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Wheal Kitty

Words by Fiona McGowan

A mutually supportive environment in which to grow and work.

Cornwall is home to a handful of places where a collection of like-minded businesses, entrepreneurs and organisations have clustered to improve their own work as well as the environment around them. They all have very different vibes, and varied structural styles, but each one is an example of the benefits of living and working in Cornwall. They engage with tourism, but remain embedded in the local community – providing a year-round engagement that supports business in a way that many traditional tourist venues struggle with. The north coast is blessed with a few.

On the A38 – the Atlantic Highway, as it is fondly known – just west of Wadebridge, is Hawksfield. Dominated by a big café, Strong Adolfos, it is home to an eclectic array of businesses. Front of house is a line of barn-style buildings containing a deli, a vintage vehicle showroom, a contemporary art gallery, a bespoke fedora-maker, handmade kitchens, and a homewares store. Behind the ‘shopfront’ are a number of small locally-run businesses, uber-cool Cornwall-based surf brand Finisterre and a Montessori nursery.

© phasefoto: Wheal Kitty, St Agnes

Then there’s the Mount Pleasant Eco Park. An environmental collective set up by a carpenter, with workshops for local like-minded businesses and entrepreneurs – from hand-made wooden surfboard makers to owner Tim’s environmental building company. The acres of land perched above the cliffs near Porthtowan are home to a community vegetable garden, a popular bijoux world music festival and a venue for weddings. It hosts gigs and events in the central building, and has a large canteen providing wholesome food year-round.

© Finisterre: Tom Kay - Finisterre

And there’s Wheal Kitty. A group of brick buildings gathered around old mining works on the craggy clifftop above St Agnes, the council-owned site has changed from a collection of unrelated businesses to a community of proactive, positive people whose focus is towards the ocean and the environment around them.

Top left: © Richie Graham: Hugo Tagholm - CEO Finisterre |

Surfers Against Sewage

Bottom right: © Ian Lean

In many ways, it is inevitable that people who set up in this part of the world are passionate about the environment. Hawksfield is the result of a vision by a one-time big-wave surfer with three surfy sons. Mount Pleasant Eco Park was set up by a surfer and environmentalist. And Wheal Kitty’s first inhabitants included one of Cornwall’s most impactful charities: Surfers Against Sewage.

In the early days, Surfers Against Sewage employed three people, and was tirelessly campaigning to prevent sewage and other pollution from damaging the sea around the coast of Cornwall. They had an office in one of the original buildings on the scruffy industrial park, along with a picture framers and a surfboard shaping company. In 2006, a new row of brick buildings was built in red-brick vernacular to match the original mine buildings – bringing in an eclectic mix of businesses. A fluid drilling company, a car mechanic and what was then Atlantic radio (now Heart FM). In a small office at the end, a nascent outdoor clothing company set up shop. Tom Kay, who had been running his clothing company, Finisterre (literally meaning ‘end of the land’) for three years, settled into the place that has become the heart of the company. At the time, he says: “There were nice people working here, but it wasn’t really a community. There definitely wasn’t a vibe.” When the drilling company moved out, Finisterre expanded to take over part of their space.

By 2010, another shift took place. “People started coming up to Wheal Kitty – coming down here for surf or on holiday or whatever,” remembers Tom. “That was our only shop back then, so it was the only place where you could physically come and touch the product. By the nature of what we do, it’s really important. It’s nice to meet the customers and they sometimes just dropped in for a chat. That’s when it became more of a community feel up here.”

The expansion of Finisterre coincided with a change in the nature of Surfers Against Sewage. With a dynamic new vision and new Chief Exec, Hugo Tagholm at the helm, it was transformed into a fully fledged charity, and became the global movement it is today. The alliance between Finisterre and SAS formed a foundation of the community: “We shared this journey of growing our businesses. Ten years ago, when we turned SAS into a charity, Finisterre was still just a handful of people over the road.” The two became firm friends, surfing together and sharing ideas.

As Finisterre and SAS grew, a TV company moved in – making virtual reality films and video-based material for an eclectic array of clients, including SAS and Finisterre. It was started by Mark Anderson, a passionate surfer, who with his wife Emily set up his marketing business as close to the sea as he could get. Three years ago, they took over the surfboard shaping company and turned it into a destination of its own. It sells handmade boards by guest shapers, serves barista-quality coffees and retails quirky homewares and coffee table books from the high-ceilinged space.

© Mat Arney

They’ve recently added a barbershop in one of the rooms at the back, and run a surfboard club, enabling locals and visitors to take out a membership and pick their board, according to the conditions and their ability.

A few years ago, chef Ben Quinn brought his catering business into the mix. Ben’s passion for food, surfing and a strong social conscience made Wheal Kitty the perfect venue to set up his base for a catering and chef consultancy company. Ben’s career had taken him from high-end restaurants, via the inspirational Lost Gardens of Heligan and Eden Project, to Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen at Watergate Bay and the River Café. When he set up his own catering company, Ben realised that it wasn’t just about focusing on the food, but knowing how to ‘organise the fun’. “I knew my team needed to be emotionally intelligent to react to that. I needed to be better at understanding whether people were hungry or thirsty, or where the energy in the room was at.”

While the business was successful, there was a social itch that kept nagging at Ben: “Just feeding people wasn’t filling me up.” He branched out into working as a consultant and as a result, he’s become deeply connected with “people in hospitality that are doing anything with positive energy in the county.”

Bringing that vibe to Wheal Kitty was a boon for him and for the community. Setting up an open-door eatery as a sort of interactive business card enables Ben to serve as many as 70 people a day from his open kitchen year-round – charging a mere £5 a meal for fabulous food. The other residents are, of course, great fans. Being able to have a very cool, affordable ‘staff canteen’ that people will travel across the country to visit is a winner: “It’s a great addition to the estate,” affirms Tom Kay. “They have great food, it’s a good price, it’s healthy. And great for us to go in there and get coffees – I thought I’d be going in maybe once a week. I now go in at least twice a day.”

“We’ve had this journey of seeing the businesses on Wheal Kitty evolve into real leaders in their industries,” Hugo enthuses. “Really being able to set the agenda. I see it as being an Old Street on Sea. A place where there’s a lot of creativity. A lot of energy. A lot of youthful dynamics, ideas, shared values...”

© Open Surf

Ben agrees: “We all subscribe to the notion that the secret of life is to find something you love and are willing to die for, and then give your life to it. It’s a bit of a cliché, but Wheal Kitty is a good example of that.” And Tom adds that there is a certain romance to the place: “Everyone is fairly young. All purpose driven, all trying to do something different from an inspirational spot on the rugged north coast.”

Mark at Sideways and Open shares their passion for sustainability: “The whole thing about Open was about seeing what goes into making a board. It’s a big part of ecofriendliness. Building things that last and people care for.” He wanders up to a big window behind the shop. It overlooks a workshop with a surfboard sitting on a wooden support. “That’s so people can see the process,” he says. “On the other side, we’ve got a view of the sea – there are not many surfboard makers that can claim that.”

© Open Surf

With both the vista and the vision, this collective of businesses and organisations on the clifftops of Cornwall is all about collaborating and focusing on dynamic ways of working (Finisterre gives its staff paid time off to go surfing, engage with nature or do something socially beneficial). They make much of the authenticity of their work – practising what they preach by nurturing their staff as well as their clientele, and by committing to environmental values as part of their processes. There is no doubt that, in the current climate, we will be needing a lot more of these sort of networks to support growth and change in the future. And Cornwall is paving the way.


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