Strolling with daffs on the Tamar, south Devon

‘You mustn’t miss the dock dung,” said our friend Jeremy. “But you’ll have to wait till lunchtime for the avocets,” added his partner Trish.

Those words had rung in our ears as we stepped off the Tamar Valley train at Bere Alston station, ready to walk a 6½-mile route to Bere Ferrers, where we would stop for a picnic outside the Olde Plough Inn. We were in the Bere peninsula, a part of south-west Devon that is bypassed by many but which in spring, with flowers in abundance, amazing river views and enticing bird life, is a walker’s paradise.

The last time I had been in these parts was in 2003, when I was making a TV series about the river with Dartmoor photographer Chris Chapman, and he was my companion again today. The sky was clear as we set off from the station, initially heading north-west towards Calstock to join a public footpath through woodland down to the river that forms the border with Cornwall, the Tamar.

The morning sun was warm on our backs as we crossed a meadow and a stream then rejoined the woodland. Ramsons, or wild garlic, wood anemone and primrose were in abundance alongside daffodils and violets. The plethora of colour was a clue to the history of these slopes. At one time these now-wooded valleys were carpeted with soft fruits and commercial daffodils, and dotted with orchards. From the mid-19th century, trees had been cleared by enterprising people to make room for market gardens that sent early fruits and flowers to Britain’s towns and cities, an industry for which the peninsula became famous.

Two forces had helped them. The steep sides of the Tamar Valley were perfect for growing soft fruit and flowers, and thanks to the tidal nature of the river, the area was almost immune to frosts. River barges brought manure and other detritus from the dockyards of Plymouth and Devonport – the “dock dung” that Jeremy had mentioned. This, spread on the slopes, proved highly nutritious for the bulbs and fruits, but the public health authorities were not so impressed. By 1920 dock dung had been banned, though as Jeremy said, you can still find all sorts of bits and pieces – glass, ceramic, shells, even marbles, relics of the dock dung days – scattered in the ground. As we walked, we picked up a fragment of blue-patterned porcelain and a chunk of old glass.

If the valley provided the perfect environment for the market gardens, railways provided the means for the perishable stuff to get to market. In 1890, the London and South Western Railway opened a line from Waterloo to Plymouth that went via Bere Alston. Growers could get their perishable but sought-after products into London overnight and for generations they prospered.

Then, on 6 May 1968, another historic railway decision, the wielding of Dr Beeching’s axe, closed the line and pretty much killed the industry (leaving Bere Alston to be served by the Tamar Valley branch line only). Today there are only a handful of growers left. Many of the former gardens have reverted to nature, leaving a huge variety of daffodils to compete with the woodland for spring light. Luckily for us, the blooms succeed rather well.

We followed the path through the flowers to the river, where we marvelled at the wonderful piece of Edwardian civil engineering that is Calstock viaduct. Built between 1904 and 1907, it rises majestically 37 metres above the Tamar, carrying the railway across the river. The morning sun was perfect; the arches stood out against a brilliant sky above the slate grey of the river, so still it glided past us like silk. Water reeds swayed in the gentle breeze – a perfect spring morning.

A permissive footpath enabled us to stay alongside the river for a mile or so then, as the path climbed across the valley, our view of the river changed. Behind us we looked back to the Cornish side, the Tamar nestled in its steep-sided valley. Kit Hill, with its decorated chimney, stood out on the horizon, a reminder of another industry that once dominated the area – silver and copper mining. In front of us the river veered south-west and slipped out of sight.

We climbed over a couple of stiles and walked along the edge of a not-so-pretty site. The fields in front of us had the remains of a crop of maize. It’s used as animal feed but makes a mess of the landscape: “subsidised soil destruction” is what the Soil Association calls it. We dropped down into more woodland and crossed another reed-filled stream emptying into the Tamar. Bright, diamond-like flashes of light played on the water as the rays of the sun pierced the leaf cover. Walking in these wet areas was easier than we imagined: there are plenty of boards across the streams so your boots stay dry. Then came the only steep climb on the walk – a heart-pumping 20 minutes.

