12 chilly walkers set off from Cotehele Quay on an unpromising Sunday morning. Pausing to take in the beauty of the River Tamar, which has divided Cornwall and Devon since Saxon times, we headed along the footpath to enter the mystical woodlands cradling the Cotehele Estate, ancestral home of the Edgcumbe family until 1947, when it was bequeathed to the National Trust.
First stop on our leisurely tour was Cotehele Mill, an atmospheric reminder of bygone times and a working environment to the present day. The Mill houses a working potter and traditional furniture maker, along with recreational wheelwright’s, saddler’s and blacksmith’s workshops. The Mill is renowned for its organic, stoneground flour, produced by a team of millers on Thursdays and Sundays. The Cothele Mill Waterwheel depends on the flow of the Morden stream to turn sufficiently to power the grinding operation, and to also produce energy via the hydro-electric plant to supply the Estate and sell on to the National Grid.
It was time to make our way to the Weir that regulates the water flowing to the Mill. A sluice gate allows the water to enter the leat which flows down to the mill to turn the Waterwheel. A picturesque spot and perfect for a group photograph on the bridge over the Morden stream.
From the Weir, we made our way high into the woods, wending our way towards a gate opening out onto the road to Cotehele House. The House and Orchards are well worth a visit, and National Trust members have access to a succession of spectacular gardens including the Old Orchard, Valley Garden, and Cut Flower Garden. Most impressive is the Mother Orchard which was planted ten years ago to trial West Country apple varieties. There are over 300 trees in the orchard representing 125 different varieties of predominantly local origin. Today, however, we settled for our flasks of tea and snacks on the picnic tables scattered on the delightful lawns outside the boundaries of Cotehele House, which are open to all.
The second leg of our stroll took us back up into the woods in the direction of Calstock, where we enjoyed stunning views of the Tamar Valley now bathed in glorious sunshine, an unexpected joy after the shivery gloom at the start of our walk. We wended our way gradually to a stile opening out to the farmland above the Cotehele Estate, taking the permissive path through a field to pause for our lunch in the sunshine.
From there, another stile led us down the ‘stony path’, a hidden footpath with a brook streaming alongside it, beautiful in the dappled sunlight and helpfully restored by the Calstock Footpath Society in partnership with the Parish. We emerged on to the main trail though the woodlands where our walk was interrupted by ample opportunities to ‘play’ amongst the many ruins of the industrial past, including former mills and stores, and for a few to attempt a gentle sway on a precarious swing slung on a threadbare rope on a slender branch. Locals regaled us with lesser-known facts of the history of the woods, and we followed a path taking us above one local home, which houses free-roaming chickens and geese, as well as a proud set of gnomes, home-grown produce for sale, and an impressive back garden of wild, wild woods!
Now it was time for the final leg of our walk, deciding to curtail a climb into the woods on the opposite side of the Morden stream, and remain instead on the main trail back to the junction taking us up to Calstock Lookout. Whilst this shortened our walk, it gave us more time to take in the views of the Tamar Valley and upriver to the railway viaduct of Calstock, inspiring in all weathers but especially today in the clear and bright sunshine. From there, we wound down to the last stop on our tour, the Chapel in the Woods, or, more properly, the Chapel of SS George and Thomas Becket, erected by Sir Richard Edgcumbe, the builder of Cotehele House.
The story behind the Chapel is as exciting as any modern thriller. In 1483, Sir Richard joined a rebellion against King Richard III. The rebellion was quashed, and the King’s men pursued Edgecumbe through the woods. Sir Richard threw his hat upon the waters of the river that runs through the woods, and hid in the trees. His enemies saw the floating hat and assumed that Sir Richard had been drowned whilst trying to cross the water. They promptly took their leave, and Sir Richard was able to complete his escape to safety in Brittany. He wanted to give thanks for his escape and built this small, single-cell chapel at the spot where he had cast his hat into the river.
The interior of the chapel is extremely simple, with a few wooden benches arranged along the whitewashed walls, a wooden altar table, and a few fragments of medieval
stonework, including some original 15th century bench-ends. Above the doorway is a wooden panel recounting the tale of Sir Richard’s escape and the founding of the chapel. Here we paused to reflect once again on the history hidden among the leafy growth and quietness that makes Cotehele such a special place.
After our woodland adventure, it was time to head home to Devon, but not before a stop-off at the Who’d Have Thought it Inn, a splendid pub on our route back through St Dominick, where we took tea and puddings (and modest alcoholic beverages) and shared in the warmth (indoors) on an unexpectedly sunny late afternoon. A leisurely stroll for a Sunday walk – under 8 miles – but an enjoyable introduction to Cotehele, and one to return to another day.