Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Roadwork Summer Holiday 2011:- Part Three

Every holiday has to have a few objectives to make it truly worthwhile; a few events that mark the occasion and cause it to stick in the memory. When I came here a few years previously I visited Geevor Tin mine, and it lodged in my mind as being my single favourite UK tourist attraction. I had long threatened Nicola that I’d be taking her there one day, and that day arrived today.

And we were going there by car! The Rover, after slumbering in the sunshine, was back in use today. I was looking forward to driving new, challenging, unfamiliar roads. But first, a trip to the petrol station was required.

I had zeroed the trip-meter when I brimmed the tank, four hundred miles ago. Thing is, I’d not actually owned this car long enough to know how long a tank of fuel would last me, nor what kind of economy figures I could expect. Last week I had been playing Russian roulette with the fuel gauge, throwing £15 a time into the tank and hoping it would be good for a few trips to work and back. And I’d been OK. Now, at Morrisons Supermarket in Penzance, I could get a grasp of the figures for the first time.

We started the day with a budget-priced fried breakfast, sending it to meet the meat already in our bowels from last night. Any notion of healthy eating had clearly been temporarily suspended. Over my hash browns, bacon and beans, I grappled with the calculator of my disappointing mobile phone; converting the litres pumped into Gallons (My head, despite my 1981 D.O.B, seems to work strictly in imperial where cars are involved), and then dividing the mileage covered by the gallons pumped to return to a full tank.

An intake of breath, and then a surprised smile. 34.8 miles per gallon. I honestly didn’t expect that. The Rover is an outdated fourteen year old car, quite heavy, with a 2.5 litre V6 engine. We were carrying a full load, quite quickly, on roads varying from flat to steep. I was honestly expecting somewhere closer to the twenties, but in fact the Rover was proving as economical as the four-cylinder Audi I had left at home in the garage.

Dad had even more cause for celebration, but he didn’t, because for him any expenditure whatsoever, no matter how reasonable, will forever be a bad thing. His BMW, with its 4.4 litre, V8 engine, automatic gearbox, wide “M Sport” wheels and considerable kerbweight, not to mention all the furniture he’d been lugging around, had returned him 29.1 miles per gallon. I thought this figure to be astonishing.

Having partially allayed our fears of this holiday involving cash being poured non-stop into our fuel tanks, we got on our merry way to Geevor, just the other side of the peninsular, about half an hour away. We turned into the parking area and what we saw hadn’t changed since the last time I visited, several years ago.

The magic of Geevor, I found, was that it promises so little yet delivers so much. I remember the first time I visited. We entered a slightly ramshackle building and gave a tenner each to a nice, elderly lady who asked if we would like to register for gift aid at no extra cost to ourselves. Of course we did. And a fortnight later, I felt the urge to donate another £25 to the cause which, with me being a tightwad and all, is extraordinary.

In those first few rooms you pass through on entering Geevor, you can feel forgiven for expecting the whole thing to be just another Cornish rip-off. Glass cabinets with mineral samples in them, photos and posters outlining the heritage of Cornish Mining, it’s all very thorough and very earnest, but a little small scale. Considerably more compelling is the room devoted to a scale model of the Geevor Tinmine, where each and every shaft and tunnel is depicted by colour-coded plastic tube; it looks like a cast of veins in a lung. And then you leave the slightly ramshackle building, and within five minutes your breath is well and truly taken.

Geevor Tin mine has been standing idle since suddenly ceasing production in 1991, and since that fateful day it has literally been left exactly how it was when activity died. OK, it’s been cleaned and adjusted enough to pass health and safety regulations, but it’s still easy to convince yourself that mining packed up half an hour ago.

Chief attraction, for me, is called The Dry. This was basically the miners refuge, the building in which shifts would begin and end each day. Here they would get changed, shower, eat, laugh and cry, and everything has been left, by and large, where it landed when the miners walked away in 1991.

The MaxPak vending machines are still there, there’s probably still cold tea in the urn. Jackets and pairs of soiled jeans still hang up waiting to be worn or cleaned and, look carefully and you’ll see a couple of pirated porno tapes left behind in a locker with its door ajar. The last person to touch that bar of soap, or twist that tap, was probably a miner in 1991. It’s a fitting tribute to a workforce who had their livelihoods cruelly snatched away from them.

All the machinery has been left in place, too. The mineshafts, now sealed off for safety, lie dormant barely beneath the surface. If required the machinery could be churned into action and mining could recommence with very little effort. Or so it feels. You’re free to walk past all the workings, dirty and corroded, but still intact. The huge, voluminous chamber housing the vibrating tables that separate big bits from small bits. The electromagnetic centrifuge that picks out ferrous material. It’s all there. All real.

Best of all are the staff, many of which used to actually work here when the mine was a going concern. They speak knowledgeably and enthusiastically about anything you could possibly quiz them about. And they deliver their knowledge with real passion. And pride. They love their Tin Mine. I love their Tin Mine.

It also happens to be perched on gloriously scenic stretch of coastline, which Nicola and I explored while we were there. Much of the outlying infrastructure has been allowed to be reclaimed by nature, and heather and gorse run rampant over concrete piers and brickwork abutments. We stopped for a while to watch a circling bird of prey; a Kestrel, we decided, who later posed on a concrete post.

Not even the persistent drizzle could spoil it. Growing hungry did, though, we realised that Geevor had captivated us so much that it had eaten several of our hours. We ate a snack at the incredibly busy restaurant, and then moved on.

On the way to Geevor we had noticed that we were heading towards St Just, a town we had never visited before, but which my Dad had said was “nice”. So we went there, and it was indeed “nice”. The parking was free and there were a couple of small shops still open, so we nipped into one for a pasty, which could have been warmer. Nevertheless, the little town square was pretty, flanked by a choice of pubs that we really ought to have visited, but didn’t.

Alas, coming up to closing time there was precious little reason to stay in St Just much longer, so we moved onto somewhere else I’d always been intrigued by:- Cape Cornwall.
This is a headland, just a brief drive from St Just and with only one road in, then you have to turn around to go back to whence you came. It’s on a part of the Cornish coast famed for shipwrecks and a wild and inhospitable place, despite the trailer selling burgers and cups of tea in the car park. Appropriately, there’s a coastguard lookout, too, but the main appeal is the uncompromising nature of the landscape.

Turning on our heels, it was time to return to Polmanter where I had promised to buy my parents a meal that evening. We decided to take the coast route home, to make the most of our limited time in the area. We were only staying there one more night, before moving on to the other side of Cornwall.

The coast road is quite extraordinary, a series of inclines, tight bends and precipices which hug the line of the cliff-tops, occasionally skirting around an ancient farm or village that was built in the wrong place. Twice we had to stop for cattle, being herded, udders full, from field to milking parlour. The second time it happened, I was fearful for the car, the cows were seemingly out of control, fixing us with fearsome stares and then rubbing up so close to the car that the right hand mirror popped out of position. And the cow pissing nine inches outside my window was a sight I had never witnessed before, nor do I ever want to again.

It turned out that the coastal route, while shorter, was eminently less sensible than the route we had taken earlier, via Penzance. But we made it safely back to the campsite without further Bovine attack, and immediately went for a pleasant but expensive meal at the on-site restaurant.

And a pint each of Skinners “Betty Stoggs” Real Ale, of course.

Click here to read Part Four