The Count House and Mine Captain's House, Buller Downs, Redruth, Cornwall
An illustrated account of its history and preservation
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Anyone looking at this magnificent building which has now been painstakingly restored and which overlooks the trackbeds of the Redruth and Chasewater Railway which served the mine (I still remember the thrill of finding granite setts belonging to this railway which lead to the engine shaft just in front of the Count House) and the Tresavean Branch of the Hayle Railway, over the town of Redruth to the sea and beyond, will marvel at the grandeur of this wonderful building.

But it wasn't always so. I first came to know the Old Count House adjoining the Mine Captain's home on a cold rainy November night in 1992, prior to it being auctioned in Redruth. 1992 saw almost the depth of depression in the property market - interest rates had gone through the roof - banks had almost universally "caught a cold", there was almost no cash available for speculative investment. Despite this my bank manager had plumbed the depth of his vaults and found enough money to finance a purchase.

At this time the buildings were in a sorry state, totally derelict with only part of the walls standing. With piles of debris everywhere, all the slates and timber gone and all the fine fittings stolen, it was difficult for even a property person to comprehend what they were looking at. Also the approach road was a dumping ground for what seemed like every local builder, anyone who had forgotten to put their rubbish out and practically all the old furniture in Cornwall. In addition the remains of caravans, animal houses and scrap made the area on land adjacent to the Count House look more like a bomb site than Redruth.

And so to that day of the auction. Although there was the usual crowd when the bidding got "serious" I found myself bidding against a local contractor - who later told me he simply wanted to demolish and remove the granite. The bidding went up to the figure I had agreed with my bank, so what was I to do? My wife nudged me in the ribs and whispered "Go on - you know you want it - worry about the extra cash afterwards". I put my hand up, the hammer came down, all eyes were turned to me, this fool who'd spent all this money on a ruin. For a moment my mind flashed back to a day in 1977 when I had bought another ruin which at that time cost several hundred pounds and the estate agent who'd said to me then, "Of course, you know you'll lose your money". Little did he know how wrong he'd be and I wonder how his career in estate agency progressed as that property today is worth many times over what I paid and is still in my ownership. By a strange coincidence it was owned by the same person who'd owned Wheal Buller and both properties I'd purchased from the bank which had taken over ownership.

One week after purchase following torrential rain and gales, a large part of a main wall collapsed and every day that I saw it I wondered "what have I done?" as I watched it continue to crumble before my eyes. Fortunately I found someone with building skills who wanted to work one day a week "to get away from the wife and kids" and who, like me, loved the place. Gradually, and sometimes together, we stabilised the structure of the building and thus ensured that, at least, a substantial ruin would remain.

However, as time went on and my overdraft grew, my bank who had generously financed me and who had been none too happy that I'd exceeded our agreed limit on purchase, started to question my financial deficit. Fortunately at this time my sister who had lived in Italy for many years decided she wished to return to the UK and, seeing Wheal Buller, agreed to purchase it from me and thus the finance to continue the project was secured. Oh well, if I couldn't own it myself, my family owning it provided a good second choice and allowed me to act as her agent.

On her behalf I then decided to approach the Cornwall Archaeological Unit (now Historic Environment Service) who were most enthusiastic and extremely helpful and this support was echoed by the Mineral Tramways Project, The Trevithick Society and The Trevithick Trust - in fact every heritage body gave us wholehearted support and encouragement. All we needed was a top architect to recreate the building exactly as it was in its heyday and after much deliberation a local firm of architects were chosen and they proved to truly justify our confidence. So far so good - surely everyone would want this magnificent building restored, not left as a derelict eyesore within this historic landscape? Well so you would think!

A planning application was made to Kerrier District Council, and after resounding support from Redruth Town Council, we presumed the application would be simply a formality, but sadly it wasn't. Kerrier's Planning Department appeared to us to be still in the "Dark Ages" and under the tutelage of Jim Dann, strongly recommended refusal. The application was brought to Committee on 8 March 1994. However, the members of Kerrier's Planning Committee had different ideas and following a site meeting held on 21 March 1994 they unanimously voted to approve the application.

By May 1994 we believed that the building was saved but Kerrier District Council's Planning Department decided that as the application was "contrary to policy" it had to be referred to the Department of the Environment for a decision. It took them a considerable time to send the letter and of course, when the reply came back it was positive! After all with a site adjacent to a World Heritage bid site, with the support of every heritage group, Redruth Town Council and every member of Kerrier District Council's Planning Committee, how could they refuse it?

So at last, we thought, building could begin. But no, Kerrier District Council next wanted to create a legal obligation (a Section 106 Agreement) in perpetuity on this building. In reality we had no objection to this, after all the building had to be reconstructed correctly. However, it took until December 1995 for this agreement to be finalised and even then some items that we considered "planning conditions" found their way into what we still believe was a draconian legal obligation. For example: the planning consent allowed up to 5 years for work to begin, however, the Section 106 obligation required that samples of ALL materials had to be agreed within 12 months. Also, that a scheme of landscaping works had to be agreed within this time schedule, and a detailed scheme for upgrading the access road (also within 12 months) which was in the ownership of a third party. However, thankfully Kerrier did not enforce their original requirement that the engine shaft on the land had to be capped prior to work starting, which would have cost about 30,000!

During the months following the approval by Kerrier District Council's Planning Committee my sister's accommodation situation had become desperate and she bought a property elsewhere. Our nerves had been strained to breaking point by the feeling that she'd never get planning permission and the final straw was the Section 106 Agreement. How could we build under this "Sword of Damocles" and how could we possibly comply with such a brief, legally obligated timetable? We felt that whatever we did another obstacle would appear to halt our progress. It should be noted that today we consider that Kerrier District Council's Planning Department is "light-years" ahead of the way it appeared to operate all those years ago.

My sister reluctantly took the decision to sell and having changed hands again it was bought by the current owners who have with huge skill and imagination, and enormous financial input, recreated this famous and historic building as shown on the following page of this website today.

Property is my business and is also my hobby, and for me the ruin I purchased in 1992 represented love at first sight and although I no longer own it, I still love it today. For a short while it was a major part of my life and I'll never forget it. If I can't have it myself, then next best is for someone else to own it and give it everything that I wanted it to be. During the years of my involvement with the Count House I became completely obsessed with it - living and breathing Wheal Buller and the tramways. And today, I'm still obsessed by the old mineral railways - all thanks to Wheal Buller!

Guy Mackenzie
November 2003