Tavistock Canal

Tavistock Canal History

A man named John Taylor, aged just 19, moved into Tavistock and became manager of the Wheal Friendship copper mine. It was he who instigated the idea of a canal for the businesses of Tavistock.

A meeting was held at Tavistock guildhall in March to discuss the possibility of connecting the town to the navigable parts of the River Tamar. The town was in desperate need of good communications with the coast as it was in the centre of the world's copper mining industry. Devonshire and Cornwall was mining 25% of the world's copper but Tavistock was losing out due to poor access by road to the coast.

The proposal was to use the River Tavy out of Tavistock to Lumburn Valley. An embankment would take the route over the valley and a tunnel would take it through Morwell Down. An inclined plane would then take the canal down to Morwellham where it would join the River Tamar which entered the sea to the south at Plymouth. A "side-cut" (branch line) would later be run to the slate quarries at Mill Hill. The canal would not use narrow boats or barges but smaller "tub boats" which could be pulled 3 or at a time.

The canal was to be just 4½ miles long though the tunnel (named Morwelldown) would take up 1½ miles and the inclined plane a further ½ mile. At the end of the tunnel the canal would emerge over 230 feet above the River Tamar, the committee had weighed up numerous options before plumping for an inclined plane but it turned out to be the largest of its kind ever built in Britain.

It had iron rails which transport containers between canal and river and it was operated by machinery driven by water from the canal. The canal would be given a current flowing from the River Tavy in Tavistock and the flow would carry boats through the tunnel as well as work the wheel on the inclined plane and drive mining machinery near to the route.

(No mention is made of how hard it was to navigate against the flow, especially in the tunnel).

The company gained permission from the local land owner, the Duke of Bedford, to mine any minerals found while cutting the canal and soon after starting to dig the tunnel the company struck copper. They named this "lode" Wheal Crebor, it was run in conjunction with the canal until 1828 and was a moderate success throughout this time.

The whole stretch of the navigation from Tavistock to the eastern mouth of Morwelldown Tunnel was opened for business. However, the tunnel was a very long way from being ready. This was not due to the rock being particularly difficult to cut through but because the copper mining within the tunnel was holding up construction. On top of this there was a general lack of funds available caused by the war with France. Construction continued at a very slow pace.

Morwelldown Tunnel had the smallest bore on any canal in England but it took 13 years to build, a longer time than virtually any other canal tunnel in the country. Working conditions were appalling and John Taylor had to install two water wheel pumps, one to clear the air and one to drain the water which flowed through the workings. When the tunnel was complete a committee report said it would "stand as a lasting monument to those who had worked so hard to create it and to the proprietors for sticking to the job against the disappointing downward turn in the mining industry".

A 2 mile branch, named Millhill Cut, was built from the main line to nearby slate quarries.

In June, the full 4½ miles of the Tavistock Canal main line opened after 14 years of construction. However, (a familiar story) by the time the route was ready for business the thriving copper industry of the pre-Napoleonic war years had turned to near extinction after the war (which had ended at Waterloo 2 years earlier). All the same, there was a big celebration at the opening of the canal including a 21 gun salute from ships on the River Tamar. The canal carried a profit (though only a very small one) for over 40 years. As well as copper ore, limestone and slate leaving for the River Tamar via the canal, there was also a good intake of products for the people of Tavistock.

Millhill Cut - which had hardly been used since it was built in 1817 - was converted into a tramway.

When railway competition arrived the canal company (like many others) tried to find ways of keeping trade on the waterway. Of course it was speed which always let canals down so ingenious ways of speeding up passage were sought. Passage through the Morwelldown Tunnel was speeded up by using a system of water wheels and ropes totalling 4 miles in length which could pull boats through the narrow bore.Needless to say, the system did little to help the company to beat the railways despite passage being considerably quicker.

Another (and sometimes only) way to fight off railway competition was to drop the tolls charged on the canal. The Tavistock Company also resorted to this but by then the battle was already lost and less tolls basically just meant less income and quicker downfall.

Despite keeping the canal going for over ½ a century, the little company eventually had to give in to the pressures of competition - mainly from the South Devon & Tavistock Railway. They sold out to the Duke of Bedford for just £3,200 (£59,000 less than the cost of building the route some 60 years earlier).

West Devon Electricity Board bought the whole canal (which had long since seen its last boat). They diverted the water emerging from the southern portal of Morwelldown Tunnel and took it to a one million gallon reservoir which fed their power station.

The west end of the canal was rented by the Central Electricity Generating Board for £1 a day while the stretches intoTavistock and through the town's park were taken over by Tavistock Council who maintain it as a linear walkway.

The canal has been closed for over 120 years but it has not been forgotten. The flowing water which was once used to drive engines at Wheal Crowndale and Wheal Crebor is now used as a power source for a hydro-electric power plant near Morwellham quay. The tunnel still stands too and is definitely "...a lasting monument to those who had worked so hard to create it and to the proprietors for sticking to the job against the disappointing downward turn in the mining industry".

