Discover brooding landscapes and atmospheric ruins on this little known coast-to-coast trail that explores Cornwall’s rich mining heritage
Words by Mark Rowe and photography by Steve Morgan
Sitting under a palm tree, I watch a heron shrug its shoulders and flap its way across the mudflats. Kernels from a Monterrey pine lie at my feet. I’m in Devoran, a sleepy port-village on the south coast of Cornwall, whose Mediterranean doziness belies its feverish, industrial origins. But unlike most visitors, I’ve come to Cornwall to explore the interior of the county rather than its traditional seascapes, and Devoran is the appetising gateway to one of the UK’s more unheralded coast-to-coast walks, an 11-mile/17km trail that links it to Portreath on the north coast.
The route is marked by stolid lumps of granite depicting a silhouette of an engine house, and the trail takes you through the heart of a forgotten Cornwall. This is a land where tin was once king, which has bequeathed a pock-marked legacy of fractured and decaying engine houses and other monuments to the mining industry.
Devoran emerged almost overnight in the 1820s. Located on a narrow finger of land into the Fal estuary, it was constructed in a style redolent of the mining villages in South Wales and County Durham: two long residential streets, a commercial street, four pubs, a church, a chapel and a police station. Devoran was driven by copper and tin (even a little gold was found here) and for a while was at the heart of the greatest tin mining district in the world. Hundreds of packhorses and later, tramways, transported the ores from mines upriver. Devoran shipped the ores to South Wales but also imported jute from India, and timber from Scandinavia to support the mines. The tin has long gone: this year marks the 20th anniversary of the closure of South Crofty, Cornwall’s last mainstream tin mine. Six million people overseas are reckoned to be descended from migrant Cornish mine workers. Go down a mine anywhere in the world, so the saying has it, and you’ll find a Cornishman. Anywhere, that is, apart from Cornwall.
The legacy, though, is everywhere, as I soon discover. The county’s rich tin mining heritage was the inspiration for Winston Graham’s swashbuckling Poldark novels, this wild landscape the appropriate setting for the successes and travails of brooding protagonist Ross Poldark. The runaway success of the BBC’s recent television drama adaptation of Graham’s novels, which is set to return to our screens later this year for a fourth series, has drawn attention to Cornwall – yet I wonder how many viewers have been inspired enough to visit this part of the county.
Leaving Devoran I head up the Carnon valley, fenced in by high banks of bright yellow gorse flowers, while the eponymous river gurgles powerfully past me. In places, the riverbank gives way to mires where alders stand ankle-deep in water. I pass underneath a striking nine-arch railway viaduct that ferries the Falmouth branch line across the valley. Rather daunting notices caution against wading into the adjacent (fenced-off) ponds, which remain contaminated with tailings and mining by-products. Not all the waters are off limits, though, for 30 ponds have been cleansed and now offer a habitat for the scarce blue-tailed damselfly as well as several dragonflies and moorhens. The clean-up was accompanied by measures to improve public access for local people and remnant concrete aggregate from the mines was used to create new paths. The coast-to-coast is an extension of this project and shifts between quiet lanes and bridleways while longer stretches form a shared path with cyclists and can get busy, especially in summer.
Abruptly, after passing the village of Bisso, the picturesque scenery gives way to something rather grittier. The land here has been gouged, worked over and re-worked. This is a mournful landscape, littered with spoil heaps and fragmented engine houses, chimneys and lonely arches fronting nothing but air. I’m aware of the unusual sensation of looking upwards in Cornwall – most walks in Cornwall seem to involve looking down from a cliff-top vantage point. Everywhere, I am looking at history. Tin was first worked here in the Bronze Age, some 3,500 years ago. The engine houses here – Wheal Fortune, Wheal Andrew, Wheal Nangiles, Wheal Henry – are not the romanticised, prettified structures of holiday postcards. These are damaged buildings, where chimneys lurch at unsettling angles, rubble at their feet. When dusk approaches, and the ravens honk their way to roost, the ruins of Poldice Mine overlooking Bisso Pools exude a particularly dystopian, post-industrial edge.
The grim mine-scape is relieved by the delightful Unity Wood, a smattering of ancient oak, beech and hazel that pushes up against the village of Scorrier. At this point the coast-to-coast trail dismisses the busy A30 at a stroke but I decide to briefly leave the trail and spend the day exploring the mining landscape around the adjacent towns of Redruth and Camborne. Overlooked by the millions who hurtle down the A30, the towns deserve a break, for they represent a side of Cornwall that most visitors do not see – and that some would rather you did not: in 2012, when the Olympic flame was paraded around the UK, the organisers appeared dismally keen to by-pass Redruth and Camborne altogether. ‘More awareness of the interior of Cornwall and its towns is a good thing,’ says Lara Beach, vice-chair of Cornwall Ramblers, when I call her after my walk. ‘These routes are often overlooked by locals too.’
