Spitchwick, the name sounds as if it would have graced any Dickens novel but it actually refers to the ancient Manor. Pre-conquest the manor was owned by Earl Harold but the first documented evidence of it can be found in the Exchequer Domesday Book of 1086 where it’s listed as Spicewite. the King’s Commissioners reported that at the time of Edward the Confessor the manor consisted of; one hide of land (120 acres) which included 8 carucates (land that a plough team of eight oxen could plough in a single annual season), there were 8 villeins (tenants), 4 bordarii (cottagers) and 5 slaves. There were 100 acres of pasture and a wood one league (1.5 miles) in length and 1 furlong (220 yards) wide. At this time the manor was included among Terra Regis or lands which the Conqueror had not then – in 1080 – 6 – bestowed on his followers. In the 13th century book of Fees it was noted that the manor was held by Michael de Spitchewik whose overlord was John Neville the Feudal Baron of Stogursey. Unfortunately very few medieval records survive for Spitchwick but it has been suggested that by 1428 the manor farms had been sold off, probably because the Black Death had claimed the lives of a good proportion of those working them, this basically meant the Manor was dismembered. Gover et. all suggests that the place name comprised of two elements spic beaning bacon and wic meaning habitation or farm thus giving ‘bacon farm’ or a pig farm, p.528.
John Dunning, the first Baron Ashburton acquired the Manor of Widecombe in 1782, part of which was a farm called Park where he built a mansion called Spitchwick Park. According to Sabine Baring Gould Dunning purchased the residue of the ninety nine year lease of Spitchwick for £4,3000 where according to Gould; “He built the ugly house at Spitchwick where formerly stood a chapel of St. Laurence, and did much planting. p.627. Writing in 1875 Charles Worthy notes the following; “The ancient chapel at Speechwick was dedicated to St. Leonard, and was probably built in the twelfth century by the lord of the Manor of Widecombe. All trace of it has disappeared for many years, but from the fact of several pieces of carved stone having been discovered close to the western end of the present dwelling, we are inclined to think that this venerable ecclesiastical structure was probably removed to make room for it, once hundred years since… A field immediately behind (the house) is still called ‘Chapel Park’. p 62. The heritage Gateway website lists the following with regards to the chapel; “Field no 1875 great chapel park arable land (tithe map). Grass. Building with slate roof. Door blocked up. Now used as a barn with hayloft. According to local information there had once been a chapel here but it had fallen into disuse in the 1400s. Mr hermon french said that the chapel was sited about a third of the way up the wall which joins this field to no 1874. The field has not been ploughed for sometime and traces of the chapel could survive underneath the ground.”
It was said by John Swete in his book – Travels in Georgian Devon Vol. 1 that; “The granate masses which thick-studded even his best meadows he blew to pieces and remov’d; the hills which rose behind the house he cover’d over with plantations and he raised a garden wall of such enormous blocks of moorstone that it hath been consider’d as the wonder of the country, and which doubtless may bid defiance to all attacks but that of an earthquake.” He also built what became known as Lady Ashburton’s Bath, a plunge pool which was fed by a stream that flowed through the garden. After Dunning’s death in 1783 the manor was in chancery for many years. There was a dispute about the property, and feelings ran so high that a number of claimants and some of their followers, armed with sticks and stones, invaded the manor grounds, and the nearest magistrate was sent post haste to read the Riot Act.
In the April of 1833 it was announced that the Manor of Spitchwick was; “To be let,with immediate possession, Spitchwick House… together with the right of sporting over the very extensive manors of Spitchwick, Widecombe and Blagdon Pipard. The house is partly furnished, and contains tow good sitting-rooms, and a considerable number of bedrooms, and convenient offices, with complete stables, coach house &c. A large garden, and rabbit warren of four acres, together with a lawn of one acre, will be let with the house, and the taker can be accommodated with any additional amount of meadowland which may be required.” The Western Times April 13th, 1833.
