Cornish Mining Heritage: Dark Engines - History and Architecture on the Great Flat Lode

By Jamie Maddison | 06 September 2012
a photo of a brick archway in a wall covered in foliage
© Jamie Maddison / Culture24
The mass of dark and broken buildings sits stark amidst the twisted greenery, carpeting the immediate landscape all around. From a perch atop a grassy mound I look down upon the remains of the Basset Mines at South Wheal Frances, near Camborne and part of the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site.

Situated along the Great Flat Lode - so called due to the unusually shallow angle of the tin lode here - the mine’s roofless buildings, sightless windows and ominous open shaft lay before me.

Long though these stone constructions have remained inactive, they are being brought back into life in my head through’s informal audio tour about the mine during its heyday more than a century ago. And so I set off, out on the trail to revisit this working mine long now closed.

a photo of stone archways overgrown with foliage
Part of the Miner's Dry - one of the biggest bathhouses in Cornwall.© Jamie Maddison / Culture24
Welcomed as a new investor in the year of 1900, I am being taken on a guided tour of these vast premises, a jumble of defunct structures to me but a powerhouse of Cornish heavy industry to my tour guide from the past, the mine’s purser or principal secretary.

With all introductions in proper place with this historical acquaintance, we proceed to the Miners’ Dry. Nowadays the building is a large empty expanse of stone, the wide flooring making for one family’s improvised football pitch, while an absence of a wall allows an inquisitive horse rider to sneak a peak inside as they trot past me.

But my guide tells me a different story. This was one of the biggest wash, change and clothes drying facilities for mineworkers in Cornwall, and just next to it - so I’m informed to the background noise of rushing water - is one of the biggest baths in Cornwall.

a photo of an archway covered in Ivy
The remains of the Bath House© Jamie Maddison / Culture24
A spectral vision of the miners’ tiresome daily wash arises. Of scrubbing and scrubbing and scrubbing the hematite, a red iron oxide ore that plasters every man from head to foot; ever reluctant to release its caking grip.

One could almost imagine curses emanating here not too dissimilar to that of Lady Macbeth’s famous "Out damn’d spot!", although - with the men being miners - the language was probably somewhat coarser.

I walk forward to a building that towers towards the sky as high as a cathedral. A huge, lofty archway beckons to me from the middle of this construction, like a gateway into some darkly seen otherworld. Beneath my feet - thankfully protected by a metal grate - descends the impenetrable depths of Marriott’s Shaft.

First sunk in 1845, this gargantuan 16-foot opening went down some 320 fathoms, or 1,920 feet (585m); you could put Cornwall’s highest point - Brown Willy on Bodmin Moor - at the bottom of this shaft and it would only reach two-thirds of the way up it.

a black and white photo of a semi-ruined engine house
© Jamie Maddison / Culture24
Right next to the opening lies the Winder and Boiler houses; their barren floors made colourful through the interesting, even gruesome accounts spun by my audio guide.

A family darts around me. They’re in the middle of a game of Hide-and-Seek amongst the buildings. I see their outlines darting in and out of the archways and windows, the family dog struggling to keep focused by all the rushing around in this sunny afternoon’s play.

The next building used to house the compressor, which was driven by a steam engine and powered up to thirty rock drills down below; machine drills could bore shot holes - needed for blasting - five times quicker then three men could with mere hand tools.

The only sign that’s left to show this massive machine was ever here are the crow holes – cramped miniature tunnels at the base of the building so that men and boys could crawl underneath and secure the bolts that held the vast machine.

They’re dark and foreboding and the atmosphere is not helped by the vivid coatings of unnatural algae which abound in the sheltered reaches of this particular place.

a photo of ruined building with archways
The Escher like qualities of the mining heritage site are seen from a perch atop the ore sorter© Jamie Maddison / Culture24
Standing on top of the Ore Sorter, I take in the vista of this whole mine. From where I stand the buildings merge together, until they are but one piece of the same stonework.

From this perch I could not have told you which doorway led to what area or which windows would look upon what. Everything had taken upon the qualities of an Escher drawing; an impossible construction sat stationary in its own impossible world.

Before I leave, my faithful guide takes me across the field to the last engine houses belonging to the mine. Built like castles - and one with arrow slits for windows - these well-preserved relics become lit up by a solitary beam of sunlight as I approach.

Behind them stands other engine houses, dotted here and there, all the way along the landscape up to the very edge of the green horizon; every single one of them a historical and architectural tribute to the immense achievement of Cornish mining on the Great Flat Lode.

a panoramic shot of engine houses and other mining buildings set within a Cornish landscape
The sweep of the Great Flat Lode© Jamie Maddison / Culture24
If you are interested in finding out more about Cornish mining and the Great Flat Lode, visit If you would like to take this tour for yourself, download the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site’s audio guide.

  • Access the suite of audio trails available within the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site, by downloading Cousin Jacks – The Cornish Mining App for free at:

More photos:

a photo of ruins with foliage in focus in the foreground
© Jamie Maddison / Culture24
a photo of brickwork walls with archways
© Jamie Maddison / Culture24
a photo of a brickwork wall with round window
© Jamie Maddison / Culture24
a black and white photo of a semi ruined building seen across a field
© Jamie Maddison / Culture24
a black and white photo of two people on horseback passing a ruined building
© Jamie Maddison / Culture24
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 Read his blog at

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