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A Book of the West/Volume 1/8

CHAPTER VIII.

BARNSTAPLE

The stapol of Branock's district—The Irish settlers—Branock badly received in South Wales—Situation of Barnstaple—Huguenot refugees—Samuel Pepys's wife—Jacques Fontaine—French names altered—Barnstaple the starting-point for Ilfracombe and Lynton—The coast road—Exmoor—Combe Martin—The Valley of Rocks—The Wichehalses of Lee—Brendon—S. Brendan's voyages—Churches near Barnstaple.

THIS town was the stapol, port or mart, of the district of Barum, Braun, or Brannock, an Irish saint, confessor, and son-in-law to Brychan, King of Brecknock, who settled at Braunton, formerly Llan-Brynach, then Brannock-stow. The northern cheek of Barnstaple Bay is formed by a peninsula, the centre of which is this same Braunton, where Branock had his monastic establishment. As intimately associated with this district, a few words on him may be allowed.

In the fifth century the whole of North Devon and North-east Cornwall was invaded and occupied by Irish and half-Irish hordes. Irish accounts relate that these invasions began about 378, and continued till the reign of Dathi, 428.

The Irish had made themselves masters of Brecknock, where their prince, Aulac or Amalghaid,
A Book of the West - QUEEN ANNE'S WALK BARNSTAPLE.png

QUEEN ANNE'S WALK, BARNSTAPLE

claimed the throne in virtue of his wife Marchell, daughter and heiress of the native Welsh king. Brychan, the son, succeeded him; he had as tutor to his children an Irishman named Brynach or Branock, who was his confessor, and to whom he gave one of his daughters in marriage. Branock did not have a pleasant time of it in South Wales, and he migrated to North Devon, where, by some means, he obtained a grant of a considerable tract of country.

His legend was extant at the time of the Reformation, and Leland, Henry VIII.'s antiquary, who travelled in Devon and Cornwall, saw it, and says it was full of fables about Branock's cow, his staff, his well, and his serving-man, Abell.

Unhappily, this has been lost, and all we know concerning him is from a Latin life, composed in Wales, that passes hurriedly over his life elsewhere and relates mainly what took place when he returned to South Wales. There he was very ill received, owing to the hatred entertained towards the Irish. A woman—the author of the life does not say as much, but we may suspect it, his wife—instigated a man to assassinate him. Brynach was wounded, but not killed, and he had to shift his quarters. He probably returned to Devon and died there.

Braunton Church contains some fine oak carving, and deserves a visit.

Barnstaple lies stretched along the bank of the Taw, and from the river has a prepossessing appearance. There are, however, few objects of interest in the town. The church of S. Peter, with a lead spire that leans, is interesting internally from the many monuments it contains of wealthy Barnstaple merchants.

A tall, good tower to Holy Trinity helps greatly to give dignity to an otherwise unattractive town, made pre-eminently so by the unsightliness of the ranges of suburban residences that line the roads out of it.

But Barnstaple is important as having given shelter to a number of refugees at the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and their descendants still live in the town, though under names that have become much altered. Among these refugees was the family of St. Michel, and Samuel Pepys married one of the daughters. The St. Michels were of good family, of Anjou, but a son having taken up with Huguenot religious notions, was disinherited, and came to England. There he married the daughter of Sir Francis Kingsmill, and had a son and daughter. He returned to France, but was in very indigent circumstances, and during an absence from home his children were removed to an Ursuline convent. St. Michel, however, recovered them and fled with them and his wife to England, and arrived at Barnstaple, but settled near Bideford. How Samuel Pepys met Elizabeth St. Michel we do not know. He was married to her before the justice of peace on December 1st, 1655, but as he always observed October 10th as his wedding day it is probable that he, like many another, had been secretly married by a priest of the Church of England, and merely conformed to the law afterwards on December 1st. She was fifteen only when Pepys married her, and the young couple found an asylum in the family of Pepys's cousin, Sir Edward Montagu, afterwards Earl of Sandwich. She was a pretty, but a silly woman, and much inclined to jealousy, but indeed Sam gave her good cause for that.

