Once a busy harbour now a quiet beach
Portreath Parish Council
Portreath, situated on the north-west coast at the end of the B3300, is one of the most spectacular beauty spots in the county. The village nestles in a valley between high cliffs and has a secluded, sandy beach which is ideal for the family and for the more energetic water sports enthusiasts. The population of the village was 963 in the 2011 census.
The village has a very friendly atmosphere and caters for most needs of visitors whether holidaying in the area or touring whilst based in the village.
For the holidaymaker who prefers to keep to the local area there are many facilities to enjoy, including: the beautiful beach for swimming, surfing; windsurfing; fishing; the Coastal Footpath with unsurpassed breathtaking scenery; inland wooded and parkland walks where wild flowers and many species of birds abound. The Coast to Coast Trail starts in the village and ends at Devoran on the south coast providing an 11 mile safe cycling route.
Although Portreath is un-commercialised, the local amenities provide for all holiday and touring needs. There are large car parks; cafes and licensed restaurants; a good range of shops; four public houses; a garage; hotels and guest-houses; a wide selection of self-catering facilities; camping and caravan sites with good services.
The name Portreath (meaning "sandy cove") was first recorded in 1485 and tin streaming in the valley was recorded from 1602. Devon contractor Samuel Nott, was engaged to build the first quay in 1713 on the western side of the beach, near Amy's Point. The quay was destroyed by the sea before 1749 and the foundations are occasionally seen when the sea washes away the sand. The village also had a fishing fleet, mainly for pilchards, but now only a few boats still work from here.
It is hard to imagine the hustle and bustle that was Portreath 150 years ago or more. Ore wagons being winched down to the harbour, coasters bringing in coal and timber for the mines. The Portreath tramroad was in fact opened early in the 19th century, with horses providing the power not steam, to serve the Copper mines around Chacewater. The Redruth - Chacewater Railway was opened 1826, further aiding the growth of mining in the area.
Mount Wellington Mine was part of United Mines, a major copper producer which closed in the 1880's. Within 15 years of the opening of the tramroad the mines were approaching their heyday, employing tens of thousands of men women and children. However there then followed severe decline after the 1860 slump in the price of copper. With a growing population a church was built in 1827, the Portreath Hotel in 1856, the Methodist Chapel in 1858, The Basset Arms in 1878 and the School in 1880. A cholera outbreak in 1878 caused the death of almost half the population. The copper trade collapsed by 1886 and the port was almost bankrupt, although trade of domestic coal, cement, slate and potatoes continued until after World War Two. In June 1980 the owners, Beynon Shipping Company, donated the harbour to Kerrier District Council and it is now leased to the Portreath Harbour Association by the present owners, Cornwall Council.
RRH Portreath, on Nancekuke Common to the north of the village, is now a radar station operated by the RAF, but was originally built in 1940 to be the RAF's main fighter airfield in Cornwall during WW2. Chemical Defence Establishment Nancekuke was established in 1950 as a production plant for nerve gas on the site of the disused World War II airfield, RAF Portreath, which was opened in March 1941.
Bask in warm sunshine on the beach of fine sand or go surfing and wind-sailing in safety, watched by the local Surf and Life Saving Club. On the north side of the beach the harbour wall provides shelter and warmth for a fine tidal swimming pool. Set amidst rocks and rock-pools here children can also spend happy hours exploring marine life. The sand of the beach still contains particles of tin and during the 19th century a Cornish Mine Captain retrieving these on a commercial basis separated enough gold to make a gold ring!
The south side of the cove is a quiet haven overlooked by sloping cliffs and dominated by Battery House; here cannons were kept in readiness during the French wars to repel any attacks on the cove and harbour. The quaint Smugglers Cottage, set amongst whispy Tamarisk is a surviving remnant of a fishing industry where in 1617 'a capson house for the drawing up and saving of boats' was erected. It was later used as a retreat by the Bassets of Tehidy who created a miniature Brighton here during the 1780's. Several rock-cut baths were then hewn in the rocks and cliff-face for female members of the family. They now provide a place of play for children who delight in the role of 'Lady Basset'.
It was here also that the first harbour was unwisely constructed in 1713 by local mining adventurers seeking an outlet for their minerals. A large quay, curving from the projecting cliff face into the cove was shattered by heavy seas before 1749. Only a tradition of this venture lingered until shifting sands exposed its extensive foundations in 1984. An old track still survives on the hillside above along which mule trains conveyed ore and coal to the old harbour below.
