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The resurrection of Cornish mining Is Britain's second industrial revolution already underway?

The Man Engine in Cornwall (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

The Man Engine in Cornwall (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)


November 15, 2023   5 mins

“Are you here for the attempted murder?” asks a punter when I step into the Red Lion. My answer — I’m here for the return of lithium mining — stirs little interest among the pub’s patrons. The last time the town of Redruth played with this sort of idealism was when it overwhelmingly backed Leave in 2016, shocking the idyllic coastal fringes of Falmouth, Truro and St Ives.

These days, the bloody-mindedness remains but has long since given up on the rebellious politics of 2016. Little has changed after Brexit. Westminster and anything associated with it — London, politicians, tourists, journalists — are despised. Alternatives such as Mebyon Kernow, the Cornish independence party, are seen as a joke. In fact, everything is a joke: spurning my predictable questions about life in the area, one gentleman does a 10-minute skit about how he’s been smuggling migrants from Calais on an old fishing boat and leaving them on the telegenic beaches for second-home owners to deal with.

Tourism has helped to create a sort of neo-feudalism in this era, warping the rental market for existing residents, and trapping locals in a seasonal economy of unreliable incomes and unresolved resentment. The prosperous parts of Cornwall have become “a giant theme park”, as one punter describes it, leaving Redruth as one of its many servile outhouses, lying beyond the gates of Poldark-cum-Surfing Land.

In another age, Redruth was one of the wealthiest towns in the world, its copper playing a part in everything from the Industrial Revolution to Britain’s naval hegemony. That economy fell into decline in the late-19th century, long before the rest of Britain’s manufacturing base. The result is an eerie hodge-podge of industrial marvels, social deprivation and abandoned mining infrastructure. On the high street, next to some of the finest 18th-century architecture in the country, stands an abandoned Wilko.

But, in the last few years, an opportunity for recovery has presented itself. Now, it’s the area’s lithium, discovered in “globally significant” quantities in 2020, that could yet realise some of those visions of abundance and revival: the rare-earth element is essential to the production of batteries for electric vehicles and renewable energy storage. Come 2026, Cornish Lithium will soon start extracting the gold of the green industrial revolution. The company estimates that 7,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) can be produced a year, alongside the 20,000 from 2028 provided by rival companies Imerys and British Lithium operating down the road in St Austell. This would, however, still leave Britain dependent on some of the world’s biggest producers in Australia, China and Chile, with such schemes only partially covering the 80,000 tonnes a year the UK is predicted to require by 2030.

Despite these deposits, both companies have had to jump through hoops merely to survive. But having previously relied on angel investors and crowdfunds, a package of £67 million announced in August from the UK’s Infrastructure Bank placed the project in the national interest. When Emmanuel Macron declared that “made in Europe” should be our continental motto, lamenting that a Europe without a serious industrial policy risked being left behind by the changing tides of globalisation, he was talking about the viability of quixotic projects such as lithium mining in Cornwall.

“I’m acutely aware of the sad state of the economy in the area and the potential to make a difference,” says Jeremy Wrathall, the founder of Cornish Lithium, when I speak to him the next day. Wrathall trained at Camborne School of Mining, now underwhelmingly known to the area as the “Pool Innovation Centre”. The name change is symbolic of some of the local cynicism about the project, a relic of the area’s previous attempted makeover from industry and mining to services and tourism.

But Wrathall is well-rehearsed to shrug off such doubts about the return of mining to Cornwall. He laments the “inbuilt scepticism” towards the rejuvenation of the UK’s mining industries. Cornwall, unlike other sites in Europe being touted as potential sources of lithium, has a history of mining. One comparable site in Portugal is currently battling locals who fear the opencast mine will destroy the village. Wrathall’s method is slightly more benign. This is less mining, more extraction, pulling lithium-rich brine from the springs beneath the 280-million-year-old granite sheet Cornwall sits on. Beyond the usual suspects of rent-a-gob environmentalists and ardent Nimbies, it’s difficult to find anyone overtly opposed to the project.

But there are also factors beyond his control. For all the rhetoric about deglobalisation, the allure of cheaper lithium abroad will endure, particularly without a proper homegrown industry to sell to. While rhetoric about restoring Britain’s industrial capacity is in vogue politically, it is estimated that £100 billion would be needed to set up a sustainable electric-vehicle industry. BritishVolt, the most recent attempt to construct a domestic lithium battery factory went into administration in January. When I raise this with Wrathall, he falls back on the sort of quiet idealism that remains in pockets of the old mining country. “Our project transcends politics,” he confesses. “We don’t want to let people down.”

Here lies an almost mystical appeal to the project. Britain has a strange relationship with its mines. Dirty, exploitative, abundant — the petri dish for both our industrialisation and our first revolts against capitalist excess. From Conrad’s Nostromo to the post-Thatcher nostalgia for the demise of the coal industry, mines are a catalyst for the history-making seams that run through the nation: pride, self-sufficiency, rebellion. Romantic tosh, perhaps, but it’s a mood you can unearth quite easily when visiting an area where tourism, welfare and the faint promises of 2016 have been left to fester.

Nowhere can the faint glaze of revival be better felt than “Heartlands”, built on an old centre of Cornish mining at Robinsons Shaft. It’s a surreal non-place of conference meeting rooms, environmental hubs educating visitors on the woes of climate change, tourist tit-tat shops flogging Cornish language books, and a mining-themed tearoom. Were lithium extraction to start up just a stone’s throw away from the site, it could cast a welcome shadow over this failed offering for Cornwall’s future.

