In 1828, when he was just 22 years old, Isambard Kingdom Brunel stood on the banks of the Tamar at Saltash. Surveying the wide, tidal river he concluded that it was ‘much too wide to be worth having a bridge’. Some 20 years later however, he was to design the Royal Albert Bridge for that very spot to carry the ever-expanding railway network westward. Brunel’s bridge has arguably become the most iconic way to cross the border from England into Cornwall but there are, and always have been, many other bridges and crossing points on this long and winding river as I set out to discover.
The River Tamar
The Tamar, who’s name means Great Water, forms a natural border between Cornwall and Devon – between Cornwall and England. The source bubbles up in a boggy area known as Woolly Moor, just three and a half miles from the north coast, before flowing for 61 miles to Plymouth Sound. This slim margin between the source and the coast has inspired some to call Cornwall an ‘Almost Island’. And somehow it seems only fitting for a place with such an extensive coastline that this one narrow strip of land is the only way to enter Cornwall without crossing water.
The river was officially designated as the Cornish border with Saxon England more than 1000 years ago in 936 by King Athelstan. But the concept of the Tamar as not only a boundary but also as a defensive barrier is something probably far older. It is an idea that is deeply embedded in the Cornish psyche, helping to strengthen and perpetuate our feelings of separation from the rest of England. Although that ‘true’ border has moved back and forth over the centuries, undulated with time, the river has been the constant. A physical reminder of moving from one realm to another.
There is something significant about passing over that ribbon of water.
“For many people who cross the Tamar river into the Duchy of Cornwall, the sense of having moved out of England into another land is immediately apparent as they catch sight of signposts and nameboards at the roadside . . . just as perplexing to many are the road signs on the Tamar crossings that declare you are now in CORNWALL – KERNOW. Cornwall is the English version of the Duchy’s name, Kernow is the native name, traceable in that very spelling to c1400 AD and in other spellings a thousand years before that.”Craig Weatherhill
There are a total of twenty-two road crossings over the Tamar at present, as well as numerous footbridges and fords, aqueducts, railway bridges and even a dam walkway. (There was once a precarious chain bridge in Launceston too.) And many other bridges that have been lost or replaced of course, but unsurprisingly each crossing point has its own story to tell. Each is an important link, not only physically to England, but very often to Cornwall’s heritage as a nation.
Of course, I haven’t included all of the bridges here but hopefully the ones I have chosen will inspire you to cross and re-cross this beautiful river. To explore our borderlands.
West Youlstone, Thurdon & the Tamar Lakes Footbridge
The first or last bridge over the Tamar crosses the river with little fanfare at West Youlstone. It is a tiny single track road overhung with trees and on the verge a small white sign announces KERNOW, the only indication that you have just crossed into Cornwall. The bridge barely makes a hump in the road and the river beneath is just a slow trickle of water at this point.
But it soon gathers pace.
After a short distance it pours into the Tamar Lakes. These large saucers of water are now the haunt of wild birds and fishermen. The upper lake was formed after the construction of a dam in 1973 and provides water for the Bude area, while the lower is much older, built in 1822 as part of the Bude Canal System.
Here is another of our bridges. A small wooden footbridge crosses the now altered path of the river and from here you can walk beside the remains of the Bude Aqueduct to another little bridge and another crossing marked with a ‘Kernow’ sign near Thurdon.
Fed by streams and tributaries the Tamar is growing, becoming wider and deeper all the time.
Bridgerule, North Tamerton & Druxton
Bridges, of course, are important strategic assets during times of conflict and both Bridgerule (more below) and the next bridge – North Tamerton – are thought to have seen fierce fighting during the civil war. In February 1646 General Fairfax advanced into Cornwall to crush any remaining Royalists there. One thousand horse and four hundred dragoons were sent to take Tamerton Bridge, a defended border crossing. It was a bloody encounter and the Cornish Royalists were greatly outnumbered. Hundreds were either killed or fled.
That original bridge, the site of the battle, has gone sadly and today you will find an elegant single arch of about 30ft that was built in 1851 by William Pease. Pease also worked for the Treffry family and helped with the construction of the tramway through the Luxulyan valley and the beautiful Treffry viaduct.
A little further down river from here the Tamar starts to widen, it is joined by the River Deer and the River Claw and winds its way south to Boyton Mill. The bridge here was often called ‘the bridge of two colours’ as it was painted two different shades to denote the Devon/Cornwall divide in the middle of the river!
The importance of the Tamar as a border was also a concern for the people living close to Druxton Bridge. Until recently the parishes of North Petherwin and Werrington, as well as the bridge itself, were in Devon, having been accidently included within the neighbouring county’s borders by William I in 1086. However in April 1966, after 880 years, the border was finally moved and Druxton Bridge resumed its role once more as a border crossing point into Cornwall.
Druxton bridge is one of the most peaceful bridges to visit, very little traffic crosses here these days. It is made up of four spans between 10ft and 15ft in length. When bridge was first built in 1662 it is thought that it was just three spans wide and that another had to be added at a later date. And of course what stands today is a reincarnation of older structure. There is record of a much earlier bridge on this site, the Sheriff of Devon mentioned Durkeston Bridge some 650 years ago in 1370.
Higher New Bridge & Nether Bridge
From Druxton it is a short journey down river to Launceston where there are two bridges that could not be more different from each other. Higher New Bridge was built in 1504 is so called to avoid it being confused with New Bridge at Gunnislake built in 1520. So neither are exactly new . . .
Higher New Bridge was built by the Abbots of Tavistock Abbey probably to replace an earlier bridge that crossed the river a little further up known as Nether Bridge. John Leland, Henry VIII’s surveyor, wrote in 1539:
“Ever I came to Lanstoun by a mile I passed over a bridge of stone having three arches and a small [arch] called New Bridge.
