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Heritage

Battle of Torrington

The Battle of Torrington took place in 1646 during the English Civil War.  It is sometimes called ‘the forgotten battle’ as it is seldom referred to in accounts of that period but it was, in fact, the decisive battle of the final campaign of the West, which ruined the cause of King Charles I.

At that time Torrington was in Royalist hands under Ralph, Lord Hopton, Commander in Chief of what remained of the King’s Army in the West.  Word of what was happening in North Devon reached the Parliamentarian General, Sir Thomas Fairfax, at Exeter who learnt that some of the King’s horse from Oxford had penetrated westward and Royalist horse in North Devon was attempting to push eastward to join them in order to relieve Exeter and attempt to recapture the West.  With North Devon securely in Royalist hands, they could hope to bring in additional aid from Wales or Ireland.  Fairfax, therefore, decided to abandon the siege of Exeter and to advance in person with a force of some 10,000 horse and foot hoping this time to destroy completely the Royalist armies.

Fairfax and his army marched towards Torrington and, fighting off a series of skirmishes by the Royalists to try and impede their advance, took over Stevenstone House in the late afternoon of 15th February.  The Royalist soldiers were ordered back nearer to the town.

Fairfax intended to do no more that night than hold the positions already gained so stationed his men in readiness for an assault in the morning.  At around midnight a noise rather like a tattoo was heard in the town and it was supposed that the enemy were retreating.  As a kind of experiment, a small party of dragoons was ordered slowly to approach the first barricade and fire over it.  There was an immediate response from the Royalist soldiers on the other side and thus it was that battle commenced.  Regiments of foot and horse were ordered to the front and managed to break through the barricades into the town.  There was fierce fighting in the narrow streets and townspeople watched, terrified, from upper windows.  The Royalists fought bravely but were no match for the energy and discipline of the Parliamentarians.  Hopton’s own horse was shot and he himself was wounded and, eventually, he and his men were forced to retreat.

The Parliamentarians drove their prisoners into the church not knowing the Royalists were using it as a powder magazine, having stored about 80 barrels in there.  Somehow, the barrels of gunpowder were ignited and blew up with a mighty explosion which killed 200 prisoners, guards and citizens and destroyed part of the church and many houses.  Fairfax had a lucky escape when he narrowly missed being struck by falling pieces of lead.

The streets of Torrington were littered with dying men from both sides and abandoned weapons.  When the powder store went up there had been a deafening roar which caused the ground to tremble and echoed around the hills and valleys before subsiding in a long-drawn-out rumble.  With the noise of the explosion ringing in their ears, the retreating Royalists fled down Mill Street and over the bridge at Taddiport as they made for the Cornish border.  The defeat at Torrington had spelled the end of Royalist hopes in the West Country.

 

Golf Course

A nine hole golf course was established on the Old Bowling Green in the 1890s where play continued until the First World War.  There were a few problems with the site: it was rather hazardous for passers-by; one hole was considered rather too near to the workhouse (where Woodland Vale care home is today); horse drawn traffic on the way down the hill to the station had to stop if golf was in progress and one of the players wished to drive across the road!

In June 1921, three years after the end of the First World War, a meeting was held at the Town Hall to consider the idea of restarting the golf club and thirty people expressed an interest.  A new course was made and opened at Darracott.  The club moved to its present site at Furzebeam in 1932.  As the course is part of the commons (the golf club pay rent to the Conservators) there have always been problems with protecting the greens from grazing animals (up to 1981 when grazing stopped) and from walkers (and their dogs) but, on the whole, the club and the Commons Conservators have managed to work together.  During the Second World War the central part of the course was ploughed up to grow corn and potatoes.

Some players from other clubs find the Torrington course shorter than they would like and its layout rather tight but this is compensated for by the immaculately kept greens and the magnificent views over the surrounding countryside.

Further information can be found on the Torrington Golf Club website: http://www.torringtongolfclub.co.uk/

Common Land

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 wild 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 common, 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.  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.

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

Further information can be found on the Commons Conservators Website: http://www.torringtoncommon.co.uk/

Castle

The medieval 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.  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 a 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 which closed in 2010.  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.  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.

River Torridge

Torrington is situated on the top of a hill overlooking the River Torridge, after which it is named.  The name of the river comes from the old word ‘toric’ meaning ‘noisy’ and ‘violent, rough stream’ as opposed to its companion river, the Taw which means ‘smooth, placid’.  The sources of the two rivers are about 26 miles apart and they follow very different routes before meeting in a broad estuary.

