The oldest houses in Branscombe are Church Living, on the main road just north of Saint Winifred's, Edge Barton and Hole House, both within half a mile of each other in the northern part of the parish. The latter two are perched on ledges, half-way up the steep sides of the same valley. They are fortified against attack from below by walls.
Hole House is said to have been built in 1075 by Simon de Holcomb, a Saxon bowman who fought at the Battle of Hastings. Legend has it he took up residence in Branscombe after being evicted by the victorious Normans from his manor at Farringdon. Hole House then became the home of the Holcombes for over 500 years. Most famous of the line was Sir John de Holcomb, who died in the Crusades and who, with his wife, Isabella Downe of Rousdon, a direct descendant of Henry I, owned most of the land between Branscombe and Lyme Regis. Sir John is buried at Dorchester Abbey, near Oxford, in one of the finest surviving Crusader tombs.
Most large houses of this vintage will have included some kind of private family chapel originally, and there are traces of a fourteenth-century mortuary chapel at Hole, possibly a chantry, where prayers would be said for departed ancestors, the cost covered by a provision in the lord's will.
The house was extensively re-built in the late sixteenth-century. Some interesting graffiti can be found on a stone mantelpiece in one room. The names of Gilbert, Josias and Christopher Holcombe were carved there in 1577, when they were children.
The house was sold out of the family by Gilbert, in 1601. Gilbert's son, Thomas, believed to have been born at Hole House, is said to have emigrated to America in 1630, on the "Mary and John", and founded the American branch of the family that survives today. However, recent research argues this particular Thomas Holcomb may in fact have come from Warwickshire. Hole House was bought by Ellis Bartlett whose wife, Anne Mitchell, died there five years later, and was buried in St.Winifred's. The family continued to live in the house until the eighteenth century, when it passed by marriage into the Stuckey family, of which Judge John Stuckey was the last of the line. He died in 1810. For a short time in the 1980s, a Branscomb family from California owned and lived in Hole House, but they eventually returned to the U.S.A.. They were probably descended from a West Country branch of the family that emigrated to America in the early eighteenth century, and so are almost certainly descendants of the original Branscombes of Edge Barton.
Edge Barton has a central stone spiral staircase that's said to be thirteenth century. It has been called one of the 'oldest continually-inhabited houses in England', although there is a period of several hundred years during which its occupation has to be assumed, as there are no records. Also, it was described in the eighteenth-century as 'derelict'.
It is first mentioned in a document of 1218, in connection with the Branscombe family that lived there until the late fourteenth century, but both parts of the name "Edge Barton" are Saxon, and may indicate a farm dwelling existed here long before that. "Barton" describes a courtyard-farm dedicated to growing barley, used in great quantities to make beer, the Saxons' national drink. "Edge" probably refers to its position, overhanging the valley. Defensive platforms of this type, with pallisaded earth walls were typical of the earliest occupation in these valleys, so the site at Edge may be extremely old, even prehistoric. The interestingly-named "Hill Arrish" is nearby, "arrish" being the Saxon word that describes the stubble left, after grain has been harvested.
There is plenty of evidence a substantial chapel existed on the site from at least 1290, when it is first noted. The antiquarian brothers Lysons described it, in 1772, as being in poor repair and desecrated. The chapel has now been absorbed into the fabric of the house, but a thirteenth-century rose window, 6 feet 6 inches in diameter, has survived in the attic, in what was the west gable end. A piscina niche now inside the house probably belonged to the chapel. The evident size of the building has led to speculation it may have been a religious establishment in its own right, possibly connected with the supposed birth there of Walter, the thirteenth-century Bishop of Exeter. Certainly, it was home to the Branscombes of Branscombe for at least two hundred years. They were a wealthy and influential family, providing three Sheriffs of Devon in the fourteenth century, several members of parliament and of the Church. They were Surveyors of Weights and Measures, Escheators for Devon and Cornwall, Justices of the King's Peace and Keepers of Exeter Castle. They were Knights of the Shire, trusted servants of the monarch and of the Earl of Devon. One is said to have been the Abbot of Newenham, near Axminster, another was a Canon of Salisbury Cathedral. Richard de Branscombe of Edge is recorded as among the first Freemen of the City of Exeter, elected in 1299 'at the instance of the mayor and community'.
