Monday, 30 December 2013

Otter landscape was a bargain

The River Otter is always a popular subject for artists and the view of Otter Head is a favourite. 

Mark Gibbons is a professional painter who specialises in West Country moorland and coastal landscapes. His 1980 watercolour of the River Otter at Budleigh Salterton was one of the recent lots at Piers Motley Auctions in Exmouth.

Just over two years ago the artist and his wife Angela featured as contestants in the ITV programme ‘May the Best House Win.’  The subsequent media coverage led to increased interest in his paintings, which were reported as selling for around £500 each.

And the above painting...?  A snip at £50 at the Bicton Street sale on 9 December. Auctioneer Piers Motley said that the winning bid was what he would have expected.

For details of further sales click here

The 2013 Christmas Day swim at Budleigh Salterton

Every Christmas Day spectators and swimmers gather on Budleigh beach just before 10.00 am. Or should that be sadists and masochists...?

Even the odd dog is welcome to join. 

The weather had been stormy in the run-up to Christmas Day and I'd heard rumours that the event might have to be cancelled. 

But who would decide? The coastguards in the photo were looking as if they thought everyone was mad. 

They told me that the event is spontaneous with no organiser. People just turn up.

Here are some people putting on brave faces as 10.00 am approaches.


 And they're off!

Clearly some people are having second thoughts. Those waves look quite big.

Yes indeed. This could have been a big mistake.

The return! For most people that was after a few minutes.

 Some people just enjoy showing off. 


The crowds break into applause...

... for the RNLI boats who are always out there on Christmas Day.  Off they go to the Exmouth Christmas Day swim. 

Funded by charitable donations, the lifeboat crews and lifeguards of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution have saved at least 140000 lives at sea since 1824.  Click on  to read more.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Day by Day through the Great War - thoughts from another town


The madness of war: A Swiss shepherd watches a battle on the frontier during World War I from the 1915 edition of Some ‘Frightful’ War Pictures by the celebrated illustrator William Heath Robinson (1872-1944) 

Museums up and down the country - indeed throughout the world - will have been bringing their resources to bear on exhibitions marking the centenary of World War I. In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron announced last October that more than £50m has been allocated for a historic commemoration of the centenary of the start of the conflict.

The hunt is still on at Fairlynch Museum for Great War stories with a link to Budleigh Salterton or any of the villages of the Lower Otter Valley.

Those stories based on experiences of active service are naturally of keen interest, particularly when they reveal private thoughts at variance with the official views promoted by the Government’s propaganda machine. Only a few months ago the publication of Warwickshire man and WW1 veteran Harry Drinkwater’s pencil-written secret wartime diaries made BBC news. His papers had been sent for auction by relatives following his death in 1978 and were spotted by collector David Griffiths who was struck by their gripping storytelling style. 

One of many entries from Lt Drinkwater’s diary reflects bitterly on the futility of the conflict:  
"This is not war it's slaughter. No man, however brave, can advance against a sheet of bullets from the front and a shower of shells from overhead - it appears to me that the side who will win will be the one who can supply the last man."


Less dramatic perhaps but absorbing in their way are the diaries kept by non-combatants such as John Coleman Binder, a grocer, baker and corn-dealer from Oundle in Northamptonshire. Recently published by the town’s Museum Trust they cover in detail a wide range of aspects of World War I. 

Editor Alice Thomas was at first hesitant about bringing them to public notice but decided that publishing them was a worthwhile project. “Though I have sometimes thought that it might be better to let these terrible events, with the hatred, brutality and suffering on both sides, be forgotten, they were an inescapable part of life for everyone involved, and a part of our history,” she writes in the preface. “A first hand account such as this is a valuable and vivid record of how life was for this thoughtful Oundle man in his fifties, in the years between 1914 and 1918.”   

Oundle School Chapel was built as a memorial to those former pupils of Oundle School who died during World War I, including the Headmaster's son Roy Sanderson

Having spent over 30 years living and working in Mr Binder’s charming town before moving to Budleigh Salterton I was surprised and delighted to receive a copy sent by Oundle friends involved with the local museum. Maybe they were pleased with me for spotting that Alfred Leete (1882-1933) the designer of the famous Kitchener 'Your Country Needs You' recruiting poster, was born in the village of Achurch just a few miles south of Oundle.  

It’s a long way from Devon to Northamptonshire but I’m in the habit of spotting curious connections from the past. Like the fact that General Simcoe, a one-time resident of Budleigh Salterton, about whom I’ve written at length on this blog, was born at Cotterstock, near Oundle before moving with his family to Exeter.  

