Wheal Emma Leat

Wheal Emma and Brookwood are abandoned copper mines whose remains are located near Buckfastleigh, within the Dartmoor National Park, an area with a long history of widespread industrial activity. From this one locality, in the second half of the nineteenth century, more than thirty thousand tons of copper ore were raised, processed, and shipped for smelting. In 1859, in order to stabilize and increase the power supply, Wheal Emma Leat (a fifteen-mile-long channel) was cut across moorland and around woodland valleys to transport water from the River Swincombe and to feed the mines by supplementing the Mardle, a tributary of the Dart. Some of this now empty moorland waterway can be walked today on Dartmoor. I am grateful to Kevin and Donna Cox, owners of the Brook Manor estate, for showing my collaborator, Ignacio Acosta, and me over the remains of mine workings on their land.

Widening the plug doorway
on the bob wall left no
surface evidence. The Mardle
has a floodplain fair and wide.
Material would have been
trammed directly, although
blacked ochreous water flows
freely from the collapsed
portal. Humphrey kept Kevin
back when we went into
the near horizontal dark adit
stooped at the panic shaft.

In Brook Wood at the combe
head is a small killas quarry
predating all three setts.
Rent was paid to the Brook Wood
adventurers. Three areas of
dumping partially covered
this crumbled masonry within
woodland of varying density
just south of the tarmac road.
Yet a leat is depicted on the
1886 OS map channeled entirely
in a raised wooden aqueduct.

 
A photo of a dirt path in a forest.
Wheal Emma Leat, 2017, by Ignacio Acosta.

 
A photo of a tall stone structure overgrown with plants in a forest.
Engine House, 2017, by Ignacio Acosta.


Then buildings fall into decay
where ivy and tree growth
have taken hold. The silted channel
follows the contour round hills
and combes using the best-fit
method to Wheal Emma sett.
Whereas conifer scrub and dense
patches of rhododendron
are seen quite late in the sequence.
All 99 stations were used and
having passed over the wheel
water may have been diverted.

The long wheelhouse sides are not
straight but slightly kinked to provide
for a dished 60-ft wheel
over an arched tailrace exit
at floor level. In this same evening
were those people engaged to feast
on roast beef and strong ale nearby.
Within the valley of the holy brook
the mines are situated near
Buckfastleigh, crushed ores are hauled
for the South Wales copper smelters,
Alfred Jenkin their agent in Cornwall.

Over and over had they been
in the heaven of expectation
finding the ore ground pitched eastward;
those who gambled their lives in swift
currents and dark treacherous pools.
Granting two properties as
one sett at a royalty of 1/24
together with fine machinery,
wheels, a beam engine, and water
privileges. One hundred and twenty-
five workers being then separated
only by a small transverse valley.

The flat rods moved off so quietly
that those not looking were unconscious
of their being in motion. Steam was
employed only at limited scale.
Emma, 116 fathoms below adit,
pumping backed-up water for life itself:
men cutting lode in fume- and dust-ridden air
or crushing with hand tools, spalling, cobbing,
came our tramroad to harbor direct
in Totnes and thence by sea to Neath — 
no more windlass or horse-whim turning.
What you see here is the dressing floor.

Their Phoenician purple dye — 
their copper with fifteen percent
Cornish tin. Remember when
a solid solution of
metal elements was defined
by ecstatic bonding.
Water poured over its surface
producing hydrogen gas.
The new material is
stable and ready for use
but scaled-up production
could fuel cannibal drones.

 
A photo of a mossy, stone structure in a forest.
Tailrace, 2017, by Ignacio Acosta.

 
A photo of a green pool of water in a forest.
Green Pool, 2017, by Ignacio Acosta.


We love the color and
the stillness. Nothing would
live in this water now
at the base of a spoil heap
two stories high. Worm casts
and broadly scattered pits
are laminated onto a
non-conductive substrate.
This is the green pool:
a water soak away
made from glass epoxy.

They are brown and green
like uneven flat loaves
and the museum label
reads tortas de cobre.
Moss grows on anything
like black flame retardant
mechanically supports and
electrically connects — 
the fenced-off shaft
protecting the river
from what leaches out
between sea-borne traders.

At these horizons the levels were
extended over 330 fathoms.
Small groups of self-employed
miners and their families
continued to migrate. Here was
alluvial gold mixed with
sand and gravel, producing
more than 14 heads of stamps were
capable of crushing. Composed
of quartz, peach, and gossan with black
and yellow copper letting down
a stream of mineralized water.

For in much of this section
the leat had been cut from
solid rock. A stone-lined sluice
is just visible. 4,000 shares
on the cost book system,
streamworks in eluvial ground,
5 shillings each deposit. Nothing
but a washing strake such as
we use, commodified and priced
both minerals since the Bronze Age
in West Devon, in Cornwall
beneath a layer of black sand.

An adit is also brought home
to the spot from below: narrow
tailings in steep profile cast
every shovel full as it rises
into a tye. £40,000 worth
of copper ore from above
the 50-fathom level.
Water breaks up the soil, exposing
mere threads of land, linear strips
cut into channels called races
dug across the ground to be worked,
removing the overburden.
More Poems by Tony Lopez
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