Monday, 7 October 2013

Ashreigney - and Pam at Eggesford

Ashreigney is a village in a part of Devon that's well off the usual tourist trail: that tract of countryside that lies between the Rivers Torridge and Taw. The area was made famous in the photographs of James Ravilious (1939-1999), one of the sons of the Eastbourne artist Eric Ravilious. James Ravilious did what I should have done, abandon a pre-determined office career to become a professional photographer. He went to live in North Devon in his thirties and stayed. Portraying everyday rural life in this remote area of North Devon became a labour of love. He was expert in recording the slow succession of the seasons in peaceful countryside far from the bustle of the city. I should think that he was definitely inclined to the 'corrugated iron' school, loving the old and the tumbledown if it made a point. So this kind of ruinous building, which I saw two weeks ago in a valley below Ashreigney village, would have appealed to him:

Except that he would have produced a high-contrast black-and-white print. Wikipedia hasn't much about James Ravilious (see, but more can be gleaned - including a sample of some of the many photos he took - at, and in particular it's worth looking at

I had decided to use a sunny afternoon to go exploring in Fiona. I went first from Great Torrington to Roborough, intending to look in the church, but it was locked - against whom was a mystery. Next on the list was Ashreigney. On the way I saw a golf ball mounted on a tower, and correctly concluded that this was a radar station. It was not far from Burrington.

It was an odd sight for the middle of nowhere. There was no clue as to what was being tracked. It couldn't have been anything more vital than aircraft beginning their long approach to Exeter Airport, because you could just walk in, if ultra-curious. I didn't though, being a good girl.

On we sped, passing that tumbledown building. But then I had to wait ten minutes while a fairly familiar scene played itself out - namely, two cars finding it impossible to pass each other on a narrow Devon country lane. Actually, it was the same car (the one in front of me) refusing to reverse to let two local cars get past. The offending driver (a man of course) was absolutely adamant about it being his road. Me, I had recognised the problem instantly and had backed off down the lane to where it was rather wider, where even a big lorry could get past. I thought the car in front would see the sense of this, and do the same. I even left room for him to tuck in. But no. His motto was clearly They Shall Not Pass. His opponents? Two local ladies. He was determined not to be chivalrous and give way to them:

He forced one poor old girl up onto the verge; and practically locked wheels and mirrors with the next. Honestly! These poor ladies had a very harrassed look on their faces when they finally squeaked by, and their smiles of thanks to me were wan. They both badly needed tea and sympathy.

And what was just up the road? Another narrow section! Having ruined the journeys of two innocent people in small cars, Mr No Surrender now took on a big delivery truck, making it reverse up the lane in front of him. I hung back, fascinated by this extreme example of bad road manners. Presumably he'd make a school bus do the same thing! When the King of the Road finally had his victory, and was on his way, I still stayed where I was, letting the truck driver pass me first. He gave me a weary smile in acknowledgement, and we both shook our heads in mock exasperation. Tourists!

I caught up with the miscreant just short of Ashreigney, but then lost him, as I wanted to stop and see the village. Probably best.

Ashreigney is an ancient place, a cut above surrounding villages because it has something of a central square, and a biggish church set in a large green space.

Old country churches draw me like magnets. This one was only so-so for interest until I went into the belfry. In there were bell-ringing certificates galore, going back decades.

Clearly for a long while the village had possessed a winning team of bellringers! Two of them had the surname Dummett. Now this is but a spelling variant of the name Dommett, which is the family name on my Dad's side. (See Visiting the family seat at Dommett in Somerset, a post on 6 April 2012) Dommett, Dummett, Domett, and so on are all versions of a surname widespread in the West Country, but especially in East Devon and South Somerset. It looks as if they had made it to Ashreigney too.

