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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

River Avon Moor to Sea 15

War, invasion, murder, rebellion, great escapes and tragedy. Finally I have arrived at Aveton Gifford church. I didn't get here last August when I took my photos of the village, so I returned in March of this year. So far it looks just like many other churches in this part of Devon. Originally built around the same time, the later 13th century, as many other churches I have featured in this blog, like Sherford and Chivelstone and South Pool and with a lot of very similar history.

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette - Thursday 02 April 1885

AVETON GIFFORD. Risdon, In his " Survey of Devon," says :— " By Avon's stream stands Aventon, corruptly called Auton, with the addition of Giffard, whose land anciently it was," and over and above this picturesque village is reared the parish church of St. Andrew, once one of the most ancient and interesting ecclesiastical edifices in the county. Much of it is Early English, but, in the main, it is of Decorated Gothic of the same date, and erected probably by the same guild of workmen as built the Cathedral Church of St. Peter at Exeter.

However on closer inspection it is going to prove to be very different as its more recent history makes it unique in this part of Britain. It has a few dark secrets up it's sleeve, as we are about to see.

On the 26th January 1943 the German Luftwaffe in it's wisdom or more probably in this case in their mindless stupidity decided to wipe Aveton Gifford off the map. For many years it was thought to have been a returning plane that had bombs left over after an attack on Plymouth a few miles along the coast.

However author Ken Doughty writes that he has researched the German Luftwaffe records and found that it was both ill fate and error that led to this act of death and destruction. Ken discovered that the intended target was in fact nearby Kingsbridge, where much industry was actually employed in the war effort. Bad weather caused the pilots to miss Kingsbridge, their primary target, and instead to fly on to their secondary target, the nearby village of Loddiswell. Using the River Avon as their guide they mistook this landmark, the church at Aveton Gifford for their intended landmark the church at Loddiswell. This was the result.

The church of St Andrew commands a position overlooking the river Avon at its widest point and ironically occupies this lofty position as a defensive location where attacks from the direction of the English Channel could easily be spotted and give advance notice for the populace to flee inland. This lofty place of defence was of course no defence against an attack by air, something never conceived of a thousand years before. In fact sitting atop this steep hill cost the church and the village dear.

Clearly not a strategic target of any industrial or military value, all the same, at 4pm on 26th January 1944, seven Focke-Wulf FW 190s swept in low over the adjacent hills and began bombing and strafing the village. Of the 110 houses, only five were undamaged, with the heart of the village, the church, being all but destroyed. Twenty villagers were injured and a five year old girl, Sonia Weeks, who had been evacuated to the village from Plymouth following the air raids on that city, was killed. Thankfully she was the only fatality.

The church was completed in 1250 and is a grade 2* building listed by English Heritage. A panel in the east wall of the porch records:

"Built in the fourteenth century, destroyed 26 January 1943, restored 1948-1957, reconsecrated by the Bishop of Exeter 12 October 1957. New tower built in 1970."

Western Morning News - Thursday 27 March 1947

BLITZED DEVON CHURCH AVETON GILFORD NEEDS £10,000 Out of the £10,000 needed for restoring the blitzed church of St. Andrew's, Aveton Gifford, only just over £200 has so far been raised. The church was over 700 years old and had a Norman "pepperbox" tower—only three such towers being left in the country. The church was bombed in 1943 and little of it remains.

NUMBERED BRICKS. The Government have promised to restore the fabric of the church. and bricks have been numbered so that the tower can be erected as it was previously. Funds have also to be raised to provide a church organ, altar and furnishings, choir stalls, and pews. The screens, which were saved, are in safe storage. It is hoped that a temporary roof, can be fitted so that services can be held there in the future. Mr. Dawson told "The Western Morning News that he did not think the church would be fully restored before 1953. He is doubtful as to how the church can raise the badly needed £10,000.

Western Morning News - Monday 20 September 1948

Church Reopens Five Years After Bombing


The congregation filled even the historic porch at St. Andrew's Church, Aveton Gifford —its bomb damage now partly restored —when the repaired wing was rededicated yesterday by the Bishop of Exeter. Some children sat on the laps of their parents for the service, the first held at the church for five years. The Bishop said he carried the congratulations of fellow-churchmen throughout the Diocese of Exeter because the congregation at Aveton Gifford was, he thought, the first of the 24 churches which had been rendered incapable of use to re-establish their church. The old church was a gift from past generations. This was something they could regard as their own because they had helped its restoration.

