Out of Sight, Out of Mines | The Explorers Reclaiming the Cornish Tin Coast

Rural exploration has become the latest thrill for seasoned thrill-seekers, but are they playing too risky a game?

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Aug 20 2018, 8:00am

It was on day two of a walking trip along the rugged cliff tops of Cornwall’s Tin Coast that I spotted two men off in the distance, unusually dressed in azure blue workman’s overalls. We’d kept obediently to the path, watching seals bob along the shoreline and admiring the relics of the once-booming Cornish tin mining industry – shells of factories and industrial relics from mines litter these cliffs at every turn.

These other men hadn’t kept to the path – they’d appeared from the horizon with heavy-duty equipment and were completely soaked. They made their way towards us and explained they’d been securing the gated and locked entrance to an old mine which had been dangerously prized open by explorers. The task of re-securing old mines, they said, was an almost weekly occurrence.

“I love avoiding security, getting out without getting caught; if something isn’t well-guarded then it’s not really much fun to me anymore”

The practice of urban exploration – getting into abandoned places, or places lost in time – is a wildly popular pursuit. Most explorers meet online in dedicated forums, where they discuss their latest conquests, plan meetups, and share photos and tips. The most well-documented urban explorers tend to stick literally to urban environments, visiting skyscrapers, old offices, factories, hospitals or abandoned World War II relics. Mine explorers, however, take a different route.

The typical scale of a Cornish mining cave. Photo: Robbie Khan

Preferring rural exploration, they will walk for miles in odd locations to find their prize, risking their own safety to get a covert thrill, or the perfect picture. Rural explorers are more interested in the way nature has reclaimed a space, rather than how buildings made of metal and concrete have decayed over time.

On the face of it, the practise is an intriguing way to learn about our shared pasts and make use of other hobbies, such as history and photography. But breaking and entering disused mines can be dangerous, not to mention illegal.

“The dangers of breaking into and exploring mines without proper guidance aren’t limited to the physical danger,” says Emma Parkman of the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site (CMWHS). There are “also the strained local emergency services who may need to rescue those [who get themselves] stuck or injured.”

The Levant mine’s compressor chimney, still stood tall. Photo: Barry Gamble

The consequences can also be far reaching for fragile ecosystems and “there is also the potential damage to the landscape, the mines and surrounding areas. They are full of key historic features which [explorers] may not recognise. When you go off track and damage the stone or piece of metal, you may be destroying a piece of our history.”

Obviously Emma Parkman and the CMWHS are all for people exploring mines. “We totally understand and applaud the desire to learn more about our fascinating landscape,” she says, “but [when there are] safe and specifically designed attractions with so much on offer, like Geevor, Botallack and Levant, there seems no reason to risk damage and injury.”

None of this, of course, puts off the mine explorers. In fact, like its urban cousin, the illegal nature of rural exploration is an intrinsic part of the appeal. Rina, one of the explorers, tells me openly that “knowing you are somewhere you shouldn’t be is thrilling. The danger of being in these situations can give you an adrenaline rush.”

Urban explorers realising the staggering height of the mine. Photo: Robbie Khan

She’s not alone. Another explorer called Wesley reveals: “Over the years, as I have pushed myself more and more to get into bigger and better places, it has become more about the adrenaline of getting in. Avoiding teams of security, trying to get out without getting caught. If something isn’t well-guarded then it’s not really much fun to me anymore.”

It’s not just about the thrill of being somewhere you shouldn’t, of course. As with graffiti, there’s a creative, artistic element to the whole thing. “I only came to form an interest in urban exploration when I took up photography seriously as a hobby while at University,” an explorer called Scott explains to me. “My first exposures to UE [urban exploration] were friends posting pics on Facebook of a now long-demolished care home, which had some awesome graffiti in.”

An urban explorer, profiled. Photo: Robbie Khan

“Photography is one of the important parts for me,” Andre, owner of the Urban XL website tells me, but it’s also the history. “Doing research, finding places. Afterwards, sometimes months later, I edit my photos and put them online with the history of the visited site. I think it’s important to know the story about the locations I visit.”

“It’s quite awe-inspiring,” gushes another enthusiast, called Gareth. “How we can just literally walk these miners’ footsteps one more time and see their last workings.”

I quickly learn that within the community there is a fierce competitiveness. “These days it’s about getting in first, finding something before another group and making sure you stake your claim to it,” says Wesley. “These sort of places can be fairly remote, away from main roads and difficult to locate and get to,” Scott explains.

Letting an explorer loose on the cave’s undisturbed interior. Photo: Frank Schlichting

“We’ve been walking two to three miles across boggy, hillside terrain in downpour before, just to reach a mine – never mind a long climb down a shaft to get inside, and the massive chambers inside to explore. Fortunately, things like this deter people, which is good because it keeps the ‘phone light explorers’ away; they don’t want to get their trainers muddy.”

Despite what they say about the thrill of the risk, most of those I speak to take safety seriously. “A gas detector is a must,” Gareth tells me. “You don’t realise that some enclosed mines have a few pockets of pretty bad air or low-oxygen air. That is what dictates a safe mine really – if the air is bad, you don’t go in. You’ll not make it far at all.

“I used to go bareback, without a detector, but I realise that’s a foolish choice. Now, I might get a bit worried for a few minutes but that passes pretty quickly, you just get the comforting beep every so often from the gas detector.”

The headframe of the Geevor mine. Photo: Ainsley Cocks

The explorers with gas masks, who prioritise safety, have recently found a new enemy: the Youtube generation, who they see as ringleaders of the anti-safety brigade, visiting dangerous locations for that oh-so millennial thrill of subscribers and likes.

“Recently the ‘Exploring with…’ YouTube channels have exploded and created a bit of a divide in the community,” says Scott. “While there’s nothing strictly wrong with YouTube as a platform, it’s the way these guys usually go about it that we have a problem with.

“Everything is about attention, starting with the click bait titles – **DEAD BODY FOUND** – to 20-minute long videos featuring mostly shaky footage of the person’s face, with poor, or even made-up history, and over-the-top reactions.”

Sparks bouncing off the cave’s walls and raining onto the heaps below. Photo: Robbie Khan

The difference between this and what Scott and his friends are doing, is that “it’s all about them, not the locations.” On top of that, he laments that they “have little respect for” the mines they enter. Ironically, this is exactly what Emma Parkman and the CMWHS would say about all those who enter mines illegally – including Scott and his friends.

Regardless of which side of the debate you come down on, however, there’s little doubting the passion of the people who take the activity seriously. There’s something about these fascinating empty spaces that keep people coming back. And that is true for Youtube sensations, experienced solo explorers, and those conscientious travelers who abide by the rules and choose to book safe, legal tours of mines with established and licensed companies.

All of which suggests that however they choose to do it, the Cornish mine explorers won’t be stopping any time soon.

Do it Yourself:

Guides & tips:

We would obviously never condone breaking and entering mines illegally, but if you want to explore Cornwall’s fascinating tin-mining history, the county is littered with spectacular above-ground and safe-to-visit industrial ruins.

Geevor, Levant, and Botallack all offer tours of mining facilities, and Geevor offers guests the opportunity to safely explore a closed mine.

Accommodation:

Guest houses in the region start from £89 per night for two adults in private accommodation, around the areas of St. Just or Pendeen.

Adam Bloodworth is a freelance journalist based in London. Keep up with him on Twitter.