One hundred and fifty years ago, this whole area would have been full of noise and people. It was like a gold rush town, with lots of men moving here from all over the country. There would have been drinking and fighting and this real frontier feeling, a bit like an English version of California,’ says Rosemary Teverson, project manager for the Tamar Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
It’s difficult to imagine now, as we stand in the sunlight looking out over a thickly wooded hillside scattered with remnants of the area’s mining history – a towering stone chimney and numerous piles of earth. There’s nobody in sight and the only sounds are songbirds, the gentle creak of trees in the breeze and the far-off hum of a road. What was once the copper mining capital of Europe is now a quiet part of the Tamar Valley AONB, a 195-square-kilometre section of countryside centering on the Rivers Tamar (an ancient border between Devon and Cornwall), Tavy and Lynher, which together make up one of the UK’s most attractive drowned river valley systems.
Central to everything is the water. It has created fertile ground for farming and provides a home to otters – now at full capacity in the area – salmon, eels and the birds, including avocets and wigeons, that flock here in their hundreds during the winter. And it also provided a means of power and transport for the historical mining industries.
‘There has been some form of ore extraction going on here for hundreds, if not thousands, of years,’ says Colin Buck, senior archaeologist on the Tamar Valley Mining Heritage Project. ‘But in 1844, they came across the widest copper lode in Europe, leading to a 50-year boom in copper extraction and the creation of Europe’s biggest mine, Devon Great Consols.
‘It was very much like the dot-com era,’ Buck continues. ‘Money was being raised on the stock market because people thought they could make a lot of money on the mines. And they did – on some.’ But for the workers, it was simply a way to feed their families. Hundreds of Welsh, Irish and English poured into the area looking for work.
‘It took a while for the builders to catch up,’ says Buck. ‘During the 1850s and ’60s, lots of men were living in dorms and tents.’ And even when housing was constructed, it was pretty crowded. ‘There would be two or three families living in a small two-up, two-down, taking turns to sleep, as the mines were open 24 hours and they worked in shifts.’
When the copper ran low during the 1890s, the area suffered from mass unemployment, and many families emigrated to South Africa and South America, chasing the next mining booms. But, by then, the mine owners had already begun to diversify, producing arsenic as well to satisfy demand for pesticide for cotton crops in the USA.
I suggest to Buck that this must have been dangerous for the miners. ‘God, yes,’ he replies. ‘One sixth of a teaspoon of arsenic could kill a grown man. They would work with handkerchiefs stuffed up their noses. It wasn’t a nice job, but they were paid well for it. And there is some talk that Cornish people were more immune to its effects than others.’
Up at the ruins of the Devon Great Consols mine today, you can still see the arsenic slag heaps. While the other ruins and slag heaps have been reclaimed by heathland, the arsenic heaps are still brown and almost completely bare. Unsurprisingly, they are well fenced off from the 60 kilometres of new bike, horse and walking trails that are being built around the valley.
Set to open this summer, the trails are part of a £6million investment to open up the mining heritage and surrounding countryside to the public, and will take visitors from one old mine to another through beautiful wood- and heathland. The development follows on from the 2006 World Heritage listing of much of Cornwall’s mining remains.
Buck is pleased the historical importance of Cornwall’s mining boom has finally been recognised. ‘It had an incredible effect on settlements and the landscape,’ he explains. ‘It was the biggest event here in the past 1,000 years and influenced everything we know about Cornwall. Before that time, the only industry was farming and charcoal burning.’
In the bat cave
Now, the abandoned mines also provide a vital habitat for one of the UK’s rarest mammals: the greater horseshoe bat, named after its strangely shaped nose, which helps to focus the ultrasound it uses to ‘see’ in the dark. There are just 5,000 left in the UK, restricted to Southwest England and South Wales.
Like most bats, the greater horseshoe bat requires two homes: a cool winter hibernation site and a warm summer site, where the females go to breed. In 2003, cavers discovered the greater horseshoes’ Tamar Valley maternity roost, almost a kilometre underground in an old mining shaft. Since then, the AONB has been working hard to keep the colony’s numbers up.
‘Their survival is right on the edge here,’ Teverson explains. ‘There are 120 females in the colony, and that’s only just enough.’ In order to ensure their survival, Teverson has been working with farmers to protect and improve the old, wet pastures that are home to the insects on which the bats like to feed.
Important features include old unkempt hedges and trees. ‘The bats use hedges like motorways. They fly along them and then dart out to get a moth or other insect before hanging upside down in the hedge to eat it,’ explains Teverson, who visits farmers and encourages them to preserve their traditional field borders, which are beneficial to other types of wildlife as well.
‘Generally, the message we’re putting across to farmers is that they’re doing a good job,’ she says. ‘By grazing animals on their fields, they create dung, which is good for insects and therefore bats. It’s a very obvious food chain.’
