Visiting Branscombe for the first time can be a frustrating experience. The trouble is, there's no centre to the place. Instead, there are several hamlets straggling for miles along branching valleys, each boasting one or two fragments of community infrastructure, but never combining them all in one place. Branscombe has been called `the longest village in England.'
The Square, where the Mason's Arms has stood for centuries, is thought by some to be the modern-day centre of Branscombe. It certainly looks as if it should be, if only because of its shape, which comes into its own when morriss dancers perform during the annual Sidmouth Folk Festival in August, and when the village's recently-revived Apple Pie Fair parade uses it as a starting point.
Given only slightly different economic circumstances, it might easily have developed into a full-size traditional market square. Many of Britain's major cities went through a moment in history when their centre was no larger than the Square is today. Some would argue that this quality of being frozen in time is part of Branscombe's attraction and value in a rapidly-changing world.
The original cluster of buildings was built around a ford (now a bridge) across the nameless stream that emerges at Branscombe Mouth. Permanent water and the convergence of tracks at the ford made it a natural location for a few dwellings, one of which, importantly, was the vicarage; another of which, equally importantly, became a tavern. Visitors to England from other countries will find this cheek-by-jowl co-existence of church and pub is common throughout the land. For many years, this hamlet was known as Vicarage, a recognition of the importance of the vicar's house in a parish where it was the major land-owner, and therefore employer, for over a thousand years.
Because the land around Vicarage hamlet was owned by the Church, and because the Church made a good living from it, there was little incentive or opportunity for growth. So for centuries, while other hamlets became villages, then grew into towns and some into cities, Vicarage stayed much the same as it was in medieval times. It was only the sale of the Church estates in Branscombe, in the nineteenth century, that triggered the modest growth of the Square into its present form.
By the early twentieth century the police station was sited in one of the cottages opposite the Mason's Arms, no doubt too close for comfort as far as late drinkers were concerned, and the dawn of the motoring age spawned a garage and a couple of general shops. But the post office was still far away up another valley, as was the church itself, the school, the bakery and the smithies. Eventually, the police station, the shops and garage closed, even the vicarage was sold as a private house, and the Square's development ceased. Today, as with the greater part of Branscombe, it is preserved by various planning laws and is unlikely to undergo any further growth.
There was, and still is, a rival pub with supporting cottages up the valley at another cross-roads next to a permanent stream. The Fountain Head at Street claims to be at least as old as the Mason's Arms. No doubt even in those days it harboured a loyal band of regulars who wouldn't dream of patronising the other establishment, much like today. The hamlet of Street boasts some of the oldest cottages in the parish. From Domesday to at least the mid-nineteeth century it was actually known as Dean, another reference to the Church's land holdings here. At some stage after 1850, possibly after the Church holdings were sold, it changed to Street and all reference to Dean ceased. The odd thing is, Street is just as old a word as Dean, and in other parts of Britain would denote the route of a former Roman road. Italy's autostrada are their modern-day successors and are named from the same Latin root. There are claims that a nearby hilltop earthwork was a Roman camp of some kind.
Many of the cottages in Street bear plaques with dates in the sixteenth century, and at least one, Margell's, is much older than that. But although Street grew to the size of a hamlet and became a hive of cottage industry during the lace boom of the nineteenth century, and although it possessed a forge (now part of the pub), and became the proud owner of a post-box in Queen Victoria's reign, it also failed to develop any further.
Many visitors might expect St.Winifred's church to be at the heart of the community, and so they make it the starting point of their exploration of the village. Undoubtably it was and still is a major focus, having stood here, looking not much different, for the best part of a thousand years. Indeed, if the architectural historians are right, there's been a church of some description on this site for well over the millenium. And if we listen to the theories of some scholars of early christianity, we could be persuaded this small patch of earth has born a holy shrine or church since the seventh century.
The area around the church does feature a couple of the things you'd expect to find in a village centre. There's the school, although that's tucked away round the corner in another valley, and there's the post-office shop, a vital part of any small community's life. But the phone box, village hall and second smithy, are down around a bend, out of sight and just a bit too far from the church environs to be part of it.
So here's another isolated part of the jigsaw. Another confluence of streams and ancient tracks. The old bakery is here, close to the original manor mill, now restored. The bakery was a magnet of village life until quite recently, and now has a new life as a teashop.
The thatched smithy is wonderfully preserved as a working museum by the National Trust, although it's no longer an important community meeting-place, where men would gather to swap gossip while their horses were shod, or a broken plough mended. The Branscombe post office and a general shop were actually located opposite the smithy for a few years, and at times it must have felt like the village centre.
But it wasn't.
Finally, there's Branscombe Mouth, the seashore. Most first-time visitors will end up here, and in many seaside villages it would be a centre, perhaps the centre of commercial activity. In Branscombe it isn't, and hasn't ever really been so. Of course, fishing has played an important part in the economy of the village in times past, but it's always been on a small scale. There is no natural shelter from the prevailing south-westerlies. The constant cross-current and the steeply shelving beach make it difficult to put out a large boat or come ashore even in calm seas. Nonetheless, trade has been conducted from here and at times it must have been very busy. Besides fish, salt, coal, lime and gypsum have been landed and loaded at Branscombe Mouth, not to mention the odd cargo of contraband liquor!
People have also arrived across this beach from earliest times. Later came Celtic traders and settlers, early Christian missionaries, Saxon and Danish raiding parties. There was a period, a thousand years ago, when Viking raiders occupied Branscombe for two generations, until they were driven out by the Church. But the maritime tradition doesn't dominate. Branscombe's fishermen were usually also agricultural labourers or famers - the land and the sea were held in balance in the economy, much as they are in the landscape. What's interesting for visitors is how quickly you can forget you're anywhere near the sea at all. A party of church architecture enthusiasts who visited the village in 1878 found this worth noting in their journals. They were only here for a few hours to look at St.Winifred's, but were nonetheless struck by the observation:
`Branscombe is shut away from surrounding communities, so deep in its hollow the closeness of the sea
is rather a thing of faith than sight.'
The physical effect of being shut away is clearly a result of the massive wall of hills that shield the narrow combes behind from all things maritime. But it's the psychological, the spiritual effect that the writer is hinting at, a sense of insulation from the roar of history that visitors then and now mark and value as an essential part of the Branscombe experience. While it may be true, as professor Hoskins said, that there is no village of Branscombe, this may be its ultimate blessing - a community that's survived the ravages of time because it exists as rather a thing of faith than sight.