The Tamar Valley may be notable for its stunning natural beauty, but its towns are well worth exploring too.
Although the Tamar’s source is only a few miles from the north Cornwall coast, the river doesn’t reach a town until it passes to the east of Launceston. Launceston is a thriving market town, full of quirky independent shops and cafes as well as regular markets. The town was the capital of the Earldom of Cornwall in Norman times, when the Earls of Cornwall administered Cornwall (or tried to…) from Launceston Castle. The castle still dominates the town and is one of the best examples of a Norman motte-and-bailey castle in Cornwall or England.
As well as the castle and the shops, visitors should take the time to visit the fine Tudor church of St Mary Magdalene and its astonishing granite carvings and the Lawrence House Museum. Launceston was the home of the famous poet Charles Causley. A poetry, arts and music festival is held in his honour every year.
The river that flows through Tavistock isn’t the Tamar, it’s the Tavy. However since the Tavy ultimately flows into the Tamar estuary to form the Hamoaze, it is still considered to be in the Tamar Valley. The town’s recorded history dates back to the founding of the now ruined Abbey of Saint Mary and Saint Rumon in 961. King Henry I granted the monks a charter to run a “Pannier Market” in 1105 and the market has been running ever since. There is also a farmers’ market twice a month in Bedford Square.
Sir Francis Drake was born and lived in Tavistock. His home in the later part of his life was Buckland Abbey, a few miles to the south of the town on the Bere Peninsula. Visitors arriving in Tavistock by road from the west or the south will be greeted by his statue.
In the mid-19th century, Tavistock was a mining boom town. The nearby Devon Great Consols mine (now part of the Cornish and West Devon Mining World Heritage Site) was one of the world’s largest copper mines and later produced roughly half of the world’s arsenic. The 7th Duke of Bedford reputedly earned over £2million (equivalent to over £165million in today’s money) from his local mining interests. One of the legacies of this wealth is the grand buildings of Bedford Square.
Nowadays, the town is most famous for its shops. Visitors used to seeing town centres full of identical chain shops will be surprised at the range of independent and individual shops in Tavistock. In recent years, Tavistock has been voted ‘Best Market Town in England’ and ‘Best Food Town’.
Notable annual events include the Tavistock Goose Fair (in existence since 1116) and the Tavistock ‘Real’ Cheese Fair.
Callington is a small town on the Cornish side of the valley perhaps most famous nationally as the home of Ginsters pasties. In some of the earliest tales of King Arthur, Arthur’s court is decribed as being at “Celliwig” in Cornwall, which some Arthurian scholars have identified as Callington.
The town is famous for its murals. Finding all of the murals on the Callington Mural Trail can be quite a challenge!
Like much of the valley, Calstock was a mining centre. Archaeological evidence suggests that tin mining was taking place in the area since at least Roman times. A Roman fort was discovered near to the church in 2008 – only the third such fort to be found in Cornwall.
Calstock sits right on the river and in the nineteenth century, paddle-steamers brought day-trippers upriver from Plymouth. The boats have changed, but it is still possible to take the same boat trip. Another way to reach Calstock is by rail. This journey, along the beautiful Tamar Valley Line from Plymouth crosses the river by means of the stunning Calstock Viaduct.
Calstock itself is a relaxed kind of place with old houses crammed together around twisting, narrow alleyways and streets. Walkers can head off from Calstock along the river either upstream or downstream. Beware though – the river is still tidal at Calstock, so the direction the river seems to be flowing might not be the direction you expect it to!