A Tamar tonic

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Holidaycottages.cc explores the delights of the Tamar Valley, near Plymouth.

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A Tamar tonic

On the steep slopes where miners and market gardeners once trod lies a hidden gem created from an old mine. Sounds unlikely? John Kerswill thought so too, until he stayed there and was enchanted

Millions of people every year cross the Tamar ‐ you have to, to get into Cornwall. But that short glimpse is all that the vast majority of visitors see of the river. Which is a shame, because it is without doubt one of Britain’s great rivers. Not so much in size ‐ from its source, four miles from the north Cornish coast, to the sea at Plymouth Sound is only 60 miles ‐ but in its history, wildlife and beauty. For most of its length, it forms the historic frontier between Celtic Cornwall and Anglo-Saxon England. In 1995, the Tamar Valley was designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and only last year it became the centrepiece of the latest Unesco World Heritage Site.

How can the Tamar be so acclaimed yet so little-known, when it is in the middle of Britain’s busiest holiday area? Simple: almost no roads run along either bank. For the most part, you need walking boots or a boat to discover it. There are around 20 places where you can cross it, but in every case the lane, road, highway or railway heads immediately off into the countryside. It runs through the middle of no town or village. Which leaves the valley for the most part tranquil, beautiful and teeming with wildlife. Perfect, in other words, for a get-away-from-it-all cottage holiday.

It wasn’t always so peaceful. In the mid-19th century, the lower Tamar valley was one of the world’s great mining centres. Tin, lead, arsenic and above all copper were produced in huge quantities. But it had nearly all finished by 1900, with the ores either worked out or too expensive to mine.

Okel Tor mine today and the abandoned site in 1905

Dreadful industrial dereliction was left behind, with the valley sides stripped of vegetation and poisoned with mine wastes. But time and nature are wonderful healers. Woodland has clothed the old mine workings, heather and gorse have colonised the mine waste and rare lichens feast on the exotic minerals. Only the old chimneys and engine houses betray the area’s history, and they have weathered into picturesque ruins.

Perhaps the best example of this transformation is at Okel Tor, on the Cornish side just a mile upstream from the village of Calstock and its splendid railway viaduct. For almost 50 years from its foundation as the Okeltor Silver Lead and Copper Mine Company in 1849, the mine produced copper, tin and arsenic. But in the century since, nature has reclaimed much of the site, which English Heritage has nominated as an ancient monument. It was also one of the key sites in the successful bid for World Heritage Site status for the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape.

When Greg Smith and Nick Cole bought the 16-acre site in 1998, it was pretty much as nature had left it. Its well-intentioned previous owner had declared it a nature reserve, and converted the mine’s old smithy into makeshift accommodation. They immediately saw the potential for holiday accommodation. The site was of great historical and wildlife interest, it had a peaceful setting gazing out across the Tamar into Devon, and it was within easy walking distance of the village of Calstock, with its surviving branch-line rail link to Plymouth. But they had no idea of how the scope of their ideas would grow as the huge regeneration project gathered momentum.

Count House

To date the mine buildings have been partially restored; the workings and mineral residues have been made safe or fenced off; a circular wildlife walk has been created; and the flora and fauna are being encouraged by a careful management plan under the country stewardship scheme.

Two small listed buildings ‐ The Smithy and Count House ‐ have been carefully restored and converted into very comfortable holiday accommodation. Each sleeps only two, so the peace is unlikely to be disturbed by boisterous children. The nearest road is a tiny no-through lane higher up the valley side. You can’t hear any traffic, unless you count the cautious wheezing of the little two-coach train as it passes unseen on the railway line meandering on from Calstock to its terminus at Gunnislake, a few miles away.

Three days in early December might not seem the ideal time to appreciate the charms of a former mine. But the Tamar valley has an astonishingly benign climate. So much so that 50 years ago the south-facing slopes were famous for their market gardens, producing early daffodils, strawberries and cherries. Imports from warmer countries (and the Beeching assault on the railway) mostly killed that business off in the 1960s, but the kindly weather-bubble endures.

Nick outside the Smithy

As the rest of the country was battered by gales, we watched the clouds and winds race over the top of the valley, leaving the slopes below kissed by gentle breezes and bathed in intermittent sunshine.

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