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.
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.
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
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…
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, 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?
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…