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How far do the Commons extend and for how long have they existed?

Torrington is surrounded on three sides by 365 acres (146 hectares) of common land.  The area is freely accessible to all and visitors can walk the 20 miles of footpaths which include the golf course, ancient wood and flower meadows, steep bracken and gorse covered slopes, and sheltered river valleys.

In about 1194, during the reign of Richard I, ‘a large waste called the common’ was given to the people of Torrington by the lord of the manor, William FitzRobert.  In 1889 the rights of this land were transferred, by an act of parliament, to an elected Committee of Conservators which now administers the commons.  The earliest management was mainly concerned with control over the grazing and quarrying but since 1981 grazing has stopped and various management techniques have taken its place to prevent the area reverting back to scrub and woodland.

One of the first bills to be issued in 1889 prohibited the burning of furze or gorse on the commons, known as ‘swayling’, but this activity continued judging by the number of fines listed in the Conservators’ minutes for this misdemeanour.  Swayling was part of the year’s cycle for grazing land.  Women would go out and collect ‘fuzz-stubs’ for faggots and kindling and then the land would be burnt.  The alternative was clearing by hand.  Before the Second World War one official swayling went disastrously wrong.  The wind changed and four thatched cottages in Mill Street backing on to the commons were completely gutted.

There were far fewer trees on the commons in the 19th and early 20th centuries because of animal grazing.  There were donkeys and goats, and sheep were run on the commons until 1981.  Dr O’Flaherty’s goat ran loose near seats on Castle Hill and the boys of the town enjoyed baiting the billy goat.  There was a duck pond on Mill Street common and geese and hens were everywhere.  There used to be hunting around Furzebeam and meets at the Old Bowling Green in the 1960s as well as informal shooting and rabbiting.

Various sports have taken place on the Old Bowling Green in the past – football, hockey, shinty, golf, bowls, and the Coronation Sports of 1902 – and the area is now the setting for the Cavaliers’ bonfires which take place every five years or so.

Past generations have happy memories of playing on the commons with their friends, making dens in the bracken and under shrubs, playing football, hide-and-seek and ‘tin can’ (throwing a ball at each others’ legs). They would swim in the river and go fishing, catching eels and having mud ball fights, or ride down ‘Sliding Rock’ on Castle Hill on tin trays.  

There is a wide variety of flora and fauna to be seen on the commons and lists of these, together with suggested walks, can be found in pamphlets available at Torrington Information Centre.

What is the Tarka Trail and where is it?

The Tarka Trail is a recreational route opened in May 1992 which describes a figure of eight, centred on Barnstaple, through the beautiful countryside of North Devon.  It extends for 180 miles (290 km) and different parts of the trail can be covered by rail (the Barnstaple to Eggesford section of the Tarka Line), on foot or by bicycle.

The part of the Tarka Trail that is nearest to Torrington follows the route of the old railway line which opened in 1872 but fell to Beeching’s axe in 1965, although freight continued to be transported until 1982.  About a mile out of town on the A386 towards Bideford is the old Torrington railway station which, since 1984, has been a pub, restaurant and café called the Puffing Billy.  Nearby is Torrington Cycle Hire and families can often be seen cycling along the trail at weekends and holidays.  A group of railway enthusiasts are hoping to return a railway to Torrington.

Going in a southerly direction, you can walk or cycle via Watergate Bridge, East Yarde and Petrockstowe to Meeth Halt (11.4 miles/18.3 km).  In the other, northerly, direction the trail crosses over the River Torridge several times as it winds through the meadows and woods.  It passes the village of Weare Giffard on the far side of the river, goes through an echoing tunnel and then crosses the river via an iron bridge and continues alongside the Torridge estuary to Bideford.  (Torrington to Bideford is 5.3 miles/8.5 km).        

