The Tamar Valley not only divides Devon and Cornwall, but is also an Area of Outstanding Beauty (AONB) and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The reason for its inclusion as a World Heritage Site is that it forms part of the wider Cornish mining landscape.
Boundary lines make no distinction where the geological landscape is concerned and West Devon’s mining history is recognised as being just as important as its neighbour across the river. There are ten distinct areas that are identified as of special significance within the Cornwall and West Devon Mining World Heritage Site and the Tamar Valley and Tavistock area is one of them.
Morwellham Quay played an important part in the Tamar Valley’s mining history and should be on everyone’s list of places to visit if you have an interest in this sort of thing – and even if you haven’t.
The site and museum at Morwellham used to be financed by Devon County Council but funding was withdrawn in 2009. The following year it was re-opened as a paid for visitor attraction by the people that run Bicton Park in East Devon.
The quay at Morwellham was originally set up by the Benedictine monks of Tavistock Abbey in the 10th century to carry goods to and from Plymouth. If you go to Tavistock you’ll see that the River Tavy is unnavigable and why the monks found it necessary to travel the 4 miles or so to the banks of the Tamar, but it wasn’t the trade with the monks that brought prosperity to this river port, but its support for the local mines.
As far back as the 12th century tin ore was being transported through the quay, but as tin became scarcer and the demand for copper rose, then deeper excavations were needed to reach the copper lodes.
One of the mines that progressed from tin to copper mining was the George and Charlotte mine here at Morwellham and visitors are treated to a tram journey through the mine, which for me is the highlight of a visit here. When the mine was actually opened nobody seems to really know for sure, but it must have been after King George III and his wife Queen Charlotte (who the mine is named after) ascended the throne in 1760.
In the 19th century huge deposits of copper were discovered on the Duke of Bedford’s land around Tavistock, and the subsequent Devon Great Consuls Mine became one of the largest copper mines in Europe – and should have made the 7th Duke a very rich man. If you take a look around Tavistock it won’t be difficult to see where some of that money was spent.
In the early days pack horses were used to transport the mineral ores down to the quay, but by the late 18th century it was decided to build a canal between Tavistock and Morwellham, which no doubt made life easier for the mine owners, not to mention the pack horses.
The 4½ mile long canal was opened in 1817 and included a 1½ mile long tunnel. At Morwellham the canal ended up 237ft above the quay which meant that an inclined plane needed to be constructed to bring the barges down to the port.,
The chutes used for loading the copper ore onto the boats can still be seen as can the water wheel that was used to drive the machinery that crushed the ore. The boat that you can see in the basin is the Garlandstone, a wooden ketch that was built at Cotehele in 1903. Although not specifically used for transporting copper ore, it has a design typical of the Tamar sailing barges of the time.
At the peak of its activity Morwellham was exporting around 30,000 tons of ore a year and was the richest copper port in Queen Victoria’s empire, prompting her to make a visit in 1856.
Even when copper deposits started to run out arsenic became another source of income, so much so that the latter half of the 19th century saw it becoming the world’s largest supplier.
In 1903, after sixty years of operation, the Devon Great Consoles Mine finally ran out of ore and was closed. In the meantime, the railway had also taken over, making the quay virtually obsolete. Everything became abandoned except the canal which found a new lease of life as a water supply for a hydro-electric plant.
Today, the former harbour-master’s house has become part of the museum which includes a cottage, an assayer’s workshop, a cooperage, and a forge – and next to the hydro-power plant is another cottage which was used in a BBC series called Edwardian Farm with Ruth Goodman.
These days, historic sites like this can only survive with the help of commercial enterprise, grants, volunteers, and of course, visitors.
Decaying ruins have a romantic nostalgia attached to them, but there’s also a place for somewhere like Morwellham that provides facilities where people of all ages can be educated about our heritage, sit by the river with a cream tea, and above all else go down a copper mine without the fear of not coming back up alive.