In the December of 1842 it was announced that; “At the Annual Rent Day of Mrs Baring, of this city, which took place at the Golden Lion, Ashburton, on Friday last, all her tenants on the estates of Spitchwick and Widdicombe had their rents reduced 10 percent.”
In the August of 1851 it was reported that William Kitson entertained ninety tradesmen from Torquay at his seat at Spitchwick which would suggest that at time it was he who was living at the Manor?
The next owner of Spitchwick Manor was Dr. Thomas Blackall who bought the estate in 1867. As far as Spitchwick Manor goes his claim to fame was that he constructed what is known today as ‘Dr. Blackall’s Drive‘. He decided that to enjoy the beautiful landscape of the Dart valley he would build a drive which would capture the views in all their splendour. When in residence at the manor there was nothing he enjoyed better than taking the scenic tour in his carriage which must have been a smallish one as at it’s widest the track is about eight foot wide. It is interesting to see that some of the aspects of his drive still survive in place names today. There is ‘Brake Corner‘ which presumably was a spot where the carriage and horses needed to slow down as the track makes a virtual 90° turn and a ‘Stumble Corner‘. Dr. Blackall died in the May of 1898 at the ripe old age of 82 and in his will he left the Spitchwick Estate, his household effects, his horses and carriages, outdoor effects and an income during her life of £24,000 to Julia Tindall. At the time it was stated that his entire estate had a gross value of £162,414 which by using historical inflation rates would be worth £19,002,438. In the January of 1901 Julia Tindall passed away and in the June of that year the Manor was offered for sale at auction. It comprised of 425 acres, a gentleman’s residence, farm and lands along with the Lordship of the Manor of moor, common lands with the attached rights, privileges and royalties was offered for sale at auction. Despite some stiff bidding between a Mr. Struben and a Mr. Bolitho the manor finally went for to Mr. Struben for £28,300.
Mr. Frederick Pine Theolophilus Struben was famous for having discovered the Witwaterstrand goldfield, (later known as the Central Rand Gold Field), in South Africa. Following the death of Mr. F. P. T. Struben on the 7th of September 1931 the Manor was left in trust to his widow and then following her death to his daughters Gertrude Stella Fletcher and Lilia Skews-Cox. In 1913 there was a considerable amount of displeasure regarding the fishing rights on the waters of the Dart and Webburn rivers owned by Spitchwick Manor. At the time a fishing licence stated that the fisherman was; “licensed to fish for trout with a line and rod in waters he is otherwise entitled to fish within the Dart fishery district.” However at that time several signs were erected along a two mile stretch of river between Dartmeet and the confluence of the Wallabrook stating that if anyone was caught fishing there without written permission from the Lord of the Manor legal action would be taken. This basically negated what was stated on the fishing licences and caused a great deal of confusion amongst the fishermen who had paid for a licence expecting to be able to fish the entire Dart district.
The Manor of Spitchwick was put up for auction at the Globe Inn, Exeter. It was offered as the manor with sporting residential and agricultural estates comprising of 400 acres freehold and 2,200 acres of commonable land, fishing rights in the Dart and Webburn rivers along with the Lordship of the manor thrown in for good measure. The bidding began at £10,000 and was eventually sold to Mr. S. Simpson for £16,500. The Devon and Exeter Gazette, July 6th 1934. Mr. Stephen Simpson was the chairman of the Exeter engineers – Messrs. Willey & Co. and it was he who patented the automatic meter which was the first coin-in the-slot payment meter. In 1936 a strange case appeared at the Newton Abbot Petty Sessions where one Annie Maud Mosley answered two summonses for the unlawful erection of a stall at Newbridge for the sale of ice cream. Mr. Simpson had obtained an order from the Ministry of Agriculture which imposed certain restrictions on the public. Its object was to maintain the commons so that the public may enjoy them for the purposes or air and exercise. A notice had been erected at Newbridge stating the restrictions, one of which was erecting a stall on common ground. The argument being that if one person was allowed to do such then before long many other people would do the same thus turning the commons into an amusement park. Mrs. Mosley was found guilty and fined 1 shilling and 4 shillings costs on each account. Today Spitchwick Manor is still owned by the Simpson family who on occasions open up the fine gardens of the estate to the public.
