A history of East-the-Water (part 1)

It is inevitable that the history of East-the-Water, a suburb of Bideford, should be interwoven with that of the town itself. The earlier sections of that history, whilst East-the-Water remained a nameless part of Bideford, must therefore look at wider events, but principally those of relevance on the river’s eastern shore.

In the tradition of Bideford historian John Watkins, this account may ramble into too greater detail for some, but hopefully not for all. It reflects the current conclusions of personal research and should be read as such. A list of primary sources may be found in Part 10.

For those wanting more detail, an excellent book has now been published by the Way of the Wharves Project, who also have a lot of further detail on their web-site (especially in the documents section).


East-the-Water sits on folded and eroded Carboniferous rocks, in which some layers proved suitable for building stone. In a belt running east to west across the middle of the community these rocks also contain seams of carbonised plant material in the form of anthracite or, less commonly, the carbonaceous pigment known as ‘Bideford Black.’ Most of the plant material is beyond recognition, but one may occasionally find fossil plants that are recognizable as such. A variety of ferns and horsetails have been identified from outcrops including an exposure near the railway station, old workings at Moor Town, and an old adit at Broadstone quarry, near Chapel Park.

To the south of Torrington, the Oligocene period saw the formation of vast ball-clay deposits near Pettrockstowe, that would later find commercial significance for the port, helping drive changes to its East-the-Water shore.

Signs of Ice Age glaciation are found nearby in the form of till deposits (ancient moraine) and glacial erratics (exotic pebbles and boulders transported by the ice). Extensive glaciation caused lower sea-levels than today, allowing forests to grow in what is now Bideford Bay. In warmer interglacial periods, when the ice retreated, sea levels were higher than at present, leaving a prominent wave-cut platform in the cliffs at Westward Ho! (for which related features should be traceable on the hills beside the Torridge). Throughout the recent past, as a rebound effect from the last glaciation, North Devon has been slowly sinking by about 1mm a year. The result is the creation of sea-flooded river valleys, known as rias, of which the Torridge at Bideford is an example.

Whilst there is little evidence for early human occupation in East-the-Water, there was a hilltop enclosure at Eastridge. Implements, including a fine Neolithic greenstone axe-head, were found during the construction of the Torridge Bridge. Flint artefacts have also been recovered from Ayres Close, together with scattered implements along the Industrial Link Road. The presence of a Neolithic midden at nearby Westward Ho! is well documented.

The turbulent stream

It was the river that defined the location of East-the-Water. The Celts named it Torridge, meaning ‘turbulent stream,’ and, as it rises on the western moors, heavy rainfall can certainly make it live up to its Celtic name. But it is not rain alone that accounts for the strong currents in the Torridge estuary, for it also experiences some of Britain’s larger tides.

At Bideford a deeper water channel winds across the sea-flooded valley, providing a navigable artery for larger vessels. Where this channel touches the shore it provides ideal locations for quays, but the Torridge is a fickle river and from time to time the channel has shifted, carrying with it the fortunes of Bideford’s merchants.

The Torridge presented a natural barrier to land-based travel, but it is unclear when Bideford first became significant as a crossing-point. Yet the earliest records and even the name Bideford, testify to the existence of a ford from an early stage. The ford probably ran from the East-the-Water shore somewhere to the south of the bottom of Torrington Lane to some point near Ford House on the Western bank.

Early travellers were attracted to good crossing places, and at Bideford the sandy bottom of the Torridge was (according to an 18th C. report) firm enough to enabled carts and wagons to cross with ease. The catch was that, due to the high tidal range, a crossing was only possible once the water ebbed sufficiently. Travellers must frequently have had to wait to cross, and where travellers halted, settlements grew up to service their needs.

Speede’s map of 1610 shows another crossing, the map is far from precise, but it would have run from somewhere near Westleigh (possibly by Westleigh Hard) to a point on the Northam shore (possibly near Windmill Lane or a point below Bidna House). This would have been on the direct route from Barnstaple to the ancient settlement of Northam (which was once a more significant place than Bideford). If Speede was not mistaken, then this may have been a near-defunct crossing, for later maps omit it. The inexorable sinking of the Torridge valley (by possibly a meter since 1066) was bound to shift favoured crossing places upstream over time and render downstream fords unusable.

Iron age

Many of the areas principle routes may already have been established by this period, especially those that follow ridge-ways. The clearest evidence, however, of Iron age settlement in the local area is found in their earthworks, notably west of Alverdiscott and at Berry Castle, at Huntshaw (on the route to Great Torrington).

Roman and Saxon period

An ancient ridge-way runs SE through to Crediton, the southern end of which is now recognised as a route used by the Romans. It runs toward East-the-Water, just inland of which the Romans had a transit camp at Alverdiscott. This lies near the old route to Great Torrington, but also provided a watchful presence over the Bideford crossing.