The River Torridge rises on the border of north Devon and north Cornwall, just east of the A39, only some 15 miles from where it meets the sea.  Brimford Bridge is the first of the Torridge’s many bridges and the river is rather hidden as it meanders through the countryside until it reaches Woodford Bridge.  Below the village of Meeth the Torridge is joined by the River Okement bringing waters from Dartmoor.

The river approaches Torrington from the direction of Beaford and flows under New Bridge near Orford Mill at the junction on the A386 where the B3124 turns off towards Exeter.  This bridge is a majestic structure built very high above the water because of the provision of a dry arch to take the canal (in use 1827-1871) which was on a higher level than the river.  The next bridge to cross the river is the one at Taddiport probably built in the 13th century and originally known as Town Bridge.  The river then flows under the old railway bridge (now part of the Tarka Trail) before passing under Rolle Bridge opened in 1928 which carries the main road from Torrington to Bideford.  Just beyond this bridge is the old Rothern Bridge which, with Taddiport Bridge, was one of the town’s original bridges and dates from at least the 14th century.

The river continues on to Weare Giffard, looping through woodland and meadows and crossed three times by the Tarka Trail.  Weare Giffard marks the tidal limit of the River Torridge and, being low-lying, the village has suffered flooding on many occasions.

Bideford Long Bridge dates from the latter part of the 15th century and has been widened at various times and in a variety of ways to cope with the demands of modern traffic.  Before the building of the present stone bridge, there were at least three different wooden structures which were in use from the late 13th century.  Further downstream is the new Bideford bridge, a soaring curve high up above the river which was opened in 1987.  The Taw and the Torridge meet just beyond Appledore and Instow and flow together out through Barnstaple or Bideford Bay to the Atlantic.

Great Torrington – Cavalier Town (written by Moira Brewer, local author)

Great Torrington is a friendly, welcoming town set in the heart of unspoilt, rolling countryside.  It enjoys a superb hilltop position overlooking the River Torridge which must have been valued for its strategic importance when the castle stood there during the Middle Ages and is now appreciated for its magnificent views.  The town is surrounded on three sides by 365 acres of common land given to the people of Torrington in the late 12th century and since 1889 administered by a Committee of Conservators.  There is a variety of terrain on the commons and 20 miles of footpaths which are enjoyed by both townspeople and visitors and, to the north, a nine hole golf course.

The  Battle of Torrington  in 1646 was an important event during the English Civil War.The defeat of the Royalist occupiers of the town by General Sir Thomas Fairfax and his Parliamentary army spelled the end of Royalist hopes in the West Country. The parish church was partially blown up during the battle when gunpowder stored in the tower was accidentally ignited.  This event is commemorated each year by a procession and fireworks organised by the Torrington Cavaliers.

Fairs have been held in Great Torrington since the 13th century.  On the first Thursday in May is the ever-popular May Fair which sees the crowning of the May Queen plus maypole and floral dancing in the town square.  On the following Saturday is the Carnival procession through the town.  At other times of the year there is entertainment by the town’s Silver Band and, as Christmas approaches, a candlelit ‘Big Sing‘.

Every five years or so the Torrington Cavaliers build an impressive structure on the commons (e.g. half-size replica of Nelson’s Victory, a castle, ‘Trumpton’) which is set alight with accompanying music and fireworks.  Crowds of people come to watch and thousands of pounds are raised for charity.

The Torridge valley is in the heart of Tarka Country.  This wonderful landscape has remained practically unchanged since Henry Williamson found inspiration here to write his classic novel, ‘Tarka the Otter’, in the 1920s.  The Tarka Trail which follows the route of the old railway line, parts of which were once the Torrington Canal, is a popular walking and cycling track.  Down at the old railway station – now the Puffing Billy restaurant – stands a small collection of old rolling stock of interest to enthusiasts.

Great Torrington is known as the home of Dartington Crystal which opened in 1967 and continues to be Torrington’s largest employer.  The remains of other important past industries (glove factory, dairy) can still be seen.

The Rolle family were lords of the manor for some 350 years from Henry VIII’s time until the early 20th century and made many benefactions to the town.

The town square and the roads leading into it are a conservation area.  There are many buildings, some with interesting associations, that are worthy of notice e.g. Black Horse, Globe, Plough arts centre, town hall, pannier market, 28 South Street, Palmer House (where the artist Joshua Reynolds used to stay).  At 14 South Street and the adjoining Market House is the free Torrington museum.  

Dramatic history, buildings of interest, friendly locals and beautiful setting all make a visit to Great Torrington worthwhile.