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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

A Bridge Too Far

This time, it's a story of bridges on the river Tamar. A new series on rivers? No, don't worry, just a one off with some interesting history of Cornwall and Devon that revolves around crossing the Tamar River.

I have already photographed the other bridges between the sea and here at Calstock, but that isn't difficult as there are only two, a rail bridge and an accompanying road bridge, both at Plymouth.

First I will start with some geography because you may get confused where Calstock is, I certainly did. When I first heard about the Calstock Viaduct I looked it up and assumed that it must be in Devon, but when we visited it for a day out I suddenly realised it was in Cornwall. So why the confusion?

The Tamar is the largest river in Devon and runs roughly north to south so when you look at this picture of the river at Calstock and notice that it is on the left you get an immediate impression, with the sun behind you that we are looking north and that this is the east bank. The Tamar plays tricks though because it meanders in loops and does not travel in a straight line. What that means is that here in Calstock it runs south-east to north-west, in other words it is sort of going backwards on the map. Calstock is in the biggest of the loops, a double loop in fact.

Between the years 710 and 838 there were formative events taking place in Cornwall and it's borderlands with neighbouring Wessex. The Kingdom of Wessex had designs on the Kingdom of Cornwall and suffice to say there were several battles between the two Kingdoms during this period, the Cornish won some of them but the armies of Wessex ultimately reigned supreme. This brought to an end the Kingdom of Cornwall and saw Cornwall later become part of England.

No offence to Cornwall and the Cornish, but if you look at the county today you might be tempted to ask why fight over it, there doesn't seem to be much here to fight over. Looking at the surface you would probably be right but Cornwall was more than skin deep and geologically, under the surface, all over Cornwall was enormous mineral wealth, not least here at Calstock. Calstock is here because of that vast mineral wealth even though there is not much sign of it today.

There is evidence of human settlement in Calstock from Roman, or pre-Roman times, settlers attracted by the rich source of minerals, such as tin, in the area. An Iron Age hill fort is to be found in the north of the parish. A Roman fort, only the third known in Cornwall, was discovered next to the church in 2008. It is thought that up to 500 soldiers would have been based here. More recent excavations have revealed the presence of a Roman mine consisting of pits connected by a network of tunnels. There is also evidence of a Roman road in the vicinity.

Where there are miners, there are pubs.

This was our lunch and cider stop and in case you had managed to arrive in the village without seeing the viaduct, which would be very difficult, then the pub sign at the Tamar Inn leaves you in no doubt about it.

This 17th century pub, situated in the beautiful Tamar Valley in Cornwall, was allegedly once a meeting place for smugglers and highway men. Built on a split level, it sits close by the waterfront in the village centre.

Stone-built in a mixture of granite, slate and other materials, the pub interior is wood beamed overhead whilst underfoot is a mix of floorboards and slate flagstones.

This building is old enough to have filled in three windows, probably during the period of the infamous window tax which I have mentioned in another previous post. This is a really nice example though. In England and Wales the tax was introduced in 1696 and was repealed 155 years later, in 1851.

Most of old Calstock by the river consists of narrow roads and stone built houses or warehouses. The Tamar is navigable up to here and there would have been a lot of boat traffic, although tidal.

Royal Cornwall Gazette 29th July 1881

"The proposed line would run from Lidford to the Devon Great Consols Mine and then across the river Tamar on through Gunnislake.............instead of constructing an expensive bridge over the River Tamar, as was included in the last scheme, they proposed erecting a viaduct of moderate height and span to get into Gunnislake; and he had ascertained that such a railway as proposed could be constructed for eight or nine thousand pounds per mile." (£600,000 per mile today)

This viaduct is a rail viaduct and it was finished in 1907. At this point we are a good ten miles north of Plymouth which is on the sea. When this viaduct was built there was only one other Tamar bridge crossing between here and the sea and that was the relatively recently built Royal Albert railway bridge of 1859. There was no road crossing at all up to this point in the river. The reason was the geography, combined with the known technological limitations.

