A potent statement from C.S.Orwin's masterly account of The Reclamation of Exmoor-relating to the pioneers of agriculture-provides an excellent starting point for a brief history of Challacombe:
Roads, fences, drains, ploughland, grassland, woodland, homesteads and cottages, all of which are accepted today without arousing a single curious thought, owe their being, in many cases, to the courage and enthusiasm, no less than to the business acumen of landlords and farmers hardly a hundred years dead; makers of rural England who have gone to their graves unhonoured and unsung except, sometimes, in obscure or ephemeral literature.' These words are all the more remarkable as you stare out over the moorland village of Challacombe and realise the churchyard at Barton Town contains many of these unsung souls, the patchwork of fields, hedgerows and farmland for miles around their gravestones, the result of their undocumented efforts.
And whilst nobody is suggesting that the village stand still, it remains important to remember the old qualities of the moorland village. We do well to remember the coopers, wheelwrights, millers, miners, bakers, farriers, victuallers, shopkeepers, the village tailor, traditional woodsmen and many others that once formed the nucleus of Challacombe's workforce. Records even speak of a resident clock repairer. The men that laid the hedges and added geometry to the countryside. For the most village ghosts today, but it makes sense to record their achievements, if only to grasp how much more centralised the workforce was in small isolated communities such as Challacombe.
A century and a half ago the village had a population of some 340 souls, most of whom worked in the immediate parish. A few, stabled in the Fortescue miners cottages that comprise the Black Venus inn today, made the weary five mile trek to Simonsbath every day and night, in search of iron ore in the mineshafts sunk thereabouts.
Self-sufficiency was essential. Vegetables were grown extensively in plots around the village. Pigs were slaughtered and put in the farmhouse salters. Butter and cream was made on the farms and sold or bartered at the village shop, alongside the home cured hams, pasties, scones and various other produces. There was no time for hobbies, those being the preserve of the wealthy. The emphasis was very much weighted towards work.
A clear example of this can be found in the early decades of the twentieth century, in what was locally termed the 'paintis'. Here worked the village blacksmith - Gordon Potter - seven days a week with two hours off on Sunday morning to attend church. Despite suffering terrible injuries and being invalided out of the first World War, the work ethic remained deeply engrained. On average he'd shoe twelve horses a day, firing up the forge at four thirty in the morning. Seven and six for a carthorse, four and six for a hunter, and three and six for an Exmoor pony. A pint of ale he secured in a number of hostelries in and around the village cost sixpence in 1937. When the sirens announced the dawn of the Second World War he was to be found lined up in the present day village pub car park in his Home Guard uniform. Aside from his shoeing activities, he was running horses and carts out to Lynton to do the milk round. He had twenty or more horses going out every day, giving visitors rides up to the Poltimore Inn at Yarde Down. It was apparently the inn that never closed in those days! One of the blacksmith's apprentices-no youngster himself these days-recalled that on foggy nights when you couldn't even see the pony's ears, you just let the reins go and let the pony go find his own way home!
Today the population is nearly a third of that figure and many of the old skills and old ways remain only in the monochrome memories and on the mantelpieces of those who have lived in the village all their lives. But even some of their memories don't go back far enough.
The ploughings in Challacombe suggest that ancient farmers were present in and around the village. Standing on a certain spot below Longstone Common and looking due east at dusk, you can see the Bronze Age field workings indelibly printed on the landscape. Much later still, a mere fifteen hundred winters ago, Saxons were farming up on these same commons when the climate was more clement than today. Each and every tribe has left us some relic behind, from knapped flints, earthworks, shards of property, barrows and the arcane standing stones that totter across the moors. Celts almost certainly lived in the remote settlement of Radworthy, a ruin found above the reservoir, construction of which began somewhat later, in 1937.
Challacombe derives its name from the Saxon Cealda Combe or Cold Combe. Before the Norman Conquest the village was held by the Saxon, Ulmer. It has also gone under various other names including Celdecoma, and with the publication of the Domesday Book of 1086 it became Celdecomba. By 1154 the barony was held by the Raleigh family. In 1168 it became Chaluecumba and by 1242 it had changed again to Chaudecumb. Two centuries later it was known as Chalvecombe. The marriage of two important families of the area - the Chichesters and the Raleighs - resulted in the village coming into the hands of John Chichester in 1402. It remained in the Chichester family hands for another three hundred years before being sold to Hugh Fortescue (Lord Clinton) whose descendant Earl Fortescue owned it until a rum chapter opened in Challacombe's history. With the deaths of the Earl and Lady Fortescue within days of each other in June 1958, came crippling death duties and much of the Fortescues' historic holdings on Exmoor went under the hammer. Challacombe itself became a village for sale. Virtually all the farms had been tenant farms belonging to the Fortescues and now the farms and a little over 5082 acres were put up for sale.The Earl's executors decided to sell both the Challacombe Estate and parts of the Exmoor Estate. Despite intense activity by many of the tenants and by preservationists who wanted the National Park Committee to buy the Chains, it was decided not to sell piecemeal but as one lot. It was bought at auction on 18 September 1959 for Â£163,100 by a Crewkerne investment company which narrowly outbid a consortium of Challacombe tenants. The newspaper 'The People' of September 1959 vintage ran the headline: 'In this rural paradise 150 people live in Fear'. Three days later the village changed hands yet again in a private sale. The buyer was a Mr.R.Spieres who had lately been holidaying in neighbouring Parracombe and who duly sold the farms to their tenants, retaining two or three farms for himself. To this day he still owns property and land in and around the village.
The School House was built in 1871 by the Church of England with 43 pupils attending. In 1948 the attendant sound of those schoolchildren in the village stopped when the school was closed.
Pictures of the Flood Disaster of 1952 still hang on the village pub's walls, black and white reminders of the night the heavens opened and caused death and destruction on Exmoor. Challacombe escaped without casualty but the late postmistress recalled tins of biscuits floating knee deep around her then mother's shop.
For centuries Challacombe has been an isolated village in common with many of the other settlements on Exmoor. Up until the 1840's the village was serviced only by packhorse routes dragging sledges across the muddied tracks. The advent of the wealthy Knight family - industrialists from the Midlands - to Exmoor brought about considerable changes. The Knights were engaged in reclaiming vast swathes of moorland in and around Simonsbath. This required hauling in huge deposits of lime from Combe Martin. A track connecting the main Combe Martin road towards Challacombe and from there onto Simonsbath and beyond was cut, making this a somewhat less Herculean task than it was previously. Challacombe was suddenly on the map.
The Challacombe postman of the mid 1850s - who was remembered as an 'elderly pedestrian' - called three times a week and was fortified with beer, and bread and cheese from the Rectory kitchen for his return journey. By 1938 the then postman had been given a hut in which to catch his breath between cycling or walking. It was to be his little haven. The Flood swept it away. Post would also come in by horse and cart from Parracombe.
Essentially the village has changed very little. The reek of peat burning in the village hearths may have changed to oil and gas, and the telegram has given way to electronic mail. Remnants of the old guard remain however. Perhaps this is best illustrated by the occupant of the little cottage next to Challacombe's old packhorse bridge who recently stated: 'I've only to live another three years and there will have been Ridds in this cottage for three hundred years'. Warming news from the embers of Challacombe's history.