Steps. They go up and up out of Trevaunance cove and with each twist in direction I had to stop; my legs were heavy and my lungs wouldn’t fill up enough. We’d walked barely a mile and I was exhausted. Man Flu: guaranteed to slow you up and bring you down. Our original plan of a 9 mile walk to Portreath would have to wait, so we devised an easier 6 mile circular route from St Agnes instead.
I hate letting people down and my grim determination to walk even a few miles was against my better judgement: I should have stayed in bed.
There were 3 measly miles of coast path on this walk and my boots were filled with lead and disappointment, but for the first time in days we had a big blue sky and no gales.
It was one of those crisp, clear winter’s mornings that are as precious as a balmy summer’s day: perfect walking weather.
At the top of Trevaunance a broad view opened wide like the wings of a gull hanging on the breeze and the 9 mile section we hiked from Holywell Bay the previous week stretched way back to the horizon. I was filled with awe. 9 miles is just 9 miles, but when you’ve walked as far as you can see you become acutely aware of looking at a journey, not just the landscape, impressive as it was. But this privileged backwards look would soon be gone: storm clouds were gathering.
I don’t remember much of the walk along the cliff as I followed Katie and her dogs; a mind befuddled with virus and over-familiarity easily switches off, but the sea looked churned and thick, like one of my failed attempts at making soup, smeared with large dark grey streaks. They could have been seaweed or rocks, or the shadows of brewing clouds. We didn’t know.
Newdowns Head juts into the sea, exposed and wild, and as the path swung round onto it our chat abruptly stopped. My legs crumpled beneath me and I fell into pillows of soft heather and bracken, swept off my feet by the wind, an enemy ambush hiding low in wait for us. Horizontal rain lashed our faces and we were utterly bewildered; where had this bitter onslaught come from? It disappeared behind us as quickly as it came, but the skies ahead were getting decidedly more ominous.
The path widens as it approaches Towanroath Pumping Engine House, undoubtedly Cornwall’s most iconic mining edifice. Perched close to the edge of the cliff, defying its vulnerable position for more than a century, the distinctive chimney stack and gaping windows feature in just about every calendar and guide to Cornwall there is. It’s always silhouetted against the setting sun or sparkling summer waves, but with the dark clouds tumbling in behind it that day it looked harsh and brooding.
The beach at Chapel Porth is just down the cliffs. At low tide there’s a grand sweep of golden sand and in the summer it seems to stretch to the horizon under an endless sky, revealing caves and rock-pools to explore along the bottom of the red-stained cliffs. At high tide in winter it’s a different story.
The beach disappears under threatening waves that crash in with the full brunt of Atlantic storms and as we walked down l prattled on about a dead whale that was washed up a few years before.
I’d photographed it a number of times and was unashamedly struck by the surreal sight of blubber dripping off the skeleton. I described to Katie how enormous it was (it took up the full width of the beach), so big that it was eventually transported away for incineration on the back of a low loader, loaded on to it with cranes.
Luckily for Katie the National Trust beach cafe was in view and my addled head quickly turned to thoughts of hot chocolate and the temptation of ginger cake. We shared a slice, which the vendor cut into three even though he could see there were only two of us. Weird, we thought.
The cafe was bustling with walkers and the stone shelter was full, so we sat at a picnic table round the back and got stuck in. A strong gust of wind whipped up and lifted the paper plate clear out of view, along with the 3rd slice of cake. Winnie, Katie’s ever hopeful Labrador, lumbered towards it with enthusiasm, but returned with that disappointed dog look when he couldn’t find it. A slice for Katie, one for me and one for the wind.
We hiked back up to the village along the valley at Chapel Combe, up along stony paths rutted and gullied with torrential rain, past another derelict engine house (part of Wheal Charlotte), that was surrounded by thickets of brambles and into woodland. There were a couple of old cottages along the track and a bog garden that looked like it was inhabited by aliens; the black decomposing leaves of Gunnera, otherwise known as ‘giant rhubarb’, hid the surface. The dogs bounded in and a group of teenagers stopped to watch them. “Imagine if they really were aliens!”, one of them said.
We left them for home, and hoped they weren’t eaten alive.
Towanroath pumping engine house is part of Wheal Coates mining complex, which is cared for by The National Trust and part of the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site. While you’re on the cliffs take a minute to drop a few stones down the grill beside the engine house to get a sense of how deep Towanroath Shaft is – 600′ is a long way! It’s worth a climb up the cliffs to see the rest of the buildings too, which all date from the 1870’s.
The mine worked a seam of tin that runs out under the sea and early records show a mine on the site from 1692, but the fortunes of Wheal Coates waxed and waned with the price of tin, as well as the problems of flooding and getting the ore to the surface.
138 people were employed during its most prosperous period, but the romance of the setting belies what it really was: an imposing, noisy industrial site with bleak and dangerous working conditions, which are brought home when you stand there in freezing gale force winds and driving rain.