Devon – Walking the River Webburn

 The Webburn might not be the first river that comes to mind when you think of Dartmoor rivers, but I think of it as one of the best.

The Webburn is surely Dartmoor’s most secret river, even if one of its branches does flow through Widecombe in the Moor – the Moor’s most popular tourist village. It is an elusive flow, occasionally encountered but rarely followed from its twin sources to its end in the swirling waters of the River Dart, below New Bridge.

To seek out its hidden places involves much trespass or the omission of great stretches of its waters. So come trespassing with me.

Rather like those pioneers of British exploration it makes some sense to follow the Webburn upstream, not least because the end of the river – at Buckland Bridge – is easily accessible and following the first section of the river presents no problems. The bridge spans the Webburn immediately above its confluence with the Dart and was rightly described by William Crossing as a charming scene.

It was here that the Widecombe authoress Beatrice Chase liked to linger and about which she wrote on a number of occasions. The lovely wooded valley upstream is a nature reserve, a haunt of otters and water birds. A path takes the wanderer upstream to the joining of the East and West Webburns at Lizwell Meet.  All of this is land declared open to roam under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act.  On the hillside above is the fine viewpoint of Blackadon Down, with the stony piles of Blackadon Tor and Logwell Rock. It is a seldom visited area in comparison with other parts of Dartmoor.

The wooded valley splits here, one branch following the West Webburn upstream to Ponsworthy Bridge and then along the East Webburn to Cockingford Bridge. There are good paths by the banks of both of these rivers, but though well used they are not rights of way and you will be trespassing. I’ve walked them often over the years and all the tracks pass through delightful scenery. A good excuse to exercise your freedom to roam.

Let us follow the western river first. At Ponsworthy, the Webburn is easily walked using a public footpath which is now part of the Two Moors Way. It is a rough and stony track, often very near the edge of the water, a very good place for a lunch break. The river bends to the north west at the hamlet of Jordan.

It was near here that I often met the actor and fisherman, the late Sir Michael Hordern, a great champion of freedom to roam, who spent his boyhood nearby and often returned. Sir Michael walked and fished the Webburn and neighbouring rivers at all hours of the day and night and few people had a greater knowledge of the local waters.

A bridleway takes the tramper above a further stretch of the Webburn, below the hill known as Jordan Ball to the appropriately named Shallowford. From above here the West Webburn drains a broad and marshy valley. Those Dartmoor walkers who have explored the old mineral workings around Vitifer and Birch Tor will have already seen the headwaters of the West Webburn, but before we proceed thither, let us look at where some of the tiny streams around Broadaford actually pass.

One tiny stream heads up towards Blackaton Manor and Gamble Cottage. Older ramblers on Dartmoor will remember when the latter was the home of Dr Alan and Mrs Gwenna Barwell, wonderful leaders of moorland walks. I walked with both of them on many occasions; expeditions which often concluded with sumptuous feasts at Gamble Cottage, which went on long into the night. Alan and Gwenna have passed on now, but I have fond memories of them both and enjoy looking at the painting of Bowerman’s Nose that Gwenna painted for me as a calendar one Christmas many years ago.

A westwards stream goes near to Cator, once the home of Dartmoor’s greatest conservationist, (Lady) Sylvia Sayer. How she is missed in these days when Dartmoor preservationists seem more interested in preserving the Dartmoor Establishment rather than Dartmoor itself.

The principal waters of the Webburn flow on under Challacombe to the mineral workings at Vitifer. A good bridleway and open moorland gives good access to the river from this point and there is a great deal of fascinating industrial archaeology in the vicinity.

Back then to Lizwell Meet, where a woodland path (private) leads to Cockingford Bridge.

If you are averse to trespassing, a footpath cuts the corner from Cockingford to the lane into Widecombe, offering limited views of the next stretch of the East Webburn as it heads towards the village.

