Day 20 – Fog, Steam and Surf

Starting mileage: 16216 km
Day started: 09:00
Day ended: 21:00

Cornwall

Cornwall

An eventful and thoroughly successful day, even though it didn’t seem like it at all from the start.

The fog on Treen Farm rose even thicker and colder in the morning, and it was with heavy hearts that we departed towards Newlyn – making a small detour – with intent of buying some fresh fish from the market there.

On the B3315 just outside Treen lies the arc of St Buryan Hill; a bit of the road which must have been designed with rallying in mind rather than normal travel; a sharp, steep turn to the left and up. We had braved it going down the night before, and it was tough even then. Upwards, it proved impossible for our van, at least on the first try. We never got another; as we were slowly reversing for another take, a huge coach came out from above, and decided it absolutely had to pass us by on the narrow, downhill road. Our bumpers clenched together.

The result was an hour’s traffic jam, as we managed to move up a bit, down a bit, sideways a bit, with the help of about half a dozen of very helpful and understanding local drivers. We did get some satisfaction from the fact that once the coach passed by us, several other cars had to quickly get out of its way as well – so it wasn’t just us; it was quite obviously too big for the tiny road.

We didn’t dare to try the turn again and, as advised by other drivers, we took the long road to Newlyn. The long road meant passing Land’s End by about a mile; there was no point in going back here again, so we stopped at the famous car park in front of the famous hotel (which took us a while to find in the mist; the cliffs and the sea was somewhere in front of us, still barely visible). We did get the necessary paperwork and stamps for the Land’s End to John o’ Groats tour – although getting there ( 874 miles) will be just a small part of our entire adventure.

We stopped by the nearby Sennen Cove to see if the surfing school there had free slots for the afternoon and, with the fog finally lifting, we tumbled down into Newlyn, long past breakfast time. The wholesale fish market was closed, of course – I think it only opens in the wee morning hours – but, as we had hoped, there were a few fishmongers re-selling the fresh produce to individual customers.

Make note: the fish in Newlyn were some of the best we’ve ever seen (and tasted). Brills the size of turbots, red mullets, gurnard, megrin soles, even whole sharks cut into steaks; crabs, lobsters and scallops; prawns and squids, mussels, pollocks and haddocks – and all of that just in one small shop on the high street. We were in pescetarian paradise.

With an enormous filleted brill in the ice bag, white crab meat and few scallops, we lunched at the Duke’s Cafe, where they serve a mean crab toastie; at £9.50 it may seem steep for a lunch meal in a small town, but the portion is generous, and there’s loads of crab meat inside.

It was still time to see one more thing before the surfing lesson started: the mines and steam engines of Levant, a National Trust site of UNESCO importance.

To understand how Levant mines came to be, a bit of explanation is needed. The Cornish lodes – fantastically rich veins of tin and copper which criss-cross this region and used to generate most of its wealth since antiquity – start shallow and go down at a low gradient for long miles. Once you start on a lode, you need to follow it – wherever it goes. In case of Levant, that meant going out into the sea – or rather, underneath it; which meant that the mine buildings themselves were positioned in the most dramatic location, at the very edge of an Atlantic cliff.

The shafts of Levant go down 600 metres, and 2.5km under the sea bed. It was an enormous undertaking for the time, and required plenty of innovation to enable mining in such difficult conditions. One of those innovations was the German invention, the Man engine – a system of pulleys and platforms, a sort of never-ending lift. The man engine of Levant was involved in one of the most devastating industrial accidents; in 1919, the rods broke and thirty-one men plunged to their deaths. After the accident the lowest levels of the mine were permanently shut down.

You can still see the shaft where they died, narrow and deep, left as it was after the rescue operations finished. Most of the mine is now in total ruin, covered in omnipresent red dust, but the few buildings in care of NT are of great interest, as they hold a fully operating steam-powered beam engine. The machine is turned on several times per day, and you can stand right beside it (or above it), feeling its tremendous power as the beam shakes the small stone shed in which it’s located.

Many of the Cornish lodes are still not depleted; it’s the price of tin and copper that makes it economically not viable to still mine them. The pits have become ruins, scarcely better preserved than the Bronze Age graves on Scilly or the roman villas of Wight; the few lucky ones have turned into heritage centres, and earn their keep from tourism; but it’s funny to think that if tin were to become one day as precious as oil, perhaps the old shafts could still be reopened and populated with miners…

It was time to go back to Sennen Cove. The surf was up, and we were ready to take on the waves – well, not really; personally, I was ready to splash about a bit, hold on to the board for a while, pretend to be a cool dude and go back to the car.

Our surfing adventure was just beginning, and it continued into the next couple of days. More on that tomorrow.

Land's End

Land’s End

Newlyn

Newlyn

Levant Mine

Levant Mine

 


The Trevaylor campsite is smallest, coziest and possibly cheapest of the campsites in the Land’s End – St. Just region. Most others are big and ridiculously expensive caravan parks. There’s a bar open late, a good shop, and decent facilities, and all that for just £15 with hook-up.

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