The Birth of Steam Railway Walks with Julia Bradbury


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The Birth of Steam

Julia Bradbury takes a series of walks following Britain's lost rail empire. She crosses Cornwall, following a railway that has not operated for 140 years.


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Britain is a country that owes a great deal to its rail empire.

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For 100 years, the railways dominated the development of this

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country - the network that supported a global superpower.

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But today, our island is home to 10,000 miles of disused lines -

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a silent network of embankments, platforms and viaducts.

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For me and many others, they've become a perfect platform for exploring the country on foot.

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Welcome to the north Cornwall coast and the dramatic entrance to the harbour at Portreath.

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With all its rocks and cliffs, this has always been

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a notoriously difficult harbour for ships to enter.

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Which is why it's quite surprising that in 1820, it was described as Cornwall's most important port.

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Today, I'm going to get to the bottom of that comment

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and find out why.

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For a number of reasons, this railway walk promises to be quite an adventure.

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You could say that I'll be walking right across the country,

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from the north Cornwall coast to its counterpart in the south.

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There will also be, not one, but two railway lines,

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both of which date back further than anything I've explored so far.

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This railway walk is a journey into the complex history

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of Cornish mining.

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Now, the harbour is the true beginning of my walk,

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but unlike many railway walks, there's no station to start from.

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The reason for that is simple - this line didn't carry passengers.

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It was purely to transport materials to and from the mines.

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There were no railway locomotives here either because this was a tramway, with horses and wagons.

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Despite the horses, Cornwall was really important to the railway age

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because this is where the steam engine really took off.

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Now, it may surprise you,

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but the world's first steam locomotive was built by a Cornishman.

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But Richard Trevithick's greatest contribution to his home county

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was the building of high-pressure steam engines for local mines.

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It was this revolution that helped turn Portreath into such a bustling port.

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That, and the fact that it had the region's first railway.

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In 1800, the railway map of Great Britain was, well, blank.

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But in various mining parts of the country,

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there was a realization that a system of wagons on rails

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was far better than a bunch of horses when it came to transporting heavy materials.

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The Portreath Tramroad arrived in Cornwall in 1809, with a route from

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the north coast deep into the copper and tin mining territory.

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Other railways quickly followed,

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including the Redruth and Chasewater Railway,

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which soon ran from the mining areas to the South Coast.

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Today, the two lines form the backbone of Cornwall's Coast to Coast Trail.

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Now, railways, whether they are working or not, tend to get a lot

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of attention from authors and historians, but not here.

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These two railways have been really hard to research amongst all the facts about Cornish mining.

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I have managed to find this local book which covers the precise route that I want to follow.

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I am also hoping that it will negate any necessity for an archaeologist!

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I've not been the only person struggling!

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The helicopter team were here before me filming my journey from the air.

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They managed to choose a beautiful, clear Cornish day,

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except for the area over Portreath!

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But this is where my walk starts. So, let's take a look at the route.

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Heading east from the coast, there's an area of farmland before you reach

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the villages of Wheal Rose and Scorrier.

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From here, I head south into the heart of mining country.

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Past old industrial communities like Todpool

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and the unmistakeable Poldice Valley.

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This was the end of the line for the Portreath Tramroad.

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But, as I head towards the south coast, I pick up my second railway -

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the Redruth and Chasewater,

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which followed the valley of the Carnon River

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and passed underneath the amazing viaduct

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of the active rail line to Falmouth.

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The village of Devoran, sitting at the top of a long estuary, is the first sign of the end of my walk.

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But I'll be following the water's edge

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all the way to the mooring point at the old railway terminus.

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You know me, I like a bit of insider knowledge before I start a walk,

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and Dave Cuffwright is a man who knows this trail

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better than the back of his hand. Hello, Dave!

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You love this trail so much that you lead cycle tours along it?

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I do, for people's health. It's great family entertainment without a computer,

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unless it's on the bike telling you how well you've done.

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We know about the health benefits of walking, but along my route here today, what kind of things

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can I expect to see? What am I looking forward to, to excite me?

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This whole trail, right across Cornwall,

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100-odd years ago used to be the richest place in Britain, believe it or not.

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It's hard to believe when you look around now.

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Now we're left with the rich infrastructure of the trails

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that have been left behind after these tramways.

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There's one thing that this has got - diversity.

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Here we are on the north coast. The Atlantic pounds in and batters everything.

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As you move to the South Coast, it gets more deciduous, with woods and flowing greenery.

