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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Dittisham Part 1

Originally published on Photoblog by Gethin Thomas OCTOBER. 14, 2021

Dittisham is a small village on the west bank of the Dart river, upstream from Dartmouth and downstream from Totnes. In other words somewhere between the two. There is a bluff in the river at this point and Dittisham sits atop the bluff as if it guards the river which curves around the bluff, which in fact is probably why it first grew here.

The position of the village is on a steep hillside dropping away in all directions. Imagine a spider with long legs draped over the hillside and you pretty much have an image of Dittisham. It's body takes the shape of the pub, The Red Lion, and it's head takes the shape of the church next door. That is as it should be in a village as old as this where traditionally the body got sustenance at the pub while the mind got sustenance at the pulpit.

The spiders legs plummet down the hill in several directions to reach the water and all roads lead back to the pub and church. If you are lucky and the tide is out you can navigate the beach from the end of one leg to another making a shortcut that saves going back up hill. With me not being knowledgeable enough about the tides I didn't risk it and walked back up. I investigated two of the legs which meant two hill descents and two hill climbs. This did mean that I ended up in the pub though with a pasty and a pint.

Below is the view from the churchyard looking north of the bluff.

This is the church below, St. George's. There has been a church in some form on this site for over a thousand years. In the year 755 the Saxons invaded this part of Devon and a Saxon chief settled here on the banks of the Dart. Even today one can tell that this site would have been chosen for major strategic reasons, given that most transport and trade was water borne at that time.

The church of that time was later replaced by a Norman church after the Norman invasion of 1066. That church consisted of a Chancel and Nave the remains of which can still be seen in the east wall of the tower.

The Church was restored and reconstructed again, between 1328 and 1333 by the Rector, Sir Richard de Gormersale, the chancel being enlarged and the side aisles added. The Church was reopened and dedicated to St. George by Bishop Grandisson on the 4th October 1333. (

The Domesday survey carried out in 1085-86 records the village as ‘Didashim’, meaning homestead of Deedas the Saxon chief.

On the subject of names it should be noted at this point that even today local people will look at you askance if you ask about Dittisham. For Dittisham only exists on official road signs, to everyone else there is just a place called Ditsum.

I don't normally make an entire post on one of my photo walks just about the church and environs, but in this case I felt I had to. Not only is the church itself a splendid building, but the graveyard too is a thing of beauty with it's weathered and leaning gravestones, it's ivy covered tombs, and sudden occasional glimpses across rooftops and chimneys into the distance where boats bob around on the river.

While we are in the graveyard I should mention that in my research on Ditsum as I will call it from here on (as I live around here now), I discovered the most incredible fact. I mean incredible as in hard to believe, not incredible as in mildly interesting.

The Black Death as it was called, or The Plague, first showed it's ugly head in Devon in 1349. It is worth remembering that back then centuries before the Industrial Revolution, counties like Devon and Cornwall carried huge populations, far in excess of midland and northern parts of England of the time, where today there are great cities with millions of people. It was the birth of the Industrial Revolution that changed England demographically like no time before or since. The massed population of the south simply upped sticks and moved north.

Today the village of Ditsum has a population of about 400. During the Plague years great burial grounds were made to bury the dead, sometimes up to one third of the local population. Rural areas were densely populated, all agriculture being labour intensive. As a result it is estimated that at Ditsum which formed one of these mass burial sites up to 18,000 were buried.

This shot below is a composite of the same window inside and out.

The pink cottage is unusual in actually having it's back garden as the graveyard. Just out of view is a conservatory or summer house built out into the graveyard. At least the neighbours are well behaved and never hold raucous parties.

Below, these cottages wind down to the river on Lower Street, they are nothing if not inventive when it comes to street names in Ditsum. I will later walk along The Level and Higher Street. I predict that The Level will be nothing of the sort, as so far I have seen nothing I would even describe as a gentle incline, let alone level. Higher Street is actually Higher than Lower Street but Lower than the The Level. The street plan of Ditsum has more in common with an enlarged early Saxon skateboard park.

In the porch is this simple and beautiful, casual arrangement for Harvest Festival.

This is my favourite photo from inside the church below, if only because it was a beautiful sight and a challenging photo to get right. The extremes between light and dark were huge and only captured as I use RAW files and edit in RAW.

