This series of posts on the President Steam Engine in Philadelphia USA now takes a brief diversion that takes it back to Cornwall. When I started to build this post my idea was a simple one of hunting around the corners of my laptop to discover some photographs of Cornish Engine houses that could be used as a comparison with the images of the President. However, as I started to copy the images onto this page it dawned on me that here was an opportunity to reflect on the role of the engine houses in our landscape, a reflection that may form an introduction to the final part of the President series.
Cornish Engine Houses a reflection
Cornwall’s landscape is adorned with the iconic shape of disused mine engine houses, and their images are scattered throughout its culture. Book covers, websites, gifts, postcards, calendars, business logos, and road signs all pull on the strong identity it portrays. Some of its importance in the Cornish physical and cultural landscapes arises from the sheer physical bulk of the structures; apart from castles there are no other historic remains that demand such attention as the empty shells that once housed the large Cornish Steam engines. However, there is more to their importance than just physical size, and this post will reflect on some of those other factors.
A combination of dramatic landscapes and dramatic buildings often combined to produce some amazing scenery. Sometimes it is the setting of the engine house, sometimes it is the architecture of the building, sometimes it is nature’s encroachment and occasionally it is a combination of all of these that provides such rich landscape value.
There is a great irony is this, for many of these views started as scenes of industrial chaos. Every square foot of ground around the engine houses would have been taken up with a haphazard mess of tips, buildings, shafts, tramways and debris. The air would have been thick with smoke and fumes, the streams running with toxic waste and the defining sounds of stamps would have drowned out nature.
But time and nature have now softened these grand industrial landscapes, a process that has left just the engine houses standing as isolated remains of the once huge industrial complexes.
Not all engine houses have such value, some are unfortunate to be in locations that hold no visual pleasure, and others are of designs or proportions that simply do not please the eye. But there are a few engine houses whose presence creates some of the most memorable scenery in the world, Wheal Coates and Bottallack fall firmly into that category.
This may a appear an unusual value to place on industrial heritage, however the visual reminder of the engine houses keep within the public consciousness that this once a land alive with industry, a land of mass employment.
The UK has transformed itself into a service industry based society, and Cornwall is perceived from the outside as a holiday destination or bolt hole for second home owners or those seeking lifestyle changes. And yet Cornwall was once one of the biggest industrialised regions in the world. Mining and its associated industries employed tens of thousands or workers, whilst Cornish Technology and engineering lead the world.
Whilst the engine houses still stand, they act as a reminder that this was once a working landscape, that there is more to the economy that property prices, holiday lets and Poldark souvenirs. Such a reminder has a value for the future, especially for future generations wishing to find work west of the Tamar.
Many engine houses remain standing whilst the scenes of industry that once surrounded them have long disappeared. In doing so they act as pegs onto which to hang tales of history. Without them there would be little left to mark the existence of the thousands of Huels, Wheals, and Consols that once crammed every corner of Cornwall.
Each mine had a stories worth discovering; sometimes wealth, sometimes losses and sometimes fraud. There are tales of death, tales of innovation and countless tales of hope. In some cases it is the engine house itself that provides a stepping stone into history, marking technological advances or famous engineers.
Such an example is Austen’s engine house at Fowey Consols, at which so many threads of history can be followed back and forward in time. Those threads lead to many other engine houses, many of which have fascinating stories to tell.
We are in an era dominated by the virtual world, a world where the physical holds less and less
importance. In such a world some of the Cornish Engine houses have found a small, but important role of providing purpose to a location. Such a purpose can attract us into the location to photograph, paint, record, explore, or just look at the building. They can become the reason for a journey, or a ‘croust’ stop along the way. Often such stops may stir up some curiosity to discover more, to ask questions that may lead to more journeys.
I find a walk in Cornwall is rarely historically sterile, every bump, dip, building relic or lump of fallen masonry seems to have the potential for significance. This richness
of landscape only became truly apparent tome on walks in many other parts of Britain where a footpath was just a footpath; nothing to find, nothing to explore.
A reflection taken forward
After that brief detour into Cornish engine house I will return in the next post to the USA with some more words about the President Engine. In doing so I should; now be able to grasp the significance of its engine house more clearly after reflecting some of our own heritage here in Kernow.