It’s a feeling suggested by many of the locals: “We’ve become a nation of numpties unable to make anything ourselves,” says a local businessman preparing for a drinks reception in one of Redruth’s reconverted buildings (ahead of a local arts festival which he describes as a “load of wank”). For all the regeneration that has taken place here, there are some wounds that Britain’s “creative” and “services” industries cannot heal.

The return of mining, however, must rest on more than just symbolism. On the outskirts of Redruth, Stephen Barnes, the town’s mayor, reveals the stifling hold these old mining shafts still have, not just on the town, but on its visitors too. In the summer months, they lure in the tourists with plumes of dark smoke blown through the old chimneys. For a brief afternoon, the landscape is once again dotted by working satanic mills. Yet the new lithium mines offer not just an escape from England’s nostalgic doom loop, but a different socio-economic settlement. The jobs initially created would number only in their hundreds, but Barnes believes it would be a way of “restoring pride”, and make a start in lifting stagnating wages away from the exploitative grips of the tourism industry.

Back in Redruth high street, the potential tragedy of all this expectation materialises. At present, the hope of the UK setting up an electric-car industry to compete with the subsidised might of China and the US is a struggle, if not a fantasy. And so too is the idea that lithium mining alone might set the area on a path to abundance and innovation. That’s not to say the quiet longing is not there.

Next to the town’s landmark statue of a miner, a Metro station has appeared, like one of those AI-generated engineering marvels shared by dejected Anglo-futurists on the social-media doomscroll. A map shows a high-speed underground train traversing the old network of mining tunnels underneath us. It’s an art installation, erected for the festival that starts tomorrow. But for a moment, it’s also a flicker of belief under grey skies on a late Friday afternoon, as the pubs open their doors and the high street once again starts to empty.


Fred Skulthorp is a writer living in England. His Substack is Bad Apocalypse 

Skulthorp

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Penny Rose
Penny Rose
8 months ago

I’m so pleased that this, and the South Crofty mine, are possibly about to happen. When friends have gushed to me about how pretty the towns in Cornwall are I always ask ‘have you been to Camborne or Redruth?’ Or many other smaller places in the forgotten interior which are among the poorest 10% in England. Anything that attracts new jobs and new money to the area and stops the Cornish relying on seasonal service jobs is to be very much welcomed.

Matt M
Matt M
8 months ago

 “We’ve become a nation of numpties unable to make anything ourselves,” says a local businessman preparing for a drinks reception in one of Redruth’s reconverted buildings (ahead of a local arts festival which he describes as a “load of w**k”).

I like the cut of the local businessman’s jib.

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
8 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

You beat me to it… best bit of the article.

Chris Bradshaw
Chris Bradshaw
8 months ago

Get government out of the way and it’s got a chance of succeeding.

rob drummond
rob drummond
8 months ago

You say:Little has changed after Brexit.”
well well well, how we were promised doom and destruction of just about everything in the UK, where we dare to even VOTE to leave (never mind have the temerity to actually leave) the EU. We were promised ”everything would change for the worse”
The phamtom 4% GDP decline has long since proved to be (another) myth and most of The Eurozone has been in resession – Germany still is.
UK economy since 2016 has grown faster than the other main EU Countries.
The City of London continues to Boom.
Germany – it turns out is the sick man of Europe – and will likely have a hige bite out of its car market eaten by The Chinese in the next ten years.

its also intersting now that UK (one of only two paymasters in EU) left, the fiscal burden has fallen onto the remainign 27 – where their people are too now questioning the EU Value for money. (to a greater or lesser extent) – Funny that, when they have to put their hands in their pockets – as opposed to take, take take, attitudes change somewhat.

Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
8 months ago

Sounds too good to be true. Am waiting now for the middle class NIMBYs to complain.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago

Are you bipolar by any chance?

One day you are Chris Wheatley, a retired English engineer living in Wales, the next you are Caradog Williams, some form of Welsh wizard also living in Wales.
Which is it?

Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
8 months ago

They call me Merlin here, or rather Myrddin to be exact.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago

I shall try to remember that!

Kent Ausburn
Kent Ausburn
8 months ago

Correction; lithium is not a rare earth element (REE). It is an alkali metal akin to sodium and potassium, and its chemistry is significantly different than that of REE’s. Further, it is the lightest in mass metal, #3 on the periodic table. REE’s all belong to the lanthanide series of elements and are significantly heavier than lithium. If one is going to write articles that include technical aspects, please do a little research. It wouldn’t have required much effort, just a quick review of a periodic table, available online or in any high-school chemistry text book.

Paul T
Paul T
8 months ago

Redruth is magnificent; it has so much promise if only the town council would reopen the high street to traffic. 30 odd years they have tried to make it work pedestrianised but every year, somehow, it gets worse and yet another shop closes. Where do you go after Wilko? What’s left?

Reopen Redruth high street to traffic.

Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
8 months ago

How serious is Mebyon Kernow? Can anyone join?

Paul T
Paul T
8 months ago

Mebyon Kernow’s entire efforts appear to be very simple graffiti on two bridges over the A30. One of those is faded quite a bit and the other has started to go too.