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A Book of the West/Volume 1/12



Origin of Okehampton obscure—The Ockments—Moor seekers—Okehampton Castle—French prisoners—Church—Belstone and Taw Marsh—Cranmere Pool—Tavy Cleave—South Zeal—Prehistoric monuments—An evening at the "Oxenham Arms"—The Oxenham white bird—Mining misadventures—"Old vayther"—Ecclesiological excursions—Early Christian monuments.

WHAT brought Okehampton into existence? It is not fathered by the castle, nor mothered by the church. Both have withdrawn to a distance and repudiated responsibility in the stunted bantling. It "growed not of itself," like Topsy, for it did not grow at all; it stuck.

Sourton Down on the west, Whiddon Down on the east—where the devil, it is reported, caught cold—Dartmoor on the south, shut Okehampton in. It was open only to the wintry north, where population is sparse.

Formerly, once in the day, once only did the mail coach traverse the one long street, ever on the yawn, and this was the one throb of life that ran through it. No passenger descended from the coach, no meals were taken, no lodging for the night was sought. The mails were dropped and the coach passed away.

There were, in Okehampton, no manufacture, no
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business, no pleasure even, for it had no assembly balls, no neighbourhood. Okehampton was among towns what the earth-worm is in the order of animated nature, a digestive tube, but with digestive faculty undeveloped. Now all is changed. The War Office has established a summer barrack on the heights above it, and life—in some particulars in undesirable excess—has manifested itself. Trade has sprung up: a lesson in life—never to despair of any place, any more than of any man. It has an office to fill, a function to perform, if only patience be exercised and time allowed. But if Okehampton in itself considered as a town be ugly and uninteresting, the neighbourhood abounds in objects of interest, and the situation is full of beauty.

Two brawling rivers, the East and the West Ockments, dance down from the moors and unite at the town; and if each be followed upwards scenes of rare vvildness and picturesque beauty will be found.

It is towered over by Yes Tor and Cosdon, two of the highest points on Dartmoor, and some of the moor scenery, with its tumbled ranges of rocky height, is as fine as anything in the county of Devon.

The Ockment (uisg-maenic)[1] or stony water, gives its name to the place; the Saxon planted his tun at the junction of the streams, whereas the earlier dun of the Briton was on the height above the East Ockment. Baldwin the Sheriff was given a manor there, and he set to work to build a castle, in the days of the Conqueror. Some of his work may be seen in the foundations of the keep. He took rolled granite blocks out of the river bed and built with them. But later, when the neck of slate rock was cut through on which the castle stands, so as to isolate it from the hill to which it was once connected, then the stone thus excavated was employed to complete the castle keep. Baldwin de Moels, or Moules, was the sheriff, and his descendants bore mules on their coat armour. The castle and manor remained in the hands of the de Moels and Avenells till the reign of Henry II., when they were given to Matilda d'Avranches, whose daughter brought it into the Courtenay family.

The castle stands half a mile from the town. "Okehampton Castle," says Mr. Worth, "differs from the other ancient castles of Devon in several noteworthy features. Most of the Norman fortalices, whether in this county or in Cornwall, have round shell keeps, as at Plympton and Totnes, Restormel and Launceston, may be seen to this day. The typical Norman castles, with the true square keeps, were fewer in number, but, as a rule, of greater comparative importance. Among them, that of Okehampton occupies what may be regarded as a middle position. More important than Lydford in its adjuncts, it must have been much inferior to Exeter—Rougemont; nor in its later phases can it ever have compared with the other Courtenay hold at Tiverton, as a residence, with their present seat at Powderham, or in extent and defensive power with the stronghold of the Pomeroys at Berry. Nevertheless, in the early Middle Ages it must have been regarded as a place of no little strength and dignity, when the Courtenays had completed what the Redverses began."

The keep is planted on a mound that has been artificially formed by paring away of a natural spur of hill; it is approached by a gradual slope from the east, along which, connected with the mound by curtain walls, are the remains of two ranges of buildings, north and south. On the north is the hall, and adjoining it the cellar; on the south guard-rooms and chapel, and above the former were the lord's rooms. A barbican remains at the foot of the hill. The whole is small and somewhat wanting in dignity and picturesqueness. All the buildings except the keep were erected at the end of the thirteenth century.

