Alongside mining, the Tamar Valley was famed for its cherry and apple orchards and until recently supported a huge but very concentrated market gardening industry. Looking around the valley today, it is at first hard to see evidence of this once thriving economy, but given a few clues and pointers a secret landscape can be quickly revealed. Today it is hard to comprehend that this landscape, mostly shrouded in scrub and woodland on the steep valley sides, supported an industry of eight to ten thousand people at the height of the season in the 1950s, more than the entire population today. Indeed in the early 1950s it was said that “a message from a grower on the Devon side of the valley at Rumleigh could be passed over the hedges and across the River Tamar to another grower in Cargreen.”
The text on this page is adapted from the book 'Sovereigns, Madams and Double Whites' by Joanna Lewis and published by the Tamar Valley AONB. It is reproduced with their kind permission. The book is available from all good local bookshops. The book also includes a CD of fascinating oral history. Photographs provided by Bruce Hunt and Tamar Grow Local.
The market gardens were known as “gardens” and were nearly all family-run, generally of only three to four acres and on sheltered south-facing slopes. The tidal river helped reduce frost and the steep valleys sheltered the holdings from the south west wind. For almost a hundred years the valley was the "earliest" strawberry growing area in the country: “used to be if you had early strawberries you could make money, good money”.
It was the arrival of the Great Western Railway, which reached Plymouth in 1849, bridging the Tamar to Saltash in 1859, coupled with the growing pool of unemployed mining labour that made this horticultural revolution possible. The key to the industry's success was the speed with which the railway delivered perishable fruit to distant markets - particularly Covent Garden in London - within twenty-four hours of being picked.
Until mechanisation in the 1950s the gardens were largely worked by hand. “We didn't get backache on the hills because you weren't bending over all the time like you would on flat ground.” Special tools were made to work the slopes such as the 'Tamar Valley dibber'.
In the 1900s as disease became rampant amongst the fruit plantations the growers started to cultivate daffodils on a vast scale. The indigenous Tamar Double White became the valley's most famous flower: “I never met anyone who didn't like Double Whites - they were head and shoulders above other narcissus. The boxes were always lined with blue paper, it really set them off”. Many of the old varieties still flower in hedges and in odd corners where cultivation has long been abandoned.
In 1966, the cuts imposed by Beeching's reorganisation of the national rail system had a severe impact and many of the local stations were left unmanned. This marked the beginning of the end of the industry. Increased freight charges quickly followed and soon freight services completely ceased. Local grower H W Sherrell described this calamity as “The death blow to the valley's horticultural industry as we have known it”. Fred Rogers collected produce from station wagons at Calstock and took it to Saltash station until it too lost its staff in 1967. Produce was then taken into Plymouth station. The loss of rail transport had an enormous impact on the very rapid decline in market gardening just as its arrival in 1859 had shaped its rapid growth. Once fruit could no longer be delivered to the markets within twenty-four hours it ceased to be sent. Many growers turned to selling by direct purchase ('Pick Your Own') as well as to the local markets.