Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Okehampton ... once the beating heart of Devon

Okehampton is the town just down the road that we pass through on our regular trips to Cornwall. It sits on the edge of Dartmoor, and perhaps it's because it's on our own back door that we've never really taken the trouble to explore it properly. Does that make sense ? Am I the only person who's got an irrational tendency to overlook what's within easy striking-distance of home in favour of gallivanting off to far-flung places? I guess far-away fields always look greener ... .

Now as it happens Okehampton is a town with a lot of things to boast about, but it's a modest place that doesn't really shout much about its attractions. There's a medieval motte and bailey castle, St. James' Church, a Tudor Chapel of Ease, there's a museum of Dartmoor life, a very fine 19th century railway bridge, the Meldon Viaduct, spanning the ravine of the Okement River and, just outside of town in the beautiful village of Sticklepath there's an amazing, fully working blacksmith's forge with all the latest water-powered kit from the early days of the Industrial Revolution. I've already written about it here: Finch Forge.

Okehampton Castle, Devon

We started off at the forge, and then gave ourselves the challenge of trying to find the viaduct. Now here's the thing: nobody had thought to hang a sign out - anywhere - to tell would-be tourists how to get to the Meldon Viaduct. It's an amazing structure, built over the ravine of the Okement River, which enjoys protection as a scheduled monument, so it's really got to be worth putting up a sign for. If you follow the signs for the Meldon Quarry, turning left at Betty Cottles Inn on the Tavistock Road  (going out of town) you'll find it.

Meldon Viaduct, Okehampton, Devon

Back in the day there was some serious competition between the Great Western Railway (GWR) and the London and South Western Railway (LSWR), who were vying with one another for customers wishing to travel down to the West Country. The LSWR built the Meldon Viaduct, which opened for business on 12th October, 1874, as part of the LSWR's route to Plymouth and Bude via Okehampton.

They started off modestly enough with just a single track, but business was good, railways were the thing, people were moving around the country like they'd never been able to do in the past and before long they needed some extra capacity. But this presented a whole new range of challenges. If they shut down to double the width of the bridge they'd have a break in the service, which would give the GWR a chance to snaffle all their passengers.

Meldon Viaduct, Okehampton, Devon

So they decided to keep the line open throughout the building work. They built a second steel viaduct beside the first and then joined the two together. The bridge is 165 metres (541 feet) long and stands 46 metres (121 feet) high, so this was no mean feat. They didn't want to use any bothersome scaffolding that would have been difficult to erect in the ravine, so they erected the trestles using derricks mounted on the original structure. They assembled the trestles in a railway siding, and then lifted them into position using railway mounted cranes (held steady with a serious weight of ballast). These were then slowly driven across the original structure, swung into position and secured where they were needed. It took them 2 hours and 30 minutes to assemble each truss, which allowed them to schedule the work around the train timetable, avoiding any delays or cancellations in the service. Brilliant! I just wish their modern day successors felt the same dedication to avoiding delays and cancellations.

Having ticked the Meldon Viaduct off our list of things to see we headed back into town for a look around the castle, which for my money is one of the most atmospheric places I've ever visited. It oozes history.

Okehampton Castle, Okehampton, Devon

It was built between 1068 and 1086 by a Norman knight, Baldwin de Brionne, who was William the Conqueror's Royal Sheriff of Devon. The Normans had a bit of a struggle on their hands following 1066. Harold and his Anglo-Saxons may have been defeated, but they were still bristling with resentment at their Norman overlords. Following a revolt against Norman rule here in Devon, Baron Baldwin was given the task of restoring order and control. The castle, which was the only castle in Devon listed in the Domesday Book in 1086, was positioned to protect the important route from Devon down to Cornwall, including two fords that formed a crossing point over the West Okement River. It also enabled the Baron to keep an eye over the existing Saxon settlement of Ochmundtune.

With Ochmundtune a little way down the road, a new Norman town grew up around the business of the castle. The Baron had his army of retainers. He opened a corn mill and he held a market. Gradually a new town developed at a slight remove from the Saxon village, which overtook its predecessor to become modern Okehampton. 

When Baron Baldwin's line died out the castle passed into the hands of the Courtenay family. It was confiscated by the Yorkists a few times during the War of the Roses, but eventually restored to Edward Courtenay by Henry VII. Edward had been a staunch Lancastrian, and had fought beside Henry at the battle of Bosworth Field. In fact he'd been one of Henry's companions who'd gone with him to France in 1471 when the Yorkist Edward IV regained the throne, and it had been expedient for the principal Lancastrian contender to seek sanctuary in Brittany. Edward had criss-crossed the channel during the 1480s acting as a courier ferrying messages between Henry and his Lancastrian supporters back in England, who were biding their time until they could launch a counter-offensive to seize the crown for the House of Lancaster.

