Article Series

The Tin Coast: Cornwall’s mining district

Article and photos by Frankie Hackett

On the last leg of Cornwall before Lands’ End is a stretch of landscape riddled with mining facilities spanning centuries of technological advancement. Colloquially known as the Tin Coast, the area is rich in its connection to the history of the land. Each facility is deeply tragic in and equally insightful of the brutal conditions and fatal disasters that took place throughout the centuries. This article will pay close attention to three facilities in particular, all adjacent to another but yet all distinctly unique in its history. Geevor Tin Mine, Botallack Mine, and the Levant Mine. All can be walked to in one day trip comfortably or can be split if you would prefer to digest each mine at a slower place.

Some of the outstanding views while on the walk

Geevor Tin Mine: A Living Museum

Geevor Tin Mine was the last mine in Cornwall to close, as late as the 1990s. It is now restructured to work as a living museum and many of the remaining mining staff still volunteer with the museum today, taking roles to fix and maintain equipment that still operate in demonstrations to the public. Geevor production of tin became so expertly trained that many of the miners were contracted all over the world for their talent and ability to extract the material. One of the main challenges miners faced while it was under operation was the need to pump millions of litres of water out of the mineshafts, as many extended far out into the adjacent ocean.  Tours of Geevor are available and guide you through the facilities gradually expanding your understanding of the process that went into extracting the tin. The most enthralling part of this tour is the trip underground, to surround yourself in the space in which workers would be in every day for very long hours. Jagged rock walls that barely pushed 5ft high at most wear thin on your back for only the short amount of time you are under the mine, and the darkness coupled with the wet puddled floors makes it a disorienting but immersive experience.

A real political poster inside the changing rooms at Geevor Mine

Levant Mine: A Tragic Disaster

A mere 10 minutes away from Geevor is Levant. Levant is famous for a disaster that has become a legacy for the communities it represents. The mine worked by using a man engine to transport miners up and down. The man engine functioned similar to an elevator but was designed like a ladder. The disaster occurred when one of the rods of the ladder snapped, and in a chain reaction the entire system collapsed down the mine, plummeting over 100 people to near death and killing 31. The effect of the collapse shattered the local’s morale, and the lower levels of the mine were abandoned. The mine closed just 11 years after and is today owned by the National Trust. The peacefulness of the area contrasts against how loud the crushing of machinery must have been.

The Levant Mine, preserved by the National Trust (photo by Jocelyn Herne-Smith)

Botallack Mine: An Ancient Mine?

The last leg of mines is Botallack, the oldest of the three. Records have estimated the age of activity in this mine to stretch for at least the 1500s but could also extend deep into the era of Roman Britain and possibly the Bronze Age. The most insightful story of the area is a cobbled building that resembles what looks to be a stable. Botallack specialised in both copper and tin, but the process required for the extraction and separation brought arsenic alongside it. While arsenic was equally lucrative and was happily sold instead of being waste product, the management required to ensure the safety of those mining it led to the construction of this stable-esque building. Arsenic was piled in separate walled rooms, with workers assigned to shovel with only a cloth over their mouth. Inhaling even a few milligrams of arsenic dust would be enough to kill, but the job of the worker paid a hefty wage for the time because of the risk involved. Much of Botallack waste products would be dumped back into the ocean, and abandoned buildings down the cliffs of the north coast show evidence of this.

A single day’s trip to all three mines is easily manageable, and tours are available from the National Trust at Botallack and Levant, as well as by Geevor independently. What is great about the location of these mines is that they follow a chronological trail from the early modern to present day. Each step of the walk transports you through history as you follow the timeline of great wealth, tragedy, and political movements of the generations of Cornish miners the area represents.

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