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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

River Avon Moor to Sea 9

My previous piece in this series ended at Diptford church, so this post will continue from the church and look at the small village, with it's handful of notable buildings and end at an historic river crossing. This first photo is a plaque on the pub.

We have seen some of the interior of the church in part 8, and more will follow as a seperate post, just covering the church photos I have taken recently in January and those taken last summer. The entrance to the church is unusual with this charming pair of gates and lantern arch. You can see here that the path is level with the front door of the church.

However, this path is in itself unusual, because it is hewn from solid rock to lower the access. You are thus walking on the bedrock. I have no idea at what point in the church's history this was done, but many of the congregation would have been workers from the local quarry. The graveyard itself remains raised above on both sides. It did make me wonder how these graves were dug, if the rock was so close to the surface.

This photo was taken last summer and contrasts with some of those in the last piece which have snow on the ground.

I immediately recognised the hand of the stonemason in this cross, as being the same creator of those in Avonwick churchyard. In that church there are two rows of family graves with these same distinctive Celtic crosses.

Over the road from the church there is still a village school in use. Today the school is the part on the right although judging by old maps the building on the left was also a part of it, which would explain the central doorway now blocked up.

Opposite the church gates is this old pair of cottages. Church House and Church Cottage. Grade 2 Listed by English Heritage. They have the telltale signs of many alterations over the years and were almost certainly thatched in a former life.

Pair of attached cottages probably originally one house. Circa early C17

or late C16 with later alterations including circa C18 rear wing and C20

addition at left end.

This is the village centre and the main building is the former pub, The Rising Sun once called The Sun, which has the arms plaque on the front gable end which shows a lion drawing a bow and a standing bird that appears to be a goose. It also features the date 1898 which I take to be the year it was built. It is in the Arts and Crafts Style and is now a private residence.

Behind the school in the parallel lane is Ryes. Another Grade 2 Listed cottage.

Small house. Probably mid C18. Rendered stone rubble. Thatched roof with gabled ends. Gable end stacks; the right hand stack has a squat rendered shaft with slate weathering; the left hand stack has thinner shaft with chimney pot made from 4 slates on edge and joined by mortice and tenon type of joints. Probably originally a 2-room plan house each room heated by a gable end stack later subdivided into a pair of 1-room plan cottages and in C20 reunited into one house.

The centre of Diptford is a sort of crossroads called Diptford Cross and just off the junction is the Diptford Cross itself. It is mounted on the gate pillar of Diptford Cross Farm. The Dipford Cross and wall were rebuilt on 23 August 2020, by Aldridge born Craftsman and artist John Clifton.

Diptford was mentioned in the Domesday Book. This ancient account was a sort of stock take of England made by the new invaders after The Norman Invasion of 1066. When you take over a new business it's useful to know what assets you have acquired. The book is now available online and here is the entry for Diptford.

Diptford is listed as land belonging to King William. That is William the Conqueror, as featured in the Bayeux Tapestry.

There were ten households with in total, 10 villagers, 12 smallholders, and 4 slaves. There were 10 ploughlands, 1 lord's plough team, and 9 men's plough teams, eight cattle and thirty one sheep. In 1086 the village was worth £5 per year to its new owner.

Now I leave the village down that narrow lane ahead to get back to the river down below. It gets narrower when I turn off that lane to find it.

Here is my next stop and the next bridge on the Avon. As in my previous post I found a modern bridge here. The one I showed before turned out after some old map research to have been a replacement for a ford. Looking at this bridge I wondered if this too had been a ford until modern times. I also noted some other water courses and this building right next to the river so I was putting 2 and 2 together to make a water mill at some time in the past, especially as I had just driven down Mill Lane.

Back to my trusty maps of the past which answers one question but begs another. Here it clearly shows as I suspected Diptford Corn Mill and various Mill Leats and channels. What was curious was what I at first misread as Diptford Dam, as this, on closer inspection, turned out to be Diptford Clam. Now I was confused. What did Clam mean? I had never heard this word before other than in a type of shellfish.

Here it is again in a later map which now also features the newly arrived railway line, which at this point runs very close by. Diptford Clam (FB) and now a Clam Cottage too. Well I knew an (FB) was a foot bridge but there was an ancient road running through here. Very puzzling.

So looking at a larger scale map of a similar date, below, we now see the Clam has gone and it says Ford.

So where does this get us? After some more research I discovered that Clams were a type of crude foot bridge and often ran next to fords. This makes perfect sense, as you might be happy to ride a horse through a ford or drive a cart but you wouldn't want to walk through and get your feet wet.

Putting all of this together we now know that this was a ford until modern times and was accompanied by a small footbridge, in all probability a tree trunk laid across two points, such as large rocks, normally the tree trunk would have the top curve flattened off and often a handrail was attached on one side. They were usually made of whatever material was to hand. On Dartmoor, most are made of stone beams laid across the gap, as there were few mature trees on Dartmoor, but this area around Diptford has plenty of trees so it was probably made of wood.

