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)

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