Spitchwick Manor Bounds
The actual bounds of Spitchwick Manor are, as far as manor bounds go, fairly straight forward as on the eastern, southern and western sides they follow the Dart, West Webburn rivers and the Wallabrook. On the 17th of May 1924 the ceremony of ‘Beating the Bounds‘ was carried out for Spitchwick Manor. As was the want at the time the local press sent one of their more intrepid reporters to join in and then write an article on the proceedings. The following article is what the reporter from the Western Times published on the 23rd of May 1924:
“On Saturday, after a lapse of 22 years, the quaint ceremony of ‘beating the bounds of the manor’ was revived in the far flung acres of moors and woodlands of Spitchwick. It involved a tramp of 20 miles, occupying 10 hours and 45 minutes. . Amongst those present were Mr. and Mrs. Struben, Colonel and Mrs. Hankey, Major Fletcher, Messrs. J. F. Howden (steward) C. H. Yeo (Exeter), R. H. Cave Penny, L. Williams, T. H. Cleave, C. French, J. Scragg, S. Canon, A. Warren, J. Cleave, E. Partridge, R. Hannaford, and C. French.
The beaters followed the Dart to its mouth of the Webburn, a stone was thrown across it, and at every island an adventurous beater waded through the water to cut a sapling and traverse its banks. The party ascended the Webburn Valley pool by pool, stickle by stickle, by the boulder-strewn foot of a craggy precipice, where more than one of the party narrowly escaped an involuntary dip into the swirling current. Fighting our way up tortuous paths, amid a tangle of brushwood and tree trunks we passed by old stone bridges, rush flats, green belts of meadows, by woods of larch, oak, and ash, through sylvan glades where dogs accompanying us afforded much diversion with the rabbits that abounded; by Jordan Mill, with its silent weather-beaten wheel; on to the windswept moor, lit by flaming gorse; beneath the rolling heights of Hameldown, where affrighted eddies of moorland ponies arrested our attention. The long winter and late spring, and the consequent scarcity of grass, have caused the owners of these ponies much anxiety. A welcome halt was called at Rakes Bridge (SX 6890 7644) for lunch, which consisted of bread and cheese, washed down by foaming tankards of nut brown ale, provided by the lord of the manor. The perambulation was resumed to beyond the Widecombe – Postbridge road where the beaters kept the Webburn to cross the moor near Pizwell Ford, and descended the hurrying Wallabrook (which defines the eastern boundary of the manor) where it widens into pools and cascades, and joins the Dart at Dartmeet. Crossing over the Wallabrook, the party passed Ephraim’s Pinch. It derives its name from the story that one Ephraim was offered a bag of barley if he could carry it from Ashburton to Pizwell Cottage, a distance of ten miles. He undertook the task but within a short distance of his destination at the foot of the hill he fell on his back exhausted and, therefore lost the coveted prize. The going down Wallabrook was very treacherous, the party threading their way with grim determination through bogs knee deep, and exuberant followers pushed each other into the stream, and threw their hats and caps into the water.
At Dartmeet, where another halt was called for refreshments, the gay spirits of some of the young bloods, undiminished by the fatiguing journey, found expression in a race, fully clothed, 100 yards up the boulder strewn river to the bridge. They fell over each other in the rushing water, and emerged wet through to the skin, but as merry as ever, (see photograph below) Phillip Brayne, the winner of the race, received a pound note from Mr. Bowden.
