On the outskirts of St Austell in Cornwall locals describe the conical-shaped mounds of waste, produced by china clay mining, as the Cornish Alps. This is a reformed landscape of industrial waste products, colloquially defined as an alpine idyll. Originally white in colour, due to being made up of ‘mica,’ the outline of the landscape in the area has altered over the 100 or more years of open cast china clay mining activity. Early paintings of the area depict peaks as distinctly more classically Alpine in look than their current state. In recent times, respective owners of the mining areas have landscaped many of the original peaks – sky tips as they are technically referred to – into terraces as part of a programme whose aim was to blend the landscape into its existing surroundings. Today, the connection of the Alps to this region in Cornwall is a little tenuous. Therefore language sustains the myth rather than any clear physical resemblance in the landscape.
In Landscape and Memory, Schama states:
It is clear that inherited landscape myths and memories share two common characteristics: their surprising endurance through the centuries and their power to shape institutions that we still live with (1995: 15).
The memories of the Cornish Alps are tied directly to its industrial past and present. The pyramid peaks of the clay area landscape no longer represent work in the clay mines – instead, they have become part of its local heritage and a symbol of both change and resistance. As I write, the building of a new ‘eco-town’ in the area around Carluddon has attracted protests from local residents who fear their landscape is being endangered. As one protester posted onto the Facebook group “No Eco Town,” the sky-tip is “more than a pile of sand. [It’s] a part of our history, heritage & national identity” (No Eco Town, Facebook, 2015). For now, the threatened sky-tip at Carluddon, one of the final few remaining, remains as the logo for the local primary school.
Historically, families who were born, educated and lived in the so-called ‘clay villages’ would have expected to have worked for or found employment in the local mines companies. Today, many leave the area and even the county to find employment. According to local Government statistics for overall economic deprivation, Cornwall is ranked 122 out of 326 local authorities in England (where 1 is most deprived). St Dennis South, an area within the china clay mining region, is ranked having the second-highest ‘households at risk of poverty’ in Cornwall. Jobs and employment opportunities are relatively scarce in the entire area. The china clay industry, while still maintaining a relatively small active mining programme, is generally in decline in Britain.
At present china clay represents the largest mining industry in Cornwall, although year on year, the scale of mining has been systematically reduced. In the sense that the area is still industrially active, it cannot be truly defined as a ‘post’ industrial space as my research title suggests. It may, therefore, be better to suggest it is a place in transition, moving from an industrial space toward a post-industrial one. It thus becomes less a presence in the present and moves toward becoming the heritage of the past or an object of historical interest.
The ‘Visit Cornwall’ website boasts about a dramatic Cornish coastline and the “wilderness of Bodmin Moor and its panorama of big skies” (Visit Cornwall CIC, 2017) alongside sits the old industrial heartland – a landscape, awarded World Heritage Site status that contains the remnants of Cornwall’s mining past. The industrial clay area is often overlooked in the typical representation of Cornwall to tourists. A notable exception to this is the Eden Project, which is sited in one of the abandoned clay pits.
There is a latent social narrative of the Cornish landscape that Willett (2009) has noted. Cornwall is paradoxical, perceived to be a fantastic place to live while simultaneously also being recognised as one of the poorest parts of the United Kingdom. Cornwall is “described, discussed and imagined” through “a particular set of illusions and narratives” (2009). Inevitably, landscape is experienced at different moments, interrupted, disjointed and lived within. It may also be understood as being decidedly fictional. I suggest, like images, that place sits at the interface between a fictional, imaginary, inner space and a material, real, outside space. However, this dialectic between fiction and reality may be disturbed when fiction is located on the outside and the real appears directly overlaid with a fiction.
When viewing a drama film we are invariably shown a fiction presented in the guise of some form of reality. We are asked to willingly suspend our disbelief at the impossibility of what we are experiencing and to accept it as a ‘reality’ for the duration of the film we are watching. Photographs function in a similar way – presenting a certain view of a particular reality. But photographic truth is not at the centre of my argument and nor is the discussion of whether or how a camera can express something of reality to its audience. Instead, the focus of my thoughts begins with examining the function of representational practice and how it interpellates a ‘subject of the signifier.’ The Cornish Alps is, I suggest, an example of a signifier located within a real environment. It presents itself as the opposite of cinema and the opposite of photography: it is reality experienced as a fiction. It may, therefore, be understood as the production of a ‘reverse photograph.’