Castles, Harbours and Mines

Cornwall triptych by Mark Camp

Any visit to Cornwall will probably include a visit to one of these historical constructions. Even a beach holiday will probably see you walking alongside a harbour wall at some point. But how many of you visit our castles and mining remains?

We may not have the grand castles of Wales, or the big visitor attractions such as Warwick or Windsor, but we do have a wide range that spread across the centuries. From Iron Age cliff castles, now little more than humps and bumps, such as the one at The Rumps near Polzeath, to the ‘follies’ at Caerhays on the Roseland and Pentillie on the Tamar, built either side of the 19th century.

Tintagel; English Heritage

Five of our best-known castles are now looked after by English Heritage, including Pendennis at Falmouth and the legendry home of King Arthur at Tintagel, and are open to visitors during the main season. But English Heritage also look after lesser-known treasures such as St Catherine’s Castle at the mouth of the Fowey River and Cromwell’s Castle on the Isles of Scilly.

Most of these castles were built for defence, many to guard strategic harbours. The Fal has not only Pendennis but also St Mawes on the eastern side of the mouth of the river. The town of Falmouth, at the time Henry VIII ordered the castles to be built, was just an unimportant small village, but it was the safe deep harbour that needed protecting, as it was the first refuge for ships sailing up the English Channel.

All around Cornwall there were, and still are, small harbours built to protect communities, not for strategic reasons, but from the sea. Some continue to be working harbours like Looe, Newquay and Porthleven, whilst other have seen their fishing fleets dwindle or their industries disappear. Few boats now return with fish to the west facing cove at Mullion, the harbour wall at Lamorna Cove has been severely damaged by storms in recent years and the harbour built at Trevaunance Cove, below St Agnes, for the local mines was destroyed completely in 1924. Its remains can still be seen on the western side of the cove at low tide.

Charlestown Harbour

At Charlestown near St Austell, the 19th century harbour is little changed from its industrial heyday, which is probably why it’s so in demand for historical films and TV dramas. In recent years both Ross Poldark and Dr Who have both been spotted taking the port back in time, and those of us with long memories may even remember the Onedin Line which featured Charlestown heavily. In a different genre, the BAFTA award winning Bait was filmed there in 2019.

Both Trevaunance and Charlestown were industrial harbours, never designed for fishermen. Their heyday was the mid to late 1800s when Cornwall’s mining industry was at its busiest. Although tin could be processed in Cornwall, copper, which was the main ore mined at the time, had to be taken to South Wales. At the same time, coal from Welsh mines was needed to fuel the engine houses that we now see dotted across the Cornish countryside.

Nobody can have visited Cornwall without noticing the imposing ruins of this once great industry that resulted in Cornishmen traveling the world, taking their technical skills with them. The engine houses, often with a tall chimney stack beside them, represent only a small part of the mine, and to get the full story you need to visit one of the restored sites such as Geevor or Levant on the rugged coast between St Ives and St Just or the East Pool Mine at Redruth. Another mine well worth visiting is King Edward Mine south of Camborne, still in use as a training mine till 2005 and unaltered for over 100 years.

King Edward Mine

From the Gunnislake in the Tamar Valley on Cornwall’s eastern border down to Cape Cornwall in the far west, you can still see the remains of the engine houses, though please be careful when exploring them. They make up a World Heritage Site that stretches over 10 areas, each different and all worth discovering.

Like all of Cornwall’s historical sites, from prehistoric castles to 21st century training mines, they sometimes need a little bit of interpretation to get the full story, but they also have a place in the landscape that makes Cornwall what it is, unique.