Tavistock is an ancient stannary town on the border of Devon and Cornwall and supposedly the home of the cream tea. Once home to the wealthiest Benedictine abbey in Devon founded in 974 it grew to become a market town (named after the river Tavy and ‘stoc’ which is an Old English word for settlement) and a significant producer of woollen cloth.
After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, Henry VIII transferred the abbey and most of its assets to John Russell, the first in a succession of Earls and Dukes of Bedford to own most of the town. In the 19th century Tavistock’s economy and society were transformed by the expansion of metal mining, mainly for copper, around the town and in the Tamar Valley.
The 6th and 7th Dukes used the revenues from copper mines on their land to redevelop the town centre, provide fine public buildings including the Guildhall and Pannier Market, and erect ‘model’ cottages for industrial workers. The Pannier market has different themed markets throughout the week and you can find unusual crafts, second-hand items and clothing. Shops and cafés line the outside pedestrian walk.
We selected the town as a base to explore this western part of Devon as it is on the doorstep of Dartmoor National Park. Tavistock is especially rich in independent stores: a brilliant bookseller and music shop, butchers, an award-winning cheesemonger, clothiers, a fine delicatessen, framers, fruit and veg shops, hardware, lighting, and stationers, among others.
We stayed in the unusual looking Bedford Hotel which is opposite the Parish Church and close to the impressive Guildhall. The Bedford Hotel takes its name from the Duke of Bedford, who appointed the architect Jeffry Wyatt (who was also responsible for the transformation of Windsor Castle in 1824) to transform the inn into The Bedford Hotel which was completed in 1822, and a ballroom was added in 1830. Although somewhat old-fashioned we enjoyed our stay there, the room was rather tired, though clean, and on the 3rd floor (no lift) but the food was excellent and it is in a perfect location for exploring the town and the area.
At the back of the hotel is a rather lovely secret walled garden. We didn’t manage to sit out in there, but on a warm evening it is probably a lovely spot to take a bottle of wine and relax and smell the many beautiful roses.
Remains of the cloister of Tavistock Abbey, destroyed during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, can be seen in the churchyard of the rather beautiful St Eustachius church which is directly opposite the hotel.
The church is well worth visiting though we never managed the time to revisit and use the helpful information leaflet to guide us around.
There are lovely walks alongside the River Tavy as it meanders softly over granite pebbles and slate stones beside the Abbey walls and the nearby canal, which was created (most of the labour being performed by French prisoners of war from the Napoleonic Wars) to carry copper to Morwellham Quay on the River Tamar, where it could be loaded into sailing ships weighing up to 200 tonnes.
Another interesting find was Betsy Grimbal’s Tower, one of the entrances to the Abbey, which dates from the fifteenth century. Its popular name is probably a corruption of Blessed Grimbald, a ninth century saint revered by the Benedictine monks.
The buildings around Bedford Square (header image) are quite unusual. Here you will find the Guildhall and the Pannier Market and this gateway.
An unusual weathervane on the Bedford Hotel sits above a turret over the Portrait Room. It’s not old, it was created in copper in 2001 by Greens Weathervanes, who at that time had a workshop at Tor Royal in Princetown.
Based in design upon the White Rabbit, Herald to the Queen of Hearts, drawn by Sir John Tenniel for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the vane is a veritable work of art.
And I even managed to capture a Cheshire Cat…
Tavistock is definitely a town worth visiting and there are plenty of pubs, restaurants and cafés to enjoy as well as walks to discover the many medieval remains and the newly opened Guildhall Gateway Centre formerly a courtroom and police station. And in the autumn the famous Goose Fair is held on the second Wednesday of every October and sees fair rides, stalls and activities take place. The fair dates back to the 12th Century, when a Michaelmas Fair was held every 29 September.
We could be back.