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Luxulyan Valley – An Historical View

By Stephen Austin

Treffry Tramway in Luxulyan ValleyAs we walk through the tranquil valley with its natural-looking slopes, mature trees and trilling streams, it is difficult to keep in mind that its character, seemingly so unspoilt, results from its history as an industrial site. Although it was too deep to clear for farmland, too rocky to stream for tin, too steep to build housing estates, it has never been an unchanging idyll. It has constantly seen a variety of changes and innovations which have shaped its past and now challenge its future.

Hunters – Gatherers – Farmers

People have been shaping this country since before the time of Christ. Near the valley, in the grounds of Prideaux, is a hill-fort at least 2,000 years old. There appear to have been dwellings in the valley in mediaeval times; the woodland was managed by coppicing and, in the valley bottom, one can see remains of the stone walls of small fields or paddocks. Above where Rock Mill now is there were few trees and the ground was uneven with masses of loose rock of all sizes on the surface. At that time the sea came up to Ponts Mill and a bridge, called Baldwin’s Bridge, was the lowest crossing of the Par River. Until around 1730 vessels of 80 Tons could moor there but the bay was already being filled up with sand, rock and soil by the activities of tin streamers working up on Goss Moor. By the nineteenth century the shoreline had been pushed out two miles by over 500 acres of sediment, of depth ranging from 24 feet below Ponts Mill to 72 feet where Par Beach is today. Tin streaming finally ceased in 1940.

Joseph Thomas Treffry

Treffry Tramway viaductThe modern history began in 1813 when Joseph Thomas Austen inherited the estates of the Treffry family. (He changed his name to Treffry in 1838.) He began to develop the assets, particularly the mineral wealth and saw that the valley was a convenient route between the coast and high ground where he owned land and mineral setts. Most of the valley was then owned by the Kendalls, from whom he leased it. With the aid of his steward, William Pease and the St. Blazey engineer, William West he took over the Fowey Consols mines on Penpillick Hill and built a leat, completed in 1820, along the east side of the valley to provide water power. He built a new artificial harbour at Par, opened in 1829, a canal up the valley to Ponts Mill and two inclined plane railways to the mines. The canal utilised the river bed and a new cut was made to take the river; the diversion point can be seen in the valley. He also acquired the moribund harbour of Newquay and planned to link the two ports by a railway, also serving the mines and quarries of Goss Moor.

Work began in 1835 on a railway up the valley from Ponts Mill, but they soon found that building railways is not as easy as it looks so it was abandoned and only a few fragments of the route are visible today. Treffry then engaged James Meadows Rendel, an experienced engineer. He designed an inclined plane from the canal basin, past the Carmears Rocks, to the level of the top of the valley, then a comparatively easily graded line through Luxulyan and on to its terminus at the Bugle Inn. For the high-level crossing of the river they built the great viaduct, 650 feet long and 100 feet high, then the most advanced project in the western peninsula. It was completed in 1842 and the railway was working by 1844.

The viaduct had a water channel beneath the railway track to bring more water to the Fowey Consols Mines and this where the brilliance of its engineering becomes apparent. The level of the waterway must be precisely correct or the water will not flow. On its way the water was used to power the Carmears Incline by means of a waterwheel 34 feet in diameter.

The last improvement planned by Joseph Treffry was an extension of the railway along the canal bank to Par Harbour, which was not completed until after his untimely death in 1850.

Quarrying and Mining

Wheel pitThe loose granite boulders scattering the surface of the valley and its surroundings, known as moorstone,  were initially used for building. By about 1840 quarrying began. Around the top of the valley were Luxulyan, Cairns, Carbeans (which produced the stone for the viaduct) and Colcerrow Quarries. In the valley were Rock Mill and Orchard Quarries and in 1868 the South Cornwall Granite Company opened a railway linking these to Ponts Mill. This is what we call the ‘Valley Floor Tramway’. The Treffry railways, all horse-worked are now called tramways to distinguish them from later locomotive-powered lines. The last stone came out from Carbeans in 1933 and the last section of tramway, from there over the viaduct to Luxulyan was removed in 1940.

Stream working is evident, on a small scale, to the west of Rock Mill. Deep mining is said to have begun in the 16th century but most of the diggings were only exploratory. When Joseph Austen came on the scene there were two sizeable mines within the valley – Prideaux Wood above Carmears Rocks and Lady Rashleigh on the west side. Attempts were made to rework Prideaux Wood in 1872 and Lady Rashleigh in 1881 but they were unsuccessful.

