Field Trip

Wednesday 23 October 2013

Billy Wynter, an artist based in Penzance Cornwall, led the group on a walk around clay country, near St Austell, and has contributed this report.

This walk started at the southern margin of Goss Moor and passed from lush farmland up onto the moorland of Hensbarrow Downs over into the steep valley of the St Austell river, back up onto higher ground again to end at the village of Trethurgy. We passed through some of the most extensively re-shaped landscape anywhere in England, the ongoing result of industrial-scale extraction of china clay.

The granite from which the china clay comes was formed millions of years ago as a bulbous mass of liquid rock rising up into the roots of a long ago mountain range. The granite cooled and solidified and was later transformed by hot liquids and gases into a ‘kaolinised’ form from which could be extracted kaolin or china clay for use in the china, paper and pharmaceutical industries. The resulting landscape is a record, writ large, of the changing methods and characteristics of china clay extraction over three centuries.

As children travelling up through Cornwall we would see the ‘Cornish Alps’, white, steep-sided cones, bright in the distance. Their shape was the result of industrial tipping from an ever-extending conveyor belt system moving up towards the sky. After the Aberfan waste tip disaster of 1966, which buried a village school, killing most of the children, new safety legislation came in and these old ‘sky’ tips were largely reshaped with a gentler rounder profile. Some remain, largely overgrown but retaining the iconic alpine shape. The new tips were built up in contoured terraces. Enormous lorries extend each terrace by tipping off the existing edge as that level grows outwards. As awareness of environmental issues has grown, so has an approach to restoring the landscape created by the tips. The china clay industry has begun re-landscaping the tips into softer, rounder shapes, grassing them over and in parts planting with trees.

Houses, farms, villages, fields, roads and paths have disappeared, either from below with the digging of pits or from above with the tipping of waste. There is a vast, largely hidden parallel world in there; miles of pipes carrying water and liquid china clay, electric cabling, settling tanks, mechanical crushers and graders, and a network of roads and tracks capable of carrying outsize vehicles. The pits themselves are also largely hidden from the general public with few vantage points from which to see into them. Occasionally this parallel world crosses what we experience as our normal world. A narrow, minor road can unexpectedly turn into a mile-long, wide, smooth stretch of immaculate tarmac. An accompanying sign informs us that we are no longer on the national highways network. Where are we?

Going over the route on the ordnance survey map allows a bird’s eye view of the pits and also an indication of what is old land surface. The old landscape surface is represented as full of features; contour lines, heights, field patterns, woods and moors. The pits are shown as empty areas of white paper and the tips as dotted, stony expanses, neither appearing with contour lines. When will the cartographers fill in all the missing information? Or is the landscape changing too quickly and unpredictably to be kept up with?

In a country where much of the mining and quarrying of raw materials has been outsourced to foreign lands we are not used to seeing such a scale of devastation or change. What will the end result look like? Already there is a museum, nostalgic for the past history of this industry, while just over the hill, the hill itself is still being slowly removed. There is talk of the profitability of re-working old tips for material left over from earlier, less efficient methods. Perhaps the industry will go round and round, consuming its own tail. At some point all the activity will end and nature will work its own changes on what has been left.

The clay country walk gave us a cross section through the heart of this landscape. To walk through it is to experience a strange meeting of ancient and modern, rural and industrial, recently stripped ground and heavily grown over older workings where the natural world has pushed back to a thick and intoxicating degree.

– Billy Wynter

Minibus at the start of the walk, near Gilleys Mica Dam. On the minor road from Whitemoor to Roche.

Old footpath low down between grown over tips, Gilleys Mica Dam.

Approaching Trerank Farm from Gilleys Mica Dam. Recent terraced waste tips encroaching on older field patterns in the background.

Footpath approaching Roche from Trerank Farm. In the background can be seen recent terraced waste tips encroaching over original field patterns.

Chapel, Roche Rock. The chapel on Roche Rock was licensed in1409, exact purpose unknown. It sits on a plug of close-grained quartz shorl with a large proportion of beautiful black tourmaline crystals. It appears to have the form of an ancient volcano but is in fact an altered granite of a similar age to the kaolinised granite from which comes the china clay. The surrounding softer rock has been stripped away by millions of years of erosion.

Thought and discussion, footpath Pentivale to Coldvreath.

On the footpath from Roche and then Pentivale going towards Coldvreath. Original field pattern meeting the encroaching modern terraced waste tips in the background.

Grass snake on the roadside verge near Coldvreath.

View north east from Hensbarrow Downs. There are two vegetated and partly landscaped tips in the middle distance, the left hand one older with more vegetation, the right hand one clearly showing the terraced contours of the more modern truck tipped profile.

Hensbarrow Down. The foreground is original moor, the grassy hill beyond the far hedge is landscaped and seeded tip.

Picnic on Hensbarrow Downs. The ground we are sitting on is ancient moorland, the trees behind shield a high, grassed, clay waste bank, which in turn shields us from a view into the enormous hole that is Littlejohns pit.

Cocksbarrow Farm. Abandoned terraced tip behind Wheal Martyn Clay Works in the background.

Hadrian Pigott’s custom-made pedestrian flag, used to make enormous roadstone trucks keep a safe distance from us walkers.

View south from Cocksbarrow, the foreground is original land form, further back is an old sky tip to the left and a more modern terraced tip to the right. In the background the higher rounded hill is a modern landscaped and seeded tip, to the right is an older, original field pattern. Just visible in the nearer background are a series of circular settling tanks used as part of the china clay grading and separation process.

View east from Cocksbarrow.

Climbing up the perimeter bank to look into Littlejohns pit.

Looking into Littlejohns pit.

Old ‘Cornish Alp’ or sky tip just above Gunheath pit. The high rounded grass hill behind is a modern landscaped and seeded tip, whose foundations may well be a bulldozed and flattened sky tip. The foremost field is almost certainly original landform.

Lined up looking into Gunheath pit.

View into the flooded Gunheath pit, sky tip and terraced tip behind.

Pub break at The Sawles Arms, Carthew.

Clay waste washout and the start of grass and reed colonisation, edge of Carclaze pit.

View from the edge of Carclaze pit, looking across to an old and now well vegetated ‘sky’ tip.

View into Carclaze pit, abandoned and left to itself to be colonised by reeds, grasses, heathers and gorse.

Enjoying the day, edge of Carclaze pit.