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The history of Branscombe

view of an anvil inside a forge with fire and blacksmith tools
View of the forge fire and anvil at the forge at Branscombe, East Devon | © National Trust Images/Eric McDonald

From smuggling in the 19th century to cliff farming on the Weston Plats, there's plenty of history to discover at Branscombe. More recent history includes the salvaging of the Napoli in 2007.

The smuggling paths of Branscombe

Smuggling in the 1800s was a widespread phenomenon and provided an income, not just for the smugglers, but also for people employed to catch them. The shoreline around Branscombe was used as a landing port and famous smuggler Jack Rattenbury would often have been found there.

Jack was cunning and rather lucky. In this extract from Memoirs of a Smuggler, he describes an encounter with the authorities: 'I declared I would kill the first man who came near me, and that I would not be taken from the spot alive. At this, the sergeant was evidently terrified, but he said to his men "Soldiers, do your duty, advance and seize him" to which they replied, "Sergeant, you proposed it: take the lead"... No one, however, offered to advance.'

The discovery of tunnels

In the 1900s tunnels were discovered in Branscombe fields. Some believe that smugglers would dig a tunnel to the middle of a field, widen the end to create a chamber for the stolen goods and conceal it using turf.

The smuggling trade grew so large in the areas of Beer, Branscombe and Seaton that dragoons (members of the cavalry) were sent to try and capture gang members. The cargo of brandy, tea, tobacco and silk (among other items) was generally from the Channel Island of Alderney and the north coast of France.

Avoiding detection at sea

A smuggler could only be convicted if he was caught with the contraband, so the smugglers needed to be skilled in quickly hiding the cargo. If they had time, they would tie the kegs or tubs together and attach a float in order to find their treasure when the coast was clear. They would throw it overboard and plead innocence to the authorities.

View of visitors in the distance enjoying the beach at Branscombe, Devon on a sunny day
Visitors on Branscombe beach | © National Trust Images / Eric McDonald

The Weston Plats

Between Branscombe and Sidmouth lie the Weston Plats. In the 19th century the village was well known for clifftop plots. Thanks to the unique microclimate on the cliffs, local residents were able to produce early crops of flowers, vegetables and strawberries. Most successful were the Branscombe potatoes which rivalled those from Jersey.

Cliff farming was originally developed to keep the local fisherman occupied within sight of the water as fishing from Branscombe beach can be difficult due to its steep and unsheltered nature. Seaweed was used as a fertiliser and farmers relied on donkeys to carry goods.

Originally used to feed larger families, the plats became very successful, and the crops were then sold for cash. As tourism developed in Devon so the Weston Plats fell into decline. The plots were finally abandoned in the 1960s and quickly forgotten.

The National Trust at the Weston Plats

Acquired by the Trust 40 years ago, the Weston Plats have only been recently opened to the public. The land has been cleared away and old storage sheds have been rebuilt from the remains of their predecessors.

The land is part of the South West Coast Path and can also be accessed from Dunscombe valley in association with the East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (EDAONB).

The Weston Plats now offers a unique glimpse into the forgotten past of the Devon countryside for the first time in 40 years.

Branscombe's handmade lace

From the 1600s to 1800s Branscombe was a major source of handmade lace. Many of the village's women managed to scrape together a living from the sale of their lace.

At the time Branscombe’s neighbours in Honiton were making their lace using bobbins. Branscombe lace is a quicker but still lengthy alternative, using needles. The thread used is thicker than Honiton's, resulting in a more solid product.

The decline of the lace industry

The production of handmade lace declined in the 1800s due to the invention of John Heathcoat’s bobbinet machine in 1809. The machine sped up the process of lace making and Heathcoat’s factory in Tiverton provided many employment opportunities.

Today, lace makers in Devon are bringing back the skill of making handmade lace as a hobby and craft.

The aftermath of the MSC Napoli shedding its cargo washed up on the beach at Branscombe, Devon
Aftermath of the MSC Napoli shedding its cargo at Branscombe in 2007 | © National Trust Images / David Levenson

The salvaging of the Napoli

Branscombe Beach was famously affected by the beaching of the MSC Napoli in the nearby Lyme Bay. This 62,000 ton cargo ship was deliberately run aground after being damaged in a storm in January 2007.

Over the next two years the spotlight was on this beached vessel and the complex salvage operation. The beach remained open throughout the summers of 2007 and 2008, due to the hard work of contractors employed by the ship’s owner, council staff and local volunteers.

The salvaging of the Napoli: timeline

18 January 2007

Rescue

The crew are rescued from the stricken ship. 

Branscombe's forge fire surrounded by tools

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