The remnants of an industrial past add a fascinating extra dimension to England’s westernmost county, worthy of its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The chimneys of engine houses above abandoned mines have become iconic symbols of Cornwall, one of England’s leading tourist destinations. Often in spectacular coastal settings they represent a distant, almost forgotten era; but elevation to World Heritage status by UNESCO in 2006 has re-established the mining landscape as one of the county’s unique assets.
Cornwall’s Mining Heritage
Cornwall has been a source of tin since pre-historic times. From washing tin ore from bogs and river valleys to tunneling hundreds of meters underground in search of copper, a series of technological advances led to a frenzy of exploration, speculation, boom, an explosion of unruly shanty towns, and eventually a bust towards the end of the nineteenth century when thousands of miners left for newly developed mines all over the world. They created the modern Cornish diaspora, and left behind a landscape rich in industrial heritage.
Ten World Heritage Site Areas
The World Heritage Site includes ten separate mining areas, from the Tamar Valley in the east to St Just 60 miles away at the western tip of the county. All ten areas are well worth visiting, and part of the fascination of the overall site is that each area offers a different aspect of the mining heritage, with different opportunities for access and exploration.
The wide, wooded valley of the meandering River Tamar is scenically beautiful and accessible by riverboat as well as by the Tamar Valley railway from Plymouth to Calstock and Gunnislake, one of the country’s most scenic branch lines. Aside from plenty of walking trails, Morwellham Quay is the best-known heritage centre on the Tamar. A museum and visitor centre, upgraded in 2008, explains the historic river port and the workings of what was once the most productive copper mine in Europe.
A few miles westward the Kit Hill and Caradon mining area encompasses the remains of 59 old mines, together with fragments of railways that used to carry minerals down to the sea at the port of Looe.
The Luxulyan Valley is a narrow, winding, steep-sided and beautifully wooded area that is a testament to the business and engineering genius of one man, Joseph Treffry. He built a rail link from Par through Luxulyan to the north coast at Newquay, still functioning as the Atlantic Coast branch line. A local group of enthusiasts maintains a network of trails, water courses and the remnants of water wheels and Treffry’s massive viaduct-cum-aqueduct that still dominates the valley.
Mines in West Cornwall
Further west, the Poldark mine near Helston is a well-established mining heritage centre where visitors can explore underground mine workings that date from the eighteenth century.
The King Edward Mine in the Camborne and Redruth Mining District is one of Cornwall’s oldest accessible mine sites. It has a museum and the remains of stone-built industrial buildings where some of the original machinery still works, together with an exhibition of the old mineral tramways that once criss-crossed this area.
Near St Agnes the Southwest Coast Path passes the engine houses of Wheal Coates, one of the best known of the county’s mines because of its dramatic setting on the cliffs above the Atlantic Ocean.
Of all the mining areas, many would point to St Just in the far west for the richest concentration of accessible heritage sites and truly world-class scenery. Shafts and tunnels from the Botallack mine extend hundreds of meters down from the cliff-side engine house and out under the sea. During his visit in 1850 Willkie Collins descended partway down the mine and wrote of the strange experience of hearing the surf crashing onto the rocks far above.
Mine Restoration and Regeneration
Now restored and maintained by the National Trust, Botallack is one of Cornwall’s best-known heritage centres. The National Trust also owns the nearby site of the Levant mine and Cornwall’s oldest remaining steam beam engine, restored to working condition in the 1990s.
A few miles away, Geevor is the largest of the restored mines. It was one of the last mines to close, in 1990, and survives as a museum with exhibitions, demonstrations and guided underground tours through the old mine workings.
Is there a future for Cornwall’s mines, beyond the tourist industry? Several businesses with their roots in mining survive, providing specialized equipment and consulting services to the global mining industry. And record metal prices have lured investors back. The South Crofty mine complex near Camborne intends to re-start profitable mining operations in 2009. Perhaps Cornwall’s 4,000-year run of exporting tin is not over yet.