A Visit To The Alps

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…



  1. The Greensplat Mine shot is so beautifully abstract. Looks as though you have enjoyed Half-Term in a lovely part of the world Martin. With a glass or two perhaps of the fine Tribute Ale?

  2. wonderful photos martin, the old buildings look amazing under the stormy sky, and rain drops on the pond are like tears for past glory …. reminds me a little of visiting Black Country Living Museum, Tipton Road, Dudley where we took canal boats through an underground coal mine ….

    • Thanks Christine – it was a blustery and, at times, very wet day. The glory isn’t past. They just replaced most of the people with heavy machinery and the stone buildings with steel ones 😦 It’s still a thriving industry and I suspect that were it not so, the railway from Par to Newquay would have gone the same way as so many other Cornish branch lines and closed. The clay traffic kept it alive.

      I haven’t done the Black Country museum yet… Sounds like fun 🙂

  3. An excellent offering that gives an insight into mining,
    indeed with these photographs it adds to the quality of
    your wonderful post 🙂

    It is nice to call back into your Space my friend…


  4. Indigestion tablets you say?! The way I typically run around like a wild-man you know I’m a fan!
    As I am of your brilliant photographs, of course, Martin (no surprise there)! So nice! The mills are probably among my favorites here, Martin (not an easy thing to decide, though). After reading your captions I’m not quite sure what that says about me, though. 😉

    • Thank you Bob 🙂 The caption for the Chimney and Slurry pump comes from the English hymn Jerusalem…. So perhaps it say’s that you’re a regular church-goer 😉

  5. You certainly have a great way with your camera Sir. I love that old water wheel photo & the chimney shot is superb

  6. I just love the photos! I have never heard of China Clay and found your description fascinating. I am going to ‘google around’ to see if I can find anything similar in the United States. There is a whole lot here that I know nothing about, but you really made it interesting and now I would like to know more. I am fascinated with the art and mechanization processes that were used for so long and now are more technologically efficient, yet we still need labor. I don’t often think about what goes into mining…very interesting, Martin.

    • Thanks Debra – I try to write something informative from time to time 😉 Georgia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania seem to be states with China Clay deposits. Next time you’re taking tea from your finest Bone China, you might want to look up how that type of china is formulated – I say Tea, probably should have said Coffee 😉

  7. I just heard about the tin mines (one of the few sources of tin) a little while ago, I think on an episode of the Coast series.

    • Hi Binky, I suspect that the Coast series would have covered Tin Mining – there are a number of old mine buildings on cliff-tops around the Cornish coast.

  8. How do you manage to do it, Martin? Making things I would have said were boring into fascination!
    I never knew Kaolin was also called China Clay, although it makes perfect sense. Bone china, yes. And the photos bring the area to life for the rest of us. (Dark satanic mills, indeed, and Cornish Alps.)
    Thanks for a really interesting post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: