Doddiscombsleigh and Ashprington

I promised Exmoor on my last blog. Yes, I’ve been there (several times) but there’s a bit of detective work still to be done, so back again to Devon villages to teasing out truths about churches, and the people who are commemorated there.

St Paul in stained glass at Doddiscombsleigh church

St Paul in stained glass at Doddiscombsleigh church

Let’s start with Doddiscombsleigh (sometimes just pronouncing these Devon villages is a challenge!). I went there because it has the best medieval stained glass windows in the county, but then my attention was caught by an explanatory sheet by a Dr Tisdall. He pointed out that a medieval face carved at the top of one of the stone capitals is unusual. It has funny pointy ears, unusual foliage, and there’s something strange about the mouth. Now Dr Tisdall is a medical doctor with a passion for the unusual in Devon churches, so he has teased out the (probable) truth here. This carving is at the west end of the church which is often called The Devil’s End (indeed, some old churches have a little opening through which the devil can escape during services), and he has a hare lip.

The "Devil's bite" carving

The "Devil's bite" carving

As a young doctor studying children’s diseases, Dr Tisdall came across the expression ‘devil’s bite’ to describe a hare lip. And the foliage isn’t the usual rose leaves, it’s Succisa pratensis, or Devil’s bit scabious. So there we have it. A medieval carver portrayed the Devil in an instantly recognisable form – to the villagers of his day – but for us it takes the detective work of a knowledgeable enthusiast to get to the truth.

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Carved snail

Carved snail

Moving on to Ashprington, near the River Dart, to a church which goes unremarked in other guidebooks. But it’s always worth popping into a village church – you never know what you’ll find. And indeed, there was a lovely carved pulpit with a cute little snail attacking the vine leaves (well, Sharpham vineyard is just down the road and they probably have the same problem) but what attracted my attention – how could I avoid it? – was a memorial stone to three generations of Bastards. Not a common surname these days so I did a bit of research. The character who emerged was Captain Philemon Pownall.

Three generations of Bastards

Three generations of Bastards

This captain made a fortune at sea. The first references I could find were that he received ‘prize money’ for capturing a ship full of treasure. That seemed like simple piracy to me, but my fellow researcher, Janice, dug deeper and found that he literally struck gold. Only three months after war broke out with Spain in 1762 he was captaining a warship that captured the Spanish man-of-war Hermione. What they didn’t know was that she was no simple warship: she had set sail from Lima before the outbreak of war and was carrying bags of dollars, gold coin, ingots of gold, silver and tin.

So ‘prize money’ was, in those days, the government reward for the prize of a captured ship: in Pownall’s case, £64,872. Seldom has a lottery winner put their money to better use.

Capt Philemon Pownall painted by Joshua Reynolds in 1762

Capt Philemon Pownall by Joshua Reynolds, 1762

Pownall and his fellow captain Herbert Sawyer, had earlier been courting the two daughters of a merchant from Exeter, who had refused their suits because their financial status didn’t meet his standards. Now they could marry their sweethearts.

Pownall continued to spend his money lavishly. He commissioned the making of a delicate miniature gold gazebo, called ‘Love’s Triumph’ for his wife Jane, had his portrait painted in full naval uniform by Sir Joshua Reynolds, and commenced the building of his manor at Sharpham. The estate has a river frontage of nearly three miles, with gardens designed by Capability Brown. It was his daughter, also Jane, who made the unfortunate marriage to Edmund Bastard. They had no sons.

So there are two things I didn’t know before I started doing this book.

Go Slow

From time to time people have mentioned to me that it’s not really good enough to start a so-called blog in August 08 and then put nothing on it. I was too busy then and too busy now, but clearly that’s no excuse so, a year later, here goes.

I’m writing Go Slow Devon and Exmoor, and am absolutely loving doing the research. One thing leads to another. Like my visit, with a friend who was visiting from Guildford, to Berry Pomeroy. There’s a ruined castle, and Val used to bring her children there to walk backwards round the ‘Wishing Tree’. They all came specially one summer when all three children were about to take exams. I thought that sounded interesting, and that I would get a couple of paragraphs at the most out of the trip.

Berry Pomeroy Chruch

Berry Pomeroy Chruch

We stopped at the church – as I always do, since our country’s little churches give a better feeling for an area’s history and current sense of community than any other source. In the porch was a request for a wheelbarrow so battered that ‘even an idiot wouldn’t steal it’ and inside was a stone commemorating ‘John Prince, author of The Worthies of Devon’ (who’s he?) and a splendid memorial to three members of the Seymour family. What intrigued me was a description of one of the children with Elizabeth Campernowne who is described as ‘an imbecile child’. Val and I peered at her face and could see, we thought, Down’s Syndrome features. But I wanted to know more…

Then to the castle where Val recognised the Wishing Tree but there was no sign suggesting it had magic powers. And most of the roots were exposed so walking round would have been difficult. Though Val said her children used to fall over while doing the circuit in their wellies, so it was not easy, even 20 years ago.

