Friday, 10 January 2020

Town Travel - Barnstable, UK

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 Barnstaple

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
The name ‘Barnstaple’ comes from 10th century Anglo Saxon and is thought to mean
‘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.

Pannier Market
Barnstaple Pannier Market 1907 - apart from the clothes very little has changed!

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.

Barnstaple Bridge 
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.

River Taw 
The River Taw at Umberleigh, North Devon
Attribution: Forester2009
I love walking by the river Taw at Queen Anne’s Square, looking towards the old Barnstaple Bridge and seeing, in my mind’s eye that scene where Jesamiah steals ashore in the dead of night and sends his second-in-command, Claude de la Rue, off to create a diversion of blowing up the doors to a bank, while he himself gets ready to blow a hole in the gaol wall. Of course, they all make a clean getaway!

© Helen Hollick
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Other places to visit...

Leiden, the Netherlands with Pauline Barclay

Next Town Travel is Wednesday with ... Michael Reidy in Lectoure, France


Helen Hollick said...

Thank you Pauline - a super idea for a series, I look forward to visiting other favourite towns.

Richard Tearle said...

I do like Barnstaple! First went there when I was about 6 or 7 whilst hoildayong in Croyde. my dad used to take me and my sister into Barnstaple and buy us coffee and doughnuts! Never had better! And watching steam trains chuffing over the bridge - thanks, Helen, for the memories!!!

Pauline Barclay said...

Hello Helen, it is wonderful having you here, thank you.

Pauline Barclay said...

Hello Richard, thank you for visiting and for sharing your memories too.

Helen Hollick said...

Richard - oh I'd LOVE to see steam engines in Barnstaple ... they'd be wonderful as a tourist attraction on the Tarka line from Exeter to Barnstaple (I'd be able to see them from my house!) Still happy memories of seeing Scotti come by near Tiverton...

Annie Whitehead said...

Wonderful post and what a great way to kick off what promises to be a great series!