Cornish Mining World Heritage: The Count House and coast at Botallack Mine, St Just

By Jamie Madison | 17 October 2012
a photo of a ruined beam engine house perched on the edge of a cliff with blue sea beyond
© Jamie Maddison / Culture24
The glorious coast surrounding St Just is home to what was once the world’s largest concentration of undersea tin and copper mines. Working deep under the Atlantic – at times up to a mile out beneath the waves – 19th century Cornish miners went to extreme lengths to extract the valuable hidden copper and tin deposits.

Of all the Cornish submarine workings, Botallack Mine is perhaps the most iconic and certainly the most breathtaking in its atmosphere and setting. And it was to be the starting point of my next audio-trail travelogue.

With a wafting sea breeze lifting its way up over the cliffs, I stroll from my starting point on a rough stone track by the car park over to the Count House of Botallack Mine and the beginning of the audio trail.

Once the estate of the mine Captain – as all Cornish mine managers were known – the house is today in the care of the National Trust. Inside its quiet doors hang a few small, abstract pictures and some information panels, and it has the air of a space enjoying a quiet retirement after the heady days of its former glory.

The instructions tell me to follow onward and I head around the way, towards a large chimney and archway, somewhat reminiscent of a Tolkienesque home from the lands of Hobbiton, just vaster in scale. But this labyrinth – the remains that I now survey up close – had a much more deadly purpose: the production of the poisonous substance arsenic.

In 1906 this industrial complex came complete with thick iron doors installed at the end of each bend in the labyrinth with the temperature inside reaching up to 600 degrees centigrade. Then, once the furnaces had died down and the labyrinth cooled, men and boys could begin their unenviable task of scraping the crystalline almost pure arsenic from its walls; their noses plugged with cotton wool, faces tied with handkerchiefs and arms smeared in clay to prevent rashes.

a photo of a large chimney on the horizon of a large clifftop
© Jamie Maddison / Culture24
Today, passing a solitary figure asleep on the grass where these unlucky scrapers once worked, I approach a brickwork archway gazing out to sea. Looking out from this beautiful vista one could almost be forgiven for thinking that this brickwork was the last remains of a house. It is, in fact, a large industrial oven known as a calciner – a Brunton calciner to be exact; named after its inventor WilliamBrunton.

The tin ore used to be spread around on an iron bed, or hearth, which then slowly revolved over a fire so that the core could be heated evenly to a dull-red heat. The contaminating arsenic and sulphur were driven off as a gas, the arsenic crystallising as it cooled on the walls of the labyrinth I had just walked around, leaving behind clean tin ore in the calciner.

Moving down the grass slope, the full view of the magnificent cliff-top engine houses by the sea unfolds. This scene, despite its prominence on postcards in tourist shops up and down Cornwall, remains breathtaking to actually experience in the flesh. Rolling Atlantic breakers lap against the dark rock cliffs, while perched upon the very precipice sit two engine houses. They are a feat of engineering beauty and a testament to their creators’ determination and creativity in face of their greatest challenge to overcome yet: the sea.

I go down to the monoliths and look about; the sound of the swells pounds much louder here and the cliffs rise all around, wet and ominous. There are no other sounds. Nothing moves except the endless ocean, forever stretching away in front of me.

Walking back along the path I pass by mounds of rubble, bits of walls jutting out here, there and all around: former buildings obscured to me through the distance of time and the ever-reclaiming vegetation.

Nearby, on the edge of a cliff, is a walled-around open mineshaft. Its name is Cargodna, part of Wheal Owles, and down this shaft, on January 11 1893, 19 men and a boy descended who never again returned to the light of day. They accidentally broke into water-filled abandoned mine workings and the resulting flood entombed them forever. Their names are recorded further up the way, on a modest plaque set into an unassuming stone bench by the path.  

From engine houses further along the track I turn around and finish my walk with a gentle stroll back towards Botallack Count House. On my way I pass a long, low building, the Botallack Vean. In 1906, when Botallack Mine reopened, it was built as accommodation and a survey school for the Penzance School of Mines. Today National Trust volunteers use it.

Then, all of a sudden, I am back once again at the start. It had only been a comparatively small walk, but upon my short travels I’d taken in the most breathtaking scenery of mines alongside the sea.

As with all aspects of Cornish mining, there was more here to find than first met the eye. Indeed, much of my enjoyment of these audio trails is in learning about the hidden mining stories and relics that are often overlooked but are all around in plain view, waiting for their story to be told.

If you are interested in finding out more about Cornish mining and the Great Flat Lode, visit www.cornish-mining.org.uk. If you would like to take this tour for yourself, then please download the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site's audio guide.

a photo of several stone buildings perched on the edge of cliffs with sea beyond
© Jamie Maddison / Culture24
a black and white photo with rubble in the foreground and a ruined engine house in the distance
© Jamie Maddison / Culture24
a black and white photo of a chimney and several ruined buildings
© Jamie Maddison / Culture24
a photo of a ruined building with a partial apex roof
© 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 UNESCO World Heritage Site mining landscape. Read his blog at www.jamiemaddison.com

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