The view from St Agnes Beacon is breath-taking. The high moorlands, heather and gorse clad; steep valleys and bubbling streams; the bracing winds and the infinite variety of land and seascape . . . S H Burton, 1955
The view from the top of St Agnes Beacon is one of the most impressive in Cornwall. Standing beside the Trig Mark on the summit it feels as if the whole of Cornwall is laid out beneath you. I find myself turning in circles, spotting each distant landmark. Then seeing that place in my mind’s eye.
To the south, you will find Porthtowan and Portreath, St Ives and Godrevy Lighthouse and beyond. Inland, Carn Brea, Redruth, Four Lanes and to the north the white mountains of St Austell and Bodmin Moor.
St Agnes Beacon is 192m (630ft) high and from this height the view out to sea to the horizon stretches an amazing 30 miles.
F W L Stockdale was very impressed when he visited in 1824. He described it as ‘a remarkable stupendous mountain’. Stupendous indeed!
The Burning Beacon
There was once a chain of beacons that linked one end of Cornwall to the other. Traditionally they were lit to celebrate the midsummer solstice. An event that was revived by the Old Cornwall Society in 1929 and continues to this day.
The beacons were also used to warn of threats of invasion, such as the Armada, and for celebration. In 1887, on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, the beacon was lit at St Agnes.
After enjoying the sights of the town a great many of the inhabitants started off in brakes and other vehicles to have a peek at the beacon fires. . . As the lookout became more extended, so the line of fires increased and from one point no less than 18 could be observed. Stretching from Carn Brea and Carn Marth in the west and Penryn hills in the south. Away to Newlyn Downs and some high lands in the neighbourhood of St Austell. – West Briton, 23rd June 1887
The St Agnes beacon was also used during the Napoleonic War, when a guard was permanently stationed on the summit. He was tasked with looking out for potential invaders. By lighting the fire the guard could warn the whole county.
A K Hamilton-Jenkin described this system in his book Cornish Homes and Customs. The flame could be lit at Chapel Carn Brea near Lands End for example and then would past from hilltop to hilltop. Castle-an-dinas, Rosewall, Trencrom etc, each signalling the next in the chain. The flame would pass up across Cornwall in this way. And it could supposedly reach Kit Hill near the Devon border in just 20 minutes.
At the end of the 18th century the beacon light was joined by a painted white tower known as St Agne’s summerhouse or the pleasure house. But by 1812 it had fallen into disrepair and by 1846 the tower ceased to appear on maps. It’s not clear who built this building or for what purpose. But the beacon remained.
Late Bronze Age Cemetery
Unfortunately the beautiful mound on which the beacon has stood for a few hundred years once had a rather different significance. It is a Bronze Age bowl barrow dating from around 2400-1500 BC.
The largest of 4 barrows on the beacon, it occupies a truly commanding position. The barrow, which is about 3.8m high and 30m in diameter, stood at the end of a line of cairns which were clearly visible in the 18th century but have now almost vanished. It is likely that the shape, raised position and favourable location of the mound, with its all round visibility, led to it being used as the site of the fire beacon. Sadly the barrow has suffered as a result.
Hauntings and Mines
St Agnes Beacon and the surrounding area was once heavily mined. The ground still bears the scars to this day.
In front of us about a couple of miles away towers St Agnes Beacon. Its shoulders bristling with chimneys and mine workings and on its southern flank is the mining township of St Agnes.
But it is not only the minerals deep beneath the ground that brought the miners here. Parts of St Agnes Beacon are remarkable for heavy clay and sand deposits. In some places these layers are 40ft thick. It’s thought that these deposits were laid down in the Late Cretaceous period, some 79 million years ago. A lump of this clay was once used by the miners to stick their candles to their hard hats for the dark, dangerous work underground.
At the foot of the beacon in the shadow of all these mines lived a woman called Dorcas.
An old lady, she had a cottage near Polbreen Mine. One night, tired of her sad and lonely life, she threw herself into a deep shaft. Her body was discovered the next day by the miners. They buried it with as much ceremony as they could, considering she had taken her own life and was not allowed a Christian burial. But her spirit never left the mine. Dorcas’ voice would often be heard. Calling a miner by name, luring him away from his work on a wild goose chase. Indeed, any tinner, who for whatever reason, had contributed a poor return that day was said to have been off ‘chasing Dorcas’.
But she wasn’t always up to mischief.
One day two miners were working in Dorcas’ shaft when they heard one of their names being called. They stopped working and listened. And again the name was called louder than before. The man dropped his hammer and went off to find the caller. But he had only gone a few yards when a mass of rock fell onto the spot where he had been standing. He swore there after that Dorcas had saved his life.
And Dorcas was not the only ghost on St Agnes Beacon, as John Wesley discovered. During one of his visits to Cornwall he stayed in a deserted cottage on it’s slopes.
At midnight he was disturbed by noises and found that a banquet was laid in the hall, attended by gay but ghostly revellers. They pressed him to join them which he did. Saying however, that it was his custom to ask a blessing before eating. No sooner had he spoken Grace than the ghosts vanished.
The Giant Bolster
The Cornish giant known as Bolster must have been one of the biggest of his kind. It is said that he could stand with one foot on St Agnes Beacon and the other on Carn Brea. A distance of roughly 6 miles.
His story goes like this:
This hill was at one time the property of a giant named Bolster. It was Bolster who caused the erection of the big tumulus and other mounds on the summit. For the giant was a bully and when his wife displeased him, he punished her by making her carry loads of stones to the top of the hill and arranging them in heaps. This was bad enough, but to brutality Bolster would fain have added infidelity.
He fell in love with the holy St Agnes. And so pestered her with his attentions that to rid herself of the monster she was obliged to resort to the most unsaintlike ruse. “If” she said, “if you will fill with your blood the hole in the cliff at Chapel Porth I will be yours.” Bolster thought this an easy job and stepping across to the hole, opened a vein in his vast arm and waited patiently for the hole to fill. But the wily Saint knew what the giant did not. The hole communicated with the sea and Bolster bled to death. J L W Page, 1897
Bolster is still remembered in St Agnes to this day, he is still celebrated with his own festival each year.
Wells and Walls
An ancient well at this place has been much extolled and many miraculous stories are told regarding it’s virtues. Stockdale, 1824.
Where this miraculous well is located however isn’t clear. There is a spring marked on the OS map but not more than that.
Another unusual and unexplained feature in the landscape around St Agnes Beacon is a ‘dyke’. According to John Lloyd Warden Page, a bank once stretched from Chapel Porth to Trevaunance, effectively dividing the beacon and that piece of coast from the surrounding countryside.
Just a small section, about a mile in length, survives and passes close to Goonvrea Farm. On the 1888 OS map the bank is marked as a Roman dyke. In the past it was known locally as the Gorres. In the 18th century Richard Carew suggests the name came from the Cornish word guriz meaning girdle, as the bank girdles the beacon. The earthwork is now more commonly known as Bolster’s Bank.
Climbing the beacon
Climbing the beacon is relatively easy. There are plenty of parking spaces, either in the National Trust car parks on the coast or in a lay-by beside Beacon Drive. From there there is a gradually climbing path to the summit. The path is also dotted with benches for resting and admiring the views.