Sunday, 9 February 2014

Shades of the Great War are all around us (1)


The Temple Church in Redcliffe, Bristol, founded in the mid-12th century, was bombed in November 1940 during the Bristol Blitz. More than 80 years later it still stands as a ruin 

When I was born, in 1946, the Second World War had only just finished but my childish memories of its impact are still vivid. Rationing wasn’t completely abolished for another eight years. I think I remember car parks in Bristol which seemed to have been made out of enormous bomb craters.
And some parents had vivid stories to tell: my mother seemed to have enjoyed her times in the WRNS, in safety in Scotland, while, disturbingly my father told atrocious stories of how he and his tank crew had dealt with the Japanese in Burma.  Other parents, of course, never spoke of those days.
I never tired of endless WW2 films and devoured books of PoW escape stories. Though that may have been my own escapism from a succession of ghastly boarding schools.

But WW1? There’s a strange gap in my memories. No grandparents seemed to have fought or even done heroic deeds in the equivalent of WW2’s Home Guard. 


Wilhelm II, Emperor of Germany and King of Prussia: the villain of World War I?

For me WW1 remained mysterious. A senseless slaughter on all sides. Kaiser Wilhelm never had the frightening stature of WW2’s ranting bogeymen Hitler and Mussolini.  And the Gestapo and Germany’s brutal persecution of the Jews were associated in my mind with sadistic boarding school bullies. 

So in 1995, maybe to get back at the bullies, I wrote a book about WW2’s impact on the small town of Oundle in Northamptonshire.

Twenty years earlier, however, we had bought our first house.  There must have been a mania for stripped pine, for we set to work scraping off all that dark brown stain and woodgrain - the gloomy grey-green varnish which was supposed to look like finely grained wood.   

Beneath the stain which covered some tongue and groove panelling on the first floor landing we found the name  H.B. Hancock and the date 1912 etched into the wood. The decorator had obviously left his mark. Out of respect we left it.

Oundle's war memorial and the Talbot Hotel, a drawing by Diana Leigh

 It was a few years later that while passing the town’s war memorial I noticed our decorator’s name and the date of his death: 1917. 

The Battle of Arras: a photo dated 24 April 1917.  A battery of 18-pounder field guns under German fire close to Monchy-le-Preux. In the foreground is an advanced dressing station.
Oundle man Harry Baxter Hancock would die four days later

Thanks to the internet I can now read fuller details:
Harry Baxter Hancock  
Private, 24422, 11th (Cambs) Suffolk Regiment. Killed in action Roeux 28-04-17. Born, enlisted and resident Oundle. Commemorated on Arras Memorial, Bay 04.

Elsewhere I found an item from the Northampton Mercury for 24 Aug 1894. It reported that his father James Harry Hancock, of Oundle, also a painter and decorator, "for neglecting to have his child, Harry Baxter Hancock, vaccinated, was ordered to pay 6s. costs and have the child vaccinated within 14 days."

Poor Harry.  The vaccination may have protected him from smallpox but did nothing to save him from death in his twenties.  

I hope the new owners of our Oundle house have kept that little bit of panelling as we left it. 
Four years after settling in Budleigh Salterton I got an email out of the blue from a Joseph Byrne, writing from Ireland.  He’d found me via a Cape Cod website. Isn’t the internet amazing!  The ghosts of the past can use it to help us tell their stories. Again, I found myself investigating the sad death of another victim of WW1.

You can read about him in a future installment, which will appear on the following site at  

 I’m calling the site The Great War at Fairlynch and over the next four years I reckon I’ll be spending a fair bit of time there, and less on Budleigh & Brewster.   

An archaeological high on High Peak

High Peak looking west, seen from the Coast Path between Sidmouth and Budleigh Salterton

New interpretation panels at High Peak reveal the secrets of this Stone Age site near the South West Coast Path just a few miles east of Budleigh Salterton.


