• Ottery St Mary and Environs

    Ottery St Mary is a delightful, small country market town lying on the eastern side of the Otter River valley 18 km to the east of the county city of Exeter.  It is the birthplace of poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

    It is an historic town dating back to Saxon times and the Bronze Age.  By the mid-19th century, Ottery St Mary was a well-established agricultural market town with a thriving cloth-making industry on the side of the Otter River.  It was a self-contained, compact community with its church, chapels, schools, mills, and every kind of shop, trade and craft.  Social life for the surrounding district was centred on the town with its festivals, fairs, bands, bell-ringing and sports.

    The dominating feature of the town is the Ottery St Mary Church.  It was built in the 14th century and is beautifully constructed.  It seems far too grandiose for the town it supports, and was built in the image of Exeter Cathedral.

    At the time Helena and family were living at Ottery St Mary, there were many technological developments underway locally and across the United Kingdom, particularly in the area of transport and communication.  The railways entered the district in the mid-1840s.  The postal service, with the introduction of the Penny Post in 1840, proved a great success.  Some 79,000 letters and 12,000 newspapers passed through the Ottery St Mary Post Office in one year.  The post office and environs became the gathering and social centre for much of the community because there was no mail delivery to home letterboxes – people needed to go to the post office to pick up their mail.  Ottery St Mary had its first town lighting in 1865, and the electric telegraph, followed by the telephone, was introduced in the next decade.   The fire of 1866 also led to a rejuvenation of the town.

    Although the Five Bells Inn has long since gone, demolished in the early 1970s to make way for a new road, Canaan Way, there are still many places and items of local interest.  In the church grounds there are a number of Jeffery graves.  Nearby are the stocks used to confine town delinquents a century ago.  I doubt whether William Jeffery, who was classed as a “gentleman”, or any of his family served any penned-up time!  Just off Mill Street, where the Five Bells Inn existed, is a somewhat unique tumbling weir, like a big plug hole, which was part of the water ducting system to the adjacent Otter Mill.  This mill started as a serge and worsted woollen mill, employing 400 workers at its peak, and ending its time as a silk manufacturing factory.  The mill is a heritage-listed building which, in its time, housed the largest water wheel in England which was fed from the Otter River.

    On the outskirts of the town is Burrow Wood Farm, where Helena Jeffery was born.  Today this Georgian property has been restored to its former glory and offers a “newly converted, luxury, contemporary self-catering holiday barn”.  https://www.burrowwoodfarm.co.uk/explore/about-us/