On The River Tamar

By Tom Bowden

River Tamar Map

I was born in Torpoint on the River Tamar in 1929 and spent much of my youth messing around in boats on the river. The Tamar stretches from Plymouth to the Tamar Lakes near Bude a distance of about 45 miles and the river forms the border between Devon and Cornwall. On this occasion I will concentrate upon the River Tamar from Gunnislake to Plymouth Sound in about 1900. I have included a sketch of that part of the river and a number of photographs of places on the river to assist you. We are in the beautiful Tamar Valley with Gunnislake, Calstock and the Cotehele Estate on the Cornish side of the river and Morwellham Quay on the Devon side. View No 1 shows the river near Calstock winding its way down to the sea.

This area has a long mining history with minerals being dug here in Roman times, and from the 1790s some 40 mines were producing: copper, tin, arsenic, lead, silver and tungsten. Fleets of schooners and flat-bottomed sailing barges conveyed this down to Plymouth from Calstock, Cotehele and Morwellham.  These boats also carried grain, bricks, rope and granite downstream and brought in coal, limestone, timber etc. By the middle of the

The River Tamar near Calstock, c. 1900

19th century the river on both banks around here became almost one long quay! In about 1890 the mines started to become exhausted and transport of minerals ended in about 1901. By that time many steam-driven pleasure steamers were offering trips on the river. That continues today, with diesel driven craft carrying trippers from Plymouth Barbican to Calstock for strawberry and cream teas.

The Tamar Valley has always been a successful area for horticulture with a relatively warm climate and an abundance of south-facing slopes. As mining came to an end so horticulture increased and early crops were sent to London by rail from Tavistock. There were fruit orchards and fields of early daffodils, irises, violets, and strawberries. Now, with foreign competition, that is a more difficult market but there are still some commercial flower growers.

Gunnislake and Weir Head

New Bridge, Gunnislake 1920

View No 2 shows the New Bridge at Gunnislake in 1920. In 1520 the Abbot of Tavistock decreed that this bridge be built to shorten the distance by road from Tavistock to Callington and Liskeard. It has six arches and rises to 23ft above the river. There were skirmishes here between Cavaliers and Roundheads during the Civil War, and King Charles I crossed this bridge in 1644 after winning the Battle of Lostwithiel. Today, this bridge carries the A390 road which goes from Tavistock through Gunnislake and up over Hingston Down to Callington.  It is too narrow for present-day traffic and you need to take great care when crossing.

Fore St, Gunnislake c. 1900

View No 3 is an interesting look at Fore Street, Gunnislake, in 1906. Note the child peeping through the doorway and the grown-ups watching the photographer. This location remains much the same after over 100 years.

SS Alexandra at Weir Head c. 1906

View No 4 shows SS Alexandra at Weir Head, Gunnislake c.1906. This is some of the finest scenery in the West Country. We are looking from downstream towards Gunnislake and looking down at Weir Head with the magnificent 300ft Morwell Rocks along the Devon side of the river. Weir Head is an important point on the river where the fresh water from upstream reaches the weir and drops down to meet the salt water from the tidal river. Therefore, cargo or pleasure boats from downstream cannot go any further than the Weir Head, although they can drop passengers off short of the weir and let them walk along the river bank into Gunnislake.

In this picture the Weir Head is on the right-hand side, and what looks like an island is in the middle. What you can see on the left side is a lock gate to a short (half mile) canal which was built in about 1798 by a company that wished to bypass the weir and deliver coal and manure etc to Gunnislake and take loads of bricks downstream from the brickworks. There might also have been the intention to continue the canal northwards to join up with the Bude Canal. However, conditions changed and the company failed and the canal closed. In this picture the SS Alexandra is in the process of turning using the small inlet created by the canal lock gate.

Morwellham Quay

Morwellham Quay in 1902

In View No 5 we see a deserted Morwellham Quay in 1902. Benedictine monks from Tavistock Abbey founded Morwellham Quay probably as early as the eleventh century. They used it as a port to bring in their supplies and export their woollen cloth. You can see how the name developed from Morwell (the district) and “Ham” which means land by the water. The monks’ trade grew until Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in the 1530s, when the King passed the Tavistock Abbey estates to the Russell family, who later became the Dukes of Bedford.

The Duke therefore owned many of the mines in the Tavistock area and thousands of people were working in the mines in the early 1800s. Then Mine Manager and Engineer John Taylor decided to cut his cartage costs to Morwellham by building a canal from Tavistock through a tunnel in Morwell Down to a point 237ft above Morwellham. Then the ore was transferred to wagons and run down an incline to Morwellham Quay. This work was done between 1803 and 1817 and comprised 4 miles of canal which included 1.5 miles of tunnel. Also, a 4.5 mile long railway track was built to link the larger mines with Morwellham and this work was completed in 1859. The mines and Morwellham were very prosperous then, but the output started to decrease later in the century and mines closed in about 1901 and Morwellham Quay became deserted as you see in my illustration.

