Cornwall: two landscapes

Driving west on the A30, it’s impossible to miss the post-industrial landscapes of clay- and tin-mining country. Whatever your feelings toward them, they are impressive, and very different from each other.

Clay mining – the Cornish Alps – sprawl over the area north and west of St. Austell (and give the Eden Project it’s home). Tin mining – a larger part of the Cornish economy for a far longer time, dating back millenia rather than centuries – is spread across a much wider area. Standing on Carn Brea, the low hill that looms over Camborne, Pool and Redruth, you can see from right to left, pretty much all the tin areas before you: St. Agnes, Camborne-Redruth, Godolphin, St. Ives, Wendron. Only that of St. Just is hidden by the low spine of West Penwith.

One ancient industry and one more recent, in one of the few areas of Britain where mining heritage is still highly visible. In Fife, Lothian, Yorkshire, South Wales and Nottinghamshire the winding gears have (mostly) long been dismantled and recycled. Although mining museums (such as those in Newtongrange and Wakefield) keep alive the history, regardless of your views on either the environmental impact of fossil fuel use or the assault on the trade union movement by the Thatcher government (of which coalminers bore the brunt), that there are so few signs remaining of this once mighty industry is dispiriting1. You can destroy the buildings far quicker than you can repair the fractured communities.

Cornwall has – for far longer than the coalmining regions – had to pick up the pieces after industry’s demise, and it still has one of the lowest standards of living in Britain. The county has been hugely subsidised by the E.U., just one more thing which makes the Leave vote incomprehensible.


The tin industry was not – unlike coal – destroyed by a vindictive government, but by the vagaries of an early global market. Falling prices killed the mines slowly, wheal by wheal2. Ironically, the cheaper tin which flooded the market was often sourced from countries whose own industries were founded by Cornish migrants fleeing successive waves of unemployment (the Heartlands “cultural playground” in Camborne/Pool commemorates this in its “diaspora garden”).

In the 17th and 18th centuries, these fluctuating tin prices led to miners starving. There were riots in Truro and Redruth; tinners would break into merchants’ houses looking for grain. In an early, but sadly recognisable form of working-class demonisation, they were scapegoats for all ills, and “held responsible for any disturbance, any breach of the peace.”

Several of the “iconic” engine houses have been preserved or refurbished: Levant, Geevor, East Pool, King Edward and Robinson’s Shaft (at Heartlands), and today’s (service sector) employees do not, hopefully, risk their lives on a daily basis (their pristine condition is misleading however: no tin mine would be that clean when operational, but heritage tourism doesn’t “do” dirt and grime).

The winding gear of South Crofty, across the road from Heartlands, stands proud, visible for miles. It remains mothballed since its closure in 1997 spelled the end of 3,000 years of tin mining in Cornwall. Successive attempts to re-open it have foundered, and its future remains uncertain3.

Previous attempts to reboot the tin industry have failed, having come up against the leviathan that is now Cornwall’s main employer: tourism. In 1961 a Public Enquiry was held into the prospect of a new mine near Zennor. Objections had been raised that it would spoil the landscape, and affect the fine coastal views. The only witness to speak in it’s defence was the artist Peter Lanyon. Lanyon was the only major “St. Ives artist” who was a native of the area, and he was deeply engaged with the history and geography of west Cornwall. He knew that the mine meant local employment. In defence of the proposal, he said:

“opponents talk of beauty and the magnificence of scenery as if nature were incapable of wrath that would touch them…what view do they think the Cornishman has, who desires above all to make his own riches, but is barred by some concept of beauty that denies him the honour of his labour?”

Lanyon was that rare thing: a landscape painter acutely aware of man’s impact on his environment. Prefiguring China Mieville’s concept of the pictureskew, his near-abstract paintings of Cornwall’s land, sea and sky do not efface the presence of employment and the exploitation of that employment. His monumental St. Just (1951) with its central crucifix, commemorates lives lost in the tin mines in general, but specifically the Levant disaster of 1919, an event only now receding from living memory. Lost Mine (1959) and Wheal Owles (1958) are other examples of his engagement with the industrial history of the region – a history he may, as a descendant of mine-owning family, have felt some unease toward.

Are the west Cornish tinscapes only impressive because of their stillness? Would we find them so romantic if they were not ruined, if they still made the rivers run red4 with their contamination? I doubt it. Daphne du Maurier writes, in her book Vanishing Cornwall:

“perhaps they seemed ugly once, bare as electric pylons do today, smoke from tall chimneys fouling the air, and instead of present silence the chug of machinery”

Is it the absence of people, the loneliness these places evoke (a relative concept in buildings that abut a dual carriageway or a modern industrial estate), their emptiness that elevates a scene to the realm of the sublime? Perhaps. The late Mark Fisher, in his wonderful The Weird and the Eerie, defines the “eerie” as something (i.e. a landscape) containing “absence where there should be presence”, and I’d suggest the ruined engine houses can evoke a sublime eeriness.

But we must be honest about what it is we enjoy in a landscape, and there is something unsettling in the enjoyment taken from a landscape which, from a human-economical point of view, has been hollowed out; there is something not entirely right about preferring a vista with only the remains of industry, to that of one with living industry providing living people with an income right now. But perhaps an acknowledgement of this dissonance is enough; not every circle can be squared.

Nonetheless, there is much that is unsettling in our enjoyment of a landscape. The granite hump of Carn Brea is topped (below) by a obelisk which commemorates Francis Basset, foremost of the mine- and land-owning Bassets of Tehidy. Although he is recorded as being concerned for miners’ welfare, and though 20,000 people took part in the procession of his funeral, this is still a man who, as Bernard Deacon writes in his Cornwall and the Cornish, as an M.P. hurried back to Cornwall to ensure hungry food rioters “were properly hanged and not, as was usual, let off with transportation”.


