After listening for a few moments, a distant, unearthly noise becomes faintly audible – a long, low, mysterious moaning, which never changes, which is felt on the ear as well as heard by it – a sound that might proceed from some incalculable distance, from some invisible height – a sound so unlike anything that is heard on the upper ground, in the free air of heaven; so sublimely mournful and still; and so ghostly and impressive when listened to in the subterranean recesses of the earth, that we continue instinctively to hold our peace, as if enchanted by it, and think not of communicating to each other the awe and astonishment which it has inspired in us from the very first.
At last, the miner speaks again, and tells us that what we hear is the sound of the surf lashing the rocks a hundred and twenty feet above us, and of the waves that are breaking on the beach beyond…when storms are at their height, when the ocean hurls mountain after mountain of water on the cliffs, then the noise is terrific; the roaring heard down here in the mine is so expressively fierce and awful, that the boldest men at work are afraid to continue their labour. All ascend to the surface, to breathe the upper air and stand on the firm earth…
~ Victorian writer Wilkie Collins’ account in Rambles Beyond Railways of his experiences of going down Botallack Mine.
Having a favourite mine is a very odd statement to make. A bit like announcing you have a favourite power station, or are a fan of a particular quarry. Now I’m sure there are people out there who’ve given these things a lot of thought, but I can’t say I’ve ever been one of them. It’s not like before I moved to the west coast of Cornwall I sat in my London flat contemplating the merits of different copper mines, arranging them into a Top of the Pops style ranking system with a greasy Fearne Cotton counting down the Top 40. ‘It’s still number one, it’s Top of The Cops’.
Having moved within close proximity of the Penwith Mining District however, I can – with F.Cott’s-like conviction – broadcast that the mines at Botallack are not only my favourite mines, but are also one of the best places to go in Cornwall if you fancy a walk which really encapsulates what Cornwall is to the modern resident and tourist – and what it might have meant to our predecessors.
The only thing it lacks, is a fish and chips shop.
In all seriousness, what I mean by the above is that, in our time, Cornwall probably represents something very different to what it might have meant to the miner who showed Wilkie Collins the depths of the Botallack mine shafts in the account above. I joke about Robert Louis Stevenson’s quote on Cornwall –
“Cornwall is not much to my taste, being as bleak as the bleakest parts of Scotland, and nothing like so pointed and characteristic.” – Robert Louis Stevenson, Letter, 1877
..but in reality, would we too see the bleakness if the majority of Cornwall’s population left the BBQ’s and the surfboards for 6 days underground of life threatening hard graft?
So when I first visited Botallack and sauntered (a more flattering adjective than waddled) over the brow of the hill from the carpark, what struck me first about the engine houses of the Botallack Crown mines was their beauty.
Below me broke waves, angrily pounding at the cliff edges, whilst around me the sun shone, the wild flowers bloomed and the Crown mines could almost be interpreted as romantic ruins, like that of Tintagel. I even cracked open a punnet of strawberries. It was all very Jane Austen-esque. My Mr Darcy/male protagonist however, taking a more bearded and ‘of the colonies’ look. Now, even with hindsight, I don’t feel ignorant that that was my first impression of the mines, as I’m sure it is shared by the many who visit. However, the moment my initial impression gained some – added depth – you might say, was when I saw the images featured in (although I am loathe to admit it) this Daily Mail article.
At that moment, I suddenly saw the mines from a very different set of eyes. From those of someone who for them – this was their view for 6 days of the week as they arrived at the mines to work. Maybe that man, or boy, didn’t see those wildflowers and crashing waves but saw a day stretched out in front of them in a mineshaft stretching out under the sea. Or maybe they did notice those wildflowers, but for them that purple was even more vivid and their eyes drank in the sight of those waves as they wondered whether they might ever see them again?
There is no doubt that these mines are now a thing of beauty, enjoyed by many a visiting tourist, and used by many a film crew – most recently as the set of the Grambler Mine in the latest BBC adaptation of Poldark. (Hurrah for finally a Poldark reference. Here you were looking for some fluff in the form of some shapely, well baby oiled Aidan Turner abs – instead you got me talking about a lifetime underground. And strawberries.)