Even the Royal Albert Bridge was a huge technical challenge due to the width of the river, the very high tidal range and also the fact that one of Britain's most important navy facilities, the Devonport Docks, which was upriver, had to get the world's largest warships underneath it.

This is the Grade 2 listed Calstock Methodist Church of 1910. It is now home to Calstock Arts, a community arts centre.

The first road crossing to be built across the Tamar travelling up river was another three miles north of here where the geography on this occasion aided the building of a bridge. That was at Gunnislake and we'll see that later in this post. It is named the "New Gunnislake Bridge" so it will be nice to see something contemporary by contrast.

Having seen pictures of this viaduct, and knowing by now that we were in Cornwall I was very surprised to find out that those perfectly formed blocks were not granite as you would normally find around here, but concrete. My research has found that there is a very specific reason for this. Trade Tariffs. At the time this viaduct was planned there was a very heated political debate going on around Trade Tariffs which even after having read about it (the suffering I have to endure making this blog) I still don't exactly understand the issue. All I need to say though is that the issue meant that granite was more expensive as a consequence, which resulted in cheaper alternatives being explored, despite the fact that a granite quarry large enough to supply this job was a mere mile and a half away. This was how Calstock ended up with a viaduct that has the appearance of a granite structure, built from blocks of concrete as if they were granite, and not poured concrete as it would be today. This is to the advantage of the village as it is a thing of great beauty and elegance.

Those four jutting out blocks near the top of each pillar are not decorative, they are practical, and were vital in the construction of the arches above. They are centering blocks and they held the wooden arch form that supported the arch as it was constructed. Once the arch is complete, the forms are removed.

In this photo it is possible to see them in action holding up working platforms on top of the finished piers.

Cornish Guardian 8th August 1935

Calstock Ferry Closed. Mr. S. L Lucas stated that a notice had appeared in the Press of the closing of the Calstock ferry and he was wondering if anything could be done to persuade the Devon and Cornwall County Councils to take up this matter. The ferry was the only one between Saltash and Gunnislake bridge and was a great convenience to the people of Calstock and district.

Mr. Lucas said that the ferry was being given up by the licensee because it did not pay him to keep a full-time man there during the winter. Mr. Williams said this was a private ferry, and he had advised the owner that it could be closed by giving three months notice. The gentleman who had the lease of this ferry said be could not carry on and asked if he could be released.

Mr. F. Rogers said this was the last link in the chain of three or four ferries which used to cross the Tamar. It was, however private property and so far as their interfering with it was concerned they could not do anything unless they could persuade some public, authority to look after it.

It appears as if there was a house here prior to the bridge which may have been demolished.

I cannot think why you would call this house Bridge Cottage can you?

Calstock is built on the steep hillside and this is the upper level, which is why the arch is so much lower in relation to the buildings. Note that there were no centering blocks needed at this height.

Railway cottage is so close to the viaduct that the chimney is extra tall and joined to it.

The road opposite would have led to the ferry landing on the Devon side. It now ends under the bridge at a farm.

We leave the Calstock viaduct now but before we see the New Gunnislake Bridge, just for reference I have included the two other bridges downstream and nearer the sea. They are covered in more detail in my post Kingsand and Cawsand.

So in date order, apart from ferries, if you were at the mouth of the Tamar in Plymouth Sound your nearest crossing point is The Royal Albert Bridge on the left of this picture in 1859, then coming along 48 years later was the Calstock Viaduct in 1907, then on the right here the Elizabeth II Bridge, which came along 54 years later. Those are the only three crossing points before our next bridge the New Gunnislake Bridge, and two of those are for railways. This means that it is about 15 miles further north before we can drive across our next crossing. And that is what we did after leaving Calstock.

So here it is, the "New Gunnislake Bridge". Now you're confused, so was I. To be fair it was new once, in about 1520. This means that it was the first river crossing, other than ferries, headed north from the English Channel for an amazing 330 years, until some guys invented steam railways and Isambard Kingdom Brunel decided he wanted his railway to go to Cornwall in 1859. What is more amazing is that this was the first crossing of the Tamar headed north from the English Channel, for road traffic, for 440 years until the Elizabeth II bridge of 1961 in Plymouth.

