Thursday Thoughts: Natural Amphitheater

The foreboding opening scene of The Miner and the Viscount is set in a magnificent natural amphitheater, Gwennap Pit, just southeast of Redruth. At the time the story opens, and into the early 19th century, Gwennap parish incorporated the great Poldice mine and was dubbed the “richest square mile in the Old World”. Stannary Rolls record sales of tin back in the 14th century. The intensive felling of trees for charcoal to smelt the ore has left a stark moorland landscape. Today Gwennap forms part of the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site.

Gwennap Pit

Gwennap Pit


Gwennap Pit may have been formed by the collapse of a working mine. Mary Fryer is from Illogan in Cornwall, and she told me she had played in the Pit as a girl. Mary is a Tangye and her family is connected to mining. Her great great grandfather Sir Richard Trevithick Tangye manufactured hydraulic pumps used to drain the mines.  He was named after the great Cornish engineer Richard Trevithick.

My wife Penny and I went to Gwennap Pit during our research visit to Cornwall in 2012. I stood at the rim opposite her some 200 feet away and we conversed in normal speaking voices.  She said, “I can hear and understand every single word you say.”

I whispered to myself, “First time in years.” She shouted back, “I heard that!”

Gwennap Pit’s acoustic properties made it a marvelous place for meetings. John Wesley visited Cornwall 32 times and preached at the Pit many times. He wrote in his Journal of preaching there to  “two and thirty thousand souls.” Read Chapter 68 for a description of one of John Wesley’s great sermons, when he charged the gentry to pay heed to those in great need.

Gwennap was owned at one time by the Williams family of Scorrier House, respected Cornish mine operators, who gave it to the Methodist Church in 1978. The famous Lt. Col. J.H. Williams was a descendant who was born in St. Just. He served in World War II with the British Fourteenth Army in what was then known as Burma. He was skilled in training elephants and played a major logistical role in the campaign.  After the war he joined a teak company. I remember when I was a boy at Clifton reading his wonderful book “Elephant Bill” about his experiences.

Researching an historical novel turns up so many connections!



Thursday Thoughts: China Clay

Charleston Harbour, Cornwall

Charlestown Harbour, Cornwall

This is Charlestown Harbour, near St Austell in Cornwall. It was planned by the great engineer John Smeaton, who also designed the Eddystone Lighthouse. Readers of The Miner & the Viscount met him as the innovator of improvements in steam engines and water wheels for the hard rock mines.

Smeaton was helped by William Cookworthy, a Quaker and a pharmacist, who developed hydraulic lime, an essential ingredient in building the lighthouse.

The port was built to export copper from the nearby mines of Crinnis Hill, South Polmear and United Mines, Holmbush. However, it later became an important port for the export of China Clay.

William Cookworthy again played an important part. He developed a process for making china clay and built a factory to produce porcelain. One of his early backers was Thomas Pitt of Boconnoc (later the first Baron Camelford). It was on his land that deposits of saponaceous clay were found.

When I visited Boconnoc for research on my book, the present owner, Anthony Fortescue (whose family married into the Pitts), told me he had managed the family’s china clay pit when he was a young man.

Thanks to www.facebook.com/KernowPhotos for this photo and some of these notes.


Thursday Thoughts: Megaliths

Cornwall is rich in neolithic monuments. The famous Cheesewring is near the village of Minions, which was once a tin and copper miming center. The village is some 3 miles from Liskeard, my birthplace.

How was this extraordinary structure created? Was it an example of the engineering feats of our ingenious Celtic ancestors? There is a simpler explanation. The Cheesewring was formed when the saints and the giants were both inhabiting Cornwall. The giants had lived there longer and were annoyed by the saints moving in and ‘taking over’; putting more stone crosses up, making wells holy and taking too many tithes (taxes) from the harvest.