In the chapel may be seen, cut in the Hatherleigh freestone, "Hie V . . . . t fuit captivus belli, 1809." In the churchyard are graves of other French prisoners. Many were buried, or supposed to have been buried, at Princetown, where the prisons were erected for their accommodation. Recently, in making alterations and enlarging the churchyard there, several of their graves have been opened, and the coffins were discovered to be empty. Either the escape of the prisoners of war was connived at, and they were reported as dead and buried, or else their bodies were given, privately, for dissection.

Okehampton Church was burnt down in 1842, with the exception of the fine tower. It was rebuilt immediately after, and, considering the period when this was done, it is better than might have been expected. The chapel of S. James in the town was "restored" in a barbarous manner some thirty years later.

Finely situated, with its back against rich woods, is Oaklands House, built by a timber merchant named Atkyns, who made his fortune in the European war, and who changed his name to Saville. It is now the property of Colonel Holley. On the ridge above the station is a camp. The East Ockment should be followed up to Cullever Steps. On the slope of the Belstone Common is a circle called the Nine Maidens, but there are a good many more than nine stones. These are said to dance on Midsummer night, and to be petrified damsels who insisted on dancing on a Sunday when they ought to have been at church. The circle is no true "sacred circle," but the remains of a hut circle consisting of double facing of upright slabs, formerly filled in with smaller stone between.

One of the most interesting excursions that can be made from Okehampton is to Belstone and the Taw Marsh. This was once a fine lake, but has been filled up with rubble brought down from the tors. At the head of the marsh stands Steeperton Tor, 1739 feet, rising boldly above the marsh, with the Taw brawling down a slide of rock and rubble on the right. This is one way by which Cranmere Pool may be reached. Cranmere is popularly supposed to derive its name from the cranes that it is
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conjectured may have resorted to it, but as no such birds have been seen there, or would be likely to go where there is neither fish nor spawn, the derivation must be abandoned.

It is more probably derived from cren, Cornish "round," or from crenne, to quake, as the pool is in the heart of bogs. It lies at the height of over 1750 feet, in the midst of utter desolation, where the peat is chapped and seamed and is of apparently great depth. But the pool itself is nothing. Gradually the peat has encroached upon it, till almost nothing but a puddle remains.

In this vast boggy district rise the Tavy, the two Ockments, the Taw, the North Teign, and the two Darts. The nearest elevation is Cut Hill, that reaches 1981 feet, and Whitehorse Hill, 1974. Across this desolate waste there is but one track from Two Bridges to Lydford, narrow, and only to be taken by one, if on horseback, who knows the way. On each hand is unfathomed bog. Cut Hill takes its name from a cleft cut through the walls of peat to admit a passage to Fur Tor.

Even in this wilderness there are cairns covering the dead. One is led to suppose that they cover peculiarly restless beings, who were taken as far as possible from the habitations of men. I remember seeing a cairn in Iceland in a howling waste that in historic times was raised over one Glamr who would not lie quiet in his grave, but walked about and broke the backs of the living, or frightened them to death. He was dug up and transported as far as could be into the wilderness, his head cut off and placed as a cushion for his trunk to sit on, and then reburied.

Cranmere Pool, though but a puddle, deserves a visit. The intense desolation of the spot is impressive. On such solitary stretches, where not a sound of life, not the cry of a curlew, nor the hum of an insect is heard, I have known a horse stand still and tremble and sweat with fear. Here a few plants becoming rare elsewhere may still be found.

There is a story told in Okehampton of a certain Benjamin Gayer, who was mayor there in 1673 and 1678, and died in 1701, that he is condemned nightly to go from Okehampton to Cranmere to bale out the pond with a thimble that has a hole in it.

Tavy Cleave may be visited from Okehampton or from Tavistock. There is but one way in which it ought to be visited to see it in its glory. Take the train to Bridestowe and walk thence to the "Dartmoor Inn." Strike thence due east, cross the brawling Lyd by steps to Doe Tor Farm, and thence aim for Hare Tor: keep to the right of the head of the tor and strike for some prongs of rock that appear south-east, and when you reach these you have beneath you 1000 feet, the ravine of the Tavy as it comes brawling down from the moor and plunges over a bar of red granite into a dark pool below. Far away to the north comes the Rattle Brook, dancing down trout-laden from Amicombe Hill and Lynx Tor, and to the east in like desolation rises Fur Tor, set in almost impassable bogs.

