From the start of lockdown in March 2020 until the end of July, I walked a two mile circuit around Topsham very early almost every morning. I set out usually before 7.0 and sometimes as soon as 5.30am, when it was light enough to see my way. It was a spontaneous urge to be up and out before the day got busy, and the pathways too crowded for social distancing.
The images and reflections which follow are my personal experience of this, as homage to the great beauty of the area, and as keepsakes from what we will surely look back on as a very strange time. They are just what I chose to photograph on my walks, rather than a comprehensive diary, and are not arranged here in date order. I hope you will enjoy this excursion through dawn scenery and the curiosities of lockdown Topsham.
My usual route took me along the River Exe from Ferry Road to the quayside, then up the Strand with its historic, Dutch-styled houses to the Goat Walk, a narrow path which runs above the river bed. At the end of this spit of land, I would turn into the two community-owned fields to have a taste of the countryside, before continuing down Bowling Green Lane, with the bird reserve in the marshes on the right.
From the end of the Lane, a sharp uphill turn led to the top of Monmouth Street, and back down to the quayside. There I often walked home past the shops on Fore Street to reach our own front door.
The images below show the emergence of spring and into early summer in the Bowling Green Lane area
Sometimes I had a change, walking first through the town and out again past the Bridge Inn, crossing the River Clyst towards Darts Farm, but turning off first on the track back to Topsham.
All this time, I marvelled at the changing seasons, with the first green of spring, and the growth of flowers and leaves into summer. I noticed the light changing too, as dawn grew later.
I did not set out to keep a record of lockdown, but I always took a phone or camera with me, and snapped what was beautiful or interesting, which means I do have some images directly related to the lockdown itself, which include those taken out and about in the town later in the day.
There was a camaraderie about those walks. We were a scattered band of people who loved the peace and freshness of the early morning, and who wanted to beat the risk of finding ourselves in crowded places later in the day. Some faces were familiar, others new to me. I often exchanged greetings with our friend who takes weather photos for the BBC, and with another who plays the church organ, and I also became acquainted with a lady who always walks when she comes off night duty at an emergency call centre. Although the circumstances were harsh, there was something very special about those walks, and about the changing beauty of the scene. The weather was exceptionally good during those few months; bird song was crystal clear, roads were quiet, air unpolluted.
From August, everything changed, both with the easing of restrictions and my own circumstances. The early walks came to an end. Perhaps I will begin them again this spring – but this time I hope it will be on the basis of wanting to do so, rather than from the pressures of lockdown.
This is the second part of my search for obscure nooks and crannies of Topsham, and its hidden stories.
Dare you walk down White Street? The crooked entrance to the street looks inviting, but also a little spooky.
Head around the corner, however, and you’ll see charming rows of cottages, with little stirring except perhaps a neighbourhood cat. But in the 19th and early 20th century, this was the Red Light district of Topsham – crowded, noisy and disreputable. Even as late as the 1950s, young girls from other parts of town were forbidden to go there on their own. Fishing families had grown poor, and a mix of sailors of different nationalities coming ashore helped to fuel the frequent drunken fights, especially on Saturday nights.
You can still see the remains of the sign for the Malt Scoop pub, which finally closed in 1982 after complaints of rowdy motorbike gangs. It was also famous for its late night drinking sessions, since in about 1800 a secret door was installed leading into the neighbouring cottage. If the pub was raided, after-hours customers could then make their escape, and this seems to have continued as a very successful ruse for nearly 200 years.
All is changed now: today White Street is calm and quaint, and offers a very pleasant stroll through the historic heart of the town.
As a port, Topsham was naturally renowned for its pubs, and there were once over forty in the town. Only seven pubs remain now. Route Two Cafe was The Steam Packet pub within recent memory, which in earlier days was nicknamed ‘The Bucket of Blood’, since it had a reputation for fights and rowdiness! Trouble often broke out between sailors from different parts of the world and the locals – even those from Wales were considered ‘foreign’.
But the Bridge, below, is still very much up and running today.