If you are wondering what I am going on about, a simple explanation of RAW files would be when your camera sucks up a 125,000 rpm Dyson vacuum cleaner full of available light information, rather than drawing an IKEA coffee table instruction leaflet of the available light information. When your camera is set to IKEA mode it does a quick calculation of averages and decides what it thinks is important, throwing away huge amounts of detail into pure black or pure white nothingness, lost forever. In 125,000 rpm Dyson mode your camera sucks up every bit of light and dark detail it can muster, which is then available for you to tweak and caress on your PC using editing software. Is that cheating? No more than any photographic improvement cheats it's older cousins. Did colour cheat black and white?

I wanted to capture the beautiful details in the exquisite glass patterns and the glow of light through the candles as well as the old worn textures of the wall below in full shadow.

I love all the small details, especially the pieces of repaired glass, where cracks have been fixed back together with lead inserts. I think it is quite touching that someone cared enough to have this done and that there was someone skilled enough to do it so sympathetically, in a way that adds to the beauty of the window, keeping it whole while also demonstrating it's great age. The glass is called pressed glass, I am assuming because the pattern is pressed into the semi molten glass.

High on a window ledge was this glass case, below. It is a model of HMS Dittisham, not HMS Ditsum.

In the early 1950s, the Royal Navy had a requirement for large numbers of minesweepers to counter the threat to British shipping from Soviet mines in the event of a conventional Third World War. The navy's existing minesweepers were obsolete, while the increasing sophistication of modern mines meant the mine warfare forces could not be supplemented by requisitioned fishing vessels as had been done in previous wars. Large orders were placed for coastal minesweepers and for smaller inshore minesweepers and minehunters intended to operate in inshore waters such as river estuaries (the Ham and Ley classes). As the navy did not have sufficient manpower to operate all the required ships in peacetime, it was planned to lay a large number up in reserve, so they could be manned by reservists (in many cases the crews of the fishing boats which would previously have been used in the same role) in time of emergency.

Dittisham was one of the first series of Ham-class ships, with a composite (wooden planking on aluminium framing) hull.

Dittisham was built in 1957 and broken up in 1997. She never saw hostile action but served various roles as a training and support vessel

The windows in the North Aisle, below, were inserted in about 1846, they are a memorial to two former Rectors, John Hutchings (1768 to 1802) and his son, Robert Sparke Hutchings (1805 to 1827). (,uk)

Below, the beautiful carved and painted stone Wineglass Pulpit dates from the 15th Century. The figures are thought to be of the Saints, including St. John the Baptist.

Below, the screen is also 15th Century – the groining and canopy were beautifully restored in 1954-55 by workmen in Exeter.

Below are the remains of painted figures on a door. The painted figures were damaged by Cromwell’s men who also burnt down the Rectory and so all the books and early Church Registers were destroyed.

A Parliamentary Ordinance of 28 August 1643 which stated that "all Monuments of Superstition and Idolatry should be removed and abolished". These were specified as "fixed altars, altar rails, chancel steps, crucifixes, crosses, images and pictures of any one of the persons of the Trinity and of the Virgin Mary, and pictures of saints or superstitious inscriptions." In May 1644 the scope of the ordinance was widened to include representations of angels, rood lofts, holy water stoups, and images in stone, wood and glass and on plate.

This is why to this day, most old churches in England are plain and undecorated.

At the time of my visit it was Harvest Festival time when churches are normally decorated with offerings representing the harvest. It is a celebration of the bounty of the land.

Some of that bounty didn't keep very long.

Psalm 100 verses 4 to 5, represented on this beautiful painted screen. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name!

An appropriate verse for Harvest Festival as it happens.

The Reredos, below, which is the carved panel behind the Altar was erected in 1933 and shows Bishop Leofric, first Bishop of Exeter, St. George, St. Peter, the Virgin Mary and child, St. John the Devine, St. Paul, St. Andrew and Bishop Grandisson.

A list of names on the Porch shows a complete record of the Rectors of St George's since 1224 up until 1982 after which St. George's no longer had it's own rector.

I will level with you now, as my next post on Ditsum will be on The Level, there will be more beautiful views of the Dart from The Level and some little interesting bits and pieces that caught my eye along The Level. We may not get as far as Agatha Christie's House which is definitely not on The Level, but that will get a mention at some point on this walk. As I have one or two more shots of the church left I may throw those in at the end.

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