Morwellham was an important port on the river Tamar which is tidal up to here. The original port dates from the 10thC when monks from Tavistock Abbey used it to bring goods in and out. By the 12thC it was being used to ship out tin, followed by lead and silver in the 13thC. One of the largest copper deposits in the world was discovered nearby in the 18thC. The Tavistock Canal was built to carry the ore from the mines. The wagons were taken down an inclined plane to the quay below. Morewellham was described as the “richest copper port in Victoria’s empire”. Later arsenic was also extracted and the area became the largest supplier of arsenic in the world. (This has had lasting consequences as the level of arsenic in the soil is still above safe limits.) At the beginning of the 20thC, the mines were becoming exhausted and more expensive to work. The bottom also fell out of the copper and arsenic markets. The mines were abandoned. Railways were increasingly important for transport of goods and Morwellham quay was abandoned.
The site is gradually being restored to give an impression of Victorian industrial and rural life. The assayer's offices, Victorian cottages, farm and schoolrooms can be visited. A block of miner’s cottages has been restored and is now private housing. A narrow gauge tramway takes visitors on a brief tour of the copper mine, but there is an extra charge for this – £3.50 on top of an entry fee of £7.95 (£6.95 for over 60s). We didn't have time to do this and were put off by the charge and have done similar trips elsewhere.
In 2009 and 2010 the BBC filmed the Edwardian Farm at Morwellham Quay. This was very popular and now most visitors come to see the farm and the cottage where Ruth ‘lived’ rather than for the industrial heritage.
We visited at the beginning of September. There is a huge car park with the small ticket office where we were given brief instructions about the site, a map and given a leaflet explaining activities during the day. However there is no guide book or any printed information about the site. Apparently there have been on going ‘printing problems’. We felt this was a major omission. There were a few information boards about the site but this tended to be superficial. There is a certain amount of information on their website.
We began with the video in the Arsenic and Manganese store on the quay. We normally avoid the videos but are very glad we watched this. This helped put the site into context and explained what there was to see. The inclined plane is overgrown but the waterwheel can still be seen and the raised lines taking the wagons to the quays. There is one of the original Tamar ketch’s, Garlandstone, which used to carry ore. The limekilns have been preserved.
There were two costumed interpreters on duty who gave a series of 30 minute talks during the day. These covered the use of child labour in the mines, the work of the Assayer’s office, rope making, the school and ‘Ruth’s Cottage’. We found the talks excellent, especially as this was the only source of information available. Timetabling was an issue as talks frequently over ran and there was no time allowance built in to get between talks. This meant we ended up missing the end of one talk as we hurried to be in time for the next one, only to find that started late as it was the same person giving the next talk… The interpreters were knowledgeable but there wasn’t time allowed for them to answer questions or to talk in depth.
The blacksmith was scheduled to be working but wasn’t. There was a person demonstrating barrel making in the afternoon. He took an old barrel to pieces. This had been done so many times the pieces of wood were getting worn and no longer fit snuggly and the barrel wouldn't have been water tight. The individual planks were all numbered to help put it back together again, this time with the help of half a dozen young children who had a marvellous time.
There is a small museum which has old pictures of Morwellham and some information about the history of the site. This was set up quite a time ago and has a very dated feel to it. Behind there is a reconstruction of a miner’s cottage. To make ends meet, a room was rented out to other miners. As one shift left for work, another shift came in to sleep.
Ruth’s cottage is a bit of a con. It had been the home of one of the mine officials. There was no living accommodation at the farm buildings above the settlement, so this had been used during the TV programmes and has been renamed “Ruth’s Cottage” for the benefit of the fans of the TV series who come wanting to see where all the action took place. We don't fit into this category.
Ruth Goodman had wanted to sleep in the cottage but health and safety said no. She slept in one of the private houses. There are horses, sheep and hens to be seen round the farm. The market garden prepared to grow strawberries can still be seen on the path from the ticket office. It looks as if it hasn't been tended since filming finished. High arsenic levels in the soil meant the strawberries couldn’t be eaten.
There is a small shop on site selling sweets and gifts. There were no postcards. The original pub is now the tea room serving light meals, sandwiches and cakes. Quality was good but it was expensive.
Behind was a ‘Victorian Dress Museum and Costume Try-on’. The use of the term museum is misleading as it is a selection of modern Victorian style clothes for visitors could try on and then have their pictures taken. Some people really enjoy this but it is not for us.
Toilets were provided behind the tea room but were insufficient to cope with the numbers of visitors – and it wasn’t that busy.
We had been expecting great things of Morwellham Quay but overall were disappointed. It is after all a world heritage site.
It could be very good but there are too many things letting it down at the moment. We also felt it was expensive for what was provided. As we left we were asked for feedback by the woman on the ticket desk. She said that the owners were aware of all the problems we listed and were ‘working’ on them. The present owners (Bicton Park) took over the site in April 2010. I can accept that there is still a lot of work to be done but there is no excuse for insufficient toilet facilities and lack of a guide book.