Wheal Martyn

In Brief

Type: Historical attraction
Suitable for: History buffs
Address: Just off the B3274, Carthew, near St Austell
Price: Adults £12, five to 16-year-olds £6 and under-fives go for free
Dog friendly?: Yes

China clay forms when the feldspar in granite decomposes. It’s then refined, creating a white powder that’s used worldwide for paper, ceramics, rubber, paint and even toothpaste. Does learning about this material sound interesting to you? If it does, then you must head straight for the most famous china clay museum in the world: Wheal Martyn.

Cornwall’s china clay history may not be as iconic as its tin and copper mining history but it’s nevertheless supremely important to the county’s industrious past and, indeed, present. All that granite around St Austell once created the centre of all the world’s china clay production. The clay itself, as the name suggests, was made famous by the Chinese thousands of years ago but from the 19th century onwards it became big, big business in Cornwall. Wheal Martyn tells you all about this history and much, much more.

Tools, artefacts, machines and stories abound at the museum, set in the grounds of the original Victorian clay works at Wheal Martyn in Carthew, near St Austell. Learn about the ‘Cornish Alps’ – the high mounds that pepper the areas around St Austell and are made of earth and rock waste after the blasters have created the clay pits. Also see the modern machines that are chugging away in the working clay pit next to the museum site.

The clay works at Wheal Martyn began around 200 years ago, in the 1820s. Elias Martyn was the pioneer and he went on to become a huge force in the Cornish clay production market, producing around 2,000 tons of clay at the works by 1869. He died in 1872 and his family leased the land to other operators right up until the production works wound up in 1969. That could have spelled the end for the site that Wheal Martyn’s museum sits on but, instead, the English China Clays company established the museum on it in 1975 and it’s still going today while the adjacent clay pit continues to operate.

The museum at Wheal Martyn is both indoors and outdoors. There’s a virtual tour into a working clay pit. There are vintage vehicles, workers’ crib huts, a new gallery for a rolling programme of exhibitions and Cornwall’s biggest waterwheel that’s still in action. Then there’s 26 acres of woodland with a load of nature trails meandering through the trees.

And then there’s stuff for the kids, including a play area, a dressing-up box and regular quizzes. Chow down in the attraction’s café and basically enjoy one of the most unique museums in Europe. Next time you brush your teeth, remember how important the china clay industry is to Cornwall and especially to the font of knowledge that is Wheal Martyn.