Mill Street is a very old street of mainly terraced houses which drops down the hill from the town to the river. It starts from the corner of South Street and Halsdon Terrace and winds down to the site of the old ruined dairy at Taddiport. The Methodist Chapel is at the top and the Torridge Inn is at the bottom.
The road is narrower and steeper at the top where it is one-way only from where Warren Lane joins Mill Street. However, people have been seen driving down: during the snow in 2010; when road works closed New Street in 2011 and a complicated diversion was set up; and at other times, if the fancy takes them!
Mill Street was the escape route taken by Royalist soldiers fleeing to the west after their defeat at the Battle of Torrington in 1646. Originally, all the houses were thatched, some of them up until the 1960s, but the only thatched buildings remaining are Rose Cottage and the Torridge Inn down at the bottom of the street.
Those houses on the south side of the street have very steep gardens plunging down to the commons by the river, while those on the other side of the street have gardens sloping up to the Mill Street common to the north. Some of the old houses have been divided into two, while others are two houses joined into one, and gardens are often irregular in shape with complicated rights of access. There is a ‘drangway’ between numbers 84 and 86 leading up to Mill Street common and a steep pathway down towards the river between numbers 101 and 103.
Some of the houses, mainly on the north side of the street, have a well indoors or in the garden and there used to be wooden doors in the wall under the pavement which led to water supplies of some sort.
There has been a change in usage in many of the buildings over the years. Barns and sheds have been incorporated into houses, and shops and businesses have disappeared. Number 130 used to be a fish and chip shop and at number 29, on the corner of Sandfords Gardens, was a shop selling groceries, bread and general supplies. There were four other pubs besides the Torridge Inn in the 19th century: the Canal Inn at number 120 (which burnt down in 1859), the Greyhound, the Nelson and the Plymouth (behind Mill House).
The high pavement (which was known as ‘the course’) on the north side of the street had railings added some 25 years or so ago and ramps built down to the roadway. People who lived in Mill Street as children in the 1950s remember playing out in the street (when they weren’t scrumping apples from Sandfords’ orchards nearby) but there is too much traffic and too many parked cars for that to be possible these days.
Many of the houses in Mill Street have interesting histories. The present owners of number 129 have traced documentation dating back to 1640. Over the centuries their house has been occupied by people involved in a variety of trades – woollen draper, cordwainer, ropemaker, tallow chandler, weaver, fuller, dyer and carpenter – which were carried on in outhouses behind the house.
The solid stone house, number 127, is still known as ‘the police house’ although it wasn’t built for that purpose. It was used as a police house by Devon County Council between 1919 and 1961 when it was sold back into private ownership.
The row of connected houses, numbers 61-67 on the south side of the street, were known as ‘Hoopers Cottages’. At one time they all caught fire when burning on the commons (‘swayling’) got out of control and the thatched roofs went up in flames. The houses were left derelict for some time until they were restored in the late 1930s.
Number 49 used to be a religious meeting house, possibly for Quakers or Non-Conformists; the early Methodists had a ‘preaching-room’ in a cottage in Mill Street. Although this isn’t apparent from the front, and the inside of the house has been altered considerably, the back of the house has a roof and upper window shaped in a pointed arch which gives a clue to its former usage.
Number 39, a tall house with a room in the roof, is believed to have been built onto two small cottages which now form the rear part of the house. This property is thought to have belonged to the head gardener at Caynton House, just up the road, as it has a wide hallway supposed to have been to accommodate his wheelbarrow. Coincidentally, the present owner is a gardener and plant expert.
Mill House, number 19, is a substantial stone-fronted property with outbuildings in the rear courtyard. In 1842 there were two cottages on this site with the Plymouth Inn behind them. In 1901 the house was lived in by Thomas Andrews, a local photographer whose postcards are collected to this day.
Number 1 Mill Street was built in 1808. In the 1840s it was known as ‘The Retreat’ and then in 1903 as ‘Revette’. After 1904, over the next 50 years or so, the house was owned by several descendants of Thomas Fowler (the inventor after whom the IT centre at Castle Hill was named) who all shared his name.
On the other side of the street is the Old Coach House, a tall, three storey building. It was converted in the 1930s out of the stables and coach house belonging to Penhallam next door.
Probably the finest house in Mill Street is Caynton House, a Grade II listed property built in 1725 set back off the road and looking over the Torridge valley. It is thought there was once a pottery on this site as sherds and the remains of a kiln were found when the three houses in Caynton Court were built in the grounds. The Yonge family, who came from Caynton in Shropshire, hence the name of the house, lived there for many years.