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Feock Trails - History Information

The Carnon Valley

Ancient mineral workings and the trade in Cornish tin

Cornwall has been an important source of Tin throughout History, more often than not it has been Europe's largest single producer, however it has not always been pre-eminent and in the early centuries after Christ the mines of Iberia were of greater importance to the Roman Empire. This was true until the middle of the 3rd century AD when supplies from Iberia collapsed and Cornwall reasserted its former influence. 


Fascinating accounts of the customs and practises of peoples throughout Europe have come from the geographer Strabo, writing in the last century BC and these provide an  insight into the trading connections of the time. He himself was born in Turkey but travelled as far afield as Egypt, Tuscany and Ethiopia. His enquiring mind and clarity of thought can be gauged by his discourse on fossils. His conclusions over their origin was at variance with both his contemporaries and all orthodox teaching, until the science of Geology evolved in the 19th century. His  hypothesis that regional uplift and movement of rock strata was the cause of their occurrence in continental land masses shows a remarkable independence of thought and incisive logic, which gives considerable weight to his other observations.


He listed the chief exports from Britain as wheat, cattle, gold, silver, iron, hides, slaves and hunting dogs. None of these commodities were especially associated with the South West province of Dumnonia, which included Cornwall and indeed Wales, was the chief source for gold and silver in Britain and, therefore, the most important mining area at this time.


Strabo describes in detail the winning of gold and tin from stream-works in Iberia and its other outputs of Copper, Silver and Iron, however he also identifies the major source of Tin as coming from the islands of the Cassiterides, these were described as further out from the Iberian peninsula but separate from Britain.


Confusion over the geography of Britain at the time, particularly the South West, is not surprising. All trade links to this region were maritime and from earliest times the main link to Britain was at the narrowest channel crossing in the east. Cornwall remained a remote region described as inward from that point, two further accounts from Strabo indicate some other pressures which contributed to this obscurity.  A map derived from Strabo's accounts is set out below:

Strabo ref:3:5:11

“The Cassiterides are ten in number, and lie near each other in the high sea to the north of the Artabrians (Iberia). One of them is desert, but the rest are inhabited by people who wear black cloaks, go clad in tunics that reach to their feet, wear belts around their breasts, walk with canes, and resemble the goddesses of vengeance in tragedies. They live off their herds, leading for the most part a nomadic life. As they have mines of tin and lead, they give these metals and the hides from their cattle to the sea-traders in exchange for pottery, salt and copper utensils. Now in former times it was the Phoenicians alone who carried on this commerce, for they kept the voyage hidden from everyone else. And when once the Romans were closely following a certain ship-captain in order that they too might learn the markets in question, out of jealousy the ship-captain purposely drove his ship out of its course into shoal water; and after he had lured the followers into the same ruin, he himself escaped by piece of wreckage and received from the state the value of the cargo he had lost. Still by trying many times, the Romans learned all about the voyage. After Publius Crassus crossed over to these people and saw that the metals were being dug from only a slight depth, and that the men there were peaceable, he forthwith laid abundant information before all who wished to traffic over this sea , albeit a wider sea than that which separates Britain from the continent.”


Whilst the statements above suggest that the Romans knew the west coast of Britain, it was nevertheless still on the very boundary of their world and their knowledge was sketchy, indeed Strabo's description of Ireland is lurid in the extreme, “a large island, Ierne, stretches parallel to Britain on the north, its breadth being greater than its length. Concerning this island I have nothing certain to tell, except that its inhabitants are more savage than the Britons, since they are man-eaters as well as heavy eaters, and since further , they count it an honourable thing, when fathers die, to devour them, and openly have intercourse, not only with other women, but also with their mothers or sisters; but I am saying this only with the understanding that I have no trustworthy witnesses for it.”