It passes below Venton Farm, once the home of Olive Katherine Parr, or Beatrice Chase as she was better known. This once-famous authoress is buried in Widecombe churchyard, where her gravestone bears both names. She crossed swords with many people, not least the archaeologist and DPA secretary Richard Hansford Worth. In the days when I worked for the Dartmoor Preservation Association, I used to delight in reading their often vitriolic correspondence, which is housed in the DPA archive. It should be made available to a wider readership.

What can one say about Widecombe-in-the-Moor? Despite the crowds, the hype, and the occasional tackiness, I still think it a delightful place in one of the most beautiful of settings.

The Webburn slips by all this hustle and bustle and is scarcely noticed. But the valley beyond is truly dramatic, mountainous in aspect, and perhaps deserving of a mightier river. Access to the Webburn is again limited until open moorland is reached at Natsworthy Gate. Here the main branch of the Webburn makes a sharp turn to the west, climbing the steep slopes of Hameldon to a source near to the Blue Jug boundary stone, scarce a mile from the headwaters of its sister river the East Webburn.

If you like your river sources to be in stark and beautiful places, then this will do for you as the head of the Webburn.  But a case can be made for the tiny brook that proceeds up the valley past Heathercombe, below Barramoor and up to near Lettaford Cross as being the final flow of the Webburn. This may be followed, with a subsidiary watercourse up on to Shapley Common.

The first part of this may be seen from the footpath through the woodlands of Heathercombe Brake and the Shapley tributary from the Mariners Way. In dry weather some of the highest parts dry out, but it is surely the highest flow of this elusive river.

If you have been a bold trespasser and followed much of the two courses of the Webburn you will have passed through a quiet and secret landscape. The Webburn deserves to be better known and perhaps in future years increased access legislation or new rights of way will make this lovely river far more accessible.

This is an extract from my Devon book, now out in paperback and on Kindle…   
Here’s the blurb…411C+iYtNWL._AC_US218_
“The novelist John Bainbridge has walked in the Devon countryside for over fifty years, and is well known as a writer and broadcaster on the county.
In this miscellany of country essays, he explores many of the quiet corners of Devon, from the wild moorlands of Dartmoor and Exmoor to its spectacular coastline and peaceful pastoral landscapes.
John Bainbridge is the author of the country books The Compleat Trespasser and Wayfarer’s Dole.

“As a rambler, I’ve spent much of the past half century roaming through the Devon countryside, exploring the county’s quiet villages, winding footpaths and bridleways, lonely moorland and dramatic coast. I’ve had the privilege of leading walking groups to share what I know of this land. For much of that time I’ve also written and broadcast about Devon – in a number of books and many newspaper and magazine articles and for a local radio station. In fact, my first published work was an article about Dartmoor, written and sold when I was sixteen.

Devon has changed a great deal since I began my walks there – not altogether for the better. Ill-thought out development has blighted some of the countryside I knew. I salute those campaigners who are fighting to protect what remains. I spent nine years as chief executive of the Dartmoor Preservation Association, so I appreciate the hard work involved in saving the beauties for future generations to enjoy.

But even with all these changes there are still the quiet secret places there to discover, and what better way to seek them out than on foot? I’ve enjoyed my Devon walks, both alone and in the company of other ramblers.

I’ve written about Devon in my two earlier walking books Wayfarer’s Dole and The Compleat Trespasser, which give accounts of some of my longer walks.  But there are some shorter pieces I’ve written, many previously published as magazine articles, which didn’t fit into the themes of those titles – fugitive pieces which I thought might make a collection on their own, hence this little volume.

This is no definitive account of Devon, nor yet a walks guide, though there are snippets of history, legend and topography in the pages which follow. Footloose in Devon is rather a bedside book, a volume to be dipped into when the reader has a quiet moment.  I hope the places mentioned might inspire some rambles and expeditions into the heart of this very lovely county.”