The Bridge is Topsham’s best-known and most historic pub. No one is exactly sure of its age; the current building incorporates 16th century elements, but an Inn has stood here since at least early medieval times, close to the important bridge over the Clyst River. This may have been where cargo loads of Beer Stone were landed by boat, for onward transport into Exeter, for the building of the Cathedral.
The Bridge’s exterior hides a warren of charming snugs and a delightful old Malthouse, where folk concerts and story-telling sessions are often held.
A Royal Visit
Perhaps its proudest story in modern times is that of the Queen’s visit in 1998. It’s reputed to be the only pub HRH has ever stepped inside.
As this news report tells us: ‘Landlady Caroline Cheffers-Heard received a very confidential phone call from Buckingham Palace… “We were asked not to change anything so that was lovely because she wanted to see the inn as it was. Why she chose here will be a mystery forever…” The Queen was pictured at the 16th century Bridge Inn holding a bottle of special anniversary ale with Caroline and her father, Norman, in the background.
“She didn’t have a drink, but she did take away a case of out 101 celebratory ale.”’ I am proud to say that beer produced by my daughter and son-in-law’s brewery Powderkeg has also been on the Bridge bar list in recent times.
Come back, your Majesty, and sample it!
The hidden closet at the Salutation
Some Topsham pubs have particular features which only the keen-eyed may spot. The Salutation, for instance, which is now an upmarket hotel and restaurant, was once a coaching inn, hence the superb wooden doors which were big enough to throw open and admit the coach and its passengers. This in itself is not a surprise; however, the little white grill on the left may pose a puzzle. In fact, this was ventilation for a small mortuary, at the side of the coaching entrance. A body could be stored here in its coffin, and loaded discreetly onto a departing coach for burial elsewhere.
The Town Fields
After this time spent in pubs, it’s time for a breather in the beautiful community fields, six acres purchased in 2015 on behalf of the town by the Goat Walk Land Trust. These two fields, at the corner where the Goat Walk meets Bowling Green Lane, provide a secluded sanctuary for wildlife and indeed for visitors. Great care is going into the land management, which includes creating two seasonal ‘scrapes’ to help ‘improve drainage and habitat diversity’, as you can see here. Do consider supporting this excellent scheme!
It’s what I hope is the happy final chapter in the efforts to forestall unnecessary development in that area of Topsham. This tussle was around even when the Goat Walk was built in 1909 (see The Tidal Town of Topsham). Topsham developer Richard Cridland opposed its construction as he wanted to build over the whole foreshore of the river. In a pompous letter to the Board of Trade, he claimed that it was a ‘pettyfogging scheme’ which would be ‘a laughing stock for all visitors to the town’. Really?
I will have more to say about the Cridland family in a later blog, as they were also responsible for dividing up the house we live in, and for building Samoa Terrace.
During lockdown walks, I’ve sat in the Trust’s fields listening to birdsong, and marvelling at the early morning light on tall grasses, young trees freshly planted, and emerging wild flowers in the hedges.
Take a walk back into town along the Strand, and marvel at Reka Dom, the white house with its intriguing towers (one of them built for water storage by an eccentric wine importer), and which at the end of May is adorned with elegant white wisteria. What are its other secrets?
Possibly, Peter the Great, who founded St Petersburg, stayed here when he came over to Britain from Russia to study boatbuilding from 1697-8. (He and his pals trashed their lodgings in Greenwich, so I pity their landlord in Topsham if he did park himself and his entourage on the Strand.) ‘Reka’ means river in Russian, and ‘Dom’ means house. As a somewhat lapsed Russian speaker, I checked with a Russian friend to see if the words did work this way to signify ‘River House’. (The language has complicated rules regarding adjectives placed with nouns.) She assured me that it’s fine.
So we are in with a chance for Peter the Great’s lodgings, and although this is an unproven story, the current owner told me that documents relating to Russian tenants in the house have been unearthed, although she doesn’t have the details. The house has been in her family for 80 years, and it was purchased when derelict in 1939 by her late father-in-law, architect Rex Gardner. As the war swiftly followed, he had to make do with whatever materials were to hand, in the fine old Topsham tradition of ‘making do’, including getting sand from the ’beach’ at the end of the Strand.