The "Imbecile Child"

The "Imbecile Child"

Back home I Googled the church, found the contact details of the vicar, and asked him about ‘the imbecile child’. A reply came promptly confirming that it was thought to be Down’s Syndrome (I’m waiting to hear from the local historian for more details) but he asked me if I wanted him to email a copy of the Seymour section of The Worthies of Devon. This turned out to be pure delight. Written in 1701, when, if you were a vicar under the patronage of the baronet or duke at The Big House, you were careful what you wrote. Here’s an abbreviated biography of one of the Lords of the Manor which I am quoting in the book.

Sir Edward Seymour, a Worthy of Devon

"Worthies of Devon" titlepage

"Worthies of Devon" titlepage

John Prince was vicar of Berry Pomeroy from 1681 to 1723, during which time he researched the history of Devon’s noble families. His book The Worthies of Devon was published in 1701 and makes delightful reading. Here are some extracts from his description of the life of the third Sir Edward Seymour.

‘Sir Edward Seymour Baronet, was born in the Vicaridge house of Berry-Pomeroy (by this Gentleman’s generous Presentation, the Author’s Present Habitation) a mile and quarter to ye East of the town of Totnes in this County, about the year of our Lord 1610. The occasion of his being born there (as I have heard it from his own mouth) was this, for that Berry Castle (the Mansion of this Honble family) was then a rebuilding: and his Lady-Mother, not likeing the Musick of Axes and Hammers (this Gentlemans great delight afterward) chose to lay down, this her burthen in that lowly place.

He was the eldest son of Sir Edward Seymour of Berry-Castle Baronet (antiently belonging to the Pomeroys, now a ruinous heap) about a mile East of the parish church of Berry-Pomeroy aforesaid…

Berry Pomeroy Castle

Berry Pomeroy Castle

He had no sooner passed the care and inspection of the Noursery, but that he was put abroad to School (it enervates youth to keep it too long at home under the fondling of a Mother) first at Shireburn, after that at Blandford in the County of Dorset. At which last place, he met with a severe Master, tho a good Teacher: the Memory of whom, would often disturb his sleep long after he was a Man. However, he met there with Excellent Improvements in School-Learning; Especially in the Classicks. Which were so deeply rooted in his Memory while a youth that he rememberd much of them, even in his old age. Insomuch upon occasion, not long before his Death he would repeat you 20 or 30 verses of Virgil or some other Author, Extempore, as if he had connd them over but just before.

… it pleased almighty God, in just Punishment of a Nation whose sins had made it ripe for Vengeance, to let loose upon it, a most dreadfull Civil Warr. A War founded upon the glorious pretences of Liberty, Property, and Religion: which yet in effect soon subverted them all. And when matters brake out into open violence between the King and Parliament, this Gentlemans native Principles of Loyalty soon instructed him which side to take.

Sir Edward Seymour

Sir Edward's son of the same name was Speaker of the House of Commons, a Privy Counsellor and Treasurer of the Navy

[Sir Edward, then a colonel, was taken prisoner at Modbury] …the noble Colonel, was carried by Sea to London: and Committed to Winchester House in South-Wark. Out of which he made a desperate Escape, by fileing Off the Bars of the Window, and leaping down, upon the back of the Centinel that stood under; who being astonished by so unexpected a rancounter, the Colonel wrested his Musket out of his hand, and gave him such a sound Rebuke as hindered him, for the present, from following after him, or making any Discovery of him.

…This Honble Barronet submitted to the Arrest of Death on the fourth of December in the year of our Lord 1688 and near about the Seventy Eighth of his Age. And lyeth interrd in the north Isle of the parish church of Berry-Pomeroy among his Ancestors, without any Sepulchral Monument.’

Pure delight! Don’t you love ‘the musick of axes and hammers’ and the enervating effect on children of a mother’s fondling?

The Wishing Tree in the early 1980s

The Wishing Tree in the early 1980s

And the Wishing Tree? I finally found this reference in a guidebook published in 1963:

‘According to local tradition, to walk backwards round this tree three times will bring the fulfilment of any desire… [but] as the earth has fallen away from the far side, the slope is now too steep to admit of perambulation round the tree – either backwards or forwards.’

Which is odd, because as you can see from this photo taken in 1983, the sign is still there. The tree is considerably larger now, but we tripped and stumbled around it three times (forwards) just in case.

Now to Exmoor…

a Privy Counsellor. He also held office as Treasurer of the Navy

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