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 on dry land at the foot of the hills behind, but also with a separate fishing harbour under the protection of Roundham Head.
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.
Around 1050, Peintona became an episcopal manor under Bishop Leofric of Exeter, but back then it would have taken the best part of a day to get here from Exeter, and so when Bishop Osbern succeeded Leofric, he decided to build a palace to help him administer this large manor.
The palace had a defensive wall built around it, which included a lookout tower. This tower, now known as Coverdale Tower, was built to keep an eye out for potential trouble and is still a visible reminder of the times. The wall and tower are mostly 14th/15th century and made out of the local red Permian sandstone.
The tower is named after Miles Coverdale who was Bishop of Exeter from 1551-53 and who’s been accredited with being the first man to translate Tyndal’s Bible into English. 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 is another Bible of note in the Parish Church of St John the Baptist.
This is the fourth church to be built on this spot. The first one was built (probably in wood) around the 8th century, and was then followed by two Norman buildings, and finally the present one which was built between 1450 and 1500.
The main entrance into the church is through a re-set Norman doorway, and just inside is a glass cabinet which holds the Treacle Bible. Its unusual name is taken from a reading in the Book of Jeremiah – “Is there not treacle at Gilhead”. In actual fact the word is spelt Triacle and is another word for balm. There is more than one Treacle Bible around and so it’s not unique in that sense, but it’s also a Bishop’s Bible, which makes this particular copy a rare example and has been around since 1572.
The Bible was actually discovered in the Kirkham Chantry which is further on down inside the church. 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.
From the church, a short walk on the other side of Church St through some back streets, leads to Kirkham House (main picture), one of the oldest town houses in Devon dating from the late 14th century. Its name possibly derives from the Kirkham Chantry priest who may well have lived here.
For many years this building was probably a home for people of some substance, but by 1840 the house 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, but 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 1500’s 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.
Paington (sic) was just a small farming and fishing village until the 19th century and was noted for its cabbages, cider, and wine. Winner St is actually a corruption of Wynerde, (or vineyard), and reflects its association with the palace’s trade in wine.
Even though a new harbour was constructed in 1839, it never became a major port like Brixham. It was from this time that the town became known as Paignton with its present spelling. The harbour is a lovely corner often overlooked by visitors, which is a shame because not only does it have boat trips and a secluded beach at Fairy Cove, it is also an integral part of Old Paignton.