Wednesday, 24 April 2013

The Porthcurno Telegraph Museum

This week I got a chance to visit a museum that has always intrigued me: the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum. Lying in the wild far west of Cornwall - one of my favourite areas of the country as it feels like a different world and is where I spent a lot of my childhood - the museum is housed in a large building and tunnel network that used to be the hub for a cable network stretching all across the world. I have always loved the idea that this tiny village in such a remote part of Cornwall was for a period of time the communications hub of the world. Somehow how remote and quiet its setting feels now makes this fact even more amazing and special - you drive down a tiny twisting road not far from Land's End and after a few scattered houses there is this big white building on your left simply saying Museum in big letters on the facade.

After walking up some steps you enter this main building to buy tickets - it is £7.50 for adults and there are concessions for OAPs and children. There is a shop and cafe and good loos (important for the discerning visitor!) in this entrance area. I was greeted by a really lovely elderly man and as I bought my ticket and chatted, another man immediately came over to chat and I was offered a free talk and introduction. I followed this man out of the main building wondering what to expect and immediately noticed the entrance to the tunnels carved out of the camouflage painted cliff face. We entered in and walked past an old bomb that was found locally towards a large gas and bomb proof door that had been fitted when the communication centre was a legitimate war time target. I don't know what I was expecting - maybe just to walk through some tunnels and see some displays about the jobs people used to do here - nothing could have prepared me for the wonderful surprise. We pushed through the heavy door and into another world...

Immediately I was hit with the clicking noise of hundreds of old machines like the sound of an office of ghost typists. I have never been to another museum where there was such a sudden change in atmosphere and sense of place - the only way I can best describe it is that it was like a children's book where you enter a door to another place or time - I was transported. It is the Narnia of small museums! My guide led me through this initial long room full of machines, some in glass cabinets, clicking away as if in some strange steam punk laboratory, and continued on to a further room to where a few benches were placed in front of a table of machines. My guide then proceeded to tell me about the history of the Porthcurno Telegraph Centre from the 19th century to its current status as a museum. He demonstrated telegraph machines and technology in chronological order and I was able to get up close and see how everything worked. There were some really beautiful machines too, like an early single needle galvanometer and a stunning five needle telegraph that wouldn't have looked out of place in an elegant period parlour. I was really struck by how often in machines of the path the visual design was important as well as the functional design. I also saw how morse code was transmitted and visualised by light and later punched out paper tape so that no communications were missed. I learned about war time in Porthcurno, saw wonderful old cable maps of the world and held early telegraph cables that went under the sea and learned how they were laid by ships such as the SS Great Eastern. I saw early machines utilising electricity and heard about how wireless technology threatened the hard investment of decades in cable communications. There was also a video available to watch after the talk and demonstration.

After this brilliant talk my guide left me to wander around the rest of the museum at my leisure. There were photos of old workers and costumes providing an interesting social history angle and I also got to have a really good look at the machines I'd seen clicking away on the way in. There were some magnificent interpolators and other machines that almost looked like strange vintage robot pets. I spent a long time just wandering and looking and soaking up the atmosphere. There were also windows in the wall looking out on the cave walls of the tunnels, reminding me that I was underground in this strange bunker - there's even steep steps out the back that were an escape route leading out onto the cliff top, that I didn't climb up but I think visitors can if they wish. As I left the tunnels I again had this feeling that I was moving between realms. I walked out into the Cornish sunshine and back into the main building where I bought some postcards and a very reasonably priced at £2.50 book about the story of Porthcurno. As I reached my car a few moments later I really felt like I had spent the last couple of hours absorbed into a whole new world of discovery - surely what all the best museums should do. I really couldn't recommend this museum more.

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