Strabo describes the other tribes who live on the Atlantic coasts of what is now France

“Of the Belgae tribes who live on the ocean-coast, there are, first, the Veneti who fought the naval battle with Caesar; for they were already prepared to hinder his voyage to Britain, since they were using the emporium there.” Caesar knew that he would have to deal with the naval threat posed by the Veneti if he was to gain unfettered access to Britain and he met them with his own fleet off the Morbihan. Caesar's galleys were smaller and less robust than the Veneti's vessels which were 30/40 feet long and high sided, giving them the advantage for throwing missiles. They were also made of solid oak which made them resistant to ramming. The Veneti ships sailed in and out of the Roman craft and Caesar's force was at a disadvantage until they discovered the tactic of cutting the Veneti ships shrouds with long bill-hooks. This brought down the heavy leather sails and laid them across the deck, so impeding any attempt to row. Two hundred Veneti ships were destroyed at this battle leaving the Veneti trade routes disabled for more than a generation and this may partly explain why Cornish tin lost its preeminence for a period. Archaeological evidence shows that the shorter eastern channel crossings were more commonly used for a considerable period after this event.


Intriguingly, another contemporary account is provided by Diodorus Siculus, writing; “The natives of Pretannike (Britain) who live on the promontory called Belerion (Penwith) are especially hospitable to strangers and have adopted a civilised way of life because of their contact with external traders. It is they who work the tin, treating the layer which contains it in an ingenious way. “ He goes on to explain the business of winning and smelting the tin, together with its export from an island called Ictis which many believe to be St Michael's Mount.


Little is known of the detail of Cornish ships and traders of Early History; however coastal traffic had been the common vehicle of trade for over 1,000 years before the Birth of Christ. A replica Bronze Age boat may be seen in the National Maritime Museum Cornwall in Falmouth. The construction used rough planks bound by rope lashings and the craft was powered by paddles.


Shipbuilding had developed from these early times and the modern ships of the Veneti were powerfully built of oak, fastened with thick iron nails, they had high prows and sterns designed to weather heavy seas and were powered by strong leather sails. Even the anchor warps were of iron chain and the ships were well capable of surviving the Atlantic coastline and passage from Brittany to South West Britain.

Strabo describes, “Because of the ebb-tides, they make their ships with broad bottoms, high sterns, and high prows; they make them of oak [of which they have a plentiful supply], and this is why they do not bring the joints of the planks together but leave gaps; they stuff the gaps full of sea-weed, so that the wood may not, for lack of moisture, become dry when the ships are hauled up, because the sea-weed is naturally rather moist, whereas the oak is dry and without fat.”


A replica boat built to recreate a vessel of the fourth century BC was made in 1985 in Greece following discovery of the wreck of a merchant vessel of the period off Kyrenia on the north coast of Cyprus. Whilst made for the Mediterranean rather than the Atlantic Ocean it can provide an impression of the technical capability of the time.

Kyrenia II Hellenic Institute for the Preservation of Nautical Traditions

In contrast to these ships of the full Atlantic the alternative tradition of both inland and coastal boats in Wales and Ireland was that of the Currach. These are much lighter craft, extending the principles of the coracle in which either wood planking or animal skins or hides are fastened to a wooden frame. Caesar also wrote about encountering this type of craft in his British campaigns, describing light framed hide covered craft used to ferry tin in the channel.


The two traditions will have been commonly found on the two coasts of Cornwall and perhaps when comparing the relatively insubstantial nature of the Currach with the ships of the south one might forgive myths of Saints travelling from Ireland on a leaf as was the case for St Ia, patron of St Ives. It has also been suggested that the considerable stone ballast required within the Currach, in order to provide stability for open sea voyage, could have given rise to the myth of Saints travelling on a millstone as proposed for St Kea and St Piran.


Again, a replica has been built of a craft which was reputed to have taken St Brendon on a voyage from Ireland to NewFoundland via the Hebrides, Faroes and Iceland. The replica called The Brendan was made by Tim Severin using ox hide skins stretched over ash frames and a commemorative voyage to NewFoundland was made over the years 1976/7 proving the possibility of travel to the new world and achieving a best 24hr travel of 115 miles. It is perhaps apt that the hides used in the project were provided by a Cornish firm of Tanners, Croggans of Grampound.  The Oak tannin used in the tanning process traditionally came from the forests bordering the Fal and particularly from Kea Parish. 

The Brendon

Written by Phil Allen


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