South of the Hill

On the edge of Bodmin Moor, in rural isolation, lies a derelict building that reveals a checkered past encompassing the area’s agricultural and industrial past. Today, what was once a thriving public house is home to a man, his pet bull and the surrounding nature which is slowly enveloping its ancient granite walls

Tony Trewin came to Cornwall five years ago and was camping on Foredown, a large tract of open land just outside Liskeard. During the six weeks he spent under canvass, he was informed that he would need a series of knee operations that would keep him off his work as a pipe layer for some time. It was then that Tony decided that maybe it was time to lead a more sedate life, and Bodmin moor seemed an ideal place on which to do so. After a chance meeting in a local pub, he was told that there might be a possibility of staying at Pontin’s Piece, an abandoned old mining inn under Caradon Hill that had stood empty for nearly 10 years

Tony, 40, continues the story “The owner rang me up and said, ‘If you don’t mind the fact there is no water, no gas and no electricity; you can stay there’. I had just spent almost two months living in a tent during a Cornish summer, so the prospect of living frugally really didn’t bother me too much- at least it had a roof that didn’t leak

 

On a chilly afternoon in December a warm glow comes from the Rayburn in the kitchen. Outside bramblings, bright orange in their winter plumage, bullfinches and bluetits swoop on to the bird table in the garden. A fox scurries around the marsh where in spring, thousands of frogs appear in the shadow of Caradon Hill, ready food for the local heron that arrives everyday at dusk to forage for food just a stone’s throw from the house.

 

The moor can at times, feel terribly desolate; but get up close and it teems with life: one of the major factors for Tony wanting to remain at Pontin’s Piece.

 

“It’s the wildlife that keeps me here mainly” Tony states “ And the slower pace of life. During daylight hours, I’m never in. I’ll be searching for wood for the stove, collecting water from the spring – every morning I have a strip wash in the scullery; it’s very bracing in the winter but in summer I have a bath in the garden

Just to the left of the porch is a bright red tub. “Sometimes as I’m having a soak, I can hear tourists coming down the old railway track that lies adjacent to the house. When they turn the corner, they are confronted by me scrubbing my back beneath the trees. I just shout ‘Get out of my bathroom’, and they scurry away laughing

Tony recalls a summer’s morning when he discovered two Japanese tourists having a picnic in the garden. Surprised to find someone living in the house, they were even more taken aback when, as they were being guided around inside the building, a flock of sheep arrived and arranged themselves around the kitchen. One in particular, named Ted, because of its resemblance to a teddy bear, jumped around on its hind legs to the amusement of the tourists who by then had tears in their eyes. Tony says, “They were so overcome by the rural scene; they had never been that close to a sheep before”

Tony seems to be very much in tune with the moor. Originally from Plymouth, he has swapped urban monotony for rural life with an almost Dr Doolittle veracity. Not only does the moorland wildlife seem happy to get up close and personal and sheep quite happy to follow him for miles on afternoon hikes; lying in front of the Rayburn you can often find a hefty bull, sleeping after being bottle fed large quantities of milk.

Scrunch, a surprisingly cuddle highland bull, was discovered one freezing cold spring day, abandoned by its mother and at death’s door. Tony brought home the emaciated calf and nursed him for weeks, bottle-feeding every four hours, and he thrived. Now, unbelievably this huge beast carefully negotiates the house, wary not to knock anything over, and enjoys nothing more than having his tummy tickled while watching TV.

 

Documents reveal that Pontin’s Piece was built as a farmhouse in the 1600s. It is probable that the owner at that time divided his time between farming and tin streaming, an activity that had been carried out in the area since the Bronze Age.   When copper mining became industrialized and reached it’s zenith in the mid 19th century the population of the area burgeoned and the old farmhouse was converted into an inn. Copper mining came late to South East Cornwall; long after the mines in west Cornwall had become exhausted and miners had emigrated to the States and Australia to carry on their craft in the new fields opened there, leaving South Caradon Mine to survive until the end of the Victorian age, finally closing when international copper prices tumbled.

Looking across the moor towards Gonamenna, now a tranquil residence, where in the early days of the narrow gauge mine railway, horses were kept to provide the power to haul the wagons up the steep incline from Liskeard, it is hard to imagine the activity of those days. Wilkie Collins, a Victorian novelist describes the view of South Caradon Mine in his book ‘Rambles Beyond Railways’ in 1851

 Far beneath the embankment on which we stood, men women and children were breaking and washing ore in a perfect marsh of copper coloured mud and copper coloured water. We had penetrated to the very centre of the noise, the bustle, and the population on the surface of a great mine”

Now only the ghosts of that era remain. A time when over 500 workers toiled above and below ground and in a building as old as Pontin’s Piece, it would be unusual if there weren’t any tales of the supernatural.

 

Tony says that he has heard footsteps upstairs: crossing the two bedrooms even though the door between had been tied shut. One visitor to the house has seen a young girl staring out of a first floor window and one of Tony’s friends refuses to stay the night at Pontin’s Piece after he heard what could only be described as someone scratching a pencil on paper coming from one of the bedrooms.

 

Some may think living as thriftily as Tony is an anathema in the 21st century and Tony admits that when he first arrived in Minions, the nearest village, the residents were considering him as a candidate for ‘Village Idiot’, but now he feels part of the community. Friends visit Pontin’s Piece to see Scrunch, tourists ramble across the tumbled-down granite hedges, there are invitations from neighbors to call in for a chat and even though Tony has been offered more comfortable accommodation, he prefers the healthier lifestyle of living without the trappings of modern life. “I haven’t been ill since I have been here” he declares. “Sometimes it’s tough, especially in the winter but here, when there’s a full moon, I can walk high on moors at midnight, I look out of my window and see a myriad of birds and animals - I can’t see myself moving.

As dusk falls, the sky takes on a pale blue and pink hue; silhouetting leafless, windblown tress: the silence is deafening and the great sweep of the moor disappears down a valley topped by ruined mine buildings, standing proud like magical castles. There is a palpable calmness; nature has reclaimed what was once a massive industrial landscape and Bodmin Moor retains its timeless attraction.

 

 

 

 

 

Photos: Julia Chalmers