On the left is the Great Dock where 300 ton ships moored to load up from piles of ore around the quay. The row of cottages was built by the Duke of Bedford in 1856 to house the influx of people brought to Morwellham by the copper boom. The break in the trees at the top of the picture marks the railway terminus and the start of a railway incline. The house halfway up the hill is at the end of the canal and shows the start of this incline. The Morwellham and Tamar Valley Trust have now restored Morwellham Quay and the adjacent George and Charlotte Copper Mine and they are open for visitors.

Calstock, Calstock Viaduct and Tamar Valley Line

Calstock in 1907

View No 6 shows Calstock in 1907 and the paddle steamer Alexandra passing Calstock parish quay on its way downstream. This was a graceful 127ft long 125 ton steel vessel built in 1888. The Saltash, Three Towns and District Steamboat Company ran these river trips to traditional destinations like Calstock, Morwellham and Weir Head. But Calstock was coming to the end of its prosperity with the local mines: Calstock Consoles, Okel Tor, Danescombe and Cotehele Consoles, all closing. Today it is a pleasant place with its steep slopes and narrow streets. The sixteenth–century Boot Inn is still open and the Riverside Restaurant still welcomes boat trips from the Barbican in Plymouth in the summer months.

Calstock Viaduct c. 1990

View No 7 Calstock Viaduct c. 1990. This is my view of Calstock Quay and the beautiful Calstock Viaduct and I have visited this location many times by car or by boat to see this lovely view. The viaduct was built in 1906 – 07 and is 117ft high with twelve spans, and “flies” over the old town. It is hard to believe that it’s constructed of concrete blocks that were cast on the Devon side of the river! We are looking downstream towards Danescombe and Cotehele and you can just see Prospect Tower at Cotehele in the distance.

I should mention The Tamar Valley Line which is a railway line with a regular train service between Plymouth Station and Gunnislake Station during the summer months. At scheduled times, the trains travel up the Devon side of the river via two viaducts to reach Bere Ferrers and Bere Alston. Then they cross the Calstock Viaduct into Cornwall and on to Gunnislake, and do the reverse journey. I have omitted the rail line from my sketch to prevent congestion.

Calstock Viaduct c.1907

View No 8 Calstock Viaduct from near Danescombe, c. 1907. The viaduct is newly built and the tower on the left is a wagon hoist which was installed to provide a means of transporting goods between the quay and the railway line. In the foreground is the long quay from Calstock to Danscombe with railway lines and wagons and heaps of what looks like copper ore on the quay.

Cotehele Estate

Cotehele Estate is downstream and around a bend in the river from Calstock. It is a 1300 acre estate comprising: Cotehele House, Cotehele Quay, a Mill, a Chapel in the Wood, a Museum, the “Shamrock” (a Tamar Barge), a folly named Prospect Tower, and gardens, lawns and woods. It is now in the care of the National Trust and facilities, like car parks, toilets and refreshments, are provided to encourage visitors.

The East Front of Cotehele House c.1960

William Edgcumbe married Hileria de Cotehele, the heiress to the estate, in 1353. His famous great grandson, Richard Edgcumbe, inherited Cotehele in about 1460 and he built the South Gatehouse and Tower and made other changes. He supported the Lancastrians in the War of the Roses and Henry VII rewarded him with a knighthood. Sir Richard’s son, Piers, married Joan Durnford, the heiress of the Stonehouse lands overlooking Plymouth Sound, including what became Mount Edgcumbe on the Cornish side. In 1553 the Edgcumbe family moved to a grand new home 12 miles down the river at Mount Edgcumbe. They retained Cotehele however and now Cotehele House is one of the best-preserved medieval houses in the country.

Cotehele House – View of Dovecote Garden from East Front Window, c.1960

View No 9 shows the East Front of Cotehele House in 1960, and View No 10 is my photograph of the Dovecote Garden which was taken at that time through an East Front window.

The Lower Tamar Estuary

Continuing downstream we pass many popular landing places on the river: Halton Quay, Pentille Quay, Cargreen and Landulph until we reach Saltash:

Saltash Ferry and Royal Albert Bridge, c. 1924

View No 11 is Saltash Ferry and Royal Albert Bridge c.1924. A steam engine on the ferry pulls it across the river on the chains you can see on each side. Note the second ferry in reserve, and the early car and the steam engine in front. A ferry service was started here in 1356 and the service ended with the opening of the new road bridge alongside the Railway Bridge in 1961. Isambard Kingdom Brunel completed his famous Royal Albert Bridge in 1859. The navy had insisted upon 100ft clearance above the water to allow passage of shipping, and the water is some 70ft deep at this point. So Brunel designed this high bridge with one central column, and employed these two massive beams in compression, thus allowing a curving approach to the bridge.

