Widecombe History Group Talk: North Hall Update 1998-2008

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The speaker for the evening was Peter Rennells one of our members and he has been researching the history of The Site of The North Hall Manor House for the past ten years. This is an insight into his findings so far.

The North Hall Investigations by Peter Rennells.

When looking at an ordnance survey map of Widecombe a few years ago Peter Rennells notice a cross printed on the map and the words "Site of North Hall". He immediately thought that this was a subject that he would like to find out more about. This site is on Private Property and not open for public access.

The first thing he did was to ask permission from the owners if he could examine the site and the present owners, Mr & Mrs Michael Skinner gave him and certain members of our group permission to visit the site and make measurements and drawings.

He began the lengthy process of tracing any written documentation about North Hall.

The reported site is about 100 yards away from the Church. In the report of the great storm of Sunday 21st October 1638 there is reference to the fact that some stones from the tower landed in the grounds of North Hall Manor House. Over the next five years Peter found various mentions of North Hall in articles and documents, some also relating to those who lived and worked there. There were mills attributed to the Manor and the fact that more than a hundred years ago a group of people had ‘picnicked’ at the site and recorded sitting on the remains of the buildings. A mention also that ‘valerian’ was growing amongst the stone remains.

We have had the site ‘dowsed’ a couple of times and quite recently had part ‘geophysical surveyed’. The findings are encouraging!

Here is a report of what proved to be a very interesting presentation.

Peter was supported by Roger Claxton. Thanks to Roger for his assistance with visual illustrations of Peter’s having placed several onto D.V.D to enhance the presentation.

The secretary introduced Peter with a story told to him by Miss Deborah Hannaford. When Miss Mary Willcocks owned and ran The North Hall Cafe, which stood on the site of the present Village Sports Field, at the bottom of Bowden Lane, she had a tall flag pole on which she displayed a triangular flag that read Cafe. This no doubt helped to encourage customers from the village centre to patronise her business. Once a group of local lads took down the flag and hoisted a pair of her pants to the top of the pole, they had removed them from her washing line. For some this caused great amusement, but it is believed that the local policeman was brought into the matter and the lads were dealt with as only the local ‘bobby’ would, in those days.

Peter began his address with reference to old maps. He has examined the 1844 Tithe Map and this showed a lane leading in from the village green into the yard where there was just one long barn. By 1886 the lane showed up better. This map had ‘The Site of North Hall’ marked on it and also showed the streams associated with it. The 1905 OS Map shows more clearly the water ways.

By 1954 the modern sheds have appeared and the old long barn appears to have been shortened. A stream comes from higher up the valley, Coombe Brake seems to be the source, it crosses under the road at Bowden Lane flows beside the road and then into field OS 7491 where it appears to divide and supply the remains of a ‘moat’. As it flows northwards to the west of the site archaeologists think that it fed a pond, possibly a fish pond for the Manor House. Turning east it then rejoins the stream that has gone to the south of the site under a clapper bridge. United it flows on to the river Webburn(the East Webburn) in the bottom of the valley. The remains of a leat can also be traced on the map which led to the mill at the bottom of Smithill on the way out of the village towards Bovey Tracey. It will be noted that reference to further mills will come in the presentation.

There is mention in the National Monuments Register of North Hall.

In an attempt to find out who lived at North Hall, Peter has found reference to the Fitz-Ralphs, the first was a Richard, believed to have been canonised and became a Saint, and Archbishop of Armagh, part of Ireland. A Richard Hill, in the c1600s wrote of the remains of a stately house, buildings, cottages and surrounded by a moat of standing water. The water fed by streams of water clear, and a good store of fish were bred. There was also a mention of a ‘draw-bridge’ and drive. The Ralph’s name again appears.

In his search for more details of the Fitz-Ralphs he has found a huge book written by a Katherine Walsh about the family. This needs detailed study.

Peter’s enquiries in Ireland have led to a dead end. The Irish claim that their Archbishop of Armagh, was in fact born in Ireland, nothing to do with this area, so more on this one day perhaps!

