Before you start getting the wrong idea about Cornwall having some majestic inland mountain scenery, I’d better warn you straight away that the landscape I’m talking about here is anything but picturesque, but don’t walk away just yet because the China Clay industry is an integral part of Cornish life. This is a part of Cornwall that tourists avoid and locals earn just about enough money from to keep their heads above water.
In this short post I want to give you an introduction to the area around St. Austell which for many years looked more like a lunar landscape than a part of the Cornish countryside.
China Clay is the product of decomposed granite, and most of the Cornish workings were (and still are) in the area just north of St. Austell around Hensbarrow Downs.
Clay isn’t mined like tin and copper but uses an open-cast system, which leaves large pits scattered across the landscape. The spoil is then tipped into heaps, and unlike coal it’s white. These spoil heaps were conical in shape and appeared like mountains which is where they got their nickname from.
The best place to find out more about the history and workings of China Clay is at the Wheal Martyn China Clay Museum at Carthew. The post I’ve done about it needs updating but at least it will give you an idea on what to expect.
Perhaps the most well-known former clay pit is the Eden Project at Bodelva, just east of St. Austell. I’ve written five separate posts about it so there’s no point in going over it all again here, except to say that it’s one of Cornwall’s most visited attractions, and deservedly so in my opinion. Tim Smit, the instigator of the project, came up with one of the best ideas ever when he transformed an old clay pit into a major ecological, environmental, and educational success story.
I mentioned earlier that China Clay comes from decomposed granite, but there’s one lump of granite that hasn’t decomposed – Roche Rock. Situated about 6 miles north of St. Austell, the village of Roche gets its name from the rock rather than the other way round (Roche being the Norman French name for ‘rock’).
Geologists find this lump of rock intriguing and they’re not the only ones. Cornwall abounds in tales of mystery and intrigue and several stories have been passed down over the years. The ruined chapel on top of the rock was supposedly built in 1409 and was dedicated to St. Michael. According to local folklore it was inhabited by a local hermit and his daughter and it is still sometimes called Roche Rock Hermitage. Another story involves a certain Jan Tregeagle who found refuge here after being chased by demons. I’m assuming of course that this story goes back many years and not one that has recently come about by someone who has just discovered that the white stuff he’s been sniffing isn’t China Clay at all.
St. Austell and the villages around it won’t be on the top of any tourist’s itinerary, but places like the China Clay Museum, the Eden Project, and even Roche Rock should be.