Cornish is a weird mix of a lot of things. Like many languages, it mostly died out when the local lingua mercatoria (in this case, English) became the lingua franca and came to dominate; like a lot of silly little historical curios, it was subsequently revived in a romanticised, semi-fictionalised form by nostalgic Victorian types. How completely it died out, and how historically authentic the current form is, is a debate for Cornish nationalists and actual historians; I am neither.
Either way, it’s rooted in an ancient language somewhere between Breton and Welsh, and bits of it are subtly alien to the English ear. Cornwall was known as West Wales back in Heptarchy days (though that was “Wales” meaning literally “barbarian lands” rather than, er, Wales) and there’s a strange grammar to Cornish things, neither Latinate nor Germanic. Besides the approximately ten million towns here named after saints, Welsh-sounding place names like Trewellard and Gwithian are mixed up with immensely English ones such as Whitecross and Newquay, and there’s a category of pure Cornish: towns which sound like they belong in fantasy novels, like Zennor and Perranzabuloe (the latter is actually Latin, but spelled in weird Cornish phonetics.)
From this last comes the name of the minehead-turned-mining-museum at Geevor, just down the coast from St. Ives. One of the last tin mines in Cornwall to close, this has by the grace of charity and whopping EU grants survived as a very classy and quite unique little exhibition. It has an extremely well executed example of the standard geological museum and shiny collection, a nice Heritage Section about Cornishmen (“Cousin Jacks”) going off to dig holes all over the world, and collections of various artefacts relating to mining, miners and Cornwall: all the standard museum stuff which I love. I have been to plenty of museums full of arch nostalgia, weak collector-plundered collections and dumbed-down-too-far science/history. This is not one of them.
But beyond that, it has a near-complete, near-working mine and processing plant that has only been abandoned for a couple of decades. A few of the bigger machines had been torn out of the massive ore-processing works (interestingly, the great old sheds are largely wooden in construction; in a very wet working environment, right by the sea, and of a business where large pieces of machinery were often being moved and upgraded, using wood and having an in-house carpenter was apparently far cheaper than iron) but most of the workings were still there, the Victorian-looking crushers and grinders with fist-sized rivet heads and the great automated shaking-tables of wood and linoleum, flotation tanks outside gradually growing over with weeds hardy enough to weather the poison.
There was the usual gold-panning thing, which was actually made interesting by comparison with the machine versions in the next room along (also, a harvest of tiny shiny things!); there was a tour of an abandoned 17th century mine lying above the more modern Geevor workings, which I was far too tall for (even craned over massively I banged my head many times, and furiously sang Short People to combat the seething realisation that my girlfriend would have absolutely no trouble), and an amazing scale map made of wire showing the full, absurd extent of the labyrinthine tunnels under the land and sea. (Low-res phonecam pic to come.) The original workings are still there, and although the tunnels are largely flooded these days, they’re sealed off and could be pumped out one day, if it ever became profitable again.
“The Dry”, the changing-rooms for miners (so called because it was where they hung up their filthy, sodden mining clothes at the end of the day) had been left as it was the day the mine closed; an eerie Chernobyl-esque frozen snapshot of an eighties business rooted deeply (hurr) in a millennia-old trade. The too-apologetic intro bumf at the door hinted at treasures far more risqué than a distant Playboy calendar and a locker containing a home-recorded VHS tape marked “BIG BLONDES 4” in blue crayon, but the whole place was brilliantly evocative. There were grubby mud-stiff overalls, sarky blackboard notes, printed Polite Notices about the misuse of bandages, a locker covered in motorbike stickers with a helmet perched on top, clunky seventies tea machines. Everything smelled of soap and grease and history. Like the armoury at Shrivenham, I found it utterly wonderful to be in among the artefacts, rather than seeing them cloistered away behind glass and security alarms. Unlike Shrivenham, I didn’t touch anything, but it mattered that I could.