Rev Swete when he toured Devon in c1795 recorded, that the Ralphs were in the parish and also connected to Shillingford, near Exeter, they were evidently big landowners. Pridham writing in c1869 also mentions the Widecombe and Ireland connection of the Fitz-Ralphs.

Charles Worthy writes in 1875 of a list of Rectors of Widecombe commencing with Roger Rowse in 1283. This appears to substantiate that the present church stands on an earlier site.

Dymond in some of his writings states that the Fitz-Ralphs had changed to Shillingfords in c1850, living at North Hall, and in an old will, there is a reference to a member of the family wishing to be buried in the ‘Chapel of St Catherine in Widecombe Church.

At this point it should be noted that there is now a ‘Lady Chapel’ in Widecombe Church dedicated to St Catherine and the alter stone there was lifted from the church floor in 1966, possibly put in the floor at the time of the Reformation c1538. It has crosses carved into it and is possibly the original alter of the church.

Rev Pickering in 1903 wrote an account of St Pancras Church Widecombe, and mentioned that carved stones probably from North Hall were in the yard at Old Inn. This is quite possible, re-cycling is not a new phenomenon, any good building material would not be left lying about if a good use could be found for it! At this time the Radcliffs of Bag Park, the present Widecombe Town Manor House, owned a large estate including both The Glebe Farm Ground and The Old Inn.

It is worth noting that in the early 1900s the manor pound was situated to the south of The Old Inn and when the owners wanted that ground a new pound was built in the present Glebe Farmyard.

A Roger Le Rowse recorded as vicar in the early 1900s and Pickering refers to The Church of North Hall. The Manor of North Hall is now The Manor of Widecombe Town so obviously the Church is in that manor.

N.B. The present Glebe Farm House is at West Hayes, but the original Glebe Farm House is the house opposite The Church House in the village Square, the other buildings associated with it are in the Old Vicarage Yard. The Glebe (belonging to the church) ground was part of the vicar’s stipend, he either farmed it or let it to a tenant so increasing his income. In 1854 it is recorded that the vicar sold cattle at Widecombe Fair. Very often the vicar was a younger son of the ‘Squire’. His elder sons would be officers in the army or navy, in high ranking positions. It can be seen how the church was very much involved with the rural activities, tithes, manor rights, and had some control over the peasants. The feudal system continued well into the 19C and in some areas even later than that.

The Manor House has often been stated as being 100 yards north of the church and the site being researched fits well into that description. In the churchyard wall facing the village green there is a built up gateway, (could this have been the Lord of the Manor’s normal entrance to the church? Hence leave the Manor pass through the holly lined avenue, across the green and he was there?

In 1903 the site was recorded as being only a long barn and a cowshed. Earlier mention is of a castellated building with halls and buildings in which a number of men could live, there were rooms beyond provided with wooden vessels and stone troughs, cellars for wine, beer and cider. Stables for war horses, gardens and orchards, the whole being encircled with a broad moat of water.

Rev Coypoys Wood produced a guide to the church and incorporated much of previous publications, including reference to The Church of North Hall. Pickering mentioned Fitz-Richard a slight alteration to name, perhaps there was social reason for this! It also appears that in this district there were Saxon connections. Certainly at Buckland and Scobitor there was mention of Saxon settlements.

Peter has found several accounts in this area of Turold the Saxon?

In the 1870 plan of the Church seating it shows North Hall seats, number 84, in the front of the pews. These appear to be the best seats, ideal for the Lord of the Manor.

Field names are always interesting, as they often reflect the past history and use of the ground. Some names are worth a mention. Land & buildings at North Hall, Mill Field is now an orchard, close to the site and Great North Hall Moor and Little North Hall Moor, are just beyond the orchard, and they have thrown up some interesting observations.

A Margaret Baring (of Baring Bank family?), related to Rev. Sabine Baring Gould?. She once owned the site, she leased out many fields of this area in c1843. A John Baker leased North Hall Moor, and other fields and he also leased the NEW Inn(the OLD Inn of today). It was then registered as a Cider House. Was he producing his own cider from the orchard?

OS field numbers alter over the years but a continuity can be traced through names, shapes and numbers.