By the end of the fourteenth century, the Branscombes had substantial land-holding throughout Devon and branches of descendants were ensconced on distant manors. As County Sheriffs and royal office-holders, the heads of the Edge Barton household would have spent much of their time resident in Exeter Castle. It may be that the family's original house in Branscombe was beginning to look a bit small and dowdy in comparison. Whatever the reason, in or about the year 1377, the house was sold to the Wadhams of Knowestone, in north Devon, and as far as is known, the Branscombe family was not seen again in the parish for more than 500 years.
The Wadhams held Edge Barton for eight generations. The mother of the last male heir in this line, Nicholas, is buried in the church. Her tomb is the finest of those surviving from the Elizabethan period. Nicholas died in 1609. He is most remembered for having founded Wadham College, Oxford. He died before it was opened, but his widow Dorothy oversaw the project to completion.
One of the upper rooms of Edge Barton contains grafitti of a fleet of sailing ships carved into the stone windows. An expert has identified them as sixteenth-century Portuguese carracks of a type that would only have been seen in large numbers in the English Channel at the time of the Armada. The sea can just be glimpsed from the window. The logbook of the "San Martin", flagship of Captain-General Alonso Perez de Guzman, Duke of Medina Sidonia, records that the 130 ships of the Spanish Armada were becalmed between Start Point and Portland Bill (within sight of Branscombe) on Monday the 1st of August, 1588.
With the last male heir dead, Edge Barton passed by marriage from the Wadhams to the Wyndhams and then the Strangeways. Finally, Edge became the property of the Langdons of Chard. It was sold at about the beginning of the twentieth century to Mr. Richards of Sidmouth, who was born in Branscombe. It was in a decayed state, and the ruined chapel was being used as a dairy. It was rescued in 1933 by an architect, Captain Frank Masters, who began extensive renovations which were completed by a later owner, Robert Blackburn, the aeronautical engineer. Today, it wears its age beautifully, blending so naturally with its surroundings that it seems to be part of the landscape.
Church Living could be as old as St.Winifred's, and still retains some thirteenth-century features. The south window may have been part of the chamber which, in a 1307 inspection, was estimated to require 60 shillings-worth of repairs. It's said one of the bedrooms used to have two bas-reliefs of a coat of arms, with a third was in the ceiling, but they have not survived. Church Living was never the vicarage. It was probably used as a guesthouse by visiting canons. Tradition states there's an underground passage that connects Church Living with the church. Between the two, where the war memorial is now, stood Church House, for years the residence of the sexton. It was pulled down in about 1880.
Hole and Manor mills, both water-powered, were important revenue-earners for their respective lords. Tenants were obliged to use the manor mill, just east of the church, and pay for the privilege. Hole Mill, at Bottoms, just east of Hole House, was still working until the early twentieth century, but is now a private home and guest house. Manor Mill has been completely restored by the National Trust. It probably occupies the site of an earlier mill. Until the second world war it provided flour to the former Branscombe bakery, now a tea-room, opposite the village hall.
Lower House, or Eastcombe, is said to be a former manor house. It has oaks dating back to the Elizabethan period, when the Ford family originally took up residence, after moving from what is now Gayes Farm. The Fords were major land-owners in the parish until very recently. The house was visited by the Grand Duchess Helene of Russia in 1831. To commemorate the event, a plaster plaque bearing the double-headed eagle of the tsars was installed, in the bedroom where she slept. A court sword with a grip of malachite, mounted in silver, bearing the arms of Russia, was given to the household as a gift, on her departure.
Gaye's Farm is one of the oldest individual farms in the parish, although the name dates from the late 1600s.
The Old Vicarage, just off the Square, is not so old by Branscombe standards, having been built in about 1888. Curiously, for such a recent building, the exact date is not known. It is made with stone quarried from Stockham's Hill (called Stottcombe's Hill in 1524). It is slightly east of where the ancient vicarage stood from the thirteenth century until it was demolished in 1884.
Bury Barton, mentioned in 1307 as La Biry, is near the ancient earthwork that give it its name. It was a substantial stone building dating from the seventeenth century or earlier. A survey in 1793 refers to it as a "mansion". The original house was said to be haunted by a little old woman who was murdered there. She wore a red cloak with a tall hat and buckled shoes, and was thought to be endlessly searching for a hidden hoard. Money is believed to have been found near the spot in 1850, and she has not been seen since.The house was completely re-built after being destroyed by fire in 1887, only the lower part of some of the old walls surviving, together with the bases of two original chimneys. One source says Berry Barton had been burned to the ground only a few years before, in 1875, following an arson attack by dissatisfied agricultural workers. Four other farmhouses in the parish were said to have been torched, at the same time.
