The Old Serpentine Works

Image courtesy of trewena.com

In Brief

Type: Industrial heritage and nature attraction, managed by the National Trust
Suitable for: All the family, especially history buffs and geologists
Address: Carleon Bay, near Poltesco and Mullion, on the Lizard Peninsula
Price: Free
Dog friendly?: Yes


What connects Queen Victoria, luxury fashion and a small bay on Cornwall’s south coast? The answer lies in the remote Carleon Cove on the Lizard peninsula, a small pebble strewn bay just down the shore from Kennack Sands and not far from Mullion. This cove houses a hidden gem when it comes to Cornwall’s industrial past. It’s a tale of precious rocks, fleeting tastes and boom and bust.

The hero of this story is serpentine, a rock that’s damn rare in the UK but plentiful around a 20 square mile seam on the Lizard that encircles the hamlet and valley of Poltesco. Named after its likeness to the texture of a snake’s skin, serpentine came to be an on-trend material in the first half of the 19th century. The dark green and red veining became a hit in Victorian fashion tastes and polished serpentine rivalled marble as the material of choice for all manner of objects from small trinkets to mantelpieces and decorative shop fronts. Queen Vic and Prince Albert themselves became fans, ordering expensive pieces fashioned out of the rock to adorn their fine houses.

To meet the exploding demand for the rock, serpentine works were established in Carleon Cove, which is on the edge of Poltesco, in the 1850s. In its heyday, the works housed a large waterwheel and later a steam engine. The bay was often bustling with flat bottom barges that ferried the rocks out to offshore ships before being transported across the globe. But alas, that was its heyday. A heyday that lasted only 40-something years. The serpentine industry was short-lived and the works now lie in ruins.

The problem was that by the 1890s, transportation costs had become way too expensive and there was also stiff competition from cheaper marble imports. Serpentine production faltered as its flaws became apparent. Compared to marble, it is brittle and easily eroded. Fashion is a fickle master and the trend turned its back on Cornwall’s serpentine.

History’s loss is today’s gain, however. What’s left at the cove is a collection of beautifully constructed buildings that have been preserved for all to see by the National Trust. The main tower-like building that overlooks the idyllic bay used to house a winch that would have hauled the transportation barges. You can also spot a fallen chimney and there are some beautifully constructed (relatively) new features that are sympathetic to the area’s past, not least the nautically styled footbridge that spans the creek from the car park, plus the bench at the top of the hill that’s engraved with pilchards.

We have Carleon Bay and its Old Serpentine Works down as one of the Lizard’s hidden gems. It’s remote and oh-so uncrowded. It’s also a place that feels reclaimed by nature. There’s something about seeing a site that once clearly housed a bustling industry but has now fallen into serene ruin and been engulfed by rich greenery. These works make for a tranquil, pretty place to sit, relax and, well, contemplate.