Field Trip

On Sunday 8 October Anthony Bryant, an artist based in Cornwall, led the workshop group on a field trip walk from Great Work Mine, Balwest, up and around Tregonning Hill, with mining historian Stephen Polglase. Anthony has contributed this report.

‘Where it is – there it is’

Sunday 8 October 2017

We gathered at the National Trust car park to the rear of Great Work Mine at Balwest and met Stephen Ploglase, who is well known locally as an authority on the history of mining in the Godolphin and Tregonning areas. He was born and still lives a few hundred metres from Great Work and can trace his own family’s mining heritage as far back as the early 1600s.

Standing in front of the beautiful granite Duke of Leeds engine house of Great Work mine, Stephen explained some of the many shafts and workings in the area. There is written evidence of surface mining of alluvial tin going back as far as the 12th century and more than 300 people were employed underground as early as the 1500’s. Stephen explained how the philosophical attitude to the finding of tin and the impossibility of predicting where it might occur could be summed up by a phrase used by generations of miners : ‘where it is, there it is’. Some of us were brave enough to jump down on to the grille which covers the mouth of the 1200 foot shaft. We could hear water tinkling far below and terrifyingly, this grille was only placed over the ancient shaft within the last 20 years: before then it was open. Stephen had some good stories of accidents and near-misses.

From the mine we crossed the road into Granny Polly’s Lane (named after Stephen’s great grandmother, Polly Polglase). As we climbed the slope of Tregonning Hill the mist thinned enough for us to enjoy views of the surrounding area. Our first stop was at what appeared to be an overgrown ditch, but Stephen explained this was the Ponsandane Shaft, which he and his father had cleared and prospected in the mid 1970’s. The ore they found was assayed and found to have an unusually high tin content (5%), but sadly their plans to develop the mine were short-lived as Walter Polglase became ill and died before they could be realised.  In 1978, a short, evocative TV documentary was made about them and their mine, which I saw by chance while I was away from Cornwall and badly homesick.

Continuing uphill we waded through swathes of heather and bilberry bushes (called ‘Yerts’ locally). At the summit we walked through mounds of piled stones which are the remains of a defensive double-ditch surrounding Castle Pencaire, an Iron Age fort dating to 250BC. From the top of the hill we could appreciate how this commanding position would have overlooked and dominated the surrounding countryside with its scattered Celtic settlements below. Tregonning Hill is thought to have been named after a Celtic chieftain: Conin, with ‘the homestead of Conin’: Tre-Conin evolving into Tregonning over time.

Sadly, as grazing has stopped on the hill in recent times, the Celtic fortifications and prehistoric field patterns have become badly overgrown and are now most easily appreciated from aerial photographs.  Germoe War Memorial was, perhaps insensitively, placed right on top of  the ancient site of Castle Pencaire and ‘going up the Memorial’ became a popular Sunday outing for local people.

Before the weather closed in I hope we all had a sense of the dramatic beauty and spirit of this location: although only 194m above sea level, we could see far-reaching views to the coast in 3 directions.

A little further along the path we came to the ‘Preaching Pit’, originally dug as a quarry in the 18th and 19th centuries, but later a site for Methodist services, especially at Whitsun. A band would march up the hill from Ashton chapel, followed by the congregation who would gather in the pit for a sermon, washed down with tea and cakes. On a damp and misty day the pit makes a cosy shelter and we were also pleased to stop for tea and cakes, but thankfully, no sermon.

Not far from the Preaching Pit, a large quarry known as the Cookworthy Pit marks Tregonning Hill’s contribution to British industrial heritage. In the 18th century China had a monopoly on the production and export of porcelain and guarded  the recipe closely. In 1746 William Cookworthy, a chemist from Plymouth came to Great Work Mine to visit his friend Captain Nancarrow.  Cookworthy had been experimenting unsuccessfully for many years to perfect a porcelain to rival that from China and would immediately have been interested in the smooth white clay which the miners used to repair their furnaces.  He was shown the source of this clay on Tregonning Hill – and after taking samples, realised he made a breakthrough. He leased several clay pits on the hill and wagons took the clay down to Porthleven harbour, from where it was shipped to Plymouth. However it was realised that the Tregonning Hill clay contained small, dark specks of mica and within a few years, a purer source was found at St Austell, where the English ‘China Clay’ industry continues to this day. As a result of this Tregonning Hill and its surroundings escaped transformation into an intensely industrialised landscape.

Quarrying on a small scale did continue here into the 20th century, but in recent years trees have matured in the base of the old pit and rare plants grow amongst the heather and soft weathered granite. Tregonning hill is now designated both a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation.

On the North side of the hill we clambered over a gate and crossed a field full of horses to investigate a restored brick kiln dating to 1871. Built on the site of Wheal Bunny, Stephen explained that this kiln is a relic of a once-successful industry, with extensive brick making works continuing on both sides of the hill until the 1920’s. The quarry where the brick-making clay was once dug is still visible, though overgrown, but I think we all agreed that the restoration of the domed kiln, although commendable, might have been a little over-enthusiastic.

We left the kiln and headed for home with the mist closing in and the path lined with ancient hawthorn and holly trees serving as reminders of human occupation and industry over hundreds of years.

With the mist closing in on us again, we left the kiln and headed back to the car park along a path edged with ancient holly trees and hawthorns – serving as reminders of centuries of the human occupation and industry that was once concentrated in this small area.

Text © Anthony Bryant and CAST (Cornubian Arts & Science Trust), 2017.