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I, obviously, know a little bit about the history of the tramway here and how

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it serviced the mines, but how did it all gather such momentum?

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Obviously, Cornwall is out on a limb on its own and there is a lot of ore that had to be transported -

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coal that has to go into feeding the steam engines to pump the water out.

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Taking it by road or country would not have been feasible.

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So, really, it's the straightest line from where all the mines were to the sea, which is Portreath.

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I know it's difficult to be precise, but what sort of date are we talking about? When did it slowly ebb away?

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About 1860 is when it started to wane on this side.

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1860 seems like such an early age for a forward-thinking industry to be dying.

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People think of railways and nobody thinks about railways disappearing until the 1960s,

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but 100 years previous, it has already happening here on one of the first railways in Cornwall.

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Back in the day,

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the route of the tramroad was a key feature of this seaside village,

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but 150 years has been more than enough time to obscure its route entirely.

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My walk starts with a stroll through the backstreets of Portreath.

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After a quarter of a mile, the coast to coast trail does leave

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the modern tarmac though, and begins to take on a more expected feel.

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This isn't a walk where you'll find overgrown platforms and crumbling engines sheds.

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The remains of Cornwall's first railway are subtle to say the least,

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but they are there if you look out for them.

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Ah-ha! Now, these are the original granite sets

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that the tramway used to run on.

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Sort of like early railway sleepers, if you like.

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If you look down from here, you can just about make out the outskirts of Redruth.

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That was the main mining town in the area.

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That thimble of a monument straight ahead

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was built to honour Baron Basset.

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He was head of the most powerful mining family in the area.

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Their status was so great that Portreath was often referred to as Basset's Cove.

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This photo from 1893, with the new monument on its hilltop, clearly

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shows the vast mining infrastructure that the Bassets looked after.

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If there was ever any doubt of the impact

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of tin and copper on this area, images like this quickly dispel it.

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Baron Basset himself hardly fits the image of a brutal mine-owner either.

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His monument was built with donations from a grateful public.

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In his time, the Baron helped build defences around Plymouth

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and campaigned against slavery.

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He also left behind him the bustling town of Redruth.

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A town that exploded into prominence

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once the neighbouring seams of tin and copper had been found.

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Ah! There is my first glimpse of some Cornish engine houses.

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Those three chimneys stacked on the horizon there must be Wheal Peevor.

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That is reputedly the best preserved engine house in the area and well worth a little visit later.

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Engine houses are very much a symbol of this part of Cornwall.

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Remains of over 200 are left intact today.

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But, as we've already seen around Redruth,

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these fields were once littered with industrial chimneys

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and there would have been hundreds more.

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Many were dismantled and rebuilt elsewhere as mines opened and closed.

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Two miles out of Portreath, my historic walking route disappears entirely,

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stolen by the modern tarmac, but the clues are still there.

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The local populous is clearly keen to keep a hold of its past.

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I have read that "wheal" in Cornish means "place of work".

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When you look at the map, there are wheals all over the place.

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We have Wheal Rose, Wheal Plenty and Wheal Busy - I like that one!

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But for now, this is the only one I'm interested in.

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The approach to Wheal Peevor is dramatic.

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For those that know little of Cornwall other than its coastline,

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this would be a good place to come.

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The grace and stature of the engine houses is striking,

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particularly set on such a hill-top as here.

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For me, it's an opportunity to understand the industry behind my railway walk.

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Hello, Kingsley! Nice to see you.

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Kingsley Rickard is an industrial historian.

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Specifically, he is a leading light of the group dedicated to Cornwall's very own Richard Trevithick.

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Here's my question for you, Kingsley - why three chimneys?

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Well, three engine houses

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because they were used for three different purposes.

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Usually out of three, the bigger of the three would've been the pumping engine.

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Then you had a winding engine, to wind the materials up and down.

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Also, a stamps engine, which was a type of crushing machine.

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The mining game was a speculation game, wasn't it?

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It was whatever you hit first - whatever seam you came across!

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Very much so. In modern mining, it's possible to drill down and tell what's there.

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In the old days, you didn't know what you were going to find.

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That was exactly the case at Wheal Peevor.

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In the mid-1700s, it started as a copper mine.

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But as the digging got deeper, it was tin that took over,

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reaching a peak in 1880 - the era when the present pumping house

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and its mineshaft were in full operation.

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This was the main pumping shaft of the mine. It is 660 feet deep.

