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Mining museum will touch your heart

By Paul Knowles

Morwellham Quay portrays an important -- if uncomfortable -- era in English history; the site is saved by new owners.


It's not that England is too big -- it's that it is too deep. The country is too deep historically. There are too many fascinating eras that have left tangible evidence for us to explore.
Everywhere one turns in England there is something neolithic, something else Roman, a castle built by Henry VIII or Elizabeth I, or a section of the stomping grounds of Queen Victoria or Winston Churchill. So much to see, so little time ...
One result of this embarrassment of historic riches is that some eras can easily be overlooked. Which brings us to a unique and intriguing site on the western edge of Devon: Morwellham Quay.
For 1,000 years, this was a shipping centre serving the silver, tin, and copper mines in these parts of Devon and Cornwall. But it was at its height in the 1860s -- which makes Morwellham (emphasis is placed inexplicably on the final syllable) a Victorian heritage site, but very unlike more stereotypical 'Victorian' sites such as the royal Osborne House.
This was a working family's village, a mining town, and -- with its extensive quays on the tidal River Tamar -- an important inland port. Today, Morwellham Quay has been restored to demonstrate all those functions, with costumed interpreters adding colourful credibility to every scene.
Morwellham Quay is near the original Tavistock, in Devon, just the width of the Tamar from Cornwall. It's a busy place, with a wide range of heritage activities. There is the village, with its shops and costumed tradespeople, from blacksmiths to assayers, any and all of whom are happy to share their their trade secrets with guests.
There the is quayside, with a tall ship open for a visit, and lessons offered on ropemaking. There is a farm, where dedicated farm staff care for a variety of animals, including the impressive team of heavy horses.
There is a school, with a playground well-stocked with period games available for all comers, from quoits to bowls. There are nature walks.
But the centrepiece at Morwellham Quay is an excursion down a real copper mine, on a small passenger train specially built for the purpose. The trip through the tunnels takes you past tableaux that evoke the horrible conditions that the miners -- many of them mere children -- faced. The guides are both forthright and entertaining, but visitors cannot escape the bleaker aspects of the picture.
As I emerged from the mine, I said to our guide/engineer: 'It's incredible to think that life was like that for those poor people.'
His answer? 'In a great deal of the world, life is still exactly like that in the mines.' There was no easy response to that comment; it required thoughtful silence.

It was not only copper and tin that were mined here -- there was also a thriving arsenic business. A Morwellham publication notes, 'At one time there was enough arsenic on our quayside to poison the entire population of the world ... but all traces of it are now gone.' In fact, traces of that entire bleak era in history could well be gone, were it not for places like Morwellham Quay.

In fact, Morwellham has been temporarily closed, after a funding crisis, but the Victorian mining village has been saved from permanent closure after being sold to a wellknown family in the West Country tourism industry.
Simon and Valerie Lister, who run the renowned gardens in Bicton, near Budleigh Salterton, East Devon, have bought the open- air mining museum.
A Devon newspaper reports, "Mr Lister said the couple wanted to "breathe new life" into the World Heritage site, which comprises a copper mine, a museum and a visitor centre, and hope to reopen it by the summer."But they have saved Morwellham, and they have turned it into a very interactive, entertaining and educational attraction. This is not a National Trust or English Heritage site, so visitors need to plan their stop here independent from the more widely-promoted itineraries, but a visit will open your eyes and and touch your heart in unexpected ways.
For more information on Morwellham Quay, visit