Three towns in Devon

WHEN YOU LEAVE THE A38 road near Buckfastleigh and head southwards, you enter the Devonshire district of South Hams. This picturesque part of southwest England contains three towns that attract many visitors: Dartmouth, Kingsbridge, and Salcombe. Each is located on hilly terrain and has its own distinctive charms. All of them have steep streets that lead to places with great views.

BLOG HAMS 2

Dartmouth, the home of an important large naval college, occupies a position on the estuary of the River Dart. Although it attracts many holidaymakers, it has the feel of a working town. The river is filled with boats, some used by pleasure seekers, and others (including ferry boats and fishing vessels) are working craft.

Salcombe, like Dartmouth, perches on the slopes of the shore of an inlet of the sea. Of the three places mentioned in this essay, it has to win first prize for its setting and attractiveness. I have visited Salcombe both in August (high season) and in May (before the season began). During the high season, the small town is flooded with holidaymakers, day-trippers and those staying in the place (including many owners of second homes). The streets are almost clogged with people. In contrast, when we visited it in May, the tiny town was delightful and relaxing.

We have just returned from staying in Kingsbridge, which is a few miles up the same inlet as Salcombe. This is, at first sight, the least obviously alluring of the three towns. Hence, it attracts fewer visitors than Dartmouth and Salcombe. However, as you wander around the small streets in the historic centre of the town, its charms reveal themselves to the viewer. The town is rich in buildings from the 18th and early 19th centuries. The Quay, where the tidal inlet meets the town is beautifully landscaped. Visitors tend to congregate here to enjoy paddle-boarding, boating (when the tide is high enough), crab fishing, eating ice cream,and just passing the time of day. Also, the town has several excellent restaurants. Of these, I would single out: The Old Bakery (for well-prepared Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern style food), the Dodbrook Arms (with first-class cod and chips as well as other perfectly prepared dishes), and Woodys, which serves very good locally reared beef. Like Dartmouth, but unlike Salcombe, Kingsbridge gives the feeling of being more than a holiday destination; it is a real working town.

In between the three towns, there are many villages and beaches worthy of exploration. Of the three places, Kingsbridge has become my favourite and we hope to return to it soon to use it as a base to get to better acquainted with South Hams.

A bridge and a king

 

KINGSBRIDGE IS A SMALL town in South Devon. It lies at the head of an inlet of a ria (a completely submerged river valley) upon which the better-known and more popular resort of Salcombe is also located.

BLOG KING 3

 Many histories of Kingsbridge relate that the town resulted from the union of two neighbouring settlements, the neighbouring royal estates of Alvington and Chillington. Kingsbridge was formed around a bridge (possibly, a draw-bridge) that connected the two at the head of the inlet of the ria. The bridge was built by the 10th century. So far, so good, but today there is no bridge in the town of Kingsbridge.

If you drive from Kingsbridge towards Dartmouth via the A379 road, you will soon arrive at the New Bridge west of the town. This not so new bridge with five arches was built in 1845 and restored several times since then. It crosses Bowcombe Creek, another branch of the ria. This bridge is not, and has never, ben inside the town of Kingsbridge; it is well outside it. It is not, as has been suggested to me by several locals, the bridge that gave the town its name. So, where was the bridge?

By chance, I found a book about the history of Kingsbridge on-line. It is “Kingsbridge and its Surroundings” by SP Fox, published in 1874. This is the only source that I have found so far that mentions the site of the bridge in Kingsbridge. On page 10, the author noted:

“Nearly at the lower end, Fore Street is crossed at angles by Mill Street and Duc’c [now called Duke] Street, the former on the west side, leading to West Alvington and Salcombe; the latter on the east, in the direction of Totnes and Dartmouth, and uniting the towns of Kingsbridge and Dodbrooke by a very small bridge.”

The old bridge mentioned by Fox no longer exists, but the two streets mentioned do. Duke Street, which used to run through from Fore Street to Church Street near to the present Duke of Prussia pub (according to a late 19th century map), is now a cul-de-sac on which you can now find the main entrance to a popular fish and chips shop called ‘The Cod Father’. Mill Street is still a road leading towards West Alvington and Salcombe.

Where Fox describes the bridge, there is no sign of a ditch or stream today. Maybe, long ago there might have been a ditch or stream across which the bridge straddled. At the head of the inlet of the ria in Kingsbridge, there is a small arch, which might be the outlet to a formerly visible stream, which has long since been covered.

To add some complexity to the story, a modern source (https://kingsbridge.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/B13-Kingsbridge_Devon-Historic-Market-and-Coastal-Towns-Survey-Report.pdf) suggested that the bridge after which the town was named was not within the town itself but some way outside it:

“The exact site and function of the bridge is of great interest, as clear documentary evidence for an  Anglo-Saxon bridge in Devon is rare (Henderson and Jervoise 1938, 29; Hoskins 1954, 147), and, in the present context, because the development and character of the town, like its name, can be expected to have been fundamentally linked with that of the bridge and its highway. The attraction and shaping of urban growth to main roads and river crossings is a strong pattern across medieval Devon (Slater 1999). The detailed map analysis for the urban survey indicates that the early bridge may have crossed   the River – between routes later altered to become Love or Boon’s Lane on the west side, and Quay Street on the east – downstream from a tidal ford on the Mill Street-Duke Street route and below the extent of the medieval town…”

So, we cannot be certain of the location of the old bridge.

The coat of arms of Kingsbridge consists of a three-arched bridge surmounted by a royal crown. Whether or not the bridge had three arches is not at all certain, but the fact that it linked two royal estates justifies the presence of the crown. If the bridge was located where Fox believed, there was hardly enough width for a bridge with three arches.

But who was the king? It might well have been King Edgar, ‘The Peaceful’, who reigned from 959 to 975 AD. For, it was during his reign that a charter relating to boundaries dated 962 AD mentions the existence of a ‘king’s bridge’. That could also mean that the bridge was in existence before that king’s reign.

So, regardless of the actual position of the bridge after which Kingsbridge is named, we can be certain that the name is justified as there was a bridge somewhere in or near the town and it had royal connections. Whatever the origin of the name, the town of Kingsbridge is well worth a visit.