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Tavistock Canal Route

The Tavistock Canal is said to be every bit as beautiful as many other more famous routes - such as the Llangollen or Montgomery. It is only 4½ miles long and therefore can be strolled along in one afternoon.What is more is that it is actually navigable - but only by canoe. This is encouraged and is easily done as there is a canoe hire base in Tavistock.

Finding the site of Tavistock Basin is very easy - its the car park at the bottom of Canal Street! There are some car park-side cottages(!) and warehouses beside the entrance. Following the canal is said to be equally as easy and thankfully it (unlike the basin) has not been filled in at all. The route starts to the north of the car park where it is fed by the River Tavy. A fairly new leisure centre is close by as the canal enters the town park where it is very well kept. The waterside is popular with locals and with numerous ducks. In fact, you may be forgiven for thinking this is why the towpath has been designated as an official footpath known as "Drake's Walk"! The route passes under the A386 and then past some allotments before leaving the town. The first ½ of the route (about 2 miles in length) is mostly well looked after with a tidy towpath.

Soon, the ground to the south falls away and the route flows through a beautiful wooded section. This stretch is said to be a lot like the Pontcysyllte to Llangollen stretch of the Llangollen Canal as the Tavistock also winds around clinging to the side of hill. Also like the Llangollen the Tavistock is fast flowing and very clean. On Crowndale Bridge is a surprising notice board giving information about Sir Francis Drake. Why? The notice board explains that a plot of land close to the bridge is thought to be the site of his birth place! So now we know why the stretch we have just walked is called Drake's Walk.

One arch of the disused Shallamill railway viaduct which crosses the River Lumburn also passes over the canal just before the waterway itself turns to cross the river on a single arched stone aqueduct.A few yards past the aqueduct is the former junction with the Millhill Cut. It used to leave and head northwards for about 2 miles towards local slate quarries. Its bed (which was converted into a tramway) can still be followed north for a short way until it reaches the A390. On the north side of the main road the route can be seen as the tram-road travelled on an embankment to Millhill crossroads. A bricked up bridge shows the course of the branch at Millhill where it headed towards the quarries though nobody knows its exact route after the bridge.Similarly, no one knows the exact location of a small (19 feet) inclined plane which was built somewhere near the blocked up bridge between the A390 and Millhill. The plane was double-tracked using gravity for downward travel and horses for upward. Unfortunately Millhill is not marked on my road atlas so I can't follow the route of the branch at all. However, if I ever get lost in the area I could always travel a little way further north to the incredibly appealingly named village of Chipshop!! (Though I guess its pronounced chips hop not chip shop?).

Back on the main line, past the Millhill Branch junction, the canal turns south and enters a deep cutting which leads to Morwelldown Tunnel. Sadly this section now belongs to PowerGen and is out of bounds. The tunnel is 2,500 yards long, just 8 feet high and 6 feet wide, the smallest ever built. Both portals have the date 1803 marked on them though the tunnel was not open throughout till 13 years after this. Despite its problems during building, it is still navigable today. Of course the tunnel had no towpath though it can be seen from above ground from a ventilation shaft known as "Bray's". This is situated in a field ¼ of a mile south of the crossroads at Rock on the B3257.The south portal can be found near a lane which forks back off the west side of the road into Morwellham. The lane is at the point where the road begins its steep drop into the village. The water has been diverted here, it runs through a culvert and then into two short tunnels to a nearby reservoir used by an electricity power station.

The original route of the cut can still be followed though it is no more than a damp ditch. It swings west after leaving the tunnel and travels for about ½ a mile to Canal Farm. A crane once transhipped cargo here from boats into trucks which would then descend the 237 feet inclined plane. It was by far the greatest inclined plane in Britain, it was double-tracked and operated by a water wheel. It still exists but was described as very overgrown in 1971. The water wheel pit was also still visible.

Reference books say that at the bottom of the plane was Morwellham copper quays where the canal basin still holds water sometimes. The original old stables still stand and the incline keepers cottage is still lived in. One reference book tells me permission should be sought if you want to see the plane, however.......

Morwellham Open Air Museum now stand on the banks of the River Tamar and could well take in the site of the canal basin and it's buildings.The museum is a reconstruction celebrating the history of industry in the area. As well as restored and rebuilt buildings, the museum staff dress in period costumes.

Just a few yards along the hillside from the canal plane was a second incline running parallel. This was run by the hugely successful mining company, Great Devon Consols, which was owned by the Duke of Bedford.It was a tramway incline though it was converted into a "forest ride" in the late 60's. In fact the whole of Morwellham was then being restored from a state of virtual dereliction into a leisure area in which the open air museum now plays a major part.

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