Village Byways by Marina Dewing

Tracking the progress of Calstock Footpath Society...a personal view.

The village of Calstock enjoys a unique position on a south-facing slope which drops steeply to the Cornish bank of the river Tamar.  Here the river chooses to forsake its usual north-south course and meander, in wayward fashion, roughly from east to west for a distance of just under one mile. Within that mile lies the southern boundary of Calstock with its rich, enduring village community and tangible sense of history.  The story of the Calstock Footpath Society is woven inextricably into the history of village life since it was founded in 1984.   It has attracted a colourful spectrum of local residents – and those who live further afield!

Calstock today is served by well maintained road and rail links, but historically the river was its main artery. Barges, schooners and paddle steamers turned the village into a bustling port during the heyday of mining and market gardening.  At that time footpaths, bridlepaths and rights of way were of paramount importance.  They gave access to places of employment, worship, trade and local amenities.  With the decline of industry in the area came the inevitable reduction in the population.  Well trodden paths became little used and, in some cases, overgrown. 


The Calstock Footpath Society was formed with the aim of maintaining these ancient byways by means of frequent use and regular clearance work where necessary.  From such modest roots the Society has evolved into a strong, determined band of stalwarts who research both factually and legally to uphold local rites of passage – and to endorse those rights.  In the process they organise some unforgettable walks!

In early 1996 John Rawles, the first chairman, paid tribute in his last chairman’s report, “to the progenitors of the Society and particularly to Henry James and Barry Kirkman who, after work on theirown, eloquently canvassed the need for it at a chilly meeting in the old hall in 1984”.  One of the progenitors was a certain Patrick Coleman (already guilty of starting three other ventures in the village).  He declined the chairmanship however, and John Rawles was elected in January 1985.  He was ably assisted by Betty Petheram in role of secretary. Ideas, like plants, flourish and blossom in the right environment and this was precisely the progress of the Society, which went from strength to strength.

John Rawles had been in the Services and had had a career as a civil servant, and was both organised and methodical in his approach, ideal attributes for a chairman.  His term of office is remembered by many with great affection and with admiration of his achievements for the Society.  I know that one long-standing member, Joan Marsland, was charged just £1 for a small printing job done for her by John on his press, on the understanding that the pound would secure a year’s membership of the CFS.  One wonders just how many were persuaded in this manner!

John was an astute negotiator and mediator, with a real talent for getting the walker and land owner to appreciate each other’s point of view.  Not an easy task, yet one he tackled with relish.  At the same time Betty Petheram rose to any challenge as secretary, not only faithfully recording the meetings and typing correspondence but also keeping members informed in her own inimitable fashion.  She was a familiar figure cycling around the village delivering reminders of meetings, and several members have mentioned the day she fell off her bike into the Danescombe marsh in her haste to complete one such errand.  Betty helped to produce the Calstock Map and Guide and was responsible for many painted signs, in particular those requesting that daffodils should be left for the enjoyment of all.

At that point in the Society’s history there were no regular walks, the main objective being the maintenance of existing paths and the upgrading of informal paths to Rights of Way.  Information for both residents and visitors was produced as an important facet of this undertaking.  One of the first paths to be cleared was behind the boatyard, with much input from the sprightly Henry James, who was hugely entertaining as he related stories of his (allegedly) misspent youth while he worked.  A seat was placed on the path when the work was completed.  It stands as a memorial to the irrepressible Henry James.

The role of secretary was inherited by Sandra Crowhurst in the late 1980s, when Sandra remembers working parties clearing the privately owned steps from Sand Lane to Lower Kelly.  The owner, Charlie Uren, lived at Lower Kelly, also owning the Steam Packet Inn.  At that time the CFS was still a small group of friends who met to discuss relevant issues over a cup of tea. It proved to be a long and arduous process designating existing paths as Rights of Way, often against the wishes of the landowner. The duties of the chairman and secretary were of paramount importance and the sterling services of each and every one has contributed enormously to the success of the CFS.

