Undoubtedly Sheepwash has many of the attributes that typify the charm of a Devon village:
the cob and thatch cottages, the village square with a friendly inn, and the church with its
imposing tower. In the words of Margaret Waddingham in the first paragraph of her sympathetic
monograph on the village:
Sheepwash is the epitome of a Devonshire village - a picture-postcard sort of place that
even the dullest day can't spoil. It looks quiet and serene as though the centuries haven't
touched it; a pleasant little backwater where nothing much has ever happened. But things
are rarely what they seem. For such a small village it has a great deal of history. ....
At the heart of the village is an attractive open square. The church tower dominates the
skyline behind the comely thatched roofs at the far end of the square which is bordered on
its northern edge by the popular Half Moon Inn that provides facilities for fishing on the nearby River
Given the air of tranquillity that pervades the village today, it is hard to imagine that
in 1836 it was the scene of a riot over the workings of the new Poor Law in which several
hayricks were set alight. The five ringleaders were taken to Exeter gaol under guard of the
North Devon Yeomanry despite the efforts of a hostile crowd to free them. They were each
jailed for three months.
Opposite the square is the village store and Post Office that has been run by the same
family for many generations.
From the Middle Ages until the the fire of 1743 which ravaged much of the village,
Sheepwash market was perhaps the most important of its kind in all of North Devon. The hub
of the market was the livestock auction which took place in the yard behind the Half Moon
After the great fire in 1743, the village remained largely empty for as long as 10 years,
or so it is said, and the sale of livestock moved to the larger towns of Holsworthy to the
west and Hatherleigh about 5 miles to the east. The market eventually returned to the
village, but it never regained its former reputation. Until the end of the 18th century
there was a weekly market on Mondays augmented by a fair each Spring and Autumn, while by
the 19th century the market was held once a month before being discontinued. It was
re-started in the 1920s and continued until the 1950s when it closed for the last time with
the demise of the drover. The old photo from circa 1950 shows just how busy it was on
market day even then.
Drovers, who sometimes took a fortnight to reach the village, picked up two head of cattle
here, one there, eventually ending up with as many as 30. Some drove sheep or pigs, others
drove geese. One elderly lady recalls clearly that from the age of nine she regularly drove
a flock of geese from her home in Hatherleigh. By the end of the day the square and the
streets leading into it were ankle deep in a rich mixture of mud and dung. [1,p4]
The Church of St Lawrence in Sheepwash is the third to have been built on the same site
since the 14th century: the second incarnation erected after the collapse of the original
edifice was destroyed by fire. A notice engraved in stone near the entrance reveals that
the present church was rebuilt in 1880. This was at a cost of £1600 borne by the then
lord of the manor, Lord Clinton, or Charles Henry Rolle Hepburn-Stuart-Forbes-Trefusis,
20th Baron Clinton to his friends. The pinnacled tower was completed in 1889 at a further
cost of £300.
Many of the furnishings of the church including the splendid stained glass east window and
the solid oak lectern in the shape of an eagle were presented by an individual benefactor,
one Major Collis. Also noteworthy is the Norman font.
Sheepwash Bridge across the Torridge to the south of the village was built in the 17th
century. After the only son of the wealthy local landowner John Tosbury was swept away while
crossing the ford when the river was in spate, his grief-stricken father underwrote the
building and maintenance of a bridge in memory of his drowned son.
By 1695 trustees had been appointed to secure the upkeep of the bridge. As the income from
the Tosbury estates proved more than sufficient to maintain the bridge, John gave
instructions that the surplus be used for the benefit of the people of Sheepwash. So the
Bridgeland Trust was born and to this day it provides for deserving cases of hardship in the
community, as well as going towards the upkeep of the church and chapel.
To the east of Sheepwash close by the River Torridge stands the manor house of Totleigh
Barton whose origins go back to the 11th century. Today this attractive thatched house is one
of four venues that has been used as a retreat by the Arvon Foundation for their
creative writing courses since 1968. My wife has fond memories of a poetry course she
attended there in the summer of 1978. Gavin Ewart was the tutor, with appearances by two
celebrated English poets, Ted Hughes and Charles Causley.
Sheepwash - Reflections of a Village, by Margaret Waddingham, Obelisk Publications, 1996.
The Devon Village Book, Devon Federation of Women's Institutes, Countryside Books,
The picture of Totleigh Barton is reproduced from the Flickr photostream of
The photo showing market day traffic in Sheepwash village square is reproduced from
Sheepwash - Reflections of a Village
by kind permission of Obelisk Publications
| | last modified on
16 Nov 2014