Constructed in 1820 the Granite Tramway was for transporting blocks of granite from Dartmoor to the River Teign, but what I hadn’t realised until I came across a stretch on a walk around Haytor, was that the tracks themselves are built of granite. Even more impressive is that the original track was around 8 miles long.
The granite from Dartmoor had been used for centuries to construct local buildings – including my own home – but this was probably from stone found lying around rather than specifically quarried rock. In the 19th century Dartmoor granite became a popular building stone for some of the finer structures in London: London Bridge (the one that now stands in Arizona) was specified to be constructed of “Light-grey Devonshire Haytor”. So that was cause enough for establishing a quarry near Haytor. But this doesn’t explain why the tramway itself was made of blocks of stone.
Tramways were fairly common and often used to serve canals. One of the earliest, 1790, was the Peak Forest Tramway which took limestone from Buxton to the Ashton-under-Lyne canal and this one did have stone slabs and stone sleepers. By 1820 however iron rails were more common and locally near Tavistock on the western side of Dartmoor iron was used for rails in the tramway at Morwhellam Quay. The Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway was under construction in the 1820s and here the granite acted as sleepers but the rails were of cast iron.
The Templer family who owned the Stover Estate had constructed a canal to carry clay and coal between the upper Teign estuary and Heathfield where the potteries stood. George Templer developed the Haytor Quarry commercially and it appears that it was his decision to construct the tramway and cutting blocks of granite to form stone rails. It was most likely the abundance of stone that led to this decision.
The granite blocks were between 5 and 8 feet long, about 15 inches wide and 10 inches thick. A longitudinal flange was cut and they were laid to provide a track gauge about 4ft3″. There were junctions and sidings and the track descended about 1300 feet from the quarries to the canal. After the branches join together the main track curves along the contours and runs south east towards Bovey Tracey from where it follows the course of the River Bovey across Bovey Heath.
Today if you want to walk along the granite tramway it starts at Haytor (SX765771). though some of the route is on private land and inaccessible and parts the route were obliterated by the South Devon Railway. There are mile markers to be found and some sets of points where tracks merge or diverge. There are several walks that incorporate part of the tramway and further information can be found on the Historic England listing – the tramway was listed as an important monument in 1963.
So the Haytor granite was used in the construction of the British Museum, the National Gallery and parts of the old Covent Garden Market. William Pitt in Hanover Square stands on a block of Dartmoor granite and so does George IV in Edinburgh. At its peak the tramway was carrying 20,000 tons of granite each year. Sadly the business did not last and George Templer struggled to control his outgoings and the quarry output fell to negligible amounts during the 1840s. The tramway fell into disuse by 1865 and although some granite was extracted from the quarries as late as 1919 (for Exeter War Memorial) it was transported by horse and cart, a much more laborious process.
Granite quarrying moved to the western side of Dartmoor and later Cornish granite proved to be much cheaper. Now Haytor Rocks and Quarries are protected as sites of special scientific interest. If the idea of a walk is too strenuous then you can try the virtual experience!