When I was twelve years old my family moved seven miles inland from the seaside town of Sidmouth to the small, historic, market town of Ottery St Mary. Located in the heart of the beautiful East Devon countryside, the parish of Ottery (which also covers the nearby villages of West Hill, Metcombe, Fairmile, Alfington, Tipton St. John and Wiggaton) has a population of about seven and a half thousand. The town lies about 10 miles east of Exeter, just a couple of miles off the main A30, Exeter to Honiton, road.
Ottery St Mary can trace its history back to Saxon settlements on what is now called the river Otter but was then called the river Otrig. By the time of the Norman conquest of 1066, a manor called 'Otrei' existed. This was given to the canons of the cathedral at Rouen, the historic capital of Normandy, by Edward the Confessor in 1061, five years before William the Conqueror invaded and claimed the throne. In 1207 the 'St Mary' part of the name was added indicating that a church existed. However, there may have been a church in existence as far back as pre-Norman times.
The town remained in the hands of the canons of Rouen until it was bought back by Bishop John de Grandisson of Exeter in 1337. He founded an ecclesiastical college for up to forty canons in Ottery and by 1342 had enlarged and remodeled the parish church as a mini-replica of Exeter Cathedral.
Restored in the 19th century by William Butterfield, the church is now the town's best known landmark and has been called 'the most impressive medieval parish church in the county' and 'almost unsurpassed among other churches of its size' . The church also boasts a decent ring of bells, a mediaeval clock, and a 500 year old weathercock believed to be the oldest in Europe still in place. Just below the church are a set of old wooden stocks constructed and used after the period of the black death (bubonic plague) that wiped out half of Ottery's population.
Although it flourished for two hundred years, the ecclesiastical college did not survive the reign of Henry VIII and all that remains is a partly cobbled street called ‘The College’ next to the church. However, Henry VIII did found the King's School in Ottery in 1545, and that school has developed into a modern comprehensive school located at the west end of the town.
As well as the church, Ottery is also famous (or maybe infamous) for its Flaming Tar Barrels. Supposedly a 17th century tradition, once a year, on Guy Fawkes night (5th November), old tar barrels are set ablaze, picked up, and carried on the shoulders of locals as far as possible in the vague direction of the next public house (pub/bar/inn). Earlier in the evening children and teenagers carry smaller barrels but by the time the women's barrels are finished and the men's 30kg barrels start, large crowds have gathered in the town from all over the region completely filling the narrow streets and adding to the excitement. Although, at my last count, there were only five working pubs in the town, barrels are still lit at each of the sites of the once seventeen pubs. Just in case you might forget that it is 5th November, 'cannons' (actually handheld pieces of piping) are filled with gunpowder and fired with loud bangs at various locations throughout the town at 600am, 1pm and 4pm to remind everyone.
The annual carnival procession with its carnival queens and princesses, majorettes, and brightly decorated floats produced and sponsored by various local groups, was traditionally held on the same day as the tar barrels. More recently the carnival has been held a few days before. A travelling fun fair is usually in situ down by the river for a few days before the barrels too. As an event that completely changes the whole character of a place, the carnival, fun fair and tar barrels competes very well with nearby Sidmouth's (7 miles to the south through the notoriously narrow and high hedged Devon roads) summer folk festival week.
The other main date in Ottery 's calendar is Pixie Day, the Saturday closet to the longest day of the year. Pixie Day supposedly celebrates the banishing of mischievous pixies from the town to the small caves further down the river known as Pixie's Corner.
Today the old heart of the Ottery still sits snugly between four hills. East Hill and West Hill can be found at their respective ends of the town. East Hill consists of a large wooded escarpment with Ottery lying at the bottom of the steep slope. West Hill is a gentler incline and provides the location for a village of the same name. The much smaller Tip Hill guards the south entrance to the town and the church crowns the small Corn Hill to the north of the town centre.
More recently housing has been built on the other sides of the northern and southern hills extending the boundaries of the town. Here modern wide roads have been built but in the older parts of Ottery most of the streets are very narrow with the exception of the suitably named, Broad Street, right in the middle of the town. Driving through Ottery often requires considerable patience especially when there are cars frequently waiting on double yellow lines while their drivers pop into one of the local shops, or a bus picking up passengers coincides with a lorry unloading in Broad Street.
