Axe Valley Branch report: Oct 2017 to Jan 2018

In the Axe Valley Branch there has been a strong coastal flavour in our talks. With the help of Ron Howell and his presentation we were able to follow the ‘life’ of the working two-masted ketch The Lord Napier from its time in the early 1800s in Ramsgate. It was then re-registered in Dartmouth in 1889, later working out of Topsham and Exmouth transporting bricks along the South Devon coast. Its long working life has been traced from the discovery of 22,000 bricks found on a dive-site where the Lord Napier sank, under sail, whilst transporting bricks to Kingsbridge.

November saw the Branch welcoming Kate Ponting from Clinton Devon Estates.  Kate’s primary role, supported by the estates and the Pebblebed Heath Conservation Trust, is to deliver outdoor learning activities to schoolchildren in East Devon. The estates extend over some 25,000 acres of Devon’s Countryside in the north and southeast of the county, 2,800 acres of which is a major part of the nationally important Pebblebed Heathland around Woodbury Common, near Exeter.  Kate explained the estates form a very extensive and integrated agricultural and property operation and went on to describe conservation management in several of the open access areas in East Devon where she is based.  Although the Barony line started in the C13th and the current Lord Clinton is the 22nd Baron, they are relative newcomers having only acquired estates in Devon during the C16th.

The Axe Valley is fronted by a unique part of the Jurassic Coast, where Beer Head, the Undercliff, Lyme Regis and Charmouth are part of the geological range of 185 million years. Donald Campbell explained that the constant rotational movement and cliff falls make the fossil-rich area accessible for people, and it has become famous for remarkable ‘finds’. The Undercliff area, which was farmed in the 1800s till the Great Landslip in 1839, still has a sheep-wash for 500 sheep. The unique climate enables large numbers of birds and insects to thrive with many pools and wet areas to encourage amphibians. The Philpot Museum in Lyme Regis and the Jurassic Centre in Seaton have wide-ranging displays and information; the Heritage Coast status was declared in 2001.

One of the most vital commodities throughout the world has been salt! Local historian Colin Pady’s research into its production on the coastal marshes told how we have provided this precious commodity to settlements for thousands of years from river estuaries. Between 1450 and 1550 many great storms and east-west coastal drift blocked the open estuaries of the Axe, Otter and Sid rivers, and formed large salt marshes. These in turn became very profitable, and it became easier to gather the salt in ‘salt pans’. Many of the marsh-land areas were controlled by church authorities who levied heavy taxes on production and sale of the salt, and ‘Salt Officers’ were employed to collect the fees. The salt was transported by pack animals from the marshes, and names such as ‘Salter’s Way’ have survived.

Mary Jones

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