The Last Great Cornish Engineer visits the Looe Literary Festival

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Getting excited about this one, a chance to chat about William West and how the book evolved over a pint or two in a great Cornish setting. And perhaps answer the question

“what on earth is a navigator doing writing a book about an engineer?”

Looking forward to  seeing some of you there on Saturday.

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10 Facts about William West, The Last Great Cornish Engineer

For those scanning the running order of this year’s Looe Literary Festival, and wishing to know more about my book,  ‘The Last Great Engineer’, here are 10 Facts about William West to wet the appetite.

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1 Young West held a candle to Richard Trevithick.

2 He designed the most efficient Cornish Engine ever made.

3 He played an important, but little known role in the eradication of Cholera.

4 One of his inventions saved thousands of miners lives, another saved thousands of man hours of manual labour.

5 His work greatly accelerated the  adoption of Cornish Engines beyond the Tamar.

6 Gin and a fireplace influenced his early education.

7 West and the Duke of Wellington are linked in death.

8 He was said to have installed more steam engines in Cornwall than any other engineer.

9 Railways, mines, banks, and foundries formed part of the West business empire.

10  Most of the copper ore that once covered Looe’s quays was extracted from the ground using West’s machinery.


Click here to visit my Amazon authors page
For those passing through Cornwall then pop into the Liskeard Bookshop, to buy a copy of my books. To buy the books on line, or download the kindle publications then visit my Amazon store to browse through my books.

Looe and Wilke Collins

As the Looe Literary Festival approaches it presents a great excuse to reproduce some of the words from one of my favourite pieces of descriptive Victorian writing –Rambles Beyond Railways, by Wilkie Collins.

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Wilkie Collins is best know for his novels, however this publiction is a rare gem of his social observation. Ramble beyond Railways is a Victorian provincial traveller’s view of Cornwall, and it makes a fascinating read. I have often used his rich description of South Caradon Mine, a description that brings into animated life the silent remains of this once great industrial complex. But that description can wait for another post. This time it’s Wilkie Collins’s Looe.

Rambles Beyond Railways; or, Notes in Cornwall taken A-foot by Wilkie Collins

Looe is known to have existed as a town in the reign of Edward I.; and it remains to this day one of the prettiest and most primitive places in England. The river divides it into East and West Looe; and the view from the bridge, looking towards the two little colonies of houses thus separated, is in some respects almost unique. At each side of you rise high ranges of beautifully wooded hills; here and there a cottage peeps out among the trees, the winding path that leads to it being now lost to sight in the thick foliage, now visible again as a thin serpentine line of soft grey. Midway on the slopes appear the gardens of Looe, built up the acclivity on stone terraces one above another; thus displaying the veritable garden architecture of the mountains of Palestine magically transplanted to the side of an English hill. Here, in this soft and genial atmosphere, the hydrangea is a common flower-bed ornament, the fuchsia grows lofty and luxuriant in the poorest cottage garden, the myrtle flourishes close to the sea-shore, and the tender tamarisk is the wild plant of every farmer’s hedge.

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From the Wilkie Collins information Website

Click here for the website>

Looking lower down the hills yet, you see the houses of of the river, in mazes of little narrow streets; curious old quays project over the water at different points; coast-trade vessels are being loaded and unloaded, built in one place and repaired in another, all within view; while the prospect of hills, harbour, and houses thus quaintly combined together, is beautifully closed by the English Channel, just visible as a small strip of blue water, pent in between the ridges of two promontories which stretch out on either side to the beach.

Such is Looe as beheld from a distance; and it loses none of its attractions when you look at it more closely. There is no such thing as a straight street in the place. No martinet of an architect has been here, to drill the old stone houses into regimental regularity. Sometimes you go down steps into the ground floor, sometimes you mount an outside staircase to get to the bed-rooms. Never were such places devised for hide and seek since that exciting nursery pastime was first invented. No house has fewer than two doors leading into two different lanes; some have three, opening at once into a court, a street, and a wharf, all situated at different points of the compass……

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Then, when you have at last threaded your way successfully through the streets, and have got out on the beach, you see a pretty miniature bay, formed by the extremity of a green hill on the right, and by fine jagged slate-rocks on the left. Before this seaward quarter of the town is erected a strong bulwark of rough stones, to resist the incursion of high tides. Here, the idlers of the place assemble to lounge and gossip, to look out for any outward-bound ships that are to be seen in the Channel, and to criticise the appearance and glorify the capabilities of the little fleet of Looe fishing-boats, riding snugly at anchor before them at the entrance of the bay.

The inhabitants number some fourteen hundred; and are as good-humoured and unsophisticated a set of people as you will meet with anywhere. The Fisheries and the Coast Trade form their principal means of subsistence. The women take a very fair share of the hard work out of the men’s hands. You constantly see them carrying coals.

Whilst the author mentions the discharging of coal, he fails to make any reference to the huge amounts of copper ore traffic that would have been passing through the small port during his visit. A strange omission, considering his visit to the Caradon mines, and the fact that the quays would have been covered in piles of ore awaiting shipment to South Wales.

The full book can be obtained from Amazon, several editions are  listed in the Navsbooks A Store on the Navsbooks Reference page.

Is there such a thing as the Cornish Tourist industry?

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I have never been comfortable with the link between the words ‘tourist’ and ‘Industry’ in Cornwall. Mining, quarrying, China clay, fishing, shipping, ship repair, farming, and engineering are industries, but to me, tourism fails to justify that accolade. Why, when so many flood into Cornwall every year to spend their hard earned money east of the Tamar?

The reason is time. That flood is short and intense, a burst of caravans, tents, and second home owners. A burst now intensified by the UK Government’s enforcement of school term times, with prosecution of parents who dare take their children on holiday outside of that brief August period. There is no way that community can support itself when dominated by a system that provides income for only six weeks of a year. And this is why I find it so hard to use their term ‘Tourist Industry’.

And yet, within Cornwall there are many fighting hard to change that, to fill the gaps between the last eastward bound sea, sun, and sand holiday maker, and the first of the Easter visitors. Festival’s are a  key part in this change; their dates are scattered across the calendar, forming a potential draw to visitors, a draw independent on the vagaries of the Cornish weather. Music, dance, food, art, books, beer, films, and just plain  weirdness are used as reasons to put the posters up.

Looe’s new Literary Festival is such a festival, and one that I am excited about playing my part in, if only a small one. It’s a town that I always enjoy visiting in winter, it’s narrow streets offer a great place to walk on a wet and windy day. Somehow, it seems to maintain just enough day visitors out of season to give it some life, a bit of a buzz. I am hoping that the influx of authors, some well known, others not so well known, will add to that buzz. If it does, I will add it to my growing list of Cornish Events to check out each year.

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Perhaps the Cornish Tourist Industry does exist, but it is small, a lot smaller then we are told to believe it is. However, perhaps one day the festival’s, mazy days, all weather attractions, and the Duchy’s landscape will coalesce into a large enough mass to create all year employment for large numbers. Perhaps then, the economic benefits will then offset the distortions in property prices and wages. Perhaps then, I will be comfortable with the term Cornish Tourist Industry.

Meanwhile, if you are in the area, come along to Looe, where I look forward to seeing you at the Salutation Inn will be at on Saturday the 13th at 4 pm, to  enjoy  a good pint, and warm fire as I explore behind the words of my new book, The Last Great Cornish Engineer.

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This Inn is full of charm and history. The beams are said to be from Ship Wrecks that the Smugglers beached at Hannafore and the walls are decked with old pictures of Looe and the skippers with record Shark captures I could have looked at them all day. The floor is uneven and you have to duck your way around…

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