St Austell, Clay Trails and Menacuddle Well

A circular walk in china clay country including a trail laid on the trackbed of a mineral railway from St Austell to the Cornish Alps and one of Cornwall's most picturesque holy wells.

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The walk starts in the centre of St Austell and follows the cycle trail into the Trenance valley. Here there's a short diversion to Menacuddle Well before joining the Clay Trail on the railway trackbed and following this towards Wheal Martyn. The route then follows a trail through the Ruddle china clay hills before returning to St Austell over Menacuddle hill with an optional visit to St Austell Brewery on the way back.

Considerations

  • The there-and-back section to Menacuddle Well follows a narrow pavement along a B road with fast traffic so this section may not be suitable for young children or nervous dogs but it can be skipped.

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Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 107
  • Distance: 5 miles/8 km
  • Steepness grade: Easy-moderate
  • Recommended footwear: walking shoes

OS maps for this walk

Click or tap on map for more info (blue=laminated)

Highlights

  • Menacuddle Well
  • Gardens at Menacuddle Well in flower from April
  • Optional diversion to Wheal Martyn China Clay Museum

Pubs on or near the route

  • The Rann Wartha
  • The Stag Inn

Directions

  1. In the car park, follow signs for Town Centre to reach a paved path leaving the car park and follow this downhill to a triple lamp post at the top of some semicircular steps.

    The first record of the settlement of St Austell is from 1145 as Ecclesiam de Austol. Austell is thought to be derived from a Breton saint's name.

  2. Bear left to follow the paved path downhill along the metal fence and emerge on Fore Street.
  3. Turn left onto Fore Street and follow this to the end of the paved surface.

    The feral pigeons living in urban areas are descended from rock doves that were originally domesticated as a source of food. Dove cotes were built to house quite a large number as there is not much meat on a pigeon. Later, these domesticated birds were also used as carrier pigeons. Escaped birds have thrived in the food-rich urban landscape where the stone buildings resemble the rock outcrops they have evolved to nest on.

  4. Cross to the steps into the churchyard and follow along the left side of the church to exit onto the pavement opposite a junction with Market Hill.

    Most of St Austell church is 15th Century, including the tower, but includes some 13th and 14th Century remains. During this period, endowments were recorded for a chapel dedicated to St Michael and it is thought that this was incorporated into the East end of the 15th Century church. The church underwent a Victorian restoration in 1872. The oval shape of the churchyard and dedication to a Celtic saint suggests that the site might date back to Early Mediaeval times before the Norman Conquest.

  5. Cross the road to the small lane leading between the buildings opposite (Market Hill) and follow this uphill to another junction.

    St Austell Market House was built in 1844 as a larger upgrade to an earlier indoor market which was in active use in 1791. The old market house only had room inside for meat, dairy, corn and potatoes. Fish and vegetables had to be sold outside. The upper floor of the new building also provided space for a Town Hall.

  6. Bear right and continue uphill to a railway bridge. Cross this to reach a junction on the left with a Clay Trails sign immediately after the bridge.

    The Coast and Clay Trails is a 45 mile public access network of tracks and roads around St Austell. The trails were first opened as "The Clay Trails" in 2005 as part of a restoration programme to provide new habitats for flora and fauna. The trails are described as "multi-use" although are principally aimed at cyclists, with many sections of the routes being on Public Highways (quiet lanes where possible) and link up with National Cycle Route 3 to Bodmin and Truro. For walkers, the off-road sections provide some additional links across the Rights of Way network.

  7. Turn left onto Tremena Road and follow this to a bend where a tarmacked path marked with a National Cycle Network 2 sign departs to the left.

    The National Cycle Network is coordinated by the charity Sustrans. It began with one route in Bristol in 1984 and now consists of around 15,000 miles of signposted cycle routes known as National Cycle Routes. These each have a number and are constructed using a combination of roads typically chosen to have light traffic and some traffic-free tracks which are open to cycles.

  8. Bear left onto the path and follow this to where several wooden posts lead to a crossing with a track.

    Buddleia are originally from northwest China and Japan where they grow in forest clearings, on riverbanks and on limestone outcrops where they are able to survive with minimal nutrients. They were introduced into the UK as an ornamental plant in the late 19th Century and can found in many gardens. Some have escaped and established a niche on industrial land which resembles their native limestone outcrops.

    The shrub is commonly known as the Butterfly Bush as the flowers are profuse, rich in nectar and are in the shape of champagne flutes; butterflies and bees have sufficiently long drinking apparatus to reach the bottom.

    The plant has two types of leaf; the broad green leaves are replaced with shorter hairy grey leaves during the winter which are more resistant to frost and the drying effect of cold winds.

