Tuesday, August 12, 2008
“The Launceston Town Trail”
The Church Of Saint Mary Magdalene, Launceston
Holsworthy Parish Church
Long Bridge, Bideford
This day will be devoted to four smaller towns, each of which has something we particularly want to see or experience.
We plan to leave Saint Ives at 7:30 a.m. and drive to Launceston, a hill town on the Cornwall-Devon border and the most significant of the four towns we plan to visit this day. We plan to spend more than half of our day in Launceston. We should be in the center of Launceston, with the car parked, no later than 9:00 a.m.
Once the primary commercial, military, ecclesiastical and political center of Cornwall, Launceston lost its importance centuries ago. However, one important vestige of its ancient exalted status remains: each Prince Of Wales must come to Launceston at least once to collect the feudal duties to which he is entitled, his right as Duke Of Cornwall.
Today Launceston is a market town, important to its surrounding communities, but seldom visited by tourists. This may be unjust, because Launceston appears to have several attractions that should make the town a rewarding place for us to visit.
The center of town is medieval, with old, narrow streets and alleyways. Remnants of medieval 12th-Century walls are still visible in the town. Numerous Georgian buildings, of excellent quality and in excellent condition, are peppered throughout the town. Launceston is one of the best towns anywhere to see Georgian architecture, exceptionally preserved. The most prominent feature of Launceston is Launceston Castle, a small, round Norman castle located right in the town, situated atop a natural mound.
We plan to take a self-guided walking tour, “The Launceston Town Trail”, which is supposed to allow us to see all the key sights of Launceston in two hours. We expect it may take us three hours, given that we plan to visit the interiors of both The Church Of Saint Mary Magdalene and Launceston Castle. There are twenty-two buildings on “The Launceston Town Trail”, some medieval, some English Gothic, some Tudor, some Elizabethan, some Georgian, and some Victorian, as well as markets, monuments, cemeteries, squares, historic streets, promenades, arches and lookouts over both the Devon and Cornwall countrysides. I believe we may enjoy this self-propelled tour of Launceston very much.
The Church Of Saint Mary Magdalene will be one of the first stops on our tour. The church is famed for its intricately-carved exterior, making it one of the finest churches in England. Built between 1511 and 1524, its exterior is carved Cornwall granite, with flora and fauna and royal insignia carved into the stone. The church is very large (it seats 750 worshippers), and was designed in a very beautiful and very detailed and very elaborate English Perpendicular style (although the tower, from a former church on the site, is from 1380 and is European Gothic).
The interior is known for its equally-elaborate arches and vaulting, and contains numerous monuments and memorials.
Launceston Castle will be one of the last stops on our tour. The Castle began life in the 11th Century, when Launceston was the gate city to Cornwall, but the Castle in its entire history was never besieged or attacked. As a consequence, its exterior is in remarkable condition.
The Castle has an unusual layout. It is a single round tower, around which is arrayed a single round castle keep.
There is not much to see at the Castle except the keep and ramparts, but the views from the Castle ramparts are supposed to be stunning. The ramparts offer magnificent views of the town of Launceston, as well as nearby villages and farms.
We’ll climb all the way to the top, which takes almost 20 minutes from the base of the natural mound.
Launceston Castle has not been occupied or used for protective purposes for centuries. Its last use was during The Napoleonic Wars, when French prisoners of war were billeted in the Castle.
After we have completed our “Launceston Town Trail”, we will have lunch in the town.
In the early afternoon, we will leave Launceston and set out for Holsworthy.
The primary attraction in Holsworthy is Holsworthy Parish Church, an Early English Gothic church from 1250. Holsworthy Parish Church was built on the site of an 1130 Norman church, portions of which were used for the new building.
Excavations in the 19th Century revealed that the original Norman church had incorporated an old Norman custom into its construction: a “foundation of life” wall was discovered to be part of the original church building, a custom that involved placing a living person inside the wall as it was built.
Substantial alterations and additions were made to the church in 1366. Aside from the tower, the exterior of the church has not been changed since 1366. Ancient rings for horse tethers may still be seen on the church exterior.