Beyond Bideford is Instow, which overlooks the Taw and Torridge estuary, and Fremington, once an important port, and then the trail goes alongside the River Taw – at a distance – to Barnstaple.  The cycle track crosses the river and, on the other side, leads on to Braunton which marks the end of the stretch where it is possible to cycle.  Beyond Braunton to Croyde, Woolacombe, Ilfracombe, Combe Martin, Lynton and Lynmouth the trail is for walking only and is partly along the South West Coast Path.  You can then follow an inland route back to Barnstaple.

From Torrington, in the southerly direction, it is possible to cycle as far as Meeth but, before Meeth, the trail continues, for walkers only, to Dolton, Iddesleigh, Hatherleigh, Jacobstowe to Okehampton and on to Belstone, Sticklepath and South Tawton on Dartmoor and then, via North Tawton and Bondleigh, to Eggesford where you can catch the train back to Barnstaple.

The Tarka Project was set up in 1989 with the aim of protecting and preserving the environment which led to the creation of the Tarka Trail.  Its name was inspired by Henry Williamson’s classic novel, ‘Tarka the Otter’ (1927) and takes the traveller through the contrasting landscapes of ‘Tarka Country’ described in the book: peaceful countryside, wooded river valleys, rugged moorland and dramatic coast.  Tarka was born and died near Torrington so, in one sense, this is the beginning and end of the trail.

When was the Torrington Canal in operation and where was it?

The Torrington Canal, also known as the Rolle Canal, was in use between 1827 and 1871 when it was replaced by the railway which was built over sections of the same route.  It was seven miles long from Sea Lock, a tidal lock on a bend of the Torridge in the small parish of Landcross, to Torrington.

John Lord Rolle, lord of the manor, set about having a canal built in 1823 so that heavy goods such as lime, coal, clay, sand and timber could be brought inland from the port of Bideford.  Civil engineer, James Green, designed a canal similar to the one at Bude that he had recently constructed using inclined planes instead of locks and along which square tub boats would be hauled by horses.

From Sea Lock the canal ran in pretty much a straight line to Annery Kilns, across the river from Weare Giffard, where there were three large lime kilns and a shipyard nearby where the tub boats for the canal were most likely built.  

From Annery Kilns the canal curved in a gentle arc to a wide basin at the foot of the inclined plane at Ridd where the boats were hauled up singly some 40ft by means of a continuous chain worked by a massive wooden wheel.  Once they reached the upper basin, the boats continued along the canal which ran along the western bank of the Torridge on a ledge cut into the steep hillside above the river and then turned sharp left over an aqueduct which is now the entrance drive to Beam House.

The next section of the canal curved around the steep slope of Furzebeam Hill high above the River Torridge and then crossed open fields to Staple Vale at the foot of Torrington commons, under the road leading to Rothern Bridge and alongside the river to the bottom of Mill Street by the bridge at Taddiport.  The canal basin here was the main centre for the canal and its various enterprises.

It was originally intended that the canal should only extend as far as Taddiport but lobbying from farmers further inland persuaded Lord Rolle to extend the canal under Castle Hill alongside the Torridge to the New Town Mills (now Orford Mill holiday apartments) at Woodland Ford.  The New Town Mills had their own wharf on a large canal basin which also served as a mill pond for the water-powered corn mill and saw mill.  Beyond the mill basin the leat was extended and widened to take the canal a further 200 yards to the site of five new lime kilns completed in July 1827 at Rowe’s Moor, the largest group of kilns in North Devon.

Eventually, the canal extended beyond Rosemoor through Darkham Wood to the weir on the Torridge rebuilt in 1837 to ensure a reliable flow of water in the canal at all seasons.  A stone quay was constructed at the end of the canal next to the weir which was known as Healand Docks.

At first the canal was profitable but it became ever more expensive to maintain and closed in 1871 when the new lord of the manor, the Hon. Mark Rolle, supported the building of a railway which would link Torrington to larger towns.  The Bideford to Torrington railway line was opened on 18th July 1872.

