Friday, April 24, 2009

The stars rotate above Cape Cornwall

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


One of the most impressive sites I saw in Cornwall sits right between early and more modern history. Cornwall for over 2000 years -- less the last decade or so -- has been characterized as much as anything by hard rock mining for tin and other base metals. Much of the country is covered with old mine works built out of Cornwall rock (see top picture), generally the remains of a smokestack associated with the steam engines used to pump the mines out and power the processing machinery. In Cornwall the ruined mine works are a well-known symbol, to the rather humorous extent that "pure Cornwall spring water" is marketed in bottles marked with the silhouette of abandoned mines. (Think about it!) But those mine works are impressive. I have to I admit that it never occurred to me before the trip that I would be walking in the footsteps of Newcomen and Watt. Nor did I know the steam engine made possible undersea mining. Some of the old mines began on a headland and followed the ore where it led, to places where miners could hear the sea water surging overhead. Brr!

Much as I admire the pioneers of the steam engine, it isn't really them that I think about when my mind goes back to Cornish mines I saw this month. It's the ordinary miners. They have monument of their own in Geevor, picture above, a modern if now closed mine that dates to the 20th century. Opened up, just after the First World War, in an area previously mined no one knows how many times, Geevor was a productive mine until the 1980s, when tin prices collapsed. The last working shift took place in 1990. But that is not the end of the story: Geevor has been preserved as a museum to its own history and the history of mining in Cornwall. Visitors can see well-constructed displays showing the technical and social history of mining, old workings that they can barely walk through ( perfectly safe -- it's hard rock tunneling), and a fair selection of the machinery that existed there late in Geevor's life. People who worked there 20 years ago are still there maintaining the site -- in hopes, I think, that rising commodity prices will bring mining back to Cornwall.

Two overwhelming impressions : First the overwhelming amount of labor that went into this industry over the millennia, labor that has had a very important impact on the history of the entire world (Geevor rightly is a World Heritage site); Second, the pride that people, perhaps I should say men, so often put into backbreaking labor. When they closed Geevor, the miners' locker room was left exactly as it was. The clothes and boots and other items they used are still there, covered in iron oxide stains. And to make it even more personal, the corridor to that locker room is lined with photographs of strong smiling men who used to work there.

I am pleased that so much care has been taken to preserve this heritage. Go here for more. Below, I hope to post a picture that will mean something to some of my fellow historians at Nipissing University. I'm glad the story has been told, and is still being told.

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Memories of Cornwall

For those Canadians who think "President's Choice foods" when you hear the phrase "memories
of..." associated with a place name, yes, my memories of my first trip to Cornwall, now two weeks in the past, includes important food and drink elements. Cornish pasties made in Cornwall by people who care and don't want to disgrace themselves in front of their neighbors -- such Cornish pasties are extremely good. Food in restaurants and pubs was generally very good. I drank Zennor Mermaid Ale and the first mild ale that I've had in decades. Cider on tap in a place where they care about cider was excellent.

And unspeakably beyond excellent was the first "cream tea" of my life, in a farmhouse tea shop somewhere near Land's End. There may be better cream teas somewhere, but I cannot imagine them.

But my actual memories of the trip are dominated by a big surprise, which ambushed me despite the fact I had looked at pictures and maps and read about Cornwall in preparation for the trip. The landscape by turns green and rocky and never flat, especially the seascape where we were walking on the coastal path around the entire Duchy, is impossible to catch at second hand. Go ahead, use Google Image search: you will find many fine photographs of dramatic views, but if you've never been to Cornwall I will bet the reality will surprise you as much as it did me. Despite the fact that you can describe the Cornish coast very simply, as a series of coves and headlands and cliffs plunging into the sea, not one of those coves or headlands looks like any other. The colors, too, were constantly shifting and always new.

Walking the coast of Cornwall is something a lot of people do. Indeed, I ran into a fellow medievalist at Kalamazoo in May who has done the entire trip, which takes about seven weeks. But it is not for the faint of heart. Fit-looking pensioners and little kids with their parents tread the path without noticeable unease. Here in North America, there would probably be barriers to keep people away from the cliffs, for fear of lawsuits. In Cornwall, the only dangers marked off and walled or fenced off were old mine shafts; if you fall off a cliff, presumably you knew what you were getting into. The one time I saw a rope barrier by the side of the path, it was to keep people from treading on rare plants. Only at Tintagel, where busloads of people are brought in from all over Europe, were there a couple of signs that said "Danger -- Cliffs." That was our last day of cliff-walking and the sign inspired hilarity. We'd been past a hundred more perilous places by that time.

Did I mention that I'm afraid of heights? Fortunately not terrified of heights, but scared enough that there was an additional psychological challenge on top of a very real physical one. Because of my late illness I am still easily tired, and one 6-mile day's walk rated "severe" was pretty taxing, to the point that I walked a lot less the next two days.

It was however worth it and I hope someday to take a similar walk, just one with fewer precipices. A river walk?

I expect to Cornwall feel different from England, and it did. I could mention many things but as a medievalist and historian the odd names of villages and the saints who founded them, saints unknown outside of Cornwall and known mainly for their names inside it, struck my eye. St. Senara, for instance, founded the fishing/farming village now called "Zennor," which has a famous legend about a mermaid; thus the ale named after said mermaid. The parish associated with Tintagel is dedicated to St. Materiana. These are not big-name international saints, these are Irish immigrants of the dark age who converted the Cornish.

The most famous at the moment, perhaps, is St. Piran whose flag (above) is just about everywhere. To the outsider, St. Piran is a vaguely comical early saint with an odd legend: an Irish king him into the sea with a millstone around his neck, to end his pesky preaching of the Gospel. By a miracle, Piran floated on that millstone all the way to Cornwall, where he found a more receptive audience. We had to wonder, however, whether he brought the snakes from Ireland with him. Anyway his unrecognized-in-the-Union-Jack flag makes him a symbol of Cornish national feeling. (See this article from last year's Guardian.) The Cornish language, effectively dead from about the 18th century, is making a bit of a comeback. We were entertained in one restaurant by musicians who had translated Beatles songs into Cornish. This may seem less peculiar when I say that the translator was young enough that independent Cornwall and Beatlemania were equally part of the distant past.

One of the most impressive things I saw on the trip however besides the millions of flowers was the remains on Cornish tin mining. I think I will reserve that for another post.

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Thursday, June 05, 2008

Still travelling...

I survived scrambling along cliffs like this in Cornwall and am now in a flatter country, Latvia. What a relief.
More later...

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