Our base for the 10 days we spent near Calstock in a restored and modernised part of Okel Tor Mine. A scheduled ancient monument, in an SSS1 within a UNESCO world Heritage Site…You don’t get more protected than that. Leasaed from the local Harewood estate, the mine operated from the 1840’s – 1880’s and utilising the tidal river Tamar to export its precious output of copper and tin. This complex of shafts & adits, pump house and burners, settling pits and buddles strung out along the steep valley slopes employed some 200 men, women, boys and girls at its peak. But this was a wildly precarious boom/bust economy and eventually the buildings and infrastructure were run down, abandoned, gradually reclaimed and colonised by a wealth of native flora and fauna.
Our intimate quirky accommodation at the original entrance to the works was where the mine captain assayed ore and paid his employees. Next door the former smithy, where tools were made or mended and metalwork fabricated, has likewise been tastefully converted. Morning or evening from our deck here on the Cornish side we surveyed a fine slice of rural Devon – its fields and farms, glasshouse nurseries, woods and marshes, abandoned railway discernible in a linear trace of may and cow parsley…This studied and relaxed intimacy I loved, having been born downriver at Saltash and largely brought up the other side of the hill in front of me. Our peace and tranquility was only be broken by the occasional chatter of unseen canoeists below or Canada geese above descending to nest on the abandoned Victorian brick works chimney rising incongruously out of willow and alder carr on the Devon bank. The mass of oak, rowan, maple at our feet rang with songs of blackcap, blackbird and robin while blossom fell from apple and hawthorn through dappled sunlight…The contrast with the mine’s heyday could not have been starker. Old photographs show the steep slopes completely denuded of any kind of vegetation. We were reminded of the days when arsenic – the equally commercial by-product that filled economic highs and lows of mineral extraction – was worked here. At the parameters of our idyllic private view, upriver at the site of Gawton Mine with its crooked stone chimney poking out of the greenest of forests, a massive bare mound rears up…An arsenic waste tip so deadly nothing will grow on it. Yet there’s a terrible beauty in it. Nature & man’s industry gifts us a permanent art work.