A Devon day out at Morwellham Quay
PUBLISHED: 08:20 11 August 2014 | UPDATED: 08:20 11 August 2014
CHRISSY HARRIS takes her children back in time at historic Morwellham Quay
So there we were. Sat in silence, backs straight, hands neatly folded in laps while our “Victorian” teacher handed out hand-held slate boards for us to practise our handwriting.
Then it happened. Alice, three, turned to me, clutching her slate and said: “So, how do you turn this on?”
It seems my i-Generation children and their friends had come to Morwellham Quay just in time for a lesson in how things used to be.
This fascinating historical village near Tavistock is a chance for everyone to discover the past and find out about the heritage of this beautiful area of West Devon.
Visitors can experience life in Victorian times by going to the village school, have a go at panning for copper, try on costumes and - the highlight - take a ride on a train through the George and Charlotte copper mine, once the beating heart of this settlement in the Tamar Valley.
Morwellham, like the mine train that runs through it, has had its fair share of ups and downs over the years and went into administration in 2009.
But a popular BBC2 programme (Edwardian Farm), new owners and an enthusiastic team of staff are putting this World Heritage Site well and truly back on the map.
Indeed, celebrity visitors have been sharing their delight at discovering this Devon attraction.
Britain’s Got Talent judge Amanda Holden recently tweeted: “Fab day at Morwellham Quay near Tavistock today!”
Word is definitely spreading, which is exactly what this place deserves.
“This is going to be a very exciting year,” says Tessa Wannell, Morwellham’s events and marketing manager.
“We’ve got a number of different events planned throughout the year in order to attract people to come and visit. We want to get away from the opinion that this is a one-visit place. Often visitors do not return for 20 to 30 years, perhaps bringing their children or grandchildren. We want to change all that.”
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Plans are in place for a new visitors’ building, which will include a soft-play area and museum.
The Morwellham calendar is packed full of events, including a food and drink festival and a “Queen Victoria” visit.
It’s thanks to the hard work of staff like Tessa that the village looks as though it has a promising future.
In the attraction’s heyday in the 1980s, there were large numbers of staff members at the historical site. Now there are only eight full-time workers.
But it’s clearly a case of quality over quantity. Enter Rick Stewart, Morwellham’s brilliantly eccentric mine train guide.
Rick has worked at the site for nearly 20 years and, according to his colleagues, he ‘lives and breathes’ the mine. And it shows. He takes us on a fascinating tour through the George and Charlotte mine, a site that has been worked for minerals since the 16th Century.
The children are left open-mouthed at Rick’s demonstration of how miners would spend up to six hours a day boring a three-foot hole in solid rock, using only a metal pole and a mallet.
“We are so detached these days from people doing physical jobs,” says Rick. “But it’s really important that we remember that the world we take for granted was built with picks and shovels. If you don’t understand your history, you can’t understand where you are going.”
Rick, by his own admission, says this is the best underground train in the country and that locals and tourists could all benefit from a trip back to tougher times.
“This is such a special place,” he says. “Morwellham as an attraction has tended to go through some ups and downs – and there have been some really big downs, but we are climbing back up again. People are taking the place seriously and making the right investments.”
The experience has certainly left an impression on our group.
Both Jake and Louis, six, leave determined to sign up for child labour down the mine as soon as they turn eight.
It’s been a day well spent.
For more information, visit the website morwellham-quay.co.uk or ring 01822 832766.
The history of Morwellham:
In 974 AD the Benedictine monks founded an abbey in Tavistock, and constructed the quay at Morwellham on the Devon bank of the Tamar River.
Minerals and ores began to be transported through the Quay in the 12th Century when tin deposits began to be mined.
This was followed by silver ore and lead ore in the 13th Century. Copper deposits were also soon discovered
By the 1860s Morwellham Quay was in its boom years and was known as “The Greatest Copper Port in Queen Victoria’s Empire.”
At its peak, between 1848 and 1858, it was the busiest inland port in England - busier even than Liverpool.
But by 1900, the port was deserted and overgrown. Times had moved on: local mines were collapsing and the railways were now the main means of transport.
In 1970, the Morwellham and Tamar Valley Trust was formed and the site began to attract more than 150,000 visitors a year.
Over the decades, however, that number dropped by two-thirds.
In 2009, Devon County Council announced it was to stop funding the attraction, leaving it with a £1m shortfall.
The site was put on the market after it closed in October 2009. In April 2010, it was saved from permanent closure after being bought by the family behind Bicton Park Gardens. From November 2010 to January 2011, the BBC2 historical documentary series Edwardian Farm was filmed at the site.