Keeping on the coastal path, you’re able to walk down to the engine houses and even get in amongst them. The above image of me standing in the window however, should be attempted at your own risk. And with a well covered insurance policy. The Kiwi will kindly demonstrate in my next picture how it is you can get into that window. I may take on the look of someone moodily contemplating the deeper things in life – what I’m really thinking is – ‘I am literally going to have to live here forever because I cannot get down.’
From the engine houses you can also continue on the coastal path to the Levant mine if you wish – again, attempt at your own peril. The path is small, windy and the phrase ‘sheer drop’ can be applied to most of the path at this end. Adults wishing to actually keep their children, beware…
Once you’ve milled around the engine houses to your satisfaction, turn your attention to the mine on the near horizon. It’s to the left of the carpark if you’re facing out to sea. I could provide a map but I prefer my directions to be completely impractical so for reference, it’s the mine that Poldark is moodily gazing at below. And why is he eyeballing this particular one – well because this is Wheal Owles mine – filming location of Ross Poldark’s Wheal Leisure mine.
Wheal Owles Mine.
I recommend you walk over to the Wheal Owles mine as although there is a car sized track to the mine itself – when busy (and by busy I mean more than one car), turning/driving/parking/anything involving movement, and vehicle, will become extraordinarily difficult. It’s a short walk from the main car parks and if you walk along the coastal cliff path from the Botallack Crown Mines then you might be in for an air display from the resident falcons. (If anyone knows what they are then do please share).
The mine itself starred as the outside facade of the Wheal Leisure mine in the 2015 BBC adaptation of the Winston Graham novel, Poldark. Whilst a few wooden additions were used to bring the mine to life on the TV screen, no trickery was needed to create the dramatic silhouette of the mine against the ocean.
Now, whilst you may have been ‘ab’sorbed in the Poldark and Wheal Leisure associations of this mine (‘ab’sorbed, gettit?), you might not have noticed the small copper plaque to the rear of the mine, on the land side, near the wall. Reading it you will find a list of names.
John Taylor and Mark Taylor were brothers. John Grose and Thomas Grose were father and son. This place is tragically the final resting place for all of these men, as in the Wheal Owles Disaster of 1893, they lost their lives when an abandoned, flooded mine was accidentally holed into, 900 ft below the surface. The subsequent pressure of the water flooding the mine was great and the men named in the plaque were the ones who never made it out. The mine never reopened and the bodies were never recovered. It is hard not to imagine how this must have weighed on the minds of the Crown mines’ men who, for another 2 years afterwards, continued to go into the darkness each day with Wheal Owles, a silent reminder at their back, seeing them into the darknes.
I definitely think that that purple wild flower would have been a little more vivid.
Tellee about Wheal Owles, sir—the flooded Cornish mine!
’Ow the waters chuck’d the levels where the sun don’t never shine;
’Ow the twenty men are lyin’—stark, lifeless, lumps of clay,
Where the rushin’ torrent wash’d thum when the rock-wall brawk away.
Excerpt of a booklet published in 1893 by or on behalf of W. Herbert Thomas
Think we missed anything? Any recommendations for other drives? Or you want us to visit any more Poldark locations?! – We’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment, Contact Us or tag us in your Instagram, Twitter or Facebook posts.
For more information on the area and a scenic drive which takes in the sights of the Botallack, Levant and Geevor mines – check out our guide to a Drive along the B3306. Or is it more Poldark filming locations you’re after? If so then check out our section on Poldark filming locations and our exploration of the cove used for *that scene* in a Guide to Porthgwarra.
- We visited the Botallack mines in July 2015 and found the area relatively quiet (the sheer cliffs might have been partly responsible…). Having said that, we recommend you get there early before the mini bus tours arrive.
- There was no entry cost or car park fee at the time of publication.
If you enjoy the history of the Cornish coast then you might also like our coverage of shipwrecks, storms and silver in our visit to Gunwalloe.