A 12 mile walk along the South West Coast Path between Portreath and Perranporth
A landscape scarred with the remains of centuries of mining is what typifies this section of the South West Coast Path. The remains of old engine houses, foreboding chimneys and numerous bat friendly shaft covers are encountered along the cliff top path. There is also the legend of the Giant Bolster in these parts, a giant said to be so tall that he could stand with his feet straddled across two local peaks six miles apart.
Portreath to Perranporth Walk - Essential Information
- Start point
- PortreathView in OS Map | View in Google Map
- End Point
- PerranporthView in OS Map | View in Google Map
- Total Walk distance
- 12 miles
- Walk difficulty
- Some strenuous climbs and descents but otherwise fairly easy
- Waymarked footpath with some very steep climbs and descents
- This route contains some strenuous climbs and descents with uneven steps, although anyone of average fitness should be able to tackle such obstacles
First Group - Bus Service
- Service Number
- 47 - First Group 47 service linking Truro, Redruth and Portreath
- First Group (Devon and Cornwall) Website
First Group - Bus Service
- Service Number
- 57 - First Group 57 service linking Newquay, Perranporth and Portreath
- First Group (Devon and Cornwall) Website
First Group - Bus Service
- Service Number
- 86/87 - First Group 86/87 service linking Newquay, Perranporth and Truro
- First Group (Devon and Cornwall) Website
- Date of Walk
- Walk Time
- 09:00 to 14:30
- Griffmonster, Kat
- Weather Conditions
- Mist and fog coming drifting in from the sea
The Walk Rating
Depending upon which guide or web resource one consults, this walk ranges from moderate to strenuous. To put this into perspective, there are strenuous parts which are steep climbs and descents, in the most part with steps of various heights. These are across the various old quarry workings and the crossing of the various coves. There is nothing that anyone of average fitness cannot cope with. The bulk of the walk is pretty easy across the heather covered cliff tops. The last section hugs the steeply sloping cliff face from Cligga Head around to Perranporth. For those, like myself, who suffer vertigo then this is probably the worse part. However this is a good, well formed path and I certainly had no qualms about walking this. The entire route took a total of 5 and a half hours including a stop for a pint of beer and this was at an easy going pace with time spent to admire the views and take photos.
Public transport between Portreath and Perranporth is very limited. With the Western Greyhound bus company going into administration during the Spring of 2015, many of the routes were picked up by First Group buses and the particular service that links the two communities of Portreath and Perranporth was reduced from five to two buses in each direction per day. Such limitations of service do not provide any contingency for the sectional walker if unforeseen circumstances delay the arrival at the end of the walk, or if misfortune occurs on the buses journey due to mechanical failure, driver illness or accident. Miss the bus, or the bus fails to turn up, and one is well and truly stuck.
Therefore, an alternative method to connect the two coastal villages was sought which resulted with Truro being a common denominator where regular bus services were routed to both Perranporth and Portreath. Using the Truro Park and Ride, which is based at Threemilestone, the 47 bus service runs through to Portreath and the 86/87 bus services link back from Perranporth to the Park and Ride. One is obliged to take the Park and Ride bus in order to park at this spacious site, but this is a simple 2 minute ride to Truro college which links with both 47 and 86/87 services. Such a transport solution provides a lot more confidence in getting back than the severely limited direct 57 service. This method also provides a lot cheaper parking than using public car parks, with a park and ride day ticket starting at a mere £2.00 (price as per June 2015).
Cornish weather is rather unpredictable at times. On this occasion, the day was supposed to be warm and sunny with the hottest day in England predicted for the more south eastern parts with temperature expected to rise well in to 30°C's. However no-one appeared to have informed the local weather about this prediction and this part of the Cornish coast saw wraiths of mist rising up over the cliffs and filling the land with limited visibility. It wasn't cold by any means but the views were somewhat restricted. This was unfortunate as the photos contained in this article do seem somewhat dreary, although in reality the landscape was breathtaking and I am sure given more clement weather any photos would reflect the scenes in a more realistic light.
The walk starts with a climb out from Portreath. Although steep, this is relatively easy going along the road known as Lighthouse Hill. There isn't a lighthouse as such but a structure known as a daymark, a 25ft tall whitewashed building in the shape of a pepper pot which stands on the eastern cliff overlooking the harbour. This was built in 1846 and was used to guide ships into the harbour, and in latter days it served as a coastguard lookout. The OS map depicts the coast path leading out to this building but recent changes have re-routed the path along the road, presumably due to cliff falls, rejoining the old path beyond Gooden Heane cove.
