Exploring Devon

Article about Devon for senior and mature small group tours couple and solo travellers interested in stone circles, the Romans or English history including the Industrial revolution.

18 Jul 21 · 6 mins read

Join Odyssey Traveller on this tour of the West Country of England and the fascinating areas of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. This is an escorted small group tour for mature and senior travellers who are travelling with partners or as a solo traveller. This is a journey filled with stories of wreckers and ship wrecks, smugglers, pirates, medieval treasures, charming fishing villages along the Cornish coast, stunning cliff-top coastal views of the blue Atlantic, castles and romantic destinations traditionally linked to the legends of King Arthur, and the delights of ‘cream teas’ and Cornish pasties.

This article concentrates on the locations visited on the Devon section of the tour and starts with Bristol.

Bristol

Bristol is located about 190 km west of London at the joining of the Avon and Frome Rivers. Just west of the city, the Avon flows into the estuary of the River Severn, which itself empties into the Bristol Channel of the Atlantic Ocean. Bristol is an historic seaport and commercial centre. Its area is about 110 square km and its population in the 2011 Census was 428,234, but is now estimated to be 686,210.

The medieval town of Bristol was incorporated in 1155. The harbour was improved in 1247 by diverting the Frome to the west and building a stone bridge at the point of its former confluence with the Avon. During the reign of Edward III (1327-77) Bristol imported raw wool from Ireland and manufactured woollen cloth, which it sold to Spain and Portugal in return for sherry and port wine. By the 16th century Bristol had become a major port, a manufacturing town, and a distribution centre for both overseas and inland trade. From the city of Bristol, John Cabot sailed in 1497 on his voyage to North America.

During the later 17th and the 18th centuries Bristol prospered as a processing centre for sugar and tobacco (until 1740 when tobacco was shipped from the Americas to Glasgow for redistribution) imported from Britain’s colonies in the Americas, to whom it supplied textiles, pottery, glass, and other manufactured goods. The import of Jamaican sugar and cacao from West Africa led to the creation of the “sugar houses” of Bristol and to chocolate manufacture. By the 19th century, however, the rise of the Lancashire cotton industry, together with the limitation on shipping imposed by the Avon Gorge below Clifton, led to much of Bristol’s trade being lost to Liverpool.

The 1800s in Bristol demonstrated the ingenuity and cleverness of growing industrialisation. In 1809 tidal waters of the Avon and the Frome were diverted to create a floating, or tideless, harbour with a constant water depth. The engineer, John Loudon McAdam, improved Bristol’s roads (c. 1815) with his technique of laying raised-stone surfaces (macadamising), and the Bristol roads became a model for road improvements throughout Great Britain and the world. Bristol served as the launching point in 1838 for Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Western, the second steamship to cross the Atlantic. The coming of the railway in 1841, followed by dock extensions at Avonmouth and Portishead, led to a revival of Bristol’s trade, and a suspension bridge across the Avon Gorge, designed by Brunel and completed in 1864, further encouraged traffic.

The history of Devon.

Devon

The history of the county of Devon goes back to at least the Stone Age. At the end of the last ice age, Devon was one of the first places to be settled as the ice retreated. An adventurous traveller can see some of the earliest occupied sites at Kents Cavern (a series of caves) near Torbay, an Ancient Monument.

Up on Dartmoor, the history stretches back at least 8,000 years. It was not a moorland before modern humans arrived: it was oak forest. Settlers burned and cleared the land, which then regenerated as moorland. When farming technology arrived, the Neolithic peoples farmed and settled the land, leaving some of the most distinctive ancient relics in the UK behind: huge granite stone circles, menhirs, burial mounds and settlements. The oldest buildings in the UK are found here. Tin, copper, and lead mining was a major part of Devon’s ancient economy, with Devonshire tin being used in bronze across Europe during the Bronze and Iron ages. Ancient pre-Roman mines can still be explored.

The Romans arrived in Britain in AD 43 and stayed for around 400 years. However, in all that time they made a surprisingly small impact on Devon. Exeter (camp on the Exe) is a Roman town and has some fine Roman walls that can still be seen. On the whole, the Dumnonii, as the locals were called by the Romans, resisted Romanisation.