Mayfair in the 1920s & 30s

Two women who were children in the 1920s and 30s told me what Torrington May Fair meant to them.  They still remember how excited they were.  At a time before there was television and a wide variety of activities and entertainments, May Fair was a great event in their lives.  

They loved taking part in the floral dance and organised their groups of four soon after Christmas.  The dancers would start out from the pannier market led by four local butchers in their best butchers’ apparel and their wives who wore elaborate dresses and hats.  Everyone bought a balloon and the boys would prick them all before you started!  In those days the dancers went up South Street, along Halsdon Road, down New Street and back along Potacre Street and Cornmarket Street to the square, followed by the May Queen and her attendants in a horse and cart driven by Tommy Hearn and decorated with gorse.  The floral dance took place twice, morning and afternoon.  They remember the children from Sydney House taking part in the afternoon, all wearing sun bonnets.  They were frail children and exhausted by the time they had finished.  They also remember a group of foreign visitors taking part in the dancing one year, wearing their own national costume.  They had a wonderful time but did their own version of the dances.  Eventually, Miss Mortlock, who was headmistress of the Board School, went over to them and said, ‘Do you mind?’ as they were completely dominating the whole event!  

They remembered the excitement of the fair:

‘We were thrilled by all the rides, the colourful lights and the music.  The fair was owned by Granny Lock and all the local lasses were smitten by her handsome, swarthy sons.  “Go ‘ome and leave my boys alone!” Granny Lock used to shout, while her sons just looked amused.’

By 1939 the programme had expanded considerably.  After the floral and maypole dancing and the crowning of the May Queen in the morning, an open-air boxing tournament was staged at the Vicarage Field in the afternoon.  In the evening, the final for the Torridge Association Football Cup between Ilfracombe and Holsworthy was held.  A Royal Naval band was in attendance throughout the day.  On Saturday there was a cross-country race over Castle Hill and a river boat race from Town Mills to Taddiport.  In the evening, a carnival brought the celebrations to an end and the funfair continued into the night.

The Bishop of Exeter attended the 1939 May Fair and contrasted the festivities in Torrington that day with what was happening in other countries in the build up to the Second World War.  He said no doubt the times were serious, but to be serious did not necessarily mean to be solemn, and people would probably go back to the serious business of life all the better for having forgotten, for a day at least, what was going on elsewhere.

Is the town called Torrington or Great Torrington

Officially called Great Torrington, to distinguish it from nearby Little Torrington and Black Torrington, the town is more generally known simply as Torrington.  This can sometimes lead to confusion when searching for the town in a list – whether to look under G or T!

Before the middle of the 8th century, there were probably three farms or estates on the bank of the ‘Toric’ (the Old English name for the River Torridge meaning ‘violent, rough stream’) which each had the name Toricton or, later, Toritun.  After the Norman Conquest this name varied between Toriton, Torinton and Torintone.  To avoid confusion, the three places were later distinguished by the prefixes ‘Chepyng’ (Market) or ‘Magna’ (Great) for the town and ‘Little’ and ‘Black’ for the villages.

Little Torrington lies about a mile and a half away from the town over the hill to the south, out of sight except for the top of the church tower.  Black Torrington is some 9 miles away, as the crow flies, higher up the River Torridge and it has been suggested that the village derives its special title from the black colour of the water or perhaps from the dense woods which surrounded it in ancient times.



The History of the Torrington Cavaliers

The Cavaliers are a band of men who do a lot of voluntary work in the community, organise fund-raising events, drink copious amounts of beer and have fun!  Their name derives from the period of the Civil War when Torrington was a Royalist, or Cavalier, town.  They are best known for the

structures they build on the commons every few years – buildings, ships, trains – which are set alight along with a fantastic firework display.  Thousands of people come from far and wide to see these enormous bonfires and huge sums of money are raised for charity.