Antony House c. 1908 (The Victorian wing was later removed)

View No 12 Antony House, c.1908. This is near the mouth of the Lynher River, on the west side of the River Tamar, and for centuries has been the home of the Pole Carew family. The house was built by Sir William Carew between 1718 and 1729 and looks out over beautiful gardens and romantic landscape to the rivers Lynher and Tamar at Antony Passage. Lt-General Sir Reginald Pole-Carew arranged for an east wing to be built while he was overseas on duty, and when he returned he was horrified to see how it ruined the symmetry of the house – as you can see in the photograph. His son, Sir John Carew Pole, inherited the property, and when he returned from the Second World War he had the east wing removed to leave the fine Queen Anne mansion we see today. In 1961 Antony House was vested in the National Trust with the family remaining in residence.

Torpoint Ferry in 1958

View No 13. Torpoint Ferry, 1958. This is one of three ferries built by Messrs Phillip and Son of Dartmouth and they were delivered from 1925 to 1931. I have included it here because I grew up with these ferries. This part of the river is called “The Hamoaze” and we are on the Devonport side of the river and looking towards Torpoint Ballast Pond with several supply ships moored in the river and Maker Heights in the distance. This ferry was larger than the Saltash Ferry but it worked on the same principle i.e. a steam engine driving a wheel which turns and pulls the ferry across the river on the chains.

Training Ship Impregnable c. 1905

View No 14 is Training Ship Impregnable c.1905. We are coming to the end of our journey now.This is the beach at Cremyll, and across the water is the original part of Devonport Dockyard where many super battleships were built on No 3 Open Slipway which can be seen in the distance. The ship you see here was built in 1860 as HMS Howe, a three-decker wooden battleship of 6,557 tons, 275ft long with 121 guns, and was already outdated by new iron-built warships so she was laid up. When the original training ship Impregnable was taken out of service the Howe took her place and was renamed HMS Impregnable in 1886. The boy sailors were put through a rigid and disciplined training to fit them for their duties in the Royal Navy. So here they are cleaning the bottom of their cutter on Cremyll Beach. There is a vessel in Mashford’s Yard on the left, and behind her the steamer “Lady of the Lake”. Astern of her is the paddle steamer “Britannia”.

Mount Edgcumbe House, c.1910

View No 15. Mount Edgcumbe House c. 1910. This is the impressive house the Edgcumbe family moved to in 1553. If you remember: Sir Piers Edgcumbe married Joan Durnford the heiress to the Stonehouse lands. It was his son, Sir Richard Edgcumbe, who built Mount Edgcumbe House in the 864 acre Mount Edgcumbe Park and his family who moved from Cotehele in 1553.

Since then a succession of Richard’s and Pier’s have inherited Mount Edgcumbe Estate and added gardens, walks, follies and general improvements. I think the most interesting time was when Admiral George Edgcumbe (and his wife Emma) inherited from his brother. Then King George III and Queen Charlotte visited Mount Edgcumbe in 1781 and 1789, and each time bringing a fleet of ships, and the King made George the first Earl of Mount Edgcumbe. Their son, Richard, became the 2nd Earl and there was a stream of royal visitors led by Queen Victoria in 1843 and 1846.

When I was a boy during the war the 5th Earl was Piers Alexander Hamilton Edgcumbe and he was the last of the direct line. Plymouth was subjected to a “Blitz” of bombing raids in 1941 and on the night of 22nd April 1941 the German bombers were attacking the dockyard again and some incendiary bombs missed the “Yard” and landed on Mount Edgcumbe House and gutted it leaving only a shell! Piers Alexander died in 1944 and the title passed to  his cousin Kenhelm Edgcumbe who was the Managing Director of the Everett Edgcumbe Electrical Company. He was faced with having two expensive estates so in 1947 he passed Cotehele to the care of the National Trust and concentrated upon having Mount Edgcumbe House rebuilt. He managed this in 1958 but died in 1965. The house and country park were then sold jointly to Plymouth City Council and Cornwall County Council to settle death duties. Sadly, Kenhelm Edgcumbe’s only son died at Dunkirk in 1940, so the title passed to Edward Piers Edgcumbe, a New Zealander. When he died, a nephew Robert Charles Edgcumbe, a New Zealand Sheep Farmer, became the 8th Earl of Mount Edgcumbe and I believe he now lives nearby.

The Folly built in 1747 in Mount Edgcumbe Park with Plymouth Sound in the background

View No16. The Folly in Mount Edgcumbe Park and Plymouth Sound c.1920. I end our trip on the River Tamar with this view of one of the loveliest harbours in the world. I like visiting Mount Edgcumbe Country Park. There is over 400 years of history here, and entry is free and you can walk for one mile, or up to six miles, with this view. There are English, French and Italian gardens, and a scattering of follies, temples, zig zags, cottages, and a deer park. I may also have a quiet cup of tea in the Orangery Cafe.  If you must see the house I believe there is a small charge. I hope you have enjoyed our trip down the Tamar a long time ago.