Tilting at Beam Engine Houses in the Cornwall Mining Landscape

By Jamie Maddison | 15 June 2012
a photo of a disused beam engine house and chimney seen through the fog
© Jamie Maddison/Culture 24
A fog hangs thick outside the little car as it rushes along the country lanes. Visibility down these high-banked single-track Cornish roads – generally poor at the best of times – is today non-existent, and the day’s clinging wetness seems to penetrate everything. The enigmatic weather marks a particularly adventurous start of my little quest to find as many of Cornwall’s most iconic mining monuments as possible.

If you’ve ever been way out west then you will of course be aware of the large and old chimney-spouting buildings dotted along the entirety of the county’s picture-postcard landscape.

Many interested fingers point at them, smudging the windows of cars up and down the A30 as holidaymakers head on their way to seaside destinations. They, and we, know the buildings have something to do with Cornwall’s great mining past, but what exactly are these obscure monoliths that flit past our windscreens and fleeting attentions alike, and what exactly did they do?

a photo of a large building wall with a window in which a man stands
© Jamie Maddison/Culture 24
Well, to answer the question, they’re the buildings once home to Cornish Beam Engines, which were originally developed to pump floodwater out from the deep mines across this region.

Cornish Engines were also used for winching ore and materials, for crushing ore at surface and, in a few instances, for powering man engines to assist the underground miners' journeys to and from their working levels.

It is not an exaggeration to say these engines were the powerhouses of an industry that, according to local hearsay, removed so much underground material that if it was all laid out flat aboveground, then the entirety of Cornwall’s surface area would be covered over.  

Firmly armed with that knowledge (and rumour) in hand, a friend and myself headed off into the soupy Thursday morning fog to try and discover as many of these old engine houses as humanly achievable, right across Cornwall, without maps, and all in the space of a single day.

We commence with a mad rush, first past Penzance, heading for the isolated north coastline of that far westerly region. Between frantic periods of throwing the car straight into hairpins and hedgerows to avoid a constant stream of uncharitable lorry drivers, we finally managed to spot our first engine house, lying just outside the village of Cripplesease.

a photo of a stone built engine house seen through the fog
© Jamie Maddison/Culture 24
The building could hardly be seen in the mist; looming like an obscure and unreadable throwforward, one that HG Wells’ Time Traveller might just chance upon in the future land of Eloi and Morlocks.

We don’t stop for long and so it’s soon onward, back in the car, to the coast and the Carn Galver workings. What’s left to see here is an isolated chimney, standing proud but detached, both from the nearby buildings and certainly from the world it used to belong to.

If the weather was better one could embark upon a bit of adventurous rock climbing on the cliffs below this engine house, but as the cold and clamminess begins to dig into our bodies we decide to be on our way once again.

Levant, near St Just; it’s raining, thrashing it down even, and through the wet one can just about distinguish three stripped-out shells of yet more engine housings.

From our vantage point three line up near perfectly, like some earthbound Orion’s belt, and prove for some good picture-taking. But pelting rain hammers on stone and sea alike, and we decide to run back to the car for this one.

a photo of a man eating a Cornish pastie in a car
© Jamie Maddison/Culture 24
The vehicle is quiet apart from the constant patter of the rain. We watch the beams of the old steam engines rise and fall in our mind’s eye while their physical remains appear and disappear in our vision, all on the whim of the clouds and the wind.

We lunch and wait as moisture from our wet clothing steams up everything around us until the windows themselves close up with condensation, cocooning us.

Heading off again, we swing embarrassingly through Land’s End’s car park on the way (“I’m not paying £5 to park! Is there even any engine houses this way?”) Then it’s back, back east, to the Great Flat Lode south of Camborne and Redruth.

The weather has partially lifted and the Celtic Cross of Basset’s Monument looks on dismissively as we traverse round its broad base atop Carn Brea hill to find yet more engine houses. They dot the space in front of us, uniformly poking out of the fields and hedges, aloof and unreadable at this distance. 

a photo of engine houses seen in the distance through the fog
© Jamie Maddison/Culture 24
Finally we reach our 17th and last engine house of the day; Wheal Grenville. It’s a large building, bigger than the ones we’ve explored thus far, and the eerie stillness of the place drills deep into my thoughts.

Clambering upward, the obscure entrance into the house quickly opens itself into a large box-like space. In the sky above, a lone crow circles its nest on the house’s stubby chimney stack, damaged during as lighting strike in 1897. The bird hovers, its black wingtips spread widely, cawing shrilly into the motionless air, obviously sensing a new intruder in its domain.

At my feet lie two huge slabs of granite. Together they construct an altar or perhaps appear more like graves, a final capping stone placed over the long-rested coffin of a once titanic industry.

I drop a coin down the drill hole in one of the slabs and it falls. Downwards the shiny circle tumbles, into the darkness and out of sight. Standing here, in this place, it is almost possible to believe that the little coin never reached the underworld’s end.

For one day, we’d allowed these remnants of a time before to jump back into the here and, now, allowed them to bleed back into vision and into the landscape of our incessantly preoccupied modern mentality.

Yet our experiences in these shrines of the Cornish past are neither temporary, nor unique to us alone. All those engine houses are still standing there ready, waiting, perhaps for the next explorer to come along and look upon this heritage of old with the fresh eyes of the present day.

Maybe it’s time to take a visit?

a black and white photo of a man standing in the window of a disused stone building
© Jamie Maddison/Culture 24

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

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