The large tower is from 1450, built in the English Perpendicular style. The tower is noted for its stained glass (unusual in a belfry), its clock, its eight bells and its carillon, which plays thirteen tunes at regular intervals (including, naturally, “Holsworthy Church Bells”). The present carillon is the second to have been installed in the tower; an earlier, 19th-Century carillon had been shipped to Germany for overhaul shortly before World War I, never to be seen or heard again.
There is a large churchyard. A prominent war memorial stands outside the church
The church interior features massive octagonal columns with vaulted arches. The stained glass is from the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries. Numerous monuments and memorials are scattered throughout the church interior.
The church organ has a long history. It was built in 1645 for London’s All Saints Church, Chelsea, the church of Thomas More and his family. We visited All Saints Church, Chelsea, last year. In 1723, the Parish Church Of Bideford (the next town we will visit) acquired the organ, had it shipped from London, and installed it in the Bideford church. In 1865, the organ was acquired by Holsworthy Parish Church, disassembled, moved to Holsworthy and reassembled. It may be the only organ in an English church that has served three separate churches in three separate towns.
We will visit the church and churchyard, after which we will take a short stroll around Holsworthy’s town square, with its shops and businesses. Holsworthy only has a population of 2,000 persons, so our entire visit to Holsworthy should take no more than ninety minutes.
From Holsworthy, we will drive to Bideford for a short stop. The appeal of Bideford, for us, is the low-lying 13th-Century bridge, Long Bridge, with its 24 ancient arches. Not only is Long Bridge one of the oldest bridges anywhere still in use, it is also an exceptionally beautiful and even graceful structure, largely because it lies so close to the water. The bridge crosses The River Torridge at a diagonal angle, which somehow adds to its unique beauty.
After we have spent some time viewing this marvelous structure, we will proceed to nearby Lynmouth, where we will spend the night.
Lynmouth is a tiny, tiny town, but it has a number of fine hotels because it occupies such a beautiful spot on the Devon Coast. Lynmouth is situated in a great gorge that lies on a cove, and the East Lynn River and the West Lynn River converge in the town before flowing out to sea, dividing the town into three sections.
It is an exceedingly beautiful spot, and Lynmouth has been a destination for visitors for over 200 years—since The Napoleonic Wars, in fact, when the British stopped visiting the continent for safety reasons and had to find places at home to visit. It was during this period that Lynmouth was “discovered”, and it has been a destination, for the British and for others, ever since. Among notable persons who have vacationed in Lynmouth are Thomas Gainsborough, William Wordsworth, J.M.W. Turner, Henry James and C.S. Lewis.
The town of Lynmouth lies directly on the bay, but the hotels in Lynmouth are all situated on high cliffs 700 feet above the town. Most of these hotels date from the late 19th Century, and are representative of the Victorian ideal of hotel splendor, with spacious guest rooms and splendid public rooms, all richly appointed, and magnificent views of the sea.
My brother and I visited Lynmouth for one day and two nights in 2004, and we have never forgotten our visit.
The weather in Lynmouth was brutal during our stay. We suffered the heaviest rain we had ever experienced anywhere. Literal sheets of rain—vertical, horizontal, diagonal—hit us from all directions, and we were sopping wet within minutes from head to toe. Umbrellas and rain jackets were of no use in such conditions.
It rained all day and all night. The sky was dark and foreboding, suggesting some imminent great disaster. The river rushing through the town created a loud, ominous roar. The streets of the town were deserted because of weather conditions, and most small shops and cafes had decided to close for the day. The only things open in the town by early afternoon were one small convenience store and the town museum, dedicated to the two most significant events in the town’s history: The Lynmouth Lifeboat Of 1899 and The Lynmouth Flood Of 1952. My brother and I went through the museum, and were fascinated to read all about these two great occurrences.
The Lynmouth Lifeboat Of 1899 involved a ship in distress at sea off the coast during a January 1899 gale and the efforts of the citizens of Lynmouth to launch the town rescue vessel to save the lives of those aboard the flailing ship.
