Botallack is a key location on the ‘Tin Coast’, part of the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape World Heritage Site. Much of the landscape of this area was transformed in the 18th and early 19th centuries as a result of the rapid growth of pioneering copper and tin mining – and in the early 19th century, two-thirds of the world’s supply of copper came from this region.
The mining area of Cornwall and west Devon made a massive contribution to the Industrial Revolution in the rest of Britain and also had fundamental influence on mining techniques throughout the world. This was the heartland from which mining technology rapidly spread.
On arrival, you may wish to start by walking through the gap in the wall to visiting the mine Count House which housed the mine office and from where the miners were paid. It is now used as an information centre by the National Trust, and is open from Easter to October for refreshments.
Return to the car park, and then follow the track to pass the steel headgear of the Allen’s Shaft – erected when nearby Geevor Mine attempted to rework the shaft in 1985.
Take the steps to the left down to the coast path besides the ruins of the 1907–1914 phase of the Botallack mining operation. You should be able to pick out the only surviving wall (with an arched window) of the power plant, the circular buddles of the new mill (where tin ore was processed), and the bricked archway of the calciner.
In total, the mines at Botallack yielded 14,500 tonnes of tin, 20,000 tonnes of copper, and 1,500 tonnes of refined arsenic through their working lives.Botallack was nearly abandoned as a business venture in the the early 1840s, but was saved when a rich lode of copper was discovered in 1842. Within a year, monthly profits exceeded £1,000 – or £15 million in today’s prices. In its 1860s heydays, Botallack employed 550 workers, with 340 of them toiling underground. It fell into decline when world tin prices fell, and it eventually closed in 1895. It did reopen briefly in 1907 in response to a rise in tin prices, but no new ores were found, and great losses were suffered.
Below the tall chimney, you can descend the track towards the Crowns, the evocative ruins of old engine houses perched precariously on the cliff edge. This engineering miracle is probably the most photographed mining building in the county, and defines Botallack. Miners used to travel by wagon down a diagonal shaft that ran from the upper engine house for nearly half a mile beneath the sea.
Retrace your steps back up the slope to the main mine ruins, and enter through the brick archway into the ruins of the Brunton Calciner. This was effectively a giant oven where ore was heated to 600 degrees Celsius to extract the valuable tin. Arsenic and sulphur gases were released from the baking of the ore, and sucked out of the oven through tall chimneys. The gas bi-product was channelled into the labyrinth of 30 arched chambers that can still be seen next to the calciner. As the gas cooled, it deposited a grey-white crust of pure arsenic on the walls. This was scraped off by miners, protected only from the poison by cotton wool in their nostrils and clay smeared on their skin.
Nearby, you might spot in the undergrowth the remains of the old tin dressing floors where women and children would have broken, sorted and washed the tin ore before it went to be crushed.
Head south on the coast path, until you reach the engine house of West Wheal Owles. This building may be familiar to some, as it was used as the location of Wheal Leisure in the BBC TV series ‘Poldark’. Don’t be fooled though, as it’s appearance was altered on TV with the addition of a shed and a horse whim (winch).
Continue a little further along the path towards a tall finger of masonry – all that is left to mark the winding engine house which worked the tramway of the Cargodna shaft on the cliffs below. Nearby, you can spot the engine house constructed in 1869 to power the whim and tin stamps of the Wheal Edward, one of the earliest recorded mines in the area.
You can retrace your steps to the car park from here, or if you are feeling energetic you could extend your walk by continuing south along the coast path for just over 2 miles to the headland of Cape Cornwall. On the way, the path passes 19th Century carbine rifle ranges before winding its way through old engine houses and chimneys. You could end your journey at the old chimney stack on the summit of Cape Cornwall which has fine views out to sea of the Britons, reefs that have ripped open the hulls of countless ships over the centuries.
Alternatively, you could return to the car park and then follow the coast path northwards to Geevor Mine or Levant Mine, where a working beam engine is fired into action on selected ‘steaming days’.