History of Porlock


Porlock lies in a horseshoe-shaped vale, protected by the fringes of Exmoor and the pebble ridge. Its name means the “ Locked Port,” for the sea has receded ; leaving a strip of rich, alluvial land, which has grown the world’s champion barley for several years; and is a  duck-haunted marsh. A network of “ rhines,” such as those which entrapped Monmouth’s peasant army at  the Battle of Sedgemoor, drain the salty pastures. No lovelier situation could be imagined. The truncated church tower rises above a huddle of thatched and tiled roofs. Orchards and an irregular patchwork of fields spread inland. Porlock Hill, that famous test of cars, ' whose steepest gradient is one in four, rises so abruptly behind the village that cows appear to be browsing among the chimney~pots.  

Northward lies the Bristol Channel, with Wales looming like a mirage on the horizon, barely 15 miles away. Westward the wooded cliffs, clothed with the  remains of the scrub-oak forest that covered England in  medieval times, stretch one behind the other into Devonshire. To the south the triple peaks of Dunkery the highest point on Exmoor, tower behind the foothills of Cloutsham Ball and Webber's Post; the Selworthy Woods slip, like a mantle, off the  shoulder of North Hill. Thanks to the generosity of  the late Sir Thomas Acland, all these hills have been presented to the National Trust. It is a landscape pervaded by shifting lights; veiled in grey showers, sparkling brilliantly between snowstorms, tender with sunlight on the apple-blossom, or glowing richly in the splendour of a garnered and ruddy autumn.

There is a coastguard look-out station upon the eastern promontory of Hurlstone Point. Legend declares it was there that Saint Dubricius, the patron saint of Porlock, settled his claims to the district by a hurling-match with the Devil. Although he was the Bishop of Llandaff who had crowned King Arthur at Caerleon, he floated over from Wales on his cloak, accompanied by Saint Culbone. The Devil disputed his landing, so the Saint challenged him to a trial of strength. Wrenching a rock out of the rosy sandstone screes which cascade down the slope, he flung it into space; but,  unfortunately, his hand caught in his cloak and his shot dropped into the sea below the point. It is still visible at low tide. The Devil chose an even larger rock, and launched it across the valley. It fell in a cloud of brimstone near the top of Porlock Hill, 2 miles away. Then the Saint, removing his cloak and stripping his off his  sleeves, cracked his sinews in a gigantic effort,  hurled a stone into the hillside several yards further than his adversary. They are called the Whitestones, and are a source of trepidation to fresh horses cantering across the heather on Monday mornings full of excitement after the Sabbath rest.  

In 918 A.D. the inhabitants of Porlock repulsed  a raid by the Lidwiccas, or Ship-keepers, a Danish colony planted in Brittany by Rollo the Ganger. A hundred years later, in 1052, the village was sacked and burnt by Harold who came with his brother Leofric from  Ireland, with nine ships. He was Lord of the Manor of Dulverton, which had been seized by his old enemy Alfgar, son of the Earl of Mercia and Lady Godiva. The  field where he landed near Porlock ford is still called  Hellbyes. In the battle 30 thanes and  inumerable  men of lesser degree were killed. Some historians think that Bury Castle, an earthwork two miles up Hawkcombe, was erected as a final entrench ment; but it is probably much older.  The looting of Porlock was Harold’s only act of barbarity, and was avenged when, after the Battle of Senlac, his sister,  Edith the Fair, lost her manor of Selworthy, across the valley, and his mother, Gytha, fled from Watchet to the Island of Brandanrelice (Flat holme), in the Bristol  Channel.  The manor rolls show that in 1306 Sir Simon Fitz Roges rebuilt the church of Saint Dubricius upon the. Saxon foundations,   His defaced monument, with his legs crossed at the knee (proving that he took part in two Crusades), lies in an alcove of the south wall. The rich land grew heavy crops of hay, beans, wheat, and  hemp; the pastures nourished sheep cattle, hogs, and horses; and villeins held their land at quarterly rents rising to eighteen pence. The  services they provided were  cutting, spreading, and collecting hay, or repairing plough-shares for the Lord of the Manor.