With Henry VII's victory things started to look up for the folk at the castle. However they took a bit of a nose-dive when Edward's son and heir, William Courtenay, lost the King's favour. He was accused of plotting to have the Yorkist claimant, Edmund de la Pole, 3rd Duke of Suffolk, crowned king of England. For this he was attainted and locked up in the Tower of London in 1504. He'd married Catherine of York, the sixth daughter of Edward IV, and must have been regarded with some suspicion given who his in-laws were. The King had married Catherine's sister, Elizabeth, so maybe he was getting really fed up with the whole in-law thing by this stage.

Okehampton Castle, Okehampton, Devon

In any event Henry VII died in 1509, and his son Henry VIII pardoned (his uncle) William and had him act as a sword bearer at his coronation on 24th June, 1509. When William died of pleurisy on 9th June 1511 he was succeeded by his son Henry, to whom the King had restored all the family lands and titles. Young Henry and the King were first cousins. And things went well for a while. Henry served the King as second captain on a man of war during the War of the League of Cambrai against Louis XII of France. He became a member of the Privy Council in May 1520 and accompanied Henry to the Field of the Cloth of Gold to meet Francis I of France in June 1520. He was created Marquess of Exeter in 1525, and his store with the King continued to rise. His signature has been found on documents petitioning for the King's divorce from Catherine of Aragon. In 1533 he sat as one of the commissioners on Catherine's deposition as part of that process. He was also a signatory to the indictment laid against Cardinal Wolsey, and he was one of the commissioners at the trial of Anne Boleyn when she was accused of incest, adultery and high treason.

However he met his nemesis in one Thomas Cromwell, who was also hungry for power and influence at court. Cromwell was jealous of Courtenay's position and, wanted him out of the way. He recognised that Courtenay's chief weakness was his second wife, Gertrude Blount,  who was an unreformed Catholic. She had maintained a correspondence with Catherine of Aragon since her fall from grace with the King and was a staunch supporter of Elizabeth Barton, the Holy Maid of Kent, who had been executed for prophesying the King's downfall should he marry Anne Boleyn. Cromwell seized upon these details to create suspicion in the King's mind about where Courtenay's loyalties really lay. Then, when Courtenay was found to have been in correspondence with Cardinal Reginald Pole, the last Roman Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, who was strongly critical of the King's case for annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, it was very easy to convince the King that he had treasonous motives, and intended to take the throne of England for himself. Courtenay was convicted at a trial of his peers in Westminster Hall and executed at Tower Hill on 9th December, 1538. His properties, including Okehampton Castle, were seized by the Crown.

Following the demise of Henry Courtenay, Maquess of Exeter, the castle's fortunes also declined. It was largely abandoned until the 17th century when it was turned into a bakehouse. By the 18th century it had become a romantic ruin that was popular with the landscape painters of the day.

St. James, Okehampton, Devon, Chapel of Ease

Next we made our way to St. James' Church, chapel of ease, built for the convenience of the towns folk, because the Norman town had developed a distance away from the pre-existing Saxon settlement of Ochmundtune with the parish church of All Saints being a bit too far away.  

St. James, Okehampton, Devon, Chapel of Ease

Sadly a fire destroyed the greater part of the church. Only the fine early fifteenth century tower survived the flames, and it was preserved and incorporated into the new building when it was rebuilt in 1862. 

Inside we found a rather lovely carved reading desk that is said to date from 1662.

St. James, Okehampton, Devon, Chapel of Ease

St. James was clearly an important figure in the town. Not only is the church dedicated to him but an ancient charter of 1221 granted the town the right to hold a fair on St. James' Day, 25th July. 

St. James, Okehampton, Devon, Chapel of Ease

And talking of fairs and retail opportunities we took a walk down the Victorian covered arcade, which struck us as a perfect place to go shopping when it's raining.

The Victorian covered arcade, Okehampton, Devon

We also tried to go and explore the Museum of Dartmoor Life, but they wouldn't let the Wonder Dog in so we decided to leave it for another day. It's always good to leave something for next time: it gives you an excuse for going back.

All the best for now,

Bonny x


  1. Beautiful pictures and great information! The Okehampton Castle ruins are quite charming. :)
    Devon sure looks like a great place to visit, I must add it to my list of places to see.
    Have a lovely afternoon, Bonny

  2. I no doubt would have never found this, so I thank you for showing me this beauty. Tom The Backroads Traveller

  3. Only time I have been near Oakhampton was when I did an Outward Bound Course back in 1971 and I'm sure I slept the night in a tent under the viaduct before heading on to Higher Yes Tor in the morning. Nice chapel, maybe some time I'll get down that way again