The Clay Country region of Cornwall is an area that I know very little about, somehow I have passed through but never really lingered or come to understand it. Strange I suppose considering that its towering white waste mountains haunt the horizon from so many of Cornwall’s high places. They never seem far away. So when someone contacted me and suggested that I visit Tregargus Valley near St Stephen in Brannel I jumped at the chance.
What I found was a beautiful wooded vale where, like so many places from our industrial past, nature has reclaimed what was always hers. But somehow the broken-down, mossy remains of once fevered manufacturing activity add to the atmosphere and beauty of this place. There is interest at every turn along the shady paths, so that your woodland walk becomes an unusual exploration of a lost industry.
The fast flowing Barn River tumbles through the valley before joining the swelling waters of the River Fal. Tregargus takes its name from an early settlement that once stood to the south of the woods, first recorded in 1356. The name itself means tre: ‘farm/settlement’, gargus: ‘fort in the wood’. In the past this river and the woodland would have been exploited from the earliest times by the people living in and around it. The trees would have provided fuel, coppice wood and building material. Accords from the early 19th century tell of children gathering nuts here. As well as providing drinking water for the villagers and their animals the river would later become an important source of power too.
During the 17th century tin was discovered in the parish and historian Charles Henderson believed that tin streaming took place at Tregargus. But it is the abandoned remains of another later industry which can still be seen today.
“Before the stranger leaves this neighbourhood he should visit the China Clay works. The granite which he has seen in Carclase is locally known as soft growan and abounds in the parishes of St Stephen in Brannel, St Dennis and St Austell.”Murrays Handbook for Devon & Cornwall, 1859
Since its arrival along the 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 Europe. But how to actually produce these delicate wares was still a closely guarded secret meaning that the Chinese were able to charge exorbitant prices for their imported work.
By the 18th century rumours of the ingredients needed for this porcelain alchemy had begun to reach England and a Plymouth chemist, William Cookworthy (1705-1780), set out to discover the recipe for himself. His search led him first to Tregonning hill near Helston where, in 1745, he discovered large natural deposits of decomposed granite, known locally as Growan (soon after called china stone).
FUN FACT: the Cornish for china clay is ‘Pry Gwyn’.
This material is extremely rare and when milled has a texture finer than talcum powder. It is the main ingredient used in the making of porcelain and can also be used to bleach paper. Deposits were found in the St Austell area too and the Cornish China Clay industry, which survives to this day, was born. These sources of china stone is completely unique within the UK.
Tregargus China Stone Quarry & Mills
“The Tregargus Valley contains the finest assemblage of china stone mills in Cornwall.”Richard Cole, BA, Corwall Archaeological Unit, 2004
For nearly one hundred years china stone was quarried and milled in and around the Tregargus valley, from 1870 until 1965. The woodland that we see today is surrounded by disused quarries where the valuable china stone was cut into blocks to make it easier to move.
It was reported, in a newspaper article advertising the sale of shares in the new business, that by 1879 there were four powerful water-wheels driving grinding machines as well as a section of railroad and tram wagons. The works quickly became an important source of employment for the surrounding area.
FUN FACT: The women who worked in the china clay industry were known as Clay Maidens, in the same way that their counterparts in mining were called Bal Maidens.
A visit by the Mineralogical Society of Britain in 1926 found the works in the valley in full flow. The group were shown around by the then owner Mr Olver.
“Tregargus like other quarries in the district is worked for china stone, which is used solely in the manufacture of the finest china and porcelain. The four varieties of the china stone, hard purple, mild purple, white stone, buff stone, are dependent on the degree of kaolinization and on the presence of flour spar . . . the grinding mills, worked by water power, at Tregargus were inspected. Here the stone is crushed into small knowbs [sic], it is ground to powder by the action of slabs of china stone prepared for the purpose, the object being to eliminate the possibility of any foreign substance lessening the quality of the ground china stone.”The Cornish Guardian, September 24th, 1926
As you walk through the valley today the various mysterious structures involved in the processing of the china stone can still be seen and explored. As well as the five remaining mills there were leats to chanel the water to the various water-wheels, pan kilns, mica drags, a blacksmiths shop, bridges and the disused tracks which were once tramways.
Murray’s Handbook described the process of milling and separating the china clay in 1859, although I am almost certain the process was probably different at Tregargus I thought it was interesting to record.
“The softer material, which is dug out of the pits and called china clay, porcelain-earth or kaolin, requires a more elaborate preparation, for the purpose of separating the quartz, schorl, or mica from the finer particles of the decomposed felspar. The clay is dug up in stopes, or layers, which resemble a flight of stairs. A heap of it is places upon an inclined platform, under a small fall of water, and repeatedly stirred with a piggle and shovel . . . the heavy useless parts collect in a trench below a platform, while the china clay . . . is ultimately accumulated in larger pits called ponds . . . in which it remains undisturbed until sufficiently consolidated to be cut into oblong masses”
When the Tregargus China Stone Mills closed in 1965 the machinery fell silent and the abandoned site began to decay. Fortunately some interested parties, including the Cornwall Engine Preservation Society, decided quite quickly that steps should be taken to preserve some of the buildings and the water-wheels.
The Big Wheel Mill was constructed in 1898 and was one of the biggest of its kind in the whole of Cornwall. It had six grinding pans powered by a wheel which stood 30ft (9m) high and had 105 buckets. Constructed entirely of iron it was made by T. Bartle & Sons of Carn Brea, Redruth in 1896.
Nigel Tangye, the Cornish author, was another of those who became involved in preservation of Tregargus Valley. He is quoted in the Cornish Guardian in 1969 as saying that the huge wheels were “marvellous examples of engineering”. Around the same time Mr A. J. Stoyle organised a meeting to discuss how to save the gear, the event was attended by more than 300 people.
Many of the structures at Tregargus became Grade II listed in the 1980s. Cornwall Archaeological Unit was involved with repairing the old tramway bridges and starting work on the Big Wheel Mill in 2004. And these days the woodland is cared for by the Tregargus Trust. This non-profit charity works hard to ensure that the public can continue to access the site. In 2011 the Trust were awarded more than £13,000 to repair and improve the pathways through the woodland. It is always wonderful to see the effort that local people will go to protect our Cornish heritage.
Visiting Tregargus Valley
Tregargus is open to the public and free to visit all year round. Although this beautiful place is certainly fascinating to explore for visitors, both young and old, please bear in mind that these kinds of sites can be very dangerous. There are large unfenced drops, pools of deep water, uneven paths and unstable walls etc. Just try to be mindful while you enjoy exploring.
I have had a lot of messages about parking at Tregargus, so here is my advice. The easiest spot is probably on the road above the woods, near the china clay works, where there is a layby which can fit several cars. There is a gate into the woods here. Otherwise it is possible to park on the road in St Stephen and on the road (sensibly) leading to the woods at the lower side, there is a footpath from there too.
See image below as a rough guide!
If you are interested to find out more about the china clay industry you could also visit the museum at Wheal Martyn.