One day St. Tue heard the giants discussing the best way of ridding the county of the saints so he decided to challenge the leader (Uther) to a trial of strength. This took the form of a rock throwing contest and if the saints won then the giants would have to renounce their wicked ways; but if the saints lost then they would have to leave Cornwall, never to return. Uther was a champion rock thrower whose specialty was balancing larger rocks on top of smaller ones, and St. Tue was very small so in theory there should have been no doubt about the result.

After gathering twelve flat rocks of varying sizes Uther took first throw. The rock landed about 100 feet away towards Stowe’s Hill. St. Tue picked up a rock, looked to the skies and suddenly the rock felt as light as a feather in his hand. He cast it toward the first thrown rock and it landed neatly on top. So they continued until there was only one rock left and it was St. Tue to throw. This too landed perfectly on the pile and, not wanting to admit defeat, Uther suggested that they throw ‘one more for luck’.

He picked up a huge stone and using all his strength threw it. It fell short of the pile, rolled back down the hill and landed at the saint’s feet. As the saint prayed for holy intervention an angel, visible only to him, appeared and carried the stone to the pile. Placing it neatly on the top the angel then vanished and the saints had won.

Uther promised to mend his ways and so did most of the other giants, although some went into the hills muttering about revenge.




Eclipse the Eclipse?

Here’s a new poem from Bert Biscoe, Cornish poet, songwriter, mover, shaker and getter of things done. Bert wrote it at the end of the day which had been heralded as one when we would experience a partial eclipse of the sun. Bert reports: “In Truro it was a bit of a damp squib; the light adopted a slightly steely quality, as if it was about to rain, and the gulls were stirred to great anxiety overhead. Many shops closed and staff stood around in the street. Then we all trooped off to our meetings and our counters and our commerce.”
     By way of background, Bert adds: “Passmore Edwards was a Victorian philanthropist who made a couple of fortunes and built libraries, convalescent homes and schools – many of which still stand and are much used throughout Cornwall today.”
     I remember as a boy spending hours in the Passmore Edwards Library in Liskeard, borrowing the adventure yarns of G.A. Henty, the “Biggles” stories by Captain W.E. Johns about the heroic air ace, and the Leslie Charteris tales of The Saint, dashing adventurer and doer of good. Art Snell was the librarian, and he told me that the first volume of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was often borrowed but the next 5 volumes stayed on their shelf.
     Edward Gibbon was Member of Parliament for Liskeard from 1774-80. This was thanks to Edward Eliot (the main character in The Miner & the Viscount) whose wife Catherine was Gibbon’s cousin.
     Here is Bert Biscoe’s poem:


A break in the monotonous day

From Eclipse Street we step through philanthropic doors

Flanked by grandly composed declarations in marble

Of generosities – we talk and think thanks under-tongue,

Inward, least spoken gratitudes, slight quips of breath,

Marked for Octavius and Passmore –

Such men may never grace the Lodge again!


Engineers wrought plastic art to break the great wall

Between Library and Education, Dream and Occupation,

And we stride past catalogued shelves,

Through carousels of earnest commendation –

A civilian copse of titles chanted –

Light from flourished stairwell glass defies eclipse

And austerity dries the lips of book-worn maids

Outcast by despots of digital modernisation –

I stand-to and seek a face, recognition,

A faded eye, one who,

From some distant exchange long-passed,

Mouths ‘Hello!’ over supervisory epaulette –

We each blink a question, resign

Response, accountants cluck, indicators

Flicker, Time consumes librarian-prey,

And marks threaten a second already

Blemished sheet ‘Upstairs!’ I turn away!


The stairs pass borough arms stained by donor’s will,

Each Cornish town’s tale etched in mystic creature

And Herald’s bridges, castles, harbours, fields –

At halfway first-floor-landing Cornish light illumines

Cornish cities set in Victorian glass, they flood ‘Old School –

Trurra Tech!’ and its young artisans’ technical minds –

Masterly voices echo times’-table and foreign verbs

Decline in shadow – outside, disappointment grasps eclipse,

Imperious spires disperse suited toe-capped officials

And coffee-chatty-patent-heeled shop assistants.