"1668-9, Jan. 12. This evening I observed my wife mighty dull, and I myself was not mighty fond, because of some hard words she did give me at noon, out of a jealousy at my being abroad this morning, which, God knows, it was upon the business of the Office unexpectedly; but I to bed, not thinking but she would come after me. But waking by and by, out of a slumber, which I usually fall into presently after my coming into the bed, I found she did not prepare to come to bed, but got fresh candles, and more wood for her fire ; it being mighty cold, too. At this being troubled, I after awhile prayed her to come to bed; so, after an hour or two, she silent, and I now and then praying her to come to bed, she fell out into a fury, that I was a rogue, and false to her. I did, as I might truly, deny it, and mighty troubled, but all would not serve. At last, about one o'clock, she came to my side of the bed, and drew the curtains open, and with the tongs red hot at the ends, made as if she did design to pinch me with them, at which, in dismay, I rose up, and with a few words she laid them down; and did by little and little, very sillily, let all discourse fall; and about two, but with much seeming difficulty, came to bed, and there lay well all night, and lay in bed talking together, with much pleasure, it being, I knew, nothing but her doubt at my going out yesterday, without telling her of my going, which did vex her, poor wretch! last night, and I cannot blame her jealousy, though it do vex me to the heart."

One of the Huguenot refugees was a pastor, Jacques Fontaine, who came over with Mile, de Boursaquotte, to whom he was affianced.

They were taken in and hospitably received. He kept a diary, which has been published. At first he joined the communion of the Church, but later on, when the Corporation placed S. Anne's Chapel at the disposal of the French refugees, he became their minister. The diary narrates his difficulties.

"God had not conducted us to a haven there [at Barnstaple] to perish with hunger. The good people of Barnstaple were full of compassion, they took us into their houses, and treated us with the greatest kindness; thus God raised up for us fathers and mothers in a strange land. I was taken into the house of a most kind and charitable gentleman—a Mr. Downe. He was a bachelor, of some forty years of age, and had an unmarried sister living with him; they were kindness itself, and I was completely domesticated with them. My intended wife had been received into the house of a Mr. and Mrs. Fraine."

Unfortunately, Miss Downe, a short, thin, sallow old maid, marked with small-pox, fell in love with the French refugee, and made advances to him which were unmistakable. She plainly told him that she thought that he and the Boursaquotte were a pair of fools to think of being married, when they had not a penny between them to bless themselves with; and finally, as M. Fontaine would take no hints, she fairly threw herself at his head with an offer of her person and fortune. The minister retired in dismay, and sought his host.

"What is to be done?" said he. "Your sister has shown me the honour of offering herself to me, but—but I am engaged to Mile, de Boursaquotte."

"Make yourself easy on that score," said Mr. Downe. "I am enamoured of that lady, and I will relieve you of her."

The result was a hasty marriage between M. Fontaine and Mile. Boursaquotte; they were united by the vicar, in the parish church, on February 8th, 1686, and in the register are entered as "James Fountain and Elizabeth Buzzacott." This latter name is still common in the town. Other Huguenot names continue equally altered. L'Oiseau has been translated into Bird, and Roches into Roach. I came across elsewhere in the parish registers another Huguenot family, Blanchepied, which has degenerated into Blampy.

Barnstaple is the starting-point for the grand and almost unsurpassed coast line from Ilfracombe to Porlock. Other coasts may have bolder cliffs, but none such a combination of boldness and luxuriance of vegetation. It has, moreover, a great advantage—that a good road runs along it from Ilfracombe to Combe Martin. But from this point the coast is deserted, and the road climbs a thousand feet to the Trentishoe Down, then dives into the Heddon valley to the sweet and peaceful "Hunter's Inn," climbs again over moor, and makes for Lynton. The road, however, should be deserted, the Heddon stream followed to the mouth, when a good path will be found skirting the cliffs to Wooda Bay, a lovely spot; and thence through the grounds of Lee Abbey to the Valley of Rocks, and Lynton.

