Category Archives: Tamar valley

Cotehele to Cremyll Ferry

Leaving Cotehele

We left our exploration of the Tamar valley somewhat hanging in the air after our walk to Cotehele. We had found somewhere to launch our canoes. It was all a question of waiting for the right tide and a gap in diaries.

The aim of this expedition was to canoe the tidal Tamar to Cremyll Ferry and thus to complete our circum-navigation/walk around Cornwall. Unusually, we had invited friends to join us as part of our joint exploration of Cornwall’s rivers.

IMG_0864A very early start saw us leaving Cotehele at 9:00 at the top of a spring tide. The water was lapping the top of the quay and the gigs were returning from their morning exercise as we set off. The river was already ebbing making our progress satisfyingly easy.

We could not have chosen a better day. There was no wind and although rain was threatened for late afternoon, we expected to remain dry all the way.

20170528_091704The first stretch past Chapel Farm and round an enormous bend to Hole’s Hole  and on to Cargreen was a joy. Great reed beds lined the right hand side of the river; shelduck were teaching their offspring to swim; an occasional swan preened its feathers; the water was smooth and we made good progress.

Approaching Cargreen after 5 miles, we went through the first of two strange patches of water.  Despite the strong tide which was straining at the buoys and moored yachts, the water was glassy flat. There was not a ripple on it, as though someone had ironed it smooth. The clouds were perfectly reflected in its mirrored surface. Was this, perhaps, some junction between fresh and salty water?

Cargreen for coffee

A coffee stop at Cargreen was welcome, but short, as we did not want to miss out on the benefit of the fast-flowing tide.

Rounding West Point, the two great bridges came into view at the end of a long straight.

We passed the entrance to the River Tavy with its impressive railway bridge. It is a reminder of the free market at work in the Victorian age that neither this bridge, nor Brunel’s masterpiece allowed pedestrians or carts: the railway wanted to preserve its monopoly.

We met the second strange water feature just before we reached the bridges: a line of flotsam right across the river as though it had picked up a load from a single beach and was now transferring it out to sea. Not even our tame geographer could account for this. One only notices such features when close to the water surface.

Brunel’s masterpiece

Crossing this line, we noticed a change in the conditions. A line in the sky hinted that the rain might be moving in rather earlier than expected, a gentle headwind emerged from nowhere and we had to start working for progress, despite the strong tide.

By the time we reached the bridges, the wind was strengthening and funnelling through the gap. Waves were beginning to appear. So much so that the passage under the bridges was through fast-flowing maelstrom of water, pulling us this way and that.

This was the beginning of some very different conditions. ‘Wind against tide’, is a familiar statement in navigation theory lessons, hinting at discomfort and hard work. We experienced both.

The stretch from the bridges down the Hamoaze, past the naval dockyards, was ‘everyman for him/herself’ with rough water in patches, standing waves, and a strong headwind. Individual canoes disappeared into troughs and appeared over crests at random. Had anyone capsized they would have had to fend for themselves.

Though there was no over-riding pattern to the water, beneath us, the river was moving inexorably towards the sea. We were just grateful that there were no large ship movements as we battled on.

Eventually, we had all passed the Torpoint ferry, heading for the green of the Mount Edgcumbe peninsular, Maker church peeking above the trees.

We were swept onwards towards Cremyll Ferry and landed, thankfully, at bang on 12:30. We had completed the journey in 3.5 hours with a ten minute stop. A total distance of just over 11.5 miles.

Celebrations were delayed until we had found some dry clothes, warmed our frozen fingers and loaded our canoes. We can recommend the carvery in the Edgcumbe Arms after a hard morning on the water. It was well-deserved: at least we thought so.

Celebrating the completion of our journey down the Tamar

Thus, we had completed our circum-navigation/walk around Cornwall without having to walk through Plymouth.

Our next project will be to cross its width of Cornwall yet again, and to circle Bodmin Moor, while continuing our exploration of the county’s churches. Oh, and our friends are already talking of exploring yet another river or two.

Thanks to Pom, Jeremy, Yvette, Gordon for joining us on this trip.

Gunnislake to Cotehele

Morwell wood

The final stages of our Tamar walk were a bit disjointed thanks to our discovery that launching canoes at Gunnislake did not appear to be on the cards (except at dead of night when the gamekeepers were not watching). We were faced with a series of short links instead of one long stretch.

To link Gunnislake to our new get-in spot of Cotehele Quay needed one of these short walks on a sunny January day. There was not a leaf left on the trees but the snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils were beginning to  appear from among the leaf-litter.

We started where we had left off, just south of Gunnislake, and walked on easy roads up the landmark of Calstock church. In the gorge below us the Tamar, now a mighty river, was winding its way past Morwell Woods and showing increasing signs of being tidal.

