The old crumbling workings of Levant Mine, close to the village of Pendeen, are part of the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site and were once cared for by the Trevithick Society. Recently, the so called ‘Poldark effect’ has meant that visitor numbers here have risen a massive 40% and the present caretakers, the National Trust, have invested £25,000 in 12 months towards the preservation of this iconic mine.
I decided it was time to go and see what all the excitement is about.
Growing up in Cornwall you are surrounded by our mining history. It is very much part of the Cornish identity. You learn about the highs and lows of the industry almost by osmosis, the relics of that industrial past are everywhere, just part of the landscape, so I wasn’t really expecting to be surprised by my time at Levant. But I soon understood that a visit to this mine is both a fascinating and a moving experience.
Levant was one of Cornwall’s great copper and tin mines and it first opened in 1820. Beneath your feet, as you gaze out over the cliffs to the waves crashing below, are a thousand shafts and hundreds of miles of tunnels, some of which reach over a mile out beneath the sea bed. By 1836 there were 320 men, 44 women and 186 children employed on the site, some as young as 11 years old.
‘Conditions could be grim to put it mildly’, says Nick our guide, ‘The damp, an oxygen deficient atmosphere, no light and the heat made hard work of things.’
Nick takes us to a ramshackle old shed with a map of the mine’s shafts and adits on the wall. He surprises us with the figures, the depths in fathoms, geological facts, how the lodes form and the mineral dispersal through the rock. But he also brings vividly to life the hardships that these men faced. Hot, hard, dangerous work that in many cases brought about an early grave. Nick tells us that the average life expectancy of a miner in the 1840s was just 24 years. Unimaginable. Grim indeed.
As we step back outside the August sunlight is blinding and the dramatic coastline spreads out before us. In the distance the bright white column of the Pendeen lighthouse is highlighted against the blue sky. There are lots of wonderful walking opportunities from here but we are about to make our way underground.
Nick takes us down a steep granite staircase and unlocks a padlocked metal door at the bottom. As he slides it open I see a dimly lit tunnel with an uneven floor, sloping away into the distance. This was once one of the entrances to the mine, and it was from this tunnel we learn that the miners began their long day of work and it was from here that they exited into the fresh air again, many hours later.
At the end of the tunnel we come to a metal grid which covers one of the main shafts. It falls a staggering 2000ft, straight down through the granite and once housed the man-engine that carried the men down into the depths of the mine workings.
Sadly, as our guide continues, a sobering story unfolds. This shaft is the site of one of Cornwall’s worst mining disasters. On the 20th October 1919 the man-engine suddenly collapsed and plummeted into the mine. Thirty one men were killed and nineteen seriously injured. The collapse blocked the main shaft, so rescuers had to tunnel in from the side. It took them a week to reach the survivors. All the while the distraught families waited on the cliffs above, hoping for news.
This tragedy had a profound effect in the local community, one that still has echoes to this day, and it also marked the beginning of the end for Levant mine.
After counting us all back out into the daylight Nick guides us to the Levant’s pride and joy. Its Beam Engine. Built by Harveys of Hayle in 1840, it is perhaps Cornwall’s oldest steam engine. It was the first to be rescued by the Trevithick Society in the 1930s and later restored by its volunteers fondly known as the ‘Greasy Gang’.
Mick, the engine driver, lets off the brake and she groans slowly in to life. The smell of the warm steam, the grease and the rhythmic, almost gentle motion, of the beam is strangely relaxing.
I tell Mick this and he laughs. He tells me that he thinks so too and that all the volunteers love the job of looking after her. “Sometimes we fight over whose turn it is,” he says with a chuckle. I totally understand why! She is really rather magical.
As I walk back up the gravel slope, past the ruin of the old counting house, I pause and look back down at the mine. I wonder now if I have spent my whole life surrounded by a mining heritage that I took for granted. My visit to Levant has certainly opened my eyes to the fascinating world that lies just beneath the surface of this county.
Levant is open everyday, 10.30 – 17.00 until October 2018.
Click HERE for more information.
For another mining story try: Some Cornish Mining History – The Ground Beneath Our Feet