Newton Abbot

It was a grey drizzly day so, for no pressing reason, I decided to go to Newton Abbot. Several people had warned me about Newton Abbot – whose many local nicknames include ‘Mutant Rabbit’ – when I first moved to Devon, at the beginning of 2014. “Just whatever you do, don’t live in Newton Scabbot,” they said. “Don’t even go there.” So, being somebody who likes disobeying orders and is chronically interested in places, even allegedly grim and soulless ones, I soon began to visit Newton Abbot on a regular basis. But, in over seven years, I’d somehow neglected to walk the edges of the town, and try to gain the greater understanding of a place which that brings. I felt it was an oversight I needed to correct. In the drizzle, then in the sunshine, I walked along the River Lemon, past ruined industrial buildings whose purpose has long since been forgotten and the Puritan’s Pit, a twelve feet-deep cavern where the Rector Of Wolborough, William Yeo, used to preach to his non-conformists after refusing to acknowledge the post-Restoration act of uniformity. I walked to the town centre and bought a 1970s bedspread for £4 and – for £10 – a super obscure scratched Algerian drone record from 1972 which played without so much of as a click when I got it home. A party of mourners spilled cheerfully onto the street from the Teign Cellars pub. Half a dozen young men, also dressed in black, all with severely shaved anti-sideburns, took a sandwich break behind a warehouse, looking far more mournful than the mourners. “I LOVE YOU MOM,” announced some graffiti on the more attractive neighbouring warehouse, which, despite being in the process of being upended by at least one tree, still appeared to contain electricity and working offices. “Is this Totnes?” a man in the centre of town said. “No, this is Newton Abbot,” replied a woman, unable to suppress a small chuckle. I felt glad of Newton Abbot for being Newton Abbot, certainly no less glad than I felt of Totnes – which lies three or four hills and worlds south west of Newton Abbot – for having a well-preserved medieval grid system and an imaginative brewery and an ethical dosa stall, but I worried about just how much Newton Abbot there now was of Newton Abbot. On every side of town, the living tissue of the land was being removed, leaving scars of bland rust-coloured soil awaiting the anointment of fresh concrete. I wondered about the farmhouses and cottages just over the next hill from these sites. Did they watch the green brow above them apprehensively, waiting for the inevitable day when the next lot of spacious but stylistically braindead housing hurtled down towards them? I went home, came back two days later, walked up into the imperious quiet of Wolborough Hill, where business owners confidently built vast homes after the South Devon Railway Locomotive Works arrived here in 1846: homes up little winding drives, homes separated from their neighbours by thick tree lines, homes with gates in walls, homes that say “I was built for a person who is unshakeable in their confidence that they are important and will live an important life” in a not dissimilar way to the way the homes of Hampstead and the Clifton region of Bristol say the same thing. Even here, right on the crest of the hill, just before a vista opened up towards Asda on the other side, a new development was in progress. A temporary wooden gate shielded some of the construction. On the gate was a photo of one aspect of the hillside. The photo’s wish seemed to be to assure prospective buyers of the high class executive homes that, despite all this, there was still a bit of greenery left, so they needn’t feel guilty about their purchase. I thought of Michael J Fox in Back To The Future, hiding Doc Brown’s DeLorean near the new estate in the 1950s, and how I always worried that someone would find the DeLorean, even when I’d seen the film three or four times. I remembered a part of my life I often forget, when I was fourteen, and lived briefly on a new estate: a very different estate to this one, in a very different part of the country, which it now strikes me was the last inking in of a line of unbroken housing which stretched all the way from Nottingham city centre to my school, six miles to the north. I walked across the building site to my friend Louise’s house on the other side and then to the bus stop. I was followed on this walk in the early days by my very sociable and adventurous cat Monty and then, when a few more houses were built, by a couple of girls who once pinched my bottom and seemed frightening and exotic, mainly due to the fact that they attended a different school to mine. After two more years, houses stretched all the way to Louise’s, half a mile away. Saplings appeared on blank lawns, including the one my friend Ollie accidentally crushed in his Ford Fiesta when he had a hangover. An awful pub appeared and I secured a job at it. All of what had been here had been blandly and succinctly blotted out, as if it had never been there, so a line of men could wash their cars here on a Sunday morning in front of their identical front doors. But some of what had been here still was here, such as the mineshaft under our garden that later made it difficult for my mum and dad to sell the house. Now, in Newton Abbot, I thought about the Newton Abbot underneath the Newton Abbot I could see. I got my map out regularly. “Are you lost?” people who saw me looking at the map said to me on the edges of Newton Abbot, because Newton Abbot is the kind of place where people don’t like to think of a stranger being lost. But I wasn’t lost; I was just studying shapes and contours and names – Greatoak Cross and Milber and Coffinswell and Stubbins Cross and The Brake and Maddacombe Cross and Pit (disused) – piecing together the Newton Abbot under the Newton Abbot I could see, the Newton Abbot that, in the 13th Century, was the new town of the abbots of Torre Abbey, then in medieval times specialised in serge fabric and fellmongering, before its railway industry expanded the town’s population ninefold between 1800 and 1900, when my great grandma, Kathleen, was born in one of the local workhouses. (“Once I knew a dear old lady who, when the icy air of unkindness froze her soul, would always say, ‘I think I will go to Newton Abbot.’.” wrote the author Mary Webb in the 1920s.) I walked to the Stover Trail, the cycling route on the site of the old Stover canal, where granite rails from the old Haytor Granite railway were recently exposed, and what looks to be some form of nascent industrial age rocket or giant rolling pin but is in fact a clay drill. It was sunny on this third leg of my Newton Abbot explorations and I wore my favourite old straw boater. A dog growled at me. “I’m sorry: he doesn’t like hats,” the dog’s owner explained. A bin raged with plastic bags of dog poo, reminiscent of a poisoned river at the very last point before it overflows its banks. ‘There’s No Such Thing As The Dog Poo Fairy,’ said a sign on the bin. Precariously on top of the dog poo bags was balanced a used can of spray paint. In the woods not far out of town it is said mysterious galloping is still often heard: the sound of a ghost horse from the old stables at nearby Bradley Manor, still looking for the rider who fell off it and broke his neck over three centuries ago. “I’ve got my appointment to have wires put in me for 24 hours,” said a passing woman with an Asda bag. Further on, where enigmatic pipes bridged the river, a boy of ten or eleven was playing football with a creakily moving woman of well over seventy, who I took to be more of a nan than gran figure. The boy encouraged her to have a try at scoring from a free kick aimed at a nebulous goal. From her tentative run-up, my expectations were not high, but her moves were startlingly nimble, her ball control deft – cocky, even. She had clearly played at national, if not international, level in her youth.