Western Morning News - Monday 27 November 1950


The Bishop of Exeter (Dr. R. C. Mortimer), on his first visit to the blitzed church at Aveton Gifford last night, found a crowded congregation in the small portion which is now usable. He met the Vicar, Rev. W. A. P. Dawson, at the porch and heard the team of handbell ringers who now call the villagers to worship.

The ancient font survived the destruction. It is octagonal of the 14th century, carved from granite and has designs of faces and stylised floral abstract panels. The faces have sticking out tongues, not uncommon, and are said to be intended to ward off evil or bad luck.

In 1906 Amery described it as..... cut from granite, and is octagonal in form. The cusped panels of the shaft indicate its having been constructed in the Perpendicular period, but

some of the decorations of the panels of the bowl point to an earlier date. These panels are very curious. Three carry grotesque human faces, two of which have protruding tongues as if to exorcise the devil at baptism ;

Two panels have shields in quatrefoils, one bearing a Latin cross, the other a Tau

cross; the other three panels show the double triangle, a square in a quatrefoil and a plain shield in a quatrefoil. The basin is lead lined.

After the reconstruction there are still quite a few original features either because they escaped damage or because the original materials were reused. It means there is an intriguing mix of both new and old in close proximity.

The stained glass of course is all post war. This is the new West window in the Nave.

This is the main window above the altar.

The list of rectors of the church starts with records from 1259 up to present day. Back then Aveton Gifford seems to really have been a place of major significance. I have researched the earliest of it's rectors and there seems to have been a significant link between Plympton Priory, St Andrew's in Aveton Gifford and Exeter Cathedral. It appears that Plympton trained and provided the clergy and then an early stage in their careers was to serve at St Andrew's Aveton Gifford, as a rung on the ladder to more powerful roles in Exeter Cathedral.

Roger de Toriz ended up as Dean of Exeter cathedral while Walter de Stapledon ended up as Bishop of Exeter and Lord High Treasurer of England. Aveton Gifford was quite a stepping stone to greatness. Walter founded Exeter College in Oxford and his tomb and monument can be found in Exeter Cathedral. He was a professor at Oxford and Chaplain to Pope Clement V. He went on embassies to France for both Kings Edward I and Edward II and attended councils of state.

I won't relate the long complex tale of the "Uprising of London", suffice to say it involved loyalties to the "She-Wolf of France", Edward II's wife, Queen Isabella and infamously a red hot poker. Walter's impossible position was to be caught in a power play between the King and his wife. The people of London favoured the Queen and Walter worked for the King.

It ended thus........

The bishop fled for safety into St Paul's Cathedral. However he found no safety there as a mob entered and dragged him out and proceeded to beat and wound him and dragged him to the Great Cross at Cheapside "where those sons of the devil most barborously murdered him" on 15 October 1326. His head was chopped off and his body was thrown onto a dunghill "to be torn and devoured by dogs". Later some of his supporters took away his body and re-buried it in the sand of the shoreline of the River Thames next to the bishop's palace, Exeter House, beyond Temple Bar on The Strand, which site was later occupied by Essex House.....About six months later, the Queen, "reflecting how dishonourable a thing it was to suffer the corps of so truly great and good prelate to lie thus vilely buried" ordered his body to be disinterred and removed for burial in Exeter Cathedral, "there to be honoured with most magnificent exequies", which duly occurred on 28 March 1327.

There is a beautiful Early English double piscina in the south wall of the chancel, which has been feelingly restored by a local mason. Described by Amery 1906.

The ancient wood carvings on the Parclose Screens in the church had as recently as the 1860's been removed, restored and then returned. I can find no reference to them after the bombing of the church other than they were rescued and placed in safety.

So the screens that we see today, I presume to be reconstructions using original parts. In the photo below, I suspect that the main carving is original and that it is housed in a new frame. To compare I have placed below it a photo recently taken in Sherford church not far away which still has much of its original carving still in place.

The similarity between the two is striking and they could almost have been carved by the same person.

Exeter Flying Post - Wednesday 15 October 1884


The parish church of St. Andrew in this out-of-the-way little village, which, as everybody will recollect, nestles so snugly by the winding Avon's banks, is undoubtedly one of the most interesting, as it certainly is one of the oldest, of our South Devon churches........