Following the harvesting of the tree crop on High Peak, between Sidmouth and Budleigh Salterton, by Clinton Devon Estates an archaeological investigation of High Peak hill camp was carried out in September 2012 to try and discover more about how this enigmatic site has been used over past centuries.


Friend of Fairlynch and children’s author Jan Oke was one of about a dozen volunteers involved in the dig on alternate days. A member of the Devon Archaeological Society, she responded to an advertisement in its newsletter and found herself working alongside professional archaeologists in a group of half a dozen volunteers keen to gain experience of digging into thousands of years of history.

The hill camp was first occupied in the Neolithic Period between 6,000 and 4,000 years ago.  The site had been previously excavated in the 1960s when a jadeite axe head had been found.

 As in all archaeological digs extremely careful sifting of material was needed. “But it was not tedious at all,” said Jan. “The trench we were working in was across a ditch and there was a lot of neolithic flint items, tools and pottery. I found the first piece of neolithic pot. I was rewarded with a bar of chocolate!”

The view from the cliff edge, looking west towards Ladram Bay

 An added urgency felt by the group lay in the knowledge that their excavation might be the last ever at that site. “So much has fallen into the sea over the centuries,” Jan explained. “We had only a fortnight there - we’d have loved to do more.”

Approximately 1,000 flint objects were discovered, including a finely flaked arrowhead. “It was typical of early neolithic work from the period, but rare to find one in such good condition.”
Jan first got involved in archaeological digs when she volunteered to help with surveys on Woodbury Common as part of the Pebblebeds Project, following a talk given by Professor Chris Tilley to the Friends of Fairlynch.  But she had experienced the thrill of making unexpected discoveries from the past when a pile of Victorian toys were found under the floorboards of her house in Little Knowle. The result was a children’s book Major Glad, Major Dizzy which she wrote in 2011, following on from an earlier book Naughty Bus. 

Her hands-on experiences have inspired her to learn more about the subject. She is now hard at work as a full-time student at Exeter University, having enrolled on its three-year course in Archaeology. Who knows? Maybe the Stone Age will provide the inspiration for yet a third book for children.

Photos courtesy of Sue Dymond

Maddened by the floods? Get mad about moss.

Flooded fields between Annacloy and Ballynahinch, County Down, Northern Ireland

Photo credit Ardfern

Having spent many years of my childhood on the now disastrously flooded Somerset Levels, and still full of memories of my research last year into 19th century Budleigh Salterton spongiologist Henry Carter FRS, I read with interest Simon Barnes’ article in yesterday’s Times newspaper.

‘Dredging up old ideas won’t save the Levels’ was its title. No, believes the author. What is needed is in his words “a bloody great sponge” placed upstream to soak up water and then release it slowly. “Such sponges are known as upland bogs, moors, woodlands, wetlands and species-rich grasslands.”


The picture says it all: an overwhelmed flood sign
Photo credit Bob Embleton

And maybe he should have added mosslands. For in our hillside cottage here in Budleigh Salterton we’re only too aware of the spongy flood barrier that we call our lawn. It has clearly absorbed much of the rainfall that’s made so many homes uninhabitable recently in other parts of the country.


That’s only to be expected, thinks my American friend Mossin’ Annie, pictured above at work on her mossery.  Based in Pisgah Forest in North Carolina - the other Raleigh country associated with our own Sir Walter - she runs Mountain Moss Enterprises and has been featured before in these pages.


 The path from Huccaby and Hexworthy on Dartmoor runs between old walls of moss-covered grantite boulders  Photo credit Martin Bodman
See more beautiful images of Dartmoor moss by local photographer Adrian Oakes at

Mosses can indeed absorb water like a sponge.  Some only a little at a time. “Others, like Sphagnums, can absorb up from 20-30 times their weight,” writes Annie on her website at

“The absorptive properties of mosses allow extensive colonies to provide water filtration slowing down the rush of stormwater and giving it a chance to reach the soil. Mosses can reduce the impact of flash-flooding or heavy rainstorms as erosion control plants.”

