Barnstaple. Report from the Literature & Art Section

Information about this page

Author(s): Wootton. Pamela; Year published: 2014; Origin: Section Conference Reports; Pages: 
Topic(s): art and literature; Location(s): Barnstaple

Barnstaple has long been an attractive destination. Several of the indefatigable early travel writers included the flourishing borough on the Taw in their itineraries in North Devon. In 1538, John Leland found “manifest ruins of a great Castelle at the north west side of the towne a little beneath the town bridge, and a piece of the dungeon yet standeth”. Tristram Risdon visited in the sixteenth century. His Chorographical survey of Devon was published in 1714 and also republished in Barnstaple itself in 1970. Volume six of Daniel and Samuel Lysons Magna Britannia has much detail of markets, comments that overseas trade has declined since the mid 1700s due to the harbour being gradually blocked by mud and sand deposited by the slow flow of the Taw, and mentions some notable natives of the town and pupils of the Grammar school including John Gay ‘the poet’ and Sir John Doddridge, born in 1555, who became a worthy lawyer, served briefly as MP for Barnstaple and was later appointed Justice of the King’s Bench.

Richard Polwhele, travelling in Devon from his parish of Manacan in Cornwall in the late eighteenth century, described Barnstaple rather geometrically as “pleasantly situated among hills in the form of a half circle to which the river is a diameter”. He was impressed by the bridge of sixteen arches, and mentioned nearby Braunton as “conspicuous in the legends of the saints”.

Lysons, and many others later, quoted from copies, some subsequently lost, of a journal meticulously kept in Tudor times by ‘Philip’ Wyot, Town Clerk of Barnstaple from 1586. This was not written as ‘literature’ but its many entries are very readable, ranging from the disastrously fluctuating price of corn and rye, to the dispatch of ships to join the fleet against the Armada, the repeated success of The Prudence, a privateer, and many aspects of life in Barnstaple and its connections with the outer world. In 1866, John Roberts Chanter produced Sketches of the literary history of Barnstaple to which he appended a transcription of Wyot’s Diary from what he believed to be ‘ the only perfect copy still extant’. But in the 1990s Todd Gray discovered an earlier and much fuller copy of the diary in the Somerset Record Office and made it and Adam Wyatt the subject of his excellent and very readable book The lost chronicle of Barnstaple 1586–1611, published by the Devonshire Association in 1998. The DA still has some copies which can be bought at the Annual Conference in June.

At that meeting, the Section’s short talk on The distinctiveness of Barnstaple will include Henry Williamson who spent many years visiting and then living in Georgeham; John Gay who was a boy in Barnstaple but moved to London where he wrote for the stage and triumphed with The Beggars’ Opera; a brief reference to R D Blackmore whose The maid of Sker begins in South Wales but reaches Barnstaple; and other more recent writers.

Barnstaple and its surrounding scenery have attracted some fine painters and, as at Kingsbridge where the DA met last year, there seems to be a thriving Arts Group. In the eighteenth century, the Reverend John Swete painted several views around Barnstaple on two of his expeditions on horseback from Oxton, and in the early 1800s William Payne’s travels around Devon also provided landscape views. These and others may be on screen in June. Richard Frederick Lee of Barnstaple painted locally more detailed views some of which can be seen in Barnstaple, as can portraits of thirty members of the town Chamber, hung on the walls of the Guildhall, painted by Thomas Hudson, a nationally important portrait painter eventually surpassed by his pupil Joshua Reynolds, who, it is said, assisted with the backgrounds of the thirty portraits when he was an apprentice.

Pamela Wootton

Back to main Section page