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660 feet, is that particularly deep, as far as mine shafts go?

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Not particularly in Cornwall. We went down to over 3,000 feet.

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The mountains of the Lake District go that far upwards.

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Wheel Peevor wasn't a big operation by local standards,

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but it did produce a particularly rich variety of tin ore.

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Good news for the mine owner, John Williams, who controlled nine out of ten mines in the immediate vicinity.

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Finally, we get to the stamp house.

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That's right. This was the stamping engine and the huge crushing heads

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for the stamps were just along here.

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They worked 24 hours a day and you could have heard them from two and a half to three miles away.

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Of course, none of this would've been possible without one man,

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who I know you think is a bit of a hero - and many people do as well -

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Richard Trevithick.

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Yes, Richard Trevithick, or as we know him in Cornwall, Captain Dick.

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Great name!

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He was a phenomenal engineer.

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He has gone down in history as being the inventor of high-pressure steam,

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which really kick-started the Industrial Revolution.

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Certainly, the whole steam locomotive business.

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Yes, he produced the world's first self-propelled

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vehicle, road vehicle in 1801,

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then moved on in 1804 to produce the world's first railway engine.

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In your opinion, do you think he was overlooked as an engineer?

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Yes, I don't think he really got the recognition that he deserved.

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But, not being a businessman,

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I don't think self-promotion was in his mind at all.

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He just loved solving engineering and mechanical problems.

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Coal is something that Cornwall doesn't have.

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We had to import it all. It was a pretty expensive thing to import.

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So, Trevithick worked on high-pressure steam knowing

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it was going to be more efficient and would save Cornwall thousands of tonnes of coal in a year.

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So, he wasn't just vital to the steam locomotion future industry,

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he was vital to Cornwall and its mining industry as well?

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Yes, to mining and engineering in general.

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I tell you what, you get a great view of my walk so far from here.

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Wonderful, yes! You are looking from the north coast there and Portreath down in the valley.

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You can see how we are much higher than Portreath.

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The tramroad has had to climb considerably to get up to this sort of height.

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-And I still have quite a long way to go, as well!

-Oh, yes, you have!

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I might head off like a pack horse! Thank you, Kingsley.

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-Nice to meet you.

-Thanks!

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Ah-ha! Here is Dave on his tour! Hi, Dave!

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Small world! Enjoy!

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Thank you. Hello!

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Hiya!

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Back on the tramroad, the industrial communities come thick and fast

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as I head from Wheal Peevor to Wheal Rose.

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Mmm, look at this - a pint-sized image of Cornish mining.

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If you put that together with the sign over there,

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I think we can hazard a guess and say that an enthusiast lives here.

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To be honest, it is quite nice to have some clues that the tramroad

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ever existed because modern industry has just taken over.

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Cornish clotted cream is one local industry that has never involved any mining.

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But the Rodda's creamery now stands where the tramroad once ended.

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When the great experimentation with rail began,

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this was as far as they dare go.

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But by 1819, the line was extended further inland,

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through the estate of the man who paid for it.

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Scorrier House is still owned by the descendants of John Williams.

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He was a mine-owner, a shipping and a smelting magnate and a chief investor in the Portreath Tramroad.

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A true entrepreneur, who could charge his fellow mine-owners for using his revolutionary railway.

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With his land still being private, I have to leave the tramroad

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and make my own way to the massive mining valley of Poldice.

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Cornwall's Coast to Coast Trail has developed around the spines

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of the two main mining railways,

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but even here in the depth of Unity Wood,

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you're only ever metres from industrial heritage.

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But in this walk of contrasts, the wood doesn't last for long,

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giving way to the collection of mining cottages at Todpool -

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a very quiet place today, but once a village that sat precariously

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on the edge of the vast and varied operations of the Poldice Valley.

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Poldice does a good impression of a lunar surface.

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Since medieval times, the valley has been carved up by mankind,

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producing tin, copper and Cornwall's less heralded resource of arsenic.

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God, look at that landscape!

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It is hardly beautiful, but it is certainly dramatic.

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If it wasn't for the ruinous state of the buildings,

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you'd think that mining was still going on here.

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And it's one of Cornwall's very last miners that I've arranged to meet,

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amongst the remains of Poldice arsenic works.

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Mark, I am excited because

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I'm sitting here with a genuine, bona fide miner!

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You were mining until quite recently?

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Yes, I mined until 1998.

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I started mining in 1981.

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I followed in my father's footsteps.

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-He started mining in 1948.

