Widecombe History Group Talk on Dartmoor Railways and Tramways

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lllustrated talk by Len Copley on Dartmoor Railways and Tramways.

The Group welcomed once again Len Copley to our meeting and he presented a most interesting and informative address on the history of Dartmoor railways and tramways.

One of the earliest tramways being built at the beginning of the 19th century c1820 from Plymouth to Princetown to transport men and materials to Princetown for the building of Princetown Prison which was built between 1806-1809. It has to be remembered that at that time we were at war with France, The Napoleonic War, and by 1812 we were also fighting the Americans, . Both of these conflicts brought the inevitable Prisoners of War and many were incarcerated at Princetown, as many as 9000 prisoners were there at one time. The French and American prisoners were involved with the construction of Princetown Parish Church and during their period of imprisonment many died. They were buried in mass burial pits and after many years their bones started to appear on the surface. It was then that the two memorial gardens were constructed and dedicated one to each nationality and the remains duly buried properly. These are still within the prison grounds and each has a granite monolith erected on site in their respective burial areas suitably engraved.

Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt the owner of Tor Royal wanted to open up Princetown and develop it. He wanted to import fertilizer to improve the agricultural potential of the area with the aim of supplying the developing nearby towns and cities with food, and stone was to be exported from Foggintor Quarry.

The old tramway from Sutton Pool, Plymouth , to Princetown had metal rails bolted on to individual granite blocks, unlike what we would call sleepers that transverse the track, so that the horses pulling the wagons or carriages could walk between the rails unhindered. Some of these granite stones/setts can still be seen on the moors, it was a journey of 24 miles and each mile was marked by a milestone. Several milestones can still be found between Plymouth and Yelverton.

In the days of the tramway the horses were changed at various points along the journey and one of these points was on Roborough Moor. The building still stands there but it has a new lease of life now being used as a store for equipment and sand etc for the maintenance of the Moorland Links Golf Course. Near here three interesting industrial archaeological features can be found close to each other. The railway, Drake’s Leat and the old Devonport Leat.

The natural stone of the area was used for much of the construction and lower down nearer Plymouth, slate and limestone were used instead of the granite of the moors. Approaching Plymouth the railway went through the Leigham Tunnel, cut to reduce the incline. This was used a lot during World War II as a shelter for valuable equipment as well as by people sheltering from the air-raids.

It was intended to build spurs to the railway to bring china clay and granite from the Shaugh area into Plymouth. It is still possible to see where the drilling of rock for this purpose took place on the Dewerstone and many other places, a quantity of well cut stones are there today. However a certain Massey Lopes a big landowner of the area would not give the necessary permission to cross his land and these schemes were not completed. At the top of the Dewerstone there is rock with a carving on it to commemorate Carrington, a famous Dartmoor Poet. The Yelverton to Princetown railway was converted to steam in 1880 and followed for much of its journey the old tramway. There are places where the 1880 railway follows the 1820 tramway exactly, but there are also places where they deviate to ease the bends, this can still be seen.

From 1850 the prison became a civilian convict prison and the 1880 G.W.R.railway was used to transport them to Princetown from far afield.

The remains of many other tramways/railways can be found on the moors. They were constructed to ease the extraction of various materials from Dartmoor, granite, peat and many minerals etc that entrepreneurs of the time tried to extract from Dartmoor with varied success.

One of the best known and possibly the easiest to see and visit is the granite railway at Haytor. Constructed in 1824 by George Templar who had obtained a contract to supply granite for the construction of London Bridge. This railway has granite tracks, not iron bolted onto granite sleepers. Wooden trucks on iron wheels that fitted into grooves cut into the stone, this tramway even had points controlled by a ‘tear shaped’ iron wedge that when put in the correct position steered the trucks onto the correct track. Drawn by horses, this ran from Haytor and Holwell Quarries to Ventiford where it joined the Stover Canal. The granite then being tranferred to Teignmouth by barge and then on to London. The distance is about 7.5 miles and this too had its milestones. At Holwell Quarry a ‘Bee-hive Hut’ can still be seen, its purpose still open to conjecture - was it just a simple shelter when blasting took place, a store for tools, somewhere to keep or dry out the quarrymen’s clothes? We can only guess but it has to be remembered that there were cottages for the men and their families around there at that time. What a lot of workers and inhabitants Dartmoor had in those bygone days!

The peat from Holming Beam was transported to Princetown by tramway, where an industry, for the extraction of ‘Naphtha’ a clear petrol-like liquid obtained by distilation, which could be used for heating, lighting and cooking, had been developed and was used later by the prison. The tramway can be seen running out towards Holming Beam and can be clearly seen from the Two Bridges to Merryvale Road in the prison field on the left just before the Princetown turning. A similar peat railway ran from Redlake Mire to Shipley Bridge. Tramways had wharfs or loading bays at places along their length to load either granite or peat etc and at the right height of the sun or after a light dusting of snow it is possible to see the parallel lines created by the cutting of peat. When the Naphtha was extracted from the peat a high quality fibre was left and this was used to produce a good strong paper.

Len also mentioned in passing the legend of Fice’s Well which can be found out towards Holming Beam:-

"A gentleman was out walking with his Lady friend one day when the Dartmoor Mist descended. He was ‘Pixie-led’. When in that situation you take off your coat and turn it inside out, put it on again and everything once again becomes clear. Eventually they came upon this spring of water, they stopped and drank the water and they were able to find their way home. Several months later he returned and built a wall around the spring - thereby another Dartmoor Legend!"

A more recent tramway built in 1912 to take men and material to and from Redlake China Clay Works, the old china clay ‘dry’ is just outside Bittaford along side the present railway. The chimney of the building is still standing, it housed the furnace to induce the drying, the building has more recently been owned by Watkins and Rosevear and/or Western Farm Machinery. China clay was loaded in the sidings there and transported all over the country. This Redlake railway approach was steep so it had an inclined plain, an engine shed housed a large stationery steam engine to haul the wagons up the incline. The china clay in suspension was piped from Redlake to Bittaford and there are 75 inspection chambers along its length, for cleaning and maintenance. During a recent drought year, pumps were used to pump water from the Redlake Pits to the river Avon and then through the treatments works, a similar exercise was done another year with the water being pumped into the Erme.

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The information on this page was last modified on March 18 2013 12:54:38.

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