Chairman's Report, 2007

For most of us, the lasting memory of 2007 can be summed up in one short four-letter word. RAIN. It seems that from mid-June to the beginning of September it did nothing but rain in torrents, pour down, drizzle, mizzle, rain cats and dogs, deluge, bucket down, spit, precipitate and shower on us. Typhoons were reported elsewhere in the country; but monsoons seemed to have hit Moretonhampstead. Anyone who avoided being drenched was lucky, to say the least.

But were we downhearted? No! Not a bit of it. At least, not on the third Wednesday in every month.

A year has now passed since our last AGM and our tribute to George Parker Bidder on his 200th birthday. 'If a snail crawls at eight inches per hour, and it is 868 miles to John O'Groats from Lands End, how long will it take our snail to cover the whole journey?' Answers to the nearest whole second, please, in less than half a minute. Oh, and before your tenth birthday. I know it was very naughty of me to set a quiz in which all the questions were only answerable by a mathematical genius but it brought home to us all, I think, how clever the Boy Calculator really was. As a magazine article said shortly afterwards, George Parker Bidder was to numbers what Mozart was to music. Moretonhampstead can be proud of such a uniquely gifted lad.

In November we had the first of two talks over the year by Paul Rendell. This one, accompanied by Paul's own excellent photography, was on the Tamar Valley, now overgrown but once a bustling centre of trade and industry.

Our Christmas Dinner at the Union Inn was accompanied by a very interesting talk on the history of the building by the landlady, Sian Colridge, erstwhile Treasurer of this Society, whose husband Dave Colridge is the descendant of a nineteenth-century landlord of the same pun, John Colridge. Known until 1807 as the Swan Inn, this building was probably built two hundred years earlier. A nineteenth-century cauldron was discovered in the course of recent excavations: perhaps John Colridge himself ate the stews cooked in it?

This year's presidential address was 'The anatomy of a Devon Lane'. Professor Ian Mercer described the appearance and history of the ancient trackway, now a road, which leads from the southern foothills of Dartmoor down to Slapton. Anecdotes, photographs and warm reminiscences were intermingled to remind us how much change there is in something even as permanent as a road. And how important old knowledge can be. Do you recall Ian's story of the New Zealand farmer who, turning his nose up at the hedgebanks, stripped them all out, only to find they had been put there not only to serve as field dividers but also as wind breaks for the sheep.

A few days later, this Society sent a delegation to Lustleigh to take part in their quiz. Having come second in 2006, I had expressed a hope that we would win in 2007. How on earth could Lustleigh stand against Moreton, after all? We were placed second, again. Note the use of the word 'placed'. We actually scored the equal highest score, but as one of our ardent competitors, Gary Cox, pointed out on the way home, 'it was like an Italian boxing match'. 'Eh?' we all responded, 'what do you mean, Gary?' 'Well,' he replied, 'it seems that you have to knock them out just to get a draw.'

The trains came in February. My lasting memory of Edward Pike's talk on the rail link to Newton Abbot, and life on the railway after he joined the service in 1947, has got to be this. As I recorded it in my notebook: 'It was a very friendly line. The guards were known to everyone and it was a family affair... If a boy was late for school, and came on to the platform, the guard used to signal to the driver to reverse and pick up the late boy... [Or] if a guard saw a regular passenger was missing, he would go up the slope and look for him, and make the train late... That was the sort of railway we ran.'

The military came to see us in March, in the form of Lt Col Tony Clarke OBE. To be honest, one could not help but feel that his talk about the military on Dartmoor was a manoeuvre from the north-west, a strategic advance with reports to the fore, feasibility studies at the ready, and history on his side, in an attempt to justify the army's right to shoot on large sections of the moor in perpetuity. What was genuinely impressive, however, was his photograph albums of military operations in the 1860s on Dartmoor. The pride in those bewhiskered faces was obvious.

Local boy Dave Wills came in April to talk to us about the Hennock reservoirs. Again, photographs played a key part: can anyone forget the images of the reservoirs being dug out? So much smiling, rolled-up-shirt-sleeves activity! Such a contrast to the tranquil places they have become, surrounded by their abandoned farmsteads.

