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The Tavistock Canal 4½ Miles

Before the Tavistock Canal was built there was no wheeled transport for the ores, slate, agricultural produce manure and lime which was transported to and from the port at Morwellham. The roads could not take carts and instead relied on trains of pack horses. In winter roads were often impassable streams. This meant trade was expensive and slow. The solution was a canal. John Taylor a land surveyor, civil engineer and leading figure in metalliferous mining was the man behind the Tavistock Canal. The geography meant that the route would include an aqueduct across the Lumburn valley and an embankment, a 2540yard tunnel through Morwell Down and an inclined plane down the steep side of the River Tamar. Taylor studied the other canals being built in the UK at that time and learnt from their experiences. But the Tavistock Canal was different to other canals.  Not only was the canal built for transport it was designed in a way to be a power source for local farms and mines. The canal has a slight gradient, one foot per mile, which allowed its flow to be used by approx. 30 waterwheels. This was intended to make the canal banks a very desirable place for industry to locate.  The flow meant that while one horse could pull a boat with the current, it took two to make the return trip against it. The third purpose of the canal was mining. The canal needed a tunnel to be built and the hope was that it would pass through copper lodes; indeed the canal navigation was secondary to the copper prospecting. The tunnel is one of the deepest canal tunnels in the country. The canal was 4.8metres wide and 0.9metres deep.
 Work began on 29 August 1803. By 1810 the canal was navigable from the Abbey Weir at Tavistock to the northern entrance to the tunnel. The Mount Foundry Iron works at Tavistock were commissioned to build a boat for the canal. It was designed to carry 8 tons, was 38ft long with a 15ft beam. It was launched on Easter Monday 1811.
 The canal was officially opened on 24 June 1817 and cost between £40,000 and £68,000. There was a 2 mile branch  to the Mill Hill slate quarry.

Click the photographs to see larger images and more information

Tavistock is on the National Cycle Network. Route #27 is the Devon Coast to Coast. There are a number of cycle routes in and around Tavistock and a leaflet of these routes can be found at the tourist information office in town.

Abbey Bridge

The 1897 book "Highways and Byways in Devon and Cornwall" by Arthur H. Norway, describes Tavistock: "Tavistock is certainly a very lovely town. It is set in a deep valley of rich pastureland around the banks of the River Tavy, sheltered by dense woodlands over which the hills rise bare and rugged. Turn where you will in the old town streets, you will see the wild downs rising over these lovely woods and hear the noisey river singing over stones and boulders of all the wonders it has seen upon the moor. This sound of rushing water fills the town. [Abbey] bridge is the true centre of the town of Tavistock, a wonderous place for reflection and romance. Here idleness is a virtue; and he is the bad man who hastens by with no more than a passing thought for the brown water foaming under the old bridge, the dark pools round which it swirls, the trailing ivy which hangs in the cool shadow of the arches, the weir over which the river boils a few yards further on, the salmon ladder by its side, and the leaping of the fish in the still pool beyond. Black and broken by white rapids, the river hastens on, flashing over boulders beneath an avenue of high elms trees, through which the hot sunshine falls in dapples on the water; and sweeping sidewards is lost among the meadows."

The River Tavy, Abbey Bridge, Tavistock Tavistock Canal: The River Tavy The River Tavy: Fish Screen  
The River Tavy at Abbey Bridge The River Tavy from Abbey Bridge Automatic Screening Device  
Tavistock Canal Tavistock Canal Tavistock Canal Tavistock Canal Wharf
Tavistock Canal Plaque Canal Feeder Channel Tavistock Wharf Tavistock Wharf
Tavistock Canal Tavistock Canal Tavistock Canal Tavistock Canal
Tavistock Wharf Canal Road Looking towards Canal Wharf Looking towards The Meadows
Tavistock Canal, The Meadows, Tavistock Tavistock Canal Tavistock Canal Tavistock Canal
Bridge in the Meadows Bowling by the Canal The Meadows The Meadows
Tavistock Canal Tavistock Canal Bedford Cottages, Tavistock Tavistock Canal
West Bridge Sir Francis Drake   From West Bridge
Tavistock Canal Tavistock Canal Tavistock Canal Tavistock Canal
Along the Canal 'Swing' Bridge Looking towards Tavistock Crowndale Woods
Tavistock Canal Tavistock Canal Tavistock Canal Tavistock Canal
In Crowndale Woods A fridge Canal Edge Canal Edge
Tavistock Canal  
canal edge Drinking Bullocks Crowndale Woods  
Crowndale Farm

Crowndale Farm was established in the mid-15th Century and pulled down in the 1850's its stone being used to build the Manor House at Lewtrenchard, 8 miles north. Crowndale Farm is said to be the birthplace of Sir Franci Drake, although the actual site of his borth is disputed.  Drake is famous for his role in defeating the Spanish Armada in 1588. The buildings you can see today are much later. The long building beside the towpath is a warehouse for goods transported by canal.

