equivalent to £10 million) in 1798. The dressing floors were at the bottom of the valley and needed a constant supply of water. A six mile leat was built from Pednandrea Mine in Redruth to supply this which is ironic as there was no shortage of water in the mine's underground tunnels. Wheal Unity was amalgamated with Police Mine at the start of the 19th Century and by the middle of the century it was mainly worked for arsenic.

  12. Turn left onto the road to reach a granite marker then carefully cross to the track opposite. Follow this to another granite marker where a grassy track departs to the left.

    A fuse factory was once located at Little Beside, manufacturing safety fuses for the mines. Unfortunately the process to manufacture them was far from safe and a significant number of employees died in explosions and fires, predominantly young women who did the majority of explosives manufacture. The factory in Little Beside was a purpose-built one-storey building after the two-storey fuse factory in St Day burnt down killing five women who were trapped on the upper floor; two more women and the foreman escaped with injuries. After this incident, all explosives factories were required to be single-storey buildings.

  13. Keep right on the stony track and follow it to where it ends in a gate into a yard and a path departs to the right.

    The yard ahead is on the site of West Poldice Mine which later became part of Wheal Unity Wood (the name of a mine, the woodland is just called Unity Wood).

  14. Bear right onto the path leading downhill and follow this until it ends in a junction with a track opposite a granite marker.

    Although most primroses tend to be pale yellow, in residential areas, extensive hybridisation occurs with pink and purple garden primulas to create all kinds of weird and wonderful mutants, with some even shaped like cowslips. However there is a pale pink variety of primrose (known as rhubarb and custard) that is thought to be a naturally-occurring variant of the pale yellow (rhubarb-free) version as it has been found miles away from any domestic plants.

    In 1830, William Bickford devised a way of making blasting safer, based on his observations of the activities of a rope maker. His safety fuse consisted of a core of gunpowder surrounded by twisted yarns, bound in twine and sealed with tar to make it waterproof. Since gunpowder contains everything it needs to burn without the need for oxygen from the air, it would burn reliably inside its waterproof container at a predictable rate of 30 seconds per foot.

  15. Turn left towards Portreath and follow the track until you reach another granite marker for Portreath, Devoran, and a Wheal Busy loop.

    The trail here is on the trackbed of the Portreath Tramway.

    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.

  16. Turn right onto the Wheal Busy loop into Unity Woods. Follow the track to where a smaller path departs to the right before a wooden fence ahead

    The larger of the two engine houses in the field beside the woodland was for pumping from a shaft here known as Magors shaft. The other engine house was used to power both winding equipment to raise ore from the mine and stamps (ore pulverising machines). The engine house is not oriented correctly to raise ore from Magors shaft so it is thought this was done via another shaft nearby. The mine produced both copper and also tin, extracted from a deposit deeper underground.

  17. Keep left to follow the main track and continue to where it forks at a granite marker.
  18. Bear right at the fork and follow the path until you reach a junction of paths with a wooden waymark post just past a mineshaft.

    In the woodland, as well as some deep mineshafts, there are ancient surface workings which were known by the miners as "Old Mens Workings". "The Old Men" was a dialect term for "ancestors" similar to "forefathers".

  19. Turn right and follow the path to reach a gate leaving the woodland.

    In folklore, the bluebell is a symbol of constancy, presumably based on the fact that they flower in the same place every year. It was said that anyone who wears a bluebell is compelled to tell the truth. This is probably the origin of the "…something blue…" that a bride should wear on her wedding day.

    When a bar of tin metal is bent, it emits an audible screaming/cracking sound, known as a "tin cry". This freaky behaviour arises due to a crystallisation phenomenon known as "twinning" that occurs frequently in tin, where two or more crystals grow out of each other, sharing a common section (the name arose from "Siamese twins"). The "crying" sound is caused by these joined crystals snapping apart.

  20. Exit the woods through the gate and follow the path to the engine house.

    At temperatures below 13.2°C, tin slowly changes from a silver-white metal to a grey, crumbly, non-metallic form which causes tin objects to gradually disintegrate at low temperatures. The decomposition catalyses itself, so speeds up once it starts. The transformation, known as tin disease, tin pest, tin blight or even tin leprosy, was first noticed on cathedral organ pipes in the Middle Ages and was assumed to be the work of the devil. As lead is phased out of the solder in electronic items leaving principally tin, this presents a technical challenge as solder which disintegrates all over a circuit board in the cold, only to become conducting again when it warms up, is a recipe for short-circuits.

