Chudleigh is a small Devonian town in the UK that is situated about ten miles west of Exeter in the south west of England. It's a busy, bustling, yet somehow relaxed, little place.
Back in the late '60s, the main Exeter to Plymouth route ran through its centre, causing noise, disruption and a general ill-feeling among the populous - the annual carnival was cancelled in 1968 because of the disruption it caused to traffic! However, the A38 by-pass was opened in 1974, and the carnival was happily re-instituted. The carnival's silver jubilee was celebrated in 1999.
Happily, things have calmed down now, and Chudleigh, while busy enough for those who live there, has quietly relaxed back into its gentler country ways.
Situated at the foot of the Haldon Hills, Chudleigh is ideally situated for folk whose idea of fun is to ramble endlessly across the Moors. By car, Chudleigh is, literally, a two minute drive from Dartmoor and thousands of acres of wild, beautifully untamed countryside. To the south, (and once again, not a huge distance by car), are the seaside towns of Teignmouth and Dawlish, and miles of rugged coastal path walks.
Chudleigh is close enough to both Exeter and Plymouth for those who'd like to sample the delights of the theatre or ainema, art galleries or live music events, yet it is remote enough to feel as if the place were miles from anywhere. In terms of attractions, there are very few, but there is the Ugbrooke estate, home to the Cliffords, Lords of the Manor. The first Lord Clifford was created by Charles II, and his descendants still live at Ugbrooke today - which incidentally, was designed by Robert Adam, with the gardens by 'Capability' Brown. Occasionally, it is open to the public.
Ciedda's leah1, was a small, agricultural village, and about three or four hundred years old when it became the property of the Church after the Norman Conquest. The first parish church was dedicated in 1259 and Edward the Second granted a Charter, allowing markets and livestock fairs, in 1309. These fairs were a valuable source of income for the incumbent Bishops in Exeter.
The Bishops were some of the most powerful landowners during the medieval period, but some had a social conscience. A palace for the Bishops was built just outside Chudleigh, at the ancient rocks2, and it was the Bishop Lacy who, in the 15th Century, laid the town's first running water supply, primarily for the Palace, but he did also provide 'pot dipping' places for the people; the sites of which are still visible today.
In the late 13th Century, Chudleigh and its folk utilised their one great asset - sheep - and the Chudleigh wool trade was born. In the ensuing 500 hundred years or so, the wool trade became an essential part of Chudleigh's economy and prosperity. Generations made their living from the trade, combing, spinning and weaving. But the Industrial Revolution, and the steam powered mills of Yorkshire in particular, finally killed of this cottage industry.
Another source of income for the town was its very location. Being on the route from Exeter to Plymouth (and with Plymouth's growing importance as a Naval base) it became an important stopping place for coaches en route to the latter. The local tradesmen - innkeepers, saddlers, blacksmiths, wheelwrights and so on - all benefited from the coaching trade. As with most things, technology took its toll, and the trade began to dwindle with advent of the railways and the opening of South Devon Railway in 1849. The main line from Exeter to Plymouth was routed away from Chudleigh, although it did have a branch-line station on the Teign Valley line. Unfortunately, this branch line was never prosperous and when the government decided to make savings in Public Transport, this line was one of the first to go. The last train stopped in Chudleigh on 7 June, 1958.
Never let it be said that a small town in a rural location has no influence on the great and the good! Or that it is a place where nothing ever happens. An event in May of 1807 had a devastating effect upon the town and ramifications on a nationwide basis.
The Great Fire of Chudleigh
In the early 1800s, like many of the villages and market towns in England, the streets of Chudleigh were a great deal narrower than they are today; not quite the 'lean across and shake hands with the person opposite' type, but pretty close. Should you visit Chudleigh today, you may notice that, unlike similar towns in the area, Chudleigh has very few thatched houses or cottages in and around the town centre. There's a very good reason for this.
The weather conditions in Devon in the year 1807 have been described as a drought. Weeks without rain left many people short of water and had farmers worrying about their crops. There was a bakery in Culver Street3 (now New Exeter Street) and around noon on 22 May 22, a small fire broke out in pile of furze4 that was stacked near the ovens.
Later reports state that the staff in the bakery seemed unaware of the danger this posed, but the fire, fed by the exceptionally dry fuel, exploded. In the shortest time imaginable, the fire had spread to the roof of the bakery (thatched, as was the roofing on 90% of the houses in Chudleigh at the time) and huge hunks of burning reed and straw were swept aloft by a rapidly growing north-easterly wind.
Chudleigh then (and now) was laid out in a fashion somewhat akin to a capital letter 'Y'; where the stem joins the 'V' was a small lane off to the right, called Mill Lane. The right hand branch was Culver Street, the left was Exeter Way and twenty yards up Exeter Way was another lane, off to the left, called Wood Way - all narrow streets, and almost all with thatched roofs. The fire ran amok, leaping buildings and roads with terrifying ferocity.
