“Hang on, there’s no one down there, is there?” asks Thomas, as he gets ready to drop a coin from a height of 260ft. Nine seconds later there’s a distinct metallic ‘clunk’ as the coin hits ground, or at least hits something that’s not human or wildlife. The coin has just whizzed down a mineshaft, the mine in question being the Victory Shaft at Geevor Tin Mine in West Penwith. The money is later collected and goes towards the upkeep of the mine.
For centuries tin was one of the engines of the Cornish economy, a bustle of modest Klondike proportions, with miners digging away in family groups (including boys and girls) before the hunt was consolidated into industrial operations such as Geevor. Victory Shaft’s deepest points reach around 1,580ft. Many of the shafts at Geevor then perform a right angle and plough a mile or more horizontally out beneath the Atlantic. We may be just 10 miles west of St Ives, but it feels much farther.
Today, an air of melancholy hangs over Geevor: when the global price of tin collapsed in 1985 the mine staggered on for a few years but eventually closed in 1990. What’s left today are the substantial, and in some instances untouched, remains of the industry. Tin can still be found underground but the irony is that more money can be made from making Geevor a heritage attraction than from resuscitating it as a working mine.
The kids (aged eight, 10 and 11) find the whole experience absolutely and genuinely fascinating. I’m struck by how they clamber their way around the old workings, the way they lap up the tales from our guide, a former miner, and the whole spectacle of a ghost village with the skeleton of a wheelhouse towering over the landscape.
As part of the tour we visit the Hard Rock Museum, which is well named with excellent interactive interpretations of why Cornwall was so good for mining. We learn that tin pops up all over the place and in all manner of things, not just in cans but in toothpaste and mobile phones.
We pop into the drying room where the miners would come to wash off the accrued scum after a hard day’s work. Deliberately and poignantly, it’s been left as it was on the day the last shift clocked off. Overalls are hung on doors in the locker room and desks look as if they were vacated just five minutes earlier. Too slow to avert the kids’ gaze from the ribald photographs left on the wall — there’s a warning on the door to this effect — we shuffle quickly on.
The tour weaves down the sloping Cornish coast, through a building with giant separating tables where the tin concentrate was extracted. Here, the kids get a chance to sieve and pan through grains of rock in search of fool’s gold (iron pyrite) and other flashy, eye-catching but ultimately worthless minerals: I’m slightly surprised at how engrossed even our 11-year-old daughter becomes. More than 40 minutes later, I drag them away and we head underground for the finale to the tour — a guided walk though some of the old tunnels.
We wear hard hats and overalls, and it feels like walking through subterranean trenches on a battlefield, with wooden stakes propping up openings and archways while dark, narrow sidings emerge to take the place of the walls from time to time. “It was a tough old job,” says Grant, our guide, with a touch of understatement. “But the rewards were good; the pay was very good. But it’s strange the place is more viable now, with us talking about tin rather than digging for it.”
We emerge, blinking, into daylight. The location is stunning and the site cafe must be one of the best places to munch on a pasty in Cornwall, with views high above the mine workings that take in the coast, hikers ambling along the Cornish coast path and sea to the horizon. I ask our kids if they’d like to be miners. “No,” says Oscar, with the blunt honesty of an eight-year old. “But it would be a good excuse to eat five pasties a day.”