May 2002 Cornwall
Impressions of Falmouth and Cornwall

Falmouth is at the mouth of the Fal river. Surprise! It's said to be "one of the finest natural havens in the world, and the third largest after Sydney and Rio." While it's certainly large and lovely, it's nowhere near as big and developed as our home port of Hampton Roads; we guess you have to define "haven" properly to validate Falmouth's claim! On the other hand, Hampton Roads isn't guarded by castles on either shore built on orders of King Henry VIII. They add a certain je ne sais quoi.

We rented a car and drove around Cornwall. Off the one or two major roads, most roads are about a lane and a half wide, and generally bordered by high, seemingly impenetrable hedges, sometimes hiding genuinely impenetrable stone walls. Fortunately, there's not much traffic, and there are frequent turnouts, each carefully marked as a "Passing Place", so that if you encounter another car, one of you can move into one of these (sometimes backing up). All very polite. Very British.

We were driving along one of these lanes when a pheasant darted across the roadway, followed by a half dozen chicks. She had disappeared into the hedge by the time the last chick was scurrying across the lane. A crow swooped down toward the straggler, and mother pheasant immediately reappeared, feathers a-fluff and all a-squawk, to chase it off.

In the 19th century, tin mining flourished in Cornwall. Actually, tin mining here dates from many centuries earlier, but reached its height in the late 1800's, when there were hundreds of mines, producing most of the world's tin. But mining stopped here in the mid 1990's, when the dropping price of tin made it unprofitable to continue, and the last mine closed,. Today, the most visible remainder and reminder of these mines are the ruins of tall stone "engine houses" and chimneys. These engine houses held the machinery that pumped water from the mines. In fact, the inventor of the high pressure boiler was a Cornishman named Richard Trevithick (his pressurization improved on Watts's design). The engine house ruins dot the landscape, and are especially impressive when they are near the coastline, as several are. We toured a mine near St. Ives on the west Cornwall coast. The part we visited was the shallower area dating from the 18th and 19th Centuries - the lower areas flooded in 1988 when the pumps stopped. It was truly impressive, and horrific to think of the labor conditions. While safer than coal mines, tin mines were not pleasant. They didn't have dangerous flammable gasses in them, so miners wore candles on their hats or helmets to light their way. Miners were only paid for the minerals they mined, not the rock they had to dig through to find the veins of ore, and the tin veins were quite small compared to the volume of rock. So they didn't waste time and effort with big tunnels. We couldn't stand up straight in the tunnels we were in, and our shoulders brushed the side walls. Andi was fascinated enough so that she controlled her claustrophobia, but our tour guide had a flashlight and there were lights strung in the tunnels - a situation that didn't exist for the miners. The mines were worked by families: housing was provided only to miners and their families, so sons became miners in order to keep housing. The average life expectancy was under 30 years; boys were considered adult at 15, and were probably married by then, if not parents. Children began working above ground breaking big stones into smaller stones at age 6; boys went below at age 8 and worked at bringing the rocks out from the working mine faces in wheelbarrows. Women and girls worked above ground, breaking up the rocks. An unfortunate side product of tin mines is arsenic, and some short-lived women tended the plant machinery where it was extracted. All in all, an appalling existence. The miners took their lunches below with them in the form of "pasties," a crescent-shaped pie dough filed with potatoes, meat and vegetables. Cornish pasties are still a staple today. Our guide said, however, that the miners didn't eat the pastie dough - it just protected the filling from their filthy hands, and they left the crusts behind for the "knockers" - the ghosts of past miners that haunt the mines. We think they ate every last crumb, and needed all the energy they could get!

The English love flowers, and there are flowers everywhere. Houses of course have gardens. But stores and pubs all also have flower boxes, hanging baskets or tubs of flowers decorating them. The local Woolworths has particularly pretty flowerboxes. But even when you drive along the lanes, the hedges are often sprinkled with lovely wildflowers. And many of the lanes have sections where the trees have grown together overhead, making a beautiful verdant tunnel. "lovely," we keep saying, "just lovely."

The Brits use too many words, and signs are just incredibly polite. Where a store in the US would have a sign saying "No animals," the equivalent here says, "Polite Notice: we regret that no animals other than guide dogs are permitted inside these premises." At a train station in the US, a notice would say, "No running or horseplay." Here, it's "Patrons are kindly requested not to engage in rough play or running on the overpass as injury may result."

It's fun to be in the country where the name places are from songs and nursery rhymes we're familiar with. "As I was going to St. Ives, I met a man with seven wives..."
"In Hartford, Hereford and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly happen..." I wonder if the Brits always think of pirates and Gilbert and Sullivan when they hear "Penzance", as we do. (It's just 20 miles away.)

We're on our way now to Scotland (stopping first at the Scillies), but expect to return to Cornwall at least briefly when we go down east to Lymington in late August.