Beyond the Beaches: Exploring the World Heritage of Cornish Mining

By Jamie Maddison | 13 April 2012
a photo of a watermill and machinery in a woodland
The Luxulyan Valley Wheel is one of countless fascinating remnants of Cornwall's rich mining heritage© Photo Ainsley Cocks
Many a first thought of Cornwall conjurs images of pleasant summer holidays, picturesque little harbour towns dotted serenely along the coast, or blissful childhood days of ice cream by the beach and paddles in the sea.

Yet much of the region’s real history and identity lies veiled beyond this tourist idyll, in a mining and industrial past that many of today’s visitors may find hard to eqaute with one Englands most beautiful tourist destinations.

In July 2006, the mining landscapes across Cornwall and West Devon were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, placing Cornish mining heritage on a par with international icons such as Machu Pichu, the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China.

Today the remnants of a once great industry lie dotted around the county. Some are nothing more than ruins absorbed seamlessly into the landscape, others are living and breathing heritage sites with museums attached. This picturesque landscape of relics today offers visitors a fascinating glimpse into a way of life that has all but disappeared.

David Rutherford, principal officer at Cornish Mining World Heritage, believes this essentially industrial backdrop is a reason for tourists to get off the beaten track and discover a hidden history of national importance.

“Cornish mining was an industry that made us centre of the world for a time, but where did all go?" he says.

"We are seen as a tourist destination but we’re also the world’s first post-industrial landscape. We have got this incredibly rich and dynamic industry heritage behind us; exploring this is a journey into the real Cornwall.

“If you want an authentic Cornish experience you need to understand the Cornish stories.”

a photo of a winding gear at a pit head
The mine head frame at Geevor Tin Mine, which has become one of Cornwall's most popular visitor attractions© Cornwall Council. Photo Ainsley Cocks
The illustrious UNESCO designation came in recognition of a long history of mineral exploitation stretching back more than three millennia.

In particular, from the 18th century onwards, the metal mining industry took on substantial importance for Great Britain, providing the essential raw materials and complex logistical skills needed to spark the world’s first Industrial Revolution.  

Much of the landscape of Cornwall and neighbouring West Devon was transformed dramatically by Cornish miners during those 200 hundred years leading up to 1914, as a result of the industrial-scale copper and tin mining.

Filled with dark and deep underground mines, towering engine houses, emerging new towns, tiny smallholdings and buzzing ports and harbours, the whole county ebbed and danced to the tune of these metals, not to mention their prices.

Yet the rigours of such economic demands in pursuit of greater and greater production were also the catalyst for the development of pioneering technological advancements.

They were inventions and innovations that have helped reshape the world into the society we live in today. An oft-cited example is Richard Trevithick’s advances in steam engine technology.

Originally motivated by the need to pump water out of mines, his work ultimately enabled the development of steam trains, an innovation that commenced the start of a shrinking world through the mass movement of people and goods.

Rutherford adds one further example; that of William Murdoch. "His house in Redruth was the first-ever domestic residence to be lit by gas," he says. “Doubtless, this marked the start of much more productive winter-evenings for everyone all over the county.”

Aside from the economic aspect of Cornish mining, the World Heritage designation also recognises the vast cultural and scientific exchange brought about by the Cornish Diaspora. There’s an old saying in Cornwall: “Wherever you may go in the world, if you see a hole in the ground, you'll find a Cornishman at the bottom of it.”

a photo of a engine house overgrown with ivy
West Godolphin Mine© Cornwall Council. Photo Ainsley Cocks
These "Cousin Jacks" took mining technique and pasty alike on their voyage around the globe in search of work after the industry deflated at home.

In every decade from 1861 to 1901, around a fifth of all Cornish males emigrated – three times the average for England and Wales. In total, Cornwall lost more than a quarter of a million people between 1841 and 1901. The emigrants included farmers, merchants and tradesmen, but miners were the most numerous.

“Look at the influence Cornish mining has had on Mexico for instance,” adds Rutherford. “Cornish miners brought the pasty to Mexico; now the country is the world’s largest pasty producer. They’ve even opened the world’s first pasty museum.”

There are at least 175 places across six continents where Cornish mine workers took their skills, technology and traditions: a truly global heritage.

Everywhere you go in Cornwall, evidence can be seen of this region’s great industrial past. But now the mines have stopped and the engine houses stand still. Yet one can still venture out and explore these quietened monoliths of the past;  silent tributes to a heritage that once made Cornwall, indeed Britain, the forerunner of an advancing world.

“Cornwall is special, it has a soul and feel all of its own," concludes Rutherford. "That is because of its mining heritage;  you need to understand that heritage to understand why Cornwall is the way it is.”


Cornish Mining World Heritage Logo
Jamie Maddison is the Culture24/Cornish Mining World Heritage 2012 bursary journalist filing stories about Cornwall's UNESCO World Heritage Site mining landscape. Contact him at jamie@culture24.org.uk. Read his blog at www.jamiemaddison.com

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