The best way to explore this hidden landscape is the walking trail known, and signposted, as the Great Flat Lode. This seven mile/11km loop encircles the landscape south of the two towns. The name comes from the enormous tin deposits (lodes) found between the hills of Carnkie and Carn Brae, and which were laid down at less steep inclines than elsewhere in Cornwall. Today, it remains one of the best conserved mining landscapes in the world. In 2006 UNESCO, the cultural arm of the UN, designated a large slice of Cornwall a world heritage site on account of its mining legacy.
Good paths knit together the various mining sites of the lode. I make my way to Carn Brae, an ancient fortified settlement that is home to the iconic Cornwall monument, shaped like the chimney of an engine house. Climbing Carn Brea is a good way of seeing most of the landmarks of Cornwall and from its 228m/748ft summit I count at least 25 engine houses that slowly emerge from the soft blur of bracken and gorse. A little further along the ridge is Carn Brae castle, now a restaurant but which, tethered to the surrounding granite, feels like a Celtic slice of Transylvania.
An intensely mournful beauty accompanies the walker along the Great Flat Lode. Shorn of their roofs, the surviving arches and walls of engine rooms and boiler houses create the effect of cloisters: the chimneys imitate church spires; collapsed supporting walls expose steel girders and leave the impression of Italianate loggias. Their interior enclosures are choked with gorse and heather. All have their merits, but South Wheal Frances and Wheal Basset are particularly memorable for their Cistercian echoes. The walking is also easy, despite the occasional steep incline. I later mention this to Robert Fraser, rights of way officer for Cornwall Ramblers. ‘The mining trails are generally really flat, which is unusual in Cornwall and good if you struggle with hills for any reason,' he says. ‘The mining landscape has a particular beauty, though it is an unconventional beauty.’
I wind up my circumnavigation of the Great Flat Lode trail at Heartlands, a regeneration project opened five years ago that combines housing, an arts studio and an exhibition space, featuring poignant recordings of miners’ memories. Heartlands sprawls across what was once the South Crofty mine landscape, which stretched the 4km/2½ miles to Redruth and, in places, plunged down to 3,000ft/900m in depth. The wheel house still stands, fenced off: periodically, when the world price of tin picks up, investors talk of re-opening South Crofty. No-one doubts that precious metals remain under Cornish soil – tin, copper, zinc, wolfram and perhaps even much-coveted rare earth metals – the only question is whether mining for them is now economically viable.
The next day I pick up the coast-to-coast trail, passing a Cornish cream factory before following a path of sylvan exquisiteness into the seaside town of Portreath. The contrast with Devoran could not be greater. High woods and clifftops funnel me towards a windswept beach with all the tourist trappings – souvenirs, fish and chip shops, pay and display car parks – that Devoran eschews.
Did I say I was keen to bypass the iconic coastal views? At Portreath I buckle under Cornwall’s considerable coastal charms and embark on one last hike, following the coast east for the best part of 9km/5.5 miles. I wind my way up hairpin bends before following the coast path up and down through the village of Porthtowan and the narrow beach of Chapel Porth before arriving at Wheal Coates, probably the most photographed of all the engine houses in Cornwall. Here, set in a landscape of high drama are two engine houses, one glowering down upon the other and both enjoying precarious perches above the wave-pummelled shore. To the west, Godrevy Island and its lighthouse seem dwarfed by the backdrop of high cliffs. Beyond, I know I must be looking at St Ives among the indistinct headlands. Inland, the dominant outline of Carn Brae and its castellated monuments give me that odd sensation, which only walking can offer, of looking back at oneself in a previous time. The sun is setting as I zig-zag my way up the cliffs. Once again, the ravens are honking.
- TIME/DISTANCE Devoran to Poltreath coast to coast trail 11 miles/17km; Great Flat Lode circular trail 7½ miles/12km; Portreath to Wheal Coates 5½ miles/9km.
- MAPS OS Explorer 104, Redruth & St Agnes.
- ACCOMMODATION Numerous options across the county – see visitcornwall.com/accommodation.
- FURTHER INFO: cornish-mining.org.uk