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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Car Tour 4 Chudleigh

So here we are at last in Chudleigh, where we chose to start this Car Tour. We are following a circular route from a book called South Devon and Dartmoor Car Tours. There is usually so much to see on one of these tours that what we get is really a snapshot (appropriate) of an area which invites us to go back and explore in more detail. It also means that the photos in this series are an impression more than a study. My Photo Walks are where I study somewhere in more detail and where the photos are more considered and comprehensive, Exeter coming up soon. On the Car Tour series the photos are more often instantaneous or even grabbed as we drive past.

We had a false start on this tour confusing Chudleigh Knighton with Chudleigh, hence my opening sentence "at last". To see our short diversion to Chudleigh Knighton check it out here.

Meanwhile here is a mosaic in the centre of Chudleigh with some clues as to its history. Top right you will see some houses on fire and the date 1807. This was the date that transformed the town in ways nobody could have dreamed of, or feared. More of that later.

You can also see the coat of arms of the town and a water mill, sheep and spinning wheel, the war memorial, the church and the stone bridge. But first some coffee, because we had already done the extra Chudleigh Knighton by now, so were running behind.

We looked out on to the war memorial in the centre of town. It's been quite a Royal year so far so there is still a lot of red white and blue hanging around in most places.

Chudleigh looks old, I suppose I would call it Georgian looking moving into Victorian? The strange thing is that Chudleigh is much older than that. The church for example was consecrated in 1259 and Chudleigh has been a major coaching stop on the route from Exeter to Plymouth for hundreds of years. It used to have many pubs where the coaches from Exeter that had just made the long climb up to Haldon Hill from the Exe river plain would stop and change horses. This was the main overland route to the west country from London.

Prehistoric remains have been found in the caves at nearby Rock, while an Iron Age hillfort overlooks the pretty town. So why does everything look relatively modern?

Our guide book led us down to the church which was described as the oldest building in town. The origins of Chudleigh town are Saxon, and you can still see some of the original place names there today. After the Norman Conquest the town grew in importance, finally being granted a charter for an annual fair by King Edward II in 1309. The town later became a centre for wool production, tucked in as it is at the foot of sheep covered Dartmoor.

This was my first sighting of black asparagus. Who knew such a thing even existed? As I say, these car tours are an impression so I digress if I see something interesting or unusual.

Here is the church and this lives up to the description of looking thirteenth century straight away, unlike the one at Chudleigh Knighton, which had confused me earlier.

St Martin’s Church is an early 14th century building with an even earlier tower of an unusual design for this area. The south aisle was added in the 15th century and there were extensive restorations during the 19th century.

I was looking forward to showing you the interior but there was a bit of bad timing. The church was full of screaming toddlers, a definite no go, and this was just the overflow buggy park. There were more in the foyer. So this church will have to wait for another day.

In 1259 Bishop Bronscombe set off on a trip round the churches under his care, dedicating them to their patron saints. On 6th November he dedicated Chudleigh Church to the Saints of St. Martin and St. Mary. St. Martin is Martin of Tours, a 4th century soldier who famously gave half his cloak to a beggar and then dreamed that he saw Jesus wearing the half-cloak.

A rebuilding in the Perpendicular Style took place between 1300 and 1350 and this time dressings of Beer stone were used. The sturdy tower is thought to date from this period.

There has been a place of Christian worship here since before the Norman Conquest. At this time the Bishops of Exeter were rich and powerful and in 1080 Bishop Osborne selected Chudleigh as the site for a rural palace, the fragmentary remains of which may be seen in an orchard adjacent to Rock Road. The base of the font – which may date from the 13th century – is the earliest identifiable feature.

In 1807 the weather conditions in Devon have been described as a drought, today we use the term "Climate Emergency". Weeks without rain left many people short of water (just like contemporary Devon) and had farmers worrying about their crops. On Friday, May 22, at about noon, in a baker's house, in Culver-street a fire started in some furze (dry gorse) stacked near the ovens. The seriousness of the fire was not realised at first until with great speed it spread to the roof of the bakery. Ninety per cent of the buildings in Chudleigh were thatched and everything was tinder dry.