St. Saviour's bridge spans the river Otter at the west end of the town and a popular footpath follows the river down its valley to Tipton St John. This was also the route the railway used to follow from the old station located next to St Saviour's bridge. The line did not survive the cut backs of the 1960's but the old station building has remained in use for various purposes over the years and the remnants of the level crossings can still be seen at both ends of the town.
I spent my teenage years living in Slade Close, at the east end of the town. For six years, I cycled or walked up to the King's School located at the west end of the town. When I started the school was a traditional Grammar school. Those living in Sidmouth and Honiton that passed the 11-plus exam were bused every day to Kings while their Ottery counterparts who failed the exam took the same buses back to Honiton and Sidmouth Secondary Modern schools. Before moving to Ottery, I spent a year doing the tedious 30 minute bus journey from Sidmouth and back. The year after my younger brother started at Kings, all three schools became comprehensive schools. Now everyone simply attends the nearest school and the insanity of the daily bus journey has became history.
During my time at the school (1979-1986), two of Ottery's other significant landmarks lay on the route of the hated school cross-country run. Turning right out of the main entrance at Kings School, we would follow the lane until we reached the drive way at Cadhay. This Tudor manor house was built by John Haydon in 1550. Having run past Cadhay house, hundreds of miserable school boys, over the years, have turned right, back towards town, running along the path behind what is now the health centre. This path takes you past the unique 18th century Tumbling Weir that used to supply the energy for a Georgian textile factory.
The factory building is still there and was until recently used to manufacture electrical switch gear. It is currently empty and in dire need of redevelopment. In contrast, opposite the weir is the delightful Tumbling Weir Hotel and Restaurant.
Once past the Tumbling Weir exhausted school boys only had to cross St Saviour's bridge, stagger past Riverside Motors on the right and the entrance to Strawberry Lane on the left before the final killer stretch up the hill back to the school.
One hundred yards along Strawberry Lane is Salston Field, the location of a far more dignified sport. Ottery's cricket club was founded in 1858. Ottery also boasts an amateur football club but unfortunately has not had a rugby club for many years. Both Honiton and Sidmouth have amateur rugby clubs and King's School boys have to choose which to play for. Despite, having lived in Sidmouth, or maybe because of it, I chose to play for Honiton's under 19 team and was part of the team that reached the final of the Devonshire cup in 1987.
Like most places Ottery has its famous people who have been born there, died and buried there, or just visited for a while. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, widely acknowledged as one of England's finest poets, was born at the old Schoolhouse in Ottery in 1772. His famous poems include the Rime of the Ancient Mariner which, of course, was mandatory reading at school, and Kubla Khan. As might be expected there are numerous references to Ottery in his works. 'His father, the Reverend John Coleridge, was vicar at the church and headmaster at the Kings School.
William Makepeace Thackeray, the author of Vanity Fair and Pendennis also lived close to Ottery, in the village of Larkbeare, at around same time. He was said to be a friend of Coleridge's and spent many long hours in Ottery. In Pendennis he refers to Ottery and the surrounding villages under the name of Clavering St. Mary. More recently, Ottery is also apparently the inspiration for 'Ottery St. Catchpole', the fictional home village of the Weasley family in the Harry Potter series.
The diplomat and author Sir Ernest Satow (1843 - 1929) retired to Ottery after serving in embassies and consulates in East Asia, Siam, Uruguay and Morocco. He is buried in the churchyard and has a commemorative plaque in the church.
Famous visitors include Oliver Cromwell and Thomas Fairfax. Ottery was occupied by both sides during the civil war. It was the headquarters of the King's troop in the South West so Cromwell found little response when he tried to raise money and men. In 1645 Sir Thomas Fairfax located his headquarters in Ottery for several weeks. Fairfax and Cromwell used Chanters House to plan their next stage of the campaign. During their time an outbreak of plague claimed the lives of a number of his troops including Colonel Pickering.
Today, Ottery has good links with the similar sounding Otari in Japan and is twinned with Pont L'Eveque in Normandy, France, which is famed for its cheese and cider.
Just outside the north end of the town is Otter Nurseries one of the biggest garden centres in the area. There are also one or two smaller nurseries located around the outskirts of the town. Honiton, famous for its lace, is approx. 7 miles over East Hill.