For many the main draw of the Levant Mine is to see the only remaining Cornish steam beam engine still in operation. You get a whole lot more than that, however, with this excellent value day out from the National Trust.
For just £7.20 for adults and £3.60 for children (includes Gift Aid contribution) you get a tour of Levant Mine and Beam Engine. That’s not all, however, as you also get a tour to the Botallack Mine. This is also set in an area of outstanding and beautiful coastal scenery.
Of course, for those sensible enough to benefit from fantastic value 2014 National Trust Membership deals, the whole day out is free. Well almost free as the Trust’s annual membership will pay for itself in just a handful of visits to their properties in England and Wales.
National Trust bringing Levant Mine and Beam Engine back to life
If there was ever such a thing as a Cornish tin and copper mining graveyard then we’d just arrived. As we’d find out, however, thanks to the National Trust there was a lot more life going on in these buildings than first meets the eye.
We entered the small ticket office and shop to be greeted by an expectant group of smiling tourists. It quickly became clear that we had arrived just in time to catch the start of the main tour.
Our passionate and professional guide Tom brought the mine back to life with his detailed knowledge of the history of the Levant Mine and Beam Engine.
Levant ‘the mine under the sea’
The Levant Mine and Beam Engine is part of the Cornish Mining World Heritage site in the St. Just district of Cornwall. It was often referred to as the ‘mine under the sea’ due to the length and depth of the mine that was literally under the Celtic Sea (which is part of the Atlantic Ocean).
At the start of our tour Tom showed us where one of the mine shafts started at the bottom of the cliff. This really makes you think about how tough things were on a couple of hundred years ago, with just ropes and wood protecting miners from the crashing Atlantic Ocean and jagged rocks.
The Levant Mine stretched out one and third miles out to sea and was over 2,000 feet deep. This is a staggering feat of engineering when you consider that these shafts were dug by hand.
Of course, there was a financial motivation as Levant Mine was rich in copper and tin, and it was a lucrative investment for those that financed it. The miners and their families who processed the minerals, however, were not so lucky.
The miners of Levant Mine
At its peak the Levant Mine employed 700 people, of which half were underground, and the other half above ground.
During the c18th and c19th there were three shifts for miners, as the mine was worked 24 hours a day. These shifts lasted for six hours, which did not include the time it took to get down to the mine, and back out again, which in itself took hours.
From an interview with a captain of Levant Mine we learned that working for more than six hours in the heat and dry atmosphere of the mine would kill a man. This was not only back breaking work, it could also literally kill you.
In the late c19th and early c20th Levant Mine we learned that the mine moved to two shifts per day, which gave some relief to the workers.
Processing copper and tin at Levant Mine
Of course, digging was just half the job of getting to the tin and copper ore. Whilst the men were down the mine, it was left to the women and children (boys up to the age of 10 who then worked in the mines) to go through the painstaking process of separating the ore from rock.
To extract the copper ore they would start with eight or nine pound long sledgehammer, and then move to a three pound long handled sledgehammer. Finally, they’d use two small handled hammers to break it down further and extract the copper. For this arduous work they’d get paid five shillings per week.
Extracting tin was even more difficult as only 2% to 3% of the original football sized rock was actual tin ore. The hammering would continue until the rock and tin was one and half inches long.
It was then transported by railway to another part of the Levant Mine where it would go through a complex washing process. This was required to separate the heavier tine from the rest of the rock.
Copper and iron ore was then transported overland to Penzane, and then shipped for smelting in Swansea.
Mining at Levant continued until one of the worst moments in Cornish mining history occurred just after the First World War.
Levant Mine disaster 1919
In 1919 Levant Mine witnessed one of the worst mining disasters in Britain. The ‘man engine’ which transported miners up and down the shafts broke, leading to the deaths of 31 miners.
What was once seen as a revolutionary way to bring workers to and from the mines was now the cause of a catastrophic event. After the Levant Mine disaster, the mine never really recovered and was subsequently closed down in 1930 during the economic depression.
Whilst on the tour you see the entrance to the ‘man engine’ which is a very moving experience to think that 31 men that entered the mine that fateful day in 1919 never returned again.
National Trust restoration
In 1967 Levant Mine and Beam Engine was transferred to the National Trust who started to restore the buildings and open them to the public. In the early 1990s a team of enthusiasts named the ‘Greasy Gang’ started a fundraising appeal to restore the Beam Engine back to working order.
Levant Beam Engine
The highlight of the Levant Mine tour for many people — particularly industrial age, engineering and steam enthusiasts — is seeing the beam engine working. It’s the only Cornish mining beam engine which is still working at its original site, and seeing it in action is a very unique experience.
What amazed me was how quiet the beam engine was and the elegance of movement whilst it was in operation. How steam engines work is completely alien to many people, however, the workings was clearly explained by the National Trust team.
When the beam engine was operating you could get a real sense of what it was like working at Levant Mine. The National Trust and volunteers have done a tremendous job bringing it back to life.
Levant Mine and Beam Engine tour final thoughts
Set against the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean the Levant Mine and Beam Engine is a wonderful experience for visitors. It’s just one of hundreds of reasons why you should join the National Trust.
If you’d like to find out more about Levant you can visit the National Trust website. Note – it’s only open on Friday during the winter months.
This was only part of the tour as it also included a spectacular coastal walk to Botallack Mine and a visit to the Coin House. That’s another post, however, so look out for that in the future.
In the meantime you go to the National Trust website to find out more about what the work they’re doing in Cornwall, and the rest of England and Wales.
Have you visited Levant? We’d love to know your experiences in the comments below.