Take your time in Tavistock
PUBLISHED: 11:40 26 March 2009 | UPDATED: 15:53 20 February 2013
A feast for the history, nature and food lover awaits the visitor in Tavistock, as Belinda Dillon discovers
Playing host to an eclectic Pannier Market from Tuesday to Saturday, and a renowned Farmers' Market on the second and fourth Saturday of every month, Tavistock has much to offer the modern consumer. Many independent shops line the quaint streets, some tucked away down quirky arcades such as Paddons Row, and fine eateries and cafs offer a wealth of choice for the hungry shopper. Tavistock may recently have earned the accolade 'Best Market Town in the Country', but it has been a centre for commerce since 1105, when Henry I's royal charter first allowed a Pannier Market - referring to the baskets in which the produce was carried - to be held here.
However, dig deeper and you'll discover that there is more to Tavistock than quality produce. There is also much to satisfy the history buff, the nature lover, and those keen to feast on local legend.
Following the granting of Stannary Town status in 1305, Tavistock became an important hub for tin mining. However, it was the mining of copper that would really make its fortune. By the mid 1860s, Devon was producing over half of the world's copper, and between 1801 and 1861, the population of Tavistock tripled. It might seem hard to imagine today, but in the mid-19th century Tavistock was reminiscent of the wild and boisterous boomtowns of the American Gold Rush: the Wild Westcountry! Drunkenness was rife, and severe overcrowding resulted in an increase in illegitimacy and a high infant mortality rate.
However, it was on the wealth created by copper mining that Francis Russell, the 7th Duke of Bedford, was able to implement his massive rebuilding project that created the genteel town that we enjoy today. The slums were cleared away and in their place were erected the market building, the Town Hall, and the Guildhall, as well as 250 cottages around the town to house mineworkers. As you stroll around, keep an eye out for the ducal coronets and 'B's for Bedford that adorn many of the buildings. The Duke surveys his work from his vantage point in Guildhall Square, a good place to start your tour of the town.
If you walk away from Bedford Square down Plymouth Road, you'll pass the Bedford Hotel. Dating from 1822, the building was once the home of the Duke's Steward, and retains many original features. To the rear there's a wonderfully serene garden. Can you find the heralding hare?
Immediately beyond the hotel, in the front of a Victorian vicarage, stands Betsy Grimbal's tower. Moss-covered and crumbling, it incorporates all that remains of one of the principal entrances to the Benedictine Abbey that dominated the settlement of Tavistock in medieval times. Founded by Ordulph, Earl of Devon, in 981/974, the Abbey was an important ecclesiastical hub until the Dissolution in 1539, when Henry VIII gifted all its rights, property and obligations to John Russell, the father of the Bedford line. The tower is supposedly named to commemorate the unfortunate young woman who was hurled from its heights by a jealous monk. However, the name is more likely to be derived from 'Blessed Grimbald', a 9th-century saint revered by the Benedictines. Nevertheless, if chills are what you require, walk around the tower to the archway to discover a stone sarcophagus unearthed when the Abbey was demolished during the 18th century.
Across the road stands the Parish Church of St Eustachius, dedicated in 1318 and enlarged a century later using the beautiful local Hurdwick stone, sea-green in colour. In the churchyard a ghostly ruin rises out of the ground, a fragment of the Abbey cloisters. Inside, examine the lovely 19th-century pulpit carved from Caen stone, and try to find the snail slowly making his way up one of the vines. There is also a roof boss that recalls the importance of the town's involvement in tin mining. Can you find it? Similar detective work is required to locate the tiny white mouse carved into one of the pew ends in the Clothworkers' Aisle. Slightly less cute, but nevertheless skilfully carved from beautiful Devon marble and alabaster, are the headless children, skulls and crossed bones that decorate the eerie Glanvill monument in the Lady Chapel. On a lighter note, take a moment to enjoy the East window, designed by William Morris.
Leaving the church, continue a little further down Plymouth Road, taking in the splendour of this wide thoroughfare (the image-conscious Duke's homage to the Champs Elyses, perhaps?), and imagine the scene on the second Wednesday in October (14th this year) when stalls, sideshows and other amusements line it from end to end to celebrate the annual Goose Fair. On the right stands the Victorian grammar school, now a private house. Can you discover which well-known high-street name was one of its first pupils? The most famous son of Tavistock, Sir Francis Drake, stands resplendent in copper at the end of Plymouth Road. The statue on Plymouth Hoe is actually a copy of this magnificent 1883 original by the Austrian sculptor Joseph Boehm.
Turn left into Canal Road and you'll find the Wharf Arts Centre. Have a coffee and take five minutes to peruse the live music, film and theatre programmes. In September, the art gallery will be exhibiting a collection of Dave Green's evocative photographs of sea caves from around the Westcountry.
From the Wharf, you can walk part-way along the four-mile canal that links Tavistock with Morwellham Quay, the port that serviced the area's mining industry. If you've got time and energy aplenty, follow the canal path towards Crowndale Farm, which is the site of Sir Francis Drake's birthplace in 1542. Alternatively, relax in The Meadows, a large public space between the canal and the River Tavy that's perfect for a picnic. If you've tarried in the market and the town's fine food shops, you may have found some Dragon's Breath mustard to spread on your locally reared ham, or livened up your cheese sandwich with a little Eve's Revenge hot apple chutney.
Once sated, you could work off your lunch on one of the quirky exercise machines that are located around the park. If that feels excessive, then cross the grass to amble along the left bank of the Tavy, one of the fastest flowing rivers in the country. This path takes you back towards the town centre, and passes the high wall that marked the boundary of the Abbey precinct, as well as the Stillhouse, where the monks prepared their cures. From this vantage point beside the river, the weir and the wonderful Abbey Bridge hove into view - surely one of the town's best photo opportunities, especially with the sun sparkling on the water. A close rival for the title 'Tavistock's Best View' is to be had from the viaduct. Head up Drake Road from Bedford Square until you find the sign for West Devon Borough Council; take the first right, signposted Quant Park, and follow the road up and around until you reach the top of the viaduct.
Marvel at the spread of the town and the surrounding countryside as it stretches away before you. The viaduct was built in 1889 to carry the Waterloo to Plymouth line of the London and South Western Railway, but closed in 1968 and now affords a fine walk and cycle path under bridges and through the cutting as part of a nature reserve. This rich post-industrial site supports a wide range of different habitats, including wet flushes, bare rock faces, dry grassland, and trees and scrub. As well as the many varieties of birds, butterflies and flora to admire, keep an eye out for the contemporary artworks created by members of the Molly Owen Centre in Tavistock.
Fully satisfied that you've seen as much as you can, head back to the town centre via Madge Lane, at the start of the viaduct walk, and relax over a cream tea. Legend states that during the restoration of the Abbey following an attack by Vikings in 997, the Tavistock monks paid local workers in bread, clotted cream and strawberry preserve, thereby inventing the 'cream tea'. Whatever its origins, this delicious treat will be thoroughly welcome. Tourist Information Centre: 01822 612938 Wharf Arts Centre: 01822 613928