Peat stacks near Westhay on the Somerset Levels: a photo taken in 1905 by Alexander Hasse 
Sphagnum moss is one of the most common components of peat, valued by gardeners for protecting plants against drought.  And the Somerset Levels are just one example of peatlands in countries around the world where thousands of tons of peat have been extracted, removing a most important water-absorbent material.  The current floods seem to be an elementary case of cause and effect. I’m not an expert, but it seems obvious that an environmentally damaging process needs to be reversed. That’s what the Wildlife Trusts believe anyway. Click on to see what they’re doing about it. 

For UK readers interested in learning more about moss, Annie tells me about an event at the South London Botanical Institute which runs from mid-February to mid-March.  Click on  for further information.


Hoping for yet another museum with a maritime link

Fairlynch Museum and Arts Centre: its Local History Group meets in the picturesque 19th century building 

Not surprisingly Devon has many local history societies - I’ve counted about 60 mentioned online - and that figure doesn’t include useful aids to research like Fairlynch Museum’s Local History Group or the Otter Valley Association's wonderful Ovapedia which you can consult at


Fairlynch’s Local History Group has the privilege of meeting in one of East Devon’s historic buildings, first owned by 19th century shipowner Matthew Lee Yeates whose supposed silhouette can be seen above.   

This Exmouth and Devon General Bank document dated 1 July 1809 bears Matthew Lee Yeates' signature

That seems appropriate, given Budleigh Salterton’s coastal location. In fact Mr Yeates was really a businessman who took one risk too many.  With commercial partner William Good he launched the Exmouth and Devon General Bank on 12 October 1809, moving to Budleigh Salterton and the splendid home which he had built and which we now know as Fairlynch Museum and Arts Centre. Sadly, his enterprise failed in 1815 and Yeates ended up as a Unitarian minister. You can read about him at  

Over in our sister-town of Brewster on Cape Cod I hear that the local historical society has the opportunity of making its base in an equally historic building which belonged to just as interesting a character as Mr Yeates.  

Brewster is renowned for the splendid houses built by its 18th and 19th century sea captains, formidable characters whose ocean-going careers led them into extraordinary adventures.

Take Captain Elijah Cobb for example, pictured above. Born in Harwich, Massachusetts, on 4 July 1768 he first commanded the ship Brewster, and is arguably the Cape Cod town’s most famous sea captain. His first voyage as ship’s master to Europe coincided unfortunately with the French Revolution of 1789. The vessel was seized by a French privateer and its cargo of  rice and flour was looted to feed the starving populace. Cobb successfully bargained with Robespierre for release of his impounded ship and cargo and then stayed in France long enough to witness the politician’s execution, one of 1,000 guillotinings that he watched.
 Further tricky situations arose during his voyages around the world, involving bribery and on one occasion rum-smuggling between Ireland and the Scilly Isles. And of course there were the difficulties caused by the Napoleonic War and the 1812 conflict between the US and Britain.

The Preedy window in All Saints' Church, East Budleigh, commemorates the heroism of Admiral Preedy
Here in East Devon he is matched only by our own Admiral George William Preedy (1817-94), who settled at Knowle on the outskirts of Budleigh after a naval career in which he captained HMS Agamemnon, one of the two ships involved in laying the first successful transatlantic telegraph cable. Read about him at  
Sadly, unlike Brewster’s historians, we have not managed to locate a portrait of the Admiral, the centenary of whose birth I’ll be celebrating in a few years’ time, on 9 March 2017. 

After his eventful life at sea Captain Cobb retired to Brewster in 1820. He took on various administrative posts in the town, serving as a JP, as state Representative and Senator. He was even awarded a military rank as a Brigadier General.
His house on Lower Road, Brewster, was built around 1799 in the classicising Federal-style architecture popular in North America between 1780 and 1830 and often referred to locally as a 'square-rigger' or 'captain's house.'


