Luxulyan Valley – A Tale of Human Interference

By Stephen Austin

Treffry Tramway in Luxulyan ValleyAs we walk through the tranquil Luxulyan Valley with its natural-looking slopes, mature trees and trilling streams, it is difficult to keep in mind that its character has been formed by natural forces and human industry. Although it is too deep to clear for farmland, too rocky to dredge for minerals, too steep to build housing estates, it has never been an unchanging idyll. It has seen a variety of changes and innovations; it will face changes and challenges in its future.

Hunters – Gatherers – Farmers

People have been shaping this country since before the time of Christ. The Prideaux hill-fort, guarding the estuary, is at least 2,000 years old. A quantity of Roman coins has been found nearby. In mediaeval times the woodland was managed for the many uses of timber and, in the valley bottom, one can see remains of the stone walls of small fields or paddocks. The sea used to come up to Ponts Mill and a bridge there, called Baldwin’s Bridge, was the lowest crossing of the Par River. As late as 1730 it was noted that vessels of 80 tons could moor there. The bay was already being silted up by tin streamers, in the valley itself and up on Breney, Lockengate and Griggan Moors; by 1841, when Par Bridge was built, the shoreline had pushed out two miles over 500 acres of sediment, of a depth ranging from 24 feet below Ponts Mill to 72 feet below Par Beach. Streaming ceased in 1940, but the beach continued to grow and the build-up of sand contributed to the abandonment of Par Harbour for commerce in 2008.

Joseph Thomas Treffry

Treffry Tramway viaductThe modern history began in 1813 when Joseph Thomas Austen (1782-1850) inherited the estates of his mother, Susannah Treffry of Fowey. He promptly set to work to repair the fortunes of that ancient family, and did so to such effect that in 1838 he was appointed High Sheriff of Cornwall, when he changed his name to Treffry. He aquired the Fowey Consols copper mines on Penpillick Hill, leased the Luxulyan Valley from its owners, the Kendalls of Lostwithiel, and also bought the moribund harbour of Newquay on the north coast. To develop his assets he had a formidable team. William Pease (1808-1891), his steward, was a self-taught land surveyor, a member of the local Highway Board and the Bridge Surveyor for East Cornwall.  William West (1801-1879) exported mining machinery from all over the world from his works in St Blazey; Treffry engaged him as engineer at Fowey Consols. James Meadows Rendel (1799-1856) was one of the foremost civil engineers of the time and became President of the Institution; Treffry consulted him on a scheme for a road along the South Cornish coast, which was not built. What did result was a new artificial harbour at Par, completed in 1829, then 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. To supply water to the mines they built a leat, completed in 1823, along the east side of the valley.  

The sensation in mid Cornwall of the 1830s was Roger Hopkins's Bodmin & Wadebridge Railway, so a railway looked like the ideal device to link the two ports, plus the lands and mineral setts in between. Work began in 1835 on a railway up the valley from Ponts Mill, but they soon found that building railways through rough terrain is not as easy as it looks, so they stopped and thought again. The solution was 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 the moors beyond. For the high-level crossing of the river they built the great viaduct, 648 feet long and 98 feet high: then unique 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 and this is where the brilliance of its engineering becomes apparent.  The level of the deck and of the hillside ledge are prciesly correct - in this case a fall of about 20ft per mile - to achieve the desired flow of water. On its way, this water was used to power the Carmears incline by means of a 34ft diameter waterwheel and a winding cable. 

Of the heroes who built this wonderful thing, history says little. They were led by Henry Rowe (b.1798) of Lanlivery, a mason and building contractor. His son William continued the business and built Sylvanus Trevail's first school in Luxulyan. 

The last improvement planned by Joseph Treffry, completed after his death in 1850, was an extension of the railway along the canal bank to Par Habour. All these lines were designed for horse haulage, purely on cost grounds,. For this reason we now refer to them as tramways, to distinguish them from later locomotive-powered lines of more substantial construction. 

Quarrying and Mining

Wheel pitQuarrying for granite began in earnest around the year 1840; hitherto, builders had used the boulders lying on the surface, known as moorstone or freestone. Around the top of the valley were Luxulyan, Cairns, Carbeans and Colcerrow Quarries. Within the valley were Rock Mill and Orchard quarries, and in 1868 the South Cornwall Granite Company opened a tramway linking them to Ponts Mill. This is what we call the 'Valley Floor Tramway'. The last stone came out of Carbeans in 1933 and the last section of tramway, from there over the viaduct to Luxulyan, was removed in 1940.

