An ancient town on Dartmoor's nothern flank

Early days

In 1086, the Domesday Book records a borough and market at Ochementone near an earlier Saxon settlement. This borough lay where Okehampton lies today, to the north of Dartmoor between the East and West Okement Rivers which meet within the town's boundaries.

Market in Fore Street Okehampton, 1890
Market in Fore Street Okehampton, 1890

In the busy market scene above a crowd of farmers has gathered to mull over the issues of the moment.

Fore Street in 2006
Fore Street in 2006

Fore Street in the town centre has changed surprisingly little over the last 90 years, but in recent times many new housing developments have sprung up on the periphery, some with exceptionally high density, leading to a rapid increase in population since 1990.

Modern houses, Okehampton style
Modern houses

Fore Street, 1895. Where is everyone?

The church at the end of Fore Street is St James which was built as a chantry chapel to All Saints, the parish church which dates back to Saxon times. St James was licensed by the Pope in 1178.

Side door of rebuilt church
Side door of rebuilt church
Norman grave cover stone
Grave cover stone

All Saints church
All Saints church

The current All Saints church is the fifth one to be built on the same site. The mediaeval church was destroyed by fire in 1842 and rebuilt in 1844. Only the tower (pictured above) survived the blaze and was incorporated in the current structure. A 13th century grave cover is preserved and is displayed at the entrance.

Dreadful jams

My earliest memories of Okehampton are not happy ones. Returning from a summer trip by road from my home in Truro to London with my wife and young son in 1970, I recall the traffic on the A30 juddering to a halt on a bend before the steep descent into the town centre. My Morris Minor convertible spluttered and wheezed as we inched forward, stop-go-stop. Eventually we reached Fore Street where a continuous stream of big lorries, cars and charabancs would have been belching out exhaust fumes in the faces of bemused townsfolk throughout the day. Never was there a more dire need for the re-routing of a trunk road.

Typical Okehampton traffic, 5.45pm July 31st 2007
Empty town centre, July 2007

A bypass was first mooted in 1963, but was not completed until 1988. The planning process involved a protracted debate, including a 96 day Public Inquiry, on whether the route should go through prime agricultural land to the north of the town, or through the northern edge of the Dartmoor National Park to the south. A full account of how the more controversial southern route was finally selected is given here. Whatever the locals may have thought of the chosen route, a report commissioned by the RAC in 1997 found that 80% of residents considered the bypass to be a good thing for Okehampton. There is little through traffic these days, and the roads are not too congested despite the recent expansion of the town.

This pre-1950 Ordnance Survey map shows the old route of the A30 trunk road passing through Okehampton town centre.

Love me, love me not

Okehampton was not greatly loved by 19th century novelist Charles Kingsley, at least not when seen through the eyes of hero Amyas Leigh in Westward Ho! which is set in the reign of Elizabeth I. However, Amyas and his party were captivated by the sounds of the West Okement river as it hurtled northward down the deep valley from the moor to the town:

Leaving on their left Lydford and its ill-omened castle (which, a century after, was one of the principal scenes of Judge Jeffreys's cruelty), Amyas and his party trudged on through the mire toward Okehampton till sunrise; and ere the vapors had lifted from the mountain tops, they were descending the long slopes from Sourton down, while Yestor and Amicombe slept steep and black beneath their misty pall; and roaring far below unseen,
West Okement river near Okehampton Castle
West Okement river near Okehampton Castle
Ockment leapt from crag and cloud
Down her cataracts, laughing loud.
The voice of the stream recalled these words to Amyas's mind.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

With which determination he rode into the ugly, dirty, and stupid town of Okehampton, with which fallen man (by some strange perversity) has chosen to defile one of the loveliest sites in the pleasant land of Devon. And heartily did Amyas abuse the old town that day; for he was detained there, as he expected, full three hours, while the Justice Shallow of the place was sent for from his farm...
Terrace abutting West Okement near Okehampton Castle
Terrace abutting West Okement

Such a derogatory stance is repudiated by other 19th century texts. Here is Black's Guide to Devonshire (1882) describing the scene on entry to the town by train from the east:

Turning southwards, and drawing nearer to Dartmoor, we cross the East Okement, and then, climbing more steeply than ever, reach Okehampton [station]. The town lies far below on the right, and, looked at from the railway, certainly does not merit the sweeping criticism passed upon it by Kingsley.....the simple, ivy-crowned ruins of the castle form perhaps the most picturesque feature in a scene of considerable beauty.

Even the townspeople are praised heartily in this extract from Devonshire Sketches: Dartmoor and its Borders, a 1873 publication by the Devon Weekly Times:

Okehampton, anciently called Ockington, deserves to be much more known than it is at present, especially by tourists, for it is situated within easy distance of some of the wildest and most glorious scenery of the Moor. Now the railroad is constructed [the line reached Okehampton in 1871], a larger number of visitors will, no doubt, be attracted to this picturesque locality.
Of this I am sure, that nowhere can the valetudinarian find more invigorating and life-giving air, the tourist more romantic scenery, and the artist more beautiful subjects for his pencil. Add to this, the Ockington people are obliging and hospitable, and every attention is paid by them to the wants of their guests...

To redress the balance I'll let the great Devon scholar WG Hoskins have the last word. From 'Devon' first published in 1954:

Okehampton is a singularly dull town, with very little to look at. The only building of any merit is the town hall, a handsome structure erected in 1685 by John Northmore as a town house, and converted to its present use in 1821.
Okehampton Town Hall
Okehampton Town Hall


The historic images of Fore Street are shown by kind permission of ©The Francis Frith Collection.
The short quotation from Devon by WG Hoskins is taken from the reprint published by Phillimore, ©Susan Hewitt, 2003.