Eating ice cream in an old harbour

CHARLESTOWN IN CORNWALL should not be confused with the dance named after Charleston in South Carolina, as it is just south of the Cornish town of St Austell. The latter, named after a sixth century Cornish saint, St Austol, was first associated with the tin trade and then with the China clay industry, which burgeoned after the material was discovered in the area by William Cookworthy (1705-1780) in the 18th century.

In 1790, only nine families lived in the tiny seashore settlement of West Polmear, a fishing village just south of St Austell. A year later, much was to change in this little place. For, in 1791, Charles Rashleigh, a local landowner, began building a dock at West Polmear, using designs prepared by the engineer John Smeaton (1724-1792), who is regarded by many as ‘the father of civil engineering’. By 1799, a deep-water harbour with dock gates had been constructed. The water level in this dock was maintained by water that travelled in a ‘leat’ (artificial channel) from the Luxulyan Valley, some miles inland. The harbour was fortified against the French with gun batteries.

Named after nearby Mount Charles, the Charlestown harbour was used first for loading boats with copper for export, and then later with China clay, also for exportation. Charlestown prospered during the rapid expansion of the Chana clay industry that lasted until the start of WW1. By 1911, the former fishing village, by then Charlestown, had a population of almost 3200. Between the end of WW1 and the 1990s, Charlestown continued to be a port for exporting clay, but rival ports and the use of ships too large to be accommodated, led to its gradual decline. Now, the lovely, well-preserved 18th century harbour has become a tourist attraction and a home for a few picturesque tall ships. It is also used occasionally as a film set.

We visited Charlestown on a warm, sunny, late June afternoon. After exploring for a while, we homed in on an ice cream stall, a small hut with a pitched roof tiled with slates, located above the northern end of the dock. After queuing for what turned out to be first class ice cream, we sat at a table near the stall to enjoy what we had ordered. It was then that I noticed that some of the tables and chairs were standing on a vast cast-iron plate, which was covered with geometric patterns and some words, which I examined. My suspicion that this plate had once been part of a weighbridge was confirmed when I noticed the words: “20 tons.  Charles Ross Ltd. Makers. Sheffield”. I checked this with the ice cream seller in his stall. He told me that his stall had been the office of the officials who used the weighbridge and pointed out that there was another weighbridge nearby. I found this easily. Its metal plate bore the words: “Avery. Birmingham-England”, Avery being a well-known manufacturer of weighing machines. And the hut that used to be used by the officials now sells a range of snacks.

After eating our ice creams and examining the former weighbridge plates, a trivial thought flashed through my mind: by consuming ice cream at this stall, we were putting on weight at the weighbridge.

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