May was the month of two site visits. On the 16th we went to Great Fulford, the only house in Devon which can be said possibly to be still lived in by a direct descendant in the male line from its owner at Domesday. Whether you rejoiced in the great hall, with its wonderful sixteenth-century carvings, or delighted in the quaint dilapidation of old wallpaper falling down over the painting by a famous artist, it was a visit like no other. I described it in a Newsletter as 'extraordinary, eccentric and unlike any other house you will ever see.' And added, 'Its owner, Francis Fulford is no less a character (no less extraordinary, eccentric, etc).' Francis did not disappoint us. I imagine that if you could have heard an eighteenth century Francis Fulford shouting at his dogs in that same courtyard, it would have sounded much the same.

On 30th May was the coach trip to the great Tyntesfield House in Somerset. Despite being given precise instructions on how to get there, the coach driver preferred to rely on an electronic navigation system. A three-hour visit was thus somewhat curtailed. Clearly, however, the visit was hugely enjoyable. A Victorian architectural extravaganza if ever there was one.

July saw Mike Perriam talk about Exeter's buildings, reminding us of the wealth of architectural features to be found in the city. And the even greater wealth of them which was once to be found but which has since vanished.

The next event which mattered to the history society was a disaster. And I am not referring to the summer, which had already been washed away. In the early hours of the morning of 11 September, 2, 4 and 6 Ford Street were consumed by fire. Collectively, all three houses were listed Grade II*. They constituted one of only five structures in the town centre to be given a higher than normal (Grade II) listing.

What we lost that night was originally a hall house, built in the early 16th century. However, as the demolition progressed, substantial amounts of modern brick were revealed. People began to talk... As one local landlord put it, 'if this was an old building it was like an old broom which has had three new handles and five new heads'. Good point. It forced us to rethink. How much of it really was Tudor? In particular, if its roof beams were early Tudor, how come all the walls were later? Not to put too fine a point on it, what had been holding the roof up for the last five hundred years? The conclusion was that, yes, the roof beams had been early sixteenth century, and parts of the house were seventeenth century additions, but all the walls of the original hall house had been replaced piecemeal over the years. They hadn't been built of rubble initially after all but of a timber frame and cob. Sadly, what made this building worthy of its 2* listed status was the one thing which can never be replaced: its original roof, a remnant of one of the last four or five pre-Elizabethan houses in the town.

September's main meeting saw a return of Paul Luscombe, this time to talk about transport in and across Dartmoor. (We've done well for talks on transport this year, haven't we?) Again he accompanied his talk with an excellent set of photographs, which included quite a few of train stations which are no more. Indeed, from a total of thirty-eight train stations in the National Park area we seem to have been reduced to four. And we cannot blame Dr Beeching for all of them: Moretonhampstead itself was one which disappeared before Beeching implemented his vision for the future. How backward that vision seems now, forty-five years on.

That brings us up to date with regard to talks and events. But it does not complete the year's record. For one cannot look back over the past year without reflecting on the loss of two people over the last year, both of whom were absolutely magnificent in their support of this society, and both of whom are much missed. On 5 November 2006 Alison Simkins, our long-standing secretary and hard-working archivist and activist, passed away; and on 5 January we lost Peter Collier, after his years of editing and producing newsletters for us. Far more, though, we miss their company. They were good people, and interesting people, and this Society is much the poorer for their not being with us any more.

On the archival front, we have been able to add to the collection reported last year. Much material which was being stored by Peter and Ruby Collier has now been added to the main collection. We also received

A revised list of our archival holdings is shortly to be placed on our website.

We are very grateful to all those who stored and donated material over the course of the year. Most of all we are very grateful to Professor and Mrs Mercer, who have generously allowed us to store our archival material in a room in their house.

Lastly, I would like to thank all the committee who have contributed over the last year. This includes our secretary, Alan Payne, Edward Hobson and Edward Pike, but I hope they will permit me to single out the invaluable contributions of Wendy Coombes (who has undertaken the hard task of arranging all our events, from finding speakers to organising coaches that cannot follow directions to Somerset); Chris Pilkington (who has consistently produced the newsletter on time); and Jeanette Webster, who continues to write cheques on our behalf, and chase up those who have not paid their subscription.

On which note, I hope you have all paid up...

Ian Mortimer,
17 October 2007

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