Calstock church was delightful and set, unexpectedly, on the site of a former Roman fort. We noted a ledger stone in the porch to a Griffin – an echo of entering Mylor church.

We shadowed the single-track railway as it twists and turns its way around the valley side, before dropping down past OkelTor Mine, holding our noses as we reached the river and its reedy bank close to the sewage works.

Calstock viaduct

By now the Calstock viaduct (1904) was very visible in all its elegance, the town clutching the hillside on the north bank. It is something of a surprise that this little line – from Plymouth to Gunnislake – has survived successive railway closures but the winding river and lack of bridges means that communities like Calstock and Bere Alston are actually  rather cut off with few major roads.

Calstock appeared an attractive small town with come good quality houses. Others looked sadly neglected.

Cotehele house

As a light rain began to fall, we followed the road along the river’s edge to the sharp Cotehele turn where we took to the woods and made our way up to the house. Cotehele (NT) is a fine Tudor mansion of a very domestic scale with wonderful views down to the river and viaduct below.

We wandered around the gardens and up to the folly on the hilltop. Built in the C18, this triangular tower sits on the top of the hill and was designed to look like a church tower from afar. The NT has thoughtfully provided a stair to allow one to reach the top.

Cotehele Quay: Shamrock

Our walk took us down to Cotehele Quay on the river bank below. Here the Shamrock (1899), a Tamar barge, sits looking slightly disconsolate in winter, surrounded by glutinous mud. An NT cafe provided sustenance and shelter from the passing light drizzle.

Our return route took us past the little Edgcumbe chapel, built on the cliff edge close to where Sir Richard, a supporter of the future Henry VII, hid in the undergrowth to avoid his pursuers in ca 1483. He dived into the river to escape them. His pursuers, seeing his cap floating away, presumed him drowned and gave up the chase, allowing him to escape to Brittany. A charming story and a reminder of the perils of backing the ‘wrong’ side, as the Cornish gentry so often did.

A more direct route took us back up the hill and back to our car, the sun providing an entertainment of rainbows pointing at Kit Hill which really does need climbing one day.

Our Tamar walk is thus effectively complete: about 60 miles. The remainder of our ‘circumnavigation’ of the borderlands will be by boat (and reported here).

This circular walk of about 6 miles had taken us 3 hours of walking. We rewarded ourselves by visiting St Ive church on the way home.

Around Gunnislake

Welcome to Gunnislake

We had planned to walk to Gunnislake and complete our journey down the tidal Tamar by canoe. A recce around Gunnislake soon disabused us of this idea. It is hard to imagine a more unnecessarily unwelcoming area than the banks of the river at Gunnislake.

We had previously run into bossy riparian owners a short distance up the river. It seems the same attitude prevailed here as the banks were littered with signs banning any activity at all.

The walk along the Tamar from the bridge passes through some woods filled with the remains of old industrial buildings being reclaimed by nature.

Gunnislake weir

The remnants of the old canal and lock also become apparent as one reaches the weir which is the head of tidal navigation.

In the distance, as the river turns southwards towards the Morwelham bend, an attractive looking gorge appears, under Sheepridge wood.

It is a shame that one cannot access this area easily by boat and it is hard not to resent the prohibitions which are so uncharacteristic on a tidal river. We wondered what anyone would do if we had paddled upstream down the middle of the river.

We will have to walk on and launch further downstream.

Milton Abbot to Horsebridge

p1080463Having reached Milton Abbot, our route planning became a little uncertain. We had a mere 4 miles gap linking our last destination at Milton Abbot with Horsebridge which we had reached from the other direction. We kicked ourselves for not having stretched ourselves on some of the earlier, easy walks.

To fill in the gap, we started at Horsebridge and did a circular walk to Milton Abbot and back. The preferred route is along the Tamar Valley Discovery Trail which takes you through Sydenham Damerel although there is a straighter route through Leigh Cross which we used on the return journey. The Sydenham route had the advantage of going off-road for a stretch after the village but was otherwise unremarkable; except for a rather jolly penny halfpenny gate.

Milton Abbot Old Vicarage

This was not a walk filled with incident or particular delights. The distant profile of Bodmin Moor and the familiar shapes of Rough Tor and Brown Willy were constant companions, as was Kit Hill to the south west. As usual, we wished we could walk closer to the river itself.

Milton Abbot, which we only seem to visit on grey days, is clustered around its church (St Constantine) and contains some good looking small buildings. The Old Vicarage, however, is a candidate for any horror film and reminds one of the status of a Victorian vicar.

Leaving Milton Abbot

There was another stretch of off-road walking out of the village before we headed back to Horsebridge by the more direct route.

Newbridge to Milton Abbot

Early morning

We picked up our journey where we left off, at a junction near Newbridge. A light rain – ‘heavy dew’ –  was falling as we stepped out.

It was early which is always a wonderful time to be walking. Ahead of us the mist was lifting from the valleys creating a magical, almost artistic effect.

