Writer: David Devanny
Photography: Andreas Sterzing
the carnon rivercript
between baldhu and twelveheads
a celtic acre
settles its castings
apple january speakwaters
with secret wild riches
malign surplus sludge
mingles with the waters of tarrandean
penpol and perran’s well
discharges a duchy water burial
a brown tongueplume of Acheron
upstream coldwind cross sighs
who’s this old jane
in weighty dampened rain
Wheal Jane is a mine located between Threemilestone and Devoran that produced tin, zinc, copper, lead, silver, and arsenic. As a named mine it dates back to the mid-19th century and the wider area has been mined since at least the mid-18th century.
The word Wheal is used across Cornwall to refer to mines, although there is some debate about the etymology; it’s likely to be from either the Cornish word for a “working site” or wielle, the Old English word for a mine. The general area, and surviving village, have been known for much longer by the Cornish name of Baldhu, which translates to English as “Black Mine”.
As a mine, Wheal Jane has quite a chequered economic history, having closed its doors and become disused on no fewer than four previous occasions. Its longest continuous spell in operation was between 1971 and 1992, making it one of the last tin mines in Cornwall (its demise was precipitated by the collapse of the International Tin Agreement in 1985). As a result of this late and active industrialised period there is little remaining visual evidence of Cornwall’s older and more iconic heritage mining; Wheal in Welsh refers specifically to the pump-houses atop tin and copper mines, but the site at Wheal Jane is far more contemporary.
Following the closure of the mine in 1992, pumping was stopped, and rising groundwater washed exposed metal and mineral deposits into the Carnon River, Restronguet Creek and ultimately into Falmouth Bay. Over fifty million litres of water containing cadmium, arsenic, copper and zinc flooded into the river system killing fish and seabirds. The iron-rich polluted water had a very visible ochreous plume. The extensive clean-up operation, which has included the installation of settling pools and water treatment plants, has cost more than twenty million pounds.
In the 21st century, the Wheal Jane site, nestled between Baldhu and Twelveheads and just off the Bissoe Trail, is not very publicly accessible. It is once again the site of industry, but this time around as an Earth Science Park, dedicated to the sustainable production of energy.
A large part of Cornwall’s identity is defined in association with mining; Cornwall has three patron saints, but it is not St Petroc or St Michael whose flag is flown and whose feast is observed, but St Piran, the patron saint of miners. Today there are a number of serious attempts being made to use Cornwall’s mining heritage, expertise and resources to lead the world in more sustainable and ethically informed production practices.