The man behind a pioneering geothermal rum distillery project is ready to start at the bottom again after losing a battle over plans to move onto the site of Cornwall’s banger racing track. Matthew Clifford believes his vision for the £10 million distillery and rum maturation project at United Downs would have benefited Cornwall in the long run.
He said the state-of-the-arts facility would have been more than just a ‘rum warehouse’ and planned a true research and development platform to showcase Cornwall’s geothermal technology, know-how and potential. In a candid interview reflecting back on his project – called Celsius – which he has been carrying alone since 2018, Mr Clifford said investors have stayed away from the project, leaving it dead in the water for now – because of the bad press and toxicity it generated when he believes there would have been solutions that could have benefited all parties, had people taken the time to look at the scheme seriously, holistically, and kept an open mind.
The masterplan fell to pieces after a groundswell of support for a campaign to save the United Downs Raceway was followed by planning permission being rejected by Cornwall Council – which also owns the land and had agreed to lease it to the project.
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“I’ve been hit so hard by the United Downs banger racing thing that it’s become toxic, that I still have yet to raise a single £1 in investment,” he said. “It’s been really unfair. I never came here to pick a fight with anyone. I’ve always been motivated to do something positive. I think it would have been a world-class facility which would have attracted visitors to an area of Cornwall which is not really known for anything nowadays.
“What a fantastic showcase for Cornwall’s green tech industry this would have been – a geothermal rum distillery heated up by the by-product of a geothermal energy plant and lithium extracting plant. It’s my firm belief that it would have taken the site and its industrial heritage to the future rather than keep it frozen in time.”
Mr Clifford, a former search and rescue pilot out of the North Sea who also launched his own gin distillery called Twelve Keys in Norfolk as a reference to the 16th century alchemists who wrote a treatise on turning base metals and other bits and pieces into gold, received outline planning permission for his project to turn a former tin mine into a futuristic distillery and maturation space under a biome similar to the ones at Eden Project heated up by the hot rocks deep into the earth crust two years ago. The land had been home to Cornwall’s only car racing track for decades but had been earmarked by Cornwall Council for development, sparking huge protest from racing fans.
However his grand vision, which he believes would have created 30 jobs in one of the poorest parts of Cornwall, turned into a three-way ‘battle’ with Historic England and stock car racing fans.
Mr Clifford’s plans for the distillery were first unveiled in October 2020. It caused immediate uproar in the area with the United Downs Raceway and banger racing fans who feared their track, which has been in situ for more than 50 years, would be demolished and the sport – including popular Speedway – would be made homeless in Cornwall.
The raceway and its supporters mounted a campaign against the distillery saying it would ‘kill’ motor sport in the Duchy. Almost 9,000 people signed a petition to save the raceway. Mr Clifford said he approached the owners of Perranporth airfield to see if a purpose-built state-of-the-art banger racing track and attraction could not be accommodated on site so both the Cornish Geothermal Distillery Company and the United Downs Raceway could have a future in Cornwall.
Historic England also raised concerns about the impact the rum distillery would have on the World Heritage Site at United Downs, near Redruth, while banger racing fans launched a campaign to see their track of 60 years kept in situ for the foreseeable future and give their sport a place to grow in Cornwall. A former Formula 1 racing driver even threw his hat into the ring and backed a campaign to save the United Downs Raceway.
The entrepreneur’s answer to Historic England was that the distillery and visitor centre would have seen £500,000 invested on the site to decontaminate it, survey, restore and enhance an initial six acres of the site including all heritage features even before the first geothermal distillery biome ever appeared.
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Cornwall Council planners finally refused permission for the maturation biome, geothermal energy centre and visitor centre including shop, café and bar on the land on October 14 last year even though the local authority had an agreement to lease the land to the distillery. That meant that last autumn, banger racing’s future was still in jeopardy and the sport held what was supposedly its last ever race in October 2021.
He said: “It was a brownfield site that the council wanted to regenerate. People think that it was all done behind closed doors but it was not. Everything we did was done properly and openly. We wanted to create something that’s not just a rum warehouse, it would have helped to develop a new technology and create jobs to develop it. The reality is that we can’t proceed with the lease agreement.
“We came here not to upset the community but to create jobs. It feels like politics got in the way and the community that surrounds the raceway is something that Cornwall Council should have found a solution for rather than pit us against each other.”
After some more political shenanigans this winter banger racing at United Downs Raceway was allowed to continue for one more year at least after Cornwall Council decided to keep the status quo going for now.
While his £10m geothermal rum distillery project in its current form lies in tatters, Mr Clifford is not ready to throw in the towel just yet. His vision is being scaled right down and in the coming weeks he will be launching a miniatures version of his plan with a handful of shipping containers that will contain a rum distillery, racking area and geothermal heat exchanger so it can be plugged into Cornwall’s original geothermal drill holes at Rosemanowes Quarry near Penryn. The former granite quarry has three holes which were drilled down into the earth in the 1970s to see if the potential for geothermal energy was there but the technology was not quite ready.
Mr Clifford said the aim of the rum producing pilot project – which he will be crowdfunding for – aims to validate the technology further and produce enough rum in the five weeks he has raised enough money to rent the geothermal drill holes for to cover the investment. After that he hopes to be able to move the shipping containers to the edge of the GEL-run geothermal factory at United Downs and expand from there.
“It will validate things for investors and help us rebuild relationships with the community away from the toxicity of the United Downs raceway and show people that we really are not here to pick up a fight with anyone. Despite public perceptions, we’re not the enemy of Cornwall or speedway community. It’s hard to bring inward investment into Cornwall but if it works and Cornwall doesn’t want it we would seriously consider going somewhere else which would be a real shame.”