To read more or to order just click on the link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Footloose-Devon-John-Bainbridge/dp/1981692096/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1530172277&sr=8-1&keywords=Footloose+in+Devon

I’m writing a novel set on Dartmoor at the moment, a sequel to my book Balmoral Kill,  so I’m having many thoughts about my past walks in this area. 

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Walking Sacred Landscapes

There’s no doubt that the people who lived in this country in what we call prehistory regarding the land as sacred. Just look around and see the stone circles, henges and stone rows they left behind. It is hard for us to enter their mindset, though most folk still experience a sense of wonder when they visit these historic sites.

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The Cockpit Stone Circle (c) John Bainbridge 2019

The question that often occurs to me is whether the places where the circles, rows etc. now stand were in some way held to be sacred before those structures were erected. That might explain why, in some cases, stones for these antiquities were often brought considerable distances to the sites where they now stand. Why bother? Why not just use the stones of the local area, or erect these monuments close to where the source stones were?

I’m an amateur antiquarian and not an archaeologist, so I’m not qualified to give an opinion. If you are please comment below with your thoughts…

But just look at the surviving sites – the great monuments of Stonehenge and Avebury, the rich archaeology of Dartmoor, the many stone circles of Aberdeenshire, the wonders of Kilmartin Glen in Argyll – the list goes on.

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The Copstone (c) John Bainbridge 2019

I was considering this the other day when we were taking one of our regular walks on the edge of the Lake District, across the fells of Askham and Moor Divock.

There’s no doubt that this wide stretch of moorland was one of these sacred stretches of landscape – the evidence is there for all to see with the remnants of rows, an excellent stone circle now called The Cockpit, banks and ditches. In my Dartmoor days we would have described it as a sanctuary.

And where these ancient people went – and we should think of them not as savages but as human beings as mentally sophisticated as we are – we have a multiplicity of trackways. The ways that these men and women took not only to survive day to day, but to access sacred sites.

On the fells around Moor Divock, there are a great many tracks. Some undoubtedly of recent origin, but others which must have existed for thousands of years.

Crossing the hillside is the Roman road known as High Street. Was it built by the Romans? I don’t think so. I think it was a prehistoric way across the eastern Lake District fells, that the Romans adopted and probably improved.

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High Street (c) John Bainbridge 2019

Take a walk along it and consider that – High Street not a relatively recent Roman road, but one of the oldest roads in Britain. Perhaps dating back to Neolithic times when the men and women who dwelt in these hills first felt the need to travel regularly, unlike their ancestors, the hunters who had no defined routes, but simply followed the herds of animals they needed for food.

When we walk the old ways, we are often walking in the steps of the most ancient of our ancestors. So take a walk along the old tracks and visit these old sites – the circles, henges and row. Take a walk and wonder as well as wander.

 

Pilgrimage to Easby Abbey

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Sowing the Seed (c) John Bainbridge 2019

It’s not a long walk from the Yorkshire town of Richmond to the ruins of Easby Abbey, but you do go back a long way into medieval history. And there’s some fine scenery along the River Swale along the journey. Not to mention the chance of seeing some particularly fine medieval wall paintings in the church at Easby.

The town of Richmond is a wonderful place to just stroll around, with one of the best castles in England – I mentioned it in my blog of September 27th last year. I won’t say much about Richmond here, as I intend to describe a town walk in the near future, but enough to say it’s worth a visit.

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The Drummer Boy’s Stone (c) John Bainbridge 2019

 

 

We walked down to the River Swale and took the path to Easby. Not far along the way is the Drummer Boy Stone. Legend has it that towards the end of the 18th century soldiers in Richmond Castle discovered a tunnel under the keep. As it was very tiny, they selected a drummer boy to explore its depths, telling him to keep drumming as he walked, so that they could track his progress by following him above ground.

After half a mile, in Easby Wood, they heard no more drumming and the drummer boy was never seen again. The stone marks the place where the drumming ceased. Is it true? Who knows?

