The Industrial Archaeology of the Tamar Valley

Widely regarded as a classic in its field, this pioneering book explores the rich industrial heritage of the Tamar valley, utilising geographical studies, primary sources, media stories, and archeological remains to paint a vivid picture of life in this flourishing corner of the world.

Nestling between Devon and Cornwall, the Tamar valley today presents little evidence to the casual visitor of its historical significance. Among it’s wandering valleys lie both the remains of internationally significant mines, and fields once famed as the market garden of Britain. Until recently, only a few isolated chimney stacks hinted at the history contained underneath the ground, whilst the famed strawberry fields and cherry orchards have all but been reclaimed by nature since the demise of the railways denied them access to the London and Northern markets. Now, however, the area is a UNESCO world heritage site, leading to a resurgence of interest in the valley.

As a Devon man born and bred, I have fond memories of trips to Morwelham Quay, Cotehele, and walks along the long silent railway lines. As my interest in history has grown, I’ve often pondered on those silent valleys. This book fills in the gaps, bringing the area to life through a readable, if occasionally slightly dry, style of prose. Of particular interest were the chapters about transport in the valley – the rise and fall of the Tamar steamers, the rise and fall of the Tavistock canal, and the rise and fall of the Tavistock – Plymouth (via Gunnislake) railway line. These chapters were well written, informative, and – crucially – placed the developing transport networks into national context as well as examining the causes and impacts of their existence. Much transport writing can focus more on the networks than their economic and social impacts, so this was a breath of fresh air. The chapters focusing on mining, quarrying, and subsidiary industries were also really informative, and presented information in an easily understandable way (for someone with a basic but limited understanding of technical terminology). The only downside was that a lot of the contextual significance was illustrated by factual data measured with imperial values, which could at times be confusing for the modern reader. The chapter on agriculture was also illuminating, although it sits on the periphery of my spheres of interest.

This book is now nearly half a century out of date. As I mentioned before the area is now a UNESCO world heritage site, and it would be interesting to see if there was any more recent writings on this topic which add value to a very solid underpinning.

I’d recommend this book to anyone from Devon or Cornwall, as it lifts the veil of this valleys rich and varied heritage.

As an side, in the near future I’ll be reading 2 more books from the same series – the Industrial Archaeology of Dartmoor, and an Introduction to Industrial Archaeology.

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