I would love to take a holiday in Switzerland to enjoy the Alpine vistas (and the train journeys of course). But there’s no point me going for the skiing – I can’t and I’m a bit too old to learn. However, the Swiss Alps will have to wait for another year… I’m referring to the somewhat less vertiginous Cornish Alps 🙂

The Cornish Alps are to be found mainly in the area around St.Austell. Unlike their Swiss couterparts, they are not the result of a coming together of landmasses in a titanic tectonic struggle but rather a by-product of mans industry. Cornwall has for centuries been far more industrialised than the modern tourist may realise (unless they have an interest in old industries). Once it was a major producer of some of the worlds best Copper and Tin though those mining activities have all but died out and only the skeletal remains of engine houses with chimneys that stand gaunt against the summer skies bare witness to their past glories. Whilst the mining of Tin and Copper has largely been consigned to the books of our industrial past and a few mining heritage museums, Cornwall’s other mining industry continues to flourish – China Clay.

Cornwall is blessed with large areas of Granite – forced up as molten rock through the seabed by those same tectonic forces that created the Swiss Alps. Granite is a volcanic rock which is generally composed of Quartz, Mica and Feldspar. During the cooling process, due to the presence of steam, Boron, Fluorine and Tin vapour, the Feldspar within some areas became converted to China Clay (or Kaolin). The moors to the north of St. Austell are particularly rich in this form of partly broken down Granite. As a result, mining has been a major industry here since the 1770’s.

The China Clay industry is now much more mechanised although the basic method of ‘Winning the Clay’ remains one of washing it out of the ground using, nowadays, high pressure monitors. Today the main use of China Clay is to whiten and smooth the surface of paper. It can also be found in toothopaste and indigestion tablets. And, of course, it is a primary ingredient of fine porcelain which was the original cause of its desirability as a commodity. These are just a few of the many uses to which this versatile material is put.

As part of our Autumn break in the vicinity of Par we took the opportunity to visit Wheal Martyn – now a museum set up by the producers of China Clay to preserve and record the history of China Clay production in the Mid-Cornwall area. It is a fascinating museum contained within the site of two disused China Clay works, Gomm and Wheal Martyn and the buildings of the latter form the main part of the museum. Here the story of the past is told in artifacts and the memories of workers. But, walk up through the wooded hillside and you will find yourself at a viewpoint overlooking the current working mines of Greensplat and Wheal Martyn 🙂

As for the Cornish Alps, they’re the old Sky Tips of waste from the mines…