Not surprisingly, very little is known about Branscombe's first inhabitants. They would have been hunter-gatherers living in a series of seasonal shelters, following the migration patterns of the animals they killed for survival. Their nomadic lifestyle hasn't left many traces, but a lot of what we do know comes from a celebrated Devon coastal site that's almost close enough to be seen from Branscombe's cliffs. Kent's Cavern, overlooking Tor Bay, is an archaeological site of world importance. It was sytematically excavated between 1865-1880, one of the first examples of a painstaking scientific approach to archaeology. Unfortunately, it appears British society of the time was not ready for the controversial results of that study, which shocked both Church and Parliament. The data proved humans were much older than Creationists claimed. Coming as it did just a few years after the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859), the Kent's Cave study played an important part in supporting Darwin's theory of evolution, at a time when they were under attack from all sides.
The clay-with-flints layer on Branscombe's tops, the bane of today's farmer, may have been a main attraction for the first hunter-farmer settlements here, as the flint makes good sharp axes, arrowheads and knives. Beer Head, just east of the parish boundary, was a major stone-age manufacturing centre, supplying the whole of the south-west. An ancient trading route from Beer skirts the northern boundary of Branscombe parish, heading towards Hembury, the massive hill-top fortified enclosure north-west of Honiton. Some archaeologists claim a smaller flint mine of similar date may have existed between West Cliff and Berry Cliff, although most of the holes and hummocks now visible there belong to mining of a much later date, when small flints were apparently produced here in volume under contract to the army and navy, in the days of flintlock guns. The trade was called flint-knapping and was highly skilled. The flint nodules were hit with a wooden hammer at just the right place to break cleanly along the hidden internal "grain". It must have been a similar skill to that developed by the Neolithic artisans, but just how the correct breaking point was chosen is a trade secret the last Branscombe flint knapper carried with him to his grave.
The earliest actual habitation found so far in the area is a Neolithic site at High Peak, on the edge of the cliffs, 2½ miles west of Sidmouth, where archaeologists found blackened hearths, storage pits, flint tools and a jadeite axe of Continental origin. It's dated to about 3,300 BC. Not much excavation has been done in Branscombe parish, and there may be secrets yet to be discovered. The first farmers would have found the valleys of Branscombe looking much the same as they are now, except that thick forest would have covered the bottoms and sides up to the Greensand layer. Bears and wolves were common then, and attacks by other tribal groups and seaborne raiders a constant worry, so a defensive stronghold would have been a priority. These were sited on the hilltops for maximum strategic advantage. Because of the poor soil and exposure to weather, the vegetation was sparse on the tops, and easily cleared.It was here on the open, windy ridges, that the first roads, or ridgeways, were created to connect the settlements. Branscombe is in the centre of a double-ring of hill-top fortifications, indicating the area supported large numbers of people organised enough, perhaps through tribal allegiance or even through slavery, to undertake massive building projects. When it's remembered that tons of earth and rock had to be shifted with nothing more elaborate than antler picks, woven baskets and log levers, the scale of the endeavour is breathtaking.
Further evidence of the area's importance and the size of the prehistoric population is provided by the necropolis, or graveyard, at Farway, five miles north-west of Branscombe. This is said to be the largest collection of burial mounds in Britain, with 57 barrows in 2 square miles.
Within the parish, there is an earthwork enclosure on top of the cliffs at Littlecombe, west of Branscombe Mouth, called Berry Camp. It's very close to the site of the supposed Neolithic flint mine and a number of small burial mounds called cysts, that are thought to be Iron Age. Possible remains of a prehistoric field system have been identified to the west, but opinions differ about whether the Berry Camp earthworks themselves are Iron Age. The low earth walls, which might have formed the foundations for a wooden palisade, can still be seen today, indeed the south-west coastal footpath runs right through one of the embankments where it meets the cliff. Some experts believe Berry may have been a Roman encampment, as it is more rectangular than circular, and only about two miles from a supposed branch of the Fosse Way (completed circa 47 AD), the major road linking Exeter with the rest of the Roman province of Britannia. This undoubtably ancient route forms the northern boundary of Branscombe parish (now the A3052).
The earthworks were measured and drawn in the late nineteenth century for the Victoria History of Devon. This was published in 1906, and evidently some bits have since disappeared over the cliff, as they were found then to be 952 feet long and 380 feet wide. There was also a quadrangular earthwork called Castle Close one mile north-east of the compound, which seems to have been destroyed by limestone quarrying. This corresponds to the site on Margells Hill overlooking the Square which is still referred to locally as the Castle. It's in a good position for an early fortified enclosure at the head of the first combe as approached from the sea and dominating the branching combes on either side. Modern Ordnance Survey maps mark earthworks further north on the summit as "quarry - disused", but a map published in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association in 1903 shows an enclosure surrounded by banks and ditches that would have been visible from sea.
The same map shows an earthwork called Rad-ditch on the northern boundary of the parish, where the Three Horseshoes Inn now stands. The Victoria History describes this as two ramparts 12-15 feet high and 900 feet long, running north and south of the road, with a ditch connecting them on the eastern side.
