History of Dartington and Week

Land at Week sketch design

Here is a brief history of Dartington, giving the background to successive waves of land stewardship and tenure. Our island land story is about how the equitable Anglo Saxon community land tenure system was replaced by the Norman land grab/conquest, and this brief history is good on the detail, and recent developments. Who knows the community buy out of the Week land, if successful, might even point the way to community land trusteeship?

DARTINGTON – the Homestead of the Meadow by the River Dart – is first mentioned in the registers of Shaftesbury Abbey in 833 when the Saxon Lady Beorgwyn handed over her lands at Shaftesbury and accepted an offer from King Egbert of Wessex of lands at Dartington-Ham. In the Domesday Book (1086) Dartington is listed as one of the manors held by William of Falaise, one of William the onqueror’s Norman captains. The Manor was bounded on the north and east by the river Dart and to the west by the Manors of Dean, Rattery and Follaton and the Borough of Totnes. It seems that the present 12 mile boundary of the parish, with its 4 3/4 square miles of agricultural and wooded land, has changed little since that day. There was no village; the manor consisted of the lord’s demesne and the scattered farms and hamlets that we know today as Tigley and Week, Westcombe and Hood, Puddaven and Cott, Venton and Allerton.

By 1113 Dartington had come into the hands of the Fitz Martin family. To them are attributed the nine feet high Deer Park Wall, much of which still stands today, and the first stone built church, of which only the 14th century tower remains. It was during the Fitz Martin family tenure of Dartington that the Cott Inn, named after a wealthy merchant, Johannes Cott, who gave his name not only to the Inn but to the hamlet, began to ply its trade, refreshing passing customers and providing lodging for those using the packhorse route from Ashburton to Totnes.

Dartington in fact lay in the centre of one of the oldest trade routes in the country, and the district was a prosperous one; hides, wool and tin were thriving industries, and the Dart was renowned for its salmon (Domesday Book records that at Dartington two fishermen had to render 80 salmon yearly to the lord). Roads from the north led down to the ford at Staverton and up to Dartington Hall, then down to what is now Shinners Bridge.

From here there were two ways to the sea: one, through Staple (no doubt so named after the woollen trade), perhaps for customs dues, and down to the once tidal estuary, which, until the weir for Totnes Mill was built, allowed boats up as far as the Queen’s Arms. Sailors used to lodge at ‘New Houses’, some of the oldest cottages in the parish, lying further down the hill on the opposite side of the road from the Cott Inn. The other route lay past the Cott, along Longcause, through the North Gate into Totnes and down through the walled town to the ancient seaport.

The Fitz Martin occupation of Dartington came to an end in 1348, and not long afterwards the property reverted to the Crown. In 1384 Richard II granted the manor of Dartington to his half-brother, John Holand, and much of the present building is due to him – the vast double quadrangle, of which only one court (the present Courtyard) remains; the Banqueting (or Great) Hall; Tower; Kitchens; East and West Wings and Barn (now Theatre). Apart from some ruined arches the second court, on the south side of the Banqueting Hall, no longer survives; however, there is definite evidence of a Tilting Yard, and it is known that John Holand was a renowned jouster.

In 1400 John Holand was executed for conspiring against Richard II’s successor, and some sixty years later, during the Wars of the Roses, the Holand family forfeited Dartington to the Crown. It passed through various hands until, in 1559, it was purchased by Sir Arthur Champernowne, Vice-Admiral of the West under Elizabeth I. It was no doubt this connection that led to the use of the hill at Yarner as a site for an Armada Beacon, receiving and passing on signals from and to similar beacons near Blackawton, Marldon, Denbury and Dean Prior. The Champernowne family retained possession for nearly 400 years, and during that period a number of alterations were made: the virtual rebuilding of the residential quarters at the end of the Banqueting Hall; the demolition of the buildings of the south courtyard in the 1600s; the connversion into a farmstead of the northern half of the main courtyard (the Barton). Much of the building fell into disrepair; the roof of the Banqueting Hall was taken down for safety around 1814, and the old kitchens were allowed to disintegrate.

The church, too, was pulled down in 1878, leaving only the tower, and a new church of similar design and containing much of the material from the former one, including the pulpit, was built in 1880 on its present site beside the road to Buckfastleigh. In 1855 a daughter church, St. Barnabas, had been built at Tigley (or Brooking) at the west end of the parish.

Earlier in the 19th century the highway from Shinners Bridge to Totnes was constructed on its present line, thus bypassing the Cott Inn and the nearby clusters of cottages, which by now might have been termed a village, though dwellings in the parish were still very scattered. By the 19th century, too, both the tin and the cloth trade had declined, and by the second half of the century the former prosperity of the agriculture was on the wane. During the 1870s, following the world wide depression in trade and a series of bad harvests, Britain plunged into a long period of agricultural depression. Many farmers went bankrupt and land had to be sold off. The drastic fall in agricultural labour and the industrial development in the cities took their toll of the population of the rural areas. The population of the parish, which had risen to 486 in 1801 and to 660 by the middle of the 19th century, began to decline.

