Dig deep: Cornwall mines its past for the future

The tin industry is long gone but one of its old mines is being reopened, bringing a new boost to the county, says Alex Wade

South Crofty, an ancient and profitable mine for centuries, notched up an unwanted distinction in 1998: it became the last tin mine in Cornwall to close. Its demise wasn't because the underground lodes had been exhausted, but because the price of tin was massively undercut by overseas competitors.

Fast forward 10 years and South Crofty is poised to return to working status thanks to a reorientation of the international tin market and £50m of investment. Granted, there have been rumblings of discontent at the news, with some people doubting that a living, breathing tin mine is the right kind of regeneration for the Camborne area. Against this, the reinvigoration of South Crofty should create 250 jobs in an area of high unemployment, with the mine expected to be profitable for 80 years.

South Crofty's return may have its detractors, but it is a welcome reminder of the joy of walking among Cornwall's mines. Here is Britain's first post-industrial landscape, its remnants now as beguiling as steam engines. There are many mining areas in which to base a walk, from the Tamar Valley district, and the cliff-side mines of St Agnes, all the way to the mines of East Cornwall in the Caradon District. But by far the most spectacular are the mines of West Penwith.

Here, in the far west of Britain, is a series of mines whose history is as remarkable as their location. While Geevor tin mine is now a major tourist attraction, the best way of sampling West Penwith's mines is a circular walk from Botallack, a small village outside England's most westerly mainland town, St Just. The route takes in Geevor as well as the workings at Botallack and Levant – and, at three to four hours, gives ample time to reflect on the pros and cons of the revival of a once-great industry.

The starting-off point also provides a slice of art history. Botallack was the home of British abstract artist Roger Hilton until his death in 1975. His wife, Rose, herself a fine painter whose first solo retrospective showed recently at Tate St Ives, still lives in the couple's granite cottage. Luminaries of the St Ives art scene would congregate at the Hilton house.

It is easy to see what attracted so many artists to Botallack. The engine houses of its mines – "wrought under the sea beyond the memory of any person now living," as once described by the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall – cling precariously to cliffs against which the Atlantic surges with relentless power.

In truth, Botallack is more a number of mines than a single entity. Underground shafts penetrate the earth from Wheal Cock, the Crowns, and Carnyorth, stretching far beneath the sea bed. Botallack's heyday was the 1860s, when the Prince and Princess of Wales (later Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) put the stamp of royal approval on the enterprise. Tin production was at its highest when the future king and queen rode a tram or "gig" on the Crowns diagonal shaft in 1865, and ever since, Botallack has been the most sketched and painted mine in Cornwall.

Evidence of mining abounds along the coast between St Ives and St Just, and to continue north-east from Botallack, along the coast path, is soon to encounter one of Cornwall's wealthiest mines, Levant. Here tin and copper were mined in prodigious quantities, but Levant was also the scene of one of the county's worst mining disasters. In October 1919, a "man engine" used to transport miners collapsed and fell down the shaft, taking 31 miners' lives with it.

Geevor tin mine, which took over the workings of both Levant and Botallack, is now the largest preserved mining site in the UK. Geevor was mined until 1990 when a world-wide collapse in the price of tin forced its closure, and the gaunt remains of its engine houses might make for a disconcerting sight. But with the help of a lottery grant, the heritage of the mine has been preserved to provide much more than a geology lesson. Geevor's Heritage Centre illustrates the uses of tin through the ages and shows how local people were shaped by the environment.

Leaving Geevor, the walk continues to Pendeen Watch and then the glorious, isolated cove of Portheras before a right turn, to the hamlet of Morvah. Here, refreshments can be had at the Old Schoolhouse – also an art gallery – before the walk heads inland, up over moorland that formed the backdrop to Sam Peckinpah's film Straw Dogs.

As you ramble over ancient tinners' tracks back to Botallack, the workings of disused mines can be seen and, beyond, the Atlantic. It is salutary to imagine the miners of yesteryear digging to a depth of 2,100ft. You might even pause to agree that mining, in Cornwall, is a long-standing and honourable calling; no surprise, then, that South Crofty is poised to make a comeback.

COMPACT FACTS

How to get there

Geevor tin mine (01736 788662; geevor.com) is in a designated "historic mining area" on the B3306 between St Just and St Ives.



Staying there

The Gurnard's Head (01736 796 928; gurnardshead.co.uk) gastropub and hotel has doubles from £83 per night, including breakfast.

Further information

Cornwall Tourist Board (01872 322900; visitcornwall.com)

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Extras
indybest
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
News
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Life and Style
Pick of the bunch: Sudi Pigott puts together roasted tomatoes with peppers, aubergines and Labneh cheese for a tomato-inspired vegetarian main dish
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape