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The Man Engine in Tavistock| © Mike Thomas/Excess Energy
The Man Engine in Tavistock| © Mike Thomas/Excess Energy
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Meet Devon’s Real-Life BFG: The Man Engine, A 39-Foot Mechanical Puppet

Picture of Harriet Clugston
Updated: 23 May 2017
Billed as the biggest mechanical puppet the UK has ever built, the Man Engine is embarking on a mammoth two-week, 130-mile journey across Devon and Cornwall in a bid to commemorate the area’s mining heritage. The real-life BFG made his debut on Monday, with the people of Tavistock spilling onto the streets to cheer him on his way. But just what on Earth is it all about?

Standing around 12 metres tall at full height (about three double-decker buses), the enormous Man Engine is the product of a joint venture between Golden Tree Productions, who created the engine, and the Cornish Mining World Heritage partnership, who commissioned him; it aims to serve as a reminder of his home region’s thousands of years of mining history as well as its ongoing geological significance. As he lumbers across the countryside, visiting ten mining areas and stopping off in the communities that grew up amid them, the steaming, clunking, beautiful Man Engine harks back to a time when these now dormant lands were alive with industrial activity.

View from Dolcoath Mine towards Redruth,Cornwall, c. 1890 | © J.C. Burrow/Wikicommons
View from Dolcoath Mine towards Redruth,Cornwall, c. 1890 | © J.C. Burrow/Wikicommons

Ten years ago, the mining landscape of Western Devon and Cornwall was granted UNESCO World Heritage status (the world’s largest site to be designated as such), an accolade that signifies the area’s special cultural or physical significance. Up until the 20th century, the mines here provided most of the UK’s tin, copper, and arsenic, making it one of the most important mining areas in Europe. By the middle and end of the 19th century, mining was in decline. After experiencing a brief pick-up in the 20th century, it suffered a deathly blow with the collapse of the world tin cartel in the ’80s — today, no mines remain.

Will Coleman, Artistic Director of Golden Tree Productions, said that, ‘Kernow, our horn-shaped granite kingdom of Cornwall is a tiny 0.002 percent of the planet’s surface, yet beneath our rocky shores can be found samples of more than 90 percent of all mineral species ever identified. Millions of years in the making, the geology of Cornwall is unique. This unbelievable geological treasure (copper, tin, arsenic, lead, zinc, silver, etc) has powered the Cornish people’s endeavour through 4,000 years of mining history: innovation, triumph and heartbreak.’

The Man Engine in Tavistock| ©Mike Thomas/Excess Energy
The Man Engine in Tavistock | ©Mike Thomas/Excess Energy

Though anticipation surrounding the Man Engine project has been long in the making, his exact form has been kept a tightly guarded secret, with engineers using a top-secret location for test runs. Its appearance was only revealed for the first time on Monday in Tavistock, Devon, alongside recitals by choirs and local people performing the Cornish mining chant, Haka Balweyth.

The Man Engine in Tavistock| ©Mike Thomas/Excess Energy
The Man Engine in Tavistock | ©Mike Thomas/Excess Energy

When moving from place to place in ‘crawling mode’, Man Engine stands at about a third of its full size, which it extends to with the help of both mechanised parts and a team of more than a dozen miners and bal-maidens who act as puppeteers, animating the colossal figure with ropes. Parts of the puppet are designed to represent mining heritage, with his shoulders resembling sheave wheels from miners’ headgear, while his hands are similar to 20th-century excavators.

Engine man in Liskeard #engineman #dartmoor #dartmoornationalpark #beautifuldartmoor #britaininamini

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Man Engine has a busy schedule over the next two weeks, with visits to St Austell, St Agnes, Redruth, and Hayle, among others, with a series of cultural and artistic events coinciding with his journey, from brass band performances to street mural paintings. On the second to last leg of his journey, he will be met by a second, smaller puppet of the chemist Humphry Davy (a major Cornish figure in geology, chemistry, and mining), who will present Man Engine with a Davy safety lamp in the town of Penzance.