The Cavaliers were founded in 1970.  Plymouth City Council was preparing to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower to America and many Devon towns were invited to join the celebrations.  Torrington sent two floats constructed by a group of local men – Carnival Queen and attendants and also a historical tableau involving the parish church, and the men dressed in hired costumes as Cavaliers and Roundheads.

That event was the beginning of the Cavaliers and was marked, as all subsequent events have been, by imagination, hard work, a swashbuckling spirit and enthusiastic drinking.  Some of their earlier antics and near accidents would horrify present-day Health and Safety Officers!  These have included sword fights, flying machines, a human cannon ball, a water carnival on the River Torridge, a wrestling night at the Plough and a snail eating contest!

The Cavaliers support a lot of local events and do a great deal of unsung work in the town.  They hang the bunting and erect the staging for May Fair each year.  They organise a bonfire and firework display at the rugby club for Guy Fawkes night.  They build Santa’s Grotto under the Town Hall at Christmas and hand out hundreds of bags of sweets to local children.  They get a lorry into the square for concerts on New Year’s Eve and organise the march through the town to commemorate the Battle of Torrington each February.

Cavalier bonfires over the years have included:

1973 Battleship Bismarck.

1974 Viking Ship with sails made by girls at Sudbury’s glove factory.

1975 American Fort Dearborn.

1976 World’s Tallest Guy, over 100ft when on the bonfire.

1990 Houses of Parliament.  Descendants of the Gunpowder Plotters – Fawkes, Catesby and co. –  came down to Torrington to join in the event.

1991 Great Train Robbery.

1996 Torrington Church as part of 350th anniversary commemorations of the Battle of Torrington when the church was partially blown up.

2000 Great Fire of London (Pudding Lane).

2005 Nelson’s Victory, a truly superb half-scale model of the ship.

2010 Medieval Castle symbolising the one which once stood on Castle Hill.

2015 Trumpton, the village featured in the children’s TV programme, popular in the 1960s.

Their next bonfire, in August 2020, will be a model of the Mayflower on the 400th anniversary of its sailing to America.

How old is Great Torrington?

The first mention of Torrington is found in the Domesday Book but evidence has been discovered of settlement in the locality long before that date.  Flint tools from the Neolithic age have been excavated at Weare Giffard and Bronze Age artefacts and human remains have been found in ancient burial mounds (tumuli) near Torrington.  Stones of the Saxon period were found on the site of the old castle when the foundations of the new bowling club pavilion were being prepared in 1987.

William the Conqueror reached Devon early in 1068 and occupied the whole county within a year.  He distributed the large estates forfeited by existing landowners among his Norman followers, reserving some for his own use.  Odo was the Domesday holder of Great Torrington and may be regarded as the first baron of Torrington.  His descendants and heirs took the surname ‘De Toriton’.

The 12th and 13th centuries were the great age of colonisation which took the form of the spread of settlement and the cultivation of the countryside.  The other aspect of the colonisation movement was the creation of ‘boroughs’ by lords of rural manors.  All of them had a weekly market, many of them an annual fair.  Torrington became a borough in the 12th century and by the 13th century was known as ‘Chepyng (market) Toriton’.

Torrington was in and out of the hands of a succession of barons who were related to, or in favour with, the current king and then fell out of favour.  When Richard III was killed at Bosworth in 1485, Henry VII took possession of the baronies of Barnstaple and Torrington but two years later handed them over to his mother, Lady Margaret, Countess of Richmond and Derby.  Her grandson, Henry VIII, inherited much of her property including Torrington but in about 1525 he granted it, with other North Devon properties, to his illegitimate son, Henry Fitz Roy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset.  Fitz Roy died suddenly in 1536 and Henry VIII then granted Torrington to his childhood friend, William Fitz William.  

