Cornwall is a lot more than tourism as its history shows. On 65 hectares of the flat plateau of the Lizard peninsula at Goonhilly Downs there’s an unexpected listed building. This can be found in the shape of the first satellite dish built to receive the pathbreaking television images bounced across the Atlantic via Telstar in 1962. Goonhilly Satellite Earth Station’s dishes in the early 1960s soon added a new yet rapidly familiar dimension to the Cornish landscape. Their position made them unmissable from many miles around.
The juxtaposition of the radically new with extremely old archaeological relics of former times somehow made for perfect harmony. The futuristic dishes encapsulated that tradition of being at the cutting edge of technology that had been proudly fostered in Cornwall since the eighteenth century. For a generation or more the dishes pointed to the stars as they decoded the messages in the microwaves that were silently and invisibly creating the global village (and in its wake the global village idiot). But they were to prove much less permanent than the Bronze Age burial mounds and menhirs around them
In 2006 it was announced that Goonhilly was no longer to be used for satellite communications. These would henceforth be centred on BT’s station in Herefordshire and all but the Grade II listed original dish would be gradually dismantled. Goonhilly’s future, if it had a future, lay in tourism, with its visitor centre telling the story of modern telecommunications. From technological cutting edge to cultural tourism in many ways seemed to sum up the story of modern Cornwall.
But it was not to be. In 2010 the Visitor Centre was closed and in 2014 a private company – Goonhilly Earth Station Ltd, determined to continue its role as a satellite ground station – leased the site from BT. In 2014 it received a boost with a £24 million investment from financial services tycoon Peter Hargreaves. The site was rescued, restored and duly rose from the ashes.
GES Ltd is currently expanding its role at the heart of a private deep space communications network. Its website showcases an impressive list of its activities – space artificial intelligence, supercomputing, advanced manufacturing, space electronic system, a lot of which is to the more scientifically challenged among us as mysterious as the myths of King Arthur (after whom the first dish was named incidentally). Nonetheless, connectivity, consultancy and conferencing at Goonhilly look to be building its reputation as a key part of the global space industry as Cornwall again takes up a role at the leading edge of technological change.