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I’m going to be honest – I figured I was taking a bit of a risk visiting the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum in Cornwall. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect – however I found a fun, interactive museum that’s one of my favourite things to do in Cornwall.
My husband and I ended up spending a fun-filled two hours exploring the various exhibits and watching a highly entertaining talk. I certainly recommend visiting the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum in Cornwall – it’s great fun.
The history of the Telegraph M
useum in Cornwall
Have you ever thought about how electronic communication began? It’s kind of mind boggling to think that 200 years ago, letters were pretty much the only way to communicate with someone in the next town over. Nowadays, we don’t think anything of making a call to someone on the other side of the world!
At the risk of getting it all wrong, I’m not going to go into any detail about the science behind telegraphs, except to say it began in the early 1800s. What began as a very simple system of being able to toggle movements from afar (thanks to electromagnetism) rapidly developed.
By the mid 1800s, cables had been laid over much of England but some plucky investors were keen to connect the UK to America. It would take many attempts, but it eventually succeeded – and a new era of worldwide communication began.
In 1870, the plan was to stretch a telegraph cable all the way from England to India. A suitable location was required. Cornwall made sense because it is the most southern county of England, but they were concerned about the rough seas.
Eventually Porthcurno was chosen as the landing spot for the cable, as it was a calm, protected bay.
Over the next half-century, the telegraph station grew to be the largest in the world. There was also a training college where students would go to learn to become telegraph employees.
During WWII and beyond
For decades, things went well at the Porthcurno Telegraph Station – however it would become particularly important during World War II.
At this time, Porthcurno was one of the main hubs for sending and intercepting telegraphs. In order to protect the hub from being targeted by enemy attacks, it was built into tunnels in the cliff-face. The Cornish skill of mining was used here, meaning the job was completed quickly and on-budget.
For the duration of the War, the Porthcurno Telegraph Station was the heart of international communications. Under constant threat of attack, the staff (including the Telecom Girls) worked hard, even cracking some of the codes used by the Axis Powers.
After the war ended, the Telegraph Station remained in use right through until 1993. It then closed, and reopened as the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum in 1998.
Visiting the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum in Cornwall
My husband, Tom, was not convinced when I offered up the telegraph museum as my choice for the day’s activities. However, he was soon eating his words – it was one of the best things we did in Cornwall!
What to expect
From the outside, the building is quite modern. On the day we visited, it was pouring with rain (click here for other ideas of what to do in Cornwall in the rain). Usually, however, there are some nice gardens and a seating area that you could enjoy.
Interactive exhibits at the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum
Stepping inside, there is a big exhibition space. There’s a lot of information here about telegraphs and some pretty staggering statistics on electronic communication. Did you know that over 95% of communication still goes through cables, not satellites? I certainly didn’t!
It’s certainly not all facts and figures, though. One section features a bunch of fun interactive exhibits to try, like sending
Another section is devoted to life working abroad on telegraph stations on days gone by. It gives you an interesting insight into the good and the bad of living abroad, and there are fun recordings of people talking about their experiences. I also loved trying on some old uniforms… you’re never too old for dress-ups, I say!
Auditorium and speeches
There’s also a small auditorium-type area where there is a daily presentation about the history of telegrams. Now – you might be thinking “are you kidding? That sounds boring
Don’t be fooled! This was actually a super interesting talk, not least because of the fabulous passion and charisma of our presenter, below. He actually worked at the telegraph station and his joy in sharing it with visitors is catching!
I really learnt so much, and was totally entertained for the 30 minutes or so of the presentation. We got to see how lots of old technology worked, and hear some funny stories about the development of telegraphs over the years. I definitely highly recommend catching the presentation!
World War II Tunnels
Finally, there is the World War II tunnels. It’s really cool to enter through the huge, heavy doors and walk right into the cliff-face. You can really imagine what it must have been like to be locked away, although the thought of an impending attack must have been terrifying.
Within the tunnels, there’s lots of memorabilia including the original machines that would have been used. There’s also items like diaries and letters to give you an idea of what it was like for the workers during the war.
This section is a little more “look don’t touch”, but it’s still a lot of fun.
There are also more tunnels to explore, but they were closed for refurbishment when we visited. Given that my beloved Tom is quite claustrophobic, perhaps it was for the best!
Usually you can access the 1920s cable hut which is up near the beach of Porthcurno. It’s one of the best preserved of its kind, and gives you a glimpse into the day in the life of a telegrapher. You can also see some of the original cables, and get a great view of the sea!
Unfortunately, as it is very delicate, it is closed during poor weather. It was just my luck that it was indeed very, very poor weather when we visited. Oh well, a reason to return, I suppose…
As it was bucketing down and blowing a gale, we also decided not to opt for trying the walking trails. Apparently, they walk you around the coast, taking in some gorgeous views and pointing out significant places in telegraph history.
One fun fact about the trails is that they are dog-friendly! So you’re welcome to bring your pooch and do some learning and exploring.
Cost and opening hours of the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum
The Porthcurno Telegraph Museum costs £9 if you’re an adult, £8 if you’re a student (including a university student) and £5.50 for children under 16. There’s also a family ticket available for £26. You can just buy your tickets at the door.
By English standards, I think this is really good value as you can easily spend 2 – 3 hours at the museum and there’s lots of interactive stuff to enjoy.
In summer, the telegraph museum in Cornwall is open from 10:00am to 5:00pm every day (the tea room closes at 4:00pm). Summer in 2019 is 1 April 2019 to 1 November 2019.
In winter, the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum is open from 10:30am to 4:00pm on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays.
As well as the museum and trails, there are a few other things on offer at the museum. They are free to visit.
There is a nice little cafe/tea room on the ground floor, just past the museum entrance. They do tea and coffee, as well as some light bites like scones and sandwiches.
During summer they also open up a nice little terrace where you can sit and enjoy the Cornish sunshine. You can even bring your dog!
If you love the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum as much as I did, you might like to bring home a souvenir! There’s a great little gift shop which has all kinds of things to buy.
A lot of them are science-related gifts and toys (the best kind in my geeky opinion), and then there are also plenty of books. if you have an interest in science or military history, there’s lots of great titles!
I’ve been diligently researching my Cornish ancestry recently, and I was really interested to hear about the archives room at the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum in Cornwall.
They have kept very detailed records such as employee details, and are happy to share them by appointment. Unfortunately, my family left Cornwall in the early 1800s before the telegraph station opened, but it could be really interesting for others!
What else to do in the area
Porthcurno is a gorgeous little town. Although it is small, it offers a lot to do. You could easily make a day out of visiting the museum as well as Porthcurno’s other attractions.
The Minack Theatre is within easy walking distance of the Telegraph Museum. This open-air theatre is one of the most famous attractions in Cornwall. Clinging onto the side of the cliff and overlooking the sea, it’s surely one of the most dramatic theatres in the UK.
There’s a regular calendar of performances, or you can just enter and tour the theatre for £5 when there’s nothing on. There is also a cafe there too, that has a gorgeous view.
If you do visit the Minack Theatre, chances are you’ll be able to spy the Porthcurno Beach down below. It’s an absolutely gorgeous beach that’s deserving of it’s great reputation – with soft, fine sand and cerulean blue water. The imposing mountains that surround it also add to the overall charm.
It’s no wonder that Porthcurno Beach features as Nampara Cove, of Poldark fame.
Land’s End is about four kilometres from the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum, so it’s definitely possible to visit them both in a day. In fact, ther’s a popular coastal walk that goes between them, if you’re more active than I am!
At the famous Land’s End landmark, you’ll find plenty of tourist amenities including a cafe, restaurant and even a 3D cinema.