In this blog we’ll take a trip along the scenic Tamar Valley line from Gunnislake to Plymouth. We’ll stop off along the way at Calstock and the Bere Peninsula. Then journey on past the Dockyard and Devonport until finally, we’ll roll sedately into Plymouth station.
Welcome to Gunna’s Stream
Until 1820, the old mining village of Gunnislake was known as Williams Town, after the wealthy Williams family of Scorrier who owned the nearby Old Mine. It was renamed Gunnislake after a copper mine that opened in 1796 and its stream that ran from the nearby downs into the River Tamar. Gunnis is a misinterpretation of the Cornish word for an open mine working ‘gunna’. And ‘lacu’ or ‘lake’ is an alternative word for stream in Old English. So, the origin of the name is Old English: a personal name + lacu, meaning Gunna’s stream
Despite the Old English origins of its name, Gunnislake lies just across New Bridge on the Cornish side. Its also the starting point for our 15 mile long rail adventure.
A Bloody Battle
The bridge itself is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and was built in 1520. Despite its peaceful, rural setting today it was the site of a bloody civil battle:
In 1644 Parliamentarian forces faced off against the Royalists. Whilst both sides suffered losses, the Royalists were defeated with some 200 men either killed or taken prisoner. One can almost imagine the cries of bloodied and dying men as they fell from its high parapet into the waters below.
Surrounded on all sides by fine English countryside, Gunnislake offers some stunning country walks, riverside walks and woodland adventures. Rise a little further up the hill with the village at your back, and you’ll be treated to the most fabulous views of the Tamar Valley, the distant twin bridges, and Plymouth Sound.
Watch out for the Gunnas
The village has a rich mining heritage. If walking or cycling in the locality you’re bound to encounter old mine workings. Although invariably fenced off for safety, these yawning black chasms opening into the hillside or dropping away underfoot are a stark reminder of the once noisy, smelly, and dangerous industry. An industry that dominated the area for hundreds of years, employed over 7000 people and satisfied 50% of global demand for arsenic from one of the richest mining areas in Europe.
For those exploring the Tamar Valley, Gunnislake train station is the northernmost terminus and provides both car and bike parking. The Line connects to Plymouth via Calstock and Bere Alston. Both worthy stop-off points on your adventures.
All aboard? Lets go.
The picturesque village of Calstock, or Kalstock in Cornish, is the first stop on the Line and definitely worthy of a visit.
Evidence of human settlement has been discovered at Calstock dating back to Roman times. Indeed, a Roman Fort was discovered near the Church back in 2008. In fact, settlers across the ages have been attracted to the valley because of its rich source of minerals.
For more about the Fort, have a look at this article by local chap Dr Chris Smart of Exeter University
The village itself is a real riverside treat with its jumble of cottages clinging to the slope of the valley. You’ll see its boat-yards, riverside walk and surrounding pasture and woodland. We’ll hop off the train here and stretch our legs along the quay. We’ll grab a bite to eat or an ice-cream then admire the spectacular viaduct from below before rejoining the train to rumble across it.
Although now a quiet, peaceful idyll, once upon a time all the mineral produce of East Cornwall was shipped through Calstock’s quays, along the river and onward to the sea. The river would have been heaving with craft. The quay bustling with men and noise. But then Calstock’s waterway orientated way of life succumbed to the railway when in 1908 it gained a direct rail link with Plymouth. Today its quiet waters are dotted with sailboats, row boats, and other pleasure craft. If we watch a while, we may even spot the resident swan family. If this young cygnet survives the winter, it will be the first in several years.
An Acrimonious Past
Calstock’s stunning viaduct bridges the Tamar River and took three years and seven months to build – some twenty-seven months longer than originally anticipated, largely due to an acrimonious relationship between the contractor and engineers. When it opened in 1908, it had swallowed up more than half the total estimated cost of building the four and a half mile stretch of rail linking Bere Alston with the East Cornwall Mineral Railway just above Calstock.
On we rumble across the magnificent bridge
Across the bridge from Calstock, the train passes into Devon and onto the magical Bere Peninsula. We’ll hop off the train here as well, and step back a generation or two to a slower pace of life.
We might even see a kettle of Red Kite or a Heron fat with fish haul himself into flight!
Silver and Lead
Both villages are sleepy and soothing settlements that offer a gentler pace of life due in part to a complete lack of through-traffic. Folk simply don’t drive through on their way to somewhere else. Meaning quiet country lanes and an abundance of wildlife.
It wasn’t always that way. The Bere Peninsula supported a thriving silver and lead mining community for hundreds of years. The Tamar River would have been thick with boats transporting silver, timber and oak-bark. Then, when the direct rail link with Plymouth opened, the peninsula became a very popular excursion centre. It stayed that way right up to the outbreak of war. If fact it is said that on the day the Line opened as many as 30 people presented themselves for breakfast at the only inn in the village. The elderly landlady was run off off her feet and the inn’s resources were overwhelmed. Just a week later and after some nifty modifications, the inn became a hotel. It remains a hotel to this very day!
The train offers a great vantage point from which to consume picture-postcard views of fields, trees, cottages, lanes and the River Tamar herself. In case you’re wondering Bere is a Celtic word meaning spit of land which is exactly what the Parish of Bere Ferrers is.
What’s in a Name?
The word ‘Ferrers’ refers to the family who, during the reign of Henry II, became Lords of the manor. Whereas, it’s believed that the name Bere Alston evolved gradually over hundreds of years from Alphameston, then Berealmiston, to Berealbeston, then Beeralston and finally, Bere Alston.
We’ll get back on board our train and leave Bere Alston station behind. As the wheels grind slowly but surely away from the station, the train will make its way along a massive embankement that when built, absorbed some 140 million cubic yards of rock!
Then onward through a 63 ft deep cutting to Bere Ferrers where we’ll wave goodbye to the peninsula and cross the Tavy bridge with its clanking iron middle section, at the mouth of the river Tavy.
A little further one, the train might pick up some speed along a half mile embankment at the water’s edge known as the Tamerton Flat. We’ll enjoy spectacular views of Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge before turning inland towards Devonport and Plymouth.
The Royal Albert Bridge was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and opened in 1859 shortly before his death. The bridge still carries the Cornish mainline railway today, and was joined in 1961 by the Tamar Bridge. This more modern structure was built to cope with the increasing amount of road traffic in the area.
And Finally to Plymouth, Britain’s Ocean City
Finally after a delightful 45-minute trip, our train will arrive at Plymouth Station. Once there, we’ll take a short walk into the town centre and to a bit of shopping or wander down to the Barbican to see the Mayflower Steps. We could stop by The Box, Plymouth’s ecclectic mix of maritime history and art. We could take to the water ourselves on a pleasure cruise with Plymouth Boat Trips. Plymouth has so much to offer, we’ll be spoilt for choice!
And then, as if that wasn’t enough, we’ll do it all over again in the other direction as we rejoin our train for the return journey home.