Coastlining 22: Portreath – Perranporth

Date: Monday 9th June 2014     Distance walked: 12 miles      Total distance: 208 miles

Portreath Beach
Portreath Beach and Gull Rock

I’m running out of words to describe the blue of the sea. Azure. Sapphire. Lapis. Not sure. Check the Pantone chart and it’ll insist it’s Mediterranean Blue. Clearly they’ve never been to Cornwall in fine weather. Arriving at Portreath this morning I could have been at a completely different place – country, even – from where Annie and I left the coast in spotting rain late yesterday afternoon. Except the proprietors of the local shop remembered me. Back again? How far this time, all the way to Porthtowan? It’s a tough walk… (I didn’t like to tell them that I was actually headed all the way to Perran.) With that in mind Annie dropped me at Portreath with the plan to leave her car at Perranporth and meet me at Porthtowan so as to cut out some of the harder going path at the start of the day. Confused by all the P-names yet? Well, pay attention! Porth, like ‘port’ means harbour, but is also used for cove as in Porth Treth (Portreath), ‘sandy cove’. Thus Porthtowan is ‘cove of sand dunes’, as in the towans of Hayle Towans, Upton Towans and Gwithian Towans I passed through yesterday. Perranporth derives from St Piran, whose name is often spelled Perran or Peran, particularly in place names, like Perranuthnoe.

Initially I found myself starting off on the wrong side of Portreath harbour, which rigidly canalises the exit of the river into a hard engineered rectangular basin. I backtracked along the road only to find the point where the coast path leaves the village diverted up another road due to recent cliff falls. It was hot work and a steep climb. It wasn’t long though, with the road diversion and the original line of the path nearly converging at the top of the hill where I found myself looking down into the crescent of Gooden Heane Cove far below, jewel toned in the sunshine.

I soon came to the first of the reasons why this section of path is designated strenuous where a deep downward wedge cleft into the coast and the path descended sharply. A wiggly line of steps ascended almost immediately on the other side, the grass on either side of the slope lined with alternative paths where people had obviously decided to attempt an easier route. A runner was jostling to overtake. I let him. Once up the path was pretty straight and narrow, running between the thrift line of the cliff brink and a ring mesh fence enclosing the Remote Radar Head and Chemical Defence Establishment at Nancekuke. The fence line ran right along the coast almost all the way to Porthtowan, enclosing both the military land and several disused quarries that pitted the landscape. Though much is now recolonised with the local scrub and clifftop heath there are telltale lumps and bumps, ruined remains of derelict service buildings, and, like at the comically named Sally’s Bottom, the remaining dam bank visible just upslope from the ring-fence, the stream trickling down to the cove at the – literal – bottom. Beyond were more mining remains, something that would become a pattern for the day. Signs with comedy infographics warned of hidden mine shafts, some obviously cordoned off with wooden fencing, others covered over with a more organic approach that used conical withy structures like Chinese hats covering the opening which encouraged the vegetation of the surrounding heath to over-grow. Here the heathers weren’t much in flower, giving the appearance of a clifftop covering of macro-scaled mosses in springy tumps, interwoven with prickles of stunty gorse, bilberry and wild roses with single layers of white petals and tiny pinnate sprays of serrated leaves.

And soon enough I was walking down the residential road of West Cliff at Porthtowan. Mostly beach, a few houses, holiday homes, a pub and a bar, Porthtowan is a surfy respite in a section coast pocked with industrial scars. I spotted Annie and Luna waving from a red taxi. We made time for a quick drink at Blue Bar then set off up the other side of the valley and back into North Cornwall’s mining country. Two differing, yet both very Cornish sides to the landscape in close juxtaposition: the surfing, beach and holiday side, people walking around in flipflops no matter what the time of year, and the recovering despoil of the industrial aftermath, bleak cliffs, silhouettes of engine houses on the skyline, a scratchy carpet of heath regaining a footing on mineral-reddened soils. Annie derided my taking of photographs as we passed through the heath-spoil of Wheal Charlotte Moor, but Cornwall’s industrial heritage is such an influential part of its story, such an integral part of its sense of place that to ignore it, or to acknowledge only the aesthetically acceptable parts of it, is to do a great disservice to the land, its character, its history. I can’t pretend it’s not there, or that it’s nicer than it is. In all fairness it is a whole lot nicer than it has been historically. So much effort, money and time have gone into landscape and environmental restoration in the past twenty or so years that the general environmental quality of parts of this coastline – particularly the section we were exploring today – has been vastly improved.

The tide was in at Chapel Porth, leaving disappointingly little visible of its famous beach at the bottom of the coombe. From the top of the cliff the lifeguards’ truck and boards and the handful of surfers looks like toys down below. We missed the ruined remains of its namesake chapel but were compensated by the prolific – and for Annie, more picturesque – mining ruins up ahead. Perched on the edge of the cliffs the three engine houses are some of the most frequently photographed in Cornwall. Rather like the Crowns Engine Houses at Botallack their coastal setting renders them quaint and romantic.

2014.06.09 (17) Wheal Coates
Towanroath Engine House, Wheal Coates

Many of the mines between Porthtowan and St Agnes were worked for copper, but cassiterite, or tin oxide was specifically sought at Wheal Coates. The mine here opened in 1802, finally closing in 1913 when tin production was becoming too sporadic. The Towanroath Engine House that sits right on the path pumped water from the 600ft shaft allowing mineral extraction below sea level. Further upslope are the winding (for getting people up and down the shafts) and stamps engine houses, and the remains of a calciner that was added later to burn off impurities such as arsenic from the ore. The background levels of arsenic in the rocks in this area are actually higher than EU limits for arsenic contamination. That, and the profusion of other toxic elements being generally disturbed by the miners at work, is why Cornish pasties are always crimped at the edge. You can hold the pasty by the crust and eat the good stuff out the middle without having to worry about touching the food you’re about to consume with hands covered in poisonous dirt.

