A hike through history in the Tamar Valley
BASIC WALK: Way-marked loop through the forest west of the new Tamar Trails Centre, near Gunnislake, taking in Wheal Anna Maria and returning via Blanchdown Wood.
DISTANCE AND GOING: Four and a half miles on hilly tracks.
IMAGINE my excitement when someone invited me to visit a West Country area where 15.5 miles of new hiking trails have been opened in a beautiful location which has been out of bounds to the public until now.
In 13 years writing about walks for newspapers, I've never had a call like that.
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We're in the Tamar Valley in an area close to the road bridge at Gunnislake.
All the hills around here are riddled with old mines.
After much work and negotiation the Tamar Valley Mining Heritage Project has opened up vast tracts of what is still a privately owned estate.
There lurks the remains of what was once the biggest copper mine in the world – a vast complex that went on to become the biggest arsenic mine in the world, Devon Great Consols.
Nothing grows on the barren slag heap that remains save for a few rags of lichen and moss – and I've always been told that is because the place is still too rich with noxious heavy metals. But when we walked over it the other day, the mining expert who was acting as my guide told me it's toxicity was long gone.
That expert was Barry Gamble, project manager for the Tamar Valley Mining heritage programme, and a better guide to the new walking trails you could not possibly wish to find.
Let's, first, quote from the official blurb: "The new Tamar Trails take a journey along old transport systems such as canals, tramways and railways, and explore the mining history as well as our stunning natural landscapes. The Tamar Valley Mining Heritage Project is located in the heart of the World Heritage Site within the Devon side of the AONB. This landscape has a distinctly industrial legacy from the 19th century mining boom. It forms part of a series of sites within the Cornish and West Devon Mining Landscape World Heritage Site."
The route I did with Barry took us along Walk 3 in the new Tamar Trail booklet, beginning at a car park adjacent to a visitor centre which is due to open later this month. It's on the site of the old estate sawmills, some 400 metres down a lane west of the main Gunnislake to Tavistock road, halfway up the hill from Newbridge.
When it is open the centre will act as one-stop information zone, which means the wondrous woodlands will have not been cluttered with unsightly interpretation boards. There'll also be a cafeteria.
All this is at the centre of what could be described as a magnificent figure-of-8. There are new trails across the road to the south-east, and also into the woods to the north-west. It was a tour of the latter section that Barry and I did one cold grey afternoon recently and basically this takes you right around the site of the old Devon Great Consols mine.
The four and half miles of the main trail is all way-marked, so there's little point in my giving exact directions here. Suffice to say we strolled from the car park along a woodland path which eventually took us on to the old track-bed of the mine's long defunct railway.
This crosses the Rubbytown Valley and takes us past Wheal Emma and on beyond Wheal Josiah to Wheal Anna Maria and the old arsenic workings. You can then do a loop further to the west through the trees, passing Wheal Fanny then dropping down towards the river through Blanchdown wood before curving back around to the east and passing Wheal Frementor. This brings us back up to the arsenic works where we can then take a lower route back to the car park.
Barry becomes passionate when he talks about these mighty mining complexes. "After the discovery of ore in 1844 this was a copper mine for nearly 30 years and it was very labour intensive, not just in mining terms. The number of people down the mine would have been doubled by the people on the surface. There were even women and children in the dressing department which was crushing the ore, separating it, washing it, concentrating it, so it could be shipped on the railway down to Morwellham and then off to South Wales for smelting.
"That direct employment accounted for about 1200 people but you could times that by five for the number of people in the surrounding area that were dependent on this mine.
"Much of the land is still owned by the Earl of Bradford (who bought it from the Duke of Devonshire) but West Devon Council has leased public rights of way here and now we've got an entire network of trails that take you to the most important and most enjoyable features in the landscape."
"The arsenic complex is one of the best of its kind preserved anywhere in the world. It dates from about 1922 and we've got almost all the parts of the process still here so you can understand how it all worked.
"You can see the systems they used to process the arsenic – see where they scraped it off the walls, put it in barrels and shipped it off. That big iconic chimney in the woods above the bare ground – that's the chimney where the vapour was finally taken out and chucked into the atmosphere.
"That's Wheal Anna Maria. All the mines were named after mine owners' wives or daughters. One of the shareholders was William Morris's father – after a year of working their £1 shares were worth £800 each - and some of them had up to 250 shares.
"After his dad died, William Morris eventually became a director of the mine for a short time. That's when he and his family made big money. He left and started the Arts and Crafts movement – funded, basically, off the back of this place."
As we began the return journey along our loop, Barry told me: "All the trails are way-marked – there are basically trails for whatever ability you have or length of time you want to walk. And they are multi-use so you can walk or cycle, or even take your horse on some. We've also created some tougher walking routes in some of the more inaccessible areas, again, packed with archaeology, but all in places you would not have been able to go to before."
And those rare words should bring pure joy and excitement to every West Country walker's heart.
Find out more from http://www.tamarvalley.org.uk