Inspirational Trails 24: St Agnes, Cornwall
Written By: Rob Pooley
In part 24 of our Inspirational Trails series, trail runner Rob Pooley describes his first experience of running on the north coast of Cornwall.
The north coast of Cornwall is a truly rugged and beautiful section of coastal path. Offering turquoise waters, heritage, stunning panoramic views and plenty of elevation. Decorated with the remains of Cornwall’s bygone golden mining era nestled amongst secluded coves and golden beaches. This coastline never fails to inspire, no matter the weather or time of day.
Arguably one of the greatest jewels in this coastal crown is Wheal Coates. I often tell people it must be one of the most photographed tin mines in the world. I have captured it so many times from multiple locations, but still it entices me to take another picture whenever I run past. The present mine was opened in 1802 and the underground operations were carried out some distance under the sea. It stayed operational until 1889 when the price of tin fell and it was no longer viable to remain open.
I first discovered the south west coast path when I was teenager taking part in the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme. Having grown up in the mining heartlands of Cornwall I never knew or contemplated that you could walk, let alone run, around the coast of our county. I still remember seeing that tropical blue water just off the terra firma of the Lizard peninsula and thinking I never knew this existed on my own doorstep. Those days felt tough, walking for hours with a loaded backpack. Many a time I questioned my decision in taking part, was I really enjoying it? and when finished I often said never again. I could never have imagined that over twenty years later I would be running on these trails.
Photo credit: https://unsplash.com/photos/8Dl0QDRQr0s
I stumbled into the running world by accident and mainly thanks to a leaking sports hall roof. Being unable to play indoor football and feeling rather unfit, I needed to do something. That something came in the form of finding a pair of bright yellow Nike running trainers in TK Maxx in Somerset. I managed just over a mile that first run and half of that was downhill, but it still felt like an achievement. Suddenly my mind was full of challenges - How far I could run? How fast could I run? Where can I run? Running loops around the local town was fine to begin with but hardly inspiring. Those sessions served their purpose and prepared me to complete my first half marathon in memory of my late daughter. From there I felt I needed something different, something more challenging. I was tired of looking at concrete and tarmac, but what else was there? It was at another 10K race that a fellow runner asked me where I was from. As soon as I mentioned Cornwall, he commented about how brilliant it was to run on the coastal path and mining trails during his holiday. I wondered why I never thought of this before, those beautiful views and calming sounds - it set off an explosion of ideas and plans in my mind.
My nearest coastline is the north coast of Cornwall, which I later discovered offers some of the toughest elevation and terrain in the county. It was definitely a culture change from the relatively flat road miles I was more accustomed with. Huge steps, long inclines and uneven surfaces - this forced me to now measure my effort by intensity, rather than by minutes per mile, which is probably one the greatest lessons anyone can learn when taking part in a form of physical activity.
Photo credit: Rob Pooley
Now that I was venturing onto the coastal path there was one place I longed to explore. I didn’t know its name or where in Cornwall it was situated, I had only seen the images. Thanks to the wonder of the internet, I discovered that this mystery location was called Wheal Coates and situated on the north coast near St. Agnes. Ironically, it was only a short journey from where I live and I couldn’t believe my ignorance or lack of local knowledge. Now armed with information and enthusiasm I set about making plans to visit.
It was late summer and I can still vividly picture that evening sky, golden in colour, as I set off from Chapel Porth car park. I wasn’t overly confident of the route but worked on the theory that I needed to keep the sea on my left-hand side. From the car park you are immediately greeted with a switchback style climb to meet the coastal footpath. One of the first things to grab my attention was the construction of this coastal area. The rocks and stones were far looser than I had previously seen in other regions. Later these changes in the structure of the coastal path fascinated me the more I ran. I just presumed it was all made up of the same type of terrain, but how wrong was I to think such a thing.