Barnells, shown on old maps as "Barnwell" or "Barnhill", was built from an original farmhouse in 1830 by Captain Yule or Ewell, into whose arms, it is said, Nelson fell, at the Battle of Trafalgar. A famous contemporary engraving of this scene on board the "Victory" does indeed show the captain, but depicts him standing to one side, not propping up the Admiral. However, Captain Ewell did take part in Nelson's funeral cortege, in which he carried a scroll inscribed with the great man's family tree, which was interred with his body. During Captain Ewell's ownership, Barnells was known as "Trafalgar Cottage". After his death, his portrait and sword were acquired by the Ford family.
The house reverted to its original name of `Barnells' when John Tucker, the lace dealer, bought it in 1845. In 1851 he built an extension as large as the house itself. The ground floor of the new wing was occupied by workrooms where the lace was designed, the patterns were marked out, or `pricked off' and, with the thread, were given out to the cottage workers. The building included a bleaching room, some accommodation for supervisors and a small general shop where, according to custom, the workers received some of their earnings in the form of goods. This wing demolished in the 1920s. At his death in 1877, John Tucker left about £50,000 and was considered a wealthy man by local standards.
Margell's Cottage, in Street, has a very fine and ancient oak ceiling on the ground floor. It's name dates from the late 1600s when it was written "Marckell's". Some of the cottages in Street are sixteenth-century, and were formed from a single building, said to be the remains of a small monastic establishment. This may have occurred following the dissolution of the monasteries (1536-47) by Henry VIII. The spring that gives the nearby "Fountain Head" pub its name is reputed to have been used for baptisms by Saint Brannoc.
The Lookout is a relic of the days when smuggling was rife all along this Devon coast. There was a watch room with a telescope and dwellings for an officer and five men. In later years, it was converted to a house for the Ford family, who owned most of the village until 1961, when it was acquired by the National Trust. Electricity was supplied by a water-powered turbine.
Great Seaside is a good example of an Elizabethan farmhouse.
The present house at Wabble is not particularly old, but is built on the site of a much earlier dwelling which goes back to at least the thirteenth century. A deed of that period mentions the sale of Wabble, in exchange for some land at Borcombe, Southleigh, and one pair of white gloves, to be supplied annually. The name is probably a contraction of "Wabbe Well". Wells were any kind of surface spring used for domestic water, not necessarily holes in the ground. "Wabbe" is the sound the water makes as it gushes from the spring.
Hazelwood was built in about 1865 by the Fords. It is 300 feet up on the steep valley side overlooking the Mason's Arms, facing south and west. It had seven bedrooms. It was bought by the Tuckers with part of the fortune they made from the lace industry. It then went to the Chicks, also a lace family. It was the first house in Branscombe to be designed and built from scratch as a residence. The zig-zag grass path above the house used to lead to a croquet lawn. It is built of stone and flint, in a late Georgian style.
The hamlet of Weston was named after its original inhabitant, John de Weston of 1307. In the eighteenth century, a large house was built there by the Stuckey family, which was burned to the ground in 1810. The Fountain Head is thought to be the only pub in Devon with that name. Local tradition dates the pub as fourteenth century. A former forge next door has been converted to a bar. It is set among some of the oldest dated houses in Branscombe, several plaques declare the buildings are early sixteenth century. The curiously-shaped house on the corner, frequently featured in post-card views of the village, is called Beehive Cottage, but whether from its shape, or because a previous owner kept bees, is not known. The post-box in the wall of Beehive Cottage is an antique itself. The initials V.R. means it was cast, and possibly installed in the village, during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), a relic of the world's first public postal service.
The Mason's Arms is probably named because of the famous Beer stone quarries nearby, perhaps in the hope that the workers would all go and spend their wages there, on payday. The owners believe it is fourteenth century. Within living memory the main building was about half the present size, the eastern section, where the restaurant is now, was a row of terraced cottages. This can be seen in early photographs.
A nineteenth-century survey of the names of all public houses in Devon discovered there were ten called The Mason's Arms, including this one. It was the most popular inn-name connected with a trade, and equal in popularity with the Queen's Arms.