The path then follows the clifftop and soon comes to the first challenge, a steep climb across an old quarry at Hayle Ulla, this is a 75m descent to cross a stream and then straight back to the top. The path continues along the clifftops amidst the heather covered heathland that fronts the former Nancekuke Airfield. This was originally known as RAF Portreath when it was constructed in 1940 but after the end of the war it took on its local name and became involved with chemical and biological warfare production as an outstation to Porton Down. Nerve agents such as Sarin were produced here during the 1950's before the station was mothballed and finally became a radar station in the 1980's. There is still a sinister feel about the area with a high chain linked fence that parallels the coast path, matching the contours of the land and forbidding entry to all who walk along this section. Occasional 'MOD' notices warn the walker to keep to the footpath. Concrete structures, some half buried are all along this section many covered in the epidemic that is known as modern graffiti, which is more like teenage boredom with a spraycan than an artform. Presumably these are old defence buildings from WWII although there is nothing to establish this view point. There are local stories that when the stations' chemical and biological production came to an end that the waste was dumped down the former mines that cover the landscape. A clean up operation was supposedly carried out in 2001 after classified documents were released under the 'thirty year rule' detailing some of the secret operations that had been carried out on the site.
At the far end of the airfield is another steep descent to an area marked on the OS map as Sally's Bottom, another former quarry. To any walker who doesn't know the history of the area, this name inevitable provides some childish humour and invigorates images of the large backside of a buxom bar wench. However, all is revealed at the, excuse the pun, bottom of the descent. A round concrete stump about 4 foot high with a brass plate affixed to its top declares that this is the plug to the Bottom Shaft of the Wheal Sally mine. No buxom bar wench. A mine named Sally. It is curious that this area is full of mines with girls names. I have currently found no explanation for this.
The area all around St Agnes is littered in old mine shafts, some plugged, others covered by strange round open frames, these are to allow bats, that now colonize the old shafts, access. It is useful to know some of the terminology that is used on the OS Maps and in local names in connection with the old mining industry. The word 'wheal' is attached to many mines and appears synonymous with the word 'mine' but is, in fact, a Cornish term for 'place of work' and is not specific to a mine. An 'adit' is a horizontal tunnel that provides access to a mine from a hill or cliffside and used for drainage or the hauling of broken ore.
Close to point marked on the OS map as Tobban Horse, the path passes through a kissing gate and there are two alternatives paths, either side of a large chimney, The chimney was part of the tin and copper mines known as Wheal Sterran and Wheal Tye. The paths join back up on the far side of the chimney before winding their way down a slope onto the coastal community of Porthtowan whose name means a landing place between the sand dunes. The village history is intertwined with the mining industry and there is a restored engine house, now a private residence, amongst the more modern buildings that nestle in this cove. Today the trade is tourism that takes advantage of the wide sandy beach.
Returning to the cliff tops above Porthtowan, the landscape continues with heather covered heath and the remains of the mining industry. The path diverges here with one track to the landward side of the heather and the other to the cliff side of the heather and there is no marker as to the official coast path route although both appear to end up by the distinctive stone walled structure with an arched opening. This was part of the engine house to the copper producing Great Wheal Charlotte mine which closed in the mid 1800s. The structure, on first sight, looks to be an impressive building but it is merely the remaining 'bob wall' to the former engine house. A bob wall is the wall that the large metal beam, locally known as a bob, would pivot, and this would connect the engine to the pump to keep the mine dry. These bobs were heavy and as such a thick wall was needed to hold them which makes this remnant appear more like the ruins of a whole building rather than a single wall.
The path follows around to the coast side of the bob-wall, with stone cairns leading the way, before it turns with the coast and leads down to Chapel Porth via a steady slope into the cove. At the bottom is a beach, a cafe, toilets and a car park all of which is owned by the National Trust. The name of this cove comes from a mediaeval chapel and Holy Well located on the northern cliffs that overlook the cove. There is nothing left of either the chapel or the well, the stone being removed to be reused in other buildings with the chapel gone by 1780 and the well lasting until 1820. The cove does still have a link to the past with the so called 'Bolster Day' which takes place during April and culminating in a re-enactment of the slaying of the Cornish giant Bolster by the young St Agnes on 1st May each year. The full tale of the legend of the giant named Bolster can be found in the features to this walk.
Not far along the cliffs from Chapel Porth is the most impressive former mine structure along this whole section. This 3-story stone building with a chimney at its side is the Towanroath Pumping Engine House built in 1872. This was part of the Wheal Coates tin mine and was used to pump water out of the 600ft deep Towanroath shaft adjacent to the engine house.
