Tavistock lies on the western edge of Dartmoor National Park, about 15 miles north of Plymouth. Its name is derived from the River Tavy, which flows through the town, and ‘stoc’ which is an Old English word for settlement. For over 900 years Tavistock was dominated by two wealthy and powerful institutions: the medieval Benedictine abbey and the Dukes of Bedford. Under the patronage of the abbey, which was founded in 974, Tavistock grew to become a market town, a significant producer of woollen cloth, a parliamentary borough and one of Devon’s three original stannary towns.
Charles Delafontaine's 'South East Prospect of the Town of Tavistoke', 1741 - click to zoom in
At 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.
Standing in the heart of an area of tremendous natural beauty, Tavistock today is a thriving market town – the largest in West Devon – with a population of around 14,000. Tavistock’s rich and varied history is clearly visible in the fabric and culture of the modern town and continues to fascinate both locals and visitors. Particularly important parts of the town’s built heritage include:
The nationally-significant standing and buried remains of the wealthiest and most powerful medieval abbey in Devon and Cornwall. These include a still tower, an excellent example of a pseudo-defensive precinct wall, two gatehouses (Court Gate and Betsy Grimbal’s tower), the Abbey Chapel (which was probably the abbot’s lodging with battlemented porch), and Trowte’s House, which is rare surviving example of a monastic outer court building. The abbey site is a Scheduled Monument.
A medieval parish church, including a 19th century window designed by William Morris whose family had interests in the nearby Devon Great Consols copper mine.
A medieval street pattern with a commercial core is preserved in Market Street and King Street. Bannawell Street and West Street, which formed the main routes into the town, are lined with burgage plots, as is Old Exeter Road. There are fine 16th and 17th-century timber framed buildings in Market Street, notably Taylor’s Restaurant and Book Stop, which has been described as the finest townhouse of its period in Devon.
The Tavistock Canal, which was built in the early nineteenth century by the engineer John Taylor to carry copper ore and other goods between Tavistock and the River Tamar at Morwellham. The canal includes an aqueduct over the River Lumburn and a 2,340 yard-long tunnel under Morwell Down. At Morwellham, Taylor constructed an ‘inclined plane’ railway to transport cargo between the canal and the quay two hundred feet below.
A range of magnificent public buildings constructed by the Dukes of Bedford during the nineteenth century as part of their dramatic remodelling of the town. The imposing gothic Town Hall dominates the centre of Tavistock, providing an obvious demonstration of the Dukes’ wealth, and the power they enjoyed in the town. Its construction in the early 1860s was funded by the proceeds of the renegotiation of the lease of Devon Great Consols, a nearby mine on the Dukes’ estates which at that date was probably the most productive copper mine in the world.
Tavistock’s famous and award-winning Pannier Market. Built by the Dukes in 1862 (funded, like the Town Hall, from the lease of Devon Great Consols), the Pannier Market replaced the town’s previously scattered market facilities, which had mostly been located in the town’s medieval heart around King Street and Market Street. The Pannier Market today is a bustling collection of shops and stalls, and is enormously popular with locals and visitors alike.
The Guildhall, which was re-modelled in 1848 to contain a purpose-built fire station, police station and magistrates’ court. These buildings are nationally significant as one of England’s earliest combined police station/court rooms and as a commentary on the history of the police and the legal system.
The ‘Bedford Cottages’. About 140 of these ‘model’ working men’s cottages were built by the Dukes of Bedford between 1845 and 1866 to alleviate the chronic overcrowding in the town caused by the mining boom.
(courtesy of Tavistock BID, Visit Tavistock, and Fatcalf Media)