Cornish ramblings again: Portloe, Portholland, Caerhays

My latest posts have resulted from my end-of-holiday travels in this beautiful county of Cornwall as I strive to make the most of my fortunate location before work resumes soon.

Portloe clifftop

Portloe clifftop

On Sunday we went to the Roseland Peninsula, named according to one source after the Cornish for ‘heath’. Its bulk mirrors the landmass around Falmouth, across the Carrick Roads/Fal River estuary that forms its western boundary. Most of Cornwall’s coastline forms part of an AONB, of which the Roseland Heritage Coast forms part.

I recently wrote about my excitement at seeing a chough at Cape Cornwall; I didn’t see any on this trip, but there is apparently a pair that has successfully hatched three chicks in the area this year – the first time since the 1820s: link to the story HERE and for the RSPB Cornish Choughs project and further info see HERE.

PortloeWe started at Portloe, a tiny cove with pretty cottages clustered round its small natural harbour and clinging to the steep valley slopes around. Its name comes from the Cornish for cove pool: ‘porth logh’ (presumably Scots ‘loch’ is their Celtic equivalent). From the 17C it was a busy fishing port, but like most of the Cornish fishing industry (and mining, as I’ve written often before) it declined sharply in the 19C and early 20C. Now just a handful of small working boats survive.Portloe

Overlooking the slipway is the Lugger, a fashionable hotel/restaurant; the Ship is a more homely, less hip pub a few yards up the hill. Smugglers would have landed their contraband in tiny inlets like this, and the Lugger is said to have played its part in the past.

In fact the whole Cornish coastal path, which winds its way all round

Portloe

Looking east towards Dodman from above Portloe

the county peninsula, was originally made by the coastguards and revenue men who tried to intercept the smugglers. It’s a struggle much romanticised in fictional and film accounts; in reality it reflects the hardship endured by many of the people who lived (and still live) in this impoverished rural area, striking a harsh contrast with the privileged minority who owned and managed the mines and harbours.

Watchouse

View from the watchhouse on the coastal path above Portholland

The light in my pictures shows

Portholland

Looking west above Portholland: light changing

typical Cornish summer conditions. Dark, rain-threatening clouds blow rapidly over, pierced at times by bright, hot sunshine. It’s like several seasons passing in just a few minutes. Two miles away it can be raining while we bask under glorious blue skies.

Portholland

Lime kilns at Portholland

On to Portholland, with its tiny cluster of buildings, remnants mostly of lime kiln workings. Typical Cornish granite crags and cliffs loom around the tiny cove.

A few miles on we stopped at Porthluney beach, below the grey ramparts of Caerhays Castle. This curious building sits within a huge estate which passed to the Trevanion family in 1380. The gardens, which cover some 140 acres, were developed by the Williams family since the Victorian period, and are famous for their collections of magnolias, camellias, rhododendrons and daffodils.

The estate’s owners have long been associated with mining (and also smelting and banking); the castle displays the remains of what was once a much larger collection of minerals, collected over the generations from their local mining interests in places like nearby Gwennap, from their overseas mining interests, and from other collectors.

Caerhays Castle

Caerhays Castle

I don’t suppose the men and women who spent their working lives toiling above and below the ground – the hard rock Cornish miners I’ve written about recently – were much concerned with collecting samples of the rocks for the extraction of which they risked their lives and limbs. If they did they would doubtless have been arrested for theft.

With a new series about to air on the BBC based on Winston Graham’s Poldark novels, we’ll soon be invited to marvel at Cornwall’s breathtaking scenery and reinvented heritage.  It’s worth remembering that there’s far more to Cornwall in reality than the chocolate-box charm and the picturesqueness represented on GWR advertising posters and soft-focus historical fiction (‘The Camomile Lawn’ was filmed partly at Portloe). From the hills above Caerhays one can see the spoil heaps of the clay area of Hensbarrow Downs around St Austell, a landscape so scarred by the industry that sci-fi film crews (like those who made Dr Who) have used it for alien world locations.

Just inland from the nearest city, Truro, lies the Mining Heritage Trail, about which I’ll write soon. Crumbling engine houses and ruined industrial buildings dot these landscapes, a visual reminder of the long-gone industries on which the Cornish people once depended. The landscape itself there is pitted and scored, discoloured and ravaged by centuries of mine working.

Webster could see ‘the skull beneath the skin’. Cornwall’s metaphorical skull isn’t even concealed beneath the land: it protrudes everywhere – in the granite outcrops and the hollow engine houses, the thronged beaches and the congested summer arterial roads. It contains Du Maurier’s romanticised Jamaica Inn (and the garish tourist site that has become) and the man engine disaster at the Levant Mine in 1919 when 31 men were killed.

These post-industrial sites (more on them next time) are in many ways more authentically Cornish than the honeypot locations beloved of TV crews and audiences.

And then there are the choughs.

 

The Man Engine

The Man Engine at Truro last week

The Man Engine at Truro last week

The Man Engine is the largest mechanical puppet ever constructed in Britain. He stands at 4.5m when he’s on his transporter, or when he ‘crawls’, rising to 10.2m when his ‘transformation’ has taken place and he ‘stands’ erect.

The Man Engine

The Man Engine at full height in Lemon Quay, Truro

 

 

 

 

 

He made his triumphant debut at Tavistock, just over the Tamar in west Devon, on July 25th this year. He has just completed his two-week Progress 130 miles through Cornwall, from Tamar to Geevor Tin Mine at Pendeen near Penzance. But he’s not just an entertainment for Cornish residents and visitors: he’s a visible and stirring reminder of the dangerous, often fatal work of the Hard Rock Cornish Miners, and of the relative prosperity and security this difficult, demanding work brought to some sectors of the Cornish people for some two hundred years.

