Sidmouth’s ancient French connection

Unpublished paintings by Sidmouth antiquarian of Normandy life

MOST people know that Sidmouth is twinned with the Swiss town of Le Locle.

However, perhaps the town should look into the possibility of twinning with Avranches in Normandy too, as there are strong links dating back to the Middle Ages.

William the Conqueror gave the Manor of Otterton, which included the Manor of Sidmouth, to the Abbey of Mount St Michael in Normandy.

The grant was confirmed in 1178 but not endowed until the time of King John (1199-1216), who gave the manors of Sidmouth, Otterton and Budleigh “to enable four monks to celebrate Divine Worship and to distribute bread to the value of 16 shillings a week to the poor,” we read in Sidmouth A History.

“Priory memoranda written in 1260 are preserved on the 49 vellum leaves of the Otterton Cartulary.”

Philippe Planel, Heritage Project Officer with East Devon District Council, is currently involved in a project based around Sidmouth’s Victorian antiquarian Peter Orlando Hutchinson called In the Footsteps of Peter Orlando Hutchinson.

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This initiative has been jointly funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Sid Vale Association (Keith Owen Fund), Devon County Council, EDDC, Sidmouth Town Council and Natural England to help improve access to the heritage assets of East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

At a recent annual meeting of the local Parish Paths Partnership, Philippe gave a presentation about the project and spoke of the Avranches connection with Sidmouth.

The cartulary, which is an estates record, was taken to Normandy and is understood to be kept in Avranches.

With kind permission of Devon Records Office, Nostalgia has been able to reproduce here some of the paintings POH made during a visit to France, along with some of the comments he made in 1852.

POH wrote after disembarking at Granville: “The first thing that strikes the eye is the preposterous caps of the women.

“It was market day and the town was full of people. Whilst I was trying hard to maintain my gravity at such eccentricity, a shower of rain came on and they reared aloft a number of crimson and scarlet umbrellas. These hugs caps covered with such gawdy (sic) machines was enough to make anyone laugh.”

Arriving in Avranches he writes of the straight road along which he could see for miles.

“The face of the country all the way is exactly like a Devonshire scene – the large hedges made of earth and covered with bushes – the crops grown – the appearances of the tillage – and the most common trees, as oak, ash and elm. I could quite fancy myself in Devonshire.”

It seems Sidmouth tried nearly 30 years ago to twin with Pont l’Abbe in Brittany, but, says Sheelagh Michelmore, who has been involved with the Twinning Circle for many years, politics and religion – and a furore over French apples – put paid to the venture.

Maybe now is the time to try again to forge links with Avranches, whose roots with Sidmouth go back 700 years.

* Next week – more notes from POH’s travels to France, with more unpublished paintings.