An area in transition
And it isn’t just the bats that are struggling to survive: the farmers are, too. Farming is still the major land use in the area, with three quarters used for grazing. ‘Lots of rain and a mild climate means we’re good at growing grass,’ explains Teverson. However, the number of dairy farms has halved in the past ten years, with ‘probably only four or five in the area now’.
‘The way in which the government is restructuring farming means they are weaning the farmers off European subsidies,’ continues Teverson, who is an ex-smallholder herself. ‘Instead, the farmers have to make their money through selling what they produce, but their profit is being eaten into because they’re selling through middlemen.’
She’s trying to increase their income by encouraging them to sell directly to customers through farm shops and markets, and by raising the profile of other types of food grown in the Tamar Valley. These include the indigenous apple varieties, such as Pig’s Snout and Cornish Gillyflower, which have been preserved by a local couple and are well-suited to the valley’s damp conditions.
It will benefit the environment if Teverson can persuade farmers to stick to grazing cattle and sheep. ‘Grass is just brilliant because there’s no contamination,’ she says. What concerns her is the farmers being forced to convert to growing maize to make money, which would result in environmental contamination by pesticides and fertilisers, and erosion as the rain washes soil off fields left bare in winter.
Her other worry is the threat of incomers. ‘Protected landscapes push house prices up, and then the people we need to live here can’t afford to,’ she says. ‘It’s a problem that has already affected the national parks and now it’s affecting us, their little sisters, the AONBs. But what can we do? We talk about it a lot, but there’s very little we can do.
Teverson explains that a viable farm economy is vital to keeping the landscape ‘in good heart’, but if the farmers can’t afford to stay, the skills are lost. She says City traders have already bought two big farming estates in the past five years. One has employed a farmer’s son to work on the farm, but, she worries, ‘it’s almost like going back to feudal times’.
It’s difficult to get local people to stay when there’s little money being generated in the area. With no significant employers in the valley, most people currently have to commute elsewhere to work. Teverson admits that ‘it’s an area in transition’, but she hopes the new mining tourism trails and focus on agricultural produce will improve the situation.
A hotel for the birds
Whereas the land-based areas of the AONB need to be heavily managed to keep them in good health, some parts of the Tamar Estuary almost manage themselves, says Peter Kent, a reserves officer for the Cornwall Wildlife Trust. He is working towards a Masters degree in ornithology that includes a thesis about surveying birds on the Tamar.
He takes me down to a hide at Kingsmill Lake, nearer the mouth of the river. It’s a prime spot for watching the waders and ducks as they are flushed up the river with the incoming tide. It’s also one of the best places in Britain to view the birds that like to spend the winter in the area, such as the avocet, curlew, black-tailed godwit, teal and dunlin.
They are lured here by the frost-free feeding conditions and delicacies hidden in the mud, such as tiny crustaceans, worms and molluscs. But soon some of them might not be flying this far. A recent study by the British Trust for Ornithology found that certain wintering waders, such as the dunlin, which breeds in Scandinavia and Iceland, weren’t travelling as far west during the now milder winters.
‘Due to climate change, we’re going to see a change in the number and distribution of waders coming down into the Southwest in the next 30 or 40 years,’ says Kent, who has also noticed an increase in the number of spoonbills, which traditionally winter in Africa. ‘Usually we have one or two. Last year we had five spending the winter here,’ he says, sounding pleased.
The ‘life-listers’ – the birdwatchers who keep an ongoing list of all the birds they’ve ever seen – typically get most excited about the one-off visitors, such as the ring-necked duck, which was spotted in the area last autumn after being blown across the Atlantic from North America. But without any other birds of the same species to breed with, ‘who knows what happens to them?’ wonders Kent. ‘It’s unlikely they’ll make it back.’
But while they’re here in Britain, they can lure large crowds of birdwatchers – which become an attraction in themselves, as Kent admits: ‘I sometimes go places just to watch the birdwatchers.’
Be sure to visit the hides on the estuary shoreline behind the golf course at the China Fleet Country Club
‘They’re one of the best places in the Tamar Valley to see the wintering waders. The birds get pushed up in front of the hides with the incoming tides and you get to stay dry.’
Peter Kent, reserves officer, Cornwall Wildlife Trust
Go and see Morwellham Quay, a historic river port, and the main import/export point for the mining area
‘This site, perhaps more than any other in the Tamar Valley, retains its 19th-century character and gives a feel for the working lives of the mine and surface workers.’
Colin Buck, senior archaeologist, Tamar Valley Mining Heritage Project
Make sure you check out Cotehele Quay, a far more peaceful quay and home to a medieval manor house
‘There is always something new to see, whether it’s birds, boats or the occasional passing seal.’
Rosemary Teverson, project manager, Tamar Valley AONB
Danescombe Valley, a section of woods that grew up over the area’s market gardening plots, which were abandoned during the 1950s, is an interesting feature
‘Remnants of small field boundaries (hedgebanks) are evident in places, and during the spring, the daffodils that were once grown here commercially still bloom.’
Jacqui Orange, Working the Woods manager