A scene from chapter LXIV of François Rabelais' Gargantua telling in burlesque fashion an episode from the story of the Pichrocholine war, illustrated by the 19th century French artist  Gustave Doré 

I’ve often thought about the stupidity and sadness of human conflict, whether finding pacifist elements in the work of 16th century authors like the humanist scholar  Erasmus of Rotterdam or the French comic writer Francois Rabelais...


This depiction of the battlefield of Waterloo by the artist John Heaviside Clarke (1771-1863) was dedicated to the Marquess of Anglesea, Wellington's cavalry commander

... or being struck by the absence of jingoism in this 1816 painting of the aftermath of Waterloo

The book Oundle’s War was my contribution to the celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. It was a history of the 1939-45 conflict seen from the viewpoints of Oundle residents, former pupils of Oundle School, and USAAF servicemen stationed in the local area

... or writing about World War Two’s impact on the Oundle community between 1939 and 1945.

Flicking through Mr Binder’s diary at random I found something of note on every page - and there are 268 pages in total.  Here is this worthy shopkeeper describing on page 2 how his Oundle customers reacted to news of the impending declaration of war in August 1914.

“I am sorry to say that this morning signs of panic began to show themselves. On commencing business people commenced to come in with large orders to buy up food especially flour and sugar. I quickly discerned this and refused to supply any person with more than 14lb of Flour or 14lb Sugar and thus although we continued to be very busy all day we were able to cope with the rush.

I am sorry to say this course was not taken by other shops in the town, so that some people were able to secure an unfair quantity of Provisions.”


Above: A 1915 World War I poster appealing for volunteers

Britain had begun the Great War in 1914 by relying on volunteers for its armed forces. By 1916 the Government was introducing conscription, but Mr Binder had reservations about its plans for calling up working men who were already contributing, as he saw it, to the national effort. 

“The burden laid upon this empire is already stupendous, and cannot be added to without the gravest reasons,” he writes on page 95. “We are helping clear the seas. We have an army of 3 millions of men fighting on two fronts. We are keeping our trade going (under conditions which are intolerable) in order to finance ourselves and our Allies, and have practically turned all our steel and iron works of every description into munition factories in order to supply their wants and our own. If we withdraw our men compulsorily from these labours it seems to me the result will be collapse. I am neither an Optimist nor a Pessimist but simply a plain citizen who tries to look at these events in the light of reason. We are told the Voluntary System has proved a failure, that we are ‘a nation of slackers’ etc., etc. This is mere rubbish. No nation that supplies and equips an army of 3 millions in a year ought to be condemned in this way.”

A year later, with men being sent to the front in their thousands, he is clearly revolted by the indiscriminate way in which the cannon-fodder was being chosen. “One of the most painful and shameful debates that I ever remember took place on Thursday in the House on the question of calling up for re-examination men who had been rejected as unfit. Many of these men - notoriously unfit - have been passed by Medical Boards as fit for General Service. The whole affair had become a crying public scandal.” (page 215). 

 Yet Mr Binder is no pacifist. “We cannot wage war in kid gloves with an enemy like Germany,” he concludes on page 214 having described a terrible air raid on London which took place on 13 June 1917, when 104 people - “a good part women and children” he notes - were killed, and 243 wounded. “One cannot understand their mentality at all, and Englishmen have long ceased to try to do so, and most of us now look upon them as real savages, but unfortunately they have been able to bring science to aid their savage and bloody ways.”



As I turn the pages of the Oundle shopkeeper’s diary I wonder how many volumes of diaries and letters still lie undisturbed in East Devon homes, and how many of them might perhaps have been composed a century ago during what Mr Binder describes so rightly as “this grim and bloody war.”  Well, we have four years ahead of us to contemplate its horrors. And perhaps during that time  Fairlynch Museum’s 2014 tribute to the victims of the Great War may help to yield more testimonies which deserve to be better known. 

So please don’t throw away those old family papers and notebooks before checking to see if there’s something as valuable as Mr Binder’s diary.

Oundle Museum's website is at

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Happy Christmas from Fairlynch Museum and Arts Centre

World War I exhibition

Fairlynch Museum's Local History Group is still seeking people from Budleigh Salterton and surrounding villages with information for the 2014 WWI tribute exhibition

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Lightening up Fairlynch Museum in Budleigh Salterton

Each year Lord Clinton, Patron of Fairlynch, donates a Christmas tree to the Museum.


Shown left to right getting the tree ready for the Late Night Shopping event on 6 December are Rob Merkel, Roger Sherriff, Andrew Jamieson and Trevor Waddington.

Lighting up time at Fairlynch

The Museum welcomed a steady flow of visitors to match the mulled wine on offer. Mince pies were served of course

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Red Man or Green Man?