Its features include a ‘widow’s walk’, where the captain’s wife might watch for her husband’s return from sea.  Just like the thatched belvedere that you see here on Budleigh Salterton’s Fairlynch, built just a little later but in a rather different style! 
And it’s the Elijah Cobb House which is now on the market in Brewster and which my friends in Cape Cod believe would make the perfect museum. Coordinator of The Brewster Historical Society’s New Home Acquisition Committee is author Sally Gunning. “Brewster, the Sea Captain's Town, doesn't currently offer a single sea captain's home that is accessible to the public,” she writes. “The Brewster Historical Society would like to change that, while at the same time assuring the preservation of this historic property and securing a permanent home - at long last - for our museum and our collections.”
I wish them every success in their project. You can read all about it at

Friday, 7 February 2014

Lace comes home to Budleigh

Georgina Beare holds the wedding bouquet made by her aunt, Budleigh Salterton lacemaker Winifred Vincent 

We’ve all heard of Honiton lace. But of course it wasn’t all made in Honiton. The term was used to describe a craft which became famous due to the ornate sprigs and complex patterns which were created separately and then sewn into the part of the lace piece known as net or grounds.

In past centuries many women in East Devon villages like Otterton and East Budleigh found that lacemaking provided an important source of income.

By 1841 at least 240 of them in Otterton were engaged in the delicate work.  A Mr and Mrs Lawrence opened a lace shop in Otterton in 1823, and another later in Sidmouth. By the end of the 19th century there were 230 lacemakers in East Budleigh alone.

For many people both in Britain and in America lacemaking continues to be a fascinating hobby. A locally made piece has now found its way back across the Atlantic.

“Last year we received a donation of mainly Honiton Lace made by a resident of Budleigh Salterton at about the time that Fairlynch opened in the late 1960s,” explained Fairlynch Museum lace expert Margaret Williams.  

Lacemaker Winifred Vincent at work in Fairlynch Museum  

The lacemaker, a Miss Winifred Vincent, of Armitage Road gave the lace to her niece Georgina Beare who lived in the USA.  

Many years passed. Georgina always remembered where the lace had been made and knew of Fairlynch Museum’s fine collection   

“As she no longer had room to display it at home she kindly offered to bring her aunt’s lace to Budleigh when she visited the UK as she thought it rightfully belonged here, in the Museum,” said Margaret Williams.  

“Among the items is a beautiful piece that Mrs Beare used in her wedding bouquet when she married in the late 60s”.

The lace will be on show in the Lace Room at Fairlynch this year, from Sunday 6 April at 2.00 pm when the Museum re-opens.

People and the evolving landscape in the Lower Otter Valley

With our landscape currently being battered by unusually stormy weather the forthcoming talk should be of special interest.

Dr Sam Bridgewater, Conservation Manager of the Pebblebed Heaths, and David Daniel of the Otter Valley Association will talk about the way human settlement and economic activity interact with the underlying geology and ecology of the Lower Otter Valley, to produce the landscape we see today.

Their talks will be based on presentations they were asked to give to a group of landscape and engineering third year students from Bath University as background to a project being conducted in collaboration with Bicton College.

David Daniel is well known as a speaker on the history and geography of the Lower Otter Valley.

Dr Bridgewater has been Nature Conservation Manager for the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths (EDPH) and the River Otter Estuary since November 2012. He is responsible for the management of the 2,800 acres of heaths - which lie between Exeter and the Jurassic Coast - and are registered as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a European Special Protection Area (SPA) and a Special Area of Conservation (SAC).

Jointly presented by the Otter Valley Association and Fairlynch Museum, the event will take place on Saturday 15 February 2014 from 10.00 am to 12.30 pm in the Peter Hall, Budleigh Salterton, next to St Peter's Parish Church.

 Coffee will be available during the interval.