Still the fear of established church,

The faithless might again

Erect druidic stones and clasp

The star’s satanic hand and dance – but……

These boroughs’ stamps impress our cards,

A photographic light of pinhole failure

Brightens, order shrouds we sheep, our fold –

The town returns to cold stairs climbed,

Colleagues gather in the Medium Room:

We begin our essential discourse of process –

Lights in salaried hearts flicker, hangovers

Wash over brown memories between trees

Through tumbled inner woods, talk turns

To technicalities, we trade our bargained time.



Thursday Thoughts: Book Club

How stimulating it is to have an in depth conversation with enthusiastic readers!

I recently shared this pleasure with The Rosebuds, a long established group of widely read women who got together to discuss The Miner & the Viscount.

The Rosebuds take it in turns each month to choose the book they all read and to share dinner. Mary Beth Heil was our hostess and she put on a tasty spread complete with cottage pie and hard cider. So appropriate for a conversation about Cornwall!

And a lively conversation it was. Where did you get the idea for the story? Where did the fictitious characters come from? Were you or your family part of the characters? Were politics really like that? Sounds worse than today. We followed the map in the book, the places sound beautiful. What do they actually look like? What was it like growing up in Cornwall? What parts of the story were true and what parts did you make up? Did the story of the great diamond actually happen?

Gourmets that they were, they wanted a recipe for a Cornish pasty. They pronounced it “paysty”. I said “pahsty” is the proper way. “Paystyies” take practice: they’re what you twirl in opposite directions.

They so enjoyed meeting with the author and getting insights into the process of writing a big book. As Mary Beth wrote, “Richard, It was so wonderful for you to come to our book club.  Everyone enjoyed hearing the ‘story behind the story’ and how personal the book is to your life.  Thanks again and I will pass on the info right now to all the members.  We will spread the word.”

Let me know if you would like me to talk to your book club. I would enjoy it; such fun. I hope you would too.






Thursday Thoughts: Don’t Read my Novel on the Beach!

My book has just received the kindest review on Amazon (you can see it here: http://amzn.to/1AhLXp7) from a dear friend in my Monday Morning Writers Group. This was a great effort – working with the computer does not come easily. Much appreciated.

This group gave constructive feedback and comment throughout the entire 5 years of research and writing. It was a privilege to receive such valuable criticism, often with cheerful twitting and warnings against too much information, bodice busting and the like – which stimulated just three years ago a poetic response (with apologies to Noel Coward).

Don’t read my novel on the beach, Lady Rockingham

Don’t read my novel on the beach, Lady Rockingham
Don’t read my novel on the beach.
The shore is overcrowded,
The temperature’s often hot,
And you certainly could not
Expect to read much plot,
Just absorb all it would teach.
It’s a good book
So take another look,
There are few acts,
But you’ll learn some facts,
And then you too can preach.
But anyroad, Lady Rockingham, good Lady Rockingham,
Don’t read my novel on the beach.
Regarding yours,
Dear Lady Rockingham,
Of Monday, March the fifth,
You spoke with pith,
And made it clear
It mayn’t be such a good idea
For writing to be my sole career
Unless, I add more humanity,
Even some inanity
From a sexy little peach,
Pray even then Lady Rockingham,
Don’t take my pen, Lady Rockingham,
And never read my novel on the beach.
Don’t read my novel on the beach, Lady Rockingham,
Don’t read my novel on the beach,
My villain is really nasty,
A single dimension cad,
He devours many a Cornish pasty
So he can’t be all that bad,
The viscount’s diet is healthy,
He’s privileged and wealthy,
(Though a little smuggled brandy
Tends to make him awfully randy),
It’s from the tin, dear,
Down the mine, dear,
But aargh, Lady Rockingham,
Don’t go too faarr, Lady Rockingham,
I never dreamed
I’d get so steamed
If people ever read my novel on the beach.

© RJCH — March 5, 2012