The river at this point, although very different to the narrow cascades coming down the steep slopes of Dartmoor is just as beautiful.

A spring loudly joins the main flow from the edge of the river next to the bridge. The rains had been very heavy and persistent for the weeks before.

Across the bridge and here we can see the remains of yet another railway bridge as seen in the maps above.

Now I set off into the dark depths of the South Hams looking for a very special bridge and the lanes were still worryingly narrow. I was unlucky enough to meet a large white van pulling an even larger trailer coming up hill towards me. I had no choice but to reverse uphill around a blind bend with high hedges and no passing places, for about 300 to 400 yards/metres, one of my unluckiest encounters to date. I had to take it slowly and steadily and found myself having to occasionally pull forward again to straighten up as I was brushing the hedges which were so close. Eventually I came to a farm gate where I was able to pull off the road and let the van past. After that I felt I could cope with anything but luckily I didn't have to, as I met no other vehicles.

Eventually I arrived at the elusive Bickham Bridge, yes, this one even has a name. Bickham Bridge is Grade 2 listed with an additional star. Personally I would spare another couple of stars and make it a 3 star. It's a thing of great beauty in a location equally as beautiful. Nothing passed over it the whole time I was there.

There has been a bridge right here on this spot since at least the year 962, and no that is not a typo, there are only three numbers in that year.

Bickham bridge, which was historically the border with Diptford, is on the site of a very old crossing of the Avon. It is mentioned as a bridge in a charter of King Edgar dated 962 (beoccan bricge) and appears to have joined two important ridgeways on the hills E. and W. of the Avon valley.

Probably circa C16 or early C17. Slate rubble with dressed slate arches. 2-span bridge with round arches having recessed arch rings, the outer ring is chamfered and the arches spring from chamfered imports. Cutwaters on the central pier on both the upstream and the downstream sides have triangular refuges in the parapets. The parapets are made of dressed vertical slates with deep lacing slates at intervals. The parapets splay out at either end over the abutments. The carriageway over the bridge is about 3.5 metres wide.

3.5 metres in width makes it by far the widest of the ancient bridges I have photographed which suggests some truth in the assertion that it formed a very strategically important crossing point of the river for hundreds of years

It is a roundabout tale of intrigue that brought Edgar to the throne of England. His father was Edmund I, and Edmund was killed defending one of his aides from attack by an outlaw. Edmund's Seneschal or Cup Bearer was an aristocratic Nobleman who acted as one of King Edmunds personal assistants. Upon his death Edmund's children were infants so he was succeed in this case by his younger brother Eadred. Nine years later Eadred died and by this time Edmund's oldest son Eadwig was able to succeed to the throne. In the year 957 the Kingdom was divided between Eadwig and his younger brother Edgar.

Historians disagree about why this happened whether it was due to rebellion or an agreed partition. In any case in 959 Eadwig died and the Kingdom was reunited again under one King. King Edgar.

A chronological account of Edgar's reign is not possible, because only a few events were recorded by chroniclers and monastic writers who were more interested in recording the activities of the leaders of the church. Later chroniclers presented Edgar's reign as a golden age when England was free from external attacks and internal disorder.

Charters are problematic sources due to the difficulty of distinguishing genuine ones from the large number of forgeries. About 160 surviving charters of Edgar survive, including 10 dating to 957 and to 959 when he was king of Mercia. Most of the Mercian ones, and around 100 of those he issued as king of the English, are substantially genuine, with the highest numbers in 961 to 963 and in 968.

Has this classic view of English landscape changed much in over a thousand years? Who really knows, but an awful lot of history has crossed this bridge and its forebears and many a weary traveller has probably stopped to let their horses drink and to admire the view.

To start this journey at the beginning, Part 1 is here. Part 10 is here.

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Unknown member
Mar 01, 2023

So much history in so "little" space. One of the advantages you have over us. If I were to chose a favorite photo is would be the Grade 2 cottage/

Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
Mar 01, 2023
Replying to

The cottage is a classic country cottage, but I couldn't sleep at night under thatch. And it would be between 5 and 6 hundred grand in pounds. Also a money pit. But we can dream.🙂


John Durham
John Durham
Mar 01, 2023

Wonderful tour! Loved Bickham Bridge - that first photo has that dreamy, painterly quality that looks like a British landscape should look (to me). Clever idea of the Clam Bridge. I have seen, and used similar ford crossings in the North Carolina mountains, usually large, flat topped stones with just enough gap between them to allow for good water flow through them. Clam sort of makes sense as a naming convention - good on you for figuring that out!

Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
Mar 01, 2023
Replying to

Thanks John. It is all getting more complex now as I get into the lower reaches of the river where there is much more development and history to work out. I have to give my head a break in between each piece. I have also just realised that I have missed another bridge out for the next section, so that is another outing.🙂

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