Lynton, and the same may be said of Wooda Bay, has the advantage which Ilfracombe has not, of having had an architect to design mansions and hotels for it that are no disfigurement to the place, and are not a blot on the scenery.

From Lynton the road follows the coast to Countisbury, after which it deserts it.

For Exmoor Mr. Blackmore's Lorna Doone is a good preparation, but the visitor who expects to find the Doone valley and the slide of the waters at all equal to the description given in that book must expect disappointment.

To return on our traces. Combe Martin is one long street of not interesting or ancient houses, save "The Pack of Cards," but it has a fine church, beautifully situated, with a good tower and a well preserved screen. Saints are painted on the panels. There are fine canopied niches for SS. Peter and Paul. The vaulting of the screen was removed in 1727. The parvise over the porch is good, and there are eight old carved bench-ends.

There is a curious double lock to the vestry; a small key has to be turned before the lock can be made to act under the large key. An Early English triplet is in the south aisle. Behind the brass in the wall of William Hancock, Gent, 1587, is his skull in a recess.

Watermouth Castle, that was passed on the way to Combe Martin, is modern and unsuccessful. A gateway into the gardens is made up of carved armorial coats removed from Berrynarbor, and dating from 1525. The Berrynarbor Church tower is finer than that of Combe Martin. There is a good deal to interest in the church. In the Valley of Rocks are hut circles, but so mutilated and over
A Book of the West - Chapel Rock, Ilfracombe.png

CHAPEL ROCK, ILFRACOMBE

grown with fern as not to be easily distinguishable. Lynton Church has been well enlarged and is very pleasing. It is fabled that a band of marauding Danes succeeded in landing at Lynmouth, ascended the cliffs, and were surrounded and massacred in the Valley of Rocks, which bears the name of "The Danes" or "Danes' Combe." But this is one of those many legends invented to explain a name; the original signification has been lost. It was called originally Dinas, the castle or camp. Lee Abbey never was an abbey. It was the seat of the De Wichehalse family, refugees, it is pretended, from the Low Countries in or about 1570. But, as a matter of fact, the Wichehalse family first turns up at Chudleigh nearly half a century before their reputed flight from Flanders. They were cloth merchants apparently, and one of the family, Nicholas Wychalse, the third son of Nicholas of Chudleigh, having married a wife from Pilton, settled at Barnstaple and died there in 1570. As merchants in the wool trade the Barnstaple branch did well, and married into some of the best county families. All the rigmarole about their being De Wichehalse, and being of noble Flemish ancestry, and of their having fled from Alva's persecution, may be dismissed as pure fable.

The story goes that in the reign of Charles II. Sir Edward de Wichehalse was the head of the house and lived in splendour at Lee Abbey. He had an only child, a daughter, who was wooed and proved over-fond towards a nobleman high in the favour of James II. The lover proved faithless, and the deserted damsel threw herself from the cliffs at Duty Point. The father in vain sought redress by petitioning the king, and when the Duke of Monmouth landed at Lyme, De Wichehalse raised levies and hasted to his support. After the battle of Sedgemoor Sir Edward returned to Lee, but emissaries of the king were sent to apprehend him, and when De Wichehalse learned that they were approaching, he and his family embarked in Lee Bay on board a small smack, intending to fly to Dutch William and the land whence the ancestral noble had come. The night, however, proved stormy, and the boat was lost with all on board.

Lee "Abbey" came into the possession of the "De" Wichalse family in 1620; there is a monument in Lynton Church to Hugh Wichalse, gent., in 1653. From the Wichalses it passed by sale to the family of Short. I can find no Sir Edward in the pedigree, as given by Colonel Vivian, so it may be hoped that the story is altogether baseless, as the fable of the noble origin of the wool merchant family.

At Lynton is the fine mansion of Sir George Newnes, the publisher of Tit-Bits and many kindred papers, who was created a baronet by Mr. Gladstone for political services.

Exmoor in some respects is finer than Dartmoor, in others less fine. It is finer in that it soars up out of the sea to its full height, whereas the land rises some eight hundred feet to the roots of Dartmoor. But Exmoor is rounded and lumpy, and has no tors.