The 1903 map also shows a large tumulus called Balinsbarrow, on the eastern boundary of the parish, near the Beer road and, just beyond the western boundary, at Dunscombe, another ditch and bank earthwork is marked. The ancient farm nearby is called Wolfs Ring Croft. Several standing stones are marked, two of them no longer shown on maps. The first, on the hilltop to the north-west of Gays Farm is called Hole-stone. Another to the west of Berry Cliff Camp is called Stone Horse. Nothing is known about these stones or their fate, but it is known that a ring of six stones with a seventh, centre stone were removed from Mutters Moor, Sidmouth, in 1830 and broken up for a rockery in the gardens of Bicton House.
The Hangman Stone stands at the north-east corner of the parish, where the Branscombe, Beer and Southleigh parish boundaries meet. Its name is associated with a traditional and widepread moralising tale:
`A man, having stolen a sheep, sat down with his back to the stone. The sheep, struggling to free itself, slipped down the other side of the stone and drew the rope used for binding its feet so tightly round the man's neck, that he was choked.'
By about 600 BC, Branscombe was almost certainly a Celtic settlement. Two separate and quite different tribal confederations settled along the East Devon and Dorset coast. The Dumnonii occupied most of what we now call Devon and Cornwall, and the Durotriges took over Dorset and parts of Somerset and Hampshire. It looks as if Branscombe was just inside the border, on the Dumnonii side.
It could be argued that Branscombe's recorded history starts at this point, as much as a thousand years before the first written records of the place, because at least one and possibly both the parts making up its name, Bran and Combe, are old Celtic. Experts say the language didn't develop a written form in Britain, so the name must have been passed on by word of mouth, perhaps for as many as thirty generations before the Saxons first wrote it down, in the ninth century.
There are several theories about the first part of the name, Bran, but all experts agree that the second part, combe, is derived from cwm, still used in modern Welsh to denote a steep-sided, rounded valley, and present in such place-names as Cumberland (Land of Valleys). It's quite easy to imagine that when settlement occurred, a particular cwm might be named after the person, family or tribal leader occupying it, and Brannuc or Bran are apparently well-documented Celtic personal names, giving us Bran's cwm or Brannuc's cwm. This is the simplest explanation, and may be the true one, but there are other possibilities, for example, Brān in modern Welsh means a crow or something black like a crow.
Despite the geographic closeness of the two tribes, especially around the border region of Branscombe, the Dumnonii and Durotriges seem to have kept apart culturally and even economically. For example, the Durotriges tribes minted coins and had a thriving trade in pottery, but almost no examples of either have been found, west of Dorchester. The only pottery of this period found so far in Branscombe has been of a type called Glastonbury ware.
One thing the Durotriges and the Dumnonii did share was a common language. Echoes of the old Celtic tongue they spoke can be heard in modern Welsh, Cornish, Breton, Irish and Scots Gaelic. But throughout Devon and most of England, successive invasions of Romans, Saxons, Danes and Normans managed to wipe out many Celtic place-names, so a survivor like Branscombe is a rarity. There is no other village in Britain called Branscombe, but there is a Brenscombe Farm not far away in west Dorset, which was spelt Brunescume in the Domesday survey.
Branksome, also in Dorset, now a suburb of Bournemouth, was named after a village in Roxburghshire, Scotland, as recently as 1863. Braunton in north Devon and Branxton (formerly Brankeston) in Northumberland, may be derived partly from the same Celtic personal name as Branscombe although the "ton" suffix is Saxon. In a royal document of 1484 there is one tantalising reference to a place called Brannescombe in Worcestershire, but so far no further mention of it has been discovered and it appears not to have survived to the present day. Finally, there is a Branscomb in northern California, U.S.A., and another in British Columbia, Canada. Branscomb, California, was founded by descendents of a West Country Branscombe who worked his passage to the New World as a bonded servant in the early eighteenth century.
In 55 BC, the new world was about to come to Britain. News of Julius Caesar's landing in Kent that year may not have come as a surprise to the inhabitants of Branscombe, as there is evidence of a substantial and regular trade with the Roman Empire from the Devon coast long before Caeser "came, saw, and conquered". It has been suggested there was an even earlier trade with the Phoenicians. Building on this theme, Branscombe amateur historian Elijah Chick, writing in 1906, proposed a novel theory that may eventually prove cholesterol overdosing was the main reason for the fall of these ancient empires. It seems the West Country had a secret weapon:
`The Phoenicians were traders, experts in tin and copper-smithing and in spinning and weaving wool and linen. Did we teach them how to make Devonshire cream? It's prepared in exactly the same way today, in parts of Palestine that were home to mercahnts from Tyre and Sidon.'
In the event, Caesar retreated to the Continent and the Celts of Branscombe were left for the best part of a hundred years to the peaceful enjoyment of their rich lands, and their Devonshire cream. Three generations would come and go before the crushing power of the Roman Empire would change their descendents lives and our history forever.