    Yellow Archangel is a native plant and member of the dead nettle family (and it's also known as the Golden Dead Nettle). The flowers are pale yellow, hence the first part of the name. The second part of the name (including the angelic association) is because it looks quite like a nettle but doesn't sting.

    A garden variety of yellow archangel known as "aluminium plant" (due to silvery metallic areas on its leaves) has escaped into the wild where it is spreading rapidly. It has been deemed so invasive that it is illegal to plant in the wild.

  9. Bear left through the line of wooden posts to pass the gateway with the National Cycle Network 2 sign and turn left by the cottages to follow the track with concrete strips downhill to reach the road. When you reach the road, turn right onto the pavement and follow this past the "Elderly people" sign to a small junction opposite, just after the 40mph sign.

    The St Austell River is also known as the White River due to the china clay that colours it and was heavily modified during the Industrial Revolution so that the lower parts of it now resemble a canal. Habitat improvement work is being done on the river as part of the South Cornwall River Improvement Project.

  10. Carefully cross to the small lane opposite and follow this downhill to reach a few wooden steps on the right immediately before the bridge. Climb the steps and follow the path alongside the river to the holy well.

    After exploring the area around the well, retrace your steps back to the main road. Carefully cross the main road back to the pavement and turn right to retrace your steps back to the track, marked in this direction with a Public Footpath sign.

    The well house is thought to date from the late 15th Century and was restored in 1923. A custom of throwing pins into the basin for good luck is reported. Also beliefs in healing properties of the water that often accompany holy wells apply here too.

    The round stone seat known as the Druid's Chair was cut from a single block of granite. There is evidence of similar stone chairs at holy wells but the age and origin of this one is unknown. It could simply be an element of the landscape gardening carried out in the late 18th Century to create a pleasure ground for Charles Rashleigh.

  11. Turn left onto the track and follow the concrete strips uphill to the line of wooden posts marking the cycle path. Turn left onto the cycle path and follow it for three quarters of a mile until you eventually reach a dismount point for horses before a wooden bridge.

    The huge concrete structure beside the path is the remains of the Carlyon Farm Dries (also known as the Trethowel pan kiln) used to dry china clay from the Ninestones works. This was the largest kiln of its kind ever to be built and was completed in 1921 (hence the concrete construction - Victorian works were built of stone). The central area was a furnace room with a coal hoist and then drying floors went out in each direction from this with chimneys at the far ends. Settling tanks are located at the rear (now overgrown).

    Up until about 1850 china clay was dried in open-sided sheds known as air drys. This was a slow process: in winter, it could take as long as eight months.

    From 1845, pan kilns were developed and became standard in the 1860s and 70s. Flues led beneath a floor of porous tiles on which the cream-like clay slurry was dried. The moisture was drawn down into the hot fumes and vented from a chimney.

  12. Cross the bridge and continue on the path to reach a junction with boulders indicating various destinations.

    A railway line along the Trenance Valley to transport china clay was planned in 1910 but due to the First World War, wasn't built until 1920. The line departed from the main line railway at Trenance Junction and went north past the Carlyon Farm pan kiln. A little further up the valley, the line crossed to the opposite side of the road and river. The furthest point was a wharf in the village or Ruddlemoor. The railway closed in 1968. In 2005, much of the trackbed was used to create the cycle trails known as the St Austell Trail and Wheal Martyn Trail.

  13. The route continues to the right towards Eden. Beforehand you can optionally take a half-mile (each way) diversion to the Wheal Martyn China Clay Museum. Once on the path towards Eden, follow this until you a reach a fork in the path.

    The clay works began at Wheal Martyn in the 1820s and the site continued to operate until 1969. The museum was established in 1975 by English China Clays Ltd and is now run by the Wheal Martyn Trust which is an offshoot of the South West Lakes Trust.

    The Victorian clay works has been restored and is preserved in its working state for the public to visit. A restored waterwheel powers a slurry pump which brought clay from the pit to the settling tanks beside the pan kiln.

  14. Bear left between the posts to the lane and cross to the track opposite. Head to the metal gate and follow the path for a quarter of a mile until you reach a fork in the path with a boulder with black arrows.

    By the second half of the 19th Century, China Clay production had intensified and finding enough space for long "finger dumps" of waste material without covering up good clay ground was becoming troublesome. To take up less space, "sky tips" were created where steep railed inclines were used to pile the waste into high peaks (forming the "Cornish Alps").

    Not many remain as when a coal tip in Aberfan collapsed in 1969 killing 144 people, many of the Cornish sky tips were levelled as a precaution. China clay extraction in the 20th Century was on an even larger scale and the waste dumps from these were flat-topped structures seeded with grass to help stabilise them.