In about 1554 the manor of Torrington was bestowed by Queen Mary on James Basset, a member of her Privy Council.  He was a son of Sir John Basset of Umberleigh and his wife, Honora, was daughter of Thomas Grenville of Bideford.  It may have been through James Basset’s influence that a charter of incorporation was conferred on Torrington in 1554.  James Basset’s son, Philip, sold the manor of Torrington to Sir John Fortescue (c1531-1607) who left it to his younger son, William, from whom it was purchased by the Rolle family.

George Rolle (c1485-1552), who had acquired the property of Stevenstone in the adjoining parish of St Giles-in-the-Wood during Henry VIII’s time, was the founder of the Rolle dynasty which lasted for more than 350 years until the death of Mark Rolle in 1907.

Which are the Oldest Streets in the Town?

All the main streets of Torrington are mentioned in early deeds, such as Calf (Calve Strete) 1283 and Cornmarket (Cornstrete) 1345.  Even New Street (Nywystret) appears in a document dated 1382.

In the 17th century most of the population lived close to the town centre.  The Hearth Tax of 1674 lists only 316 houses.  Given the size of the population at the time, this would have meant an average of seven people per house so the built-up area of the town was densely populated.

Torrington commanded an important crossing of the River Torridge by way of the South Bridge (Taddiport) and Rothern Bridge, and served as a market centre for the surrounding area.  

There were four distinct old main roads running almost due north, south, east and west from the town: School Lane to the north was the old road to Bideford, via Weare Giffard, Gammaton and East-the-Water, and also to Barnstaple.  The road was named after the school set up by John Lovering in 1671 in Weare Giffard.  The really ancient road to Barnstaple – ‘Barum’ – was by another old pack-way from Calf Street, down what is now Gas Lane to Brent Bridge and on by Coombe Cross.  Taddiport Bridge to the south took the old road to Plymouth which climbed a steep hill to Little Torrington.  To the east the old road to Exeter went from Well Street by way of Caddywell and Shallowford and back up to North Healand.  The old road down over the commons at the western end of town crossed the Torridge at Rothern Bridge and went up to Frithelstock and on to Hartland and Stratton (which facilitated communications between monastic establishments).

Street and place names in Torrington reflect the activities that took place there in the past.  Limers Road was an old pack road along which lime, coal and other supplies were transported from Weare Giffard where they had been unloaded from barges (before being replaced by the Rolle Canal in 1827).  Mill Street led down to the ancient Manor Corn Mill which was later rebuilt further upstream by Lord Rolle.  Rack Park is where woollen cloth was hung out to dry on racks.  Castle Street marks the approach from the town to the site of the medieval castle and Barley Grove refers to the bailey of the castle.

A new turnpike road to Bideford was constructed on the west bank of the Torridge via Landcross in 1825.  The old road from Rothern Bridge to Torrington was up Carriage Path on the commons.  When Torrington railway station was built in 1872 the road was altered, and again in 1928 when the new Rolle Bridge was built.  New Bridge by the New Manor Mill/Orford Mill was built in 1843 at the instigation of Lord Rolle, and a new road was cut from there up Mile Hill to Little Torrington, Merton and Hatherleigh which opened in 1844.

Where was the Medieval Castle situated?

The castle was on the south side of the town near the edge of the high, steep precipice overlooking the River Torridge, now called Castle Hill.  Its commanding position, with strong natural defences to the south and far-reaching views of the surrounding countryside, can still be appreciated.  

In the Middle Ages it was an important site occupied for about four centuries.  As the heavily fortified property of the lords of Torrington it was the most imposing secular residence in the locality, as well as being the administrative centre of numerous rural estates.       

Castle Street leads to the old castle site where there is now a bowling green, car park and the castle mound which is all that remains of the old fortification.

The original castle was built in the 12th century and the site is first mentioned in 1139 when it was attacked in the civil war waged in the reign of King Stephen (1135-54).  Henry de Tracy, a supporter of King Stephen, took the castle from its lord, William de Toriton, but William’s family later regained control and kept the castle until 1227.  It seems the first castle was built without royal licence and in 1228 the Sheriff of Devon ordered it to be pulled down and the ditches around it to be filled up level with the ground.  A second castle was built, with permission, by Richard de Merton in 1338 on the same site.