In 1417 Lord Harington, to whom the estate had descended, sailed for the French Wars with a force of if 86 archers and 28 mounted lancers, among whom were  the two nephews of Parson Godde. Although he had survived the Battle of Agincourt without wounds, he died of fever the following year. His childless wife lived to mourn him for over 50 years. She  administering the estates which he had left her. In his will he described himself as John de Haryngton knight, Lord  of Aldyngham, and bequeathed to her half his silver plate, and the furniture and kitchen utensils belonging to all his households in Somerset, Devon, and Cornwall; directing that his Manor of Ugborough, in Devon, “ be amortized to sustain two priests to celebrate divine service for the king’s wellbeing, and to pray for the souls of his ancestors and all the faithful dead.”  After the death of Lady Harington, the Harington Chantry was built on to the church, but was obliterated after the Reformation; The beautiful canopied monu ment, on which Lord Harington lies beside his wife, armed and casqued with his feet resting upon a dog (token that he died in his bed), stands in the nave of the church. The bailiffs rolls of that time show that the manor had been impoverished as a result of the Black Death in 1348, which depopulated the farms. As a result the tenants services were compounded in a fixed  rent  much land lay fallow; and the demesnes were  poorly stocked.  

In 1642 King Charles I presented the living of Porlock to Dr. Bellenden, a former Bishop of Aberdeen, who had been ejected by the Glasgow Assembly upon  the abolition of episcopacy in Scotland. He was nearly 70 years of age and, after suffering much privation in London, he did not live long to enjoy the Rectory with its glebe lands, cottage property, coppices, and fulling-mill. Porlock escaped damage during the  Civil War, but two of its men were executed by Judge y Jeffries after Monmouth’s Rebellion.

In 1672  Henry Rogers, Lord of the Manors of Burnham, Cannington, and Porlock. died. He left a codicil in his will directing that £7,500 should be distributed among the poor. After a law suit, in which £5,000 was  allotted to the re-building of some needy London church, the residue was given to support 10 aged and poor  people in the‘ Manor of Cannington, two in the Manor of  Burnham, and eight in the Manor of Porlock.

His sister Mary became the second wife of Sir George Winter of Dyrham, in Gloucestershire  whose ancestor was  George Winter who was a Vice- Admiral of England and commanded the ship the  Vanguard during the attack on the Spanish Armada. John, his eldest son, was Drake’s second-in-command upon his voyage to the Pacific in 1577. He afterwards became a pirate. His brother was killed by the Spanish Inquisition in 1588. By marriage the Porlock manor passed from the Winter family to the Blathwayts one of whom one became Secretary of State to Queen Anne. It is still in their possession. In 1797 the Ship Inn, a change-house for coaches at  the bottom of Porlock Hill, was visited by Robert Southey. while there he composed a sonnet, which was published in the  Morning Post  two years later.  

“ Porlock, thy verdant vale so fair to sight,

Thy lofty hills which furze and fern embrown,

“The waters that roll musically down

Thy woody glens, the traveller with delight p

Recalls to memory, and the channel grey,“  

Circling its surges in thy level bay.

Porlock, I also shall forget thee not,

Here by the unwelcome summer rain confined,

But often shall hereafter call to mind

How here, a patient prisoner, ’twas my lot

To view the lonely, lingering close of day,

Making my sonnet by. the alehouse fire,

Whilst Idleness and Solitude inspire

Dull rhymes to pass the duller hours away.”

This poem has been parodied by a modern writer

Porlock, thy vale so fit for camper’s site,

Thy hills, where ramble men and maidens brown,

The gradients whence the motor-trials roll down

Thy woody glens, the traveller with delight

Broadcasts by wireless, in his manner gay,

Quoting the pleasures of each holiday.

Porlock, I also shall forget thee not,

Nor that the Ancient Britons, Saxons, Danes,

Soldiers and smugglers trod these lanes.