The path now winds its way around the National Trust areas of St Agnes Head and Newdowns Head before descending into Trevaunnance cove with its beach, harbour and caves making it the coastal resort to the town of St Agnes which lies just inland. For the real ale enthusiast, there is the Driftwood Spars pub which brew their own ales in a building located just across the road. This is an excellent place to stopoff whether one is a real ale aficionado or not.
It is then over the hill to Trevellas Porth, also known as the Blue Hills due to the colour of the slate found here, descending down on a broad path and through a metal double gate with 'The Motor Cycling Club' emblazoned within its metalwork. It is true that this track is used for hill climbing events for both cars and motor cycles. The remains of chimneys and engine houses can still be seen as testament to the centuries of tin mining that have been undertaken in the valley that is known as Trevellas Coombe.
The final section of this walk continues along the cliffs to Cligga Head, the former site of an open cast tin and tungsten mine. This looks particularly barren with the grey/white earth bearing little in vegetation and remnants of the mining operation littering the landscape. An old settling tank is daubed in more tasteless graffiti. More bat friendly shaft covers. Crumbling stone structures. Arches that lead into forgotten buildings, some ensconced in earth as if they once stood underground. The trail leads through this but it is indeterminate from the numerous paths that meander around the ruins. Keep to the coastal side which will eventually round Cligga Head and then continue along the steeply sloping cliffside through to Perranpoth.
The South West Coast Path is clearly marked with the usual acorn markers of a national trail
The route follows the coast with the majority of the path across the heather covered cliff tops. There are some steep descents and climbs but these all have steps in place at the steepest points. The distinctive acorn emblem waymarkers depict the route and, in most cases, are well placed and definitive. There are, however, a few points to note where either the correct path is ambiguous or diverts from the OS map depiction. Always follow the waymarkers in preference to the OS Map as cliff falls often result in a diverted route. Never stray from the coast path where possible. Below are detailed the ambiguities and diversions encountered on this occasion.
Leading out of Portreath from the harbour the route climbs up Lighthouse Hill. The OS map indicates the path heading to the daymark above the harbour but this route has been diverted to following the road through to just beyond the car park at the top of the hill before re-joining the original route.
At Tobban Horse the path passes through a kissing gate where there are two paths heading to either side of the old mine chimney. Take the path on the landward side although it would appear the alternative links back beyond the chimney.
Beyond Porthtowan the path returns to the heather covered heath where eventually there it diverges into two paths, one to the landward side of the heather and one to the cliffward side. There is no waymarker but both appear to meet back up at the ruins of the Wheal Charlotte mine engine house. Where they rejoin, keep to the cliff side of the engine house and follow the path marked by the stone cairns.
At Cligga Head, the landscape becomes white and grey from the former open cast mining that existed here. There are numerous tracks and paths across this and it is easy to take the wrong path. Keep to the coastline and head for the path that continues along the sloping cliffside beyond these working, where waymarkers confirm that you are on the correct route.
Driftwood Spars, St. Agnes View in OS Map | View in Google Map
- Trevaunance Cove, St. Agnes
The name of 'Spars' is a reference to the large wooden beams which are locally known as spars which are the main infrastructure to the building. These are said to have been salvaged from shipwrecks when the building was built in the 1650's to be used as a tin mining warehouse. With many changes of use since its inception, including a chandlery (candle making), sail making loft and a fish cellar, it became a hotel with a bar in the early 1900’s and then an inn in the 1940’s.
Food, accommodation and a venue for events make this superb old building worth visiting and for the ale enthusiast it is a small wonder with its own microbrewery housed in a building opposite the pub. There is always a range of their own award wining brews as well as guest ales from local breweries.
What a find this pub was. Such a lovely old building full of nooks and crannies and everything one would expect from a Cornish cove pub, plus they brew their own ale. Faced with the decision of what one of their 3 inviting ales to sample, the welcoming bar lady suggested having a 'flight'. This was a wooden receptacle that contained three 1/3 pint glasses thus providing a sample of all three offerings. Everyone of them was well worth tasting. Bawden Rocks was a thirst quenching session bitter, Admiral minstrel was a golden ale with hints of citrus and finally, there was the more powerful and darker Badlands which went down a real treat but was probably not a pint for when strenuous walking is to be undertaken. A place one could stay for a few hours if there want more walking to complete.
