If you’re Cornish then you’re born with granite, sea spray and tin mining in your veins. There will always be romanticism and pride surrounding the mining industry in Cornwall as well as a sense of invention, history and tragedy.
It was with all that rattling around my blood that I visited a secret location near Zennor last week to visit a mine that’s hidden from the public and will never open as a tourist attraction but has been restored to the authentic Cornish tin mine it was before the First World War struck and mining was abandoned at the location over 100 years ago. Rosevale Mine was never one of Cornwall’s great mines, but it does remain one of the only complete examples of the underground workings of a Cornish mine and is thus perfect for research thanks to the stellar work of a handful of volunteers, who have been toiling in the depths weekly, many of them since the 1970s.
Unless you’re tipped the wink, Rosevale is incredibly difficult to find – it’s situated on farmland on that particularly magical and rugged stretch of coastline between St Just and St Ives. Under a lease agreement with the local land and mineral owner, it is now a ‘hobby mine’ lovingly restored by the Rosevale Historical Mining Society, previously the West Cornwall Mining and Mineral Club whose founder Michael Shipp is still involved.
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Tony Bennett, a former mining engineer from Camborne School of Mines who worked in geothermal energy, is a perfect example of this hardy band. Fascinated by mining, his passion for Rosevale is palpable and contagious. Other members of the group include Wayne Ridgeway, Adam Sharpe, Peter Badger and Ted Mole. Any mining enthusiasts called Mr Toad are urged to join.
The mine recently hit the headlines when Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke went underground to film the latest music video for his other group, The Smile, with BAFTA-winning Cornish filmmaker Mark Jenkin. This weekend it will also be the location for the re-enactment of a Victorian experiment to “weigh the world”. A group will descend on Saturday to recreate an original mine experiment which was made at Dolcoath mine, Camborne, by building a replica Kater invariable pendulum to make measurements of gravity. They will set the pendulum in two locations, one overground and one underground, and time the swing of the pendulum in both locations. The difference in the rate allows them to calculate the amount of gravitational pull on the pendulum. All that on a deceptively quiet hillside in West Cornwall.
Tony, who every Saturday makes a round trip of over 40 miles from his home in Chacewater to head down the mine, told Cornwall Live: “The mine is a restoration project essentially – it’s a hobby and something we come down and do at weekends. There’s no commercial endgame to it – it’s about restoring the mine to what it was like when it last worked. up being a unique place because there aren’t many mines now that you can get access to and give you a realistic view of what old mines must have been like.
“Rosevale is typical of a lot of very small mines in Cornwall, bearing in mind there were over 2,000 mines working at various times in the 19th century. We think work started here as early as the 18th century in a part of the mine called Wheal Chance.What we do know is that the [main part of the] mine was reopened in about 1909 and gradually built up as there was a boom in the tin price at that time. They were hoping to develop the mine and they had it almost running when the First World War started and the mine closed.
“The miners went off to fight with the hope they could reopen it once the war was over. The problem was there were so few miners left after the war that they struggled to get people to work here. The mine was effectively abandoned in 1918. It remained abandoned until we came along in the early 1970s.”
Unlike the majority of Cornish mines, you can walk straight into Rosevale as it was hewn from the hillside. As cows quietly chew the cud nearby, a track leads into what is basically a doorway to the bowels of the Earth. It is an astonishing site. Once I’d donned a helmet and headlamp, I followed Tony into… exactly what I wasn’t sure but it was a proposition as thrilling as it was slightly scary. Especially when he asked: “You don’t mind climbing ladders, do you?”
There are two levels at Rosevale – we entered at No 2 Level, driven from the base of the valley for a distance of almost 300 meters (almost 1,000ft). At its end this level is over 60 meters (200ft) below the surface. It’s not long before you’re in darkness, with only the glimmer from your head torch allowing you to see, with an eerie quiet that is almost deafening. Only the dripping of water breaks the silence. Or the thundering, ominous approach of a wagon carrying the rubble out, as it has done for 40 years.