The castle of 1139 had a tower which was possibly situated on the earthwork to the west of the bowling green.  There is later reference to a bailey and the site may have been of the well-known motte (mound) and bailey (courtyard) pattern.  (The name of the Barley Grove car park could well be a corruption of ‘bailey’).  Despite the extensive destruction of the site in 1228, this mainly affected its defences for the chambers, hall, kitchen, grange and cowshed were mentioned in 1343 and the chapel still survived in the 16th century having been used as a school house since 1485.  This was eventually demolished in 1780.  Another school house was built on the same site which, in later years, became the Blue Coat School, then the Eric Palmer Community Centre.  This closed in 2010 and the building is now a health and fitness centre.

The east end of the castle site, said to be the location of the castle keep, is now occupied by the bowling green.  The castellated walls together with the arrow slits seen here were, however, constructed by Lord Rolle in around 1846 and he built Town Mills (by New Bridge on the A386) in the same flamboyant style.  When the old bowling pavilion was pulled down in 1987 to make way for a new clubhouse, an archaeological study was made and the masonry foundations of part of a domestic building were discovered, the tail of a rampart of clay and stone was located and considerable quantities of medieval pottery were recovered.  


What is the Care Forum?

The Care Forum is a networking forum for those working in health, welfare, education, caring and religious areas in Torrington and twenty-three surrounding parishes.  The Forum has been in existence for over thirty years and group membership has often been over thirty.

Keith Hughes, who was the Devon County Council’s Community Education Tutor at the Eric Palmer Community Centre responsible for Youth, Adult and Community development, perceived a need to develop greater communications within the town and its neighbouring parishes, especially in the area of local care groups and organisations.  His views were shared by Methodist minister John Bradley who helped Keith set up the Forum in February 1986 when fifteen people took part in its first meeting.

The proposal was to bring together representatives from the various organisations, either from within the town and district or serving the town but based elsewhere.  The representatives might be full or part-time professionals, full or part-time voluntary workers.  They would meet over lunch where one-to-one contacts and introductions could be made.  There followed an hour’s informal yet structured meeting, with members sitting in a circle – no hierarchy here!  The idea was that members should come either with specific needs or ideas they wished to share with others, or to listen and learn of other agencies’ work or issues.

The Forum still meets on the second Wednesday of every month, but now at the community hospital, and a snack lunch is provided.  Apart from paying a small membership subscription each year, the general monthly meetings manage themselves without the need for a committee, although the Forum does have officers.  Members come, representing their group, organisation or area of work, and both give and receive information.  Ideas are floated, areas of general concern to all in the community are voiced, as well as individual requests for help, advice, or suggestions to run a project jointly, and are all thrown into the general and open discussion.  Time is allowed after the meeting for one-to-one contacts and for follow-up points on issues raised earlier in the meeting.  The Forum can also act as a pressure group.

Since the Forum began it has played a part in establishing a variety of projects: setting up ‘The Crier’, the Torrington newsletter; getting a zebra crossing, which had been campaigned for by young mothers in the town; helping to create the Community Development Trust, which redeveloped the pannier market and established the Castle Hill Centre; going to Westminster to lobby for an NHS dental surgery (and getting one).

Keith Hughes, who was chairman for twenty-two years, is still a member of the Forum which continues to meet and function much as it did at the start.  It has met the needs of community care workers and proved invaluable for them in making personal contacts and affecting outcomes in their respective groups or areas of work.  Keith says members are extremely enthusiastic about networking and the transfer of information and feels sure the Forum will be around for many more years.  He says thanks are due to all those members who have worked for and with the Forum over the past thirty-three years and made it such a great success and asset to the town’s community.