The Old Gaol At the town end of the Strand, there is an attractive wedge-shaped building made of brick, now a home decor showroom. This has a hidden past however – it was once the town Gaol. One of its functions was to house prisoners who had been sentenced to transportation, keeping them locked up until they boarded the steamer which would take them to the convict ships that would then transport them to Australia or Tasmania.
The Seven Women Convicts – In a newspaper report of 1837, I found the story of seven women who were sentenced at the Devon Assizes to be transported from Topsham to Tasmania. They would probably have been lodged in the town gaol until the ship was ready to sail.
On Saturday last, Mary Dolbear, and Sarah Bartlett, each transported for 14 years; Elizabeth Ware, Jane Duffy, Susan Featherstone, Ann Rawlings, and Elizabeth Jones, transported for 7 years each, were removed from the Devon County Gaol to the Zephyr steamer at Topsham, order to be conveyed to the Platina, in the Thames, bound for Van Diemen’s Land. (The Western Times, Saturday 15 April,1837)
What were the shocking crimes of these women, that they should be sent into exile? Another newspaper reports further on three of them: Susan Featherstone stole a shawl from Henry Liscombe of Stoke Damarel Mary Dolbear stole a pair of boots from Peggy Hawkins Jane Duffy (sic) a blanket and coverlet from John Greve at East Stonehouse (North Devon Journal, Thursday 12 January 1837)
It is shocking indeed that these women, aged 18 – 56, who were perhaps living in poverty, should be transported for such petty offences. The first part of their journey was by the regular steamer to London: ‘The Zephyr steam packet sailed every Saturday from Topsham to London, a journey that took three days, with stops in Cowes and Portsmouth’, according to Route Two Café, which was formerly the Steam Packet Inn which stood just across the street from the gaol.
Then the women were moved to the Platina convict ship . The ship’s records do indeed list the names of our seven women, among 113 female convicts, whose journey lasted from 22nd April, 1837, to 22nd October, 1837 when they arrived at Van Diemen’s Land, now known as Tasmania.
We know a little more about them from the medical records kept by the ship’s doctor on the Platina. Jane Duffy (18) accidentally swallowed a pin which lodged in her gullet, and later suffered from dysentery. Mary Dolbear (56) had dysentery twice, and also complained of rheumatism Elizabeth Rawlings (47) was another victim of dysentery
At least the doctor was conscientious and took trouble to write detailed case notes for some of the afflictions. On arrival, ‘female convicts arriving in Tasmania were housed at the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart where conditions were grim to say the least’. (note from Gill McLean of Topsham Museum)
The Old Gaol must hide many tragic and largely forgotten stories, ranging from drunken brawls to the last shivering hours spent before being sent away to the other side of the world.
But I’d like to end on a more pleasant note. Topsham is a town of surprises, with hidden gardens and even small fields concealed behind town houses and up small lanes. Check out Topsham on Google Earth, and you will see how green it is. There are tempting gardens to be spied through gateways too as you walk around the town. Some lie directly by the river, often across the Strand from the houses they belong to.
And every two years, the Topsham Museum puts on a ‘Secret Gardens’ event, which is hugely popular as generous residents open up their plots for visitors to admire. Everyone wants to see what lies behind those garden doors, gates and archways! The next one will be in 2021.
Below: Glimpses of the magical gardens at Wixels, a former coal store and now a beautifully styled home which extends into the river. (Visits courtesy of Mary Lambert). The mirrored view is from another ‘Secret Garden’
References: Topsham Inns Past and Present, Colin Piper (Topsham Museum publications, 2010) The Story of the Manor and Port of Topsham, D. M. Bradbeer, (Town & Country Press 1968) Topsham Past and Present, Chips Barber, (Obelisk, 2004)
A note from Cherry: I’m planning a ‘Hidden Topsham – Part Three’ for later in the summer. I hope that these intermittent blogs about Topsham will be of interest for our townspeople, for our sister town across the sea in Topsham Maine (who’ve expressed enthusiasm!) and for anyone else with a fondness for this unique place. Please subscribe to the blog, to receive notifications about the upcoming posts.