I have a holiday cottage (or gite) at Bussiere Galant, not far from Saint Yrieix-La-Perche and Marcognac in this hidden part of France.
Visit Marcognac and Step Back in Time
Step back over 200 years in time to rural France, where a remarkable and valuable discovery was made—kaolin, the magic ingredient needed to make porcelain as fine and strong as the imports from China.
At this beautiful site in Marcognac, you'll be told the stories and history of the site and learn about the hardships the people who worked there had to endure. You'll also see the rocks that supported and created the kaolin and see old photographs of the quarry and the buildings used to process and clean the clay.
Enthusiastic and knowledgeable guides will enthrall you with tales, descriptions, history and facts as they take you from the Room of Rocks to stables, factory buildings and the quarries themselves.
The Visitor Centre or 'Room of Rocks'
On arrival, we were met and welcomed by the tour organiser, Nicole Delage, Présidente Association Marcognac Terre de Porcelaine. Madame Delage ensured us that there was a translator, Monsieur Pinaud, as our group didn't speak good French. M. Pinaud was excellent, and an additional plus was that he could remember when the site was still open. Even better, his first language was not French, but the ancient langue d'oc which was spoken in this area until relatively recently.
We were then shown into the information room (Salles des Roches, Room of the Rocks)—a rather spiffing conversion of one of the old stone buildings which the French do so well—where there's an exhibition of the rocks, minerals, porcelain, photographs and artifacts associated with the quarry.
A Short History of Kaolin at Marcognac
Kaolin is rare and precious, hence its moniker, 'White Gold'. It is the key ingredient in fine porcelain that gives this fine, translucent china its durability and strength.
During the 18th century, France imported porcelain from China and Japan, but Louis XV was determined to produce it in France. To that end, he built the royal factory at Sèvres, near Paris—but how to make the porcelain? The Chinese had kept the process a closely guarded secret. A French spy was needed, so a Jesuit missionary, Pere D’Entrecolles, was dispatched to the Chinese porcelain factories at Ching-te-chen, and the secret was sent back to the King.
The only ingredient missing now was the kaolin, the white gold, and this is where Marcognac took centre stage. In 1768, Jean Baptiste Darnet discovered the clay, which was being used by women doing their washing to whiten the sheets! Extraction of kaolin began at Marcognac in 1786, and the last rocks were sent to Sèvres in 1986.
For more information, you can look at this Portrait de Marcognac Terre de porcelaine, but I'm afraid it is mostly in French.
The Life of Quarry Workers Shown in Pictures, Film and Artifacts
Photographs and objects help tell the stories of the men, women and children who worked in the kaolin quarries. You can see the wooden trays that the women and children balanced on their heads to carry the rocks out of the quarry. You can touch their wooden clogs. You are shown the tables, sieves and foot-warmers of the women who washed the rocks and the tools and barrows they used to process and move the materials around the site.
A Glimpse of Limousin Life in the 18th Century
At the visitor centre, an excerpt from a film based on the book Le Pain Noir by Limousin author Georges Emmanuel Clancier (it was also made into a TV series, see the video below) gives a real flavour of the life of rural Limousin in times gone by.
L'or Blanc des Carrières, the last book by the Haute-Vienne writer Jean-Paul Romain-Ringuier is another novel based on the kaolin quarries at Marcognac that gives colour to how people lived and worked here.
The mechanics of the quarrying process is also explained. You can see the pump that emptied water from the seams and the more recent electric engine that was used to pull the heavy wagons up from the depths of the mine.
Mules and oxen also played a role in the extraction of rocks; amongst other items, yokes, harnesses and carts are on display in the stables, along with photographs of the animals working to pull loaded carts.
Beautiful Buildings in a Lovely Setting
While original photographs of the quarry reveal a very different picture, Marcognac today is a very attractive place to spend a summer afternoon. Marcognac is listed as an Historic Monument and an important part of France's Industrial Archaeology, partly because many of the original buildings have been preserved.
Some of these buildings have a distinctive wooden latticework structure at roof level which allowed air to circulate, as drying the rock product was an essential part of the process. In other buildings, the mud and straw used to fill between the wooden frames is still clearly visible.
You Can View The Remnants of the Quarries Themselves
After seeing the breathtaking photographs, it is a little disappointing that so little of the quarries themselves are left. Many of them have been filled in, and those that do still exist have been so thoroughly taken over by nature that it's hard to make out their original form. Through trees, you can make out water that has collected at the bottom and has now turned the gaping holes into pretty lakes surrounded by vegetation. I imagine it would be a fabulous haven for wildlife.
But to see the photographs displayed at the existing building is astounding. They show how the quarries looked when they were still being worked. The transformation is amazing.
Virtual Tour of the Marcognac Quarry Site
I have only touched on the wealth of information that was offered to us on our visit. To whet your appetite further, take a virtual tour given by Nicole Delage, Présidente Association Marcognac Terre de Porcelaine, herself.
Note: The following video is in French, but you can turn on auto-translated subtitles by clicking through the settings.
Visitor Information for Guided Tours of Marcognac
You can find more information at Les Routes de la Porcelaine de Limoges en Haute-Vienne. Always telephone in advance, as information is often conflicting and you must always beware of the dreaded French 'exceptional closures'.
Contact Marcognac Terre de Porcelaine for more information.
Phone: 05 55 75 06 51
Tourist Office at Saint Yrieix-La-Perche
Phone: 05 55 08 20 72
Have I Persuaded You to Visit Marcognac?
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© 2019 Les Trois Chenes
Do You Have Any Thoughts or Additional Information to Add?
Les Trois Chenes (author) from Videix, Limousin, South West France on July 02, 2019:
Thank you for your message, Liz. Kind of you to take the time to comment. I do hope you make it to Marcognac some day.
Liz Westwood from UK on June 30, 2019:
This is a very interesting and well-illustrated article. When I am in the area I will look this up. A visit to France is overdue for us.