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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Having 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.
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.
There was another stretch of off-road walking out of the village before we headed back to Horsebridge by the more direct route.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We 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.
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.
It 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A bright October day took us back up to the furthest north of the duchy to start our serious attack on the Cornwall/Devon border and river Tamar walk. When we had reached the county border at Marsland Mouth on our coast path walk, we turned inland for a mile or so, ending in the nature reserve and wooded valley at Gooseham Mill. It was here that we started our walk, turning south for Plymouth.
The Marsland Water valley was lovely. On a narrow woodland path, we made our way along the Devon bank before crossing back into Cornwall and climbing up a hill towards Woolley where we joined a country lane. This led us across the busy A39 past a long barrow which is one of the few in Cornwall. This stands at a road junction, satisfyingly suggesting that one or more of the tracks must have an ancient origin.
From here it was a short step to the source of the Tamar on Woolley Moor. This must be the least sign-posted river source we have yet found (although the real source of the Nile is just as bad). A scrubby enclosure at the top of Woolley Wood was impenetrable unless armed with waders and several large brush-cutters. According to the map this contains ‘spr’. We had to be satisfied with some standing water which was a little way from the site of the ‘spr’ but which we took to be the beginning of the stream.
Crossing into Devon, we followed a country road to a junction where another stream crossed our path. Trentworthy Water looked rather larger than the meagre stream we had seen at the source and we momentarily questioned whether the geographers had got the right answer on the Tamar.
A little way further on we were reassured for, as we crossed the Tamar at Youlstone Ham Bridge we could see that the river was now a respectable ‘small river’. We were back in Cornwall.
We were struck by the landscape of the area. We could not see or feel the sea: there was no soft salt-filled air to cool our cheeks. Around us was a landscape of low rolling hills dotted with green fields and small farmsteads. Fields contained cows or grass. The horizon was large with 360 degree views, dotted with wind turbines.
This felt very different from western, southern or coastal Cornwall. Walking was easy, though, with familiar country roads hedged with blackthorn, sycamore, holly and brambles. We did not want for sustenance for the blackberries were still around in abundance and we could snack as we walked along.
When I say ‘walking was easy’ this was only the general case. At one point our path deteriorated into one of those ancient paths so familiar from the wetter areas of Cornwall where you are not sure whether you are on a path or simply following the bed of a stream. Thankfully, the ground was moderately dry but the brambles and undergrowth more than made up for it. Machetes would have been helpful.
As we emerged from the covering of trees, we hoped for better but there was still a swampy patch to cross which would be distinctly unpleasant in wet weather, the rushes indicating that the water was not far below the surface.
We approached the Upper Tamar Lake at a distance before making our way down to the junction with the Lower Lake which is a nature reserve and reservoir for drinking water. Here we found a convenient bench for our picnic, watching grebes and a cormorant diving for their lunches.
Crossing into Devon at the dam, we followed the old Bude aqueduct for a delightful but sinuous walk which reminded us of walking the levadas of Madeira except that the canal had long since ceased to flow and was being re-colonised by scrub. The ripples of the Tamar could be heard in the valley below us.
At Virworthy wharf we reached the head of navigation of the old canal. Here an exhibition in a small hut told the story of the C19 construction of the aqueduct. A series of short sections and inclined planes had allowed sand to be taken from Bude up into the hinterland to improve the drainage and acidity of the soils. It must have taken many, many loads to make much difference to a single field.
We had long given up trying to guess which direction in which we were walking when we found ourselves crossing a road near Puckland. We reluctantly left the canal/aqueduct and walked the short distance to Moreton Pound, crossing the Tamar back into Cornwall once again at Moreton Mill. By now she was a really respectable river and we itched to collect our canoes for the 100m length of decent water we could see.
We had walked 12 miles in just under five hours. It was strange to be back on roads and smooth paths without the ups and downs of coast path but it certainly made the going smoother.
Our walk took us along part of the planned route down the Tamar valley to Polson bridge which is one of the three major waypoints on our route. Just around the corner from this, close to a less-than-salubrious water treatment plant, was a charming little packhorse bridge over the Kensey river which is not marked on the map.
