Did you know that Porthcurno was once the most important communication hub in the world? Did you also know that, in 1870, it took just nine minutes to send a message from the tiny village with its very deep sand to Bombay – around five thousand miles away?
These days many of us are glued to our iPhones, taking the ability to keep in contact with what is happening all over the world very much for granted. So it’s perhaps ironic that this idyllic Cornish cove, not far from Land’s End, has no mobile phone signal yet continues to be a major player in global connectivity.
“Watching teenagers in the audience discover that they can’t text whilst they’re listening to me describe the evolution of communication technology is quite amusing,” says Mary Hocking during one of the regular twenty minute talks that she and other museum staff give to visitors at Porthcurno Telegraph Museum. “I’m telling them that this is the hamlet that first made it possible to send messages across the world quickly yet they can’t access Facebook. Instead they sit here and find out that, nearly 150 years ago, the undersea telegraph cables installed at Porthcurno and stretching to far flung cities thousands of miles away revolutionised communication and helped make the world the much smaller place it is today.”
Porthcurno is well known as home to the Minack Theatre but its fame as the place where the inventions and discoveries of men like Charles Wheatstone (the electric telegraph) and Michael Faraday (electromagnetic induction) were put to practical use is perhaps less appreciated. As someone who has spent most of their life in Cornwall, I’ve certainly been guilty of not understanding its importance. Even worse, I’d never set foot on Porthcurno Beach, nor stood in absolute awe at its incredibly beautiful location.
Not, that is, until I took the time to drive down to the museum with my old school friend Kate and her daughter Lucinda. Together we discovered that, amongst its many contributions to scientific development over the centuries (Richard Trevithick’s steam engine to name but one), Cornwall has played a pivotal role in diminishing distance and connecting countries – and still does so today.
Porthcurno Telegraph Museum is a revelation. Thanks to significant funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, its extraordinary history has been brought to life in a beautifully designed exhibition hall and newly laid out displays in the fascinating tunnels excavated during World War II to protect vital work going on in the fight against German dominance.
We visited on 14 June – the first anniversary of the official opening of the newly extended and refurbished museum to the public. Tucked away on the far end of the peninsula, Porthcurno isn’t somewhere you just drop into whilst passing by but is well worth the drive. The thousands of Cable & Wireless trainees who made it their temporary home whilst learning the art of telegraphy in its former classrooms from 1950 to 1993 must have been as amazed by the scenery as we were. Dramatic cliffs, lush woodland, sheltered white sandy beach and an impossibly magnificent seascape all combine to make it truly memorable – and that’s before you’ve walked through huge bomb-blast doors into the tunnels and peered at the machines, technology and cables that, among other things, helped us defeat Hitler.
Kate hasn’t been well lately but still couldn’t resist the challenge of joining Lucinda and I in climbing 100 steps up the escape staircase. Built to give workers an emergency exit, the granite steps are steep enough for a hard hat to be needed. Kate made the ascent in fine form (probably in better shape than I did!) and we were all rewarded with a fabulous view from the top of the valley. When you emerge a signpost tells you that Rio de Janeiro is 5,500 miles away, Hong Kong 6,250 and Newfoundland a mere 2,200. Yet, more than a century before mobile phones became a part of everyday life, messages could span that mileage within minutes.
Fortified by a delicious and great value lunch in the museum cafe (we ate on the terrace looking out towards the sea) and intrigued by interactive displays that really brought the past to life (apparently Morse code experts could be identified by the way they tapped the keys – to the extent that experienced operators could actually tell what sort of mood they were in), we left the museum satisfyingly enlightened.
A walk to the beach and the original cable hut via a narrow, wooded path followed – the perfect finale to a perfect ‘never been to’ outing.
For more information about places to stay and things to do in Cornwall, visit wearecornwall.com
Written by Sue Bradbury