Dumnonii is the ultimate root of the name Devon. It is thought to refer to a Celtic tribe who lived in Cornwall and Devon at the time of the Roman invasion. The name possibly means “deep valley dwellers”, or “worshippers of the god Dumnonos”, but nobody knows for sure. As with Cornwall, the name for a local tribe came to mean the area they were found in. As they died out or changed, the name stuck and eventually evolved into Devon.

The kingdom of Dumnonia was a client of the Roman Empire, so it retained a lot of its autonomy in exchange for peace and trade. When everything fell apart in Rome, the Dumnonii expanded but retained a lot of the useful Roman aspects they had absorbed, like the structure of their church.

Although the Romans had left, their religion survived. Christianity spread across the island and by the 6th century, Dumnonia was Christian. Monasteries and cathedrals were built in the coming years.

Anglo-Saxon Invasion

The Anglo-Saxons came from what is now Germany and Holland, spreading from the East coast of England to eventually conquer most of the island. By the mid9th century, they had conquered the Cornish and Devonshire folk and subjugated them. Devon would never again be independent of rule from England. Once the last king of Cornwall was killed, the slow decline of the Western Peninsula as a culture independent from the English began. The peoples of Devonshire were known at this time as Cornish or West Welsh, which shows their Celtic heritage and their close association with the Welsh peoples to the north across the Bristol Channel. Unlike Cornwall, Devon was assimilated into Anglo-Saxon culture during the reign of Æthelstan (924 – 939), who set the border between Anglo-Saxon Wessex and Celtic Cornwall at the River Tamar, even today the border between Cornwall and Devon.

Vikings

Exeter played an important role in resisting the Viking invasions that began in the 9th century. However, in 1001AD, the Devonians were crushed and the Vikings made an attempt at settling the land. A few remnants of their occupation remain in place names like Lundy Island.

Norman Invasion and Occupation

Exeter resisted the Normans impressively enough that King William was only allowed into the city on honourable terms. He had understood the importance of Exeter and it continued to have important roles in the rebellions of the next few hundred years. The French invaded England through Devon several times, and the Yorkists and Lancastrians fought battles across the county during the Wars of the Roses.

Religion

The Prayer Book Rebellion started and ended in Devon, with the rebels eventually being slaughtered at Sampford Coutenay. This rebellion (in which thousands were killed in battles or executed) was over the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer (Church of England and in English) to replace that of the Church of Rome in Latin. During the Civil War, the region escaped much of the bloody fighting that took place elsewhere.

Sea Faring and Empire

The second man ever to make a full circumnavigation of the earth came from Devon: Sir Francis Drake. He also helped defeat the Great Armada. As trade and exploration (more plundering than anything) became increasingly important to England, the port of Plymouth grew. The rest of the county remained agricultural into the 20th century, but Plymouth was an important trade hub and a centre of military operations.

By the World Wars in the 20th century, Plymouth had become one of the most valued ports in the country. Accordingly, it was bombed flat. Throughout it all, mining remained a mainstay of the economy. At one point, the copper mine at Great Consols was the largest miner of copper in the world. When the output of copper declined, arsenic was extracted from the copper dumps and the mine became the largest extractor of arsenic in the world.

Today

These days, the economy is mostly agricultural and tourism-based. The Devonians are proud of their history and love to talk about it. Devon, also known as Devonshire, is a cultural bridge between Cornwall and ‘up country’ (as the locals call England). Devon is home to some of Great Britain’s most stunning scenery. Unique among English counties, it has two coastlines: south to the English Channel and north to the Bristol Channel and Celtic Sea. Exmoor and Dartmoor, in North Devon, offer southern England’s wildest scenery; while the cliffs of Devon’s northern coast are the remotest coastline in England, at points inaccessible by land or sea.

Devon is perhaps most famous for giving the world Devonshire tea, known locally as a ‘cream tea’. However, this seemingly innocuous tradition is the subject of fierce debate in the West Country, with Devon and Cornwall both strongly disputing which county originated the tea, and how best to serve it: Devonians place the clotted cream directly onto the scone, before topping it with a dob of jam, while the Cornish place jam first, then a dob of cream. The latter is the method followed by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. The cream is clotted cream, not really known is Australia and is totally sinful.

Beautiful view of the streets of Clovelly, nice old village in the heart of Devonshire
Beautiful view of the streets of Clovelly, nice old village in the heart of Devonshire, England

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