Droskyn Point towers above Perranporth beach. The crashing waves of the Atlantic beat its rocky cliffs. But this spectacular headland hides an ancient secret. Hidden down a steep, narrow path is thought to be the earliest known evidence of mining in Cornwall.
Beginnings . . .
The origins of tin mining in Cornwall are hazy of course, and incomplete. When you are discussing something that happened so long ago it is difficult to be certain of anything. How and when it all began are open to much conjecture. What is widely understood however is that Cornwall has been a source of precious minerals for thousands of years. And those minerals were traded across Europe and further afield from the earliest times.
“The people of that promontory of Britain called Belerion [Penwith] are friendly to strangers, and from their contact with foreign merchants are civilized in their way of life, they carefully work the ground from which they extract the tin.” Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheke Historike, c. 44 BC.
Is it clear that the Cornish have always exploited the treasures hidden beneath their feet. Their extraction and use were part of the fabric of our ancient society. Part of our identity then, as it still was until relatively recently. The mine on Droskyn Point is just some of the earliest evidence of this.
The beach at Perranporth is one of Cornwall’s most popular and most beautiful. It has been well known as a bathing beach for hundreds of years, once often called Piran Sands, and still a top choice for surfers and families today.
“Here the whole volume of the Atlantic, unbroken by any land between this coast and America, rolls in huge billows in magnificent majesty over the broad sandy plain.” Rev. J. J. Daniell, 1880.
The numerous massive rocky arches of Perranporth beach are a familiar sight to visitors and locals alike. But it might surprise you to learn that these imposing structures are not entirely natural. They are almost certainly a result of man’s search for ore.
The arches have formed as the honeycomb of mining tunnels that lace their way through the cliffs of Droskyn Point collapse and are eroded by the elements.
The Ancient Galleries
At Droskyn Point a small path diverts from the main coastal route. Descending steeply it curves into a zawn in the cliff face. Below the waves crash against sheer, blackened rockfaces. But on the small platform in front of you is a group of precarious mining galleries relatively sheltered from the wind.
This site is thought to be the earliest evidence of mining in Cornwall. These man-made tunnels and caves could be as much as 2000 years old.
“The early history of these mines is entirely lost. The evidence however left by relics of ancient workings in the cliff face and on small islets, which once formed part of the mainland, it is thought not improbable that mining here for tin dates back 2000 years or more to the days of the Phoenicians.” James Roberts, 1912.
Early mining in Cornwall did not involve digging to any great depths. The tools which were still fairly primitive did not allow for this and flooding was another obvious issue.
Tin however was plentiful. It could be found in river beds, on beaches and on or close to the surface on rock faces. Writing about Iron Age Cornwall in 1934 A. K. Hamilton Jenkin concluded:
“There was no underground mining, of course, in those days. The tin ore was obtained from the sand and pebbles which they dug up in the moors and stream beds. The pebbles were afterwards crushed down by hand on some large flat stones and the ore was then smelted in primitive furnaces to extract the metal.”
The study of the site near Perranporth undertaken in 1912 suggested erosion of the hard rock at the Droskyn Mine indicating that the workings were of considerable antiquity.
Also known as ‘Vugh an Vounder’ the galleries with their distinctive low profiles and ancient tool marks are an exceptional example of a pre-industrial technique called Fire Setting.
Expert opinion suggests that the shallow galleries found in the cliff face at Droskyn Point were created by early man so that he could harvest the tin found in the rock there. Fire setting was a traditional technique used from prehistoric times up until the middle ages.
Indeed very similar mining galleries in Aramo in Spain, studyed by G. Weisgerber and L. Willies, have been dated to the 3rd millennium BC. The method is as simple as it is effective.
A fire is set against the rockface, the stone is heated, perhaps over several hours, and then doused with cold water. The resulting thermal shock causes the rock to crack and means that the mineral can be accessed more easily.
The Droskyn galleries show evidence of this type of mining and their position, while dangerous, was close to a handy source of chilly sea water!
“This parish is full of mines, some of which have been very rich in lead, silver, copper, tin and iron. At present West Chiverton is the most productive mine in the parish, producing large quantities of lead and zinc ore. Here also is the great Perran iron lode the largest lode in the county . . . Rev. J. J. Daniell, 1880.
After the ancient miners of these precarious galleries had long since gone to dust mines still covered these cliffs, from Perranporth to St Agnes, Chapel Porth to Portreath and beyond.
“The ruined ivy clad engine houses stand alone, the gaunt chimneys signposts to a past populated by the miners who worked below ground and the Bal Maidens who worked above.” James Turner, The Stone Peninsula, 1975
Other History of the Droskyn Headland
The name ‘Droskyn’ appears to be a derivation of ‘de Roskyn’, a Portuguese count who was said to have founded a monastery here. The site of the religious order is now allegedly beneath the Droskyn Castle Hotel.
Droskyn Point was also once famous for the other Cornish nation’s preoccupation – smuggling. Apparently the caves under the cliff were used to land contraband conviently out of sight of the customs men.
There is a huge shaft through the cliff, that can be seen to this day, which drops from the mining level to a cave at sea level below. Legend has it that a rope and pulley system allowed the smuggled goods to be hoisted up to the platform. From there mules were waiting to carry it away.
It was reported in 1780 that several of the areas most prominent men, including the local vicar, were part of an illegal free-trade syndicate. Droskyn’s headland caves were their chosen landing point. They even acquired their own boat, named the Cherbourg, so they could trade directly with France.
In more recent times Droskyn Point belonged to the Pill family. In 1896 the newspapers reported that Mr. T. H. Pill of Perranporth had handed the headland over to the parish council “to be held in perpetuity for the people”.
Discovering more . . .
The Droskyn mine site has remained undisturbed and unstudied since the original 1912 survey. In 2018 there was a plan to investigate more thoroughly the history and importance of this unique site. The collaborative project would have involved Camborne School of Mines and Cornwall Archaeology Unit as well as Perranzabuloe Museum and Falmouth University. The idea was to survey the site using up to the minute scanning techniques to record and study Droskyn’s ancient mines. Sadly however the proposed project wasn’t able to secure enough funding to go ahead.
Droskyn Point and the mining galleries are walking distance from Perranporth along the coastal path, this circular walk will take you past the site – Perranporth to Trevallas. But a word of warning, the paths are steep and narrow and require a good head for heights. Not really advisable for children or those with mobility problems. Go careful!
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