........The church was generally restored ......... under the direction of Mr. Elliott, architect, of Plymouth, in A.D. 1869; until then the remains of a pair of fine old carved oak Parclose screens occupied the two most eastward bays of the south arcade in the chancel. These were so sadly decayed, however, that they were removed, and have ever since been stowed away in the depths of the rectory cellar. It is very much to the the credit of Mr. Pitman that, inspired by a truly conservative feeling, he has resolved to have these most interesting specimens of medieval art workmanship carefully renovated, and once again placed in situ. With this end Mr. Harry Hems, the well-known carver. &c., of Exeter, has been commissioned to take them in hand, and the precious fragments have recently been removed to that artist's atelier for the purpose of being cleaned and made perfect. The two screens, will each be about l2 ft, long and about the same height. The old work exhibits much delicate manipulation of an unusually clever character. It is all late 15th century handiwork the carving is crisp and vigorous, and, although very much decayed is by no means past making good........

Surviving in the niche inside the arch is a statue of Bishop Stapledon of about the 13th century. Being inside the arch is probably what saved it in 1943.

The front door is new, unlike all the old latches in the stonework that still exist, hinting at what was destroyed.

The porch interior was undamaged too.

Back outside and it is difficult now to know how much of the wear and tear is down to great age and weather or to 20th century destruction.

The main tower is two thirds the height of the original as during rebuilding, structural problems were encountered, which necessitated reduction in weight of stonework. The pepper pot tower still stands proud.

When taking a series of photos in a church I usually have a wander around the churchyard to look at the tombs and headstones. Sometimes you find some intriguing tales.

This pair of headstones below caught my eye, partly because of the unusual Dickensian name and partly because they had character in design and seemed to tell a tragic but all too common tale.

Samuel and Mary had five children we know of, others may have fared better, but the grave on the left is the resting place of three of them and also Mary who died in childbirth. In the grave on the right lie Samuel and another adult daughter who died only 5 months after him.

Samuel Junior died in September 1856.

Lucena died less than a year later in August 1857.

Garland died 8 years later at 9 months, April 1865

Then less than a year later Mary died in childbirth March 1866

Samuel survived another 16 years, dying in October 1882

while their older daughter Mary Junior died in March 1883

Western Daily Mercury - Tuesday 03 March 1863

Salmon Act.—John Broun, Aveton Gifford, carpenter, was summoned by Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew, for having in possession an instrument for catching salmon. —Samuel Crimp, a keeper on the river Avon, and Philip Lakeman, of Great Gate, Loddiswell (who was present with the defendant), were called witnesses for the prosecution, and the Bench dismissed the case.

Salmon Act. —Francis Popplestone, otherwise Denbow of Loddiswell, labourer, was summoned by Lieut. Colonel Andrews, for disturbing a salmon spawning bed.—Samuel Crimp proved having seen the defendant on land in the occupation of Mr. Lakeman, in the parish of Loddiswell, throwing stones of about pound and a half weight into the river ; that he was well acquainted with the river, and knew there was a deep pool about the spot where the defendant threw the stones, and that just below the salmon were in the habit of spawning.—John Denbow, of Loddiswell was called for the defence, and stated that the defendant was his grandchild ; that, on the 25th, they were engaged taking sand from the river, and they took up stones with the sand, and that, rather than throw the stones on the grass, they threw them again into the river.— Fined 5s and costs.

This headstone below caught my eye because it is one placed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. They are quite distinct and always of the same design. I took a photo with a view to finding out who Sapper Martin was and how he came to be awarded the DCM. The Distinguished Conduct Medal was first established in 1854 by Queen Victoria for gallantry in the field. It is the oldest British award for gallantry. It was awarded for "distinguished, gallant and good conduct in the field". It was the second highest award after the Victoria Cross.

During the First World War, concern arose that the high number of medals being awarded would devalue the medal's prestige. The Military Medal was therefore instituted on 25 March 1916 as an alternative and lower award, with the Distinguished Conduct Medal reserved for more exceptional acts of bravery. During the First World War around 25,000 DCM's were awarded. As you can see, this led to the problem of how to mark the more exceptional acts of bravery. As a consequence of the change after WWI, there were only 1900 DCM's awarded in the Second World War. This is an indication that Sapper Martin must have done something very unusual indeed.