Tywarnhayle Inn, Perranporth View in OS Map | View in Google Map
- Tywarnhayle Square, Perranporth
A family run pub in the centre of Perranporth offering the usual pub food a range of ales
A clean an friendly family pub adjacent to the beach. It is always good to find Skinners ale on offer at a pub and on this occasion, nestled between the usual Doom Bar and Tribute pumps was none other than Skinners High Tyde, a refreshing 4.5% pale ale that is a worthy reward to an end of this walk. According to their Facebook page, this brew is made specifically for the Tywarnhayle Inn.
The Giant BolsterView in OS Map | View in Google Map
There is a Cornish legend that is told in the area around St Agnes that concerns a Cornish Giant by the name of Bolster. The tale of Bolsters downfall appears in many books about Cornwall and on innumerable websites, the account being pretty much the same in all cases. A brief summary, which is based on the tale as described in Robert Hunts 1908 book, Popular romances of the west of England, is as follows:
In the area of St Agnes dwelt a huge giant by the name of bolster. It is said that Bolster could stand with one foot on St Agnes' Beacon, the hill that stands just inland between Chapel Porth and St Agnes Head, and the other on Carn Brea, a hill to the south of Redruth. This was a distance of six miles which would put his height at something like 12 miles. Bolster was a large chap by all accounts. A stone still rests on the northern side of Chapel Porth, just below the site of the ancient holy well (map ref SW698497) which contains foot like impression on its surface which is said to be that of Bolsters foot.
Bolster had a wife for whom he was a tyrannical task master, ordering her to carry stones from the foot of St Agnes Beacon to the summit. Even today there are stone cairns atop of the beacon which are said to be the efforts of Bolsters wife, forced to carry them there in her apron whenever Bolsters temper flared. It is also worth noting that the farmstead below is void of stones which is unusual for this area which is littered with rock and stones.
It is said that the saintly St Agnes was a beautiful young woman and her beauty certainly attracted the attention of Bolster when she arrived in the area. He became infatuated with her, so much so that he incessantly followed after her, proclaiming his love and filling the air with the tempests of his lovestruck sighs and groans. However Agnes was a woman of virtue and shunned his advances and lectured Bolster on the impropriety of his conduct as he was already married. But all of this was in vain to the besotted Bolster.
Eventually Agnes came up with a plan to rid her of this menace. She decide to set a task for Bolster to prove his love for her. At Chapel Porth there was a hole in the cliff at the head of the valley. She set the challenge to Bolster saying that if he could fill this hole with his blood then she would fall for his advances. Consequently, Bolster set about proving this, stretching his great arm across the hole and then stabbing a knife into his pulsing vein to issue forth a torrent of blood which fell into the hole. At first he expected the hole to fill within minutes, but time went on. The blood poured, disappearing into the void of the hole. The minutes turned to an hour and still his blood flowed. The hour turned into many hours until eventually the giant passed out from exhaustion, falling to the ground and unable to staunch the wound. It was not long before he was dead. Agnes' scheme had worked, for what she knew and the giant did not, was that the hole led to an opening at the bottom into the sea, and as rapidly as the blood flowed into the hole, that it ran from it to the sea.
Thus the lady got rid of her hated admirer; Mrs Bolster was released, and the district freed from the presence of a tyrant. The hole at Chapel Forth still retains the evidences of the truth of this tradition, in the red stain which marks the track down which flowed the giant's blood.
It is uncertain where or when this tale originated. St Agnes was a Roman, born in AD291, descended from noble ancestors, and said to be exceedingly beautiful both in body and mind, and ardently attached to the Christian cause. She refused to marry a son of Sempronius, a governor of Rome and member of the Sempronia family and because of this and her steadfast devoutness to the Christian faith, she was martyred, on 21 January AD304 at the tender age of just twelve or thirteen. There is no evidence to determine that she ever came to Cornwall.
Also, it should be noted that the district of St Agnes in Cornwall did not exist until the middle ages. A church dedicated to St Agnes was formed in 1482 although a Celtic chapel was said to exist on this site from as early as 410AD. Some old sources refer to the district of St Agnes as St Anns or St Enns (Ref 4) although this is thought to merely be a pronunciation in the area to distinguish it from the parish of the same name in Scilly.
The same story also appears an earlier book, The history of Cornwall by Fortescue Hitchins, published in 1824. In this account, which is credited to an even earlier reference by a landowner named Mr Tonkin, St Agnes' appearance in Cornwall is accounted for:
...St. Agnes escaped from her persecutors at Rome, found means to reach Cornwall and landed near Perranarwothal. Travelling from thence to the parish now known by her name, she was sorely tempted by the devil ; and on turning to rebuke him, he was several times turned into a stone, from which he contrived to escape, leaving a moorstone in his place; which stones are still to be seen about a quarter of a mile asunder, in a straight line on the open downs.