In Exeter Way was a Presbyterian Chapel, with a small orchard abutting it; this acted as natural fire break and saved some of Wood Way and the northern portion of Exeter Way. The stem of the 'Y', Fore Street, now began to bear the brunt of the fire, as did Mill Lane and most of the northern section of Culver Street.
At the confluence of the three main thoroughfares stood The Market House, and people began to congregate in its courtyard, and in front of the Inn, milling around with their belongings, waiting for guidance. Although the Market House did not have a thatch, it was a poorly built structure and soon began to smolder and eventually, it too erupted. Unfortunately for Chudleigh, the Market House was also where the parish fire engine was stored. When the machine was finally pulled clear, it was also ablaze.
The inferno continued its relentless drive south, down Fore Street, with the wind whipping the flames east and west, catching the houses behind those lining Fore Street. The only real route of escape lay down the main street itself. Approximately two hours after the fire had taken hold, there was a massive explosion. One of the local residents, who worked at one of the local lime-kilns, had stored a barrel of gunpowder, used for fusing the rock in the kilns, in an outhouse. The explosion added to the impetus of the fire and to the general terror of the inhabitants.
As the afternoon came round, so did help from nearby. Folk from neighbouring villages arrived and somebody finally took charge. It was decided that they would have to form a fire break, and so began the task of pulling down buildings in order to save what remained of the town. The work began on the west side of Fore Street, but the task was futile. On the east side however, the fire had reached a lane that skirted the parish church and graveyard - a natural fire break. This part of the inferno petered out.
The other side of the town, however, was not so lucky, and the fire destroyed almost everything, right the way down to where Fore Street swung left and became Old Way, another natural fire break. The fire finally died out at about four o'clock in the afternoon, having destroyed almost two thirds of the town. Fatalities? Two in all: a horse and a pig!
The Act of Parliament
A year or so after the fire, and as Chudleigh was slowly being rebuilt with the help of a special fund set up by the Government, an act of Parliament was passed that effectively changed the face of Chudleigh, and many other small towns and villages throughout the country. It was passed, primarily...
for the better and more easy Rebuilding of the Town of Chudleigh, in the County of Devon, and for determining Differences touching Houses and Buildings burnt down or demolished by the late dreadful fire there; and for preventing future Danger by Fire.
In a nutshell, it required that all buildings have tin or slate or other noncombustible materials on their roofs, because the rapid destruction of the town was principally attributed to thatch.
The Act also made it clear that anyone failing to have their chimney swept was liable to a fine of up to 40 shillings (£2) and that all the streets were to be enlarged and widened ...to the extent of Sixteen Feet on each Side of the Crown or Centre of said Street, making a clear Space of thirty-two Feet. The differences between the old and the new are visible to this day, particularly in Exeter Way (now New Exeter Street).
The fire was also one of the main reasons for House Insurance becoming a legal requirement, the cost of rebuilding being phenomenal. The rebuilding was finished in 1811.
As with most small towns in Devon, and elsewhere, the advent of the petrol engine has brought its benefits, but it has also had adverse effects. The building of the by-pass eased the traffic problems but it has also turned the town into somewhat of a dormitory for the nearby city of Exeter. Similar things have happened to Ashburton, Buckfast and Ivybridge.
In the 1950s and 1960s, local government building programmes expanded Chudleigh, with the addition of council and private housing developments, which enabled local people to remain in the area. But of late, private developments and long term plans by housing firms, have meant that new houses meant primarily for those who work outside the parish, have become more and prevalent.
The last greenfield site in Chudleigh was built upon recently, and a local site of historic interest, the last remaining mill and wheel, are (at time of writing) about to be surrounded by new houses and new road, linking two new estates. It also transpires that a housing company with a long term view bought the local cricket and sports ground some 20 years ago, and will be building on them sooner rather than later. It will effectively surround Chudleigh with new housing developments on three sides, the fourth side being the A38 Expressway.
But living in, or visiting, a town like Chudleigh is something that shouldn't be missed. There are many beautiful places to visit, all within easy reach, and although the town has few bed and breakfast facilities, and only one pub with anything approaching the capacity of a hotel, there are two camping and caravan sites situated quite close by, but not close enough to cause the locals too much of a problem.
Places to Visit
The nearby Haldon Hills offer wonderful walks and a marvellous place to watch hawks swooping and riding the thermals. There is also Haldon Belvedere - a truly bizarre Victorian Folly, that looks like the turret to a castle that wasn't finished - near at hand, that is open, sporadically, to the public.
Canonteign Falls are a few miles down the Teign Valley - reputedly the highest waterfalls in England - and up on the Moors are Becky Falls, a lovely, tranquil place to visit.
As mentioned previously, Dartmoor is only a stone's throw away and Exmoor is about 40 minutes in the car. There can be nothing to beat watching the seasons change in place as beautiful as Devon, unless it happens to be watching them come and go in Chudleigh.