Thursday, 6 May 2021

Gwennap to Carn Marth

Gwennap, a small village just 7 miles from Falmouth, gives its name to the surrounding area known as the Gwennap Parish, which in the 18th and early 19th centuries was the world's richest copper mining district, having the soubriquet 'the richest square mile on earth'.

It is estimated that there were around 3000 mine shafts in this area, relatively few being associated with the iconic Cornish Engine Houses which housed the massive pumping engines, and hoists to bring ore to the surface. The majority of these shaft were just small holes in the ground, wide enough to accommodate ladders down which the miners would descend a couple of thousand feet or more to their place of work.

It is hard to imagine what it must have been like to spend hours each day descending and ascending these ladders, but the 19th century author W. Wilkie vividly described what it was like and in 1787 the novelist William Beckford visited the Gwennap Parish and wrote "at every step one stumbles upon ladders that lead into utter darkness.... the miners who crawl out of the dark fissures are woeful creatures in tattered garments with pickaxes on their shoulders, while the mine officials regale upon beef, pudding and brandy'.

There is little evidence of this intensive mining now. Most of the mine shafts are either capped or fenced off and on a 6.75 mile walk towards Redruth, once the UK's richest town, former Elsevier journal manager Dean Eastbury and I passed only one lonely engine house, that of Pennance Consols, and the remains of granite quarrying at Carn Marth.

What was once a polluted area of smoking chimneys is now a quiet country landscape, a pleasant afternoon walk to the granite hilltop of Carn Marth, looking down on the village of Lanner, with a sweeping panorama from St. Agnes on the north coast, to Falmouth on the south. 

Our circular walk, directed by the excellent iWalk Cornwall app, began at the Gwennap Parish church, which dates back mainly to the 15th century, and took us north to Carn Marth.

Gwennap Parish church

Of historical significance on the walk is Gwennap Pit, an ampitheatre which probably originated from a mine collapse or an open-cast working. It is famous for being used by John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, to preach on 17 occasions between 1776 and 1789. 

Gwennap Pit

Cornwall took to Methodism like no other county in England. For a community of miners, facing danger at work every day, and for farmers and fishermen, Wesley's simple doctrine of justification through faith and instant salvation offered comfort, security and hope. There are few towns and villages in Cornwall which do not have a Methodist Chapel.

The lone engine house which we passed was the pumping house of the Pennance mine, built in 1866. Pennance Consols, previously known as Wheal Amelia, was a small mine which produced copper, and later tin, and closed in 1874.

In 1877 there were four granite quarries on the top of the 235m high granite hill known as Carn Marth, and two of these merged to form a small lake at the top of the hill.

From the top of the hill, which looks down on Lanner and Redruth, the hills of Bodmin Moor can be seen and the hill was used as a beacon for centuries, and in Tudor times was an early warning system, where a chain of hilltop fire beacons, including the plainly visible beacon at St. Agnes, were used to warn of invasion.

Returning to Gwennap we walked through open countryside with the south coast and Falmouth visible in the distance.

More Cornish Walks
More on Cornwall
More on Cornish Mining



  1. A metallurgist, then hardcore mineral engineer turned into a historian on old mine workings--I hope more geologists who must have gone on field work recollect and document as you did--those days must have been for very adventurous and innovators who kept the mineral industry on the move all these decades.
    I enjoyed your narrative.

  2. Sincere thanks for the virtual tour of my great, great grandfathers birthplace, which I hope to visit someday. As you will recall from my dad's biography "Miner with a Heart of Gold: biography of a mineral science and engineering educator", William White was born in Gwennap (abt. 1822). As referenced in my book ( many of the miners were small scale farmers as well.

    The words you quote from 19th century author W. Wilkie add a poignant dimension to your perspective on this now simply bucolic scene as you have shown it photographically. Having negotiated a few mine shaft ladders myself, and having explored some unlit old workings with less than standing room, I can imagine aspects of the setting, but still not the stressful intensity of traversing like this for thousands of feet on a daily basis. Mining has come a long way since, but there is still room for improvement in many parts of the world. There is more than one message here.

    Warm regards.


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