Annie and I decided we wouldn’t stop for lunch until we found a good place to sit. We ended up walking up to St Agnes Head before we found a bench. The legend of St Agnes tells that she was a local holy woman with whom the giant Bolster was in love. She bested the giant by telling him that if he could fill up a small hole in the cliff with his own blood she would marry him. Bolster agreed, thinking it a simple task for someone as huge as he was, so he cut open his arm and set to it. What he didn’t know was that the hole in the cliff led to a crack that led to a sea cave. However much blood he let into the hole it never seemed to get any fuller. By the time Bolster realised he’d been tricked he had lost so much blood that he never recovered and died. To this day the cliffs around St Agnes are stained red. We could see from where we sat the bold colours of the rock face further up the coast.

After running northwards since Porthtowan the coastline turns eastwards at St Agnes Head. The town of St Agnes itself is just inland from the coast, spreading down the valley to Trevaunance Cove whose shoreline, like that of Chapel Porth, looked unimpressive at high water but I believe there’s a sizeable sandy beach when the tide retreats. However, before we got that far Annie trod on a stone in the path and turned her ankle. Her ankle was fine, but it jarred her hip joint to the point that, like me when I stubbed my toe, she had to sit down and swear for a bit until it eased off. We had a bit of a rest in a conveniently placed public garden when we got to Trevaunace Cove, and Annie decided to brave it and carry on. In hindsight she probably should have stopped there, but in all fairness she did tell me it wasn’t hurting that badly and would probably ease off if she kept moving.

We made it over the next hill within sight of Trevellas Coombe. Annie’s heart audibly sank at the sight of the white path winding its way up the opposing slope. We can take it easy I said, it’s quite a gentle gradient if we take the longer path. And look – I opened the map to point out our route ahead – once we’re up the other side this is the last valley we’ll have to cross between here and Perran. It’s going to be fairly steady going after this, I mean it’s not going to be flat, and we will be going through more mining areas so the paths will probably be quite stony but there won’t be any major descents and ascents. We stopped for a respite on the downward slope. I suggested if her hip was hurting that much that maybe she should stop here, phone the taxi and I’d carry on and meet her back in Perranporth. Annie was in favour of getting up the other side of Trevellas Coombe and seeing how she felt, until I pointed out that if she did that, there’d be further to walk to a suitable point to get picked up if she didn’t feel she could continue as we’d be much further away from any access to a road. Luna was looking a bit tired too – every time we stopped for a rest she’d lie down – so I left the two of them on the corner of the road having managed to get hold of the same taxi that had dropped the two of them off this morning. One more walking companion injured off, I thought, as I headed off down the coombe and up the slope.

Trevellas Coombe

The final part of the walk had a slightly surreal and other-worldly feel to it. I might have been walking through more mine-scarred landscapes but whether it was because I was alone again, or saw very few people as I made my way up to Cligga Head, or because rather than walking around the edge of the scenes of devastation this section of the path led me in and around and through I don’t know. Climbing up round the edge of Cross Coombe from Trevellas I made my way along the multi-coloured cliffs that we’d seen from St Agnes Head. Up close it was like paint had been spilled on the rock then scrubbed away, leaving heavy, earthy stains. The red ranged from an ochre orange to a brick-dust hue, vermillion and a deep, dried-blood colour that no doubt gave credence to the Bolster legend. White scours like chalk scrapes or guano – which it wasn’t. Vibrant blue-green like verdigris – which it was, in a way, a copper mineral stain.

I continued round past Hanover Cove, the nicks, slips, sheers and shapes of the coast, both natural and man-made or man-aided, intriguing to the eye but impossible to photograph. Then I passed through a scene so devoid of colours after the mineral rainbow I’d just encountered that it felt like real life had been desaturated. Rock dust and stone chips clothed the ground. Bit of man-made cliff-face flanked the path. It felt like walking through a film set for a moon landing, something from Star Wars, or the wastelands of the Morannon. The skies had greyed over too, adding to the atmosphere of desolation.

I lost the official path as I emerged onto Cligga Head where a labyrinthine network of rough paths weaves in and out of the spoil-heath and processing-relic-strewn cliff top. The sea was ahead as well as to my left, the vista of Perran Sands spreading out beneath the feet of the cliff. White lines of waves moved inwards. Black dots bobbed about in the swell behind the breakline – surfers imitating seals. The clouds were darknening.

It was just starting to rain as I made it down to the town and rang Annie to see where she was. I found her in her car listening to an audio book and eating her way through her nut and raisin mix. As I got in the rain came down all the heavier. Just in time once again. Back at Annie’s flat we spent an evening quiet with fatigue. Luna tucked her nose into her paws and neither moved nor made a sound after we got in. We even had to wake her up to administer D-I-N-N-E-R.



[coastlining [′kōst‚līn·iŋ] – the process of obtaining data from which the coastline can be charted]

In the spring of 2014 I set out to walk the coast of Cornwall. I started at Plymouth, crossed the River Tamar, which separates Cornwall and Devon, and began walking west along the south coast of the most south-westerly peninsula of the British Isles, and then east along the north coast until, 300 miles later, I reached Marsland Mouth where a small river enters the Atlantic Ocean and I stepped back into Devon.
Why? Because it’s there. Because I am here. Because I can, and because I want to.
What will be gained from the expedition? Unquantifiable experiences, an unimaginable amount of mud on my boots, clothes and face, and probably several thousand photos of sea views, rocks and flowers.
Other than that, who knows? Watch this space.

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