Where Industrial Heritage and Natural Beauty Come Together
Words and photographs by Rebecca Bentley
I in Vanishing Cornwall, Daphne du Maurier described Wheal Cotes on St Agnes Head, as “wild and bare, save for the bleak walls of the engine-house, standing like a defaced cathedral against the sky, while beneath it a solitary chimney-stack, formidable as a dark tower, frowns downupon the sea.”
Overlooking the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean from the cliff tops between Porthtowan and St Agnes, three late 19th century engine houses jut proudly from the rocky heathland as reminders of Cornwall’s industrial heritage. The most iconic of the three is the large granite structure of Towanroath (pictured), perched beside the South West Coastal Path. It was built in 1872 as a pumping house for Wheal Coates mine, which can be seen further up the hill from the path.
From the early 1800s, this landscape was bustling with tin miners, and the loud clanging of the engine houses resounded amid the crashing of the waves below until the early 1900s when the industry fell into decline. A circular walk from the quaint coastal village of St Agnes passes by these historical landmarks, taking in the popular Chapel Porth Beach and 360 degree views from St Agnes Beacon. The five-mile long walk takes around two hours and is of moderate difficulty.
You can begin this walk at Chapel Porth or St Agnes (where car parks are open throughout the year), and head inland first or take the coast path as you prefer. I opted to begin at St Agnes and took the coast path to the left from Trevaunance Cove. The track winds its way past the small promontory known as Tubby’s Head – once an Iron Age settlement – and onto the remains of Wheal Coates mine and Towanroath.
From here, the path slopes down towards Chapel Porth beach, set within a valley that was used to process the mineral ore from the surrounding mines in the 19th century. At low tide, the sandy beach can stretch up towards St Agnes Head and Porthtowan, and the Chapel Porth beach café (home of the legendary hedgehog ice cream) is open throughout the year, so it’s the perfect spot for a little break.
From here, cross the stream behind the car park and follow the path, passing beneath a mine building then head left through a wooden kissing gate. Turn right along a track and turn right again at Chapel Porth Farm Gate, keeping straight ahead until you go through a gate and following the field-edge turn left through another kissing gate on to a wide track. Turn left at a junction then right at Willow Cottage; the path will lead you to a public road. From here, turn right and continue on till you reach Beacon Country House Hotel; follow the stony track to the left that will take you to a junction. Turn left here
and continue straight on the uphill path that leads to St Agnes Beacon.
The rounded hilltop that was traditionally used as a site for lighting signal fires, reaches 692ft high and you can see out to Bodmin Moor and most of Cornwall from its summit on a clear day. From up here, it’s quite easy to find your way back down to the car park at Trevaunance Cove, where you can stop off at the award-winning Driftwood Spars pub. If you have the energy, hook up with Koru Kayaking, who run sea kayaking trips through what is now affectionately known as Poldark Country after television adaptations of Winston Graham’s popular novels were filmed in the area; you may be very familiar with the latest BBC production, starring Aidan Turner.
In April, you can combine a walk of the area with a plethora of fun, outdoorsy activities at the St Agnes Outsid’er Festival from Friday, April 10 to Sunday, April 12. The three-day event aims to get people outside doing something new and exciting, such as competing in the Wacky Machine Beach Race, sand sculpture, rock balancing and photography competitions, or trying their hand at kayaking, foraging and beach cleaning.
Artist Tony Plant (see his stunning work in action here) will create one of his stunning sand drawings on the beach at Trevaunance Cove, and plans to invite people to take part in his new Creative Colony Project as virtual mapmakers. There’ll also be a pop-up surf cinema and skate park, a live performance from Kneehigh Theatre and a Cornish language walk. The festival is geared to appeal to a wide range of individuals and families too, and events are too numerous to list here; find a full programme online.
There’s a host of walks to try around this fascinating stretch of coastline. Enjoy the changing colours of the seasons as the headland turns green in summer and purple and yellow in the autumn, when heather and gorse drape themselves across the cliff tops.