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Keble Martin and the parish of Haccombe and Coffinswell, S Devon

By Malcolm Randle, adapted from a review written for the Woodbury News.

On Thursday evening 7th November, Woodbury Wide Awake combined with the Woodbury History Society at the Village Hall for a special event. This was a talk - to a combined audience of nearly sixty people - by Andrew Cooper entitled “Wild Days and Medieval Knights”, about the history and wildlife of the Haccombe Valley in South Devon. This was where W.Keble Martin was the incumbent at the church of St Blaise from 1921 to 1934, and where he made many of the illustrations for his famous book, “The Concise British Flora in Colour”.

Andrew, as a television producer with the prestigious BBC Natural History Unit, has produced many memorable TV productions and travelled widely over the past 35 years. He lives at Church Farm in the Haccombe Valley - between Newton Abbot and Torbay - which he bought many years ago when the house was a virtual ruin. He explained how this beautiful valley is, in effect, secret, as the only way in and out is via the same road. He described the geological processes that created the valley and how initially it was inhabited by Stone Age peoples, as evidenced by the discovery of a flint arrowhead.

The little church, dedicated to St Blaise, was built in the 13th century by one of its residents, the knight Stephen de Haccombe, as thanks for his safe return from the Crusades. Nearby is Haccombe House, which over the centuries has been home to branches of the famous Devon families of Courtenay and Carew.

Of all the valley’s attributes, it is the wonderful wildlife that Andrew loves most and has featured in many of his TV films. His presentation depicted some of his favourites - such as owls, cirl buntings, roe deer, the bluebell wood and, perhaps most memorable, the primrose hill.

Andrew went on to describe how in 1921 Keble Martin was appointed as Archpriest of St Blaise’s church, a unique and ancient title, which by decree of King George V is now only held by the incumbent at St Blaise. Keble was also vicar of Coffinswell in the neighbouring valley, where he resided with his wife and four children. He soon found that, compared with his busy parish in the coal fields of Nottinghamshire, he had a lot of time on his hands in this quiet place, and he used it by creating his meticulous paintings of plants to include in his wonderful book.

He also made long journeys, by train, just to collect and paint plants that couldn’t be found locally. Each day he had to walk over the hill between Coffinswell and St Blaise to conduct services, which probably inspired the title of his autobiography, “Over the Hills”. In it he described how at Coffinswell, it was often the case that the only members of his congregation were birds, such as robins and wrens, that sang from the edge of the pulpit whilst he was reading psalms aloud. At St Blaise wrens built a nest in a cavity below the pulpit, which can still be seen today.

At the conclusion of his talk, Andrew showed a film, one of his latest productions with the BBC Natural World unit, about the lives of badgers at Church Farm. Narrated by Sir David Attenborough, it revealed previously unrecorded wild behaviour and was the

first to bring high quality images of badgers underground.

Following refreshments Andrew took questions from the audience. Before people left there was an opportunity to purchase some of Andrew excellent books, such as "Secret Nature of Devon". He also wrote the guide to our local Pebblebed Heaths.

Malcolm Randle

More about Andrew Cooper's work can be seen here on his website.

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