“The Building of the Plymouth, Devonport & SW Junction Railway”

A talk by Stephen Fryer

Tavy Viaduct – courtesy of Stephen Fryer

Stephen started by explaining the complicated set up of the various rival railways and the competition in providing lines into Plymouth – and beyond. With the broad gauge of the GWR already well established, they were against allowing the standard gauge to become the norm. However, with the Army and Navy expressing doubts about “ensuring the security of the district” the LSWR were finally able to put forward a proposal for a new line in standard gauge from Devonport to Lydford in 1882. Contracts were approved for £790K and work started in March 1887.

Over two thousand navvies were employed on the project and Stephen’s image of a typical gang embraced the times. All dressed in waistcoats but with a strict hierarchy: the boss with his top hat, the foreman sitting down at the front, they were a very hardworking bunch. Often living on site and “hot bunking,” with their wives cooking meals, they also had to buy their own tools and candles. Tavistock Hospital had just opened and many Navvies were treated there.

Via nostalgic images of then and now, Stephen took us along the 22-mile route from Devonport station with its footbridge – now the site of a Technical College, tunnels under Devonport Park and Ford, where the line passed under the main GWR line (only 4 feet above)! A sea of housing has now obliterated all trace of the old limestone and concrete viaduct which was dismantled in the 1980s with the limestone being used in the construction of the Plymouth Dome. At Ford Station, there is one of the first poured concrete bridges in the UK, now buried, along with the station, under spoil from building of the A38 Parkway. A small halt at Camel’s Head was used by dockyard workers, and at St Budeaux, the station even had its own covered walkway approach down to the platforms.

From here, the line still exists, picking up the GWR Tamar Valley tourist line to Bere Alston and Calstock. It passes over the stunning Tamerton Creek and Tavy viaducts, the columns all made from cast iron sections, sunk to the riverbed and then filled with concrete. Further on, another bridge disappeared after a disagreement over maintenance between local farmers. It continues past the picturesque station of Bere Ferrers and then Bere Alston, once very busy from the valley horticulture and flower trade and from where the tourist line branches to Calstock.

From the latter, remains of the line to Tavistock are dominated by the Shillamill tunnel and viaduct, although many of the original features of the route are now obscured by dense vegetation. Another viaduct towers over the town into the old station though the former footbridge is now on the Plym Valley line at March Mills. Heading out into the countryside, the route passed through Wringworthy, Mary Tavy and Brentor – the old station here now carefully looked after in private hands. At Lydford, the GWR and LSR lines are merely yards apart. Old wartime sidings are lost in the undergrowth. The line was built with 3 tunnels, 7 viaducts, and 76 bridges, but by 1968 was closed, along with the ongoing route to Okehampton.

A talk of fond memories enhanced by Stephen’s thorough knowledge, plus input from the incomparable Bernard Mills and their stunning images of the infrastructure and the old engines. Perhaps current discussions about restoring the link from Tavistock to Bere Alston may bring some of these back – without the steam of course.

“The Beardown Inscriptions”

A talk by Simon Dell

The Bardic stones, courtesy of Simon Dell

Edward Atkins Bray was born at the Abbey House (now the Bedford Hotel) in Tavistock in 1778. His father, a solicitor and steward of the Bedford Estate, had bought Beardown farm and it was here that Edward spent his summers beside the Cowsic river, developing an interest in poetry. Simon’s entertaining talk went on to explain how one man’s dream came to fruition.

On the wishes of his father Edward started training as a lawyer in London, subsequently qualifying and working on the circuit. However, realising he preferred a quieter vocation he turned to the Church. When the Vicar of Tavistock died, he took over the role in 1812 moving into the new vicarage in 1819. Four years later, he married Eliza Stothard whose husband had been killed in a fall at Bere Ferrers church. She went on to become Tavistock’s most prolific author.

Bray was clearly a great lover of nature, the connections with the spiritual worlds and the role that poetry played in bringing these together. One of his carvings illustrate this -”Sweet poesy, fair fancy’s child: thy smiles imparadise the wild”…He became obsessed by the Greek and Roman poets, the Druids, Merlin the magician, the Isle of Mona (aka Anglesey, an old haunt of Merlin’s). Also, a visit to the British Museum to see the Rosetta Stone, perhaps inspired him to create his own vision.

Thus, over a period of about 5 years, in the little wooded valley of the Cowsic, Edward had inscriptions carved on the rocks about his favourite poets. Some of these are in couplets though lack of space and suitable rocks meant most of these were just dedications. Although many were hidden under dense undergrowth for many years, Simon and his team have now uncovered 28 of these. Two are inscribed in Bardic runes – the Celtic “Sprig” alphabet – and have been translated. His Isle of Mona sits in the middle of the river and nearby is the grotto of Merlin’s cave. On one stone the writing is upside down, probably due to the rock having been moved in a flood.

Through Eliza’s famous notes and letters and her correspondence with the Lake poet Robert Southey, many of Edward’s more detailed intended inscriptions have been discovered. For instance, on one of the stones in Merlin’s Cave – “these mystic letters would you know – take Merlin’s wand that lies below.” There would be a white wand with Celtic letters alongside one in the Roman alphabet. Held together would have enabled translation. (Incidentally, Simon produced his own version!).

Edward died in 1857 after 45 years as the Vicar of Tavistock and is buried beneath the cloister arch at St. Eustachius church. In the rock inscriptions he has fulfilled his dreams and left a legacy of his love of Dartmoor and the natural and spiritual world.

Simon will be leading our members on a visit to these special places in August.