As I made my way towards my goal of finding Wheal Coates, I was surprised by the tangled network of smaller paths forking off in various directions. Was I heading on the correct path? I just used my now time-honoured method of following the widest path and keeping a keen eye out for signs with an acorn symbol. Finally, as I turned round a corner, I could see the mine in the distance. Standing proudly on the edge of the path facing out towards the sea, surrounded by a golden swathe of gorse. As I drew closer, my eye was drawn to the gentle waves lapping against the soft yellow sandy beach below. Pausing for a moment I spotted several surfers out at sea enjoying the late evening swell. Also, ideally placed was an old wooden bench, offering the perfect spot to sit and watch the world go by for a few precious moments. I often compare these benches on the coastal path to benches inside art galleries or museums. They both offer people the chance to pause for a moment and really appreciate the beauty of nature.
As I gently made my way closer to the mine, the ground became slightly less uneven and allowed the opportunity to focus on the views rather than where I needed to place my feet. I slowed my pace before grinding to a halt, mainly to appreciate this wonderous marvel of man-made construction. Built over two hundred years ago, long before modern machinery and cutting-edge technologies. Now outdated, but preserved as a tribute to the hard work and ingenuity of that golden generation.
I took out my camera to take my first photograph of the mine. Since that day I have probably taken hundreds of pictures from most conceivable angles. Still, I know on my next trip I will take another, perhaps from a slightly different location or when the sky turns a different colour. During my brief pause, I decided to climb and explore the building, whilst still being mildly concerned about finding a mineshaft and falling to my doom. It was during this moment that I realised just how sore my feet were. I needed to get some proper trail shoes I thought - road shoes just aren’t designed for coastal paths!
Photo credit: Rob Pooley
After the fun of exploring, I needed to find my way back to Chapel Porth. I feel there is little joy in running straight back the same way you’ve just been, so instead I followed the path that led upwards and behind the mine. It provides a nice amount of elevation in a small distance and certainly had my lungs working by the top. At the highest point you’re treated to a wonderful view looking down to the mine and all across the north coast of Cornwall. It always seems like a good reason to pause for a moment to capture an image and also to catch my breath.
The coast sprawls out to sea as far as the eye can see and I tried to make out other landmarks. First, seeing if I could spot Porthtowan, then Portreath and Godrevy lighthouse. With the sun slowly setting on the horizon, it almost seemed as if the sky was on fire as I headed directly towards it and back to my car. The trail running above the actual coastal path is more undulating but no less spectacular.
Finally, I began to descend towards Chapel Porth, but as usual, before I turned down towards the car, I made a small detour. Directly opposite there is a large rock which stands proudly at the edge of the cliff. After a slight scramble I reached the top and suddenly the strength of the wind became noticeable. I was aware of just how high and exposed this rock is and conscious of the sharp drop into the sea. But then the view became overwhelmingly distracting; golden beaches, the calm blue sea blending perfectly with the clear blue sky on the distant horizon. Dispelling the myth that these types of sights are only seen on the pages of holiday brochures. Perhaps somewhere far away and exotic, but not somewhere just over ten miles from my front door.
It was now time to slowly creep back down off this rock and back to the trusty coast path to make the short journey down to my car. My main focus on the last part of this route is normally what to sample from the fantastic nearby café. My two favourite post-run treats from here are either a delicious coffee or the renowned hedgehog ice cream. Not made from actual hedgehog of course, but a combination of ice cream, clotted cream and mixed nuts - what a perfect way to refuel after that exercise!
Sitting down on the wall I enjoy my little treat whilst watching the last few people enjoying a late dip in the cool water below. With the sounds of the sea for company I reflect on this amazing part of the world that I’m lucky enough to both explore and live.
The south west coastal path is six hundred and thirty miles long and offers some of the greatest views and journeys in Britain. However, Wheal Coates and the St. Agnes heritage coast will always be my favourite and most inspiring place to exercise and explore.
You can follow Rob and all his running adventures here.