According to some maps Great North Hall Moor had another building in 1840s to date its use is not known.

Other names associated with the property are a Vincent Andrews and wife Margaret who in 1663 leased a mansion, another house and 3 Mills from the North Hall Estate.

A mention of Gooseland (Gooseypool?) leats and six pits at Smithmill (Smithey Mill), this would refer to the present site of The Wayside Cafe and The Old Mill Cottage. There was once a mill and a smithy in this area. The road in front of the property is Smith Hill.

In 1703 mention of a cottage Smithamill and ten yards, could this refer to landyards a measurement of length?

There were leats to North Hall Mills, the leat to the Old Mill below Wayside can still be traced.

Coming more up to date in the search for more evidence we find aerial photographs taken by RAF photographers in 1946. These were taken to look at the landscape and monumental sites as well as giving employment to these skilled men. They revealed an interesting phenomenon in The Great North Moor. One picture showed a wide white line around the majority Great Moor.

Zooming in closer to the frame it can be seen within this line several rectangular marks like those of buildings, an entrance to the south and another to the east. What are these marks? The filming was done in December, not the normal time of the year to see ‘crop marks’ showing up.

These marks are due north of the church and the North Hall site, they line up precisely with the lane from the green passing barns due north of a clapper bridge.

A question posed by some. Was it the result of military use in WWII? Local inhabitants of that time say no. The military did not use those fields. These marks definitely creates the impression of rectangular buildings. The scale of this site warrants further calculations!

It looks like the outline of early buildings and the similarity to the layout of Houndtor Medieval Village can not be overlooked. This was a photograph taken in winter and it is like the crop marks that normally show up in summer.

An aerial photo c1970s show an orchard with about 20 trees and we know there were more there then than now.

A photograph taken in 1989 shows very similar situation and the orchard still in place.

In more recent photos one can see the development of the village, this is how dates can be so useful in building up any picture of the development of an area.

A copy of a drawing from the late Hermon French was shown to the meeting outlining the 7 manors of the Widecombe Parish. Spitchwick to the south, then travelling north Jordan, Blackslade & Dunstone (once two separate Manors), Widecombe Town and at the northern most point Natsworthy, and to the West Blackaton. It has to be remembered that over the centuries alterations have taken place and there needs to be a constant review of any evidence, blocked gateways, diverted tracks and streams, agricultural activities all contributing to changes in the landscape. Change of ownership can also create movement of boundaries and the loss of documentation.

In Peter’s search for evidence connected to North Hall he has found various references to people who are recorded as having lived at North Hall. As an example he quoted some baptism recordings. In 1732 baptism of John son of John & Joan Andrews of North Hall. The following year they had a daughter Mary baptised in 1733 daughter of John & Joan Andrews.

In 1834 Peter & Susanna Hannaford are recorded as from North Hall.

In 1869 The British Geranium Society record that, in the British Herbarium a record of growing in North Hall, Widecombe is valerian, (called by the common people of Widecombe Town Manor, Valerie Ann), possibly an escapee from the garden of the old manor, that once stood there.

The record continues by saying that the plant could have been brought to the area by Belgian tin miners.

Further research needed! Did Belgian tin miners ever work in this area and if so why did they bring valerian, was there a herbal/medicinal reason for this?

A report of a trip to Widecombe in 1880 by a group from Torquay, states that on a site close to the green is a huge heap of earth and stone, the site of the old manor house, the party had a picnic there.

The best stones would be removed and used on other sites making good use of raw material. Today we call it recycling!

Now we look at the struggle Peter has had to interest anyone else in his research.

When he offered the results of his first five years of research to a variety of groups no one seemed to show any interest. Contact with "Time Team" proved negative and other local bodies that one may have thought would show interest were totally disinterested.

A lesson here! If at first you don’t succeed try, try, again!

Tony Heath and his Devon Dowsers did however show some interest and they did a ‘dowse’ of the site. They stuck numerous flags and poles over the site and their conclusion was that there was evidence of walls, and other features buried beneath the surface. John Christian also dowsed the site. His findings were different but had a similarity to the previous ‘dowse’ in the sense that he too considered the presence of walls and in his case also a well. Both of these had no previous knowledge of the crop marks shown in the aerial photographs.

