Article and Photographs by Frankie Hackett
Along the backroads of Ponsanooth, a quaint Cornish village, is one of the most captivating and underrated walks in the entire county. It has all the traditional aspects of your favourite place to go for a walk, like canopied trees and dramatic glades, but Kennall Vale also hosts a very unique feature that places it leagues above your typical trail: gunpowder factories.
Littering the woodlands, the remnants of historical industrial Britain sit adjacent to historical natural Britain. The gunpowder facilities, mostly made out of granite stone, tell stories of the workers who once laboured in the valley. The Kennall River is where most buildings settle next to, because the steep and fast flowing water provide an incredible amount of power for the water mills still visible today. These mills would power the entire operation needed to extract, compress, and manufacture the gunpowder.
The use of the river for power becomes more intriguing when remembering the fragility required to develop gunpowder. The alternative for the time, steam power, would require coal and fire. This would lead to certain disaster. Furthermore, the water on hand would make it easy to eliminate outbreaks of fire in the event of an emergency. Despite this, 13 major and deadly explosions were reported in a space of 70 years.
Further afield in the ruins are what appear to be the foundations of facilities used by the workers, such as a changing house where workers would change into clothes. Fireplaces, doorways, and windows are still in plain sight to explore. The preservation of the ruins makes Kennall Vale incredibly immersive. The hammering of the waterfalls contrasted against the huge metal cogs inserts you into a battlefield between nature and humanity. This narrative becomes layers deeper when thinking of the placement of where the woodland trees were planted and why.
While the woodland was present before the mine, the vale was not deforested to make space for the factories. Instead, the woodland was required to protect from potential explosions, taking brunt of the force from frequently reported accidents on-site. The trees were planted in key locations to mask most of the blast. While on the surface it may feel like nature is trying to reclaim itself, it appears this fight is more controlled than first thought. Even the river was shaped with leats and slats to control the flow and the direction of the water.
The location of the factories was also picked due to its proximity to lucrative geological hotspots, this subsequently led most of the gunpowder produced to be shipped locally to the mines located in and around Cornwall. On the entrance to Kennall Vale is also an old granite quarry, now filled with water making a nice feature for local wildlife to inhabit. The granite mined from this quarry provided the building material required to build what was once 50 independent structures.
The Gunpowder company went under just before World War 1 in 1910, lasting for 100 years. The reason for its demise ties to a shift in technology that made gunpowder less valuable as well as the greater wave of the closure of the mines in Cornwall. In the century since, the area has become a nature reserve with free access year-round and since 1985 is owned by Cornwall Wildlife Trust. Some of the wildlife today include the Pipistrelle Bat and Dippers, friendly and fat little birds.
Despite its location sounding very off the beaten track, it is easy to get to. Just a quick drive from Penryn, Truro or Redruth will take you to Ponsanooth, where it is best to park in the village, as the road by the entrance to Kennall Vale is not suitable for parking. A short walk up a hill will bring you to the entrance, boasting beautiful views of the valley before you envelop yourself into the history of the woodland.