Enter Big Business

In 1872 a group of London businessmen formed the Cornwall Minerals Railway and Harbour Company. They rebuilt and extended Treffry’s railways to exploit the ironstone deposits near Newquay. They constructed a new route through the valley: it left the old one below Ponts Mill, crossed the Par River thrice on Prideaux, Ponts Mill and Rock Mill viaducts, passed under the Treffry viaduct and rejoined the old route at Bridges (now Luxulyan) station. It opened in 1874. The iron ore venture failed so, in desperation, the railway tried running passenger services – equally unsuccessfully – who would want to go to a bleak, windswept coastal wasteland like Newquay? What saved the CMR from an early demise was china clay, which became its main earner and has remained so ever since. Clay works in the Fal valley and the Whitemoor and Hensbarrow areas were all rail-served and by the 1920s ten trains each day were coming through the valley. The company was sold to the Great Western Railway in 1896. The years between the two World Wars saw the line at its peak when the GWR developed the tourist trade and gave Newquay a station almost as large as that at Penzance. Each holiday express needed three locomotives to haul it up the winding 1 in 39 gradient through the valley.

China Clay and China Stone

When the Carmears incline was bypassed; to take advantage of the water power still available, the West of England China Clay Company built a china stone mill at the top and installed a new 40 ft waterwheel to drive it. It ran until 1908 then lay derelict until World War II when it was demolished. In 1920 the Central Cornwall China Clay Company built a clay drying kiln in the valley, now known as Trevanney Dry. Clay slurry was brought to it by a pipe and the dried clay was shipped out on the Valley Floor Tramway until 1950, then by lorry to a wharf at Ponts Mill. The kiln ceased working in 1965 and was left to be reclaimed by nature until its remains were cleared and made accessible in 1992.

The Fowey Consols mines ceased working in 1867 but a new use was found for their water supplies.  In 1876 it was piped down the hillside to Ponts Mill where corn mills, china stone mills and dries were started and formed a busy little industrial group until the last closed in 1967. In the lower valley two clay dries were built in about 1875: Prideaux Wood which closed in 1965 and Ponts Mill which closed in 1992. They were on land leased from the Kendalls to the Stockers and the Loverings. The Kendalls gradually gave up their interests in the area and, by 1934, the whole valley was owned outright by English Clays, Lovering, Pochin & Co. – Later English China Clays (ECC).

Industry – The last years

Electricity generator driven by a water turbineThe railway on Treffry’s original route, up to the incline bottom, continued to serve the mills although it was cut back to the south of the present car park in 1968. From 1992 to 2001 its only use was by a wagon repair contractor on the Ponts Mill clay works site and occasionally stabling the Royal Train. It was finally disconnected in 2005.

China clay trains weighing up to 1,400 Tons still pass through the valley on their way from Goonbarrow Junction to Carne Point. In 2002 and again in 2006 major works took place to build up and reinforce the original 1874-built embankments to carry these massive loads – the engineers took full account of the impact on the valley and the new contours were shaped and covered with topsoil.

Treffy’s original leat system was improved as late as 1948 when a wooden launder which took the leat around Carmears Rocks was replaced by a tunnel and an electricity generator driven by a water turbine was installed. The generator continued to feed power to the National Grid until 2001. A local group took it over and restarted it on 23rd March 2007. It now works for the benefit of the valley and is the sole survivor of the centuries of industrial activity along the Par River.

The Valley Appreciated

During the nineteenth century the valley became known as a beauty spot.  The Kendall family had a private drive built from their house at Pelyn near Lostwithiel so that they could view it in comfort.  On Sundays a sluice in the Carmears Rocks launder was opened to release the water in a spectacular cascade. The building near Ponts Mill bridge was an Inn and the highest house in the village was a tea room.  Tourists were recommended to walk along the tramways which, according to ‘The Red Guide’ were, “not regarded as a trespass.”   The GWR guide book of 1929, ‘The Cornish Riviera’ described it as, “one of the most glorious walks in all Cornwall.”  Through the twentieth century there was a local, unofficial, understanding with ECC that people could walk up beside the railway from St. Blazey Bridge and wander in the valley, at their own risk.  In 1976 ECC decided to dedicate it as a public park.  They approached The National Trust, who were not interested, and then the local councils.   In 1987-8 the Archaeological Unit of Cornwall County Council surveyed the valley in detail and produced a report on its natural and man-made features.  In 1992 the viaduct was given to a preservation society, The Cornwall Heritage Trust.  The rest of the ECC land was presented to Restormel Borough Council and Cornwall County Council, jointly (now solely Cornwall Council), expressly so it could be preserved for the enjoyment of the community.


The Valley Under Attack

The valley is now a place of peace and beauty, but its loveliness has to be protected from assault.  Plans for it, in recent years, have included an elevated road and the water pipe system of a nuclear power station.  The response to such prospects was the formation, in 1996, of The Friends of Luxulyan Valley.  Other threats are more subtle. Much land which appears to be part of the valley is privately owned and hence liable to exploitation which could be contrary to the principles of conservation and amenity.  The paths and building remains have to be kept safe.  Public access brings its own problems, such as path damage by some horse riders and occasional invasions by motor cycles.  Invasive plants such as rhododendrons and sycamores could spoil the long-established woodlands if not discouraged.  All this calls for unceasing work by both paid staff and volunteers to ensure that this fascinating valley, which has such an eventful past, will have a worthwhile future.

© S H Austin 1st January 2008

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