  21. Continue on the path past the engine house to reach a gate leading into a small parking area.

    Killifreth mine was worked between 1826 - 1860 for copper from shallow workings that didn't require a steam engine to drain. In the 1860s an engine house was built to deepen the mine to extract tin and the mine was very productive. Despite this, it became uneconomical when tin prices fell in the late 19th Century, closing in 1897.

    It was reopened in 1911 to process arsenic and the engine house chimney was doubled in height to produce enough updraft for four boilers. Due to volatility of the price of arsenic, the mine closed again after a few years.

    In 1927, plans to re-open the mine were abandoned after it was discovered that the equipment had been vandalised and it was eventually broken up for scrap during the Second World War.

  22. Go through the gate and turn right onto the track and follow it to the road.
  23. Bear right onto the pavement and cross the road to the track opposite. Follow this a short distance to a junction.
  24. Bear right and follow the track to a parking area and walk through this to reach the road.

    There were probably mine workings in the area of Wheal Busy since the 16th century and it was originally known as Chacewater Mine. In the 1720s the mine started to produce large amounts of copper ore over its lifetime produced over 100,000 tons of copper ore. By the 1860s the mine was losing money, and in 1866 the mine owners attempted to reduce losses by taxing miners' earnings. This did not go down well and resulted in miners "attempting to blow up the boilers, laying trails of powder about the barracks, setting fire to the clothes in the dry, throwing large pieces of iron in the pumps, and other villainous acts.". The mine closed shortly after this.

  25. Cross the road and follow the track past the buildings to a junction of tracks.

    In the early 20th Century the mine was reworked for arsenic and much of what remains is from this period including one of the best surviving examples of an arsenic process system.

  26. Turn right and follow the track which gradually turns into a tiny lane. Continue until this ends in a junction.
  27. Turn left and follow The Terrace until it ends in a T-junction.
  28. Turn right and follow the road until it ends on the main road.

    Chacewater gets its name is from a hunting chace (an old word for "chase") alongside the Carnon River and through the wood (Chacewood) that belonged to the local manor. It is mentioned in two different mediaeval legends as the hunting grounds of the Kings of Cornwall. From Tudor times through to Victorian times it was usually spelt "Chasewater" which is why the Redruth and Chasewater Railway is spelt with an "s" and not a "c". The settlement grew substantially during the mining boom of the 18th and 19th Centuries. The church dates from the 19th Century and the stained glass was salvaged from St Mary's Church in Truro which stood where the cathedral is now.

  29. Turn left and cross at the crossing then continue a little further to The Square.
  30. Turn right onto The Square and follow the road until you reach a junction on the left for Twelveheads.

    The Carnon river has its source near the A30 and passes as a small stream through Chacewater before joining a tributary from the Poldice valley at Twelveheads. The Great County Adit drains from the mines into the river here and further drainage from Wheal Jane enters downstream. As a result, the river is still quite polluted with dissolved metals from the mines including cadmium, arsenic, copper and zinc which are toxic to most aquatic invertebrates and fish. The river currently fails the Water Framework Directive for invertebrates which is likely linked to the high levels of metals within the river. However, aquatic vegetation is diverse as this is less sensitive to dissolved metals.

  31. Turn left onto the road signposted for Twelveheads and follow this for just over a mile until it ends in a T-junction.

    Celandine flowers close each night and open each morning. This is controlled by a circadian rhythm, so they really are "going to sleep" at night and "waking up in the morning". It is likely that this has arisen to protect the internals of the flowers from any frost during the night as they begin flowering in March when frosts are still common.

    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.

  32. Turn right and follow the road to where a junction departs to the left signposted to Bissoe.

    Twelveheads gets its name from the stamping mill that was in operation here with twelve (ore-crushing) heads. We can tell this refers to Cornish Stamps as these were normally produced in banks of four whereas Californian Stamps were in fives.

  33. Turn left and follow the lane past the chapel and over the bridge to the Mining Trails signs, then follow the lane to the left to return to the lay-by.

    Californian stamps were developed in America during the gold rush and had a number of design improvements over the Cornish stamps from which they were derived. Rather than using square stamping heads, the Californian ones were round and the mechanism was designed to rotate them as they were lifted so that the wear on the head was evened-out. Californian stamps were also more rapid and could crush 50% more ore in the same amount of time as the traditional design and this led to their use in Cornwall too.

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