General Evening Post - Tuesday 26 May 1807



About eleven o'clock on Friday Morning, a fire broke out in a bakehouse, in the town of Chudleigh, in Devonshire, which raged with increasing fury till it communicated with a house, in which were two barrels of gunpowder, belonging to a man employed in blowing-up rocks. These took fire with a dreadful explosion and, from the wind being very high, and many houses on each side of the street covered with thatch, the whole town became a general conflagration. Only one fire-engine could be procured, and that was soon after burnt. Exeter which is ten miles distant, was the nearest place from which to procure aid ; So that the market-house, and all the houses, excepting about seven at the extreme ends of the town, were consumed. Fortunately no lives were lost. The church, being a little to windward of the flames, was saved, and proved the only asylum for the distressed inhabitants, whose situation was truly deplorable. At three o'clock on Saturday morning, when the Mail with much difficulty passed through the town, several houses continued burning, and many horses and pigs lay dead in the streets. Mr. Weston, a respectable Inn-keeper, it is reported, has lost all his property, to a large amount, which, together with his books, he entrusted to a female servant, who, in her fright, carried them to a place which she cannot recollect, and they are most probably destroyed.

Oxford University and City Herald - Saturday 13 June 1807


At a numerous Meeting of several Noblemen and Gentlemen connected with the county, and held at the Crown and Anchor yesterday, to consider what steps can and ought to be taken towards the Relief of the Sufferers by the late Fire there.

The Right Hon. LORD ROLLE in the Chair

It appearing from the Report of the Committee appointed at Chudleigh, and signed by the Right Hon. Lord Clifford, as well as from the Report of the Rev. Win. F. Bayley, of Chudleigh, who attended the Meeting. That above 200 houses are now in ruins, and 1200 persons and upwards reduced to infinite distress; And further, that the property consumed (valued at £60,000 and upwards), is, to a very great extent, uninsured, and not the property of individuals capable of supporting the loss.

Resolved —lst, That the calamity is so heavy and extensive as to justify and call for a general contribution; and therefore, that a Subscription be forthwith opened for the Relief of the Sufferers.

2nd, That the better to effectuate this object, a Committee be appointed, and that such Committee consist of the following Gentlemen, viz.........

This extract is taken from a piece about the national fund set up to offer donations to the people affected. A fund was set up in London and subscriptions as they were called, came in from every level of society, so dire an event was this deemed to be and so big an impact did it have on society nationwide.

Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette - Thursday 25 June 1807

..........It appears that the number of dwelling-houses destroyed amounts to about one hundred and four-score (180), besides out-houses, many of which were of greater value than the dwelling-houses; and that the total lost, including furniture, etc. as nearly as can be at present ascertained, exceeds the sum of seventy thousand pounds.

This is over 3 million pounds in today's value. It's interesting that the plea for money explains that it was the outbuildings that were of higher value. At this time many of these dwellings were also businesses and personal property in homes was negligible. A household's tools and means of making a living were far more important.

Over the road from the church was this strange sight of a white cat on a roof. It appears to be some sort of bird scaring device.

Next door to the church is one of the handful of buildings to escape the great fire. This is the old grammar school, now a B&B if you fancy staying in the town.

It is Grade 2 listed by English Heritage.

House, formerly Pynsent's School, founded 1668 (date plaque). C19/early C20 rear left

addition, late C20 internal alterations. Whitewashed rendered stone; slate roof,

gabled at ends; end stacks and rear lateral stack to main range, end stack to rear


John Pynsent was born in Chudleigh in Devon on May 16 1607, the second son of John and Joan Pynsent. Nothing is known of John’s early life until we find he was married in 1625 to Mary Clifford. Pynsent was a barrister who worked in the Inns of Court in London and was described on his memorial as being “one of the Prothonotaries of His Majesties Court of Common-Pleas”, a protonotary being a court’s chief clerk, Pynsent’s court dealing mainly in property claims.