I enjoyed visiting the current exhibition at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum a few days ago. It’s called ‘West Country to World’s End - The South West in the Tudor Age’ and I’ll write more about it in due course.

A well produced book of the same title accompanies the exhibition, which I enjoyed so much that I bought a copy.

Budleigh people will admire the impressively life-size portrait by an unknown artist of the area’s great Elizabethan hero Sir Walter Raleigh and his eight-year-old son Walter. On loan from the National Portrait Gallery the work was painted in 1602 when he was enjoying Queen Elizabeth’s favour, and shows in great detail, as the printed commentary explains, the expensive clothes worn by father and son: Sir Walter is wearing a jacket embroidered with seed pearls while the boy’s blue suit is silver-braided.  This link on the excellent and useful Wikipedia will take you to see it at

But why is there no mention of Sir Walter’s birthplace in East Budleigh, only a 30 minute drive from Exeter?  


The 2010 guide to All Saints, one of Devon's most celebrated churches

And while much of the exhibition gives rightful prominence to the magnificence and sophistication of arts and crafts enjoyed by rich and powerful patrons in 16th century South West England there is surprisingly not one image or mention of one of the glories of East Budleigh in All Saints Church where Sir Walter Raleigh and his family worshipped.

“It is not Raleigh that makes this church a ‘must-visit’, nor even the very beautiful gilded bosses, but the wonderful 16th-century carved bench ends,” writes Hilary Bradt in her 2010 book Slow Devon and Exmoor. “These are quite extraordinary, and deserve as much time as you can give them.”

This bench end depicting a ship is said by some to have inspired the young Sir Walter Raleigh in his overseas explorations. For a detailed study of this bench end see 

Nearer home, another admirer of the bench ends is Fairlynch Museum volunteer steward Hanneke Coates whose illustrations in the 2010 booklet All Saints Church and the Village of East Budleigh show some of the carvings in good detail. 


Opinions vary as to the interpretation of this particular bench end.  It’s described by the photographer Rex Harris at
as a ‘wodewose’ or ‘wildman of the woods’, a figure often known as a Green Man with ancient links to natural vegetative deities in cultures from earliest times in places around the world. That view seems to be shared by David Jenkinson, writing about the East Budleigh bench ends for the Otter Valley Association’s Ovapedia in 2010 where he describes the carvers as influenced by the threatening mythical creatures of the Dark Ages, including such examples as the wodewose and boggarts or malevolent spirits of the fields.  Click on to read more.

New Age thinkers like the Dutchman Han Marie Stiekema have embraced the concept of the Green Man, listing the East Budleigh bench end as one of its many examples at 

However Rex Harris or Sheepdog Rex as he calls himself, also acknowledges that the bench end is “often referred to as a Red Indian because of (the) Raleigh connection.”  That was the view taken by Budleigh Salterton’s Dr Brushfield in his 1892 study of the Church of All Saints. “A large bearded head in profile, facing left, situated in the concavity of an arabesque ornament, and terminating in a scroll-like decoration,” he wrote. “It bears some resemblance to, and has been called, the decorated head of an Indian.”

“It’s hard not to think ‘Red Indian!” writes in a similar vein the Devon-based founder of the Bradt Travel Guides, having described the figure on the bench end wearing what seems to be a feathered headdress. A sailor returning from the New World would have remembered the more flamboyant aspects and perhaps described them to local craftsmen,” suggests Hilary Bradt. “But the ‘feathers’ could also be foliage,” she admits in deference to the Green Man’s followers. 

It’s a view shared by Hanneke in her 2010 church guide. In fact she is passionate in what she describes as the belief held by locals - and she counts herself as such - that the bench end depicts a North American Indian.  “That of course is completely different from what the historians write,” she says. “But I’ve spent a long time studying and drawing the bench ends and I know them intimately.”

The difference in interpretation of the carvings by locals as opposed to historians is for Hanneke a fascinating aspect of the East Budleigh bench ends. “I’d love to write a booklet on that subject,” she told me.

It’s easy to embrace the notion that the whole of Tudor Devon was abuzz with stories told in towns and villages by sailors returning from voyages to the ‘World’s End’ led by Drake, Hawkins and Raleigh. Dr Michael Tisdall has devoted many years to studying the significance of the carvings of plants and leaves in medieval churches. His book God’s Flowers: an iconography for foliage decoration was published last year.


Many visitors to East Budleigh will have learnt that this bench end depicts a tongue-sticker. It may have been a carver’s depiction of a tale-bearer punished for his sin by being given an enormous deformed tongue. Or simply a fairground-type freakshow. 