  15. Keep left at the fork and follow the path a short distance uphill to a T-junction. Turn right at the T-junction and follow the path past a junction with some boulders and continue to reach a junction with Clay Trails signs opposite a large boulder with a metal sign about road improvement.

    The area to the left was a mica dam of the Lower Ninestones clay works.

    Liquid waste from china clay processing was stored in reservoirs called mica dams. The liquid contained suspended flakes of mica (hence the name) as well as some china clay wastage.

    Within the dam areas of some clay pits, workers used wooden rake-like implements to separate out the courser flakes of mica and then the finer materials were sold as second grade clay.

    The old mica dam has been used as the site of a solar array. As the area within the dam is at risk of flooding, the solar array is suspended above the ground on the basis that "water and electricity are best kept apart".

  16. Turn right and follow the path to reach an opening on the right with a metal gate leading into a parking area, just before the path ends.

    Solar panels work by a particle of sunlight (photon) knocking off a charged particle (electron) from one of chemicals in the panel, leaving behind an oppositely-charged particle missing an electron. These freed electrons can be captured by an electrode and sent on a little journey before returning to the solar panel to fill in the holes where other electrons have been knocked off by sunlight. That little journey of the electrons is what we call "electricity".

  17. Turn right, pass through the gap with wooden railings next to the gate and walk a few paces to reach a fork in the road. Bear right at the fork onto the narrow road and follow it to a crossroads.

    China clay in Cornwall and Devon resulted from a sequence of events that began over 300 million years ago; molten rock cooled into granite: a mixture of quartz, feldspar and mica. As it cooled, the feldspar reacted with other minerals to form china clay.

    The clay from Cornwall was found to be a much finer quality than elsewhere in Europe and also turned out to be the largest deposit in the world. By the mid-19th Century, 7,000 workers were employed in the St Austell area alone and by 1910, Cornwall was producing 50% of the world's China Clay.

    The UK is still the third largest producer of China Clay in the world: Cornwall produces approximately 1 million tonnes of kaolin each year. Due to increasing mechanisation and large amounts of production being moved to Brazil, the industry now only employs around 1000 people.

  18. Cross the road to the small lane opposite. Follow this for roughly a mile and a quarter to reach Menacuddle Lane on the left as the road begins to re-enter St Austell.

    From April to June, white flowers of Greater Stitchwort can be seen along hedgerows and paths. The petals are quite distinctive as each one is split almost all the way to create pairs - most of the flowers typically have 5 pairs. The name comes from alleged powers to cure an exercise-induced stitch. Other common names include Star-of-Bethlehem (due to the shape and perhaps Easter flowering time) and Poor Man's Buttonhole for budget weddings. It is also known as Wedding Cakes but that may be more due to the colour than anticipation of what a buttonhole might lead to. The seed capsules can sometimes be heard bursting open in the late spring sunshine which gives rise to another name: Popguns.

    The settlement of Menacuddle was recorded in 1250 as Menequidel but more usefully in 1284 it was recorded as Menedcudel which corresponds to the Old Cornish mened cuydel - the words for "hill" and "thicket". The gist is thought to be "hillside with a small wood".

  19. Continue downhill and follow the road ahead across the railway bridge. Continue downhill to the fork in the road. Keep right at the fork to return to the end of the Fore Street.

    If you want to visit St Austell Brewery, you can follow the footpath leading from the far end of Menacuddle Lane to emerge on Trevarthian Road and turn left to reach the brewery. Then retrace your steps to resume the final section of the walk.

    St Austell Brewery was founded in 1851 by Walter Hicks (hence The Hicks Bar in the visitor centre) and is still a family business despite having become the largest wholesale distributor of beer and cider, wines and spirits, and soft drinks in the South West.

    The flagship beer - Tribute Ale - is named after the payment system for miners based on a proportion of the profit from the ore they had mined.

    In keeping with this, the brewery has set up a charitable trust to raise money for local charities and good causes in the South West, both from donations from the brewery itself and via fundraising events.

  20. Turn right and walk past the shops until you reach Biddick's Court on the right. Turn right onto this and follow the path back to the steps and bear right to return to the car park.

    The honeybee mural is composed of over 11,000 hand-made tiles including one by Prince Charles. The tiles are marked with one of 11 symbols: pasties, waves, sky tips, mines, mackerel, boats, Gribbin tower, sheep, hearts, sun and sunflowers. Each symbol contributes a different amount of shading to the overall picture like in ASCII art (except in this case the character set could be described as "pasty art").

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