The wild and rugged beauty of the local cliffs provides another dimension for those on holiday. Here the walker, naturalist and artist find solitude away from crowded beaches along the Coastal Footpath. Buzzards circle, ravens soar and kittiwakes nest in their hundreds above blue seas where Atlantic seals sport in secluded coves.
The dramatic North cliffs, with distant views to Godrevy Lighthouse and St. Ives are particularly attractive. Here the Bassets once derived a regular source of income from wreckage cast upon the shore from proud East Indiamen which succumbed to terrifying gales and blanket fogs.
Immediately inland is the Tehidy Country Park with its adjoining golf-course, an area of beautiful woodland, lakeside walks and picnic areas. Throughout the year a programme of free guided walks on history, geology, botany and natural history can be enjoyed by the whole family. Adjoining Portreath itself are the Illogan Woods where streams meander beneath towering beeches and a circular walk leads to the 14th century church tower of Illogan.
Portreath from the past
The historical harbour of Portreath provides a focal point for family exploration. Commenced in 1760 by Francis Basset as an outlet for the mining industry, its basins were once filled with 25 small sailing vessels. This "Welsh Fleet" sailed regularly out of the narrow harbour entrance loaded to the gun-whales with rich copper ore destined for the smelting furnaces of Swansea. They returned with Welsh coal to fire the boilers of numerous steam-powered beam engines which clustered round local tin and copper mines. A white conical tower 25 feet high was erected 123 feet above sea level on the east side of the harbour to guide ships inwards.
Giants of the Industrial Revolution, then residing in the area, strode its quays - Richard Trevithick inventor of the high-pressure locomotive, William Murdock, the inventor of gas-lighters and James Watt the engineer. Here too a seine-fishing company was established in 1800 and large wooden sailing vessels were constructed and launched. In 1827 Portreath was described as perhaps Cornwall’s most important port. Today the huge sailing fleet and steam-powered coasters which followed have been replaced by small and colourful fishing vessels off-loading catches onto the quays.
What other cove can boast of once having two railways? The need for an efficient transport system for the vast amounts of mineral ore and coal passing between the local mines and Portreath Harbour resulted in the building of the Portreath to Poldice tramway, by the Williams family in 1809. It was a horse-drawn railway and the first in Cornwall. Towering above the village is also the great incline of the Portreath branch of the Hayle Railway, erected in 1838. This too was a mineral line linking the mines of Camborne and Illogan with the harbour. A stationary steam engine once moved trucks up and down its steep face whilst its network of rails fanned out along the quay-sides.
Today it is possible to follow the routes of both railways, the former a pleasant walk along the wooded tramway in the sheltered valley leading to the cove. The Portreath Branchline Trail provides a 5.5 mile safe cycling route. And the Mineral Tramways Coast to Coast Trail, a long distance cycleway and footpath extending 11 miles from Portreath to Devoran on the south coast.
The loss of the 'Escurial'
There are many stories of the sea to be told here in Portreath, but probably the most famous of all is the tragic loss of the 'Escurial' wrecked in 1895.
The 1,187 ton steamer went down with a loss of eleven hands out of a full crew of 19 in a severe winter storm. Desperate attempts were made to launch the Hayle lifeboat, which had been horse-drawn overland to Portreath, but high seas and strong winds prevented the brave coastguards from achieving their rescue mission. Burning tar barrels were lit and displayed along the cliffs near Battery House in an attempt to guide the vessel towards the beach but, due to her engine trouble and her anchor dragging, she turned broadside and ran aground east of Gull Rock.
Since that sad day divers, including many locals, have shown endless interest in the wreck. In the 1970's one local diver discovered the anchor and propeller which lay some 40 feet from the main wreck in 45 feet of water. After many dives to prepare for the final lift, a full team of divers were brought to Portreath to assist with the attachment of inflatable bags and the raising of the artefacts from where they had lain for nearly 90 years.
Today the anchor can be seen outside the Portreath Arms in the centre of the village - it weighs approximately 5cwt. and is a constant reminder of these dangerous sea-faring days.
The Atlantic Bar
Portreath Beach Cafe
The Portreath Arms
The Basset Arms
The Waterfront Inn
Gwithian Porthtowan Tolgus Tin The Coastal Footpath Feadon Farm Wildlife Centre
Treasure Park Tehidy Country Park Mineral Tramway Discovery Centre Redruth Portreath Youth Hostel