A footpath leads on to the ruins of Easby Abbey. The Abbey of St Agatha, is a Premonstratensian house right on the banks of the Swale. founded in 1152 by Roald, Constable of Richmond Castle. The white canons must have led a very quiet life here in general, though there were interruptions to the tranquillity. An English army camped on their way north to the Battle of Neville’s Cross and caused a great deal of damage.

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St Agatha’s Church and the Abbey (c) John Bainbridge 2019

Unfortunately for the canons, they opposed Henry VIII during the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1537. The vengeful king instructed the duke of Norfolk who was leading the royal army to crush the rebels to “at your repair to … St Agatha and such other places as have made resistance … you shall without pity or circumstance … cause the monks to be tied up [hanged] without further delay.”

It’s unclear whether the canons were so executed or not, but their resistance did strengthen Henry’s hand during the suppresion of the monasteries. The possession of the monastery was handed back to the Scrope family of Castle Bolton and by 1539, the abbey had already had the lead stripped from the roof.

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The Abbey (c) John Bainbridge 2019

Even so, this romantic ruin gives a good idea of the layout of the abbey and monastery. Turner painted it (he seems to have gone everywhere!) and there’s still a lot to see.

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Easby Abbey and Monastery (c) John Bainbridge 2019

The parish church of St Agatha, once part of the religious complex, and almost certainly pre-dating the abbey, remains as a place of worship. A modest church building, it retains some quite excellent wall paintings, dating back to around 1250. Very well worth making the journey to see. They were rediscovered during the Victorian restoration of the church, having been covered up during the Reformation.

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Adam and Eve (c) John Bainbridge 2019

They were, of course, probably never intended to be permanent, and might have been replaced from time to time by journeyman painters. They were an instruction to probably illiterate worshippers of the Christian message.

The wall paintings show the birth of Christ and the resurrection, the Annunciation, the fall of Adam and Eve and expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

But the paintings that get to you the most are those illustrating early medieval life. There’s a gentlemen out hawking, labouring peasants back-breakingly digging the land.

My favourite is the painting of a labourer sowing seed, watched by a hungry crow even as he scatters the seed.

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Arrow Scratches? (c) John Bainbridge 2019   

It’s like time-travel, you are looking back almost through a window at the medieval world. You could study these paintings a thousand times and always find something new. It was hard to tear ourselves away.

But as you leave, on the side of the church door, are some very clear scratch marks. I may be wrong, but I suspect they were made by medieval archers sharpening their arrow heads.

We crossed the Swale and followed the course of the disused railway line back to Richmond, enjoying the walk but rather mourning the fact that Dr Beeching scrapped the railway line – a source of regret, though the old station has been imaginatively transformed into a rather pleasant community centre, complete with cafe and cinema.

You wonder what the Richmond drummer boy, the white canons and the journeyman painter of the medieval wall painters would have made of that?

 

 

 

Books and Blogs

My next walking blog will be out later, describing our medieval pilgrimage walk from Richmond to Easby Abbey. A grand walk along the River Swale to see some of the finest medieval wall paintings I’ve seen for a long time.Villain Cover

But just a reminder that I have a writing blog at www.johnbainbridgewriter.wordpress.com which gives lots of info on my writing life and the books.

I’ve just published Legend, the fourth and final book in my series The Chronicles of Robin Hood, which attempts to put the famous outlaw in something like a realistic medieval setting. All four books are now out in paperback and on Kindle.Legend (The Chronicles of Robin Hood Book 4) by [Bainbridge, John]

I’ve also written some non-fiction books on walking, including my rambling memoirs Wayfarer’s Dole and The Compleat Trespasser.