We crossed a road and a field, over yet another stile and into more woodland. And what a picture it was. There were daffodils everywhere, swaying gently in the breeze. Lit by shafts of sunlight streaming through the trees, they resembled performers on a stage. As we gazed at the scene in this steep woodland valley, we could only admire the ingenuity of the community that once cultivated it. They’d had to design special tools to prepare, sow and harvest flowers on such treacherous slopes. Some had employed dynamite as well as axes and picks to clear the trees. And yet the speed with which nature had recolonised these formerly manicured gardens was perhaps even more impressive.

There were once more than 100 daffodil varieties in the Tamar Valley, so it’s worth coming with a visual guide. The season lasts up to five months, so you could see the impressive yellow trumpet, the emperor, the smaller and softer lent lily (one of Wordsworth’s “host of golden daffodils”), or one of the whites, maybe the ice folly. But the daffodil that made the area famous, the perfectly formed Tamar double white, doesn’t come out until late May. Dispatched to London wrapped in soft, blue tissue-lined boxes, it sealed the reputation of the peninsula as a producer of fine-quality flowers.

Leaving the wood, we met the road at Weir Quay and were struck by just how dramatically the river had changed from the one we had seen 30 minutes before. It had become a wide, sweeping tidal flow. Grey mudflats stretched out in front of us. Cornwall now seemed an awfully long way away. What had happened here was climate change. The whole area had been transformed thousands of years ago when, at the end of the last ice age, melting ice and rising sea levels had drowned river valleys across south-west England, creating wide, shallow tidal estuaries or rias (coastal inlets) like the Tamar.

We walked along the road out of Weir Quay as the tide was going out. Small dinghies, these days used just at weekends, looked desolate, marooned in the mud. The river was quiet but the ruins of a lime kiln and a steam-pumping engine house reminded us how busy it used to be. At one time, myriad sailing barges, designed especially for this river, brought in tons of limestone. It was burned in kilns dotted along the quays to produce lime used to “sweeten” the fields and improve crop yields. The same boats took away thousands of tons of locally mined copper and silver ore and loaded at the quays we had passed on the walk. Looking at this stunning but deserted landscape, it was hard to believe that in the 19th century the Tamar had been one of the busiest rivers in the country.

Today this stretch is a good place to spot wading birds, so we rested a while on a bench, binoculars at the ready. We were not disappointed. We saw a couple of pairs of shelducks and a solitary little egret feeding in the shallows. We heard the distinctive call of the oystercatcher. A cormorant flew upstream while redshanks, with their bright orange legs and bills, busied themselves probing the mud for molluscs and small crustaceans. Then we spotted the black-and-white markings and curled beaks of a small colony of avocets, backlit by the afternoon sun. I now saw what Trish had meant when she said we’d have to wait till lunchtime for the avocets. They feed on the mudflats as the tide empties the river. We’d got there just in time.

It was lunchtime for us, too, so we pressed on, following the road as it twisted and turned up the hill past what used to be Clamoak Farm, where the double white was first cultivated in the 1880s by a farmer called Septimus Jackson. (Surely there should be a plaque?) As we dropped into another creek, we followed the watercourse and a dammed pond, pretty much overgrown with alder and willow but with water lilies bursting through. There were more waders as the creek found its way through the reed beds to join the river. We made a sharp turn to the left, walked up the hill, looking back at slow-moving water for one final lingering moment, then through a couple of gates and into Bere Ferrers.

On the way to the pub we passed the village hall and on the other side of the road called in on the village hairdresser Margaret Willmott, great-granddaughter of Septimus Jackson, who told us about her family’s involvement in the market gardening. Margaret is a mainstay of the annual March flower show in the village, which celebrates the flower that sealed the reputation of the Bere peninsula. After a walk of four hours we finally arrived outside the Olde Plough Inn. We were thirsty and hungry, but not too tired to phone Jeremy and Trish and share some of our memories of the daffodils, avocets and views of this most beautiful area – and even some of the trophies we rescued from the dock dung.

The walk Bere Alston station to Bere Ferrers station (both on the Tamar Valley Line from Plymouth) is 6½ miles and takes 3-4 hours; OS map Explorer 108; daffodil guide at
Grade Medium. Very boggy in parts, one steep hill, many stiles

Stay The Tamar Belle is a converted 1930s railway carriage at Bere Ferrers station. Its self catering Carriage Suite (sleeps two from £20pppn) has a double bed, lounge/diner and galley. The Count House is a cottage for two on the River Tamar at South Hooe (£630 a week)

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