-Two family beers.

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Mining in the days that we're going to talk about now was a very different prospect, wasn't it?

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A whole different line of work?

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Yes, when miners were working in this valley 200 years ago, it was completely different.

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In its heyday, there were over 50,000 people working in this valley.

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So great were the tin prospects here at the mine,

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that a poem was written about it.

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The poem went something like this -

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At Poldice men are mice

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Tin is aplenty

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Captain Teague he's from Brie He'll give you ten for 20.

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That meant that for every 20 shillings-worth of tin

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that came to the surface,

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that team of men would get ten shillings.

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So, it was quite a lot of money for the work they did.

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They did it because they knew this mine had lots and lots of tin.

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and how good these tin mines were.

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So, not a bad job to have had then, apart from the danger!

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Near death experiences!

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Apart from the danger. Even though the money was good in real terms in those days,

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those miners were not expected to live much beyond 35-years-old.

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They had to climb down shafts.

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They climbed down ropes and chains and ladders.

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The conditions underground, there was not much air.

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There was waste water in some places.

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It was very, very difficult and very dangerous.

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The mines here, the water was very acidic.

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It was the arsenic in the water.

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When most people think about arsenic, they think about the poison and the dangers.

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Initially, it was annoying for the miners because it didn't give you pure tin or pure copper.

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They found by roasting it out, the arsenic powder could be used as a pesticide.

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Apart from being a nuisance,

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it became a product from the mine.

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There are areas now which still haven't recovered from the arsenic poisoning of the ground.

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There are absolutely barren pieces of ground 200 years after the arsenic has been refined in the areas.

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So, when you think about it,

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the money that they got paid and everything wasn't worth it.

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Not just for the people, but for the people who owned the mines!

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The mine-owners controlled how people spent their money.

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The Williams family actually produced their own currency.

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Ta-da! This little fella.

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That is one penny, known as a Cornish token.

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All people associated with the mine would be paid in pennies.

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Those pennies could only be spent in the mine-owner's shop.

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So, on the one hand, they'd say we are going to pay you really well

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for this dangerous work and you're the experts.

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On the other hand, you can only spend it with us!

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Yeah, that's what they did.

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It produced approximately £50 million profit for the mine-owners.

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That's a lot of money 200 years ago.

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A lot of money, but as we started finding new countries in the British Empire,

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they could find copper and tin in those other countries.

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There was a crash in the copper price and the tin price.

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The mines ceased overnight, Cornish miners went all over the place.

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There is a saying - wherever there is a hole in the ground,

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there is a Cornish miner. That is very, very true.

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Would you go back down the mines now, Mark?

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I had a serious accident just before the mine closed,

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where I had a rock come down and it nearly killed me. I have a huge scar

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across the back of my neck. It damaged some nerve endings on this side.

0:22:450:22:48

So, to do any long-term mining, I wouldn't be able to do it.

0:22:480:22:53

Is it something that you miss?

0:22:530:22:55

-I miss it every day.

-Really?

0:22:550:22:57

Working down a dark, dangerous mine, thousands of feet underground?

0:22:570:23:01

A lovely job! No hassle, no cars, no people!

0:23:010:23:05

Mark, thank you very much. It has been really interesting.

0:23:050:23:09

I'm going to a second railway as well, aren't I?

0:23:090:23:12

Yes, what you're going to find is the Redruth to Chasewater railway line.

0:23:120:23:16

It never went to Chasewater, but it went down to Devoran.

0:23:160:23:19

-I'll look out for it, thank you!

-You're going in to the age of steam!

0:23:190:23:22

-Thanks, Mark. Bye-bye!

-Bye!

0:23:220:23:25

Before I reach my second railway of the day,

0:23:280:23:31

there's a footpath heading south down the length of Poldice Valley.

0:23:310:23:36

It's a hotch-potch world of mining detritus.

0:23:360:23:39

The white piles of dust, known simply as The Sands,

0:23:390:23:42

are the barren remains of the arsenic works that operated until 1929.

0:23:420:23:47

A unique section of railway walk.

0:23:500:23:52

This is what Mark was talking about -

0:24:040:24:06

the Redruth and Chasewater railway, coming in from Redruth.

0:24:060:24:09

I am now firmly back on the track bed.

0:24:090:24:12

The Redruth and Chasewater was the creation of John Taylor,

0:24:140:24:17

controller of the massive Consolidated Mines.

