Poppies For Remembrance
ohn Husband discovers how a small Devonshire village remembers those who lost their lives in the Great War.
THE mid-devon village of Northlew has an unhappy distinction. During the Great War, as a proportion of its population, it lost the greatest number of enlisted men of any town or village in Britain a uarter of the total who marched towards the railway station in 1914.
A hundred years on, the village has been remembering them in a way that has left powerful images in the minds of all who were present.
Dating back to the Domesday Book, Northlew takes its name from the nearby River Lew, a tributary of the Torridge. A bridge carrying the road from Okehampton crosses the river just before the entrance to the village.
In truth, the river is named twice, as the Celtic word “lew” translates as “bright running stream”.
Views of the northern tors of Dartmoor form a backdrop to the village, and at the centre of the village is an impressively spacious square, surrounded on four sides by cottages, the Green Dragon pub, village shop and school.
The parish pump stands under a roofed shelter, and the telephone box, dating from the Silver ubilee of George V, still has a telephone, courtesy of the parish council and a broadband company.
The village was the first in the country to reinstate its telephone following the closure of the box by British Telecom.
The ancient church of St Thomas of Canterbury can trace its list of rectors back to 125 , and the building we see today dates from the 15th century, built with wealth from the wool trade, although not on the scale of some Cotswold churches
There is a stained-glass window dedicated to four saints. Thomas, the dedicatee, holds a model of the church, together with St Augustine, St oseph and St Brannock, patron saint of farmers.
When rector Thomas England arrived in 1 47 the church had been neglected for 200 years following some damage in the 17th century by Cromwell’s men, and was slowly restored over the next few decades.
At this time the tower was closed off from the rest of the church and claimed as the property of the bell-ringers. It contains six bells, one of which is inscribed with the chilling lines I to the church the living call, and to the grave I summon all.
The village has a reputation for its ringing. A folk song collected by parson Sabine Baring Gould from the nearby parish of Lew Trenchard refers to Northlew and the neighbouring village of Ashwater, and contains the lines
“’Twas in Ashwater Town, the bells they did sound,
They rang for a belt and a hat laced with gold.
And the men of Northlew rang so steady and true That never was better in Devon I hold.” Outside the church stands a tall cross on the site of an ancient preaching cross. It dates from the 15th century and was restored between 1 50 and 1900.
An ancient legend says that Northlew is the place where the devil died of a cold which he caught on the moor, and was
buried under this cross.
Some sources think that the devil referred to was actually a stag that had been the victim of a hunt others that he was a fighting cock brought to the village. There is a similar legend associated with Lydmarsh in Somerset.
Following the end of the Great War in 191 , the people of the village chose not to erect a conventional war memorial, but instead built a hall for the benefit of the community. They wanted a memorial that would be useful, and the Victory Hall was opened in 1920, and still forms a focal point in the village.
It was not until 1996 that veterans from WWII decided to erect a granite cross listing the men from the village who died.
The cross stands opposite the church porch and lists 22 names from the Great War. Later research has unearthed at least two further names, leading to the record total of 24 men lost out of the 100 who enlisted.
In 2014 it was decided to commemorate the village’s place in history and, with the help of a well-known seed company, a special poppy was named for the village and over 300 million seeds were planted along the road to the nearest town, Okehampton, in a direction aligned with Flanders. Another line was planted beside the road towards Ashbury, the station
Above: This cottage stands by the bridge over the River Lew.
Below: The church of St Thomas.