Paignton may have only really come to life when the railway arrived in 1859, but it’s actually much older than people think. There was a settlement here during Anglo-Saxon times and was even referred to as Peintone in the Domesday Book.
In those days, the area just inland from the beach was backed by sand dunes and marshland, which meant that the settlement grew up slightly inland where the land was drier.
The origins of Old Paignton village are located around Palace Avenue, Church St, and Winner St, the names of which give a clue as to what was here. Winner Street gets its name from Wynerde, (or vineyard), and reflects its association with the palace’s trade in wine.
The best place to start this short walk around Old Paignton is Palace Avenue Gardens, a pleasant oasis of calm in the centre of town. From here, take the road next to the Methodist Church (Crown and Anchor Way) to Tower Road where you’ll see a defensive wall that was built for the Bishop’s Palace (see main picture).
Peintona became an episcopal manor under Bishop Leofric of Exeter around 1050, but back then it would have taken the best part of a day to get here from Exeter. His successor, Bishop Osbern FitzOsbern, is credited with building the palace to help him with the administration of the large manor.
The defensive wall was built from local red Permian sandstone, and although it has been rebuilt in places, a lot of it is still original and looks very much like it would have done when it was built. As for the palace, there’s nothing left to see above ground apart from a few small remains of the private chapel in the corner of St John the Baptist churchyard.
Turn right into Tower Road, where at the far end is a tower that was built as a lookout for any potential trouble. Known as the Coverdale Tower, it was named after Miles Coverdale who was Bishop of Exeter from 1551-53. For anyone interested in this sort of thing, Miles Coverdale is connected with Tyndale’s Bible, the first translation of the Bible into English from Hebrew and Greek. Some people even call it the Coverdale Bible because, although William Tyndale began the translations, it was Coverdale who completed them and got it published in 1535. Local folklore attributed some of his work on the bible being done here in the tower, but it seems unlikely.
Just a short stroll up Church Path alongside the Palace wall is the Parish Church of St John the Baptist. The present building was built between 1450 and 1500 and is Grade 1 listed, but it’s the fourth church to be built on this site. The first one was said to be built around the 8th century, probably of wood, but it was superseded by two Norman buildings, and walking into today’s church is through a re-set Norman doorway.
Inside the doorway is a Norman font, but the highlight of the church has to be the Kirkham Chantry. Much of the stonework has been damaged but it’s a pretty flamboyant feature nonetheless. The figures behind the altar are of Sir William and Lady Kirkham. Lady Kirkham is believed to have been the daughter of Chideock Tichborne who was executed in 1586 for his part in the Babington Conspiracy. This was the assassination attempt on Elizabeth I, which if it had succeeded, would have put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. The outcome, as we know, was the execution of Mary.
This short walk around the old centre of Paignton won’t take very long, but before leaving I would like to mention Kirkham House which can be reached through some back streets on the other side of Church Street. Dating from the late 14th or early 15th century, it’s one of the oldest town houses in Devon, and gets its name from a previous Kirkham Chantry priest who may have possibly lived here. What isn’t in any doubt though is that the building would have been a house for somebody of high status.
By 1840 it had been converted into three dwellings – and that’s how it stayed until the 1930’s when the whole lot was condemned for demolition, but thanks to the foresight and generosity of a local woman named Ada Jennings, the building was spared.
Mrs. Jennings realised the importance of the derelict cottages and managed to buy them for £600, which was a lot of money in those days. She then set about getting this ‘medieval hall house with cross passage’ restored but never lived long enough to see it completed. She left the property and £9,000 ‘to the nation’ for its restoration, which was completed in 1960.
The house is in the care of English Heritage and is only open to the public at specific times as it’s largely run by volunteers, but all the details can be found on the English Heritage website.
These volunteers belong to the Paignton Heritage Society, who also look after the nearby Clink. This Grade II listed building harks back to the 1500s and comprises of two single cells with one narrow window in each. One of its incumbents, a certain Tom Maxlow, decided that the place wasn’t much to his liking, and so he prised up one of the flagstones and disappeared into a culvert, which ran all the way down to the marshy shore – where he emerged still in one piece! The Clink was last used as a lock-up in 1867.
If you’re lucky enough to visit Kirkham House on one of the days that they’re open, you might also be lucky enough for one of the volunteers to show you inside the Clink and also take you up Coverdale Tower. Paignton may not be York or Chester, but the volunteers of Paignton Heritage Society are still very passionate about what history Paignton does have, and even if you can’t muster up the same amount of enthusiasm, it’s still worth checking out a part of Paignton that many people don’t even realise exists.
ORIGINAL POST – JUNE 2018
LATEST UPDATE – AUGUST 2020