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Oct 2010 - Cullacott

An autumn day at Cullacott

The land of upper Tamar is a place of gently undulating pasture, of woodland, of twisting high-banked lanes and slow ponderous rivers that for millennia have carved their way southward to join the flow of their larger sister, and thence onwards to the sea. The name Tamar, given to that main river forming the county divide between Devon and Cornwall, is from the ancient Celtic tongue, meaning ‘Dark-flowing’, and those of its tributaries: Lyd, Claw, Thrushel, Wolf, Ottery - have an equally sonorous, primeval ring, old and immutable as the land through which they flow. Of course in recent times there has of necessity been the odd exception where change has occurred: the higher Wolf valley, once farmland, now lies deep beneath the waters of Roadford Reservoir; and the A30 trunk-road strides a new, straighter course towards Okehampton and Exeter….. But leave the main roads, take any one of those narrow, winding lanes, and within a short while you could be anywhere in time but the present.

Not far from the hamlet of Ladycross, on the road from Launceston to Bude, there is just such a lane. After a couple of tortuous corners, it levels out and then begins a slow descent to the valley of the river Ottery. To the right, a smaller road branches off and runs along the valley’s rim. It leads to a cluster of buildings, overlooked by a substantial Victorian farmhouse typical of the sort to be found in the area, erected by wealthy landowners towards the end of the 19th century. A little further on the road enters a spacious cobbled yard, flanked by mellowed stone buildings: sheds built to house animals, a granite-pillared cart-shed, and most striking of all, a long, low dwelling nestling in the hillside as if it were itself a part of the natural landscape.

This is Cullacott, described as ‘the most important surviving medieval house in Cornwall’ and it was here on the last Sunday in October that Tamar Dowsers gathered, to be warmly greeted by its present owners, John and Mary Cole.

Cullacott has been in the family since 1910, when Mary’s grandfather John Mann moved there from St. Buryan in West Cornwall. It had been abandoned as the main dwelling since 1884 when the present farmhouse was built, and for a while part of it was used as a farm-worker’s cottage. Then, after 1960 it ceased to be lived in, and was used solely for agricultural purposes. Although listed as a Grade II building in 1957, it was only in 1988 that a surveyor recognised its true worth, upgrading it to the status of Grade I. In 1990, a severe storm almost destroyed the cob wall to the rear of the property, but thanks to the Landmark Trust, a £280,000 grant from English Heritage and a dogged determination on the part of the Coles that it should be preserved for posterity, it stands as it does today, as near perfect an example of a Medieval Hall House as we are ever likely to find in Britain.

Paradoxically, the main reason for Cullacott being such a fine specimen of its kind is very largely due to neglect. Had the house been lived in continuously from its medieval beginnings until the present day, it would no doubt have succumbed to the dictates of contemporary fashion, presenting us with the very different picture of say, a Georgian, or Victorian facade, the bulk of its Medieval features either destroyed long ago or buried beneath stucco. But this has never happened, and what we see today is a house that has undergone virtually no major alterations since around 1700. To stroll through its rooms is to experience the nearest thing to a journey back in time that we are ever likely to encounter.

The building was originally constructed as a longhouse, using locally sourced materials of cob and stone. Sited deliberately on sloping ground, the upper part was reserved for human habitation, the lower section being occupied by animals. This kind of shared agricultural dwelling was fairly common in medieval times, and examples could still occasionally be found in rural areas of Devon right up until the first quarter of the 20th century when for reasons of hygiene the arrangement was no longer deemed permissible.

The possibility of other previous dwellings having occupied this site is highly likely, as it contains that very basic yet essential human requirement of an accessible and copious supply of water not too far from the earth’s surface. A construction date for the longhouse has been estimated as being around 1481. We can be reasonably certain of the accuracy of this because felling dates for the timber used in the hall and the lower half of the building were calculated as being from 1472 - 1481 by the Oxford Tree-ring Laboratory, using dendrochronology. Placing this date of construction within the context of known historical fact can give us a truer, clearer appreciation of Cullacott’s antiquity.

Only eleven years earlier, William Caxton had set up his first printing press in London; eleven more years were to pass before Columbus was to set sail on his momentous voyage across the Atlantic; Edward IV was still on the throne of England and the notorious`Richard III was yet to usurp that throne and have his two {ons murdered in the Tower of London; the Battle of Bosworth Field was still four years away, and the Tudor dynasty had not yet begun.

The earliest documentary reference to “Colmcotm”, as it was then known comes from the manorial rental of 1495 when it was part of the extensive estates owned by Tavistock Abbey. Alicia Colecote was the tenant at that time, and she is again listed as tenant in 1522. When examining records, it is not always easy to differentiate between tenant and owner, but among the names of those we know definitely to have held the tenancy, one that stands out most prominently is that of Walter Blyghte, who took it over in 1524 during the reign of Henry VIII. It is likely that Walter had some kind of military background, as in the Devon muster he is listed as a ‘Billman’. The Bill, consisting of a six-foot long pole surmounted by a combination of spear and billhook was, together with the longbow, a favoured infantry weapon of the day. The Blyghte family tenancy was even longer than that of Alicia Colecote, continuing until the 1640’s. In his time, Walter Blygthe rebuilt the upper part of the house, which included a parlour and bedchambers. He was also responsible for the construction of the large chimney in the front wall of the hall, and the bay window beside it, to allow more light into what must previously have been a very dark room. Walter’s name can be seen carved into the granite frame over the window, together with 1579, the date of the alteration (his name is misspelt Water Blygete!).