Western Morning News 14th February 1934

Sir- It is interesting to recall the fact that Gunnislake Bridge was the original chosen by JWM Turner for his "Crossing the Bridge" which I saw in the National Gallery at once and unexpectedly on my first visit thereto in 1903.

A sketch from Turner's sketchbook. Tate Gallery.

This bridge has seen a lot of history and as recently as the 1930's came close to being widened or modernised.

Daily News (London) 28th August 1926

After tea at Callington, the unsettlement settled a little. In a kind of gloomy moisture we crossed another high hump, dropping then apace into that profound green valley where Tamar River divides Cornwall and Devon and is crossed by Gunnislake Bridge. This is the first road-bridge over Tamar from the sea, and is more than three centuries old; it stands very high and nobly above the deep, dark water.

Its parapets on both sides have those V-shaped shelters for pedestrians which are such a feature in the design of our oldest bridges. While we stood on it, a car passed over, and there was plenty of room for the car, two cyclists and two foot-passengers. Yet one of those natives told us that the Destroyers have been down from , London, plotting with certain County Councillors, and have hinted darkly that the bridge must be widened, which is an evasive way of saying "destroyed." I asked why. " Because two cars can't pass on it," he replied. But what profit is there if the motorist gains three minutes and England loses Gunnislake Bridge? What, Indeed, shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?

The state of the traffic jams and accidents at this crossing was fast becoming scandalous as cars and trucks increased in numbers. Unusually it's stay of execution only came about because Hitler invaded Poland, a rare instance of the Nazi hordes saving a bridge from demolition rather than the other way around.

When war broke out, all thoughts of altering this bridge were mothballed and after the war when Britain was near bankrupt the situation was no better. Eventually argument, dithering, and indecision made the whole question an irrelevance as the building of the suspension bridge at Plymouth simply bypassed the area.

The original bridge was built for two carts or coaches to pass, not two modern trucks or SUV's. It was built by Sir Piers Edgecumbe who was Lord of Cotehele from 1492-1539. Gunnislake New Bridge was the last road bridge across the River Tamar before the sea.

The bridge is built of moorstone or granite with arches of 21 feet. The roadway was 12 feet wide in 1809 and is the same today.

Cornish Guardian 6th September 1962

The pressure of traffic on the Gunnislake Bridge has necessitated the continuance of the experiments with traffic lights which began last year. Portable lights of the kind usually seen at road works have been stationed at each end of the bridge and worked by a policeman. There is no doubt that the lights have helped matters.

Today it is still controlled by traffic lights, although they are automated.

The main road originally followed a straight line up hill, this helped to make it more dangerous as heavy loads had to brake hard on the downward approach. The new road bearing right in a curve was created later to offer a safer approach with a more gentle descent.

Western Evening Herald 12th June 1923

An extraordinary accident occured at Newbridge Gunnislake, late on Saturday night, when Mr Tyacke of Tavistock narrowly escaped being drowned. Mr Tyacke was cycling from Gunnislake to Tavistock and just before reckoning the bottom of Newbridge hill and the sharp corner leading over the bridge Mr Tyacke opened his lamp when a sudden gust of wind blew out some flames which momentarily dazzled him....

The bicycle collided with much force against the parapet of the bridge and hurled it's rider into the Tamar. In ten feet of water, Mr Tyacke managed to reach a stone by the side. A rope was obtained and the young man was pulled ashore. The bicycle was recovered Sunday morning.

As a side note here is the map today, which interested me because it must surely be a rare example of a modern road improvement turning a straight line, probably Roman, into a snaking curve. British road improvements usually entail taking a winding old road and straightening it. The steep hill is the reason behind this improvement as I said above. Roman roads were for marching soldiers on foot, who were fit enough to march up a steep hill, and who needed to get there fast, while modern roads are more concerned with road safety.

Western Morning News 30th March 1933

Court sequel to accident at Gunnislake.