Tavistock Canal Crowndale Farm, Tavistock Canal Tavistock Canal at Crowndale Farm Tavistock Canal
Crowndale Farm Crowndale Farm Canal at Crowndale Canal Bridge
Tavistock Canal Tavistock Canal Tavistock Canal
Under the Bridge Looking along the towpath The canal near Shillamill Aqueduct
Tavistock Canal Shillamill Viaduct from Tavistock Canal Tavistock Canal at Shillamill Tavistock Canal
Aqueduct Railway Viaduct Passing under the Viaduct The lock narrows
Tavistock Canal Lock Cottage, Tavistock Canal Tavistock Canal, Embankment
Lock Gate and Lift Bridge Lock Keepers Cottage The canal approaching the junction has a towpath on both sides Canal Junction
Tavistock Canal Access Denied No access to the canal tunnel
Closed Gate End of the Line Along the canal Towards the Tunnel

Work began on both ends of the tunnel in 1803. The tunnel is 160yards from the top of the hill and nearly one and three-quarter miles long. It took 14 years to complete the tunnel, blasting with powder. A narrow tunnel was driven through then enlarged, with shafts going up to the surface. A waterwheel was used to pump water out of the tunnel. The two ends met in August 1816 and the tunnel completed in 1817. The spoil from the tunnel excavations was used to build the canal embankment over the Lumburn Valley.

Laden boats could take 3 hours to pass through the tunnel going against the current. There is no towpath so boatmen either lay on their backs and walked it through with their hands and feet on the tunnel roof, or used poles to push boats. In the 1850's there was a plan for a steam engine to pull boats through. Water wheels were tried using wires to pull boats. Navigation through the tunnel was free but rates of tonnage were charged depending on the cargo.

Tavistock Canal, Morwell Down Tunnel Tavistock Canal, Morwell Down Tunnel Tavistock Canal, Morwell Down Tunnel Tavistock Canal, Morwell Down Tunnel
Tunnel Entrance
Tavistock side
In the drained tunnel Leaving the tunnel Tunnel Entrance
Morwellham side

The tunnel photographs come from www.interactive-walks.com visit the site for a virtual walk along the canal and through the whole tunnel. As well as the hundreds of photographs of the canal there are photos of the town of Tavistock and surrounding area.

Morwellham Quay

The canal emerges from Morwel Down through a stone-faced tunnel arch eight feet high and six feet wide. Above the tunnel entrance is the date work started on the tunnel, 1803. There is a short stretch of canal up to Canal Cottage, unfortunately this is closed to the public. From there the cargo was transfered to the quayside below via an inclined plane railway.

From the tunnel entrance there is a channel taking canal water to the Morwellham Power Station (hydroelectric) built in 1933 by the West Devon Electric Supply Company.

Morwell Down Tunnel Tavistock Canal Tavistock Canal
Morwell Down Tunnel Canal channel Canal channel Trees and Ferns
water chanel at Morwellham Quay sluice gates at  Morwellham Quay Railway Track at  Morwellham Quay Slate sleeper at  Morwellham Quay
water channel to the hydro plant sluice gates iron rail slate railway sleeper
Waterwheel,  Morwellham Quay Incline Keepers Hut  Morwellham Quay  Morwellham Quay Dock at  Morwellham Quay
WaterWheel Incline Keepers Hut Dock at Morwellham Quay A dock at Morwellham Quay
 Morwellham Quay  Morwellham Quay Waterwheel,  Morwellham Quay Limekiln  Morwellham Quay
Canal Incline Sign Morwellham Quay Waterwheel Lime Kilns
Mill Hill Branch

The Mill Hill Branch was built to link the Mill Hill Quarries to the Tavistock Canal. The junction is on the south west side of the aqueduct. The branch had an inclined plane with a rise of 19 feet 6 inches. The branch was fed from the River Lumburn but it was difficult to sustain the water supply on the upper reaches. The branch was closed in the 1830s and in 1844 replaced by  cast iron tramway. Today the branch is little more than a damp over grown ditch. For most of the route there is now no sign of the canal. There is one stone bridge taking the road over the line of the canal at Artiscombe. At Mill Hill there are more Bedford Cottages and a former canal warehouse.

Tavistock Canal Mill HIll Branch Mill Hill Branch Tavistock Canal Tavistock Canal, Mill Hill Branch
The end of the Mill Hill branch The Mill Hill Cut The Canal and Towpath/Tramway On the road to Mill Hill
Mile to Mill Hill Mill Hill Mill Hill Mill Hill, Bedford Cottage
One Mile to Mill Hill Canal Bridge Mill Hill Bedford Cottage
Canal Warehouse Mill Hill Mill Hill Quarry    
Canal Warehouse Mill Hill Quarries    


Tavistock Canal Books
Title Author Year Description
Walking Around Tavistock Tavistock and District
 Local History Society
Walks include the Tavistock Canal and include  history and explanation of buildings and features along the way
The Tavistock Canal Carolyn Hedges 1975
A short history of the Tavistock Canal with photos
The Tamar Valley F. Booker 1967
The industrial archaeology of the Tamar Valley includes the Tavistock Canal.
Highways & Byways in Devon & Cornwall Arthur H Norway 1897 A description of Devon and Cornwall


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