Wheal Coates is a tin mine that stands on a North Cornish cliff bound by heather and gorse. Its mineshaft reaches down through the rock to Towanroath Yugga, a cave off Chapel Porth beach that can be entered into when the tide is out. Today, however, the tide is in, and the weather is foul. The heather lies low on the ground, as if trying to shelter from the wind and the rain. It’s a wonder that Wheal Coates still stands and hasn’t been blown into the sea, I think, holding onto my hat as I walk towards the tin mine’s silhouette, through weather that batters me, as if trying to force me back.
Wheal Coates dates from the 1870s, and was finally abandoned in 1913. Nearly a hundred years on, the site looks fragmented, as if the cliff had been bombed. Three engine houses still stand, their roofs lost long ago, their tips tinged back into life with the green of moss. All have cavities where windows should be: the tallest engine house has an uppermost window-hole that frames for me a patch of heavy sky. Elsewhere are low strips of wall, which, to my ignorant eyes, seem randomly built and abandoned half way through. The National Trust information board gives these fragments sinister sounding names: Calciner, Boiler Pond, Dressing Floor. Still, hundreds of people understood this land and used to come to this very spot to work in a world far beneath my feet. Men died down there, dying of injuries and landslides; many drowned in the dark.
It is the wailing of the drowning miners that you are meant to hear at Wheal Coates, coming up the mineshaft. I don’t see the shaft at first: I am too easily distracted by the colour of the stone that has been used to build the various walls. Blood red, with the occasional streak of white. It’s not noticeable at a distance, but up close, parts of Wheal Coates look as if they were built from slabs of red meat; gristly steak. More of the same stone covers the ground and paths: scattered off cuts. I slide a couple in my pocket, wiping the wet from my fingers onto my sleeves.
The mineshaft is covered with a metal grid, splitting its disturbing darkness into small, manageable oblongs. In one corner, part of the grid has been stretched and widened, creating a hole large enough for a dead miner’s forearm to reach out and grab a foot. Not really knowing what I am doing, I pick a stone out of my pocket and toss it into the shaft to gauge its depth. Poorly thrown, or swept off course by the wind, it clatters on the shaft’s sides as it falls, creating echoes and thus revealing nothing. I reach for my other stone but as I do, the wind mimics my actions, tossing rain into my face and whipping my hair. For the rest of my time on the cliff, it seems to pursue me, howling within the engine houses when I step into them. It knows the stones better than I do, and uses them to create unusual sounds. On one occasion, it creates a sound close to my feet that makes me stop still. Like it knows of an underground cavity, and is sweeping through it.
It doesn’t spook me at the time, because I assume there is a rational explanation for what I hear. But replaying it in my mind after I have come away makes my spine grow cold. So, too, does the stone that I find in my pocket, days later, whilst searching for something else. Now dry, its colour has paled to an anaemic pink. It is almost as if it has been drained of something, and I wonder whether the colour slowly changed, unseen in my pocket, the further I took it away from its cliff.