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Going wild in Cornwall’s clay country

Genevra Fletcher visits the Wheal Martyn Museum & Country Park

Drive through Mid Cornwall and you’ll find yourself passing through a strange land of sharp peaks that look remarkably like a deserted Star Wars film set. This is Clay Country, an eerie lunar landscape bordered by Luxulyan to the North, Fraddon to the South, St Austell to the East and Bugle to the West.

Cornwall's clay lunar landscapeVenture out of your car and you’ll find Clay Country crisscrossed with trails that are perfect for a family walking, biking or horse riding adventure. You could easily lose yourself for the afternoon in the foothills of this surreal mountain range, colloquially called the Cornish Alps.

Unlike their French counterparts, our Cornish Alps weren’t made by Mother Nature bumping a few tectonic plates together. They were formed instead by thousands of men and boys, grafting away in china clay pits.

Cornwall's alps

Now clay might seem a bit of a grey subject, but Wheal Martyn Museum – on the B3274 at Carthew in the heart of Clay Country – manages to turn this inert substance into a surprisingly lively matter, not to mention a fun family day out.

The museum itself unfolds the unexpectedly exciting history of the china clay industry, while there’s also a quaint café and well-stocked gift shop to enjoy, meandering streams and enticing nature trails to explore, an adventure course and children’s play area.

The best part of my visit to Wheal Martyn, though, was hearing volunteer guide Nolan Craze talk about what life was like for the men, women and children who earned their living at Wheal Martyn, and about his own 40 years of working in the china clay mining industry.

Cornwall's clay minersNolan was raised, and still lives in, St Neot and joined the Parson’s Park pit in 1968 at the age of 17 when clay working still involved hard manual labour: scraping waste out of the pits with your bare hands and standing out in all weathers blasting the clay from the earth with high pressure water hoses.

“I don’t intend this as a sexist statement,” he says, “but it was real man’s work. “Working in the drying huts, you had to spread the clay out over a burning hot floor suspended over a fire pit.

“We wore leather clogs with wooden and metal soles. They had no laces in them, because from time to time your clogs would catch fire and you’d have to kick them off fast. It was like working in Hell.”

Wheal Martyn Museum is open daily from 26th March to 31st October from 10am to 5pm, and from 1st November to 23rd December from 10am to 4pm. Entry to the museum is £27 for a family of two adults and two children