Braunton has a rich history, with a settlement being recorded here in about 855 AD. The village is recorded in the Domesday Book as Brantone, with a hundred households with three landowners – this put the village in the largest 20% of settlements recorded. Something current residents still say “We’re the largest village in England!”
Some of the original farmers are still working the farm land, known as the Great Field. The Great Field is one of three remaining examples of medieval strip farming in the country. The 360 acres of land was divided into 490 strips. In 1994 there were only 86 strips left, being farmed by 10 – 11 farmers – at least one of these families are mentioned in the Doomsday book!
Produce from the farms and manganese and iron ores from local mines were shipped out to customers along the River Caen. Originally the quay was at the neighbouring village of Wrafton. The boats were mainly sail ketches manned by Braunton sailors. Our sailors also left here to go to New Foundland to get dried cod. In the 1850s, as boats got larger and the demand for goods grew, the Caen was straightened creating the Braunton Pill, allowing for larger ships to land and in 1870s the quay at Velator built.
Goods also came into the village this way, such as coal from South Wales and bricks from Bridgewater. The Caen enters the tidal estuary of the Taw and Torridge and as ships got larger, they struggled with the dangers of the estuary beyond Crow Point. In 1857 a lifeboat called Dolphin, was stationed at Saunton Burrows. Braunton men and a team of 8-12 horses dragged the boat truck out beyond the breakers and then it was manned by men from Appledore.
London and South West Railway built the Barnstaple and Ilfracombe railway in 1874. Originally a single-track line but in 1889 it was upgraded to a double track. Braunton had five sidings and a goods shed. The station master’s house is still standing and is currently the local newsagents. Goods now were transported quickly by train and Velator Quay was no longer the transport hub of the village.
As tourism became a pass time for people during the late 19th century the trains began to bring hundreds of people to visit North Devon – beginning the village’s next big industry – tourism. The line closed in 1970 but in the 1990s its old tracks got a new lease of life as they were acquired to be part of the Tarka Trail. 180 miles of footpath and cycle track that takes in the beautiful coast and countryside of Dartmoor and Exmoor. Popular with walkers and cyclists it means the old train lines continue to bring visitors to the area.
During World War II tourism came to a halt. Braunton Marshes were used as a dummy airfield to divert attention from the real airfield at nearby Chivenor – at night lights were lit in strips to resemble the runways. In 1943 from the North Devon coast were used by the Allied Troops to train for D-Day as the sand quality, beach gradients, cliffs and tidal ranges are similar to the Normandy beaches. American troops were stationed in Braunton – thousands of troops were billeted in tents and nissan huts. Large scale training took part in and around the Braunton Burrows. You can still find the remains of their presence – the American Road, concrete replica landing craft, blast walls with their bullet holes and a lot of ‘German’ pill boxes, all of which have recently been listed by the Government in recognition of the part the Burrows played in the outcome to D-Day. At that time, Braunton had only about 3,000 residents so the influx of so many young men with money to spend and their access to goods that had been rationed for nearly three years must have had a huge impact on the village. Whilst here the Troops helped to clear the local churchyard at St Brannocks that suffered from the lack of man power as many of the village men had gone to help the war effort. They planted the ‘American Tree’ to remind us of the goodwill between two nations – the tree and plaque are still there today. After many months they were all gone leaving silence and taking their chocolate, sweets, cigarettes and stockings with them!
In 2009, a project involving children from the local secondary school and villagers who were here during this period, saw a film made to record the residents’ views of the time. The local children then learnt about the training exercises and then followed the Troops route to France, visiting the beaches and paying their respect to the fallen. If you get the chance, the film Spirits of the Sand, is well worth a watch.
Nearby is the Braunton Marshes, an area of reclaimed land. Work started in 1811to reclaim the salt marches and continued for many years. In 1850, when Braunton Pill was straightened to make room for bigger ships, more land was enclosed and in particular the creation of Horsey Island. In 2017 the seawall around Horsey Island was breached changing the landscape to mud flats, sandbanks and salt marsh. In 2019 Horsey Island became a Devon Wildlife Trusts nature reserve. All of the marshes are a distinct and important habitat for many species of wildlife, especially birds. The reclaimed grassland is valuable agricultural land.
A third of Braunton Parish is taken up by the sand dunes of Braunton Burrows. The Burrows lie within the North Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and is also part of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The Burrows is England’s largest sand dune system and is important as it is home to many rare animals and flowering plants. Marram grass is in abundance, important as it creates the dunes, but you will also find sea stock and white horehound. There are also large species of lichens and as you proceed deeper into the marshy areas you can find round-head club rush and rare orchids. You can get information about all these fabulous plants and the importance of the protection of Braunton Burrows from our Countryside Centre, located in the centre of the village. The Countryside Centre will also be able to tell you about our Greater Horseshoe bat population and maybe encourage you to take the bat walk around the village. The Greater Horseshoe bats are rare and we have had the pleasure of them living and feeding around our village.
Near to the Countryside Centre we have the village Museum. Sited in a former Bakehouse and two cottages, it stands at the entrance to what was the original railway station. It houses a model replica of the railway as it would have been in the 1950s. It also houses information about the American Troops, the Great Field, Braunton Marshes and Henry Williamson the local author of Tarka the Otter.
Close by housed in a renovated railway shed is the Museum of British Surfing. The museum tells the story of British surfing, including its growth in North Devon. Surfers started to use the local beaches of Saunton, Croyde, Putsborough and Woolacombe in the 1900s and North Devon’s reputation for good waves grew. During the 1960s and 1970s Braunton became the hub for the growing surfing industry, which continues to serve the thousands of surfers that flock to the area all year.
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