As someone who suffers from vertigo, I try to avoid the coastal path. So I awoke early last Sunday, wondering why I'd let myself in for a walk that starts off “near the cliff edge.” I lay in bed, my imagination providing explicit scenes resulting in neither myself, my friends or Mollie Dog returning from the walk.
Thankfully, my imagination was misplaced. Three of us – and Mollie - set off that afternoon taking the A30 Redruth-Bodmin road, turning left onto the B3277 for St Agnes and following the signs to Chapel Porth. The road leading down to the beach is steep and narrow with few passing places, and at the bottom of the hill we parked in the National Trust car park, which also has a cafe and public toilets. The words 'Chapel Porth' embedded in white stones embedded on the opposite cliff, confirmed our destination.
The sea on our left, we took a steep rocky path up the cliff (thankfully, the path wasn't that close to the edge), and climbed up to a rocky outcrop with awe inspiring views. We could see the beaches of Portreath and Porthtowan, on the skyline a silhouette of the old arsenic works at Poldice, and Nancekuke, the chemical defence site at Portreath.
I stood (far away from the edge, clutching Mollie), and my vertigo subsided as I drank in the scene. A paraglider floated silently above me, like a colourful seagull drifting on thermals. Then I jumped like a startled rabbit as a mountain biker skidded down the path, much too near the edge for me!
We followed the coastal path until we reached the engine house for the Towanroath shaft of Wheal Coates mine which has been carefully restored by the National Trust. This is the most photographed mine engine in Cornwall and provided the frontispiece for Daphne du Maurier's book 'Vanishing Cornwall'.
Turning right here, we climbed up a rocky path with stones of autumn colours – deep yellow, red, black and strains of blue. This path led to the remains of the Wheal Coates mine buildings where tin and copper were mined between 1820 and 1914. – the copper can still be seen as blue streaks in some of the surrounding stone. From here we watched the sun pouring down on Portreath like an epiphany in a religious painting, while skylarks chattered around us and ravens circled darkly over our heads.
We turned left and headed away from the coast, towards a wider path over the headland. Here we met serious walkers armed with walking sticks, slower groups accompanied by excited dogs and less excited children. The terrain flattened here, with gorse and heather on each side, and fields on the right leading up to St Agnes Beacon. These fields are popular with those looking for somewhere different for a wedding party.
A diagonal path to the right led to a tarmac road and I noticed a huge lump of pockmarked porous granite, threaded with veins of Cassiterite, and spots of Haematite: proof of the rich mining heritage of this area. The grey day was not lifted by any colourful growth, but finally we saw a single common knapweed, some gorse blooms, confusingly next to bramble flowers – in winter? Inhaling the sweet vanilla scent of gorse, we looked up and saw gliders soaring by from Perranporth Airfield.
A few hundred yards further on is a sentry box that marks the site of the Cameron training camp for the 100th Light Anti-Aircraft battery. From 1943-44 it housed American army units prior to embarkation to France. After the war, the bungalows provided accommodation for local families until more council houses were built.
The tarmac road led to a T junction and opposite, a path that led up to St Agnes Beacon. Several million years ago, this beacon was an island and mining evidence shows that there was a pebbly beach at about the same height as today's ground level. Now the old sea floor shoreline is covered in thick layers of china clay which is extracted in the Newdown Sand and Clay Pits, further along the road.
St Agnes Beacon is a granite outcrop with Bronze Age barrows on the summit, and bonfires are lit on Midsummer Eve and other special occasions. On a clear day it is possible to see 30 church spires or towers, but the weather precluded such a sight on this walk. However, from the highest point of 192 metres (628 feet) the views are incredible – we could see westwards to St Ives, shrouded in mist, and up to Trevose Head near Padstow in the north. We could just make out the 'Cornish Alps' - the china clay tips in the distance to the south and, nearer, the granite outcrop of Carn Brea.
Retracing our steps we came back to the road, turned left and continued past clumps of magnificent looking field mushrooms in the hedge – Mollie was interested, but we weren't confident enough to take them home to eat. Walking past Bungay Yard, home of a farrier and blacksmith, we saw a lone bay horse shrouded in a blanket, and further on, a robin splashing and chirping as it bathed in a large puddle.
As we turned right, back towards Chapel Porth, we saw a pink glow on the horizon, while Portreath was surrounded in thick clouds like an erupting volcano. The path back to Wheal Coates was steep and flanked by grey hawthorn thickets, dense and prickly, while above us a sparrow hawk darted out, followed by a gang of rooks, cawing as they circled above.
Down at the beach a dog barked excitedly as it surfed the waves. Mollie tried to join in but the waves were too big so she joined other dogs playing on the beach. Light was falling as several tired looking surfers emerged from the sea in wet suits, clutching body boards and flippers. We explored the beach, pebbles crunching under our feet as the mist rolled in and an eerie half light settled over the cove.
The cafe beckoned. We sat at benches outside with steaming mugs of tea and sat in awed silence while nature painted a fantastic backdrop for us. The sky was streaked with yellow, red, pale blue and rose pink in the most beautiful sunset. Being outside made it seem more special, more personal. We drove back, tired and windblown, with Mollie asleep on my lap.
Length: 3 miles
Time: Approximately 2 hours
Grade: Steep in places and many rocky paths
Maps: OS Explorer Map 104 Redruth & St Agnes
Refreshments: Cafe and toilets at Chapel Porth car park
Areas of historical interest: Bronze Age barrow on St Agnes beacon, Wheal Coates mine buildings, remains of Cameron training Camp.
January Cornwall Today 2009