Home Archive Index  Tapestry Index

History File

The Tapestry Explained

Panel One - Pre-history to 1100 AD

The first panel covers the greatest period. The bottom left corner contains elements of prehistoric life in nearby caves, a hyena and a straight toothed mammoth. The evidence of human occupation was only recently confirmed, so our cave-man was added after the work had begun The cave formations are still a significant feature of our parish today, as is the limestone plateau above with its unusual flora.

The village then, as now, was sited below a hill standing out from the surrounding landscape and offering a natural vantage point. Two round barrows crown the hill with, below, a substantial system of wall and ditch earthworks. We can only guess at the purpose to which the hill was put, as there is currently no firm evidence of its uses. A Roman soldier surveys the scene and looks at the map of the hill defences. Above the cave, two Celts pray at the Holy Well, now Halwell, which may once have inspired awe, and round about are the plants associated with early religions, - holly, mistletoe, ash and oak. The Early English village was sited below the hill, taking its present form in Saxon times, with a central stone church on its present site. The picture shows small Celtic fields, still evident.

Leaving the village are the visiting clergy from Tavistock, the mother abbey. There is no evidence of a monastery, but there would undoubtedly have been visitations, especially for the Domesday survey, which mentions ‘Deveneberie’ as being held by Aeldred, a Saxon who became Archbishop of York and crowned William the Conqueror. We have illustrated this event as a pastiche of the Bayeux Tapestry’s crowning of Harold, which took place only a few years before. Domesday is the first documentary mention of the village, and fixes its name which means “fort of the men of Devon".

Panel Two - The Middle Ages

The Middle Ages is a loose description of this panel. The Saxon Church was now being enlarged into the Gothic building recognisable today, (although much altered in the nineteenth century), and the yew trees which now dominate the churchyard were probably planted before the church was dedicated in 1318 The Manor house is depicted to indicate that it was well established by this period. Aft-er the conquest, the manor enjoyed a long period in the ownership of the Abbey of Tavistock, until Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, when it passed to the Duchy of Bedford. The picture is as it looks today, since its original form has been lost among the foundations of the modern building. There may well have been an arched gateway, but this one was built in the twentieth century to mimic the Gothic era.

There is evidence of Denbury’s agrarian past preserved in the ‘furlong’ alignments and field names around the village. Orchards feature right up until recently, and beekeeping would have been part of every community. Medieval Denbury was a thriving ‘town’, and received its first Charter from King Edward I in 1285, for a weekly Wednesday market and a three-day fair in September. Oak trees were commonly used as boundary markers and remain as a feature of the modern landscape.

Panel Three - The ‘Town’ of Denbury

Throughout the following centuries, Denbury thrived as a local centre, at first rivalling Newton Abbot, then becoming less import-ant as Newton Abbot continued to grow. The picture depicts the weekly market on the Village Green. The Union Inn, (named for the 1707 union with Scotland), would have been a focal point for traders and travellers, as well as local people. The Old Rectory to the left of the picture is showing its Tudor face, (The front of the house is Georgian) and the horse driven apple crusher, right, is typical of the type found on most Denbury farms. The smithy next to the inn was in use well into the twentieth century, when the innkeeper was also the Blacksmith. A rabbit warren, top, may have provided carcasses for the rabbit vendor, and the fisherman would have been selling dried cod brought from Newfoundland Denbury provided sailors for the Newfoundland fleet, which sailed annually from Newton Abbot and Dartmouth, returning for only a few months each year, when the sailors could tend their plots of land.

Other traders pictured are vendors of cider, fruit, sheep, cattle, ponies, ribbons, roast meat and milk. Typically, the wheelwright is mending a broken cart and the smith is shoeing a horse. Two wealthy visitors watch the proceedings, but the work on the harvest, top right, must continue. The labourers above the lime kiln, top left, fill the kiln with stone and coal before it can be lit and converted into lime for the fields. Remains of such kilns surround Denbury, and were in use until World War Two.

Panel Four - The Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin

This panel was the most difficult to design and sew and required inventive solutions. The church interior was drawn from a projected slide, and the window had to be painted on to the canvas. The reredos is executed painstakingly in a quarter stitch, and the window interpreted in silks to enhance the rich colours. The gold and blue frame to the nave represents the design carved above the reredos, and the two Maryan roses represent Saint Mary the Virgin, to whom the Church is dedicated. A palmetto engraving round the Norman sandstone font inspired the border of the whole tapestry. The beautiful purple-green slate floor had a stitch invented for it!

