One of the most iconic and memorable sites in Cornwall is a man-made one. What the locals call the Cornish Alps. The huge, bright-white spoil heaps left by the China Clay industry dominate the centre of the county and can be seen for literally miles and miles highlighted against a blue sky.
China Clay is an industry that just keeps rolling dustily along, although it’s importance to the area has faded a little in recent years. But despite these enormous workings near St Austell being at one time the largest quarry of its kind in the world this wasn’t where it all started.
Since it’s arrival along the famous Silk Road in the 16th century fine Chinese porcelain, for which China Clay is a main component, had been in high demand amongst the gentry of England. But the magic formula of how to produce these delicate wares was a closely guarded secret. This meant that the Chinese could continue to charge exorbitant prices for their imported work.
By the 18th century rumours of the ingredients required for this porcelain alchemy began to filter into Europe. A Plymouth chemist, William Cookworthy (1705-1780), set out like many others around that time to discover the magic for himself and to hopefully exploit the gap in the European market.
In 1745 his search led him to a small hamlet with a big hill. Tregonning hill, near Helston, had large natural deposits of finely decomposed granite, known locally as Moorstone or Growan (china clay). This material is extremely rare, has a texture finer than talcum powder and is the main ingredient used in the making of fine porcelain.
Sadly however it wasn’t exactly Cookworthy’s eureka moment. He had found the right ingredient but he spent the next 20 years trying to work out the complicated process!
Despite the delay Cookworthy is still considered to be the first person in Britain to perfect the production of hard-paste Chinese porcelain using the ‘clay’ he found on a quiet hill in Cornwall.
The porcelain factory that Cookworthy established in Plymouth in 1768 was one of the earliest in the country to start production. The business moved to Bristol in the 1780s and was eventually sold to the Staffordshire Pottery.
Tregonning Hill commands outstanding views and besides the China Clay it quietly guards a long and varied history that makes it a fascinating place to spend some time on a summers evening.
Besides the old quarries (watch your step they are deep!) there are hut circles, a hill fort, an old Quaker preaching pit, the OS trig point and a war memorial to be found on Tregonning Hill. At this time of year mostly hidden waist deep in ferns! And that is saying nothing of the stunning views which stretch for miles and miles in all directions. Sometimes I fancy I can see the white mountains of the St Austell China Clay pits.