Wheal Secrets from Cornwall

Wheal Secrets from Cornwall

Holidays and industry don’t usually go together but Cornwall is, as ever, exceptional. Here, somehow, they do .

Most people do not visit Cornwall for its mining heritage, of course.  Instead, visitors flock to the beautifully sweeping sandy beaches with superb sea views, or the rugged inland tors dotted with heather, rather than its industry.  But we will let you into a Cornish secret: don’t miss the traditional granite engine houses in the west, associated with the harsh tin and copper mines of old, which helped to shape the future of Cornwall.

If you happen upon the old mines dotted around the coast, then they are worth stopping for and investigating, or why not build them into your visit for an outing with a difference?

Known as ‘wheals’ (Cornish for work/working) the instantly recognisable engine houses of the tin and copper mines sit near mine shafts, and there are over 200 of them dotted around the UNESCO Cornish Mining World Heritage Site.  Many are listed buildings, as well they should be because metal mining provided essential raw materials to feed the hunger of the Industrial Revolution.

 

Perhaps the best known is Wheal Coates sitting on the glorious South West Coast Path between Porthtowan and St Agnes, whose mine stretched unimaginably for miles under the sea.  The engine house with its incredible backdrop of azure sea and rugged cliffs has to be one of Cornwall’s most photographed views.  Yet life in the mines was hard and dangerous.  A miner would walk miles to work each day, then usually spend 8 hours underground in dust-filled, cramped tunnels and galleries in appallingly hot conditions.

 

 

The women did not work underground but the ‘bal maidens’, as they were called, played their part in separating tin from other substances.  Their work was dusty from hitting ore with large hammers.  They wore large hats (gooks) to protect their heads and faces, and hessian aprons to keep them dry.  It was hard and dirty work in the mines, which, in 1839, employed 7000 children.  Boys were sent underground as soon as they were able and girls joined other bal maidens above the ground.

Which ones to visit? Well, these largely derelict buildings are part and parcel of the industrial landscape of old Cornwall, so you are finding out about the history of the area but also to see for yourself for the contrast between them and their setting. Here are some of the best:

 

  • Levant Mine, sitting perched on the exposed cliffs of the Tin Coast, is owned by the National Trust. A restored 1840s beam engine (the only one in the world) runs on whooshing steam.  Sadly, a mining disaster in 1919 there meant 31 miners lost their lives. It is not far from Geevor Tin Mine which is well worth a visit (book online) as the largest preserved tin mine in Britain. There are underground tours and plenty of exhibitions, fun and games for children to give them a taste of the region’s history. Here’s a video to give you a taste.
  • Botallack Engine House. On the treacherous North Atlantic coast, the situation of the crown engine houses is like no other. Part of the Poldark filming location, the engine houses cling to foot of precarious cliffs in defiance of the crashing waves of the sea.
  • Carn Galver is in Zennor. The mine was worked until 1878, and is situated among many beautiful coastal path walks to drink in the view. It involves an invigorating walk uphill.
  • Wheal Coates sits on heather and gorse clad cliffs, the site of many a clifftop gallop in Poldark. Paths either side of the beach reveal the dramatic engine house. 
  • Wheal Owles, St Just, was the site of another mining disaster where 19 men and a boy were drowned when the mine flooded. Hard to imagine such sad events in springtime when the site is decorated by nature’s bluebells. The mine closed due to rapidly falling copper and tin prices. It is featured in Poldark as ‘Wheal Leisure’.
  • If china clay is for you, then visit Wheal Martyn, Cornwall’s only china clay mining museum for a fascinating family day out. Based at St Austell, Wheal Martyn Museum is well worth a visit.

 

Here, the National Trust tells you 10 things you might not know about Cornish mining, the most fascinating perhaps being that highly toxic arsenic was produced here, too. Before all the health and safety regulation we benefit from today, workers would cover exposed skin in clay and their mouths and nostrils with a rag as a form of self-protection. 

When you visit the UNESCO Cornish Mining World Heritage Site, stop and ponder for a moment as you spare a thought for those who worked in Cornish mining.

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