The South West of England: Pt 34 – Tavistock, Devon

Moving on from the Cornish town of Looe, we arrived in the town of Tavistock, and parked up outside the stunning Town Hall…


Status: West Devon District, Devon, Town, England

Date: 14/08/2014

Travel: Car

Eating & Sleeping: N/A

Attractions: Tavistock Town Hall, Abbey Ruins, Guildhall, War Memorial, Duke of Bedford Statue, The Bedford, Abbey Hall, Parish Church, Duke of Bedford STatue, Indoor Market, Francis Drake Statue, River Tavy, Canal etc

Tav 1

As I said, we had parked up outside the magnificent Town Hall building in the centre of town, in an area called Bedford Square. This is named after the Dukes of Bedford who owned much of the land around the town after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530’s, which caused the end of Tavistock Abbey, which once took up most of what is now the town centre, and remnants of it still remain, but more on that later on.

The Town Hall is also linked to the Bedford family, as it was designed by the personal architect to the 7th Duke of Bedford, Francis Russell (1788 – 1861), called Edward Rundle. Completed in 1864, 3 years after the death of the 7th Duke, it housed a number of offices, a Savings Bank and the house of the Market Keeper, as the Market is located directly behind the building. The Town Hall eventually passed into the public sector when it was given away by the 11th Duke of Bedford to save money.

The Hall has an air of grandeur about it, and wouldn’t look out of place amongst the gothic constructs of European countries such as Belgium. There are so many layers to the building, and it looks like various aspects of different types of building have been cherry picked and put together, to create a fabulous castle like structure.

To the left of the Town Hall you can follow the cobbles round to the Market Hall, accessible through the stone arch in the centre of the walkway. It was built around the same time as the Town Hall, during the 1860’s, as part of the grand plan of the 7th Duke of Bedford. It is officially known as the “Pannier Market” and there are a number of these around the County of Devon, including in the town of Barnstaple.

Tavistock was granted a Market Charter in 1105, with a regular Market held on Fridays. This was followed by a 2nd in 1107 after protests by the local landowners. When the Abbey was still functional here it held a 3 day Market between the 29th and 31st of August, however after the dissolution all lands it occupied were granted to the Earl of Bedford (the family later became the Dukes of Bedford).

The Market is Indoor, and today it is open every day except Sundays and Mondays, from 9am until 4:30 pm. You can find out more about the various events and stalls located at the Market, on their official website, here.

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The Town Hall is but one of a duo of buildings which inhabit Bedford Square, with the entrance to the Market Hall lying between them. The 2nd building is on the right of this entrance, and was built in 1848. Together the three buildings form a stunning trio, all built to the same design, commissioned by the 7th Duke.

This spot has been inhabited by a few different buildings, starting with the Mill of the original Abbey, before it was replaced by an earlier Guildhall, which gave way to the present one.

Outside the Guildhall stands a statue of the aforementioned 7th Earl of Bedford, Francis Russell, in recognition of the changes he made to Tavistock town centre all those years ago. His wasn’t the only statue we encountered in Tavistock, as we found another later on the way out of the town…

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We had parked in the Car Park directly in front of the Guildhall, which also serves the Town Hall, and at the Southeasterly corner of the Car Park lies the Tavistock War Memorial. Completed in 1921, it commemorates the soldiers from the town who perished in World War I, and it was later updated after World War II during the 1940’s.

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Looking out of the far side of the Square, you get a great view towards Tavistock Parish Church, officially called the Church of St Eustachius. The original version of the Church is almost as old as the remains of the Abbey, dating back to at least 1265, a couple of centuries after the completion of the Abbey. The Church is one of only 2 in the country dedicated to St Eustachius, a Martyr from the 2nd Century. Sadly this original building is long since gone, but a new Church must have been constructed before 1324, the year the new Abbot, Robert Champeaux (1285 – 1324), passed away. Later research, and a plaque in the Churchyard gives the year as 1318.

Like many buildings from this era, particularly Church buildings, it was largely rebuilt over the following centuries, until the version that stands today was completed. According to the official website of the Parish Church the Clock, although located in the Clock Tower, is actually owned by the Town Council, who fund repair work when necessary.

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Moving on from the very central area of town, we made the short 400 ft walk South East down to the River Tavy, which runs through the town from its source on Dartmoor, down to the River Tamar which it becomes a tributary of just before it flows under the Tamar Bridges between Saltash and Plymouth.

In Tavistock, it flows under the old stone Abbey Bridge, pictured, which was originally built in 1763, to replace an earlier version which had stood here since medieval times. Like a lot of bridges, the need to widen it arose due to increased amounts of traffic when the railways arrived in Tavistock, and in 1860 its width was doubled.