Is this the type of person we are comfortable memorialising? And if not, then this should lead us to the next question: “who decides who is commemorated?” And if the answer to that is “the authority in possession of the land”, then the logical follow-up question then becomes: “who owns the land?” And, ultimately: “why?”


The “Cornish Alps” are a much more modern manifestation than the engine houses. Clay mining began in Cornwall in 1746. The piles resemble the coal bings of elsewhere (Broxburn, West Lothian springs to mind), but dwarf them, and the white colour lends the panorama an element of weirdness.

Daphne du Maurier, who lived not far away, was smitten by them, writing of their

“strange, almost fantastic beauty…[with the same] grandeur as tin mining in decay but in a wilder and more magical sense…there is nothing ugly here.”

Clay mining and clay country was perhaps viewed by others as less romantic than its elder cousin. It was “relatively new and did not enjoy all the ancient historical associations of metal mining”. Many of the great white peaks, if the Ordnance Survey maps are authoritative, have no official name. Local names may exist, but DANGER signs and restricted access do not help lodge a place’s nuances in the public imagination. That said, authoritative or not, the OS Explorer map for the area in question is striking:


Doesn’t that just make you want to explore? Look at all the white! There are tracks that go nowhere! There are ancient barrows jutting right up against these huge tips! I love Ordnance Survey maps – never forgetting that they are an arm of government, with their own agenda5 – but the fact there’s stuff even they can’t fully map, here in the U.K., is awesome.

Whereas, conventionally, blue is used to denote bodies of water which in reality change colour with the light, the pools nestling in the crowns of the clay tips are actually done a disservice by the OS colouring. As anyone flying into Newquay airport can testify, they are a dazzling aquamarine, more blue than blue.

I haven’t walked among the clay tips as I have the tin country, so this piece is written from a certain distance. But I am happy to defer again to du Maurier:

“[one’s] sense of orientation goes awry, as it does on Bodmin Moor, and although roads intersect the vast expanses, and sign-posts give direction, some strange instinct compels the unwary motorist or walker to travel in a circle, the waste-heaps and pitted pools becoming all alike, and there seems no way out, no means of escaping from this fantastic world.”

She also addresses the question of this more modern industry’s place in the public (folk) imagination.

“An industry rapidly becoming mechanised…is, alas, unlikely to produce myth or legend. No knackers beckon from the pyramids, no water-sprite lurks in the deep pools. Or, if they do, the layman has not yet heard tell of them. Isolation, the breeding ground of fear and mythology, is no more”. (my italics).

Should that prevent new myths? post-industrial folklore? Walks need to be taken, journeys made, from which a common language may spring. These mounds exist; they are not going away6; infertile as they are, it takes growth such a long time to take a foothold that they are not changing their appearance any time soon; and their fascination is plain. How do we act upon them and integrate what they tell us? How do we reconcile them with the ancient features they exist among? Are these not cousins to other post-industrial regions where ruin, toxicity and the expense needed to overcome these obstacles prevent “development”? How do we speak of such landscapes?


1Perhaps coalmining lacks the “romance” of tin mining. Perhaps not enough time has passed; perhaps “romance” only develops when the scars have healed and the struggles have passed from living memory, if we define “romance” in this context as an idealisation of the past.

But are pitheads any less worthy of preservation than the statues of long-forgotten men that litter our cities? To argue otherwise betrays a (typically British) reactionary attitude toward modernist, functional architecture. Cockenzie power station was demolished in 2015; an eyesore to some, but if an eyesore is needed to remind the people of Edinburgh where their electricity has come from for the last fifty years, then so be it. And it was less of an eyesore than the ruin caused by floods or storms that hit (far away, poor) countries as a result of the global warming caused by our burning of fossil fuels.

2wheal: Cornish for “place of work”

3There is no lack of tin under the ground but also, crucially, the minerals that mobile phone batteries need to operate. Surely it’s in our interests to source these minerals without the exploitation that goes on elsewhere in the world in their pursuit?

4The Red River flows into the sea near Godrevy, passing through Tuckingmill. The colour even today is still an opaque brick red. The River Vinnick, passing through clay country, was known historically as the White River for the same reasons: pollution by mining waste.

5The decision to render the clay tips as (mostly) blank white space, although aesthetically pleasing, is questionable. They are not featureless, nor without subtle gradient. Do we lack the mapping language to adequately represent post-industrial landscapes? Are these mounds, because removed from the public arena and therefore unavailable for “utility”,  not worth the detail expended elsewhere?

6Few landscapes in Britain are unspoiled. The Highlands only appear bare and sheep-spotted because the human inhabitants were burned out of their homes and sent overseas to make room for more profitable sheep.


Ordnance Survey Explorer 106: Newquay and Padstow (2014)

du Maurier, Daphne: Vanishing Cornwall (Penguin, 1972)

Deacon, Bernard: Cornwall and the Cornish (Alison Hodge, 2010)

Chapman, Sarah & Chapman, David: Iconic Cornwall (Alison Hodge, 2010)

Stephens, Chris: Peter Lanyon – At the Edge of Landscape (21 Publishing, 2000)

map image copyright Ordnance Survey

5 thoughts on “Cornwall: two landscapes

  1. A fascinating essay, Paul. Some interesting questions here about our perception of landscape and what ‘makes it’. My own childhood is encircled by the coal bings of Lanarkshire, and their lingering presence in my psyche probably explains how I view these parts of the world through a particular prism.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Brian. Yes, how we see landscapes must be a product of conditioning; a learned response. Neither our perception nor the landscape is “pure”, and the heritage industry – pleasant though it is to visit these attractions – only adds a further layer of obfuscation while being unable to admit it.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s