The two inscriptions, ‘Peace to the Ringers of Denbury’ and ‘Prosperity to the Parish’, are to be found round the Tenor bell in the tower above. Some of the bell ringers who are represented actually stitched themselves! Mrs Townsend, who lived in Denbury Manor for many years, arranged for the restoration of the unusual one-handed clock on the tower in 1968. The scout effigy commemorates Peter Butler, a Denbury Scoutmaster who drowned at the age of 24. This panel was conceived by Brenda Bishop, who was a founder member of the group and who died shortly after making the first draft of the design. She particularly wished to include a green altar cloth, which she had made and the floral display on the font.

Panel Five - Denbury Village Centre & The September Fair

The Denbury Annual Fair, which survived six centuries, was held in September around ‘Slipshell Day’, when the hazelnuts were ready for harvest. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the trade was mainly in horses. Three ‘fair fields’ have been identified, But undoubtedly the festivities would have spread to the village centre. Tradition has it that a Mother and Father Denbury were elected for the three days, and taken round in a horse and cart; as the hosts of the fair.

This panel is set in the nineteenth century, when Denbury was thriving as a large independent village. Denbury Down in the background is taking on its autumn hues, and is identifiable as the landmark of today. The cart is being loaded with bales of cloth, which was woven in the village for woollen mills in Newton Abbot. In 1841 Denbury listed a great variety of tradesmen, including 33 weavers. Cider remained the staple drink. The Church House Inn, one of three public houses, would have been busy, as would the coffee house cum reading room, (centre, with arched window). The Baptist Chapel, top right, thrived, in addition to the Parish Church. The school, beIow the swallows, was opened in the 1870s and is still thriving. At the picture’s centre is the ancient cistern, focal point of the village for centuries, and, at this time, the collection point for water which was piped from the Down. Behind it, West Street tails away to the Rectory and Shute House, where the tapestry was stitched. This area of the village remains much the same today, although the thatching has been replaced with slates.

Panel Six - Denbury Village Green 1900-1945

A new century comes to Denbury in the shape of the first car. World War One, in which eleven villagers died, is represented by the two soldiers. Village traditions which continued throughout the century include the South Devon Hunt, which met at the Union Inn, and the Maypole with May Queen which, in early days, included only girls, but now involves all the children in the Primary School. The village ‘charabanc’ outing was a regular summer event The wooden village hall was built by enterprising villagers in the 1920s, and early users are represented by rondels. These are the Home Guard (World War Two), Women’s Institute, HandbelI Ringers, Cricket Club, Boy Scouts and a Snooker CIub’.

Farming is represented by a horse-drawn rake and a steam elevator. A circular cider crushing house (top left) at Wotton accommodated a round granite trough. The airfield was a popular business between the wars, and Lettice Curtis, who lived at the Manor, flew from there and in World War Two delivered bombers! Another Curtis daughter, who played tennis on a Sunday so annoyed the Rector that the manor wall was raised to its present height. An elephant fountain in the garden is a witty overflow from the water supply. West OgweIl House, behind the airfield, was part of the largest estate in the area, and included many Denbury farms. On the skyline, the Haldon Belvedere can be seen, whilst the lad sitting on the stile in the foreground has just climbed along the avenue of horse chestnut trees, without touching ground, another tradition.

Panel Seven - Denbury 1950-2000

So we come to the present, where much building is recognisable from the past, but even more is new. The red-roofed bungalow is the newest building, but most other modern village styles are represented. Channings Wood Prison (HMP) is built where the airfield once lay. Between the two came a wartime army camp, then the Junior Leaders’ camp where the Dartmoor Ten Tors Expedition (now based in Okehampton), was founded (top right). Motor-bike trials were held near the village for many years (top left) and the nearby oak tree, blasted by lightning, marks an important cross-roads.

Farming has moved on from horses to tractors, from hand-milking to parlours, whilst the orchards have declined. The Post Office (red striped shutters) doubles as the only shop, milk and newspapers are brought to our doors, and we have a travelling library. The Village Hall has been updated and houses the Harvest Lunch, a regular playgroup, the August Flower and Produce Show, the WI, snooker and the Parish Council; and new clubs continue to be formed. Until recently it also hosted the Doctors’ Surgery and the Devon Karst Research Society. Other village traditions continue — the May Fair (not shown), the November 5th bonfire and toffee apple stall, and carol singing at Christmas. All the carol singers can be identified, and some stitchedl themselves.

The village now owns a playing field, regularly used for football and recreation, and boasts a nursing home (left) and a garage. Of the public houses, only the Union Inn remains. Spindly the dog, who attended every tapestry meeting at Shute House, watches the hounds (bottom left). A hiker walks the parish footpaths.

And so into the future, symbolized by the children of Denbury Primary School, the new generation of the twenty-first century. Most of them helped to stitch the border, and we hope they will be proud to acknowledge their heritage well into the future.

Lesley Groves

Home Archive Index  Tapestry Index