Both groups came up with very extensive reports and diagrams showing what they felt the site showed.

Peter showed photographs of the groups at work and those who assisted in these two surveys c2000.

From then on Peter seemed to come up against a ‘brick wall’ but to his credit he never gave up though at times he despaired.

Seven years passed with Peter still doing his ‘solo’ research, but, in 2007 he read of a group from Exeter University doing a dig at Stokenham in South Devon. They were reportedly excavating an old manor house reputed to have been about 100 yards from Stokenham Village Church (note the 100 yards......does this sound familiar?)

Peter went to Stokenham and met the archaeologists involved and gave them a copy of his notes and findings.

After a very short time Peter heard from them. It was so encouraging to hear that they would like to visit the site. Penny Cunningham and Sam Wall came to Widecombe and walked the fields concerned, and immediately expressed the desire to examine further the site and even promised to try to get a Geophysical Survey done of the site. The visual appearance of the site held promise and in their opinion warranted further exploration.

They arrived with a team of volunteers, and a couple of our members also assisted and they did a geophysical survey on the site of the Manor House. They returned a little later and extended the survey to other parts of the site including Great North Hall Moor. Their enthusiasm lifted Peter’s hopes that there was something here that needed further examination.

They were immediately interested in the ‘lie’ of the land, areas that appeared to them to have been manually levelled, the mounds and the water course around the field which is now considered to be the remnants of the Moat.

Some of their readings by the Geophysical Equipment they felt, were affected by ironwork nearby and disturbance by previous agricultural activities. They did however consider that there was archaeological evidence there, that needed further investigation and expressed the desire to visit the site again.

The team at Stokenham have found that there is quite a lot of material in the Devon Records Office relevant to Medieval Manor Houses. This will take quite a while to disentangle, our contact with the DRO must continue and with their co-operation who knows what may come to light!

A new group, Devon Rural Archives, has been formed in the Modbury area about a year ago to solely investigating Manor Houses. They have several in that area mostly with visible remains and ruins. They are naturally concentrating on sites in and around their area.

However Dr Robert Waterhouse, an eminent archaeologist, who is involved with this group, has shown great interest in Peter’s work, he has visited the site and he has developed a detailed opinion about the site with reference to even earlier activity than we had thought. We await his full report with interest.

His initial response is that it is a highly unusual site for three reasons:-

  1. Moated Manor houses are almost non-existent in Devon.
  2. Deserted Manor sites are rare especially when the abandonment can be show to have occurred a long time ago.
  3. The design of the site is reminiscent of a late manorial "Mott & Bailey Castle" it is therefore of regional importance and deserves more study.

Initially the moat interested him. When the moat was dug it must have been at least four foot wide and an equal depth and the soil heaped up inside the moat for protection. Evidence of this is there to see still. Let us all hope that this will encourage Peter to continue with his research and the rest of us must support him.

We were shown a sketch of a similar castle construction and this will encourage more research.

Houses for staff would be needed but this is going back farther then we had previously considered. Could this site go back even further? The Iron Age? It is full of Archaeology.

A Manor House of this type would have been a very imposing property.

Mr & Mrs Patrick Coaker the present ‘Lords of the Manor’ attended the meeting and expressed an interest in what had so far been found out about the Manor. They do not have any old Manor Court Documents and they are keen to see any, if we can find them. We shall keep them informed of any developments.

The associated buildings would have been considerable. A definite fortification of ages ago.

The Moat. With care one can see the original course of the waterways and some old elates can also be traced. The water is still running well and in wet times the ‘moat’ appears more obvious.

The illustrations of Peter’s documents and relevant photographs all helped to demonstrate his theories.

The lane protected by strong Holly hedges are what would be normal for a notable dwelling.

On examination of what was the original long barn has led to interesting finds.

Robert Waterhouse is convinced that the barn has been shortened over the years and built into the corner is a triple mortar stone which has been turned and used twice.

