'Beating the Bounds' of Devon: Visiting the four compass points of our county

PUBLISHED: 12:37 28 August 2019

The northernmost settlement is the village of Countisbury

The northernmost settlement is the village of Countisbury

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NICK FOSKETT takes in the far east, west, north and south of the county as he tries 'Beating the Bounds' of Devon

In many villages around the UK 'Beating the Bounds' is a custom with its roots lost in the mists of time. Led by, usually, the local priest, villagers walk or ride the boundaries of the parish, stopping at significant markers or the four cardinal points of the compass.

The tradition has its roots in showing the boundaries of authority and distinguishing what is 'ours' from what is the domain of 'others'. Several Devon villages and towns retain the custom as part of their heritage, even though today it is just an opportunity for community building and having fun, with the chance to end up at the village pub.

At Belstone and South Tawton on Dartmoor, for example, 'Beating of the Bounds' takes place every seven years, and even in some of the larger towns similar ceremonies still occur - at Tiverton the 'Perambulation of the Leat' is held every seven years to trace the town's water supply from its sources and celebrate its installation in the Middle Ages.

Hawkchurch has only been Devon's easternmost village since it was transferred from Dorset in 1974Hawkchurch has only been Devon's easternmost village since it was transferred from Dorset in 1974

What if we were to 'Beat the Bounds' of the county of Devon? It would take in very diverse places and landscapes, from the Bristol Channel to the English Channel and to the boundaries of Dorset, Cornwall and Somerset, and would tell us much about the history and people of Devon.

So, just where would 'Beating the Bounds' take us - which places are the Compass Villages, the 'extreme' north, south, east and west settlements of Devon?

The northernmost settlement is the village of Countisbury, a hamlet 5km (3 miles) east of Lynmouth on the A39 coast road, lying at 51°13'56"N. High on the northern edge of Exmoor and capturing the wild remoteness of the high moors, Countisbury (population about 70) has a long history dating back to a battle with invading Danes in 878AD.

The Pigs Nose pub is one of East Prawle's distinguished buildingsThe Pigs Nose pub is one of East Prawle's distinguished buildings

A visit should certainly take in the well-known Blue Ball Inn and the Grade II listed parish church of St John the Baptist.

At the opposite compass point is the southernmost village in Devon, East Prawle, which lies 10km (6 miles) south east of Kingsbridge, at 50°12'56"N. An agricultural village in Chivelstone parish, East Prawle typifies the rich landscape of the South Hams district.

It has many distinguished buildings to visit, and these include The Pigs Nose pub, the church of St Sylvester, and the disused First World War airfield just outside the village.

Hittisleigh is the village closest to the ‘centroid of Devon’Hittisleigh is the village closest to the ‘centroid of Devon’

In the far east of Devon is the village of Hawkchurch in the Axe Valley, 6km (4 miles) north east of Axminster (2°56'04"W). Hawkchurch parish has a population of about 550, and has a long history - its parish church has Saxon origins, and The Old Inn pub dates back to 1543.

Hawkchurch is a newcomer, though! It has only been the eastern compass village since it was transferred from Dorset to Devon in 1974, when the historic county of Devon had its boundaries redrawn to form the modern ceremonial county of Devon. Historically the easternmost settlement was Harcombe Bottom (2°56'40"W), 7km (4.5 miles) south east of Axminster.

Devon is unusual in having two villages that can claim to be the 'westernmost'. Strictly speaking Lundy Island village claims the crown, lying at 4°40'50"W, standing high on the plateau of Lundy 19km (12 miles) off the west coast. Centred on the village pub (The Marisco Tavern) and St John's church, Lundy is home to about 30 people for much of the year, although this grows with visitors in the summer.

One of Welcombe�s key buildings is St Nectan�s parish churchOne of Welcombe�s key buildings is St Nectan�s parish church

The title of westernmost village on mainland Devon is held by Welcombe, 5km (3 miles) west of the A39 and close to the county boundary with Cornwall (4°31'22"W).

Tucked away in the remote valleys of North West Devon, Welcombe's population of 250 survives on its agricultural business and tourism, centred on its key buildings of St. Nectan's parish church and The Old Smithy Inn.

So Countisbury, East Prawle, Hawkchurch and Lundy are Devon's 'compass villages'. But there is one more village that is essential to Beating the Bounds of Devon. While the 'extreme' villages lie close to the county boundary, Hittisleigh, just off the A30 west of Exeter, can claim to be Devon's central village - the hub of the compass.

Strictly speaking Lundy Island village claims the crown as Devon the ‘westernmost’ point in the countyStrictly speaking Lundy Island village claims the crown as Devon the ‘westernmost’ point in the county

Hittisleigh is the village closest to the 'centroid of Devon', which is the point on which a Devon-shaped outline would balance perfectly. Hittisleigh has a long history, dating back to the Domesday Book. Today it is largely a farming community, and is truly the very centre of Devon.

'Beating the Bounds' of Devon provides a great way of getting 'under the skin' of the county, and its Compass Villages provide a rich picture of all that is treasured by those who love Devon. So pick a nice day, pack a picnic, and drive off to 'Beat the Bounds'!

Nick Foskett is an environmental author and consultant. If you are interested in finding out more about record places in the UK then look at his blog at mustgetoutmore.org

Visiting Devon's Mainland Compass Villages

It's a long drive! The round trip from Countisbury to Welcombe and on to East Prawle, Hittisleigh and Hawkchurch is 234 miles (377km), so it's best to do it as several trips over a few days to enjoy the roads, scenery and history along the way. To make the trip, use these postcodes in your sat nav.

Countisbury - EX35 6NE

Welcombe - EX39 6HF

East Prawle - TQ7 2BY

Hittisleigh - EX6 6LF

Hawkchurch - EX13 5XW

…and if you want to include Harcombe Bottom, the historical easterly compass village, the postcode is DT7 3RN

LOVELY Lundy, Devon's westernmost village

To visit Lundy village on Lundy Island requires a day trip by boat from Bideford or Ilfracombe or a helicopter flight from Harland Point. For full details visit landmarktrust.org.uk/lundy

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