After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, Cullacott was given to Lord John Russell, soon to be made first Earl of Bedford, and whose family were later to become Dukes of that name.

Among later influential owners were Francis Drake, nephew to Sir Francis Drake of Spanish Armada fame, the Harris family of Hayne, Stowford, and the Bewes family, six of whom were to become mayors of Launceston. Then around the end of the 17th century, the importance of the property began to decline, and from the on it became a relatively insignificant small tenanted farm. Apart from the addition of a slate-hung two-storey porch in front of the dairy and a few other minor alterations, little further work was carried out on the house.

Architecturally, Cullacott is classed as a Medieval Hall House, and it is within its hall that its most striking feature is to be found. Thought to be yet another of the Blyghte family’s improvements, a series of wall paintings decorate the upper wall. Despite being wilfully defaced during the Reformation in the time of Edward VI because of their religious content, many of their features have survived. Just discernable is what is believed to be the head of the Virgin Mary and on another wall, the figure of St. James of Compostella with hands outstretched in blessing. There is also a fictive tapestry which even includes images of its supporting nails and thread ingeniously reproduced in paint, and Higher up on the wall the pre-1540 Tudor Royal Coat of Arms. On another wall, now in a jettied chamber, is the image of St. George and the Dragon, its baleful eye still gazing out at us. All of these paintings remained undiscovered beneath plaster until they were accidentally rediscovered around ten years ago. As we gazed up at them, we wondered who their creator, or creators could have been. Mary Cole speculated that they could have been the work of itinerant artists, or perhaps pilgrims travelling to or from the shrine of Santiago de Compostela seeking to earn some money, or a night’s lodging. This theory is quite plausible, with the nearby Tamar valley leading to Bere Ferrers, one of the embarkation points for pilgrims leaving via Plymouth, this being a pass-port, a permitted exit for those travelling abroad. The hall is two storeys high, its original oak beams still stained from the smoke of long-dead woodfires that had once burned in a central hearth. Looking up at them, I wondered who had sat here all those years ago, warming themselves on winter evenings - the owner and his family, the traveller, the pilgrim, the rich, the poor….

To the left of the front porch lies the well, covered over by a large slate slab. The skill of finding exactly the right place to dig, and what is more common nowadays, to bore for water, has remained unchanged for centuries, and the well at Cullacott is no exception. Perfectly sited, it lies directly over the crossing point of two water vein sand would have provided the house with an adequate supply. The slate-hung porch nearby contains the interesting and unusual feature of a coffin-hatch: a convenient way of removing the dead from the house in the days when staircases were narrow and winding.

Cullacott has now been divided into two separate units for holiday accommodation, a useful way of financing what must be the expensive upkeep of such an ancient building. Narrow, winding staircases (one of which is deliberately made up if unequal tread-heights to confuse would-be burglers) lead to upstairs bedrooms, each one immaculately restored, replicating the skilled craftsmanship of the original builders. Throughout the house, the same traditional materials have been used: oak, stone, granite - and where the 1990 storm had done so much damage, new cob. John told me of how he had help mix it in the traditional way, with mud, stone and straw, just as it had been done 500 years ago.

In more than one of the bedrooms we were able with our dowsing instruments to detect ‘presences’, hints of those who had lived there before. There is nothing the slightest bit strange about this, and I would be very surprised if something of this kind were not found in a building as old Cullacott. What didn’t surprise me was that none of them felt in the least bit threatening. Working as I do with geopathically stressed buildings, I can usually tell if something is amiss as soon as I enter. Here all was completely peaceful, and although I am certain we did not go unnoticed and those who observed were doubtless interested in our activities, they were at the same time benign and friendly.

As I walked away from the house at the end of the afternoon, the daylight was beginning to fade. Lights shone in the windows and wood-smoke drifted from the chimney. Had I been standing where I was two, three or even four hundred years ago, I believe that little of this scene would have changed. Today we live in a world of watched clocks and haste and competition where much changes and little remains constant. It is all too easy to believe that this is the only reality, whereas in truth it is nothing but an elaborate illusion, a treadmill that every now and again we must step off in order to regain our equilibrium. The poet W.H. Davies once wrote:

What is this life if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare?

At Cullacott, for those few hours in late October, we stood, and stared, and dowsed and wondered……..

This was certainly one of the most interesting and enjoyable visits that I have attended with Tamar dowsers, and I’m sure that these sentiments are shared by all. Our wholehearted thanks go to John and Mary Cole for being such friendly and welcoming, and extremely well-informed hosts. The tea and biscuits in front of the log fire was much appreciated - a lovely way to wind up a memorable afternoon.

Alan Neal.

Tamar Dowsers

November 2010


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