Ahead, the roads were initially much the same as the previous day but as we dropped down to Bridgetown, the character changed. While we had been away the river had grown up a bit and had established its own mini flood plain.

River Ottery

The stretch through Crossgate, close to Druxton Bridge was a joy. The road followed the edge of the higher ground. It was instantly more prosperous. The simple open pastoral fields we had experienced further north gave way to arable fields and paddocks. The landscape was tidier too.

Near Werrington, the significant river Inney joined the Tamar, adding considerably to the volume of water in the river.

A short stretch on the A388 took us through a garden centre and onto a footpath for the first time in many miles. We were soon back on a road again, re-tracing some former steps towards Polson bridge.

St Leonard’s packhorse bridge

By now we had joined the Tamar Valley Discovery Trail with its apple symbols. If you follow this then be warned: the apple symbols are often overgrown with ivy and it has a habit of deserting you at critical moments.

The St Leonard’s water treatment works was as delightful as ever while close by polite children were passing their Sunday mornings exercising their mounts walking around a dressage ring. Hidden away was the tiny packhorse bridge over the river Kensey which we had spotted before, now covered in a spectacular carpet of orange leaves.

Greystone bridge

We crossed over the A30, the usual dividing line between the ‘tougher’ landscape of north and ‘softer’ south Cornwall, and made our way to Lawhitton where we visited the unusual church.

We were back on very narrow lanes again, which we followed down a steep hill to Greystone bridge.

There were frantic warning signs about ‘uneven road surface’, ’10mph maximum’ and ‘danger of skidding’. No driver can keep to this sort of speed on empty roads. The road was so narrow that no driver could speed and any skidding would only damage the car as each side consisted of a Cornish bank. Perhaps there should be a sign at Polson bridge saying ‘Drivers use all roads in Cornwall at their own risk’. It would be cheaper.

Felldownhead cider barn

At Greystone (the bridge dates from 1439) the Tamar enters a small gorge which stretches beyond Gunnislake.

What the books had not mentioned was the steep 1 mile 20% climb up the other side but it was cheering to see a drinking trough at the bottom of the hill and a cider barn at the top.

We sat to eat our picnic beside a kaleidoscope of apples waiting to be processed, their sweet smell reminding us of the abundant harvest.

From here, it was a short distance to Milton Abbot where, with the clouds looking distinctly threatening, we hastened down a non-existent path across some fields and up to the church where our car awaited us.

We had walked about 13 miles in five hours, leaving ourselves a ridiculously short distance to reach our target of Gunnislake where we will start the next stage of our odyssey.


Whitstone to (near) Newbridge

p1080164We returned to the Tamar valley over a weekend which promised to be fine, if cold, picking up where we had left off at Whitstone.

On our last walk we did a big detour, about 3 miles from the river, to avoid walking down the B3254 super-highway or crossing the border into Devon for too great a distance. On this walk we were faced with another detour in the other direction, as much as anything because of the lack of roads following the river.

As our last posting said, the upper reaches of the river are characterised by low rolling hills with few villages, scattered farmsteads, plenty of clay soils and cattle standing around in green fields. The roads join up these farmsteads. The B3254 is the main artery and, during its 18 mile length from Launceston to Kilkhampton, passes through no town worthy of the name. This is a wild area of open landscape where farms have been in families for generations.

Dartmoor in the distance

Leaving Whitstone, we followed a footpath across a field which was boggy even though it had not rained significantly in recent days. This was our only foray off road for the whole day.

The rest of the time we followed lanes which came in two flavours: ‘very narrow’, which could accommodate a single car and a walker squashed into a Cornish hedge and which generally had grass down its middle; and ‘narrow’ which left rather more room for the walker unless the vehicle was a particularly large tractor driven at speed by someone who looked about 16 years of age.

p1080206It was a day of sounds and colours and bright sunshine rather than notable sites. In the distance, in front of us, the tors of Dartmoor pointed skyward while, to our right, the familiar shapes of Bodmin moor gave us some familiar landmarks.

It has been a ‘good’ autumn with the golden leaves falling straight down and gathering at the roadsides and on woodland floors, not scattered to dark corners. In places, we were walking on a golden carpet, beech producing much the best colours.

The susurration of the trees above us in the occasional wintery gusts sent a shower of dying leaves into our path and we held our hands in front of us, determined to catch falling leaves for luck.

Tamar at Crowford bridge

We noted the appearance of starlings, a bird which is rare further west  in Cornwall. Great murmurations were chattering away to each other, discussing the unfamiliar walkers below them.

Because of the detour, we had not seen the Tamar for some time and it was good to re-acquaint ourselves with her at Crowford bridge.

A car overtook us as we approached the ridge, drove up to it, seemed to look at Devon,  turned around and headed back into Cornwall. We understood and were respectful as we crossed the county boundary.