The modern road bridge that stands beside Higher New Bridge was designed as a bypass for its elderly neighbour in 1939, and named Nether Bridge after its predecessor, but the outbreak of war delayed its construction. It wasn’t until 1986 that it was finally opened, an occasion marked by the Devon County Surveyor and his Cornish counterpart shaking hands mid-span.
You can still drive over Higher New Bridge, which is 11ft (3.3m) wide, in a car but it is much nicer to park and walk over this 500+ year old relic, look down at the water and wonder who else has made this crossing.
Before the Tamar reaches Launceston it is joined by the Rivers Carey and Kensey before it flows under the Polson Bridge. Another ancient crossing point, the original 12th century bridge had to be replaced several times due to flooding and then, after being used by the Prince of Wales, later Charles II, on his escape into Cornwall, it was completely destroyed in 1646. Since then the bridge has been taken many different forms. In 1833 James Green constructed an elegant 50ft cast iron arch with four other masonry arches that lasted for 100 years but was eventually replaced after fears it couldn’t withstand the increase in heavy traffic. The present bridge dates from 1934.
The next bridge on our journey was completed in 2007 and is undoubtedly one that we have all crossed at one time or another. Dunheved Bridge carries the A30 over the Tamar and for many marks an important point on their journey. I for one will breathe a huge sigh of relief when I cross that line.
Funnily enough the original 1975 bridge at this point, which was 123ft long, was called the Tamar Bridge, until it was pointed out that one of those already existed, so its present name is a nod to the original name for Launceston.
Greystone & Horse Bridge
After one of the newest comes the two oldest remaining bridges on the Tamar – Greystone built in 1439 is first and then at little further downriver Horse Bridge, built in 1437. Horse Bridge is the slightly higher and larger of the two and appears timeless in its peaceful setting surrounded by meadows.
“Ice appeared on many of Cornwall’s rivers and reports on Monday showed that the Tamar was frozen from Greystone Bridge . . . to below Gunnislake.”COrnish Guardian, 24th January 1963
It was recorded by William of Worcester in 1478 as Hautes Bridge and by Leland in 1539 as Hawte Bridge, perhaps from the French haute meaning ‘high’ . . . so not really anything to do with horses after all.
Greystone, like Horse Bridge, has a road width of 12ft (3.6m) and is still used daily by modern traffic. Completed just a couple of years apart the two bridges are so similar in design that they are thought to be the work of one person and are often referred to as the ‘twin bridges’.
It is likely that these two bridges were those that were used, at least in part, by the estimated 15,000 Cornishmen who marched to London in June 1497 for the Battle of Blackheath, as well as the earlier Nether Bridge at Launceston.
Despite their great age the crossing at Bridgerule, one of the highest bridges on the river after Youlstone, can trace its history back even further. There has been a crossing recorded there since before the Norman Conquest in 1066. The ancient name for the parish is in fact ‘Brige’. By the time of the Domesday Book the manor belonged to a man known as Ruald, resulting in the name we know today, ‘Bridge of Ruald’ – Bridgerule.
Gunnislake, Calstock Viaduct & the Tamar Bridges
Again the Tamar continues to swell and deepen, joined by the River Inny between Greyston and Horse Bridge. The New Bridge at Gunnislake is 500 years old and, until the construction of the Tamar suspension bridge, it was the most seaward road bridge over the river. It is a magnificent span of six masonry arches each 21ft across. Its beautiful symmetry was once reproduced by Turner during his time in Cornwall in his painting ‘Crossing the Brook’, now held by the Tate.
In the 1960s there was a plan to build a new road bridge at Gunnislake but it never happened. The fact that this historic bridge still continues to carry traffic today, more than half a century after its completion, is testament to its masterful construction. Thankfully it is now protected as a Scheduled Ancient Monument.
Next is Calstock Viaduct, opened in 1907 to carry passenger trains on the London and South Western Railway, which was an extension of an old mineral line in the area. Because there were was no suitable source of building stone close by the viaduct was constructed using a new method – concrete blocks made to look like natural stone.
The contractor was Thomas Lang & Sons and work began in April 1904. Twelve semi-circular arches of 60ft span, some over 100ft above the ground were built. More than 11,000 massive concrete blocks, around 5ft by 3ft by 2ft, were produced in a casting yard beside the river. The result is an endlessly elegant bridge that is a favourite with photographers.
From here the character of the river changes significantly. It becomes tidal and mud flats start to form as it rushes beneath the Calstock viaduct on the final winding bends of its journey to the sea.
Fun Fact: On the wall of a cottage in Kingsand there is an old Cornwall/Devon border sign. It’s a relic from the time when Kingsand was actually considered to be in Devon. Part of the Rame peninsula was incorporated into Anglo-Saxon territory in 705AD in order to secure both banks of the Plymouth Sound against Viking raids. It wasn’t returned to Cornwall until 1844.
It returns us, a very different river from the one we first crossed at Youlstone, to Brunel’s mighty Royal Albert Bridge and the Tamar Bridge at Saltash. Before these two structures were built those wishing to entry Cornwall had to choose one of the other crossing mentioned above or pay to be rowed across by ferry. The Tamar Bridge now carries over 16 million vehicles a year.
When I was a child I vividly remember crossing the Royal Albert Bridge by train for the first time. It was on a school trip to London. On the return journey, as I looked out the window desperate to know the moment that I was safe back in Cornwall again, I noticed some of my non-Cornish friends crossing their fingers as the Tamar flashed beneath us. When I asked them why they were doing that they told me that their parents had taught them to do it so the piskies didn’t get them.
Even in the 1980s Cornwall was still seen by some a foreign land, much as it is for many today. And for others it is a place that they long for when they are parted from it. Hireth.
The Tamar River marks the divide.