It doesn’t seem a week ago that we were at the North Cornwall Book Festival, we had such an interesting time – managing to see writers we knew, plus introductions to some we didn’t. One of the novelists, a woman born in Rochdale which is nought but a cock’s stride from where I lived for many years in Oldham, was Beth Underdown. The novel she spoke about was set in Cornwall and inspired by a local gunpowder factory, the ruins of which can be found in an atmospheric valley near Truro.
We were intrigued by her descriptions of the place, part beauty part spooky, a lovely nature reserve but redolent of a noisy and dangerous industrial past. We were leaving on Monday morning and an adventure in a former gunpowder works in beautiful countryside sounded just the thing to do on the way home. We set off having found breakfast in Bodmin and after creeping round narrow and windy Cornish lanes, we asked a very pleasant gent who directed us perfectly to where we found a tight-fit sort of parking place. We walked up a steepish hill – our up-legs were in fine fettle after an afternoon spent in Port Isaac, and went through an unprepossessing entry/gap in the lush greenery and we had arrived at the way into Kennall Vale.
We passed a rather lovely very modern house and thought how perfect it would be for a permanent writing place – and it was for sale, but unfortunately we are all poor so it’s just a pipe-dream. We began to climb a gentle roadway, covered in the first autumn leaves and masses of sweet chestnuts like small green hedgehogs. There was the sound of water everywhere, and we could look down the precipitous slope beside us, down on ferns and broken, lichen covered stones and masonry, and look up on the other side to broken, lichen and moss covered bits of old building. The only other sound was of the song of the birds, and we mentioned in low voices what a contrast it was to when they were producing gunpowder in the dangerous factories.
We wandered up, and then we wandered down, to where the stream sparkled and chattered and trickled on its course. The lichen was lush, shaggy like a friendly green dog. We took photos, we exchanged comments, no doubt our heads were buzzing with thoughts and words and inspirations. The only sad thing to me was that Kennall Vale is so far away from where we live, we couldn’t really even have a day trip to visit again. Cornwall Wildlife Trust describes it thus:
A picturesque woodland with some open glades, this reserve also contains a water-filled quarry. The Kennel Vale gunpowder factory was located here; however it closed in the first decade of the last century. It is a great reserve for wildlife, such as the pipistrelle bat, as well as an abundance of birdlife.
The Cornwall Guide says this:
A hundred years ago things were somewhat different, for Kennall Vale was the site of the Kennall Gunpowder Company. Whilst it might seem strange to locate a gunpowder factory in woodland in the middle of nowhere the site was quite carefully chosen. The fast flowing River Kennall provided a source of power as it cascades down the valley. This was diverted into leats which in turn powered waterwheels. Obviously steam power, with its need to burn coal would not have been a good idea in a gunpowder mill.
When people worked here, health and safety was only a very superficial consideration. They were required to wear particular serge clothing which would lessen any chance of sparks from static electricity. Their hobnailed boots were covered with felt overshoes, or they wore a sort of slipper. Anything which would normally be made from iron was made of copper; if there had to be iron, it had leather covers over it.
The Cornwall Guide again:
The process of making gunpowder was quite complex, partly owing to the potentially huge dangers involved. A large part of making gunpowder was taking the three key ingredients; saltpetre, charcoal and sulphur, and grinding them down to a fine powder. This would then be compressed. Simple as it sounds there were about ten steps in the process all of which were carried out in different buildings. In total, there were around 50 separate buildings in the Kennall Vale operation, quite a few of which still remain – although these are slowly being taken over by nature. These were widely spaced along the river side, a further safety precaution. Those remaining include the Corning House, Mixing House, Packing House, Change House and most notably, several of the Incorporating Mills. These were where the mixed products of the gunpowder were further ground and mixed. This stage was so potentially dangerous that less than 20Kg (50lbs) of powder was allowed in the same house at any one time.
There were accidents of course, lives were lost, but the factories – the mills, were situated in this deep sided valley which contained any blast, and the trees all around absorbed the shock of any explosion to some extent.
Here is a fascinating blog with much more detail:
and another guide: