Until the opening of the Eden Project in 2001, the only holidaymakers that would have been seen wandering around the St. Austell countryside were those that were lost.
The industrial landscape above the town wasn’t one of the things that most visitors to Cornwall had come to see, but anybody who decides to make their way to Wheal Martyn will be rewarded with a fascinating insight into how important the industry has been to the region.
This open-air museum, heritage centre, or whatever it wants to call itself now, incorporates all aspects of china clay from the days when William Cookworthy, a Plymouth apothecary, discovered kaolin at Tregonning Hill near Germoe in West Cornwall in 1746.
He wasn’t the first to find it of course – it had been used in China for thousands of years, but the desire for an equivalent ingredient to manufacture high quality porcelain in England had eluded the aristocracy for ages.
By the beginning of the 19th century, china clay was big business in England, not only in potteries, but also in the making of coated paper, paint and other materials – and demand was high.
China Clay, or Kaolin, is found in decomposed granite and the area around St Austell was found to have the biggest deposits anywhere in the world.
Thousands of men in the area were employed in the process of extracting, processing and transporting the clay down to ports like Par, Fowey and Charlestown. What were once tiny villages grew to house the workers and their families in ever increasing numbers.
Winning the clay involved an enormous amount of waste as a by-product. Each ton of usable clay resulted in five tons of waste, and when you realise that by the mid-19th century over 65,000 tons of China Clay were being mined every year it doesn’t leave much to the imagination to visualise how the landscape would have changed dramatically.
By the early part of the 20th century, the St Austell area was providing the world with half of its China Clay and producing around a million tons a year.
In total, some 120 million tons have been produced, but now that deposits have been found elsewhere, the industry has declined. There are now less than 2,000 people employed here, even though there is still plenty of China Clay to be found.
Wheal Martyn is not just another museum. This used to be a working mine and everything is still here, including water wheels, settling tanks, and all manner of things associated with the industry, but there’s more than that. The highlight for me is the trail that leads up to the Pit View where you can still see the clay being mined.
The whole area is set within a 26-acre country park and has nature trails, woodland walks, and things for the kids. I really like this place, and if you have an open mind about these sort of things I reckon you will too.