The first time I drove into this little village on the western edge of Dartmoor I adhered to the speed limit and was out of the other side in less than thirty seconds without it really registering with me. I may have spotted some very attractive old houses, but picked up no clues to what makes Lydford unique.
However, on my next visit I got out of the car, strolled through the village, and the sense of history became overwhelming.
The Saxon kings of Wessex created a number of fortified towns, called burhs, to protect the borders of their kingdom. During the time of King Alfred in the late 9th century, Lydford became a heavily fortified burh. The location was perfect for the defence of Wessex against attacks from both Danish raiders and the warlike tribes from what is now called Cornwall, not just because of its position on the Wessex western border, but because natural features made the site easy to defend.
On three sides, deep steep-sided river valleys formed effective barriers to attack. Along the fourth side a large earthwork was constructed. Walking into the village from the north along the main street, near to the village hall the earthwork can still be seen heading off in both directions at right-angles to the road. The area within the defences was approximately 40,000 sq.m. – that’s my estimate from aerial photographs.
In the 10th century a mint was established at Lydford for the production of silver coins. It has been estimated that 1.5 million coins were struck here from silver mined locally. They became known as Lydford pennies. Hoards have been found as far away as Russia, but in Britain only a couple of dozen are known to exist – which includes four that are displayed in the village pub. The lane opposite the village hall is still called Silver Street, but that wasn’t the only metal contributing to the wealth; Lydford was also a stannary burh – a centre of the tin industry.
Here’s a fine Anglo-Saxon silver penny. Or is it? Well, no, it isn’t. It isn’t 1,000 years old and it isn’t silver. It’s made of pewter and I made it two days ago at Widecombe Fair – but that’s another story.
In the year 997 a powerful Viking force appeared at what is now Plymouth, travelled up the Tamar and then across land to attack Lydford, drawn no doubt by the wealth. The Lydford defences held and the thwarted Vikings headed back to the coast, plundering Tavistock monastery on the way. The battle is commemorated by a metal plaque at the side of the road at the southern end of the village showing a Danish axe over a Saxon shield.
There are a striking number of wide bridleways set at right-angles to the main street. These actually mark the position of the streets of medieval Lydford when it was an important town with its streets laid out in a grid pattern.
Shortly after William the Conqueror successfully laid siege to Exeter in 1068, the Normans occupied Lydford and built a simple castle in the western corner of the enclosed area. Excavations show that five wooden buildings were protected by timber and earth ramparts inside a deep ditch. The site is now owned by the National Trust. The importance of the town continued to grow when it became the administrative centre for the Forest of Dartmoor.
In 1194 King John authorised the building of a stone castle. It was built about 150m east of the earthwork and its function was to act as courtroom and prison for both the stannary and Royal Forest activities. It was two storeys high, 15m square, with walls 3m thick. It was re-built 100 years later. A deep ditch was dug around the tower and the soil piled up against the building to form a rampart up to first floor level. The upper storey was demolished and a much taller building erected using the thick walls as foundations. The old ground floor was filled in, except for a small pit used for the most despised prisoners.
The harsh stannary ‘justice’ meted out was infamous. Among its prisoners was Sir Richard Strode, MP for Plymouth, who made the mistake of complaining that mining waste washing down in the moorland rivers was silting up Plymouth harbour.
The Tavistock poet, William Browne, wrote in 1640:
‘I oft have heard of Lydford law,
How in the morn they hang and draw,
And sit in judgment after’
In the Civil War the Royalists used the castle as a military prison, but thereafter, as the stannary laws lost their effect, Lydford gradually lost its importance and the castle fell into disrepair. It is now maintained jointly by the National Trust and English Heritage.
So, the now tiny village of Lydford has two castles.If that isn’t enough, between them stands the solid church of St Petrock’s (also written St Petroc). It’s one of around thirty churches in the Westcountry dedicated to the Welsh monk. This one was dedicated in 650 and it may have been newly built or the dedication of an existing church. It was a Briton/Christian wooden structure that in time became a Saxon/Christian church before being replaced with a Norman stone structure in the 12th century, enlarged in the 13th and had the tower added in the 15th. The pew ends are beautifully carved, each one different. They show animals and flowers about a, presumably, saintly figure. Renovations were carried out in 1873 arranged by the splendidly-named Rev W.H.W. Chafy-Chafy. The churchyard is full of interest, too. One of its occupants, George Routleigh, was a watchmaker. The inscribed lid of his tomb has been fixed to the wall inside the church. It reads:
“He departed this life
Nov 14 1802
In hopes of being taken in hand
By his Maker
And of being thoroughly cleaned, repaired
In the world to come.”
I can’t write about Lydford without mentioning the Castle Inn. Standing next to the castle this is the perfect village pub: good food, good beer and central to village life. It is the home of the best pie I have ever tasted: steak and stilton fully enclosed (of course, no puff pastry lids here) in crisp shortcrust pastry. Magnificent.
In its heyday, Lydford was more important than Exeter, Barnstaple or Totnes. The first has grown to become a city and the other two have developed into regionally important towns, while Lydford has withered and is significant for its past, not its present.
But at dusk walk along any of the bridleways that trace the course of a long-disappeared medieval street and that history screams that it should not be forgotten.