Many of the yeoman families either died out or moved away. The names of Searle, Blackler, Mugford and Phillips were no longer to be found in the parish records of those days, though it is comforting to know that others provide a continuity from mediaeval times to the present day – Millers, Shinners and Windeatts and later Gill, Hodge, Hannaford and Barnes families.The Champernowne family, although impoverished, managed to keep the 5,000acres estate virtually intact until the end of the 1914-18 war. After that time, however, the effects of the long agricultural depression could not be withstood and much of the land and outlying property had to be sold. In 1925 the remaining 820 acres of the Dartington Hall Estate, with two farms and extensive woodlands were purchased by Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst. This purchase of a run-down estate in a rural area of economic and agricultural depression was the starting point of a deliberate plan which the Elmhirsts had set themselves to carry out.

Following his experiences with Rabindranath Tagore in establishing a Rural Reconstruction department as Tagore’s recently founded International Universityin Bengal, Leonard Elmhirst determined to see whether a similarly based venture could be viable, both economically and socially, in rural England. Leonard’s American wife, Dorothy, whom he had recently married, and who inherited from her father not only a vast fortune but also the keen awareness of the social and cultural responsibilities of this wealth, gave up the comfort of her American home to join Leonard and give him her whole-hearted encouragement and support.

Dartington Hall had not been occupied for several years and extensive restoration and re-building were urgently needed. There was an abundance of timber, partly an inheritance from the Champernownes who had taken an active interest in forestry, and the Elmhirsts immediately enlarged their acreage of woodlands from the initial 190 acres to a holding of 2,000 acres; the 600 acres of farmland too, were considerably increased. Restoration and re-building were promptly put in hand and, before the year was out, re-roofing of the Banqueting Hall was begun with local timber. The almost immediate impact of all this was the employment of about 600 men.

Within ten years a cider mill, sawmill, textile mill and a building business (which was to become Staverton Contractors) were all started. Alongside the commercial enterprises a school had been formed, progressive and co-educational; later an arts centre was established (which was to become the College of Arts), drawing artists and performers from all over the world and, as the 1930s drew on, giving refuge to many from Europe. In 1931 the Dartington Hall Trust was established, taking the responsibility for education, the arts and research; the commercial enterprises were grouped together into a limited liability company, Dartington Hall Ltd ..

Many new houses were built on the estate during these years, including the estates at Broom Park and Huxhams Cross. Additional housing was requested by the Trust and, during that time the Totnes Rural District Council built estates at Beacon View and Redlake. To provide services for all these enterprises the Trust installed turbines in the River Dart to generate electricity and wells to pump water.

The community around Shinners Bridge grew fast. In 1925 a Village Hall had been erected, as a memorial to the men of the parish who had served in the 1914-18 war. This was sited next to the four almshouses that Miss Spedding had had built and endowed in 1835, and it provided a social gathering place and focus of community activities for the villagers. The grocery store, started by David Guy and his wife some years previously at Dartington Lodge, moved in 1927 to its new building at Shinners Bridge; a petrol station and workshop were soon added.

The 1939-1945 war was to bring thousands of allied troops to Dartington and the surrounding area along with many evacuees from London and other cities. The war also brought to an end the initial building boom of the Elmhirsts but this was to start again in the late 1950s and continue for a further twelve or so years. During the period major growth took place at the Dartington Hall School and the College of Arts; the Old Postern education complex was built; the textile mill and the farms were extended; new adult education facilities were provided and further houses were built by the Trust, the council and private enterprise. The village school grew as the local population increased; the Brimhay nursery school was built as a joint enterprise between the Trust and the County Council and the Bidwell Brook Special School was built.

Sadly, since that time, many of the Trust’s original enterprises have closed: The Textile Mill, Sawmills, Staverton Contractors and, not least, Dartington HallSchool, which celebrated its 60th anniversary and mourned its demise in 1986. However, new initiatives have taken their place. Under the auspices of the Dartington Hall Trust, the Schumacher College has been established; the Dartington Centre, catering for a wide range of conferences; two share farming partnerships; Dartington Arts; Dartington Trading Company; Dartington Tech and the Webber’s Yard industrial estate. The Rudolf Steiner School at Hood Manor, after the break-up of the Hood Manor Estate, and Park School, in the former junior section of Dartington Hall School at Aller Park, are now firmly established.

These changes, along with a general move towards living in the countryside, have led to a considerable increase in the population of the parish with over 1,700 people included on the latest Electoral list. As with many communities the story of Dartington is one of change. These changes continue …

updated: 1•9•2002


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