The story starts at Cassel in Northern France, a place I visited and you can see my piece on Cassel here.

Gunner Martin was stationed at the 367 Battery at Cassel and they were cut off by German tanks. There was a breakout by the soldiers and five managed to escape, only three of whom survived the war.

Ronald Baxter’s Diary

Night of 29th May 1940. Orders to evacuate with vehicles. Half hour later. Evacuate on foot, no kit, no fires. Silence. Hurried destruction. Talk to Sergeants. Full of hope. Food destroyed. Rum and whisky abandoned. Books down. W.C. Firing mechanisms thrown away. Gunner Swallow’s booby trap. Convent on fire.

They found their route illuminated by German searchlights and flares and, as the morning light emerged and an early morning mist started to lift, the men encountered pockets of German forces around the village of Winnezeele and the Franco-Belgian border where the majority were captured, or killed.The Breakout

William John Martin was born in 1918 in the village of Loddiswell, Devon where he was known as ‘John’ and worked as a butcher. Gunner Martin served in 367 Battery, 140th Field Regiment during 1939-40 as Driver to Major E.A. Milton. Source

Between Cassels and Hazebrouck we came under fire, and, at first, thought that it came from infantry, but a few moments later fire grew heavier and we were surrounded by German tanks. Our Major was wounded and the others, carrying the wounded, sheltered in a house nearby. The Major realising our desperate position told us to surrender. When the roll call was taken, it was found that 200 soldiers were killed or wounded. Account of escape by Martin

Martin was captured and marched in a POW column to Cambrai. At Cambrai they were put on a train from which he escaped. Two days later he was recaptured and detained in a camp with 300 Frenchmen. Five weeks later he escaped for the second time.

I managed to escape and made for Epernay, here I swam the river Marne and went on another 15kms to a small village where I was re-arrested.

He was sent back to Epernay from where three weeks later he escaped yet again by climbing over a wall.

Martin then reached Marseilles at the opposite end of France a distance of 783 Kms, where he was re-arrested by Vichy French authorities. After ten days he escaped yet again and smuggled himself aboard a Vichy French ship to Algeria. In Algeria he was arrested again and imprisoned but managed another escape, by boat to Casablanca.

At Casablanca he contacted the American Consul who assisted in getting passage on a Portuguese boat bound for Gibraltar. There Martin finally boarded a Royal Navy vessel and arrived back in England on the 14th December 1940 a full six and a half months after the breakout from Cassel.

So far this reads like a highly unlikely novel that most people would criticise for being too far fetched but this is not the end of the story.

Martin was awarded the DCM and transferred to the 50th Mechanical Equipment Company, Royal Engineers. By 1944 his company was involved in the D-Day Landings and you may already have worked out that the date of his death 8th June tells us that he did not get very far during that terrifying event. He was fatally wounded on Sword Beach at the age of 26, a great hero. He must have survived long enough to be repatriated which is how he came to be buried at Aveton Gifford and not in Normandy.

His name is on the WWII reverse of the War Memorial, along with that of five year old Sonia Weeks.

Having now completed my Aveton Gifford Church section of the River Avon Series, I have a conundrum. Which is a good thing because conundrum is a fantastic word that should be used more often, if only because it has a wonderful sound and rolls off the tongue and is so easily spoken that it isn't itself a conundrum.

Conundrum - a problem that is difficult to deal with: Conundrum also has a second slightly different meaning. A question that is a trick, often involving a humorous use of words that have two meanings.

Late 16th century: of unknown origin, but first recorded in a work by Thomas Nashe, as a term of abuse for a crank or pedant, later coming to denote a whim or fancy, also a pun. Current senses date from the late 17th century.

So at the increasing risk of being thought a crank or a pedant my conundrum is this. I started this project a year ago and that is when I took my photographs of the village of Aveton Gifford. It has taken me a year to catch up to Aveton Gifford on the route from Moor to Sea, which is now very near. Back then I actually posted those photos of the village as Aveton Gifford Photo Walk. My pedantic question to myself now is, do I re-title that piece as River Avon Moor to Sea 16? To see what happened and what I decided to do here it is.

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John Durham
John Durham

Not sure how you keep up with it all - so much to collate and edit. Good on ya'!

Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas

Thanks John.

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