Branscombe Project looks back at churchyard

The Branscombe Project members at work in the village's churchyard

The Branscombe Project members at work in the village's churchyard - Credit: Archant

The Branscombe Project’s Barbara Farquharson gives an insight into the group’s work and previews its next talk, on St Winifred’s churchyard. Lost and not quite found: the story of two churchyard monuments.

Summer 1855: Peter Orlando Hutchinson, Sidmouth antiquarian, notes in his diary a discovery and a conversation in the churchyard of St Winifred’s, Branscombe:

“A few yards south of [the porch] almost buried in the grass lies a block of stone about six feet long and fifteen inches square, brought as the sexton phrased it ‘from our ebb’, meaning from Branscombe beach between ebb and flow of the tide or high and low water. He could not say why it was brought here.”

Autumn 2012: a member of the Branscombe Project, following Orlando’s footsteps, noticed a moss-covered stone slab near the porch. It was approximately 5.10 x 2.3 ft. He also realised that Orlando had misunderstood the Sexton - ‘our ebb’ meant Branscombe Ebb, the rocky beach below Berry Cliff.

Shortly after, members of the project excavated the south-east corner of the slab. It turned out to be 70cm deep with a finely carved profile. On the short ends were some crude markings.

The Sexton’s story began to be embellished! This fine pedestal, unlike anything else in the churchyard, must have been carved by master masons at Beer quarry and put on a barge to be shipped along the coast which ran aground at Branscombe Ebb. Local men, well versed in smuggling, hauled it up to the churchyard where, since stolen goods couldn’t be left lying around, they buried it. The old Sexton said he ‘couldn’t say why it was brought here’, so it happened before his time - probably during the eighteenth century.

True, the story didn’t quite hold together - why bother to haul this cumbersome object three miles before burying it? Why were Orlando’s measurements, usually so accurate, different from the slab we found?

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Meanwhile, project members studying the churchyard found this report from1913:

Remains of table tomb, south side, near porch. John Tayler buried the x April 1586.

With a footnote: ‘This inscription is cut around the edge of the stone. The tomb was mentioned again in 1923, but by 1955 it had vanished. Could our slab be part of this missing monument?

Permission was obtained for a more extensive excavation, and on a freezing day in February 2013 a group began work, led by Mark Edmonds of York University. Rolling back the turf from the north side of the slab, letters appeared - an R, a T. Could it be?

It was! In large bold lettering along the lip: JOHN TAYLER BURIED THE, and then, on the short west end, the ‘crude markings’ became X APRIL, and on the east end: 1586.

The carved block turned out to be two blocks, neatly fitting one on top of the other, the thin crack between them sealed with slate. The tomb was in situ. It rested on a layer of slate, with a large stone levelling up one corner.

Tayler’s tomb is forty years earlier than any other in the churchyard, and quite unlike the chest tombs that came after. They were built to be taken apart to allow for later burials, but Tayler’s was made for one individual. The body might be inside it or buried in the ground below. Unless there are tombs like it in neighbouring churchyards, it seems both early and unique.

So who was John Tayler, whose family could command such an expensive tomb? He was probably a well-off yeoman farmer living at the western end of the village where there was once a farm called ‘Taylors’. It may have been John Tayler who remodelled Higher House nearby, replacing cob with dressed stone.

How had the tomb become buried? John Tayler had no sons, so perhaps when, a century later, vaults were dug under nearby chest tombs, there was no one to object to displaced soil banking up against his tomb.

But what about Orlando’s slab? We found that we had not read far or carefully enough, for his diary entry continued:

Some five yards north-west from this block, and near the west end hedge of the churchyard, is a massive altar tomb almost buried in the ground except the top slab. Around the edge is cut, on the east end, north side and west end, the following inscription: 1586 JOHN TAYLER BURIED THE X APRIL.

How right he was, and how accurate! So there were two lost monuments, and we have found one of them. Perhaps radar equipment will locate Orlando’s slab, or perhaps it has disappeared in the hundred and sixty years since he wrote. Meanwhile, we’ll continue to tell the strange story of the stone that was hauled up from Branscombe Ebb!

The Branscombe Project would like to thank East Devon AONB’s Peter Orlando Hutchinson Project for help with funding the excavation.

‘St Winifred’s Churchyard: things you never knew’ is the group’s last winter talk of the season and will be at Branscombe Village Hall from 7.30pm on Monday, April 29.