Deep mining for metals is said to have begun in the 16th century, but must have been on a small scale. Two sizeable mines worked within the valley: Prideaux Wood above Carmears Rocks, which had a steam engine, and Lady Rashleigh near where Trevanny Dry is now. When Treffry came on the scene he did not feel like sinking more money into them and they probably last worked in the 1850s. Unsuccessful attempts were made to rework Prideaux Wood in 1872 and Lady Rashleigh in 1881.

Big Business

Joseph Treffry's properties passed to a nephew, Doctor Edward Willcocks (1809-1880), who also changed his name to Treffry. He and a group of London businessmen (his doctorate was in law) led by William Richardson Roebuck formed the Cornwall Minerals Railway and Harbour Company. They planned an ironworks at Par, to exploit the ironstone deposits around Newquay, to serve which they rebuilt the original tramways as a modern railway - the present Par to Newquay line. No less an expert than the great railway contractor Sir Samuel Morton Peto was persuaded out of retirement to manage it in return for a share of the promised wealth. The biggest work was a new route through the valley, which left the old one just above St.Blazey Bridge and rejoined it at Bridges (now Luxulyan) Station, rising on a continuous gradient with pitches as steep as 1 in 39 and crossing the river on the Prideaux, Ponts Mill and Rock Mill Viaducts. The whole line was completed in 1874; but the wealth stayed in the ground, so, in desperation, the CMR tried running passenger services - equally unsuccessfully - who would want to go to a bleak, windswept coastal wasteland like Newquay? They sold out to the Great Western Railway in 1896 and then Newquay became part of the "Cornish Riviera" with through trains from London and a station almost as large as that at Penzance. The 1930s and again the 1950s saw tourism at its peak, when the most powerful locomotives of the 'Castle' class needed two assistants for the climb up the Luxulyan Valley with the holiday expresses. 

China Clay

What saved the CMR from an early demise, and the miners from destitution, was china clay, which from the 1850s became the main earner and has remained so ever since. Clay works in mid-Cornwall were all rail-served and by 1920 ten clay trains each day were coming through the valley. There was no clay in the near vicinity, but the new technology of the pipline enabled it to be moved around in liquid slurry form. In the lower valley two drying works were opened in about 1875: Prideaux Wood which closed in 1965 and Ponts Mill which worked until 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 China Clays, Lovering, Pochin & Co. - part of English China Clays Group (ECC).

The Fowey Consols mines ceased working in 1867 but a new use was found for the water brought in by the leat. In 1876 it was piped down the hillside to Ponts Mill, a fall of some 250 feet, where corn mills, china stone mills and dries were started and formed a busy little industrial group until the last closed in 1967. It is thought that a hydro-electric plant was installed in around 1890; certainly a new turbine was bought in 1924. With the Carmears Incline by-passed, its waterwheel was redundant until the West of England China Clay Company (which was Joseph Treffry's last enterprise) built a china stone mill, with a new 40ft wheel. When you consider its inconvenient location, it is not surprising that it only ran from 1890 to 1908. In 1920 the Central Cornwall China Clay Company built a clay drying kiln in the valley, now known as Trevanney Dry. This was yet another great white hope and only justified itself when ECC took it over in 1935 and connected it to their pipeline system. Clay was sent 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 reclaimed by the woodland. Making its remains safe and accessible was a task for a new owner of a very different kind - the British Public. 

Industry – The last years

Electricity generator driven by a water turbineIn 1874 a typical day train running through the valley weighed about 180 tons. In 2014 its successor weight 1,800 tons. 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.

The railway on Treffry’s original route, up to the incline bottom, continued to serve the mills although it was cut back to Ponts Mill clay works in 1968. From 1992 to 2001 it was used by a wagon repair contractor on the clay works site; then it occasionally stabled the Royal Train. It was finally disconnected in 2005.

Treffy’s leat system was improved as late as 1948 when a wooden launder which took the leat around the Carmears Rocks was replaced by a tunnel and a new penstock, water turbine and electricity generator were installed. This plant continued to feed power to the National Grid until 2001; then Imerys Minerals, the company which had taken over ECC, abandoned it. A local group restored it and restarted it on 23rd March 2007 - the last example of the centuries of industrial activity exploiting the Par River.

There is still wealth in the Luxulyan Valley. Tin has been smelted in the 21st century, from stone and sand brought down by the river. Indeed, in 1934 trial borings were made in the fields below Ponts Mill with a view to reworking the silt for tin that was left in it by the old men. An operation which is very much alive is the production of wood. In the 19th century the upper and lower regions of the valley had almost no tree cover at all. Since then there has been a steady development of mature woodland. You might choose not to regard this highly sophisticated activity as an "industry" although the trees and the multitude of creatures which depend on them would probably disagree with you. They were hard at work in the valley long before humanity interfered and look like being there long after. 

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 the use of inappropriate vehicles, or damage to leat banks.  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 March 2020

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