During the 19th century Tavistock had two stations, called Tavistock North (1890) and Tavistock South. The North station was located on a mainline that ran between London Waterloo and the nearby city of Plymouth, whilst South was for local trains also running into Plymouth. By the end of the 1960’s both stations had closed, and the town currently has no rail connection. There are plans to reinstate it however, as there are now plans to reopen the railway from Tavistock down to Bere Alston, where it would rejoin the local lines and trains could once more run through to Plymouth.

You may have noticed the green piece of machinery located on the left bank of the river in the above photo? This is an “Automatic Screening Device” added in 2008, to stop Salmon Smolts from entering the Tavistock Canal, which branches off from the River at this point. It can then send them along the River Tavy where they should naturally be, and they can head out to sea using the Tavy and the Tamar.

Tav 8

I mentioned a few times earlier in this post about the large Abbey that once took up most of what is now Tavistock town centre. Various bits and pieces remain, starting with this building, called the “Abbey Chapel”, and a helpful plaque outside it states that:

“The Misericord. The Misericord or Infirmary Dining Hall of Tavistock Abbey. Now known as the Abbey Chapel. The present entrance was inserted in 1845, when the original north entrance was walled up, but the early 16th century north porch survives. It has a vaulted roof with carved bosses.”

Another plaque on the wall to the right which leads up to the Chapel also states that:

“Originally part of Tavistock Abbey, this was the site of the Abbot’s Hall. Since 1691, when it became a Presbyterian meeting house, it has housed nonconformist congregations”.

The Chapel and the site of the Hall is located back up the road that leads from the Town Hall towards Abbey Bridge, looking out towards Bedford Square, however they are but 2 of a few pieces of the Abbey to survive.

Tav 9

Out in the Churchyard of the Parish Church itself, likes the most substantial ruins of the main Abbey building itself, in the form of some crumbling interior walls. The Abbey used to run from outside the Church, across the road to the Abbey Chapel and almost to the river, showing the scale of the building. It too bears a plaque:

“Abbey Cloisters. The Cloisters of the Benedictine Abbey adjoined the Abbey Church, a magnificent building dedicated in 1318. It decayed after the dissolution of the monastery in 1539 and had been demolished by 1700. Only one arch of the cloister has survived.”

The Abbey Church is of course the Parish Church I was talking about earlier, and still exists behind the Cloister walls. The ruins are in remarkably good condition, and its amazing how much history you can see in Tavistock through the rebuilding works and the placing of the various Abbey sections.

The Abbey dates back to 961 when it was originally founded, and completed by 981. Later destroyed by the Danes in 997 it was rebuilt in the following centuries, growing in size and importance until it became one of the wealthiest in the county. This ended in 1538 when it was dissolved by King Henry VIII (1491 – 1547) and the lands/treasures were confiscated.

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South of the Churchyard, on Plymouth Road which joins up with Abbey Place to run past the Town Hall, lies a building called “The Bedford” which backs onto the Abbey Chapel, located behind it.

The Bedford is now a Hotel, which was known as the Abbey House when it was 1st built in the 1720’s, on the site of part of the old Abbey. It was later converted into a hotel in 1822. It is very inkeeping with the Town Hall/Market/Guildhall and helps to give Tavistock Town Centre a great sense of continuity.

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Two other buildings, located on the North side of Bedford Square, also caught our eye.

1) On the left is the Lloyds Bank Building, built around 1909. It is furnished with Bath Stone, and today is still occupied by Lloyds TSB.

2) Over to the right lies the Midland Bank Building, completed in 1895 when it was a Constitutional Club. The stunning Bath Stone used to complete it’s exterior gives it a great medieval quality, and it fits in perfectly with the rest of the town centre. At the moment it is owned by HSBC, who operate it as their Tavistock branch.

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Sadly that was it for our exploration of the town centre as we had a few other places to get to that day, but on the way out we spotted one last thing, the 2nd statue that I teased you about earlier.

One of Tavistocks most famous sons was none other than Sir Francis Drake (1540 – 1596), the famous English Captain who not only faced down the Spanish Armada when he was 2nd in command of our fleet, but he also spent 4 years circumnavigating the entire globe, between 1577 and 1580. Although he sadly perished from dysentery after an attack on Puerto Rico, at that time a Spanish Colony, he became an important figure in English history. The statue was erected in 1883, by the 9th Duke of Bedford Francis Russell, and a replica of it stands in the city of Plymouth, despite the Plymouth version being the more famous statue.

Tavistock is a stunning town, with plenty of history located in a small space. The Bedfords have certainly left their mark upon the town and will be remembered for generations to come. Despite having no railway station as of 2014, there are local bus links around the area and train stations at Bere Alston and Plymouth provide direct links to the rest of the UK.

As for us, we moved on into the famous Dartmoor National Park, to visit the small village of Princetown, and enjoy the stunning scenery…


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