North Tamerton

A mile or so later we crossed back into Cornwall, the border not being marked, and headed for Tamerton bridge where an elegant house, a former post office, kept guard on the crossing. By now, the river was looking quite grown up. A short distance away was North Tamerton church which we had to visit.

We suspect that not much happens in North Tamerton; at least judging by the sign there.

Our way lay southwards on a single road and we stretched our legs to reach Boyton for a late lunch. Here was another church in a small village on a gentle hill above the river, the shape of the valley being unmistakable.

Beware of the fish

At Hornacott drivers are faced with a perplexing sign. Avoiding horses and dogs is relatively easy. Cats, chickens and geese are more of a problem but are generally avoidable. However, the Highway Code is strangely silent about the correct diversionary manoeuvre when fish pop up in the road. As walkers, we were thankful not to be faced with this danger.

We left Boyton as the temperature was beginning to drop and walked on a mile or so to collect our car for the end of day one of a two day expedition.

We had walked 11.5 miles in four hours, almost all of it on what passes as roads in the borderland.

Moreton Pound to Whitstone

Looking west towards Bude

After a fabulous breakfast at a B&B in Bude (trying saying that out loud) we picked up where we had left off at Moreton Pound. Today would involve a long swing towards the sea to loop around the area around Bridgerule on the west bank of the river which should be Cornwall but is actually Devon. At Hackthorne near the wonderfully-named Budd’s Titson, the border is only about 3 miles from the sea.

This, coupled with the lack of north-south paths would drive us as far west as Marhamchurch. We had considered cutting off the bulge by walking the B3254 but one look at the road convinced us not to.

Looking south to Tintagel

The blackberries were no worse than the day before and we made good progress along lanes to West Leigh where we were to turn left onto the so-called Planekeepers’ Path. Here we hit a snag in the form of deep puddle of slurry completely blocking the track. Some lateral thinking took us through the farmyard of Leigh Farm walking past a ‘Private’ sign unnoticed, and back onto the track across the valley to Cross Lanes.

Leaving Cross Lanes, we had a view of the wonderful panorama of the coast, stretching from Tintagel to the domes of GCHQ north of Bude as we crossed open fields.

Two churches beckoned us on: Week St Mary on a hill far ahead and Stratton about a mile away to our right. This was a reminder of how prosperous or densely populated this area was in the C15 for seeing two or three church towers  at the same time is a rarity further west. We were headed for Launcells Church which was marked as being 600 yards away but was invisible. Stratton kept beckoning.

Launcells church and Barton

Then, quite suddenly, we were summoned by bells: Launcells was in the dell in front of us.

Fearful that a service was about to start (it was a Sunday), we hastened on to arrive at the door of the church at 5 minutes to 11. Thankfully the service was not due until quarter past and we were able to enjoy this glorious church which Simon Jenkins includes as *** in his book of Thousand Best Churches in England. It was well worth the effort as the church is lovely.

Alongside the church is Launcells Barton, a fine C18-fronted house which would suit George Warleggan’s aspirations.

A typical road

Had we had confidence, we would have followed the Planekeepers’ Path from Launcells up to Hobbacott Down but our map did not show a connecting footpath and we opted for a road route to Lower Cann Orchard. Here we found the other end of the path from Hobbacott and so, if you try the route, have courage and take the path.

Our route now lay along a single rolling road through Budd’s Titson to Whitstone. It was another quiet road with tall hedges on either side. Something called Hooper’s rule dates hedges by the number of woody species in a thirty-yard distance with one species per 110 years. Dr Hooper clearly never lived in verdant Cornwall. Here it must be half that for the hedges were a riot of blackthorn, sycamore, oak, as well as the ubiquitous brambles.

Cornwall was experiencing its characteristic ‘second Spring’ for the campion was out in places, alongside garden-escapes of michaelmas daisies.

Hilton Wood closed in on us near the end of our walk: a tangled mass of ancient-looking forest, the rampart of a settlement or iron age castle peeking through the trees. Sadly some ‘leisure lodges’ could also be seen. Agricultural diversification has its price.

Looking seaward from Whitstone hill

All the streams we had seen so far had been flowing to our right, towards the sea, showing that we had not yet crossed the watershed into the Tamar valley which we probably left around West Leigh. The final steady climb of around 100m up to Whitstone convinced us that things were about to change.

Reaching the top, the views became better and better and there was a real feeling that we were climbing an escarpment. Sure enough, there ahead of us was the low valley of the Tamar while behind us stretched the coast from Tintagel to GCHQ. Our end-point had been well-chosen.

We had walked just over 9 miles in 3hrs 45 minutes and could have done more but Whitstone church awaited us. We had not seen the Tamar all day but we had walked around part of ‘Devon in Cornwall’ and crossed back into the Tamar valley.