The Wheal Kitty workshops
On the outskirts of St Agnes, on the cliffs above Trevaunance Cove, the Wheal Kitty workshops comprise a renovated engine house and associated buildings that house several small Cornish businesses. Wheal Kitty was once a prosperous tin mine which employed several hundred people until it closed in 1930, one of numerous mines that used to operate in the area.
The village of St Agnes is a short walk inland. In 2002 it was described as one of the “most picturesque and attractive of all Cornish industrial settlements (Cahill and CAU, 15). The village is an amalgamation of seven hamlets [Churchtown, Peterville, Vicarage, Goonown, Goonbell, Trevaunance and Rosemundy] each with their own particular character. Fine nineteenth-century architecture and interesting viewsheds add to the village’s charms.
The village also has a well-established tourism infrastructure. At Trevaunance Cove tourists will find a pub – the Driftwood Spars – some art and craft galleries, a beach cafe and enjoy-the-seaview benches. The South West Coast Path cuts through the cove and memorial benches are also strung along the coast path westwards towards the popular landmarks of St Agnes Head and Wheal Coates.
Through the gap in the hedge
As opposed to the cove and village, the clifftop at Wheal Kitty is untouristy and untidy. Visitors to the workshops may not notice a gap in the hedge at the northern end of the car park. Some traffic cones and hand-painted signs beckon those on foot to pass through. Beyond is the post-industrial wild – a place that combines uncontrived dereliction (cf Oakley 2015), with memory of childhood play around the abandoned mines in the post-war years. A path leads to a derelict concrete dressing-floor which had been painted with graffiti and festooned with strips of coloured tape. A caravan was parked next to the dressing floor with a plastic table and chair outside the door. I walk past, trying not to intrude.
It is usually a quiet place except when the skateboarders are here. Past the dressing floors, the terrain turns into a landscape of red ‘dunes’ (mine waste) surrounded by rough ground punctuated by gorse, rusting barbed wire, scrap metal and mine shafts (some half-heartedly covered). Nothing much grows here. The industrial wild(er)ness ends at the coast path overlooking the beach where two memorial benches have been planted on paving slabs. The benches have reached here too.
The mine as a playground
During the 1950s to 1970s the derelict mines in St Agnes formed an enormous playground for the village’s children. The main landowners at the time were the local district council, private owners, and the National Trust. I interviewed several St Agnes residents about their memories of the mine sites. Each hamlet had its own gang of kids they said. The children explored shafts and adits, co-opted rubbish into their games, lit fires, built dens and at weekends joined in the popular pastime of mineral collection. They recalled looking for scrap to make go-carts, of climbing down mine-shafts on ropes and rope ladders, of ‘running wild.’ Parents took precautions; older children were entrusted to show younger children where not to go. Adults also kept an eye on what the children were doing as Clive related:
“We used to go up onto the Beacon and there were tunnels up there and you could go into these tiny holes and you’d crawl in and they’d open inside and you’d go in with these bags of straw to sit on and candles and things like that. My mother came up one day trying to find me and she looked in and saw this hole and she had a fit and banned us from going up there again.”
Despite adult concerns my informants were united in the belief that their activites were reasonably safe. I could relate to their confidence and bravado. I spent my childhood in the Midlands exploring the village and surrounding fields with an access all areas attitude. We trespassed across farmers’ fields and crawled through hedges into neighbour’s gardens, snuck into abandoned cottages (one time an abattoir) and thanks to Beeching played Cold War games on a disused railway line. I survived the 1970s despite playing on vertiginous metal playground equipment – a tall Wicksteed slide and a witch’s hat that should have but didn’t slice someone’s head off. Like my informants, as children we were steady on our feet and resistant to any notion of physical peril. If we’d had mines we would have gone down them too.
The 1980s: ‘elf n safety’ culture
My village play equipment was pulled down in the 1980s when someone noticed that it was a) potentially dangerous and / or b) that they could be the victim of litigation. The dismantling of the playground marked the start of the inexorable creep of societal paranoia over perceived risk that still doesn’t seem to have run its course. ‘Should I walk around _____ on my own? What if? What if? What if?’ I can’t recall a single accident. In Cornwall, a survey in 1983 reported a total of 2,538 mine shafts in the Carrick District that included St Agnes. The District Council embarked on ‘Operation Minecap’ – a two-year programme to make the shafts safe.