Undaunted, the party the entered upon the last stage of their adventurous journey down to Lower Lodge. This is the roughest part of the trip, severely tested everyone’s endurance, climbing up the huge heaps of granite to the dizzy heights of the tors that frowned menacingly across the silvery Dart to the densely wooded slopes. The followers lingered to contemplate the beauty of the scene. Another object of interest was Eagle Tor, (Eagle Rock – SX 7245 7230) where, it is said, eagles have been known to meet. While crossing the Dart to an island, Mr Cave Penny was swept off his feet, and rescued with great difficulty.
It was just after eight that the party, footsore and weary, but in the best of spirits, regained the Lower Lodge. Charlie French, 13, the son of a Poundsgate gardener, did the whole journey and finished first. Mr. T. H. Cleave, who is 70 years of age, and an estate worker named Nicholas, aged 67, who both did the same journey 50 years ago, also stayed the course with remarkable endurance. ‘I told ’em I’d do it, and I have,’ said Cleave with a smile, but he added, with a sigh, ‘I am afraid it will be the last time I shall do the trip.’
Fred Turner, the woodsman, in a reminiscent mood, related how 100 years ago it was the custom on the bounds beating to split a sapling down the middle with a knife, keep it open with a wedge, and pass babies through it to cure them of rupture.
‘When I was a boy I was told this story, and it’s true all right. On one occasion the baby passed through grew up and became the rival of the carpenter who had split the sapling. The carpenter was known to observe that he wished the sapling had closed on the other fellow when he was a boy.’
Mr. Bowden, on behalf of the steward, thanked the party for having well and truly beaten the bounds, and complimented Nicholas Cleave and Charlie french upon their pluck and endurance. Mr. Yeo read another proclamation, the beaters pledged the health of the lord of the manor and gave three hearty cheers for Mr. Struben and his family.
On the 1973 beating of the bounds ceremony a new boundstone had been erected on the left bank of the Wallabrook which was the junction of the Spitchwick and Widecombe bounds. This stone was named ‘Arthur’s Stone’ after the hind (steward or bailiff) of Spitchwick – Arthur Routley. In 1995 four circular bronze plaques were added to the stone, on the west side the plaque the plaque read LYD (Lydford), and the east side WID (Widecombe) and on the south side SPITCHWICK MANOR – SJVS (denoting Stephen John Valentine Simpson – the Lord of the Manor), Brewer, p. 77 – 78.
In 2005 the beating of the bounds took place on the 8th of October and was attended amongst others by the Lord of the Manor – Patrick Simpson and his Steward Mr. Aylett. This particular route went from the Lower Lodge at Spitchwick and followed the river Dart as far as Buckland Bridge from whence it travelled up the river Webburn to Ponsworthy. From there it went onto Jordan, Shallowford, Cator, Cator bridge, Rex Bridge and Grendon Bridge. Here the party stopped for lunch after which they went onto a stone near the Straight Mile (SX 6952 7943) and on to a stone under Soussons. After walking along Ephraim’s Pinch the party moved onto the Wallabrook and followed it down through Pizwell, Riddon, Babeny and onto Dartmeet. Here refreshments were served and the traditional river race took place. Having completed the race the perambulators headed back to the Lower Lodge at Spitchwick. It is interesting to note that on this occasion some ‘new’ customs took place such as bumping people on various boundstones and turning around the one situated under Soussons.
According to British Listed Building the Higher Lodge at Spitchwick was scheduled as a Grade II listed building in 1986 and comprises of a; ” House, formerly the higher lodge of Spitchwick House. Late C19. Squared granite rubble. Hipped, slated roofs with very deep bracketed eaves. Large granite chimneystack on centre of ridge. Oblong plan with shallow projection at north-west corner. 1 storey with garret. Main front, in the end wall facing the drive, has a doorway to left and a window to right, both with segmental arches; plank door, 2- light wood-mullioned window with 4 panes per light. In the roof above, a large triangular dormer window with very deep verges. The long front to the road has only 1 window, set in the projection at the left-hand end; it is segmental-arched and of 1 light with 4 panes. Above it is a dormer window matching that on the main front.”