Between the Cleave rocks and Ger Tor is a settlement with hut circles well preserved, but one in a far better condition lies beyond the Tavy on Standon.

Tavy Cleave is fine from below, but incomparably finer when seen from above.

In June it is a veritable pixy fruit garden for luxuriance and abundance of purple whortleberries.

All the veins of water forming depressions have been at some remote period laboriously streamed.

Another interesting excursion may be made to South Zeal. The old coach-road ran through this quaint place, but the new road leaves it on one side. A few years ago it was more interesting than it is now, as some of the old houses have recently been removed. It, however, repays a visit. Situated at the opening of the Taw Cleave, under Cosdon Beacon, it is a little world to itself. The well-to-do community have extensive rights of common, and of late have been ruthlessly enclosing. None can oppose them, as all are agreed to grab and appropriate what they can. This has led to much destruction of prehistoric remains. There was at one time a circle of standing stones from eight to nine feet high. This has gone; so has an avenue of upright stones on the common leading to West Week. But another of stones, that are, however, small, starting from a cairn that contains two small kistvaens, is beside and indeed crosses the moor-track leading towards Rayborough Pool; and on Whitmoor is a circle still fairly intact, though three or four of the largest uprights have been broken and removed to serve as gate-posts. Near this is the Whitmoor Stone, a menhir, spared as it constitutes a parish boundary.

In South Zeal is a little granite chapel, and before it is a very stately cross. The inn, the "Oxenham Arms," was formerly the mansion of the Burgoynes. I spent there an amusing evening a few winters ago. I had gone there with my friend Mr., now Dr., Bussell collecting folk-songs, for I remembered hearing many sung there when I was a boy some forty years before. I had worked the place for two or three days previously, visiting and "yarning" with some of the old singers, till shyness was broken down and good-fellowship established. Then I invited them to meet me at the "Oxenham Arms" in the evening.

But when the evening arrived the inn was crowded with men. The women—wives and daughters—were dense in the passage, and outside boys stood on each other's shoulders flattening their noses, so that they looked like dabs of putty, against the window-panes. Evidently a grand concert was expected, and the old men rose to the occasion, and stood up in order and sang—but only modern songs—to suit the audience.

However, the ice was broken, and during the next few days we had them in separately to sup with us, and after supper and a glass, over a roaring fire, they sang lustily some of the old songs drawn up from the bottom-most depths of their memory. There were "Lucky" Fewins, and old Charles Arscott, and lame Radmore, James Glanville, and Samuel Westaway, the cobbler. I remember one of them was stubborn; he would not allow me to take down the words of a song of his—not a very ancient one either—but did not object to the "pricking" of the tune. It was not till two years after that he gave way and surrendered the words.

The old house of the Oxenham family is in the neighbourhood, but has passed away into other hands. To this family belonged, there can be little doubt, the John Oxenham who was such an adventurous seaman and explorer in the Elizabethan days. He was one of those who accompanied Francis Drake in the expedition to Nombre de Dios in 1572, and afterwards, in an adventure on his own account, was the first Englishman who launched a keel on the Pacific Ocean, or South Sea, as it was then called. He fell into the hands of the Spaniards, and was carried to Lima, where he was executed as a pirate. His story has been worked into Kingsley's Westward Ho! The omen of the appearance of a white bird before death, supposed to belong to the family, is there effectively introduced.

The house of Oxenham is of the last century, and was built about the year 1714, the date which is sculptured on one of the granite pillars of the entrance gates. The family does not seem to have been qualified to bear arms in 1620, the last Herald's visitation, but the coat borne by the family is ar. a fess embattled between 3 oxen sa. The story is told that once upon a time a certain Margaret Oxenham was about to be married to the man of her choice. In the midst of the preparations on the wedding morn, when all was going merrily, the white bird appeared and hovered over the bride-elect. The ceremony, however, proceeded, and at the altar of South Tawton the hapless bride was stabbed to death by a rejected lover.