It served as the great barrier to the Dumnonii, broken only by the portal at Dulverton. The Black Down is its continuation. Indeed the county has a natural frontier. The height of Exmoor never attains the altitude of Dartmoor, and is not loftier than the Bodmin moors.

The long stretches of down without rocks and without bad bogs render Exmoor a choice place for stag-hunting.

The valleys to the south of Exmoor that are watered by the Yeo, the Bray, the Mole, contain scenery that is pleasing, but never rises to boldness.

Exmoor is interesting as harbouring a strong body of the earlier dusky population that occupied the country before the invasion of the Celts. But the river names savour of the Irish settlers rather than of the Britons. Such are the Bray (Ir. brag, running water: there is a Bray in Wicklow); the Mole (Ir. malda, gentle, slow); Barle (It. fuarlach, barlach, chilly).

But the finest Exmoor scenery is on the Somersetshire side, where the hills rise boldly above the sea, and where rich vegetation clothes the shores of the Bristol Channel. From Exmoor, moreover, a grand view is obtained of the Welsh mountains across the Severn sea. One can quite understand S. Branock escaping from a population that looked on him with an evil eye, to the blue hills that rose above the sea not so far to the south, and easily reached in a summer sail—and where, moreover, the land was occupied by his countrymen—the Irish, as conquerors.

The road to Countisbury passes remarkable earth-works, the Oldburrough, of uncertain, but probably prehistoric, date.

On the immediate outskirts of Exmoor is Brendon. The church itself is of no particular interest, beyond its dedication to S. Brendan, the Irish navigator, who spent seven years exploring the western seas for the Isles of the Blessed, and who may perhaps have reached America in the sixth century. The narrative of his voyage is, however, full of fable; but the fact of his having made two exploring expeditions is fairly well authenticated. The cause of his undertaking the voyage was this. One day he and a couple of pupils, brothers, went together in a boat to an islet off the west coast of Ireland. Brendan left the younger lad with the boat, and ascended into the island with the elder. Presently, as the wind rose, the young man said to his master, "I do not think my brother can manage the boat alone, with this wind and the rising tide."

"Be silent," said Brendan. "Do you not suppose I care for the boy as much as you do yourself?"

And they went further. But the young man became more uneasy, and he again remonstrated. Then Brendan lost his temper and swore at him. "Begone—and be drowned to you!"

So the young man returned to the beach and found the boy struggling with the boat. He rushed into the water—and was himself swept away by a wave and perished.

Now when Brendan returned and found what had happened, he was full of self-reproach, and hurried off to S. Itha, his nurse, to ask her what was to be done.

"You will be in trouble," she said. "All his relatives will take this up, and it will occasion a blood feud. Make yourself scarce. Besides, you deserve punishment for your inconsiderate and passionate conduct. Go to sea."

And to sea he went in three wicker-work vessels, each covered with three coats of tanned hides, and each with a leather sail, and thirty men in each boat.

In the immediate neighbourhood of Barnstaple is Pilton Church, that should be seen for its fine screen and curious hour-glass; Tawstock for its Bourcher tombs; Chittlehampton for its beautiful tower; and Atherington for its screen, a fragment, but that fragment complete in every member, a superb specimen. Hall, on the Taw, is the fine mansion of the Chichester family.

Swymbridge Church should on no account be omitted. It possesses a magnificent screen, and an ancient pulpit with figures in niches. The modern reredos is bad.

The Chichester monuments are curious, notably one of a youthful Chichester, whose portrait is given, and whom the bird of Jove is represented as carrying off to serve as Ganymede in heaven.

Littleham possesses an ancient fresco of S. Swithun, and a rich screen and benches, that have been carefully and judiciously restored.

Note.—Books on Barnstaple are:—
Chanter (J. R.), Sketches of some Striking Incidents in the History of Barnstaple. 1865.
Chanter (J. R.), Memorials of the Church of S. Peter, Barnstaple. 1887.
Chanter (R.), Sketches of the Literary History of Barnstaple, with the Diary of Philip Wyott. n.d.