For here, like me, they shared the hiker’s lot,

To halt, footsore and stiff, at close of day,

Munching their high tea by the alehouse fire,

. VVhilst Energy and Exercise inspire ,

Stout limbs to bear the stouter heart away.”

It was in Porlock that Mr. Phelps, a contemporary of the sporting Parson Jack Russell, started the fox hounds which became famous as the “ Stars of the West.” His kennels occupied the site of the Bridge House, with his flesh house draining into the stream that formed the village’s water supply. Only one  typhoid epidemic resulted from it, or from the fact that the brew house took its water immediately below the bridge. He showed wonderful sport with his pack direct ancestors of the present Exmoor Foxhounds, whose kennels are now at Oare.  Parson Sylvanus Brown, to whom a stained-glass window in the church is dedicated, was another keen sportsman,  50 years ago, he was ' in the habit of umpiring boxing matches after morning service.

Many landmarks in the village remain. The Buttyard, built according to the law of King Henry VIII,

ordaining that “ all able-bodied men should learn to it shoot with the longbow," still gives its name to a field below the schoolhouse, The thousand~year-old yew  tree, from which the bows were cut, grows in the churchyard. Only one watermill, now the electric powerhouse, survives out of the grinding, fulling, and tucking mills which, in the old days, caused so much litigation over water rights. Chandler’s Square, a row of cottages where candles were dipped and blankets woven, and numerous barns have gone. Doverhay Court, the sole remaining wing of the fifteenth-century  manor house,~_ is now a reading-room. Court Farm,. , re-built after fire in the Victorian era, is the site of the old manor courts, and has the manor pound for strayed livestock below‘ it. The six malt~houses, which used to  malt their own barley, and sell it to the farmers for brewing, have vanished. The markets used to be held thrice yearly-—in May, August, and November. Then bullocks were penned on the bridge, and sheep in the  street  and the villagers had the duty of cleansing the pavement afterwards.

The church preserves its characteristic octagonal  steeple  shingled with Sussex oak; the parvise, or priest’s chamber, over the porch has  several medieval carved bosses in the roof and the  remains of a Norman window arch. Its main structure is Early English, and it was restored in 1890 by the family of master carpenters who have tended it throughout its history. Some people declare that the top of the steeple was blown  off during a gale in the eighteenth century , others that it was built with a flat top in order that a beacon could be fired on it.

There is a skittle alley behind both the Ship and the Royal Oak Inns. At the latter a sergeant major used to drill the Crimean volunteers. The tanyard, where local hides were treated with the bark of the scrub oak trees, has been put out of business by  modern factories. Within the last 20 years the Minehead to Lynton coach jingled daily through the village taking an extra pair of horses to climb Porlock Hill. a  network of bridle roads wind into the moor, the fords being  spanned by low parapetted packhorse bridges so that  the bales could swing clear. There is a disused rope  walk near Hacketty Way  and old potteries beside Pool  Wood, which formed a safe hiding-place for smuggled brandy and lace. The dairy at Upper Doverhay Farm had a double wall, and there was another  cache  below the floor of a barn at Bromhamp Farm.

Old customs ,such as the Harvest Home,when the  labourers made and carried back in triumph a neck  made of the last sheaf, have died out.  In the old days the farmer used to  wassail  his cider orchards in blossom-time, and the song survives.

Old apple tree, It wassail thee,

And hope that thou will bear,

For the Lord doth know where we shall be

To be merry another year.

To blow well and to bear well,

And so merry let us be.

Let every man drink off his cup ;

Here’s health to the Old Apple Tree.

(Shouting Chorus).

Old apple tree, I wassail thee,

And hope that thou will bear

Hats full, caps full

Three bushel bags full,

Tallat holes full,

Little heap under the stair. .

Hip, hip, hip, hurrah, hurrah!

Guns-—-Bang, bang, bang

In one cottage R. D. Blackmore wrote part of Lorna Doone.  Sir Francis Carruthers Gould (the

famous cartoonist, F.C.G.) died in the village. He

published some amusing local articles in dialect, and

was a keen observer, of natural history.