Travel: Days out - One man's poison ...

Catherine Stebbings and her family explored a Devon town with an arsenic and copper heritage
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The Independent Travel
Hidden in an overgrown bend of the River Tamar, Morwellham Quay looks across from Devon to Cornish meadows and forests. The small village operated as a port for nearly 1,000 years. By the 19th century, it was exporting more copper-ore than most ports in Europe.

However, the railways and the exhaustion of the copper deposits forced the village to rely on producing arsenic, poisoning the valley and its inhabitants. By the turn of the century the quay had become derelict and the community dissolved with it, leaving behind only silted inlets, flooded mine-shafts and dilapidated buildings.

The restored village, with its quay, mine and farm, now makes a living from tourists, although visitors, staff and conservationists tend to mingle into one community. A little train rattles deep into the dank copper mine then trundles home above the river bank. Children skip and chatter in the old school playground and people tuck into pasties and ale outside the Ship Inn. A great water-wheel slowly turns in the heart of the village, while shipwrights hammer away at the bows of boats and stonemasons carefully restore areas of the massive quay. At the other end of the village, bulbous machinery churns away in a hydro-electric power station.

This is very much a living museum with plenty to see and do. A small Victorian cottage is beautifully presented with period furniture and a garden to match. There is a little museum on local mining and there's an impressive selection of costumes at the Limeburner's cottage - anyone wishing to can try them on. There are tours, demonstrations and talks for those wanting to know more, and excellent workshops for children itching to get their hands dirty.

The visitors

Catherine Stebbings, a freelance writer, and her husband Jonathan, a teacher, took their daughters, Imogen, 7, Polly, 5, and Claudia, 2.


As a family day out it was excellent. Although the entrance is expensive, once you are in there are no extras and the good pub and pasty bar keep you going without charging the earth. There are also nice places to picnic.

The children were interested and happy for the best part of a very hot day and we still had to leave without doing everything. They would probably enjoy this well into their teens.


I had a really good day seeing the village as it was. We went on a little train into the copper mine which was dark, noisy and very scary. They had models of miners cutting the rock away: just men and boys, some only eight years old. They got very cold, wet and dirty. The dust made them ill and the noise made them go deaf. It was a horrible job. The women and girls worked above the mine, separating the copper from the rock.

The cottage was very pretty and filled with old furniture and some lovely sewing. There was an old newspaper with no pictures. Upstairs, the children shared one bed and there was a room with a coffin in it.

I found it all interesting but I really liked seeing the power station where they make hydro-electric power. I never realised you could make electricity with water.


Morwellham Quay is in a very nice place beside the river. It looks very old and there are lots of people dressed up in olden-day clothes - ladies in long skirts and men in tall black hats. We were allowed to dress up, too. I had a long checked skirt, a cape, a little straw hat and a muff to keep my hands warm. The lady who dressed me said that this is what I would have worn to go to church. I looked really nice.

I enjoyed playing in the school playground where there were lots of old sorts of games like skipping, fishing, hopscotch, marbles and skittles. We play some of these at my school.


At the farm we saw some horses with long hairy legs, chickens, rabbits, goats and a black turkey with a pink face and a wobbly nose. I went on a train into a tunnel which was really dark and very scary for Polly.

The deal

Getting there. Morwellham Quay, near Tavistock, Devon (01822 833808) is off the A390 near Tavistock. Free Parking on site.

Opening times: 10am-5.30pm daily, Nov-Easter, 10am-4.30pm, copper mine and grounds only. Dogs on leads. (Check the time of mine tours and carriage rides on arrival.) Last admission two hours before closing time. Average visit four to six hours.

Admission: Tickets include a ride in a horse-driven carriage and the train trip into the copper mine. Family ticket (two adults, two children) pounds 21, adult pounds 7.90, children pounds 5,50, OAP pounds 7. Return tickets valid for one year at reduced cost.

Access: Expect to do a lot of walking. Disabled access is poor, buggies are hard work.

Attractions: Small playground, traditional games in school playground. A daily agenda of special events is issued with your ticket, which includes demonstrations, photo opportunities, harbour master's tour and children's workshops.

Food: the Ship Inn Restaurant serves ale in brown jars and a selection of very hearty pasties pounds 2.75. Children's meals pounds 1.75.

Toilets: Good facilities throughout the site.


The Quay at Cotehele St Dominick, near Saltash (01579 350024)

A stretch of woodland separates Cotehele Quay from Cotehele House (near the village of Callington). On the quayside, amid a row of 18th- and 19th- century houses, the National Trust's Edgcumbe Arms is set in a former time-worker's cottage which later became a public house. It is now a tea room where refreshments are available all day: home-made soup (pounds 2.35), fisherman's lunch (pounds 3.95), jacket potatoes (pounds 2.95), treacle tart and clotted cream (pounds 2.95). Children's portions are available. New this year is a sea lawn.

From Egon Ronay's guide `... and children come too' (Bookman, pounds 9.99)