Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Harbours and Mines - Cornwall - Day 12

We zip over the hill to Penzance, and immediately are drawn into the classic Cornish landscape: heathy hill with roofless engine house and chimney stack. Cripplesease, if memory serves. Penzance it is, and Newlyn just around the corner. Being on the sheltered side, the harbours in these two towns house the remnants of the Cornish fishing industry. Charming and a little sad. On round the corner to Mousehole (Mowzel) of book fame. Mowzel harbour's tiny entrance is boarded up for the winter, although this hasn't stopped the recent Channel storm from filling the harbour with quite a bit of weed. A bendy fish purchase - a toy/artwork that just glowed at us from the shelf.

Back to Newlyn and Penlee House for Cornish history and art: another find on the artistic front: Charles Simpson, especially the sea-bird paintings, especially the gouache and watercolours. Penlee house has a very good potted history of Cornwall: a very old region with a rich archaeological heritage and the exhibits were succinct, informative and just very well done. So many musuems succumb to the dumbing-down of such sequences, either for the perhaps laudable objective of appealing to school parties, but usually (one suspects) because of a jaundiced view of the average punter's IQ and attention span. Not Penlee. Thoroughly recommended.

On to Pendeen and the mines section. The weather is by now closing in, and so straight to the National Trust restored beam engine at Levant. Just after a school party has gone, mid-afternoon. The resident custodian tells me that the place is actually closed, but that the engine-house is open. I have a little wander round - a typical mining layout with a skip shaft for ore and tailings, a miner's ladder which goes down 320 fathoms - that's almost 2000 feet... and the beam engine itself which wound the cars up and down the skip shaft. The miners had a man-engine - a moving beam which lifted them 10-12 feet at a time - but that went down only 266 fathoms and the rest - around 400 feet - was climb the ladders. And all on your own time, in the dark...

After 15 minutes or so, the custodian comes in to see that I haven't fallen down a shaft, and then says that there's still 70 psi in the boiler, and maybe he can run up the beam engine. Why not? He unlocks the regulator, and after a little bit of coaxing (while the vacuum in the unused part of the cylinder builds up and helps things) the 1840 Cornish Beam engine spins up to full tilt of 60 rpm or so. Very quiet, unfussed, and that magic smell of steam and oil. After 5 minutes or so, steam pressure is dropping so my private show runs down quietly and he packs it away, stopping it at exactly the right spot to get it started again tomorrow. The flywheel is well out of true, relic of an 1860 accident where the unregulated engine spun out of control and fired the 14 foot diameter wheel, in several pieces, through the top of the engine house, and was subsequently repaired and ran on until 1930.

The mine itself ran out 1.25 miles under the Atlantic, was around 320 fathoms deep (1 fathom = 6 feet) and the main tramming level, which took out the ore in mine tubs, was around 240 fathoms. Staffed by 400 men, boys and pit ponies for the tramming, that far under the sea. Climbing ladders in the dark after a shift, picking out the rich but narrow ore veins by hand (hence the boys, who fit into narrower spaces) and denuding Cornwall of trees for pit props.

Tin/copper (indeed, all) mining was and is a notoriously boom and bust business, and the reason for all those glorious engine house remains everywhere in the mineral belt, is that the boom collapsed suddenly. Gold rushes in New Zealand and California mopped up a lot of the resulting miner diaspora, and Cornwall now remains unmined, full of gently decaying relics, still with very few trees, but an utterly ancient, bony, enduring landscape.

Back on the B-for Back road to St Ives, and through one of the ancient standing-stones areas around Zennor (love the names). Only 9 miles, but through these old, narrow lanes, it feels like 20. Road, as usual, goes through the middle of farmyards, abhors straightness (only the Romans did straight, it seems), and varies from 10 to 25 feet wide, between little stone walls. No place to pass, sight-see or daydream while driving. Love every second of this sort of travel.

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