I’m always up for a canal, me, and while those of the Black Country and Brum are of course the best, I’m always interested to see them around the country. My hols took me all sorts of places, this time including Tavistock in Devon. A small, touristy town on first view, there turns out to be a ton of history in the Tavy valley.
As we were walking by the canal, my wife mentioned that it looked like it was flowing. In my wisdom, I confidently said no, it’s just the wind, canals don’t flow. Misplaced hubris of course – the Tavistock Canal is one of very few that actually do have a gentle gradient and therefore flow towards a destination. In this case, the water is taken from the Tavy at Abbey Weir (with machinery in place to prevent young salmon becoming trapped in the canal, which is rather sweet) in Tavistock, and the canal descends to Morwellham Quay, on the River Tamar. This feature, as with river navigations elsewhere, brings the industrial use of the canal bang up to date – just north of Morwellham, the canal is used for hydroelectric energy production.
The initial purpose of the canal was to carry copper from the mines at Wheal Friendship and Wheal Crowndale, near to Tavistock, as well as slate, limestone and other bits and bobs. An Act was passed for its completion in 1803 – although the route of the canal lay entirely within the ownership of the Duke of Bedford, he donated the land in exchange for shares, so it became a public venture. The Bedford estate clearly plays a major role in the town – a quick look at the major buildings (the Bedford Hotel on the corner of Bedford Square and Duke Street, for instance) will tell you that this family, and the local granite, went a long way towards defining the town. The section from Tavistock to the northern portal of the Morwell Down tunnell was completed in 1805. The tunnel itself was significantly more work, and wasn’t completed until 1816. The remainder, from the southern portal to Morwellham quay via an inclined plane was finished the next year and the canal declared open on 24th June 1817. Shortly after, a branch to Mill Hill quarry was constructed, although this proved a limited success and closed in the 1830s. As so often, the canal was a victim of its own inflexibility. Despite being something of an engineering marvel, when a massive lode of copper was discovered just 4 miles from the Quay, the canal, in the opposite direction, was unable to to be used, and it was soon superseded by tramways, then by the South Devon & Tavistock Railway.
There’s a very pleasant park now between the canal and the Tavy in Tavistock, and a marked walk all along the section to the tunnel which we mean to come back to. See you soon Tavistock!