Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Arsenic labyrinths: fiction and reality

The Arsenic Labyrinth is set mainly in the Coppermines Valley at Coniston in the Lake District, a fascinating and rather bleak spot, a long way (though not as the crow flies) from the pastoral settings associated with Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome, William Wordsworth et al.

However, in truth there never was an arsenic labyrinth, or any associated arsenic works, at Coniston. I invented the labyrinth that features in my novel – although arsenic was produced in Cumbria in days gone by. The best-preserved arsenic labyrinth in Britain is at Botallack in Cornwall. It inspired Bren Unwin to produce the prints I have talked about before on this blog.

But here’s another confession. Although, when writing the book, I researched arsenic labyrinths quite extensively, and had a lot of help from an archaeologist who has been involved with the Botallack project, and who advised me on how to invent something for Coniston that was rather different, yet genuinely credible, I have never actually explored one for myself. I last visited Botallack, and saw its tin mines, about thirty years ago, at a time when the importance of its industrial heritage was not fully appreciated. Thankfully, times have changed.

Until I make the journey back to Cornwall, which I hope to do next year, I am happy to make do with these photographs which Bren has kindly sent me. She took them last week and I think they convey the beauty of the setting as well as the appeal of the stone remains themselves.

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