Sandra’s successor was Sylvia Bonsey who took up the reins until 1992 when she exchanged jobs with Lorraine Spear of Australia. Lorraine’s husband, John, took on the secretarial duties for that year.  During its first decade the Society pursued several long-running objectives, among them the Harewood-Gawton path (606/40) a popular local amenity, the eventual permissive path (as part of the Tamar Valley Discovery Trail) along the river bank from Calstock to Okeltor, and the provision of a pedestrian crossing at Calstock Station, to enable people on the west side of the village to reach the platform without an inconvenient detour by road.  These three goals were finally achieved against a number of obstacles, thanks to the Society’s patient methods of collecting evidence and co-operating with the Parish, District and County Councils. It all took years, at least ten in all these examples.  Patience, stamina - and a sense of humour - were essential attributes for the campaigners.

David Lane became secretary for a year before being voted chairman in 1996, with Lindy Horton as his secretary.  While in the post one of her achievements was the transfer of the map and guide to computer format, an innovation which would make information easily accessible and archives more durable. Many members have expressed the highest respect for David Lane. It was earned during ten years as chairman of the CFS.  David’s love of walking and extensive knowledge of local paths within the parish and beyond proved to be invaluable.  He put to good use his expanding role within the community and participation with other groups, promoting the Society’s aims and objectives vigorously.  The Society progressed from tentative beginnings to competent maturity.

Calstock has a reputation for welcoming newcomers to the area and making them feel at home. One couple who had no trouble integrating were June and Derek Ellis, who moved into the village in 1994, joining the CFS shortly after completing the decoration of their new home.  At that time there was still no regular programme of walks, members being fully occupied with the business of opening and clearing footpaths. In 1998 there was again a vacancy for a secretary, and the name of June Ellis was put forward (I am told) by her husband, Derek, who also confirmed that she had the required skills and availability. This was indeed a testament to the stability of their marriage, as June always insisted she had not been consulted on the matter! Nevertheless she made an excellent job of the post. 


One of her first tasks was to organise a reprint of the map and guide, which by now had been transferred to computer disk and printed by a local company, namely Penwell of Kelly Bray. Unfortunately the company later went out of business without returning the disk to the CFS.  One wonders whether it is still in a basement somewhere along with other forgotten artefacts piled in deteriorating cardboard boxes.

June proved to be an asset to the Society, her experience in sales and marketing a spur to expanding the membership by introducing a programme of walks open to everyone.  With the full support of both the chairman, David Lane, and the local press the idea took root and blossomed profusely. One such walk, advertised as “the Gunnislake mine walk with lunch in village pub in Chilsworthy” attracted no less than 60 keen participants – three times the expected number.  Luckily mine host was able to cope with the influx after someone telephoned him to warn him what to expect.  Each walk required a leader, who led the way and pointed out interesting features of the landscape or places of historical importance. David and Jill Lane and June and Derek Ellis led the first walks.  The outbreak of foot and mouth disease had delayed the start of the walks, with the countryside out of bounds to all but essential workers. By the summer of 2002 the ban had been lifted and the walks underway when Linda Fowler came to the village on a week’s holiday in the Danescombe Valley.  Falling in love with Calstock, she declined the opportunity to join a club ramble, preferring to become a member just two years later after moving into the village.

The warmth of Calstock residents and of June Ellis in particular, was a big factor in Linda’s decision to move to the area.  It was a sad irony that Linda became June’s successor when she retired in 2007 due to a terminal illness. During 2007 several new leaders came forward for the anticipated programme of walks as June and Derek withdrew their services.  In that year ten walks took place, proved popular and set the pace for regular future events.  Linda recalls one of her first walks vividly, claiming that it nearly put her off for ever!  The notoriously steep, rocky path near St. Dominick resembled a dried-up waterfall, the climb so taxing that she vowed never to repeat the experiment.  Although the Tamar Valley can be hazardous, leaders do try to keep routes undemanding and warn of any obstacles.

By 2008 David Lane had relinquished chairmanship in favour of Derek Ellis. During the next three years the programme of monthly walks with a variety of leaders was firmly established, the membership grew steadily, and the monitoring of footpaths in the Parish was put on a systematic basis.  Derek pays tribute to the work of Gundula Luke who was treasurer for many years, and to Ruth Desborough who promoted the Society through her links with Calstock School.  Derek's late wife, June, he says, had a favourite cause - Kelly Steps - with which he will always associate her memory.  John Tibbs took over from Derek as chairman in 2011.

There are now forty Public Rights of Way in the Parish.  These are now the responsibility of the Parish Council, although that was not always the case.  The programme of walks encompasses not only these local trackways but has extended to embrace many unforgettable locations further afield within the West Country.