The mineralogy of the dense Land’s End granite is beautiful and fascinating; like some sci-fi moonscape beneath our feet, which normally we think nothing of. To think that this heavy lode, buttressed by huge wooden supports, kept generations of Cornish men, women and children in work – as well as leading to the death of many – takes your breath away.
In many ways it’s a shame this incredible living relic of Cornwall’s past can’t be shared with more people, but it’s understandable why the Rosevale group is adamant this is not a tourist mine and is not open to the public. Neither is there any intention to develop the mine as a tourist attraction in the future as this would “jeopardize the aims of the restoration and its authenticity”. However, the group does occasionally allow mine enthusiasts and research students to go underground. I met one such mining geek (I mean that in the nicest possible way) from Birmingham, who is one of those who privately funds the project and brought his son and his partner to explore the depths with Tony’s permission. His excitement about him was catching, but when he solemnly declared “we wo n’t be going up the ladders” that frisson of fear gripped me again.
Since the mid-1970s the team has collected a variety of mining relics which illustrate various aspects of Cornish mining and can be seen as you traverse the track. They have also received some extremely generous donations of used mining equipment, including an old kibble (bucket) and windlass and a Craelius coring drill. One wall of granite has been wired with explosives as a demonstration for the odd visitor who’s allowed to enter (it’s never actually been set off though).
Further along this curving level, which splits in two like some labyrinthine journey into what would have been an actual hell for many miners – this was dirty, hard, claustrophobic work, after all – is the Deep Addit Level. Looking down here into the pitch black depths, with its stopes, old ladders and platforms, is a real hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck moment of the harsh reality facing a Cornish miner.
The wagon is continually running in and out of the mine by the volunteers. “Over the years we’ve removed many hundreds of tons of stuff. It’s not through collapses but what they call ‘deads’ which is waste material left behind in the mine that’s been supported by a lot of old timbers. Of course, over 100 years the timbers have rotted and all this debris has come on to the floor, so we’ve had to take that out to get access,” said Tony.
It was then that we reached the ladders – 100ft of them – heading skywards into darkness and a narrowing stope. Photographer Greg and I looked at each other sheepishly. If my forebears did it, so could I – and if they did it loaded down with equipment, then I could manage holding an iPhone.
Ensuring I didn’t look down, I followed Tony with Greg following me, reaching various tiny platforms, and then shuffling to yet another ladder. At one point, the rock had only been dug out enough to allow an average-sized man’s body through so it got tight. An interesting experience and one that, again, demonstrated just what miners had to put up with. We were now in No 1 Level, driven in from the hillside for a distance of 200 meters (just over 650ft), which connects to the surface.
Tony explained: “The unusual thing about this mine is that you can walk into it and effectively into the bottom of it, whereas in most mines in Cornwall you’ve got to go down shafts and, of course, all the deeper workings are flooded , so we don’t have any of that problem here.
“Because this level connects with the level below, we’ve got a continuous air flow going through so there’s natural ventilation in the mine, so we don’t have to worry about radon and we don’t have to worry about pumping water out as it naturally flows out through the tunnels. So if you wanted a hobby to mine to do something in relatively cheaply this is probably as good as it gets. But even nowadays it’s expensive to keep it going.”
The hobby mine is run with limited financial resources and relies on private funding with no commercial objective. “There’s still tin in here but there’s no economic amounts of it that warrant reopening it again as a commercial mine,” added Tony. “There would also be the difficulty of how you would work it under modern-day mining methods. The old manually-driven methods of working these narrow vertical loads has gone – it’s all highly mechanized now. What do you do with the material you do get out? You have to get it processed somewhere and that costs money, so unfortunately as much as it might be a nice dream it won’t happen. It’s a really special place, though.”
That it is. Tourism’s loss is Cornwall’s industrial heritage’s gain. Just knowing Tony and his band of hobby miners are beavering away underground every week with nothing to gain but a personal pride and a desire to provide a living memory of Cornish history fills me with joy.