Last month we hosted an event at Trethurgy, bringing together students from Exeter & Falmouth Universities and local community members, to share, document and connect. Current students volunteers with Storylines, Tom and Ed, have written accounts of the day, so here’s how it went…
The White Landscape: a day of rain, a day of inspiration
Tomas van den Heuvel
We realised early in the morning that the weather would be bad. Very, very bad. It was cold, the wind was hard, and the rain poured down in streams. Although all of us feared that this would keep the visitors away, it turned out there were more than enough brave souls who wouldn’t be stopped by a drizzle. At 11am we welcomed a coach load of intrepid students from Exeter and Falmouth Universities as well as the first visitors from around the local area.
The day started with a few introductions, from people including members of Storylines, the Institute of Cornish Studies, the local community, Cornwall Council and the China Clay History Society. Many students were previously unaware of the China Clay industry, so this enabled the group to gain a basic understanding through the stories and knowledge of those who know the landscape intimately. Much like the recent Study Day at Rescorla, this event allowed the community to come together and stress the importance of Cornwall’s China Clay heritage. Many locals who visited had had family in the industry, or had worked in it themselves. For those who wished, more information, a ‘research corner’ was set up in the back of the hall, complete with photographs, books and archive films on Cornwall’s history in Clay. In order to really give the audience an idea of the influence and process of China Clay, Malcolm Gould from the China Clay History Society (CCHC) screened an archive film on the topic.
Unfortunately, the rain still hadn’t cleared after the film screening had finished. But that did not stop us from venturing out to explore some ruined Clay works in Trethurgy woods, before climbing the hill to Carn Grey rock, which perched on the edge of a disused granite quarry. Members of the CCHC and locals from area pointed towards the ‘Cornish Alps’ and highlighted the impact that the industry has had on shaping this unique landscape.
After everyone had soaked up the atmosphere (and was, incidentally, also soaking wet with rain water), we returned to the Trethurgy village hall, were more visitors had arrived and tea and traditional tea treat buns were waiting for the walkers. We enjoyed a relaxed lunch before everyone started working on their respective creative projects. I was quite amazed to see how diverse the projects were: we’d asked the visitors to respond to the landscape they had seen, as well as the stories they had heard. Everyone had seen the same landscape, but everyone’s approach was completely different. From painting with clay and other natural materials, to miniature models of industrial machinery, the variety of works produced was immense. Over the afternoon, more and more visitors arrived, many of which had a personal past in the industry and told emotive and vivid stories.
To wrap up the event, the projects were displayed on a table. It was a diverse mingling of sculptures, drawings, paintings, even poetry, as everyone was asked to explain their intentions behind their creation. By allowing all visitors to contribute (either through arts and writing or through sharing their own stories), a personal, democratic history of the Clay Country was being created. Once again, Cornwall’s rich heritage was at the centre of attention, and rightly so.
‘Conversing about Carn Grey’
Quality pieces of work were not the only results of the day however. One attendee, by the name of Brian ‘Jumbo’ Trethuey, was kind enough to share a plethora of stories, having grown up and lived in the area his whole life. Brian chose not to be recorded as like other people we spoke to, he did not want to be logged as saying anything factually inaccurate. Amongst other things, he explained the hardships of growing up in post –war Cornwall. We discussed how Brian and his family would have to walk two miles for water each day, making comparisons with people in rural Africa today who have to travel miles for nourishment. Brian also spoke about his apprenticeship in the mines as a kettle boy. He was in charge of heating up the mine workers’ pasties and boiling water for the tea and explained how after a short amount of time, he was able to tell without looking, whose pasty was whose just by the weight and shape. This was done in preparation for ‘Crib’, a Cornish dialect word for snack. It was also wonderful when Brian opened up to the group, speaking about the emotions he had felt when meeting his cousin for the first time. This was on a visit to America where many of his family had emigrated in search of work in the mines there. His stories were deeply moving and the emotion he conveyed really brought out emotions in everyone present. Brian was highly respected for his willingness to share sensitive tales of his past and I certainly felt astonished that he was able to recall events in such detail.
One thing Brian expressed which was very topical was his experience of how the next generations often have no interest in their parents/grandparents stories until it is often too late. As a historian, this is a real issue, for without the sharing of stories, local histories would certainly cease to exist. If it were up to me, I would propose a system by which children were educated from an early age about the importance of history and the preservation of the past. Failing that, I think people with stories should be encouraged to record them in some fashion, either through writing them down or recording them for a digital archive.
While Brian did not want to be recorded, the emotions expressed when discussing his family and the way he lit up when discussing his ‘supermodel’ grandson working in London, really demonstrated the importance of listening. Speaking personally, hearing about how people lived their everyday lives is my favourite element of history; how they acted and interacted with one another and how spare time was utilised. Listening to stories and being able to pass them on was how tales were passed on for centuries and it was a pleasure to partake in this ritual. However, such a ritual requires people who are interested in historical stories and as discussed above, today’s young people are often not interested in the past as I discovered when trying to bring Brian’s stories into conversation. Without people who are willing to share their experiences and knowledge, the history of the mining industry of Cornwall would vanish, and the mines themselves would simply be a unexplained phenomenon scarring the Cornish landscape.