The scars left on the Cornish countryside by hundreds of years of mining were devastating. But fortunately in most places nature has reclaimed and revitalised the damaged often poisoned ground, miraculously creating some of our most peaceful and iconic landscapes. The transformation really can be astonishing. Sometimes, however, even nature can struggle to recover what’s been lost. Sometimes the scars just run too deep and we are left trying to find beauty in what appears to be an irreparable damage. Close to the villages of Carharrack and Twelveheads you will find Wheal Maid and an alien landscape that some have nicknamed the Cornish Mars.
The lagoons, the Wheal Maid Tailings as they are known, are of course man-made. And this industrial site has changed hands many times over the years. The strangely coloured lakes were originally built in the 1970s and 80s to hold waste sludge from the mines. First by Cornwall Tin and Mining Ltd, and then there was a second period of development from 1979 to 1981 when the site was under the ownership of Billiton Minerals UK Ltd. The lagoons would be enlarged and deepened as needed.
The raised embankments were constructed to hold the unwanted ‘tailings’ mostly from Wheal Wellington mine. These discarded waste deposits consisted of finely crushed mineralized rock which had been separated from the desired ores. The leftover powdered deposits often contained metallic elements including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, iron, zinc and nickel.
These minerals are what creates the fantastical colours in the soils and the waters of the lagoons. But might I suggest you don’t go for a swim.
The lagoons are close to the original site of a mine known as Wheal Maid. This copper mine initially opened in 1782 as part of the Great Consolidated Mine. Contemporary accounts suggest that the mine initially consisted of five lodes and was fairly successful in its early years.
But by the 1870s much of the useful minerals had been extracted. In 1873 the newspapers reported that the mine had been worked for several years by the Williams family but they had had little success with it. The mine closed at some point in the early 1900s and Wheal Wellington took over.
The area in which you will find the lagoons and the remains of Wheal Maid was once known as the richest mining area in the world. In the triangle between Scorrier, Carharrack and Twelveheads there were at least a dozen mines – Treskerby, Wheal Unity, Unity Wood, Wheal Gorland, Poldice, Wheal Damsel, Ting Tang, Wheal Jewel, Wheal Maid and others. And the largest of them all, Consolidated and United Mines.
D. B. Barton describes the area at the height of industry:
“What a scene of bustle and seeming confusion this must have presented in its heyday four-square engine houses, large and small, with smoking stacks, massive wooden headgears marking the shafts, intertwined with a tracery of capstan and whim ropes, pulley stands and lines of high wooden launders, slow turning horse whims; and groups of sheds where ore was dressed, beside which acre upon acre of copper ore lay piled up in circular ‘doles’ awaiting the smelters’ buyers or the carriers’ mules.”
Today the whole landscape for miles around is still dotted with capped shafts, stacks and ruined buildings. The Cornish Mars is just another relic of that history.
Visiting Cornwall’s Mars & Venus
In 2002 Gwennap Parish Council purchased the Wheal Maid site for £1. They set about conserving its history and improving the area for visitors. Large swaths of ground were planted with seeds in an attempt to improve the soil. But the plants struggled to grown in the barren area around the tailings, sometimes called The Sands, probably due to the arsenic pollution. The ground directly around the lakes is still pretty barren to this day.
Since parish council took over it has become a popular place with walkers, cyclists and horse riders. Motorbikes are not permitted however as they can kick up too much dust during dry spells.
It has to be said that a visit here is pretty unique in Cornwall, perhaps within the whole of the UK, and it might not be for everyone. I enjoy the otherworldly feel and the strange unearthly colours. The landscape is bizarre to say the least, but it is quite safe to visit. Unless of course you go about licking the rocks.
I did find it a little smelly in places, a sulphur-kind of eggy smell. But that’s not much to put up with for some really great photography and it certainly makes an unusual excursion.
Of course, I not the first to call this place the Cornish Mars. It even has it’s own pin on Google Maps . . .
Along with it’s sister planet Venus.
So if you fancy a visit to the Cornish Mars the easiest way to find your way to this Martian landscape is to follow one of the old mining tracks from the Coast to Coast cycle route. Or this walk, Wheal Maid and Poldice Circular, will guide you right to it and allow you explore more of the sites in the area too.
Review: Hidden in Plain Sight – a photographic journey into Cornish Mines by Claire Wilson
Ten of Cornwall’s Most Photogenic Beauty Spots
Levant Mine and the Tin Coast – Rising Fortunes & Going Underground!
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9 thoughts on “The Cornish Mars”
Amazing if scary! I’d love to go there!
It is pretty cool, but yes also a little disturbing . . . 😊
I can never get over the problems left from abandoned operations, whether mining or manufacturing. Once the soil if so badly polluted I wonder if it can ever recover.
I suspect that nature will win eventually, we just might not be around to see it!
I certainly hope it wins out over our carelessness.
There’s a really heartening example of this in the Hayle River. The upper reaches of the river run through old mine workings and consequently the water still has quite high mineral levels. Therefore scientists were surprised to find a population of trout in the river (trout normally live in pristine, fast-flowing streams and are super-sensitive to mineral contamination and many were killed in the Camelford water disaster when contaminated mains water was dumped into the Camel). Studies have revealed that the trout population in the Hayle River have evolved to turn on a gene which helps them to excrete the minerals. Also in the Metha valley near St Newlyn East in the red waters from East Wheal Rose, there is another population of trout. Not sure these have been studied yet but it seems likely that these have adapted similarly, and completely separately, from the Hayle population.
Brilliant story, John, thank you!!
That is indeed encouraging.