China Clay

China Clay, Cornwall (c) Webb Aviation

Britain from the Air - China Clay

Cornwall has hidden links to China.

The Cornish landscape around St Austell has some surprises in store for the unsuspecting walker. The first indication is the ‘Cornish Alps’: great conical mounds of glistening white sands that tower above villages and stand in stark contrast to the lush green pastures around. A closer look reveals enormous open mines, big enough to make heavy diggers seem like mere toys, holding startling blue lakes of clay slurry in their bases.

It is a surreal landscape where China Clay deposits have been mined for more than 250 years.

Mining continues today, but in nothing like the quantities that were produced in the early 1900s when Cornwall monopolised the world supply.

280 million years ago

Cornwall has the largest deposits of China Clay in the world. It is estimated that a further 100 years of supply remains. It was formed by the chemical alteration of the moorland granites as they were cooling from molten rock buried in the Earth’s crust, some 280 million years ago.

Variety of uses

The discovery of China Clay meant that for the first time fine ceramic porcelain could be made in significant quantities in Britain instead of imported from China, hence its colloquial name. Ceramic ‘china’ replaced, for those who could afford it, the coarse stoneware pottery of the time. The white clay has many other uses too, such as in paint, plastics and cosmetics.

But the most important use in the 20th century was to whiten paper and to create the glossy surface of photographic paper. A new use has been found for one abandoned old mine at least - as home for the futuristic-looking Eden Centre.

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Location: Saint Austell, Cornwall PL26 8XF
Grid reference: SX 00853 56216

Britain from the Air - China Clay credits

Thank you to -

Webb Aviation for aerial photography

Text researched and written by the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

Every ton of china clay that was mined brought with it five tonnes of waste - hence the famous spoilt tips visible for miles around nicknamed the 'Cornish Alps'.