Country diary: a walk along the water

Tavistock canal, Tamar Valley: Moss and polypody ferns are on tree trunks, branches gleam emerald in the winter sun, and the sound of tits and nuthatch carries from the treetops

Mallards glide and gulls squawk on the Tavistock canal beside the bowling green, petanque and tennis courts in the Meadows – a civic park where people stroll in the midday sunshine. Parallel, at a lower level, the Tavy runs peaty brown over rapids below the abstraction point for the canal. Constructed early in the 19th century, it took mineral ores to the tidal Tamar and brought back goods for local industry and agriculture. A one-and-a-half-mile tunnel cuts through rocks beneath Morwell Down, and the last leg is an incline plane to the port of Morwellham (see Robert Waterhouse’s The Tavistock Canal, Its History and Archaeology published by the Trevithick Society).

After passing beneath the Plymouth road, the canal runs between schools and the Fitzford cottages (1862) built for workers on the Duke of Bedford’s estate, with their distinctive dormer windows and brick chimneys. Beyond recent housing estates, sun dazzles on a bend beside an overgrown quarry, before the channel curves onwards, set between embankments and shady cuttings draped in ivy, moss and ferns. Snowdrops have become established on a bank opposite the trodden towpath, and fenced-off enclaves allow drinking by cattle in adjoining pastures. Coppery staining on the underside of the bridge at Crowndale is a reminder of the mines once served by the canal. Tips and surface remains are now disguised by regenerated woodland with undergrowth of holly, bramble, honeysuckle sprouting leaves, and hazel full of polleny catkins. Moss and polypody ferns are on tree trunks, branches gleam emerald in the winter sun, and the sound of tits and nuthatch carries from the treetops of tall beech along the bank.

Near the site of an old manganese mill, an abandoned railway viaduct crosses high above the canal; it dominates and detracts from appreciation of the older Shillamill aqueduct, a cast-iron trough over the former Deep Lane, now a mere hollow up the hillside. The canal was closed in 1873 but water still flows on and, since 1933, it has powered the hydroelectric station at Morwellham. Past Lumburn lock, access is restricted, but a poem, etched into polished stone, mentions the next section “under the hill into the slender dark. Import – Export – Tamar calling”.


Virginia Spiers

The GuardianTramp

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