'One hundred and fifty years ago, this whole area would have U been full of noise and people. It was like a gold rush town, with lots of men moving here from all over the country. There would have been drinking and fighting and this real frontier feeling, a bit like an English version of California,' says Rosemary Teverson, project manager for the Tamar Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
It's difficult to imagine now, as we stand in the sunlight looking out over a thickly wooded hillside scattered with remnants of the area's mining history a towering stone chimney and numerous piles of earth. There's nobody in sight and the only sounds are songbirds, the gentle creak of trees in the breeze and the far-off hum of a road.
What was once the copper mining capital of Europe is now a quiet part of the Tamar Valley AONB, a 195-square-kilometre section of countryside centering on the Rivers Tamar (an ancient border between Devon and Cornwall), Tavy and Lynher, which together make up one of the UK's most attractive drowned river valley systems.
Central to everything is the water. It has created fertile ground for farming and provides a home to otters now at full capacity in the area salmon, eels and the birds, including avocets and wigeons, that flock here in their hundreds during the winter. And it also provided a means of power and transport for the historical mining industries.
'There has been some form of ore extraction going on here for hundreds, if not thousands, of years[ says Colin Buck, senior archaeologist on the Tamar Valley Mining Heritage Project. 'But in 1844, they came across the widest copper lode in Europe, leading to a 50 year boom in copper extraction and the creation of Europe's biggest mine, Devon Great Consols.
'It was very much like the dot-com era', Buck continues. 'Money was being raised on the stock market because people thought they could make a lot of money on the mines. And they did--on some.' But for the workers, it was simply a way to feed their families. Hundreds of Welsh, Irish and English poured into the area looking for work. 'It took a while for the builders to catch up,' says Buck. 'During the 1850s and '60s, lots of men were living in dorms and tents.' And even when housing was con structed, it was pretty crowded. 'There would be two or three families living in a small two up, two-down, taking turns to sleep, as the mines were open 24 hours and they worked in shifts.'
When the copper ran low during the 1890s, the area suffered from mass unemployment, and many families emigrated to South Africa and South America, chasing the next mining booms. But, by then, the mine owners had already begun to diversify, producing arsenic as well to satisfy demand for pesticide for cotton crops in the USA.
I suggest to Buck that this must have been dangerous for the miners. 'God, yes,' he replies. 'One sixth of a teaspoon of arsenic could kill a grown man. They would work with handkerchiefs stuffed up their noses. It wasn't a nice job, but they were paid well for it. And there is some talk that Cornish people were more immune to its effects than others.'
Up at the ruins of the Devon Great Consols mine today, you can still see the arsenic slag heaps. While the other ruins and slag heaps have been reclaimed by heathland, the arsenic heaps are still brown and almost completely bare. Unsurprisingly, they are well fenced off from the 60 kilometres of new bike, horse and walking trails that are being built around the valley.
Set to open this summer, the trails are part of a 6million [pounds sterling] investment to open up the mining heritage and surrounding countryside to the public, and will take visitors from one old mine to another through beautiful wood- and heathland. The development follows on from the 2006 World …