The Tamar Valley may be notable for its stunning natural beauty, but its towns are well worth exploring too.
Although the Tamar's source is only a few miles from the north Cornwall coast, the river doesn't reach a town until it passes to the east of Launceston. Launceston is a thriving market town, full of quirky independent shops and cafes as well as regular markets. The town was the capital of the Earldom of Cornwall in Norman times, when the Earls of Cornwall administered Cornwall (or tried to...) from Launceston Castle. The castle still dominates the town and is one of the best examples of a Norman motte-and-bailey castle in Cornwall or England.
As well as the castle and the shops, visitors should take the time to visit the fine Tudor church of St Mary Magdalene and its astonishing granite carvings and the Lawrence House Museum. Launceston was the home of the famous poet Charles Causley. A poetry, arts and music festival is held in his honour every year.
Even though the town is no longer the capital or county town of Cornwall, it was here that Prince Charles was officially proclaimed Duke of Cornwall in 1973.
The river that flows through Tavistock isn't the Tamar, it's the Tavy. However since the Tavy ultimately flows into the Tamar estuary to form the Hamoaze, it is still considered to be in the Tamar Valley. The town's recorded history dates back to the founding of the now ruined Abbey of Saint Mary and Saint Rumon in 961. King Henry I granted the monks a charter to run a "Pannier Market" in 1105 and the market has been running ever since. There is also a farmers' market twice a month in Bedford Square.
Sir Francis Drake was born and lived in Tavistock. His home in the later part of his life was Buckland Abbey, a few miles to the south of the town on the Bere Peninsula. Visitors arriving in Tavistock by road from the west or the south will be greeted by his statue.
In the mid-19th century, Tavistock was a mining boom town. The nearby Devon Great Consols mine (now part of the Cornish and West Devon Mining World Heritage Site) was one of the world's largest copper mines and later produced roughly half of the world's arsenic. The 7th Duke of Bedford reputedly earned over £2million (equivalent to over £165million in today's money) from his local mining interests. One of the legacies of this wealth is the grand buildings of Bedford Square.
Nowadays, the town is most famous for its shops. Visitors used to seeing town centres full of identical chain shops will be surprised at the range of independent and individual shops in Tavistock. In recent years, Tavistock has been voted 'Best Market Town in England' and 'Best Food Town'.
Notable annual events include the Tavistock Goose Fair (in existence since 1116) and the Tavistock 'Real' Cheese Fair.
Callington is a small town on the Cornish side of the valley perhaps most famous nationally as the home of Ginsters pasties. In some of the earliest tales of King Arthur, Arthur's court is decribed as being at "Celliwig" in Cornwall, which some Arthurian scholars have identified as Callington.
The town is famous for its murals. Finding all of the murals on the Callington Mural Trail can be quite a challenge!
Like much of the valley, Calstock was a mining centre. Archaeological evidence suggests that tin mining was taking place in the area since at least Roman times. A Roman fort was discovered near to the church in 2008 - only the third such fort to be found in Cornwall.
Calstock sits right on the river and in the nineteenth century, paddle-steamers brought day-trippers upriver from Plymouth. The boats have changed, but it is still possible to take the same boat trip. Another way to reach Calstock is by rail. This journey, along the beautiful Tamar Valley Line from Plymouth crosses the river by means of the stunning Calstock Viaduct.
Calstock itself is a relaxed kind of place with old houses crammed together around twisting, narrow alleyways and streets. Walkers can head off from Calstock along the river either upstream or downstream. Beware though - the river is still tidal at Calstock, so the direction the river seems to be flowing might not be the direction you expect it to!
Saltash is the largest town on the Cornish side of the valley, and became an important settlement as the major crossing point on the lower Tamar - the ferry predates the existence of the town (which itself is older than Plymouth on the opposite bank of the river). The railway came to Saltash when Brunel completed the spectacular Royal Albert Bridge in 1859 but it was not until 1962 and the opening of the Tamar Bridge (then Britain's longest suspension bridge) that road traffic could cross the river by bridge rather than ferry. Visitors arriving in Cornwall after crossing the Tamar Bridge are greeted by Saltash's new Cornish Cross.
Because of its proximity to the Hamoaze (the wide, sheltered stretch of water where the Rivers Tamar, Tavy and Lynher meet), Saltash is a popular spot for dinghy, yacht and gig racing, especially during the Saltash Town Regatta in the summer. Just outside the town are Trematon Castle, a Norman motte-and-bailey castle built on the ruins of an earlier Roman fort, and Ince Castle, a seventeenth century manor house. There are also a number of nature reserves surrounding the town providing scenic walks, often with superb views of the Lynher and the Hamoaze.
Torpoint is the largest settlement on the Rame Peninsula and sits directly across the Tamar from Plymouth, which can be reached by car via the Torpoint Ferry. Torpoint is home to HMS Raleigh, where all the Royal Navy's new recruits undergo their new entry and basic training.
Torpoint is unusual in that it is an eighteenth century planned town, originally commissioned by the Member of Parliament Reginald Pole Carew in 1774. Carew's house, Antony House is just outside the town. Although still owned by the Carew Pole family, the house is in the care of the National Trust and is open to the public.
The Tamar Valley's only city is Plymouth, home to approximately 250,000 people. Plymouth has western Europe's largest naval base, HMNB Devonport, and one of the UK's largest universities, the University of Plymouth. It sits between the Tamar to the west and the River Plym to the east.
Although there is evidence of a Bronze Age trading port at nearby Mount Batten, it was only in the Middle Ages that the area around the mouth of the Plym became established as a town and port. The first naval dockyard opened in 1690 nearby on the banks of the Tamar and the settlement that grew up became 'Dock' and later 'Devonport'. 'Plymouth' was the area around the old Sutton Harbour, while 'East Stonehouse' (sometimes just 'Stonehouse') was the settlement that grew up around Stonehouse Creek. Only in 1914 did the 'Three Towns' formally merge to form modern Plymouth. Plymouth was awarded city status by Royal Charter fourteen years later.
Plymouth is a major retail destination, particularly since the opening of the Drake Circus Shopping Centre in 2006. The city's Theatre Royal is the largest and best attended regional producing theatre in the UK. Not surprisingly for a city with such a large population of sailors and students, Plymouth is also notable for its nightlife.
Many of the older parts of the city were devastated by bombing raids during the Second World War. One area that survived largely intact was the area around the medieval Sutton Harbour, known for centuries as The Barbican. Here you'll find the National Marine Aquarium, the Plymouth Gin Distillery (where the world famous Plymouth Gin has been made since 1793) and the Mayflower Steps near the spot where the Pilgrim Fathers finally left England for the New World in 1620. The artist Beryl Cook is closely associated with the Dolphin Hotel public house while Robert Lenkiewicz had his studio here from 1973 until his death in 2002. Overlooking the harbour is the Royal Citadel, a 17th century fortress now home to 29 Commando Regiment of the Royal Artillery.
Just along the shore from the Barbican is Plymouth Hoe, an open space overlooking the natural harbour of Plymouth Sound. The Hoe is a popular spot for picnics and sunbathing in the summer. Prominent landmarks are the red-and-white striped former lighthouse of Smeaton's Tower (formerly the Eddystone Lighthouse before it was moved onshore stone by stone in 1877) and the Tinside Lido, a unique 1935 Art Deco open air seawater swimming pool that was refurbished and reopened in 2005. According to legend, it was on the Hoe that Sir Francis Drake played a game of bowls before sailing out to fight the invading Spanish Armada. The Hoe also hosts the British Firework Championships every August, which always attracts massive crowds.