Like many a country church, this one had an atmosphere of soothing peace that made me pause and savour it. It was full of light, mainly because the windows were many and not half-blocked with dark stained glass. Instead there was a criss-cross pattern in pale amber and pale apple green, reproduced in the much more modern wooden belfry screen:

I paid £1 for a church guidebook, which had a lot to say about the peal of six bells. The church goes back to at least the thirteenth century, the first recorded rector taking up his office on 6 July 1260 (ah, on my birthday), but whatever their original age, all the bells were recast in 1826, rehung in 1890 and 1929, and comprehensively overhauled in 1976. The guidebook said this about the 1976 overhaul: 'This, together with repairs to the fabric of the tower, cost £910. Farmers of the parish raised £860 of this amount by buying sheep from a retiring farmer, keeping them until ready for marketing and then donating the proceeds to the church.' Surely James Ravilious was there with his camera? £910 in 1976 would be worth £5,500 in 2013. 1976 is only thirty-seven years ago, but it's hard to imagine the same gesture being made today, not for church bells, even in rural Devon. Or maybe I'm misjudging the local farmers.

From Ashreigney I went on to Hollocombe, parked outside the church there, but again could not get in. Then I beat a hasty and embarrassed retreat - the church had been converted into a private home! Thank goodness nobody had been in. They had perfectly preserved the general exterior appearance of the building as it used to be. There was really very little to tell you, at a casual glance, that it was now a private residence.

From there I descended into the Taw valley, at Eggesford station. This is on the Tarka Line, and is one of the few stations where every train stops, mainly because it is a double-track crossing point on this single-track line between Barnstaple and Exeter. The station building was picturesque:

Off to the right was a level crossing, and behind the station house was the A377 main road. There were plenty of cars parked in front of what had once been the station entrance. But clearly, as with many such buildings, it had become a private house. As ever, I wondered what it must be like, living in a house that had cars and buses coming and going on one side, and hourly trains calling at the other, and people of all kinds waiting around on the platforms. Privacy would be compromised, surely. You could hardly open a window - somebody would notice and stare! And there would be the diesel exhaust fumes from the trains, never mind the noise as they braked or revved up.

As elsewhere on this line (at Umberleigh) the modern high-tech world was represented by trendy shelters and a real-time train information display:

Only MacDonalds and Costa Coffee (or Starbucks) were missing!

A lively-looking lady turned up while I was there. She was quite lucky to get the only parking space left. We exchanged a few words, and then a regular conversation developed. She was a special-needs teacher who lived in Sheffield. She thought Sheffield was a wonderful place. Her name was Pam. She was almost sixty, but looked younger to me. She thought I looked young for my age too. We agreed that our generation must be wearing well. She'd just been collecting some expensive medication for her mother. She was down in Devon for the weekend, with her husband Andrew. She loved the area, and if I wanted a really posh meal out, she could recommend the Commodore Hotel at Instow. Or the Seagate Hotel at Appledore, exactly opposite. Both did fabulous crab. I said I intended to visit Appledore next day. Would I see her there? (I rather liked her, and could have chatted indefinitely with her) No, they'd already booked a table at the Commodore. But we could wave across the water at each other!

None of this really explained why she had come to Eggesford station and parked there. Was she going to catch the next train, due soon? We contemplated the station building. When you looked closely, it wasn't in the best of repair. But given some money thrown at it, it could be made into something rather special. I said so. She absolutely agreed. She added that, for instance, the old gents' toilets (indicating them), presently closed and in their original state (how did she know that?) could be made into a great new bathroom for the house. We were sidling towards the old front entrance. Then it dawned on me that her mother lived at the station. Yes, she did! Oh sorry...about throwing money at the place, I didn't mean to imply, no, it was completely fair comment. But her mum was too ill and too old (eighty-four) to tackle any rebuilding work herself. At this point her husband suddenly opened the door, popped out, and I was introduced. A pleasant man, but I think he was somewhat bemused as to why I was there at all. I made a polite departure so that they could all eat.

Once again, as Fiona and I travelled up the A377, I pondered on how fate had sent me people I'd have liked to spend time with, but could not. And we would almost certainly never meet again. Such a pity.


  1. I was sent to a school in Norfolk and well remember narrow roadways and a few near misses. Then there was the time my father's vintage Riley ended up in a hedge row to avoid a milk float...

  2. One of my scariest memories is a drive home in "67 from a flight from New York in a Ford Galaxy driven by a poor demented soul who had just been dumped by the girl I was traveling with. The roads were solid green tunnels through the trees and I have no idea how we got home unharmed...

  3. My Sue used to have an uncle who farmed in Ashreigney, and an aunt who ran the post office in nearby Wembworthy. We spent a pleasant day exploring the area last September and even parked up beside the church in Ashreigney. Silly us, though, we didn't go in.


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