0:24:170:24:20

Taylor's business was so large that it warranted the building of a new railway,

0:24:220:24:26

which opened in 1824.

0:24:260:24:29

It carried 50,000 tonnes of ore in its first year.

0:24:290:24:32

According to my invaluable guide, the Redruth and Chasewater railway

0:24:340:24:38

managed to achieve something that the Portreath Tramroad never did.

0:24:380:24:42

That was to swap horse-drawn carriages for steam engines.

0:24:420:24:45

In 1854 they introduced two.

0:24:450:24:47

One was called Miner, the other was called Smelter -

0:24:470:24:50

do you see what they did there? Mining, yeah, you get it!

0:24:500:24:53

A third engine called Spitfire joined the line in 1859,

0:25:060:25:11

but within 15 years,

0:25:110:25:12

Taylor's railway was already going into decline -

0:25:120:25:16

another victim of the global slump in copper prices.

0:25:160:25:20

The Redruth and Chasewater eventually ground to a complete halt in 1918.

0:25:200:25:25

Much like the railway itself,

0:25:280:25:30

the last part of my walk follows the Carnon River

0:25:300:25:33

as it heads towards the all-important coastline at Devoran.

0:25:330:25:36

A much later railway line connecting Plymouth with Falmouth had to cross this wide valley,

0:25:390:25:44

a challenge that was handed to none other than Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

0:25:440:25:49

It seems that poor old Brunel didn't have the budget to do this job properly.

0:25:520:25:56

Reluctantly, to save money, he used timber fans to prop up the tracks.

0:25:560:26:01

But as he predicted, just 70 years later, the entire viaduct had to be replaced.

0:26:010:26:06

Not up to his usual standards at all! That's the original -

0:26:060:26:10

that's the replacement.

0:26:100:26:12

When work started on Brunel's viaduct, builders found they had to

0:26:150:26:18

dig through 30 feet of silt and mining spoils

0:26:180:26:21

to reach the solid floor of the valley.

0:26:210:26:23

This path here would have once been part of the estuary,

0:26:250:26:28

before centuries of mining pushed the open water further and further towards the sea.

0:26:280:26:32

Devoran, too, used to be a major port -

0:26:360:26:38

a busy interchange between the steam locomotives

0:26:380:26:40

and the waiting boats in the estuary's deep waters.

0:26:400:26:43

The village hall today is actually the old maintenance shed

0:26:460:26:49

for the likes of Miner and Smelter,

0:26:490:26:51

for this is as far as the locomotives got.

0:26:510:26:54

The end of my walk, much like the beginning, is along a simple tramroad.

0:26:570:27:01

An extra mile used to transfer coal and metal ore

0:27:010:27:04

to ships further down the estuary.

0:27:040:27:06

In 1900, this was where the railway ended -

0:27:090:27:13

a quayside known simply as Point.

0:27:130:27:15

A classic Cornish beauty spot...

0:27:170:27:19

..but the end to a very industrial walk.

0:27:210:27:24

Just look at the difference between here

0:27:260:27:28

and the sea-battered cliffs of Portreath.

0:27:280:27:30

Even this picture-perfect Cornish estuary can't escape the presence of the mining industry.

0:27:300:27:36

Just around that corner would have been the tin smelting works.

0:27:360:27:39

Long before that, before the railway even,

0:27:390:27:42

teams would have been working in and under the estuary,

0:27:420:27:45

sifting through the sand and gravel looking for bits of tin ore.

0:27:450:27:48

This really was a world devoted to extracting as much from the ground as possible.

0:27:480:27:53

Of all the old railways I've explored so far,

0:27:580:28:01

none has been so entirely linked to a single purpose.

0:28:010:28:05

This has been a fascinating walk

0:28:060:28:08

through a varied and often man-made landscape,

0:28:080:28:11

but, most of all, it has been a walk through the changing fortunes

0:28:110:28:16

of a vast local industry.

0:28:160:28:18

But, let's not forget that today I have also seen

0:28:180:28:21

where the steam engine first showed its true potential.

0:28:210:28:24

And for that, all my other railway walks should be truly grateful.

0:28:240:28:28

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:500:28:53

E-mail subtitling@bbc.co.uk

0:28:530:28:56

Tin and copper once made the area around Redruth the richest patch of land in the country. They inspired great engineering feats and pioneering tramways, the forebears of the rail empire. Julia Bradbury has her work cut out as she crosses an entire county, winding past Cornwall's crumbling engine houses and following a railway that has not operated for 140 years.