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Brief History Of Stoke Gabriel

Early Days

Evidence exists of a small Iron Age Fort at Portbridge from about 500BC, inhabited until the 6th Century and was farmed and sustained by a small community - perhaps the earliest example of “The Good Life”! The first local villagers were Celts- the Dumnonii. They farmed little fields bound by low stone walls; they used a wheeled plough and had iron bars for currency. They were scarcely disturbed by the Roman occupation. When the Danish raids started up the River Dart, and the Saxons began to take over, many of the Dumnonii crossed the channel to Brittany, from which they may have come in the first place.

It was probably the bounty of a river well stocked with salmon and bass that eventually led to the settlement of Stoke Gabriel. A church was mentioned at Stoke Gabriel in the Domesday Book 1073, the earliest official record of any life in the village. Orchards were planted in abundance to provide cider for the fishermen and workers in the fields. This along with the fish caught may have been traded or bartered with local villages for other goods and food.

One of the oldest buildings in the village is the Church House Inn which dates back to 1152. It was actually split into two and known as “Great” and “Little” Church House. The current landlord’s accommodation served for many years as a Court House, where judgements were made and punishments delivered a short march down the hill at the V&A!

It has been noted that for centuries Stoke Gabriel was the centre of the Dart Salmon industry, however fish stocks in the river have now dwindled, and coupled with the need for conservation means that few licences are available for fishermen. A few fishing boats can still be seen moored in the Mill Creek, but the full time fishermen relying on the river for their livelihood have long since gone.

Stoke Gabriel is now essentially a “dormitory” village for workers in the nearby conurbations of Torbay, Plymouth and Exeter. However, with the coming of new technologies allowing work from home, it is perhaps beginning to recover its roots as a “working” village.

Lost Stoke Gabriel

A Ferry connected the west of the South Hams with Stoke Gabriel from Duncannon to Ashprington point. It is still shown on some maps, but actually ceased at the time of World War 2. The ferryman would also provide a “service” to Totnes or Dartmouth by connecting with the frequent paddle steamers passing through.

Many cider apple orchards covered the fields leading down to the river. At the time of the apple blossom this must have been a beautiful, perfumed sight. The trees have now been largely felled to make way for the current housing. In the position of what is now the River Shack Café stood a tidal mill consisting of two large structures that seemed to dwarf the surrounding cottages. The mill would only work for two periods in a day, perhaps not particularly efficient by today’s standards!

A stony track led from Byter Mill to the quay and was used for carrying sacks of corn and cider to and from the mill and Mill Creek. The mill probably ceased working in the late nineteenth century and was eventually demolished to leave the quay. But, as can be seen from the photographs, the quay was used for some time as a berth for the sand barges dredging in the river. Later some of the land was reclaimed as an open space as we see it today.

In recent memory we have lost a notable public house, the Victoria and Albert Inn in Coombe Shute. Both the “V&A” and the Castle were vibrant meeting places for the young from the surrounding districts in the 1960’s. The V&A is now converted into houses. The old Stoke Gabriel Court Hotel remains empty and faces an uncertain future but will hopefully provide a useful community facility as well as an attractive base for weary travellers.

Stoke Gabriel Celebrities

Born in a farmhouse at Sandridge, John Davis, sailor and explorer, friend of Sir Walter Raleigh and inventor of the Quadrant. He discovered a passage between Greenland and Baffin Island and named it the Davis Strait. In 1592 he discovered the Falkland Islands, but met his end in 1605 at the hands of pirates!

Rowes Farm on the Aish Road was the birthplace of George Jackson Churchward, steam locomotive designer. Born on the 31st January 1857, he revolutionised boiler design in steam railway locomotives. Perhaps the most notable was the “Star Class” Loco. Churchward retired in 1922 and tragically died on a foggy December day in 1933 - ironically knocked down by a steam locomotive close to the Swindon Works. He is buried in the Churchyard at Christ Church Swindon.

Agatha Christie's home at Greenway, now owned by the National Trust showcases her life and work. Dead Man's Folly was based on the house just outside the edge of the parish, and many stories have been set in South Devon. Stoke Gabriel has its own novel - “Daughter of the River” by Brixham writer Irene Northan is a Victorian romance set in the village and nearby Duncannon. Historian and author/poet Robert Graves mentions the church carvings of Gabriel and Herne in his book “The White Goddess” published in 1948.

Stoke Gabriel has also been used as a background to the film world - a narrow walk left of the church gates leads to a tiny square, the Barnhay, which was for a while known grandiloquently as 'Byrkely Square', part of a film of this name starring Leslie Howard.And it was in Stoke Gabrile church that the vicar discoverd the prisoner from Dartmoor hiding in the film of Galsworthy's play 'Escape!'.

View photographs from Stoke Gabriel's past