Launceston castle and the tower of St Mary Magdalene
We have at last found time to start the final stretch of our round-Cornwall trip. Rather than pick up where we left off at Gooseham Mill in the north, we started at the southern end, seeing the condition of the lower Tamar which we hope to canoe in due course.
We parked at New Bridge, Gunnislake, just upstream from the weir which marks the border between the tidal and non-tidal sections of the river. Here a lovely early C16 bridge with triangular cutwaters spans the narrow valley.
Our route took us north along the Tamar Valley Discovery Trail which is marked by a rather jolly apple symbol. It makes a change from an acorn, cross or cockleshell, familiar from our other Cornish walks.
The path emerged alongside the bank of the river in some lovely woodlands. The opposite bank rose steeply above us and was completely covered in a thick forest.
In amongst the trees were occasional lumps of masonry, reminders that this was once a busy mining area. The great bulk of Kit Hill with its familiar chimney was a constant reminder that between here and Tavistock was once an intensively mined and is part of the World Heritage Site.
This stretch of the river is known to canoeists as the rock garden and one could see why from the frequent mini-weirs where the water tumbled over rocks. Being August, the river was not in spate and must have been close to its lowest level.
Before long, the path climbed up a steep hill and delivered us onto a long rather dull road which dropped rapidly to the lovely village of Latchley. This is clearly proud of its heritage for a sign indicated the name of each historic building.
Leaving the village we were once more shrouded in trees in Greenscoombe wood. All the traditional broadleaf trees were here and we lost count of the species as we walked on. A good hack back of some of the undergrowth would have made the going easier but the brambles did provide an occasional ripe and juicy berry.
The river was following us on our right and the occasional sound of water suggested the presence of a rocky weir. We only discovered later that walkers are actively discouraged from getting close to the river as it ‘spooks’ the fish. It seems a shame that we cannot all enjoy such a lovely river.
Eventually, we emerged at the village of Luckett from where the going was much more open, as we followed the edge of fields, the river shadowing us a hundred metres or more away.
Passing the historic Lower Hampt farm we reached Horsebridge, a C15 bridge which, like that at Gunnislake, had cutwaters. Here the river showed its contrasting characters: smooth waters with an occasional rapid which, at times of peak flow, would probably disappear under water.
We crossed into Devon which we will have to do on and off on our journey along the Tamar valley. A minor road to the right took us up hill, past Lamerhooe cross where a motte and bailey castle once commanded the bend in the river, and on to a car park at the entrance to Grenoven wood.
Grenoven and Blanchdown wood are managed by Tamar Trails as a publicly accessible area, a mini-country park. In their midst lie the remains of former mining activity. The roads and equipment lying idle were testament to their modern use for logging.
Although the trails are accessible, we found them incredibly difficult to navigate as signage was almost non-existent and, where there was any, it spoke in shorthand. To make matters worse, two consecutive signs pointed to entirely different places. None of them showed distance or time and there were no helpful maps. It is in the nature of the poor map reader to blame his equipment but we were beginning to count our supplies for fear of ending up like Hansel and Gretel, marooned in the wood for the night.
Eventually, passing further evidence of mining in the form of a mine adit, we emerged at the Tamar Trails Centre itself and escaped back to a road. This lead us steeply downhill back to Gunnislake bridge, Cornwall and our car.
We had covered 5 miles to Horsebridge and 4.5 miles back although our gps was more generous and made it 14.2 miles included the detours. It had taken 3.75 hours. Canoeing this stretch is not going to be possible except when the river is in spate and the fishermen are huddled indoors around their fires, between October and February.
Tamar: the Tamar Trail sign
Tamar: a rocky weir
Tamar: a constructed weir
Tamar: in its serenity
Tamar: from Horsebridge
Tamar: Greenscoombe wood
Tamar: signage in Blanchdown wood
Tamar: evidence of mining in Blanchdown wood
A journey through the landscape and history of Cornwall