The two Lower Lodges were scheduled as Grade II listed buildings in 1955 and consist of a: “Pair of lodges. Circa 1800, with additions. Stone rubble with slated roofs. Main lodge buildings each have a pyramidal roof with a small rendered chimneystack at the apex and deep coved eaves. Flanking wings have pent roofs, and there is a further building with pyramidal roof at the left-hand end, added in C20. 1 storey. Each lodge has a single, large round-headed window in the front wall containing a 2-light wood casement with glazing bars, the head of each light forming a pointed arch; low guard-rail in front. Wings each have a 3-light wood casement window with glazing-bars.”
Under the old act, the lord of the manor has the right to have so many henchmen, hold court leet, and be a hangman. Just north of Ponsworthy is a crossroads known as ‘Lock’s Cross’ where it is thought a criminal was once buried. The reason for the burial possibly being a criminal is that Lock’s Cross could have been the location of Spitchwick Manor’s gallows. This would have been one of ten manors in the old hundred of Haytor who were granted permission to posses their own gallows.
The Bronze Age stone circle and kist at Soussons known as the ‘Ringastan‘ or in the Peadington Landscore as the ‘Seven Stones’ was once included as a boundary marker for Spitchwick Manor, Brewer, p.303.
In the late 1800s thanks to the kindness of Dr. Blackall the Spitchwick estate was one of the destinations for the charabanc excursions which ran from Bovey Tracey.
There is an old ghost story which relates how on certain nights the spectral funeral procession of an old Squire of Spitchwick Manor can be seen slowly wending its way along the lanes to the church at Widecombe. Sadly time has long forgotten which squire’s funeral procession it is that supposedly haunts the lanes.
It has been said that on certain dark nights a ghostly figure wearing a top hat can be seen at various spots along Dr. Blackall’s Drive although nobody seems to venture as to whom it is/was?
Nothing ever changes, back in the 1960s Mr. Simpson wrote a letter to the Dartmoor Commoners Association stating that; “The Dartmoor National Park is fast becoming a slum. On Sunday night I picked up over 250 broken bottles at Newbridge, and in half an hour on the top of Dartmeet Hill and Bell Tor Corner over 100 glass bottles, some broken, all this in spite of litter bins being quite near.’
Spitchwick Common designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and covers 882.72 hectares. It carries the rights of grazing Cattle, Sheep, Horses and Geese along with those of turbary, pannage, common in soil.
There is very little evidence of the rabbit warren however in a lease dated the 23 April 1613 stated: “concerning waste ground called Spitchwick Common lying between the river Dart on the west and south east, and from thence to Yartor on the north and from Yartor to Corndon Tor on the north and east to the west of Rowbrook hedge and so on to Logator on the East and so on to the river Dart with free liberty to make a warren there for the keeping breeding and killing of rabbits. And also if any rabbits go over the Dart to the commons there called Holne Commons … the said Richard and Walter may kill them. Rent 10 s.’,”
A verse called ‘The Moorland Gamekeeper‘ which was written in 1886. On March the 9th of that year it was addressed to Mr. W. French, jnr. who at that time was in the employ of Dr. Blackall. By all accounts Mr. W. French was a multi-talented person for he served Dr. Blackall as the gamekeeper, gardener and caretaker at Spitchwick Hall. As will be seen, not only was ‘Keeper Bill’ skilled in many practical ways he also provided dental care for the moor folk, probably with the aid of a pair of pliers.
Baring Gould, S. 1908. Devonshire Characters and Strange Events. London: John Lane.
Brewer, D. 2002. Dartmoor Boundary Markers. Tiverton: Halsgrove.
Gover, J. E. B., Mawer, A. & Stenton F. M. 1998. The Place Names of Devon. Nottingham: The English Place-Name Society.
Worthy, C. 1875. Ashburton and its Neighbourhood. Ashburton: L. B. Varder.