The long-lasting effect of collaring, grilling and capping the shafts was to disconnect the surface and the sub-surface worlds. Today, the mine is imagined as the collection of buildings on the surface rather than the colossal subterranean structure formed of shafts, inclines and levels. Clive felt that some of the capping had been unnecessary and the risk overstated. He recalled that little grills appeared everywhere and “there wasn’t anything there that was a problem.” Another informant also dismissed the dangers and couldn’t remember an accidental fall down a shaft. In 2010 an injured motorcyclist was pulled out of mine workings at Wheal Kitty so open shafts were a risk but the sea and the cliffs were always the greater danger – and the sea and cliffs are promoted as holiday experiences to tourists every year. The gorse and heather, which carpets the Cornish cliffs, is quite painful to walk through. Walking within ten foot of an open mine shaft sounds dangerous but in reality it’s extremely unlikely that people wander off into the gorse and heather and get into trouble.
When I was young
Operation Minecap changed the culture of childhood play in St Agnes. The culture of crawling, climbing and running through mine sites came to a close. The geographer Tim Edensor has written about the social use of industrial ruins in the north of England and central Scotland in his volume Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics and Materiality (2005). He points out the possibilities that derelict space has for play, leisure and transgression from social norms. It is clear that the nostalgia for the post-industrial wild (including my own nostalgia for childhood freedom) is linked to a desire for access to less regulated space; a place to make one’s own. I’m still (just about) with the urban explorers on this largely unfulfilled need in contemporary British society: the need to explore one’s surroundings with a modicum of freedom, and the freedom to transgress (Garrett 2013). Watch the vandalism scene from This is England (2006).
But one day – with creaking knees – I will want to sit on a bench and watch the world go by (I’m almost at that stage in my life now). The benches in St Agnes are placed with civic kindness for the aged, weary and infirm as well as those who enjoy sea-gazing. The needs of the ageing population in the UK should be considered where access to heritage and tourism are concerned (particularly given the high levels of loneliness experienced by the elderly). You won’t find company inside a house on your own.
So I envisage the future of heritage and tourist sites as being more, not less, comfortable and safe. But the wilder industrial remnants within urban and peri-urban landscape are facing terminal extinction. The spaces that will appeal to the young, the boistrous and the brave. With the increasing privatisation of public space. the gentrification of urban neighbourhoods and a risk adverse culture the opportunities for younger people to partake in physical exploration are limited. To fill the gap we now order adrenalin experiences and adventure gift vouchers online. Zorb, Go Ape in the woods, paintball, learn survival skills, and kayak white-water rapids to reclaim your sense and experience of the outdoors. No longer left to our own devices, exploration and ‘risky’ games have been commodified by the leisure industry.
Cahill and CAU (2002c) Cornwall Industrial Settlements Initiative: St Agnes. Truro: Cornwall County Council.
Edensor, T (2005) Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics and Materiality. Berg.
Garrett, B. L (2013) Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City. Verso Books.
Oakley, P. (2015) A permanent state of decay: Contrived dereliction at mining heritage sites. In, H.Orange (ed.) Reanimating Industrial Spaces: Conducting Memory Work in Post Industrial Societies, Left Coast Press, 49-71.
All images © Hilary Orange
This post is based on a paper entitled ‘Once there was deindustrialisation. Then there was risk: Cornish mining sites as playground and parkland’ presented at the Deindustrialization and Its Aftermath: Class, Culture, and Resistance Conference, Montreal, May 2014. Conference organized by: Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling (COHDS) at Concordia University. Montreal. Organised with the Scottish Oral History Centre at Strathclyde University in Glasgow.
Cite this post
Orange, H (2015) The Post-Industrial Wild. Via https://hilaryorange.wordpress.com/2015/09/25/post-industrial-wild/. Accessed [date].
Please ask if you would like to use any of the images contained within this post.