Ponsanooth

Writer: Chloé Eathorne
Photography:
Sophie Hughen


Chrysalis of the Kennall

Cocooned by the valley
damp springy earth
glowing bodies
of porcelain fungus
an ancient woodland
exhales
derelict granite wombs
the rushing of
fragmented cogs
moss embalmed machinery
echoing against the quarry
scrying bowl of onyx
flecked with sulphur
copper iron
sinewy roots entwine
sunken trussell tracks
scorch lines
lingering
beside igneous monoliths
forgotten by man
embraced
by the arms
of mother nature

Cocooned in the ancient valley of Ponsanooth lie secrets of Cornwall’s rich industrial history. Entombed in moss, a mechanical graveyard rests beneath peaceful shades of green. It was here that one of the most dangerous compounds invented by Man was once manufactured.

Ponsanooth takes its name from the Cornish pons an woodh, meaning “bridge at the stream”. The fast-flowing river Kennall which runs through the village provided power to the watermills. The word Kennall seems to signify “reedy one” (kuen means “reeds” in Cornish). The river powered one of the most successful gunpowder mills in the South West. 

By 1800 Cornish mining industries were using 4000 barrels of gunpowder a year, all of which came from outside the Duchy. The success of Cornwall’s first gunpowder mill, established by Frank Nicholls and Henry Gill in Cosawes Wood, inspired the Fox family of Falmouth to set up their larger plant, the Kennall Gunpowder Company, in 1812. 

The once beautiful valley was soon full of the smells and sounds of industry. The valley provided the perfect location, surrounded by dense trees that would absorb any blast if the worst happened. It was remote, yet close to many of Cornwall’s most productive tin mines. At the height of production there were around 50 buildings in operation; the decayed and overgrown remains of many of these are still visible. 

To make gunpowder, the three key ingredients – saltpetre, charcoal and sulphur – had to be ground down to a fine powder. It was then loaded into barrels and taken to one of the incorporating mills. This stage was so dangerous that no more than twenty kilograms of powder were allowed in the same building at any time. Once the milling had been completed the gunpowder was shovelled out and taken to the press house, where it was compressed by a hydraulic ram into “press cake” about an inch thick. This was further broken down and reduced to grains by vibratory screens. Once dried in a so-called “gloom stove”, the powder was taken to the dusting house and glazing mill, where graphite was added, before being packaged ready for sale to local mines and quarries. 

The process was a complex and dangerous one. Despite precautions, tragic accidents occurred, with lives lost. Over 70 years, 13 major explosions were recorded at Kennall Vale. 

As dynamite grew in popularity, the demand for gunpowder declined until the factory was forced to close in 1910. A small granite quarry was worked in the valley for some years after that, with its stone used for World War I memorials, in two Cornish viaducts and even as stone for the London Embankment. 

Today Kennall Vale serves as a monument to the people who worked there and those whose lives were tragically lost. In the century since, the area has become a nature reserve and since 1985 has been owned by Cornwall Wildlife Trust.

It remains a beautiful collaboration between the past and present. Man and nature.

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