Cornwall Life visits Poldark Mine, one of the county's oldest recorded tin workings

PUBLISHED: 15:53 17 August 2010 | UPDATED: 16:01 20 February 2013

In this June issue, Cornwall Life visits Poldark Mine, one of the county's oldest recorded tin workings that has plenty to offer the visitor

Derek Stonley visits Poldark Mine, one of the county's oldest recorded tin workings that has much to offer the visitor, including the very last operational Cornish beam pumping engine

You can have a splendid day out at Poldark Mine. After following the B3297 for a little over two miles north from Helston, just beyond Wendron church, you reach the hamlet of Trenear, nestling in a shallow valley. This quiet agricultural landscape seems an improbable location for a mine, but tucked away against the western hillside is one of the oldest documented tin workings in Cornwall, dating back to at least 1493. The Wendron Mining District is one of the areas in Cornwall officially designated by UNESCO as having World Heritage Status, so this is special terrain, packed with interest.

Richard Williams, one of three mining heritage enthusiasts who now owns and manages the Poldark Mine, recounted to me the colourful origins of this tourist destination. Back in 1972, a retired Royal Marine called Peter Young attended an auction at Trenear, intending to buy a wardrobe. Instead he found himself submitting a winning bid of 100 for the local Wendron Forge.

Initially, this was where Peter stored his collection of steam engines, and the site was opened to the public as a tourist attraction. As the business expanded and the quantity of salvaged industrial machinery grew, Peter required increased compressed air capacity to power it all, and in response to complaints about the noise, decided to excavate a cutting into the hillside where his compressor could be placed to muffle the sound.

By chance, the cut broke into forgotten workings of the Wheal Roots tin mine. It quickly became apparent that this discovery was of exceptional interest, of 18th-century date or earlier, and a project began to provide public access, under the new name of Halfpenny Park. In 1975, the workings were considered an ideal location for filming parts of what was to become the hugely successful BBC Poldark series. An association began with Winston Graham, the author of the Poldark novels, who sanctioned the name Poldark Mine. The last Poldark book was launched at the mine in 2002, the year before Graham's death.

Today's visitors are sure to find much of interest at Poldark Mine. On the surface is a great variety of old mining and general engineering equipment, testament to Peter Young's eclectic, even magpie-like, talents of salvage and rescue. Perhaps Peter's greatest coup was to acquire the very last operational Cornish beam pumping engine, which had finally ceased work in February 1959 at the Greensplat china-clay workings near St Austell. This 30-inch engine, thought to have been manufactured in Cornwall as early as 1830, has been set up close to the mine entrance. Although now powered by air from the famous compressor (Richard Williams says that the cost of coal-fired steaming on a daily basis is prohibitive), it is the only beam engine now preserved in Cornwall that actually pumps water from underground. Elsewhere on the surface is a small museum containing good mineral specimens, and some of the ancient artefacts found in the old

workings, including a kibble (or iron tub) in which the ore was laboriously hauled up shafts to the surface.

Richard explained that education is an important issue for Poldark Mine, with numerous visits from schools from home and abroad. A popular stop is at Prospector's Corner, where pupils learn that many important minerals that we use today can be recovered using the property of their high density. Local sand, salted with real gold and gemstones, offers budding geologists or mineral processors the chance to get rich by panning like old-time prospectors. Finding a gem or gold nugget generates huge excitement, and 'finders keepers' rules!

The highlight of any visit must be the old workings. Everyone going underground has to don a hard hat, and access is by means of a well-lit, gently sloping tunnel or cross-cut through the barren granite of the hillside. The cross-cut turns along a vein and into a series of ancient rounded openings that recede into the gloom. Here can be seen the mineralised zone in the granite, scarcely a foot in width, that has been only partially dug away. It requires little imagination to see that wider caverns were mined where the vein was profitable, and that those parts of the vein left standing were barren. At one point it is possible to look up a shaft, its side worn smooth by the constant rubbing of the kibble as it ascended with its load of ore, to the daylight beaming down from the surface.

Frequently there is the sound of rushing water, kept to a safe level by the pumps, and this greatly contributes to the atmosphere and authenticity of the place, a fact not lost on the BBC's location scouts. Unusually for a mine, the water is of exceptional purity, springing from the network of narrow joints and fissures in the granite that controlled the direction of the mineralised veins. Below the presently maintained water level, the old workings continue to an unknown depth.

Few fortunes were made in the Wendron Mining District, where erosion has preserved only the deepest zones of the mineralised veins in the granite, with the tin occurring in patchy 'bunches' of ore. However, the unknown miner who first called these workings Wheal Roots was surely prescient. Not only do geologists now understand that Poldark lies within the roots of the entire mineralised system, but that it was witness to some of the earliest underground mining efforts. The technological roots of mining, originating in places like Poldark, were to be spread by the Cornish across the world.

Poldark Mine is open to the public until the end of October.

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