It is thought that the Mr Tonkin, to whom this account is credited, was Thomas Tonkin (1678–1742), a Cornish landowner and historian who proposed publishing a history of Cornwall. Although this was never printed, a subsequent publication in 1811, Carew's Survey of Cornwall, made use of his original manuscripts.
The story from 'The History of Cornwall' continues along the same lines as the later versions, although in this rendition Bolster does not appear to have a wife and it is Agnes who is forced to carry the stones to the top of the hill.
On reaching her parish, she was compelled by the giant Bolster to pick all the stones off his estate, which was enclosed within the entrenchment. This was accordingly done by her, and taken in her apron at three times, and earned to the summit of the hill where they still remain, forming the three barrows that are ascribed by common mortals to less miraculous causes. Having accomplished this work, the giant next attempted to seduce her; and she pretended to comply with his wishes, upon condition that he would fill a hole that she should point out, with his blood. Accepting of this condition; she led him towards the cliff, and pointed out a hole, which, though to him unknown, actually opened to the sea below. At this hole he bled himself to death, when she tumbled him over the precipice. Being now in full possession of the district, she built a chapel near a well of most excellent water, the pavement of which she dyed with her own blood. This well possessed most miraculous virtues, and was formerly a place of great resort ; but its reputation is now no more.
Other accounts in more modern books and online references try to account for St Agnes presence in Cornwall by stating that she was a missionary although there is nothing to back this claim up. If it was the case that she managed to get to Cornwall then in just twelve years of life she was brought up in Rome, hot footed it to Cornwall, defeated a feared giant, built a chapel then got back to Rome in time for her martyrdom. This would have been some life story for a 12 year old.
Despite there being no evidence of Agnes arriving in Cornwall, there are claims that the Romans did occupy the area, Nathaniel Spencer's 1772 publication The complete English traveller states, in reference to the parish of St Agnes:
As a proof that the Romans were in possession of Cornwall, there is in this parish a camp or entrenchment, near which was lately found a gold coin of the emperor Valentinian (Flavius Valentinianus Augustus AD321 – AD375, also known as Valentinian the Great, Roman emperor from 364 to 375), the inscription on which is perfectly legible.
The entrenchment this refers to and which is also referred to in the Tonkin quote, is an earthwork that is locally known as Bolster Bank, which is thought to have once surrounded St Agnes Beacon, passing from Chapel Porth through the centre of St Agnes village and down towards Trevaunance Cove. The only remaining accessible section runs across Bolster Farm and rises to a height of 3.4m above a 1m deep ditch. (Ref 7) This quote appears to assume it was of Roman construction based on the fact that a single Roman coin was found here. Even as late as the late 19th and early 20th century, the OS maps mark this as a Roman Dyke. Present day thought is inconclusive with various interpretations from a prehistoric boundary marker (Ref 8) through to a medieval construction although the idea of it being Roman appears to be largely fallen out of favour (Ref 9).
There are more revelations to come from this 1772 reference:
This (the entrenchment) has been a work of great labour, and the country people, who are ignorant in history, say it was built by a giant, called Bolster, where he kept his residence, and devoured the inhabitants, but at last was overcome and slain by Corineus.
This is the first identified recording that it was not St Agnes but Corineus who slay the giant Bolster. Corineus was said to have been a warrior during the period of the trojan wars, and who later accompanied Brutus (after whom Britain is named) to Britain some time around 1100BC. It is said that Corineus settled in the west of England and the county of Cornwall was derived from his name. Legend states that at this time the land was inhabited by giants which were defeated by Brutus with the arguably more familiar giant of Gogmagog being defeated at Plymouth by Corineus. Such legends and times are certainly more in keeping with the story of Bolster than a more modern Roman setting.
Maybe we could speculate that the original legend was indeed attributed to Corineus being the slayer of Bolster and when Christianity arrived in the country the legend was adopted with St Agnes substituted as the Christian saviour to the tale. This should not come as a surprise since it is considered that the early Christian churches adopted many elements of national cult and folk religion (Ref 12).
Below is the route depicted on the OpenStreetMap, Ordnance Survey Map and Google Map. Links to full page versions are found in the Essential Information
Summary of Document Changes
Last Updated: ... 2017-02-05