In 1086, the Domesday Book records a borough and market at Ochementone near an earlier
Saxon settlement. This borough lay where it lies today, to the north of Dartmoor between the
East and West Okement Rivers which meet within the town's boundaries.
In the busy scene above it is a market day in 1890, and a crowd of farmers has gathered to
mull over the issues of the moment.
Fore Street in the town centre has changed surprisingly little over the last 90 years, but
in recent times many new housing developments have sprung up on the periphery, some with
exceptionally high density, leading to a rapid increase in population since 1990.
The church at the end of Fore Street is St James which was built as a chantry chapel to
All Saints, the parish church which dates back to Saxon times. St James was licensed by the
Pope in 1178.
The current All
Saints church is the fifth one to be built on the same site. The mediaeval church was
destroyed by fire in 1842 and rebuilt in 1844. Only the tower (pictured above) survived the
blaze and was incorporated in the current structure. A 13th century grave cover is preserved
and is displayed at the entrance.
My earliest memories of Okehampton are not happy ones. Returning from a summer trip by
road from my home in Truro to London with my wife and young son in 1970, I recall the traffic
on the A30 juddering to a halt on a bend before the steep descent into the town centre. My
Morris Minor convertible spluttered and wheezed as we inched forward, stop-go-stop.
Eventually we reached Fore Street where a continuous stream of big lorries, cars and
charabancs would have been belching out exhaust fumes in the faces of bemused townsfolk
throughout the day. Never was there a more dire need for the re-routing of a trunk
A bypass was first mooted in 1963, but was not completed until 1988. The planning process
involved a protracted debate, including a 96 day Public Inquiry, on whether the route should
go through prime agricultural land to the north of the town, or through the northern edge of
the Dartmoor National Park to the south. A full account of how the more controversial
southern route was finally selected is given here. Whatever the
locals may have thought of the chosen route, a report commissioned by the RAC in 1997 found
that 80% of residents considered the bypass to be a good thing for Okehampton. There is
little through traffic these days, and the roads are not too congested despite the recent
expansion of the town.
This pre-1950 Ordnance Survey map shows the old route of the A30 trunk road passing
through Okehampton town centre.
love me, love me not
Okehampton was not greatly loved by 19th century novelist Charles Kingsley, at least not
when seen through the eyes of hero Amyas Leigh in Westward Ho! which is set in the reign of
Elizabeth I. However, Amyas and his party were captivated by the sounds of the West Okement
river as it hurtled northward down the deep valley from the moor to the town:
Leaving on their left Lydford and its ill-omened castle (which, a century after, was one of
the principal scenes of Judge Jeffreys's cruelty), Amyas and his party trudged on through
the mire toward Okehampton till sunrise; and ere the vapors had lifted from the mountain
tops, they were descending the long slopes from Sourton down, while Yestor and Amicombe
slept steep and black beneath their misty pall; and roaring far below unseen,
Ockment leapt from crag and cloud
Down her cataracts, laughing loud.
The voice of the stream recalled these words to Amyas's mind.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
With which determination he rode into the ugly, dirty, and stupid town of Okehampton, with
which fallen man (by some strange perversity) has chosen to defile one of the loveliest
sites in the pleasant land of Devon. And heartily did Amyas abuse the old town that day;
for he was detained there, as he expected, full three hours, while the Justice Shallow of
the place was sent for from his farm...
Such a derogatory stance is repudiated by other 19th century texts. Here is Black's Guide
to Devonshire (1882) describing the scene on entry to the town by train from the east:
Turning southwards, and drawing nearer to Dartmoor, we cross the East Okement, and then,
climbing more steeply than ever, reach Okehampton [station]. The town lies far below on the
right, and, looked at from the railway, certainly does not merit the sweeping criticism
passed upon it by Kingsley.....the simple, ivy-crowned ruins of the castle form perhaps the
most picturesque feature in a scene of considerable beauty.
Even the townspeople are praised heartily in this extract from Devonshire Sketches:
Dartmoor and its Borders, a 1873 publication by the Devon Weekly Times:
Okehampton, anciently called Ockington, deserves to be much more known than it is at
present, especially by tourists, for it is situated within easy distance of some of the
wildest and most glorious scenery of the Moor. Now the railroad is constructed [the line
reached Okehampton in 1871], a larger number of visitors will, no doubt, be attracted to
this picturesque locality.
Of this I am sure, that nowhere can the valetudinarian find more invigorating and
life-giving air, the tourist more romantic scenery, and the artist more beautiful subjects
for his pencil. Add to this, the Ockington people are obliging and hospitable, and every
attention is paid by them to the wants of their guests...
To redress the balance I'll let the great Devon scholar WG Hoskins have the last word. From
'Devon' first published in 1954:
Okehampton is a singularly dull town, with very little to look at. The only building of any
merit is the town hall, a handsome structure erected in 1685 by John Northmore as a town
house, and converted to its present use in 1821.
The short quotation from Devon by WG Hoskins is taken from the reprint published by
Phillimore, ©Susan Hewitt, 2003.
| | last modified on
16 Nov 2014 |