The Lynmouth rescue vessel, the Louisa (informally known as The Lynmouth Lifeboat), could not be launched from Lynmouth Harbor due to terrible weather conditions ashore. As a result, the rescuers of Lynmouth decided to transport their rescue vehicle by road to Porlock, a town with a sheltered harbor, and launch the rescue from Porlock. Porlock was fifteen miles by road from Lynmouth, and The Lynmouth Lifeboat weighed ten tons.
Twenty horses and 100 men were required to transport the Louisa to Porlock, and the effort began in darkness in the early evening.
The first major hurdle was hauling the Louisa up the steep Countisberry Hill in Lynmouth, a 1,423-foot hill pitched at a 1-in-4 incline. Six men went ahead of the boat, using picks and shovels to widen the road as the boat was hauled uphill.
Once atop the hill, the Louisa was dragged fifteen miles across the moorlands of Exmoor, in cold and pouring rain, to Porlock, where the boat had to descend dangerous Porlock Hill, with all 100 men and all twenty horses used as living brakes to stall the descent.
The Louisa was launched off Porlock Weir at 6:30 a.m. the next morning, and exhausted rescuers rowed in heavy rain and inhuman conditions to reach the stricken vessel, where all aboard were safely rescued and transferred to the Louisa. The rescuers rowed back to shore, where rescuers and rescued all arrived safely.
No human lives were lost in this amazing feat of human endurance, all undertaken in darkness, cold, wind, mud and heaving rain, the most adverse conditions imaginable.
The only casualties were four of the twenty horses, who died of exhaustion.
The Great Lynmouth Flood Of 1952 destroyed the town of Lynouth, killing 34 persons, destroying 100 buildings and causing 420 persons to become homeless.
Torrential rains in the forested hills high above the town saturated the ground during the day of the flood, causing small rivers of floodwater to form. These small rivers picked up power and volume during the night, when these floodwaters became giant roaring rivers carrying uprooted trees, giant boulders (weighing as much as forty tons) and other debris. These waters cascaded down the gorge into the town. The peak of the flood occurred during the middle of the night, when a river of debris swept through the town, leaving a landscape of utter destruction in its wake, sweeping 100 buildings, 29 bridges and an unknown number of vehicles out to sea.
Most citizens of the town survived because most townspeople had moved to higher ground during the night, not long before the giant river of debris entered the town and carried it away.
Our 2004 visit to Lynmouth was an unforgettable, even dramatic, visit for us, and we loved every minute we spent in the town.
We have also never forgotten our stay at the hotel. The hotel’s location offered marvelous, even dramatic, views of the sea and coastline. Even in pouring rain, the views were breathtaking.
Further, the hotel’s owners treated my brother and me like family during our stay, giving us coffee and tea and hot chocolate and cakes in the public rooms at all hours, even late at night, an extraordinary gesture on their parts, since the hotel dining room was only open for a single seating at breakfast and a single seating at dinner. They insisted upon washing and drying our clothes when they saw how drenched we had become from our few hours down in the town. They extended every possible kindness and courtesy to us during our stay.
Needless to say, we will be staying at the same hotel this year.
There is a unique mode of transportation used to reach the hotels high above the town: The Cliff Railway, a 108-year-old water-operated funicular, 862 feet long, operating on a frightening 1:1.75 gradient track, in continuous operation since 1890.
The Cliff Railway is one of the most unique and unusual modes of transportation in the world. Each of the two cars holds 40 passengers as well as a 700-gallon water tank, alternately ingesting and discharging water as one car ascends and the other descends. Fully occupied, each car weighs ten tons. The water is piped in from the West Lynn River, over one mile away. The railway is a remarkable feat of Victorian engineering.
We will take The Cliff Railway up to our hotel, where we will have dinner and spend the night, and enjoy the marvelous views over the sea and coast.
My brother and I are secretly hoping for another deluge in Lynmouth, a repeat of 2004.