Exwick is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, spelt “Essoic”. A Mr Baldwin had 5 serfs, 9 villeins and “A MILL”. Ever since mills have been of enormous importance to the village of Exwick.
On a gloriously sunny day we visited Exwick, starting with the one mill still in existence. An ancient mill, called Banfill’s Higher Woollen Mill, was demolished to make way for this one, built in 1886.
This and two others were powered by a leat mentioned in the Domesday Book and running from Cowley Bridge. In its prime this mill had four wheels running at the same time. These powered the millstones which ground corn and supplied self-raising flour to the baking trade until 1958. For a time two of its wheels powered a process of blending Fullers Earth into the wool to produce a softened cloth while a third wheel drove the grinding of manganese. It later had machines installed for purifying semolina to make Victorian milk puddings!
However, the water which provided the mills with power was also a continuing problem for the village. Floods were a regular occurrence and in the 1960s flood depths of over six feet were recorded, thousands of properties were damaged and ballast was washed away from under the railway track. To re-establish the telephone connections that had been lost, coastguards had to be brought in to shoot a line across the river with a rocket!
As a result of these terrible floods a flood relief water channel was built alongside the river. We examined these great concrete edifices and also noted slots in the wall alongside Station Road which enable protection beams to be inserted to protect Exwick from floods if the relief channel overruns.
We came to the site of the second mill, built in 1765. In 1805 it was converted to the manufacture of paper. In 1872 it became a Corn Mill and then in 1893 it became a laundry. In 1941, the top floor of the mill, still in use as a laundry, was gutted by fire. Thousands of pounds worth of officers’ uniforms and workers’ overalls were lost in the fire. Today, all traces of the mill have gone, the leat has been filled in and the area surrendered to housing.
Exwick Hill is generally considered to be the centre of the old village. The village Post Office at its foot was designed by Walter Cave and built by the Gibbs family in 1893. It closed in 1966 and has been converted into three private homes. The adjacent pub, now named The Village Inn, is still in operation and beyond that is the site of the original Exwick Manor House.
Adjoining the Post Office there once stood a block of terrace houses with solid stone walls and deeply recessed windows. It is said that they seemed almost to be built into a rock hill! These have been replaced with houses of a lighter build.
Rackfield Cottages opposite are known to have been lived in 1792. One was a wash house which then became a cobbler’s workshop, but these buildings have now all reverted to domestic dwellings only.
Two cottages and five houses within the village have unfortunately been demolished, but a good number remain. The thatched roofed “Hermitage” is believed to have first been built in the 12th Century so is over 900 years old. Earlier evidence is that it had a right-angled wing added in the 16th century. The original portion is known to have a Cruck-frame structure (a very early style of building where a curved tree trunk is split in two down the middle and the two halves joined at the top side by side forming a curved V-shape for an end wall of wattle and daub). It also had a large bread oven bulging out through the wall. Documents show that in the 15th century it was in need of repair. Therefore it is even older than that, at least back to the 1400s.
Mill Owner Samuel Banfield retired to this cottage in 1830 and knocked it through to the adjoining cottage, making one larger building. Today it has a low ceiling in a heavily beamed room in the east end, leading to a late Regency room at the west end, with 19th century leaded Gothic casement windows and a higher ceiling. Samuel Banfield died here in 1843, aged 81, thirteen years after he moved in.
Across the road was the third mill, built in 1787 by Antony Gibbs. At its peak, it employed as many as 200 people. In 1860 it became a Flax Mill but was burnt down only two years later. It was then rebuilt but burnt down again and totally destroyed only seven years later in 1869. It was never built again!
We came to St Andrews Church, built in 1842 as a “Chapel of Ease”. It is of particular interest as it was decorated in the Pugin style. The architect, John Hayward, also designed the RAMM. In 1873 the building was extended into a full-sized, independent church; the addition was divided by polished marble pillars crowned with lilies and passion flowers. Panels were stencilled on the ceiling with a dado of musicians along the wall.
In the grounds stands the Exwick War Memorial. Local villagers subscribed the sum of £107.10.0d for its erection and it was dedicated on 26 June 1920, bearing the names of 14 local men who fell in World War One. Later, the names of 4 local men who fell in World War Two were added.
Opposite the church is a small and compact little house which was originally the Toll House (or Turnpike as it was called when it was built in 1853). James Buller owned the land now known as Station Road and built a wooden bridge to facilitate easy access to the city for goods from the mill. It is likely that the leat was then very wide and deep, and that the water flow in it was still powerful as it raced its way to join the river further down after its run beneath the three mills.
With the arrival of St Davids Station, Buller had a bridge with cast-iron girders built in 1871. Of course, it wasn’t free of charge!! Everyone passing through had to pay a toll to the Toll Keeper, even pedestrians at first. There is still a hook fixed to the wall of the toll house to anchor the chain (see below!).
The school beside the toll house was built earlier in 1861 when so many schools were being built all over the country for the first time. Exwick School, as it was known, catered for the village children until 1971. Now it is an after-school nursery.
Further along is the surviving remnant of a new road scheme intended as a northern bypass for the city, but it was halted in 1939. Behind the shops, Delaney and Galley Ltd produced wing fuel tanks and radiators for Spitfires and other aircraft types, as well as ammunition. With the ending of the war the factory was converted into a huge bakery. Mother’s Pride bread was a major product until 1993 when it closed for good. The land is now housing.
Further along is the road which leads uphill to the 17th century Cleve House. Many may remember it as a training centre for Guide Dogs for the Blind. The new Exwick Heights Primary School has been constructed on some of its land so its grounds have gone from teaching dogs to teaching children!! The actual house itself is now converted into apartments but it retains its rooftop look-out turret. The view from there must be very different now!
Having passed some very attractive homes built for workers on the newly constructed railway, we came to the remarkably well preserved thatched farmhouse which is now a pub. The landlord gave us a fascinating talk about its long history and showed us some very old pictures of the building. Although it may be thought to be part of Exwick’s original village, this beautiful thatched house was in fact very much a farmhouse out in the countryside, away from the village and only became a pub in 1937.