Several interesting stones have been found on site and they are to be ‘rescued’ for further investigation, with the agreement of the owners. The tin stamp stones are evidence that the area had once considerable tin mining works. Internal wooden lintels in the building are still co-opted in the walls. There is a great deal of history here on this site!

The banks of the moat are quite high when one considers that they have stood there for years and the interpretation of the present day features need expert help such as that from Robert Waterhouse. The position of a moat and pond was very evident to him.

It is now felt that we should look into the history of the whole of The Widecombe Town Manor. Manor Cottages need to be considered, were they part of the North Hall estate?

The marks recorded in Great North Hall Moor need a great deal more research.

The water seems to run on into Mill Meadow and thence to the river Webburn.

In the orchard there are now 12 trees, 11 alive and one dead. We have had tree and apple experts look at the trees and the apples, we believe they are now reasonably well identified. The cookers all appear to be Bramleys, the cider apples are ‘Slap Ma Girdle, Kingston Black, Tremletts, and (the dead one believed to be Langworthy). The deserts are Greensleeves, Cox’s Pomona, Golden Delicious & Coronation, some could however be local varieties. One tree has been recognised as Coronation, could this have originated from the accession to the throne of Queen Victoria?

There is a commercial firm at Collumpton that produce and propagate old varieties of old English fruit trees. Celia Stevens, of the Merryweather family, a branch of the Bramley family and an authority on apples has visited the site, and is prepared to assist us in any way she can. A section of the dead tree has been taken and it appears to be about 100 years old.

The orchard is of the old style planted at the rate of about 40 trees to the acre, not 240 as is the present practice. The trees are planted on the old style in the manner of 4 cookers, 4 cider apples and 4 desert apples.

Could we with the co-operation of the Skinner family try to cultivate, improve and manage the orchard with a view to perhaps organising a Wassail ceremony one year and get our local primary school interested in an apple juice production day with the school taking part as an educational theme showing how and where our food and drink comes from? Could the orchard be adopted and managed?

On Sunday 24th February there is an ‘apple grafting’ class at Higher Ashton in the Teign Valley. It is hoped that a couple of representatives of the group will attend including one of the Skinner family. Could the orchard be extended?

A postcard of a Widecombe Mill was shown but it is questionable whether it is local to this parish. There were several mills in the village and even more in the parish. One was reputed to have been at Newpark, on the southern edge of the village reputedly an ‘undershot’ mill could this have been that one?

In and around this village there are many examples of milling activity, pound stones, moulds and streaming pits and mounds.

Some mills have changed their uses over the years, there were grist(corn), wool, tin, and serge etc.

At around the end of WWI the North Hall Cafe was built and it was run by Miss Mary Willcocks, there are a few people living in the parish now who can still remember her.

This site is now the site of Widecombe playing field. with its tennis court.

In 1963 the weight of the snow on its roof caused it to collapse and it was partially rebuilt by the late Thomas Nosworthy of Natsworthy. In about 1970 the site was purchased by the Dartmoor National Park Authority and knocked down ‘overnight’ much to the dismay of many parishioners who thought it could have been turned into a Parish Hall. Tom’s work was of a calibre that it would never have fallen down on its own, but it was removed just because some people thought that coaches could not get around the corner of the green to the cafe and carpark, no consideration for alternative use seems to have been considered!

We have been told that there is ever increasingly more sensitive geophysical equipment being made available, could this be used in the future?

This whole presentation led to much discussion and interest.

If anyone can add to our research with knowledge of the where-a-bouts of any documents or literature connected to Widecombe we would welcome their imput.

Contact us through our e-mail to: history at widecombe-in-the-moor.com or by telephone on 01364 621246 or 01364 621302.

Anything about the area will be welcomed by the group membership.

Please look out for any documents that may be offered at sales etc.

There is saying that mighty oaks from little acorns grow! And from a small ‘X’ on a map a whole fascinating project has emerged.

Peter Rennells is concentrating his research on the crop marks in Great North Hall Moor. Items that still require following up are The Orchard, The Manor Boundaries, The Mills and all DRO Documents and others that can be traced.

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