Writer: Lauren McMenemy
Photography: Laura Blight
Come and see our big hole!
Grey sky meets azure water,
and in between
of blue-grey slate
above Bodmin, in the heart of Arthur’s range.
The blue-grey legacy extends
beyond the Tamar
adorning Winchester, Westminster;
to the continent and Empire.
A settlement pre-dating Domesday;
four hamlets, five quarries build
a region of distinctive stones –
from this biggest, deepest
and oldest hole springs
Our mighty Delabole.
I wanted to avoid the obvious. Perhaps I could write about Delabole as the birthplace of the Cornish Air Ambulance. Or investigate the nearby Treligga military airfield? What about England’s first operational wind farm? Or that infamous train robber Ronald Biggs, evacuated here from London during the Blitz?
I even considered going back to the Domesday Book of 1086, where the manor of Delabole (then Deliou) was recorded as having one plough, one tenant, three smallholders, one acre of meadow, 40 acres of pasture, five cattle and 25 sheep with a value of 10 shillings.
But then I saw Delabole and realised the obvious was that for a reason. You see, the village is adorned with blue-grey slate on floors, roofs, walls – you cannot escape that which gave the village its name.
This community has an extensive history of mining – in fact, the Cornish name of Delyow Boll hints at its early purpose. Delyow is a historic name for a local stream (“place of leaves”), but there is some debate about where the boll comes from. It could be a soft mutation of the Cornish word poll, or pool, but it could also be an incorrect mutation of toll, or hole. The name Delabole could then be translated as “pool or pit on the Delyow stream” – the azure pool that covers the quarry’s pit.
Delabole village as we know it – the third-highest in Cornwall – was once the four hamlets of Pengelly, Meadrose, Rockhead and Delabole. When the railway arrived in 1893, the station was named for the quarry and the other hamlets absorbed.
That quarry has dominated the area for centuries; it’s said that slate has been quarried here since the reign of King Stephen in the 12th century. The area was of national importance during the reign of Elizabeth I, even delivering slate to the continent by sea. It’s likely the Normans used Delabole slate for their castle and estate-building programme across the south of England; it’s found everywhere from Winchester Castle (1314) to Tintagel’s new 2019 bridge.
The Delabole Quarry was once the deepest man-made pit in the world. Today, it’s more than 425 feet deep and 1.5 miles around. Its slate has a natural riven texture and is world-renowned for extreme durability. The colour is a distinctive blue/grey; it’s said there is no other slate quite like it.
Like so much of Cornwall, mining is part of the fabric of this community, and at its height the Delabole Quarry employed 1000 people. Today, just five skilled quarrymen use diamond wires to saw 600 tonne blocks from the quarry face, helping to preserve the reserves of slate for future generations – though they still use the age-old skill of hand-splitting roof slates, handed down through generations of Delabole men and boys.
The oldest continuously operating quarry in the country shows no signs of disappearing, making sure Cornish slate can continue to help build the region and beyond.