The first mention of John setting up his free school in his home village of Chudleigh, near Newton Abbot, was in 1666. The plaque outside the old grammar school building recorded the starting date as 1668, so it took a two-year planning, preparation and recruitment period to realise the fulfilment of his dream.

It was also the year when John died, and so it was from his will that “30 pounds per year for ever” would be used to finance the running of the school. This £30 was to go to pay the salary of the headteacher of the Free Grammar School of Chudleigh.

Wanting to establish the school so that it would provide free education for the children of the parish, Pynsent had negotiated with Lord Clifford and other leading parishioners to acquire “part of the sporting place adjacent to the church yard amounting to one acre”. The ground was walled off for a garden, an orchard and a playground. The school was duly built to accommodate 20 boys, together with the schoolmaster’s accommodation.

For many months after the fire, newspaper reports listed the meetings of the fund organisers and the subscriptions raised. Here are some varied examples of donations from all over Britain.

M of Carmarthen £1

A Lady in the street £5

Anonymous £20

Rev R Tyrwhitt £50

A Friend £3 s3

A Friend to Humanity £5

The Lord Chief Baron of Scotland £25

The Corporation of London £200

Unknown £1

The Gentlemen frequenting the parlour of The Sugar Loaf, Queen Street, Cheapside £6 s11

Judith Dobree of Guernsey £100

A Gentleman unknown from Lisbon by Joseph Banfield Esq. Mayor of Falmouth in a letter received by the treasurer £50.

I will leave Chudleigh now and end the story of the fire with this dramatic account written on the day of the fire in a letter printed in The General Evening Post - Tuesday 26th May 1807.

Extract of a Letter from Exeter, dated Friday evening, 8 o'clock.

"This city has been in the utmost consternation all this day; as one of the most destructive fires has happened that was ever witnessed in the West of England; viz. the town of Chudleigh, nine miles from hence, in the great Plymouth road, has been on fire ever since eleven o'clock this morning, and the whole place is nearly consumed. The Clifford Arms and The King's Arms, with the three other inns, are all in ashes; the last coach (which arrived here just now), was obliged to go through a field, and with difficulty escaped, though the coachman was much burnt. Of the few houses that remained, most of them were on fire when the coach left the place, but we have not heard of any lives being lost"

There followed a very scenic drive on a very hot day through parched countryside and verdant woods. We passed the entrance to the privately accessed Canonteign Falls,

These falls are on the private Canonteign estate and are the result of a former mining leat being diverted after mining ceased, forming a beautiful man made cascade down a sheer rock face with the highest fall of water in the south west at 70 metres. The nearby mines produced silver and lead.

Further on we passed the former mine winding house and chimneys of the Wheal Exmouth lead mine

Visiting Wheal Exmouth is worthwhile for no other reason than to see this magnificently restored, 3 storey engine house, now a private home. From the footpath the bob wall can be seen. The opening where the arm of the beam engine would have projected has been filled with a window and a wooden balcony added. The road curves around the building passing a small chimney with ornate corbels. The front of the house is equally magnificent with large windows in the granite façade. But beside the house stands a unique chimney. It is octagonal, the corner stones shaped in faced granite, the faces in rough hewn stone to mimic the build of the engine house. Sadly the top has been lost but it still an impressive piece.

This guide book has a penchant for narrow lanes and as we continued our route to Ashton this wasn't the last one we saw on this trip. Part 2 will feature the church and bridge in the twin villages of Higher and Lower Ashton.

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John Durham
John Durham

The village looks somehow...not English? Does that seem right? Can't exactly put my finger on it, maybe the result of the rebuilding. What an ornate chimney for a mine works! While I love the beautiful narrow lanes you have encountered, I can understand driving them might not be as pleasant as the photos lead one to believe.

Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas

It is ornate but very common back then to decorate everything. We went up a 250 year old lighthouse yesterday and at the top all of the lantern room had classical flourishes in bronze, curlicues etc. This lighthouse was originally out on a rock 14 miles from shore and virtually inaccessible. I suppose they had huge pride in their work.

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