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A Guide To Local History In The Holsworthy Area.

Ashwater's Unique Church And the Parish of the Holy Well by Cecil T. Collacott.

Ashwater strikes one as a pleasant and appropriate name for a country village and parish, though perhaps not so simple in origin as it sounds. It is a large parish and, with the exception of Luffincott. the village and church are the farthest south in the Holsworthy Rural District, nearly eight miles from the town. Here we have a neat compact village, with the houses set round the traditional green on a hill which slopes steeply to the hamlet of Ashmill where (at the time of writing) there is a railway station. Beyond and around are broad stretches of farmlands and unspoilt countryside.

Ashwater was Aissa at the Domesday survey, but in the 13th century we find it described as Esse Walter and later, Esse Fitzwalter. The authors of ďThe Place-Names of DevonĒ suggest the first Walter may have been Walter de Donsheved who held the manor in 1270. These early names of the manor reveal that there were two lords of the name, father and son. By Edward the Thirdís reign, however, the manor had passed to the Carminows and from them it descended to two old county families, first by marriage to the Carews and, at the turn of the 17th century, by purchase to the Carys.


Close to the Green and not so conspicuous at first on its lower level, is the Parish Church dedicated to St. Peter-in-Vincula (St. Peter in-chains) and the visitor will find it to be one of the most interesting and lovely churches in the district. Its dedication is unusual and so are several of its architectural features and furnishings.

Perhaps because of its position nearest the village the north door is not closed, screened off or walled up as we find in a number of places. It is in fact the main entrance through which successive generations of Ashwater folk have passed for eight centuries. It is one of the two features remaining from the old Norman church. The other we soon see when we enter the nave. it is the large ornamented font, and it is doubtful if one could find a finer example in this part of the country.

Running the length and width of the church above us are the wonderful barrel roofs, on every beam and boss of which the ancient woodcarvers lavished their skill. There are carved bench ends, too, over 400 years old, and as if all this was not enough Ashwater produced its own fine craftsman in modern times. He was the late Mr. John Northcott and his work includes the beautiful pulpit and various other features.

Much of the existing structure belongs to the early 14th century, whilst there are windows of 15th century date, one depicting the arms of Carew, impaling Carminow. And again we feel that the new is in keeping with the quality of the old, as we look at the beautiful window in the chancel, a family memorial of the Melhuish family.


In the south aisle is an elaborate tomb of much interest, wherein the remains of important personages associated with Ashwater were laid to rest five centuries ago. Side by side under the carved canopy lie the effigies of a knight in plate armour, and his lady. But who are they? Some say it is Sir Hugh Courtenay (killed at Tewkesbury in 1471) and his wife Margaret. More probably, however, it is Thomas, the last of the Carminows, who was Margaretís father. It was through her sister, Joan, that the manor passed into the family of Sir Thomas Carew whom she married. the two sisters are said to have made their own contribution to the church by rebuilding the south aisle. Near the tomb is a splendid example of the Royal Arms in white plaster, dated 1638.

A greater soldier than Carminow or Courtenay is closely linked with Ashwater for the Registers record the baptism of the father of General Monk, Duke of Albemarle, and the marriage to an Arscott of his grandfather.

In this church so full of objects of interest, not the least interesting is the pier arcade in which we see the union of two styles of pillars. It is said that this unusual architectural re-arrangement was the wish of the parishioners, when a restoration of the church was carried out during the years 1677-9.

Nearly everything is a little different here, and as we leave the church by the south door we notice that there is no porch. Walking back up the path to the village we might stroll for a moment or two on the Green and find it not diffiult to see in our mindís eye the pageantry of the ages which has passed this way. It must have changed little since the days of the Carminows, Carews and Courtenays, and there are still several old houses of character and charm around. A modern addition is the elegant cross commemorating those from the parish who died for their country in the wars of this century.


By taking the direct Holsworthy road again, out of the village, the traveller can return to Sandymoor Cross and, turning right, follow a reasonably well-surfaced road to Halwill. On the last mile or so it is very narrow, with many bends, and we arrive quite abruptly in the village. Actually it is little more than a hamlet with a big manor house screened by high trees, and a church standing unobtrusively back from the road. The business part of Halwill is at the Railway Junction a mile or so away.

The oldest thing in Halwill apart from the barrows on Broadbury Downs, is the Holy Well, but apparently it is rather neglected now, its situation unknown to many HaIwill people. It must have been most important very long ago, for it gave its name to the whole parish. In the Domesday survey the name is Halgewill, so even then the well was old, a link with Christianity in Britain perhaps before Augustine came.

Although the exterior of the Church with its sturdy tower makes a good impression, the visitor may find it a little disappointing after Ashwater. Bits of the old village cross have survived in the churchyard. Dedicated to St. Peter and St. James the church is in the cruciform style and basically 14th century, but within, the roof and much else is modern, the church having been rebuilt just over eighty years ago. The pulpit is skilfully and richly carved, a worthy piece of modern craftsmanship. The octagonal font survives from the earlier church. A list of Rectors goes back to the 13th century, and informs us that the early patron was the Prior of St. John of Jerusalem in England.

The manor of Halwill has changed owners several times, and these have included such well-known families as Fortescue, Cary, Arscott and Molesworth.


The Forestry Commission have greatly changed the face of the Halwill countryside and the road to Holsworthy runs through extensive plantations. These highlands once consisted mainly of moors and not very productive agricultural land. The road probably follows the line of a trackway as old as civilisation in North Devon, which traced the contours of the hills for miles in a north north- westerly direction its route marked today by burial mounds and place-names indicating early settlements and tribal meeting-places.

Article reproduced from a newspaper clipping that my mother preserved in August 1963 - Tony Hart.