On a little coal train

The world at 6 was white and eerie as fog filled the valley so I closed my eyes and waited for 8 when the white had gone and the Cornwall side of the valley was back in its proper place. Sitting outside with toast and coffee, cows bellowing – I assume, to be relieved of their milk – and late roosters crowing; birds twittering, a distant tractor and the faint sounds of the burbling river. It was all too wonderful.

I was content and blissful as I read about Tavistock and Sir Francis Drake’s association with it. He was born in Crowndale, about a mile from the town and lived in the area until the age of about 10 when the family moved to Kent. At the time, Tavistock was in the middle of an upheaval due to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the churches. The abbey in Tavistock was an obvious target (it was very big) and soon was reduced to just walls, even the roof having been stripped of lead.

By the way, the Tamar River marks the boundary between Cornwall and Devon (though there is at least one person who claims the river is actually in Cornwall) so the view from the Count House (in Devon) is mainly of Cornwall!

Anyway, eventually Mirinda woke and we left at about 12 for Morwellham Quay, not far from the cottage. It’s a bit like Australiana Village except in it’s original location. Alongside some original buildings, there are reconstructions, people wandering round in Victorian garb, houses decorated in appalling living conditions, etc. I thought the £8.90 entrance fee was a tad steep until I realised this was a huge place you could actually spend an entire day at.

The earliest known mention of Morwellham Quay is prior to the Norman Conquest (1066) when it was founded by the Benedictine Monks from Tavistock Abbey. The site boasted a stream which joined a river, providing a handy place for pulling a boat ashore. Roads generally pretty much sucked, so river travel was used A LOT! Morwellham gave access to a navigable river so supplies could be shipped, ensuring the growth of the area. By 1234/40 the Quay was leased as a separate entity and a copy of this lease still survives.

Giant water wheel at Morwellham Quay

After Henry dissolved the Abbey, the Quay went to the powerful Russell family who became the Dukes of Bedford. It stayed in the family until 1956! It made the family very wealthy as the Quay soon hummed to the export of ores from the once filled hills. The Quay continued to grow up until the building of the Tavistock Canal in the 19th century, when a huge boom erupted because of nearby copper ore deposits necessitated a link from Tavistock to Morwellham, from the Tavy to the Tamar. The canal was completed in 1817 and ran for 4.5 miles, 1.5 miles through a tunnel which took 14 years to build!

But, like all good things, the prosperity came to an end and the arrival in 1859 of the Great Western railway at Tavistock plunged in the knife. The canal stopped being used as a navigable waterway in 1880, the copper-ore lodes had all but dried up, the sale of arsenic by the 1890s was no longer possible. By 1910, Morwellham Quay was practically deserted. It remained that way for nearly 60 years, then in 1969, the Morwellham Trust took it in hand and began its restoration. The link to the left is to their website and can fill in any more information you want!

The Ship Inn, Morwellham Quay

First stop, of course, was the Ship Inn where a pint of Tinners Ale was partaken before setting off for the Limeburner’s cottage. This was the home of a relatively prosperous working man’s family in the 1860s. It wasn’t as small and pokey as the miner’s cottage which is incredibly small for 13 people who lived in the 3 rooms. One of those rooms was the kitchen, another the main bedroom for the owner and his wife and the rest had the small room out the back with one tiny window. I’m not sure what was worse for the miners: their living or working conditions. Ok, life in the mines was black, filthy, barely breathable and cramped but judging by the miner’s cottage, it was pretty much the same up top.

We went on a little coal train into the George and Charlotte mine (named after King George and either Queen or Princess Charlotte). Our guide spun out yet another sad tale of woeful lives spent in dark, dank, misery digging into rock for 28 hours a day in order to earn enough money to eat enough to start again the next day. Deep in the mine, he turned the lights off and you realise how dark dark can be. Mirinda had to reach out and touch me, in order to assure herself that we all still existed, I assume. Then a couple of candles come on and you realise what little light there was for the miners. A fascinating waterwheel was constructed deep in the mine in order to raise water from the lower levels of the mine. Our guide turned it on and it’s amazing. Not powered by electricity, rather by the water it is pumping, it is very clever and still fully operational.

Of course the invention of the compressed air drill suddenly made life a whole lot easier. Unfortunately the increase in dust meant the men working them would usually die in 2-3 years! And the young boys guiding the tip into the hole would be deaf by the time they reached 20.

Coming back to the sunshine was a great relief and one possibly not felt by a lot of these people who, in winter, would go down in the dark, work in the dark then return in the dark. I don’t know when the good old days were, but they sure weren’t then!

Back at the Quay we popped back into the Ship Inn for a late lunch (homity pie and beer) then over to the Assayer’s cottage. This place was a veritable palace next to the miner’s home. Interestingly, the assayer, James (someone) for whom the place is set up, actually started off as a miner and managed to drag himself up to the surface to a position of relative power and long life. The assayer was also responsible as Harbour Master.

All in all, this place has seen an awful lot of misery so other, distant, people could make a lot of money. The most overriding fact which puts the entire thing into perspective is that the Duke of Bedford, who owned the land, made £10m without doing a thing. Now, of course, it’s lovely to stroll around, listening to the birds, admiring the views and tranquillity, to quietly sit in the shade of an ancient oak and tut at the hardships and deprivations but I can’t help but feel the depth of inhumanity.

Still, before leaving we visited the gift-shop for some postcards and fudge – this is Devon after all – then back to the cottage. We consequently spent the rest of the day lying on the grass, letting the world go by of its own accord and with no regard to us!

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