Town Travel - My favourite town by Helen Hollick
Until 2013 I would have said that York was my favourite town, because it has quaint alleyways and is steeped in history (it has some very interesting ghosts as well – if ever you go there, do join in one of the York Ghost Walks!)
However, when I moved to North Devon I fell in love with several of our towns. Exeter is our County Capitol, but it is my local South Molton I prefer, and above that, North Devon’s biggest town – Barnstaple.
(For Americans – say it Barnst’ple not Barn Stayple.)
Situated on the River Taw, a few miles upriver from the coast, Barnstaple is a quaint old town, mostly Georgian, but with the remains of a Norman Motte and Bailey castle. Some of the alleyways (‘drangs’ and ‘opes’ as they are called in Devon) are narrow and cobbled, with a distinct air of the past about them. Until the river silted up, Barnstaple was a busy trade port, with many a tall ship sailing upriver with goods from the American Colonies, France and Spain. Thanks to exporting wool, by the 14th century it was the third richest town in Devon behind Exeter and Plymouth.
Our eighteenth century farmhouse, situated quite high on a ridge above Umberleigh, overlooks a section of the Taw – our own little piece of the beautiful Taw Valley.
Eighteenth century view of Barnstaple (right) and Pilton (left), divided by the small River Yeo, flowing into the broad River Taw (foreground). Right: St Peter's Church, Barnstaple, with spire; Barnstaple Long Bridge (un-widened) over River Taw. Left: St Mary's Church, Pilton; Pilton Bridge over the River Yeo. 18th century (?) oil painting now in the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon. The original oil painting is now in Barnstaple Museum.
Queen Anne's Square
attribution: Dietmar Rabich / Wikimedia Commons / “Barnstaple (Devon, UK), Queen Anne's Walk -- 2013 -- 0994” / CC BY-SA 4.0
‘battle-axe’ (bearde) and pillar (stapol) a term to mark a religious or meeting place. Shakespeare mentions it as ‘Barum’, a Latin contraction of Barnastapolitum, and in Victorian times, Barum was mentioned in several novels.
Officially, Barnstaple dates back to a circa 917 Saxon settlement, but I am convinced that the Romans were in the area. It doesn’t make sense that the Romans would not ensure they had adequate defences along the River Taw within a few miles of the estuary and the Bristol Channel – especially as the Taw rises down in South Devon on Dartmoor. Would Rome really leave almost all North Devon undefended? There has been no Roman foundations or artefacts found but most of present day Barnstaple is early Georgian – who knows what is underneath! Also if you are a believer in the Akashic Records (spiritual research) then yes – the Romans were there!
Barnstaple might have been attacked by Vikings circa 893, and it had its own mint well before 1066. King Harold II (Harold Godwineson) had a connection with North Devon (and therefore probably Barnstaple) through his mother, Gytha, who held land here in her own right. In fact my daughter was married at Northcote Manor which was, originally, a monastery built on land given to the monks by Lady Gytha.
It is also thought that Harold’s sons fought a battle with the Normans in a rebellion attempt in 1067 or ’68 at the confluence of the rivers Taw and Torridge, about seven miles downriver of Barnstaple. (Alas, the English lost.)
Passing through several notable families, (Geoffrey de Montbray, who is recorded as its holder in Domesday Book and the de Braose family among others, ending up in the ownership of Margaret Beaufort (died 1509), mother of Henry VII.
In 1588 five ships from Barnstaple joined the fleet sent to fight the Spanish Armada. Although the Taw had started to silt up by the mid-1600s, so that the larger ships could no longer sail upriver, trade importance had shifted from wool and Virginia tobacco to lace, glove making, sail-cloth, fishing-nets, tanneries, shipbuilding and pottery.
Today, it is still very much a thriving, rural market town with a ‘farmers’ market’ on Tuesdays and Fridays. The High Street carries some of the ‘big’ stores (Marks & Spencer, for instance,) but also has what I call ‘old fashioned’ shops – which I enjoy browsing.
In Ripples In The Sand, Jesamiah would have moored his boat alongside this bridge (attribution: Dietmar Rabich / Wikimedia Commons / “Barnstaple (Devon, UK), Long Bridge -- 2013 -- 3” / CC BY-SA 4.0
I have several scenes set in Barnstaple in the fourth Sea Witch Voyage, Ripples In The Sand, where my ex-pirate, Jesamiah Acorne, takes a few men of his crew up-river to Barnstaple in order to break some men out of gaol.
The River Taw at Umberleigh, North Devon
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Leiden, the Netherlands with Pauline Barclay
Next Town Travel is Wednesday with ... Michael Reidy in Lectoure, France