I have been walking down and up the valley to Chapel Porth for over forty years. Not continually, of course, but at least once or twice a year and frequently more. Without question this gentle perambulation is my favourite in all the world. It offers dazzling light and dappled shade, cool stillness and bracing breezes. There are scenes of great beauty contrasted with lingering traces of man’s despoilation amongst the fields, woods, gardens, heaths and granite rocks. I don’t want to imagine the day when I am no longer able to navigate the rocky paths and boggy patches where countless springs cross the way. The valley has a the most extraordinary microclimate, allowing fuchsias, myrtles, gunnera and pittosporum to run riot, whilst native plants grow as if they were on steroids.
Until the late 19th Century, the lower end of Chapel Porth valley was dominated by tin mines. The valley floor was used for the processing of tin ore, powered by water from the fast-flowing stream. Even now the brutal scars of industrial activity are evident in the ruined engine houses and pointed grids protecting disused mineshafts. Where water rises from the mines it is often heavily tainted by rust from corroding iron ore deposits.
The walk begins at my sister’s house in Goonvrea Road. This modest little bungalow was built by my grandfather on a plot of land that overlooked my grandmother’s family home, across the fields at Presingoll Farm. Most cottages in St Agnes are fronted by a garden protected by a Cornish hedge. These are usually planted with an abundance of tender exotics such as lampranthus, osteospermum, senecio, anthemis and phlox. Untended since my grandmother passed away, my sister’s walls are now adorned with a naturalised mix of primroses, common dog violets and crocosmia. Having crossed with garden flowers, the primroses display a wide range of pretty flower colours from yellow to deep pink.
The off-road section of the walk begins just below a property named Lamorna. The large black and white ‘Tudorbethan’ house, built in the 1920s, once belonged to one of many great aunts. It then became a hotel before falling into disrepair. On the house’s foundations a steel, slate and glass box is being raised by the current owners. The only reminder of the fine old house is two magnificent umbrella pines. Hopefully they will go on to lend the new property some sense of place.
At first the path leads between high hedgerows and a procession of chocolate-box country cottages. No longer humble rural dwellings, most of these cosy properties have been updated to provide comfortable living for folk who appreciate the quiet life. There are at least two I would give my eye teeth to live in, not because of the houses themselves, but the opportunities their sheltered, sunny gardens offer for good gardening.
Whilst the family pack walked ahead, I stopped a while to listen to the bees browsing a profusion of blackthorn blossom. It’s all too easy to just keep going, chatting away and taking photographs, and not stop to listen.
A left turn takes us down to the tiny stream that flows down the Wheal Lawrence valley, as it’s properly known. Here the climate is exceptionally warm and sheltered, so much so that many plants have escaped from gardens and gone native. Myrtle, Luma apiculata, sprouts from walls, eventually producing cinnamon coloured trunks. Ghostly Fuchsia ‘Hawkshead’ romps down the streamside producing pure white flowers from arching stems of apple green foliage. An enormous clump of gunnera comes into view in a sunny clearing, the remnant of a garden long since abandoned.
Whatever the weather, cool, clear springs emerge from the left-hand slope, often making the footpath boggy as they cross into the densely shaded stream. These springs have been used for thousands of years by local people. Flint scrapers dating to 5,000 BC have been found in the field behind the spring recorded in the short video below.
A little further on, the countryside starts to open out into a landscape of heath and wind sculpted bushes and trees. Heather and gorse have formed a thick, prickly blanket over abandoned heaps of mining spoil.
The stream, now three feet wide, plunges deep under a cover of low trees, emerging further down the valley through thickets of bramble and water dropwort (Oenanthe crocata). In this icy-cold water my feet were washed clean of sand each time we came off the beach in summer, ready for the steep walk back to my grandparents’ house. In summer there are perky mounds of thrift (Armeria maritima) and orchids in abundance.
The valley in the late 19th century would have looked very different. Then it was a barren wasteland of rusty pools, mounds of mining spoil and ramshackle sheds presided over by the engine houses of Wheal Lawrence and Great Wheal Charlotte.
The walk ends at Chapel Porth, the scene of countless family days out. Apart from a sympathetic extension of the beach café and the corralling of the stream into a deep channel to prevent flooding, this tiny cove hasn’t changed in living memory. Beginning as a narrow, rocky gap between precipitous granite cliffs, the beach soon opens out into a magnificent expanse of golden sand, pounded by azure waves. In one direction one can pass directly beneath the stately engine house sitting over the Towanroath shaft, one of the most recognisable buildings in Cornwall. In the opposite direction, one can walk all the way along the beach to the village of Porthtowan provided the tide is out.
I like to end my walk down the valley with a ‘hedgehog’ from Robin’s cafe. This heart-attack inducing delectation is made from clotted cream ice cream, lagged in more clotted cream and then coated in honey-roast hazelnuts. A more recent invention, the ‘foxie’ is the same only covered in crumbled flapjack. Scrumptious.
Replete, it’s time to turn around and head back from whence we came. This time I stopped as often as I could to gather a posy of wildflowers. They are pictured below, arranged on my sister’s lawn. The bunch includes little treasures such as creeping blue milkwort (Polygala vulgaris) and pink-flowered brooklime (the amusingly named Veronica beccabunga)
My favourite walk is neither long nor strenuous, but it is imbued with forty years of happy memories; trotting alongside my grandma when I was child and now sharing the same route with my sister, neice, Him Indoors and our friends. In another forty years, I hope I will still be walking there, enjoying the same scenes and recounting a lifetime of happy memories.
Happy Easter one and all. TFG.
From left to right:
- Three-cornered leek, Allium triquetrum
- Common scurvy grass, Cochlearia officinalis
- Meadow buttercup, Ranunculus acris
- Milkwort, Polygala vulgaris
- Ribwort plantain, Plantago lanceolata
- Horsetail, Equisetum
- Herb Robert, Geranium robertianum
- Broad buckler fern, Dryopteris dilatata
- Pink brooklime, Veronica beccabunga
- Blackthorn, Prunus spinosa
- Yellow archangel, Lamiastrum galeobdolon subsp. argentatum
- Lady fern, Athyrium filix-femina
- Sea thrift, Armeria maritima
- Bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta
- Dog violet, Viola riviniana
- Celandine, Ficaria verna
- Cow parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris
- Red campion, Silene dioica