Sunday, 24 May 2015

A MINE ROMANCE: POLDARK



In my blog piece about the 1995 TV production of Pride and Prejudice I wrote about Sunday evening costume dramas and their role in lifting the mood of the nation's women, particularly when there is a handsome male character for them to drool over.   Colin Firth as Mr Darcy was the male interest back then; this year, 20 years later, there has been another treat in store for the female populace in the form of Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark.   Poldark is arguably even more appealing, since unlike Mr Darcy, he has a benevolent personality to go with his dark good looks.  Added to which, while in 1995 Mr Darcy teased the nation's women in the famous 'lake scene' by stripping off to his undergarments but no further, Poldark is not afraid to display his hairy, tanned torso, no doubt setting female hearts throbbing in living rooms up and down the country. 

Anyway - ahem - that's enough of that.  Poldark, based on the works of Winston Graham and the successor to a series originally shown 40 years ago, is set in 18th century Cornwall, a time when the mining of tin and (in Poldark's case) copper was a mainstay of the local economy.  However, it was a fraught business with constant swings between boom and bust as local landowners sought to extract the ore from their estates, starting ventures which frequently failed and sent them into debt.  Then there was the difficulty of transporting the ore out of Cornwall which in those days was even more remote than it is now, making road transport almost impossible, so that desperate efforts were made to build harbours on an unforgiving rocky, windswept coast.  There were also many deaths, mining in those days being a dangerous affair, with many mineworks extending out under the sea.  During the bad times there was a mass exodus of miners to far-flung parts of the world, for example South Australia where to this day there are many people with Cornish surnames.  Eventually, competition from other countries such as Malaysia sent the Cornish mining industry into a decline.

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View towards St Agnes Head. Photo by Tony Atkin, via Wikimedia Commons


The centre of Poldark's world is his estate in the fictional Nampara Valley, which in the series was filmed on St Agnes Head on the stretch of coast between St Ives and Newquay, where relics of mine workings and engine houses can still be seen.  However, Nampara cottage, where Poldark set up home with his sweetheart Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) has Bodmin Moor as its backdrop, which was where many of the horseback scenes were filmed.  Poldark's mine is represented by Saddle Rock mine, at Belowda Beacon on the edge of Goss Moor near St Austell.  Earlier this year there were news reports of the mine going up for sale for £375,000 - a snip for anyone wanting to own a piece of TV history.  This bleak piece of moorland is now a National Nature Reserve with a multi-use trail, and I well remember when I was a child growing up in Cornwall being terrified by tales of a headless horseman who was reputed to haunt the moor.  On the clifftop near Botallack in the far west of the county lie the remains of two engine houses, Wheal Owles and Crowns.  They play the part of Wheal Leisure, the family mine Poldark tries to resurrect.  The Levant Mine at Trewellard near Pendeen, now a National Trust property,  is used to depict Tresidders Rolling Mill.

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Levant Mine. Photo by Miles Wolstenholme, via Wikimedia Commons

Several other beauty spots along the Cornish coast feature in the series.  Church Cove at Gunwalloe - named for the cute little church called St Wynwallow - is the scene of a ship wrecking episode filmed in the early hours of the morning.  The practice of wrecking - looting items of value from shipwrecks, often lured to their end by the wreckers themselves - was one of the more shameful facets of Cornwall's past.  Porthgwarra, a tiny cove in West Cornwall, was also used in the filming, while the sandy beach of Porthcothan between Padstow and Newquay was used in scenes featuring Nampara Cove.  

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Church Cove, Gunwalloe. Photo by Row17, via Wikimedia Commons.

The main town in Poldark's neighbourhood was meant to be Truro, but the quayside scenes were filmed in Charlestown, a historic harbour just outside St Austell where the old ships and well-preserved historic buildings provide an authentic backdrop.  There is a fascinating Shipwreck and Heritage Centre by the harbourside in Charlestown, with exhibits on the Titanic as well as over 150 other shipwrecks.  The street scenes, meanwhile, were filmed several counties away in the picturesque Wiltshire town of Corsham.  Visitors to Cornwall expecting to find the mansion occupied by Poldark's uncle will be disappointed, since that also was filmed a long way away at Chavenage House near Tetbury, Gloucestershire.

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Chavenage House. Photo by Philip Halling, via Wikimedia Commons


As an aside, there is an actual PoldarkMine which is open to visitors.  This 18th century tin mine, near Helston, has evidence of tin mining going back to prehistoric times and is located in the Cober River Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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