The Cornish Alps

The Cornish Alps

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.

Wheal Martyn China Clay Museum
Wheal Martyn China Clay Museum

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.

The Eden Project

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.

Roche Rock
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21 thoughts on “The Cornish Alps

  1. Toonsarah

    Roche Rock really looks worth a detour. And talking of detours … ! Once on a childhood family holiday we drove through the St Austell area. My parents were apparently unaware of the clay industry there. From the road we spotted what looked like the perfect beach of almost tropical white sand, so Dad turned off so we could visit it. He managed to find the spot we had seen and we hurried out on to the ‘sand’, only to find our feet sinking into sticky white clay! The ‘beach’ turned out to be some sort of run-off from a clay working that must have been hidden from our view both from the road and where we had parked 🤣🤣

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      Even today, if you see any tourists around St. Dennis you can bet your life that they’re lost 🙂

      Reply
  2. Alli Templeton

    I can see why you’d call these the Cornish Alps, Malc, the mini mountain even looks snow-capped! I had no idea about the china clay industry in Cornwall, so that was all news. I’ve never been to the Eden Project before, but being ever-more eco-minded I would love to get down there one day. It’s heartening to know that it’s one of Cornwall’s most visited attractions – anything that inspires and helps people to live a more sustainable life has to be a positive thing. And I love the look of the ruined chapel on Roche Rock – and the legends – whatever the originators were on! ;-D

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      If the Eden Project is good enough to hold a bash for the Royal family, the PM and the President of the United States, then it’s good enough for me. Seriously though, if you ever get the chance to visit you won’t be disappointed. Thanks for taking a look Alli. Any idea when you will know the results of all your hard work?

      Reply
      1. Alli Templeton

        I’ll certainly keep it on my priority list, Malc. It’s always appealed. Hopefully I’ll get the module result some time towards the end of July, but I’ll have to wait another couple of weeks for my degree classification. So it’s fingers crossed for a while. In the meantime, I’ve got around 2 years’ worth of housework to catch up on, and decorating the house from top to bottom to put it on the market next year! And, of course, getting to as many medieval sites as I can. 🙂

        Reply
        1. Easymalc Post author

          That should keep you out of mischief for a while then 🙂 I’m not going to cross my fingers this time as I know you’ll get the results that you want 🙂

          Reply
            1. Easymalc Post author

              Just don’t forget about a pleb like me when you reach the heady heights you’re destined for 🙂

              Reply
                1. Easymalc Post author

                  I’ll come back and haunt you in one of those creepy castles if you do 🙂 Have a great weekend!

                  Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      Roche Rock is not very well known, but it’s not too hard to find, and it’s definitely worth checking out.

      Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      As strange as it might sound, I also liked the lunar landscape appearance. Thanks for taking a look Luisa 🙂

      Reply

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