There is a remarkably circumstantial printed account of some appearances of the family omen in the year 1635 in a very rare tract, entitled, A True Relation of an Apparition in the likenesse of a Bird with a white brest, that appeared hovering over the Death-Beds of some of the children of Mr. James Oxenham, of Sale Monachorum, Devon, Gent. Prefixed to the tract is a quaint engraved frontispiece. It is in four compartments; in each of the first three is a representation of a person lying in a bed of the four-post type, and in the fourth is a child in a wicker cradle. Over each individual is a bird on the wing, hovering. At the foot of these pictorial compartments are the names of those above whom the bird appears: John Oxenham, aged 21; Thomasine, wife of James Oxenham the younger, aged 22; Rebecca Oxenham, aged 8, and Thomasine, a babe. This tract may have been provoked by a letter of James Howell to "Mr. E. D.," dated 3rd July, 1632, and written from Westminster:—

"I can tell you of a strange thing I saw lately here, and I believe 'tis true. As I pass'd by St. Dunstans in Fleet-street the last Saturday, I stepp'd into a Lapidary, or stone-cutter's shop, to treat with the Master for a stone to be put upon my Father's Tomb; and casting my eyes up and down, I might spie a huge Marble with a large inscription upon 't, which was thus to my best remembrance:—

"'Here lies John Oxenham, a goodly young man, in whose chamber, as he was struggling with the Pangs of Death, a Bird with a white brest was seen fluttering about his Bed, and so vanished.

"'Here lies Mary Oxenham, the sister of the said John, who died the next day, and the same Apparition was seen in the Room.''

"Then another sister is spoke of. Then:—

"'Here lies hard by James Oxenham, the son of the said John, who dyed a Child in his Cradel a little after, and such a Bird was seen fluttering about his head, a little before he expired, which vanish' d afterwards.'

"At the bottome of the Stone ther is:—

"'Here lies Elizabeth Oxenham, the Mother of the said John, who died sixteen years since, when such a Bird with a white Brest was seen about her bed before her death.'

"To all these ther be divers Witnesses, both Squires and Ladies, whose names are engraven upon the Stone. This Stone is to be sent to a Town hard by Exeter, wher it happen 'it."[2]

There are several suspicious points about the story. No such a monument exists or has existed in South Tawton Church, nor is one such known to have been set up in any other in the county. The stone was of marble, and therefore not for the graveyard, but for the interior of the church.

According to the registers there was a John Oxenham, senior, died, and was buried May 2nd, 1630, but not one of the others mentioned. There were two John Oxenhams in the parish: John, son of James and Elizabeth, born in 1613; and John, son of William and Mary, born in 1614. Mary was the sister of the latter, and their father was the village doctor. But it was Elizabeth, according to Howell, who was the mother. No James, son of John, was baptised at the time at South Tawton. Elizabeth, the mother, according to Howell, died about 1616. No such a person was buried at South Tawton at any date near that.

The persons named in the tract of 1635—three years after Howell's letter—are also four, but they are of Zeal Monachorum. But the name of Oxenham does not occur at all in the registers of that parish, and in the tract, apparently, South Zeal has been mistaken for Zeal Monachorum.[3] In the first edition of Howell's epistles there is no date to the letter; that was supplied later, probably by the publisher. Now it is curious that in 1635 the name John Oxenham does occur as having been buried at South Tawton on July 31st, aged twenty-one. He was baptised July 10th, 1614. But there are no entries of Thomasine, wife of James, nor of Rebecca, aged eight, either baptised or buried; nor of Thomasine the babe.

In the tract we are informed that the white-breasted bird appeared when Grace, the grandmother of John Oxenham, died, in 1618.

And in fact we do find in the South Tawton registers for that date, September 2nd, 1618, Grace, the wife of John Oxenham, was buried.

That Howell's quotation from memory refers to the same four as are named in the tract is, I think, probable. He had not seen the tract, or he would have quoted the names correctly. The letter was not written at the date added to it at a later period, but in the same year as the tract appeared, when he was a prisoner in the Fleet for debt. Whether he ever saw the monument may be doubted, and he may have merely written for publication with mention of the story which he had from hearsay. As to the tract, it was one of those pious frauds by no means uncommon among the "goody-goody" writers of that and other days, and the incident of the white-breasted bird was an invention employed to "catch" the attention of readers, and lead on to the moral and pious sentiments that stuff the remainder of the tract. The trick of giving a list of witnesses was one resorted to by the ballad and tract mongers of the period, and it is noticeable that those whose names are appended as witnesses never existed at South Zeal, in South Tawton parish.