Dr Tisdall, quoted by Hilary Bradt, has a rather different view. “It is my idea that it is a banana. Bananas would have been known to Raleigh’s crew. They sailed via the Azores where bananas were in production and some were taken across to these new West Indies and planted there. So either a banana or a drawing or other memory of a banana would be very likely in East Budleigh.”

Well, I don’t know. But it’s fun to let the imagination range across the seas and the centuries.

And the RAMM exhibition can only help.  Do go, and don’t miss the exhibit described as a 17th century tile depicting a Native American, found in the little North Devon village of Monkleigh.

I mean of course, the tile. Now that would be a story wouldn’t it, to discover that the All Saints bench end craftman’s work had been carved from life?

To read more about RAMM click on

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

An impressive display of mill power

Martin Watts: no run-of the-mill speaker

Living as we do on the coast, it’s all too easy to think that Devon’s all about seaside holiday resorts, smugglers’ coves, sea shanties and swashbuckling nautical heroes of the past. So the subject of a talk on 26 November in Knowle Village Hall was well chosen by the Otter Valley Association, given the importance of mill power over the centuries in our corner of the West Country.  

And they couldn’t have chosen a better speaker than Martin Watts from Cullompton. One of only thirteen practising millwrights listed in the Mills section of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, he was able to draw on his many years’ experience as a miller and student of mills since the 1960s. With an impressive range of slides and a seemingly endless supply of facts about rivers, leats, millstones, gearing, overshot and undershot wheels he kept his 60-strong audience fascinated by his story of how the ancient industry of milling had developed since the Middle Ages, with a special emphasis on East Devon.

The entrance to Otterton Mill shop and gallery and the mill workings

There had been, we learnt, about 2,000 mill sites in Devon over the last thousand years. The Domesday Book commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1085 had listed 96 mills in the county, mostly in East Devon. Cornwall, in contrast, had only six. And milling had thrived until quite recently. Only 30 years there were still 600 corn mills; contributions from various members of the audience at the end of the talk proved that milling memories were still fresh in people’s minds - elderly though some of these may have been.

The Otter Valley was an especially productive area, including mills at Ottery St Mary, Dotton, Colaton Raleigh and especially Otterton. In fact, if you missed the talk, and haven’t visited this most celebrated mill so close to Budleigh there are plenty of opportunities to see it in action. The photos don't really do it justice.

The mill building at Otterton sits astride the mill leat, and houses two independent mills sharing the same stream. There are two water-wheels, which would previously have driven two pairs of milling stones housed in each mill.
With a total of four pairs of stones, Otterton Mill was for much of its life the largest watermill in Devon. The millers grind their signature stoneground flour twice a month and on milling days are very happy to chat to visitors and explain how the mill works.

There’s much more than milling to enjoy at Otterton, fascinating though it is to watch those amazing wheels going round. With its idyllic setting, award-winning cafe-restaurant, celebrated bakery, art gallery, local food shop and live music events it’s one of East Devon’s major attractions. Click on to find out more.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Lots to mull over in Budleigh Salterton

Mulled wine in the Museum, mulled cider in a marquee just opposite in Mackerel Square, with live music to listen to and chorizo casserole to warm you up...  and lots more going on in the High Street including the traditional carol-singing of course. You can’t complain that Budleigh isn’t doing its best to cater for all tastes at the Late Night Shopping event on 6 December, from 6.00 to 8.00 pm.

Budleigh in Business is hosting the marquee in Mackerel Square, pictured above. The location seems particularly apt, being the town’s market place in the 18th century.

Newly formed in 2012 and now boasting 70+ members, Budleigh in Business describes itself as a group of like minded people dedicated to developing the businesses and prosperity of Budleigh Salterton and the surrounding area by supporting the town and helping business thrive.  

 With ‘Buy Local’ as the theme, BiB is planning its second Food & Drink Festival which is returning in 2014 from 24 to 26 October following the success of this year’s gastro-extravaganza.

 There’s nothing insular about the group. Most of its members are based in the Budleigh area - the chorizo casserole for example comes courtesy of Rosehill Rooms and Cookery, based on Budleigh’s West Hill.  But the mulled cider is from the Ashcombe Estate near Dawlish, where Budleigh resident Bill Roper is helping to revive the centuries-old tradition of cider-making. While on the subject of food there’s a delicious-looking recipe on the Ashcombe Cider web page at

“We know that many of you will be either part of the late night opening or there with family and friends to enjoy the festive spirit on the High Street - it would be lovely for you to join us down in Mackerel Square!” says BiB Chairperson Angela Yarwood, seen left.