I’ll post more on this shortly, and on the experience of my wife and I, and grandchildren, when we went to see him in Truro and Camborne.

Mining for minerals in the county dates back to the Bronze Age, but the heyday of the industry in the Duchy was in the early 19th century, when Cornwall had some 2000 mines, and was the leading supplier of copper in the world.

The most important minerals that were mined were tin, copper, silver and lead, but gold and arsenic were also important. The landscape and skylines of Cornwall have been largely shaped by the mining industry: engine houses and other industrial archeological sites proliferate, especially in mid-Cornwall around Camborne and Redruth, and in the far west.

Tram and train lines formed a network of supply and transport for the industry, many of which survive today. Thriving ports exported the minerals. Technology developed to facilitate ever more efficient means of accessing, digging out and marketing the deep-hidden wealth beneath the Celtic landscape of moors, rocks and picturesque townships.

In 1689 the technological innovation of gunpowder was introduced to the Cornish mining industry for the blasting of rock. It was imported until 1808 when the first Cornish gunpowder factory opened at Perranarworthal, midway between Truro and Falmouth. Such places were located in secluded and wooded river valleys to provide a source of water power and to protect neighbours, who would be relatively screened by the trees. Even the roofs of these factories were designed to come off easily in the event of an explosion.

In 1831 William Bickford, from Tuckingmill near Camborne, invented the safety fuse. Blasting in mines was highly dangerous. Previously, holes were drilled into the rock, filled with gunpowder and tamped, and the relatively primitive ‘quill’ fuses inserted and lit to blast the rock. The fuses were temperamental and unreliable, and caused many serious injuries and deaths in the mining industry.

If the quill fuses failed to ignite the gunpowder to blast the rock and expose the minerals, the miners would have to wait until it was considered safe to do so – a risky process called ‘to hang fire’, hence the expression today. Bickford’s invention made blasting much safer.

The first practical high explosive charge for blasting in a Cornish mine took place in 1846 at Restormel Iron Mine near Lostwithiel. By the 1880s high explosives had largely replaced the less efficient, slow-burning gunpowder.

In 1866 Alfred Nobel invented the nitroglycerine-based explosive dynamite. Soon after it was first used in Cornwall’s mines. The first Cornish dynamite factory, the National Explosives Works, was set up in 1888 in the protective seclusion of the dunes at Hayle Towans (‘towans’ is Cornish for ‘dunes’)– but accidental explosions did take place. It’s still possible to see the traces of the site, which at its height covered 300 acres, and the network of single-track railways that serviced the enterprise.

During WWI the company manufactured a range of high explosives for the British military. The site closed in 1920, but continued to be used for the storage of explosives until the 1960s.

So why the Man Engine?

Dolcoath man engine

Man Engine at Dolcoath mine: picture via Wikimedia Commons of 1893 by John Charles Burrow

These were mechanised devices to enable miners to access the levels they were working at, often deep underground. They were only paid for the time they spent at the rock face – they often faced long (2-3 hours) and arduous, dangerous climbs up and down slopes or ladders before the invention of these devices. The first man engine in Britain was installed at Tresavean Mine in Gwennap in 1842. There were sixteen of them in Cornwall in total.

They operated by exploiting the rise and fall of the rods which operated the steam-powered pumps that were essential for emptying the shafts of water. The miners would step from rod to platform every twelve feet, and hence make his progress up or down, often many hundreds of meters, in a kind of stepped paternoster elevator.

Dolcoath engine house

Dolcoath engine house, built 1860. Wikicommons picture by Will Wallis

Tin-mining-cornwall-c1890 Dolcoath looking east

Dolcoath mine site c. 1890, looking east. Wikicommons

Dolcoath (near Carn Brea, Camborne) was the fifth largest of around 470 copper mines in Cornwall. When the copper looked like running out, deeper shafts were sunk to mine for tin at lower levels: by 1882 the deepest was 660 meters, later over 1000 meters, making it the deepest in Cornwall; there were 12 miles of serviceable tunnels, and many more older, unworkable ones. In 1893 seven men were killed when stulls or props gave way half a mile underground and a tunnel collapsed on them.

Another hazard was hookworm, which infected nearly every miner. The men defecated in the shafts, and this enabled the parasite to spread.

Tincroft mine engine house

Tincroft mine engine house

Tincroft Mine has the only remaining complete man engine building in Cornwall. The beam engine which it housed was used to power the man engine in nearby Dunkin’s Shaft.

The last to operate was at Levant, where a terrible accident occurred in 1919, killing 31 miners, men and boys, when the cap that held the main connecting rod broke. Historians say that the man engine had a good safety record prior to that disaster, for before its use there were frequent accidents, often fatal, especially when tired miners were climbing ladders up the long shafts from deep underground, exhausted after their long work shift.

East Wheal Rose

East Wheal Rose

The engine house and stack at East Wheal Rose, St Newlyn East, near Newquay, Cornwall was principally for lead ore (galena) but also silver, zinc. 39 miners died underground in 1846 when torrential rain flooded the shafts.

Since 2006 the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape has been a World Heritage Site. Its gateway site, Heartlands, opened in 2012, on the site where South Crofty tin mine became the last operating mine to close operations in Cornwall in 1998.

My picture of the site of Robinson Shaft engine house at Heartlands, Camborne

My picture of the site of Robinson Shaft engine house at Heartlands, Camborne

For a Wikipedia article on the mining industry in Cornwall see HERE –

has many links to all kinds of related materials, including the story of the Cornish diaspora – Cornish miners took their knowledge and experience to all corners of the globe when their home mines ceased to be productive or economical. Links also to various mineral railways and the ports they serviced, and to individual mining areas and the more prominent mines and individuals associated with the mining heritage of Cornwall.