An accident at New Bridge, Gunnislake October last had a sequel at Tavistock Petty Sessions yesterday, when Joseph Hume, lorry driver of Key road, Clacton-on-Sea, was summoned for damaging a wall, the property of Devon County Council, to the extent £16 Os. lOd. He failed to appear.

Mr C. T Chevallier, of Exeter, prosecuting for the County Council, said defendant was driving a motor lorry laden with paving stones, from eight to ten tons weight, to Liskeard. At Tavistock he was told the hill leading down to Gunnislake Bridge was dangerous. In spite of that warning, however, when defendant reached Gunnislake-hill the lorry crashed into the wall of the bridge owing to a lack of brake power. A young man accompanying the defendant was thrown over the wall, and defendant was pinned under the lorry, sustaining injuries which necessitated his removal to Tavistock Hospital.

While the traffic lights today ensure there are no head to head road rage incidents, the same cannot be said about the past.

On the 20th July 1644 there was more than a bit of road rage right here. The English Civil War had already been going for two years and during that time the Parliamentary forces had taken control of most of England. Cornwall, probably due to its remoteness and inaccessibility (I mean look at the bridge shortage for a start) became the final stronghold of the Royalist forces. The river Tamar formed a border between two counties and two armies. At that time there were only four bridges across the Tamar which forms most of that border.

Each side understood that if they were to either invade the other county or defend against invasion, they had to have control of the Tamar's crossings. The Parliamentarian forces, headed by Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, pushed into Cornwall over the bridge. They were met by Richard Grenville's forces, who were quartered at the garrisons of Cotehele House and Harewood House, Calstock. The battle was hard fought and lasted all day. The Royalists prevented the Parliamentarians from advancing further into Cornwall, at a cost of 200 casualties and many taken prisoner. The Parliamentarians lost about 40 men. Wikipedia

It's no exaggeration to say that this view of the bridge would probably have been a bloody sight indeed.

After the battle both sides continued to defend their ends of the bridge. Lord Essex travelled north to Launceston, leaving half of his troops defending New Bridge. He then regrouped with his other forces based in the northern half of the Tamar Valley. On the 26th of July Essex crossed the Tamar at Horsebridge (the next bridge upstream), penetrating the Royalist defences and continuing into the heart of Cornwall. This advance culminated in the Battle of Lostwithiel, a disastrous defeat for the Parliamentarians.

Western Morning News 19th March 1948

"Sunken Eyes Man" now sought in Devon.

Believed To Have Fled From Cornwall In Car.


The hunt for the " man with the sunken eyes" switched to Devon yesterday after a car, believed to have been driven by the wanted man, had been seen to cross the border at Gunnislake Bridge. A police constable duty on the bridge, stopping all cars in a search for the man, signalled the driver to stop, but he failed to do so and the constable had to jump out of the way. The car was later found abandoned in a side-turning near Gulworthy. The man with the sunken eyes " is wanted for questioning by the police of both counties following his hurried flight in mysterious circumstances from several hotels, boarding houses, and lodgings at which he has stopped in Devon and Cornwall. On six occasions the wanted man has vanished from places at which he was staying, usually just ahead of the police.


He was last seen at St. Minver. on the North Cornwall Coast, on Tuesday night, when he walked out of his lodgings just ahead of a detective constable. At 2 a.m. yesterday a Standard saloon car crossed Gunnislake Bridge into Devon. The fact that the driver refused to stop has led the police to believe that their fugitive is now in Devon. The car was missed from the rear of a house, in Victoria-road. St. Austell. Its description, and the registered number. C.D.F.664. were immediately circulated Devon police stations. It is believed the petrol tank held nearly four gallons of petrol, and there was a can in the luggage boot containing a further gallon.

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4 commentaires

John Durham
John Durham
15 avr. 2023

Wonderful story, as usual, and excellent perspectives and compositions!

Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
16 avr. 2023
En réponse à

Thanks John


Membre inconnu
15 avr. 2023

Very interesting and eye appealing. Love the little pub so much character. Was the food as good as the looks?

Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
16 avr. 2023
En réponse à

Thanks Camellia.

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