Upon the departure of the Romans, a Saxon administration took over. East-the-Water fell at the NE edge of the Hundred of Shebbear, near enough to one of the possible sites for the great Viking defeat at Arx Cynuit.

A Saxon church stood on the west of the Torridge (on St Mary’s site). With access to St Mary's from East-the-Water restricted every time the tide rose, the presence of some form of ecclesiastical establishment east of the river seems likely. In 1792 John Watkins (the early local historian, after whom Watkins Way is named) suggested that ruins at Chapel-hays might have been those of a former chapel.

From the 6th C. the manor of Bideford was held by the Honour or Barony of Gloucester, coming, eventually under the oversight of the Saxon leader Britric.

Norman conquest and the establishment of the Grenvilles

The Norman conquest saw the manor of Bideford pass from Brictric to William the Conqueror’s wife Matilda of Flanders. Thus becoming an ancient demesne, exempt from tax and toll by virtue of belonging to the crown. Upon her death, in 1083, it reverted to the regent, thence to be granted to Richard de Granville (the descendants of Granville adopted many versions of their surname. This history reflects those variations, whilst opting for ‘Granville’ as a generic version).

In the Domesday survey of 1086, Bideford, as a whole, had a population of only 30 villagers, 8 smallholders and 14 slaves. Salt was produced in nearby Northam (the local East-the-Water name “Salterns” preserving a link with that trade) and Bideford had the most valuable fishery in Devon. Many fish were trapped using fish weirs. The remains of such devices having survived, especially in the Taw, and visible as the tide ebbs.

Around 1089 Iestin, Lord of Glamorgan, solicited the aid of English knight Sir Robert Fitz Haymon in his attempts to regain certain territories in South Wales. Sir Robert took with him 12 other English knights, amongst whom was Sir Richard de Granville. With the help of Sir Roberts force and an alliance of local supporters, Iestin quickly achieved his objective. Following the victory, it is said that Iestin behaved arrogantly and failed to honour promises, prompting Sir Robert to seize Iestin’s properties, including Cardiff castle. Sir Robert then re-partitioned Glamorgan, allocating parts of it amongst his men, including Sir Richard. By at least 1160, it is said,  the Grenville family had a hereditary right to the Manor of Bideford, held as of the manor of Gloucester.

Medieval relics

The crown may have granted  the manor of Bideford to Sir Richard de Granville in reward for his service in Wales, for it made strategic sense. The Granville family also held the Manor of Stowe,  just over the border in Cornwall, and were thus well placed to defend their stake in the Norman’s newly acquired Welsh territories. However, later in life Granville, returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, stopped at Cyprus, where the Lord rebuked him in a dream for taking the Welsh territories. Upon his return, a repentant Sir Richard resolved to restore the land to any rightful claimants and to give the unclaimed land to God and his saints forever. He then set about a program of church building that included the construction of the Abbey at Neath (founded in 1129). Sir Richard died in the abbey, leaving his brother to finalise the transfer of the lordship to the Church. In later life he had done much to reconcile his family to the natives of South Wales, thereby removing potential barriers to trade, for that region was a natural market for Bideford pottery, whilst Bideford could benefited from Welsh coal and lime.

At some point a larger Norman construction was built around the existing Saxon church on the site of St Mary's, but the much quoted date of c. 1259 is incorrect (thanks to an antiquarian misreading Bridford, in S. Devon, as Bideford). The style of the scant physical evidence from that original building point to an early Norman construction, making it is possible that the abbey-building Sir Richard de Granville had a hand in it. The Granvilles certainly had a vested interest in St. Mary's as the advowson was annexed to the manor of Bideford, giving them the right to present a candidate when the benefice came vacant.

The parish priest would have been supported by tithes and gifts, but in many places, this income was later supplemented, especially in the medieval period, by the proceeds from 'glebe land,' property that had been give, or entrusted, to a church for its support. It is not clear how the Bideford parish came by them, but it held at least two pieces of glebe in East-the-Water, Chapel Hay (which lay north of the current school) and Sanctuary Field, which became Sentry Field and gave rise to the name ‘Sentry Corner’.

Much of 19th and 20th C. East-the-Water is built on a grange. Granges were typically areas of land, linked to a monastic settlement or the house of a feudal lord (though often some distance from it) and used for food production. There would often be some form of grain store on a grange and some early maps mark a Grange Barn near what is now Barton Tors. The name Barton is consistent with this, as it derives from the Anglo-Saxon for an area, typically an enclosed courtyard, used to store the equipment and agricultural produce of a sele or wic (i.e. a nobelman’s house or manor). The Grange Barn area later developed into a farmstead known as Barton Farm, before being lost to modern estates.