You can see a full list of the books online at:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/l/B001K8BTHO?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1549961524&redirectedFromKindleDbs=true&ref_=sr_tc_2_0&rfkd=1&shoppingPortalEnabled=true&sr=1-2-ent

Land Beyond Domesday

The Domesday book was William of Normandy’s great survey of England, as he consolidated his realm after his invasion of England in 1066 – though the Domesday Book wasn’t begun until 1085. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has it:

Then, at the midwinter, was the king in Gloucester with his council … . After this had the king a large meeting, and very deep consultation with his council, about this land; how it was occupied, and by what sort of men. Then sent he his men over all England into each shire; commissioning them to find out “How many hundreds of hides were in the shire, what land the king himself had, and what stock upon the land; or, what dues he ought to have by the year from the shire.”

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Bandley Wood (c) John Bainbridge 2019

Contrary to popular belief, William the Bastard (as he was better known at the time) didn’t achieve victory in 1066. It took several bloody years to subdue England. In some parts of the country – in the north and the west – his troops carried out what can only be described as ethnic cleansing of the Anglo-Saxon and Norse populations.

Nevertheless, the Domesday Book is very useful for historians. I often referred to it when I was writing topographical books and articles in the past. But, in reality, the Domesday Book is a snapshot of late Anglo-Saxon England, for the Normans were had only just begun to make their mark by 1085.

So it always comes as a surprise that you can walk in parts of England that get no mention at all in the Domesday Book, as we did the other day. For much of what we now call Cumbria doesn’t feature in Domesday at all. Why Not? Because at the time they were not in England at all – they were in Scotland. And even then they were mostly settled by Norsemen. The Vikings who had gone beyond raiding, settling instead.

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Bandley Wood (c) John Bainbridge 2019

A couple of blogs ago, I mentioned the Hoff Beck (two Norse words) and the fact that the Eden Rivers Trust has established a walk along some of its length, describing our walk from Bandley Bridge (first recorded as a crossing place in 1292) to Rutter Force. (Force – another Norse word).

The other day, we strolled the other part of the Hoff Beck walk to the settlement of Colby – another place, like nearby Appleby, settled by the Norse folk. Look at the -by at the end of those names. A clear indicator of a place-name of Norse origins. Appleby might have gone on to be the County Town of Westmorland, and, even though a Roman road ran by it, it probably didn’t exist before the Vikings settled there.

Bandley Bridge is interesting, for though the footbridge is relatively modern, there must probably have always been a bridge there, for there is no obvious ford and the 1292 record specifically refers to a brig or bridge.

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Bandley Bridge (c) John Bainbridge 2019

It’s in lonely countryside, walked mostly by locals and those ramblers who’ve sought out the Dales High Way track across and around the Pennines. It’s a place full of atmosphere too, probably not changed that much since those ancient times.

We followed the Hoff Beck down to Colby, where the little river becomes the Colby Beck, before seeking out the greater waters of the River Eden. A long drawn-out hamlet, Colby, of cottages of varying ages. No doubt many built on sites that were used a thousand years ago. And, in a gap between the settlements, there’s a field full of bumps and mounds, which might repay some archaeological investigation. I often wonder if it was the site of the original Norse settlement.

We crossed the Colby Beck at a bridge over what was clearly an ancient fording place, and took the farm track towards Colby Laithes. Go beyond the farm and there’s a set of large stepping stones not marked on the Ordnance Survey map, but which look as though they’ve been there for centuries. You can cross them and follow the River Eden much of the way back to Appleby.

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The Track To Thistley Hill (c) John Bainbridge 2019

We didn’t, preferring the higher path over Thistly Hill, which offered fine views over the snow-covered Pennines. An old track this, for although it seems to be a headland path around the edges of fields, it is wider than most headland paths and distinct on level and vegetation from the neighbouring fields, suggesting that this is a old way, from which the hedge on one side has been removed.

It eventually enters woodland just before Appleby, at an interesting junction with another old track coming up from the river. Paths that have almost certainly existed for centuries, and perhaps for the thousand years when this was all the territory of the Norsemen, part of Scotland, and way outside William the Bastard’s Domesday Book.