When once this pious fraud had been launched, it rolled on by its own weight, and it became a point of honour in the family to uphold it; and plenty of after-apparitions were feigned or fancied to have been seen.

The whole story of the alleged appearances of the white bird has been gone into with thoroughness by Mr. Cotton, of Exeter, who to some extent credits it; that is to say, he thinks that some real instances of birds fluttering at the window may have given rise to the story. But the basis is rotten, and the superstructure accordingly will not stand.[4]

A mine had been worked formerly above South Zeal. It had been under a "captain," of practical experience but no scientific knowledge. It yielded a small but steady profit. Then the directors and shareholders became impatient. They discharged the old captain, and sent down a fellow who had passed through the mining college, had scientific geology and mineralogy at his fingers' ends. He scouted the machinery that had been hitherto in use, sneered at the old-fashioned methods that had been pursued, boasted of what he was going to do, revolutionised the mine, reorganised the plant, had all the old machinery cast aside, or sold for old iron; had down new and costly apparatus—then came heavy calls on the shareholders—renewed calls—and there was an end of profits, and as finis a general collapse.

Some years ago a great fraud was committed in the neighbourhood. It was rumoured that gold was to be found in the gozen—the refuse from the mines. All who had old mines on their land sent up specimens to London, and received reports that there was a specified amount of gold in what was forwarded. Some, to be sure that there was no deception, went up with their specimens and saw them ground, washed, and analysed, and the gold extracted. So large orders were sent up for gozen-crushing machines. These came down, were set to work, and no gold was then found. The makers of the machines had introduced gold-dust into the water that was used in the washing of the crushed stone. I made use of this incident in my novel John Herring.

But to return to the singers. Here is a song of local origin, which, however, I did not obtain from these South Zeal singers. I must premise that the local pronunciation of Okehampton is Ockington.

At Ockington, in Devonshire,
Old vayther lived vor many a year.
And I along wi' he did dwell
Nigh Dartimoor 'tes knawed vull well.

It happ'nd on a zartain day,
Vour score o' sheep—they rinned astray.
Zeth vayther, Jack go arter'n, yū.
Zez I—Be darned if ee'r I du.

Purvoked at my saacy tongue,
A dish o' braath at me he flung.
Then fu' o' wrath, as poppy red
I knacked old vayther on the head.

Then drayed wor I to Ex't'r jail,
There to be tried—allowed no bail,
And at next Easter 'zizes I
Condemned was therefor to die.

Young men and maydens all, I pray
Take warnin' by my tragedy.
Rin arter sheep when they are strayed,
And don't knack vaythers on the 'cad.

South Tawton Church is fine. The restorer has taken the monumental slabs, sawn them in half, and employed them for lining the drain round the church, thus destroying the historical records of the parish. This is the more to be regretted, as a fire that occurred in the parsonage has seriously damaged the old registers. There is a fine Wyke monument in the church.

But by far the most interesting church within an excursion of Okehampton is Bratton Clovelly, which, although not large, has a stately grandeur internally that is very impressive. Much money has been spent in "restoring" this church. The glass is good, but the new work in wood and alabaster is barely passable. North Lew Church contains very fine old oak, beside modern woodwork of poverty-stricken design.

There are some early Christian monuments near Okehampton, a well at Sticklepath with an inscribed stone by it, and another inscribed stone by the roadside from Okehampton to Exeter.

Note.—Books that may be consulted:—
Bridges (M. B.), Some Account of the Barony and Town of Okehampton. New edition, Tiverton, 1889.
Worth (R. N.), "Okehampton Castle," in Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 1895.

  1. The Ock (uisg, water) occurs elsewhere. The Oke-brook flows into the West Dart below Iluckaby Bridge; and Huckaby is Ock-a-boe. The earlier name of the Blackabrook must have been Ock, for the bridge over it is Okery.
  2. Epistolæ Ho-Elianæ, 5th edition, p. 232. London, 1678.
  3. The author of the tract could not find any parish of Zeal in Devonshire except Zeal Monachorum, where, as he did not know, there were no Oxenhams, and so he converted the hamlet of Zeal in South Tawton, where the Oxenhams were at home, into the Zeal where they were not.
  4. Cotton (R. W.), "The Oxenham Omen," in Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 1882.