Writer: Julia Webb-Harvey
Photography: Oliver Udy
Eyes rise to the high ceiling
transcendent in praise
to the twin gods of progress.
Vast arches with metal ribs span the space,
buttressed to the shore by granite piers
disclosing the miracle of suspension.
Tamar marks the transept.
Altar at the east; frothy down of
England’s green and pleasant land.
Road and track run west
in pilgrimage to the setting sun.
Most people know Saltash by the two suspension bridges (the Royal Albert and the Tamar) that span the river Tamar, marking the watery border between Cornwall and Devon. Most skirt past this gateway town on the A38, bypassing its rich history. In 1382, Richard III awarded the town its borough charter as Saltash, but when did the name slip its moorings from its Cornish, Essa?
The volunteers in the town’s museum told me there are many theories, all sketchy and contested. Some relate it to a family, d’Esse, and the valley that was bestowed with their name. One volunteer said, “it’s because of the burning of the cockle shells, the ash for fertiliser,” to be admonished by another – “I’ve never heard that before… it’s the Ashtorre rock.” Essa is “ash tree” in Cornish, so there is some genealogy in its English name despite the differing opinions.
Essa still lives on in the town – one of the museum’s researchers said that if you live in the upper part of the town, you are an Essanian, and down by the Tamar, a Watersider. He also said that many Watersiders were displaced in the 1960s, when the town council took Government money for slum clearance, replacing it with social housing. Over time, many Watersiders returned to the river.
Saltash feels like a town of two uneven parts. Sprawling acres of unremarkable sub-urban settlement span an area fringed by the A38, where most of its 16,600 population live. The town funnels to Upper Fore Street, bombed during the Second World War, and the main drag of mid-town shops. It is only when you drop down towards Lower Fore Street, and the buildings that escaped the bombing, that you gain a perspective on this gateway town. The twin bridges loom large, dominating the Watersider’s landscape.
It strikes me as one of the few places in Cornwall where your eyes are drawn upwards – and for my disconcerted dog, her ears. The sound of trains, cars and buses seems to rumble from the sky. This is no Gothic scheme to lift your eyes to heaven; the bridges are more like monuments to progress. Both bridges were built because of factors extraneous to the town. In 1859, Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge brought the railway to Cornwall because Falmouth was concerned about losing trade and shipping to Southampton. The Tamar Bridge was opened in 1961 to accommodate Cornwall’s growing road traffic as the Saltash Ferry could no longer transport people quickly enough and the town was gridlocked. Crossing the border had become miserable. Saltash makes sense down by the water, from the spot that JMW Turner created his painting in 1812. I stand on the firm sand of the slipway, Ashtorre Rock to my right, looking up towards the old inn, now a coffee shop called Just Be. This is where and why Saltash started, with layers of history and heritage literally surrounding me. I am certain that the water is whispering Essa, Essa, Essa.