Shipwrecks and China Clay

PUBLISHED: 17:30 13 August 2010 | UPDATED: 15:07 20 February 2013

Charlestown's famous Shipwreck Centre

Charlestown's famous Shipwreck Centre

We take a trip around one of Cornwall's most informative visitor attractions, the Shipwreck and Heritage Centre in Charlestown in this May issue

Join Bernard Cole on a wander through one of Cornwall's most informative visitor attractions, the Shipwreck and Heritage Centre at Charlestown

For John and Rita Kneale, their fascinating Shipwreck and Heritage Centre at Charlestown near St Austell is an all-consuming passion. For the thousands of visitors who pass through the Centre's gates each year it offers a fascinating journey through our country's maritime history and the part Cornwall played, and still plays, in it.

Sitting just above the present-day 'Tall Ships' harbour, the Shipwreck and Heritage Centre catches many visitors by surprise. Expecting to spend no more than half an hour or so looking at nautically themed exhibits, most emerge several hours later enthralled by what they have seen and eagerly planning their next visit to what is a visitor-friendly museum. Learn something about Charlestown and the china clay industry, explore Cornwall's mining heritage, discover the mysteries of the deep and the wrecks that inhabit the coastline and ocean floor, or form your own view on the sinking of the Titanic and other great ocean liners. It's all here to tempt, educate and inform, and when you need a break there's a restaurant on the upper floor to catch your breath and gather your thoughts before diving back in again to the labyrinth of displays.

Though the centre has been at its present site since 1985, John and Rita acquired it in 1992 when it was much smaller than it is today. Over the last 16 years they have enlarged and developed the grounds, buildings and facilities and have introduced several new exhibits. In fact it is now the largest privately owned display of its kind in the Westcountry, if not the UK - and it's still growing. John is currently drawing up plans to completely refurbish the display area, and later this year building work begins on a suite of new offices and art facilities for the Centre as well as classrooms and an educational centre for visiting schools and scholars.

Finding the Centre is easy. Just continue down the hill toward Charlestown dock and at the bottom, turn left at the mini roundabout and there it is. Standing proudly outside the entrance and alongside the 'model' harbour for radio-controlled boats is the decommissioned lifeboat RNLB Amelia. Operating out of Scarborough, she saved 31 lives and is displayed with all her original equipment still in working order - even the engines start at the touch of a button. Nearby there's also a North Sea diving bell used some years ago to service underwater gas rigs, and a German armoured diving suit used in the search for HMS M-1, a Royal Navy submarine lost with all hands off the Devon coast in 1925.

A good part of the Centre's display focuses on Charlestown itself. Once the tiny fishing village of West Polmear, it was developed in the late 18th century to provide shelter and loading facilities for vessels plying the china-clay trade. The harbour's outer arm was completed first and the inner piers were then finished after the rock had been blasted away. The name of the village was changed in honour of merchant Charles Rashleigh, who pioneered the development work and it's been known as 'Charles' town' ever since. As more and more ships began using the harbour, the town began to flourish and as the population grew so came the need for more cottages, a hotel, an inn and eventually a church.

The present Shipwreck Centre is built on the site of the town's china-clay-drying kiln. At the end of the 19th century, Charlestown was the only shipping outlet for the St Austell china-clay producers and over 30,000 tons of the material was passing through the building every year along underground passageways and out onto the ships in the harbour - a process that continued right up until 1972. Visitors can walk through the disused clay tunnels, with their original clay truck railway lines, out onto a viewing gallery overlooking the harbour below. From there they can look down on an assortment of boats, especially the square-riggers or 'tall ships' riding at anchor. It's a great spot for a photograph and if lucky you might spot a 'star' working with the many film crews that regularly use the harbour for period productions and dramas.

Back in the Centre, the themed displays wend their way through passageways festooned with life-size exhibits and glass-fronted cabinets containing artefacts and unusual and interesting memorabilia. The first display, with animated scenes, depicts aspects of Charlestown life through the ages. Listen to Charles Rashleigh discussing the village with his daughter in 1823, or peek through a cottage window for a quick look at the blacksmith's shop and a cooper making barrels to transport fish and clay. Next door there's an interesting display of gas equipment and appliances through the ages. Gas fridges from the 1930s and '40s and a gas cooking system from the 1920s sit alongside a display outlining Cornwall's part in the development of gas. Did you know that William Murdoch invented gas lighting in 1792 and his house in Redruth was the first in Great Britain to be lit by this means?

Turn the corner into 'Charlestown Dock' and you're confronted with a display of sailors' knots and an account of the shipbuilding and other town businesses down the years. Authentic background noises, genuine tools and relics from the port's past sit alongside 'Jake' the deep-sea diver who's happy to tell you all about himself. There's even a mock-up of a ship's bridge where children can ring bells, operate lights, turn wheels and learn a little of what it's like to command a ship.

Moving on, the next display highlights the sterling work of the RNLI and shows much of the equipment used on lifeboats in British coastal waters. There's also a display of fire-rescue equipment, a breeches buoy and a demonstration of how an SOS is sent. A superb audio-visual display relates past rescue operations and children can sit in a real life-raft. With artefacts dating from 1715, the next display has a varied collection of diving and Second World War frogman suits and early SCUBA gear.

Moving through the Centre, the final display concentrates on shipwrecks found along the Cornish coast and further afield. With artefacts including gold and silver coin from over 150 wrecks, there's something for everyone. From war losses to ocean liners and an absorbing display on HMS Victory and Admiral Nelson, this section is probably the most fascinating. Original cine film of the Titanic before she set sail, personal stories, a superb model of the doomed ocean liner and props used by Kate Winslet and others in the making of the film lend an awesome sense of reality.

There's no doubting that the Shipwreck and Heritage Centre provides one of the most absorbing and interesting days out. Control your own supertanker in the boating lake, learn about Cornwall's past, uncover the secrets of the deep - and children under 10 are admitted free. No wonder a visitor from Australia wrote: 'Words fail me. Everything I've seen has been one amazing experience.'

The Shipwreck and Heritage Centre, Quay Road, Charlestown, St Austell, (01726 69897,

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