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17 thoughts on “Newton Abbot

  1. Thanks for this Tom. Someone needs to speak up for NA. It has so much potential to be developed imaginatively and sympathetically with affordable housing and facilities within the town. The wanton development of NA is shocking particularly the proposals that will pretty much link the town with Abbotskerswell, a beautiful old village over the hill. It’s all thoroughly depressing and no amount of protest (Newton says No campaign) seems to work with these greedy landowners and local council! 🤬

    1. Well said. I live in Abbotskerswell and walk daily the beautiful fields they intend to build on. Locals look on in horror while the developers publicly and shamelessly pat themselves on the back in anticipation of permanently destroying all they acquire. Protesting seems useless. It’s been a done deal. My mum remembers walking on fields and lanes built over as Torbay expanded. Looks like I’m going to experience the same.

  2. That’s a really interesting read. Was in NA this afternoon and despaired of it. I think I need to try to see things differently. Thank you, there’s magic everywhere.

  3. I came to this piece directly from reading random ramblings (please excuse the alliteration) on an FB page that insisted the Earth was square. This has had the effect of suffusing a perfectly normal and enjoyable passage with the surreal absurdity of the square Earth page. Newton Abbott has now taken on a whole other identity and I am most keen to visit this place and to see with my own eyes, the bridge built purely to carry a nondescript pipe across a stream.

  4. Very happy to have a lovely, rambly, funny, kind, observant bunch of Tomthoughts to read today. Thanks very much – it made me smile and think that all is well with the world, when it obviously isn’t.
    Looking forward to ‘Villager’ .

  5. I was brought up in NA from 1974 (birth) to when I left home (for uni, then several times after that). My mum still lives just above Rev. Keble Martin’s ‘dream church’ at Milber.

    It’s a wonderful, underrated place, whitish much character and history that is largely overwritten by stories of naffness and now the onslaught of identikit housing. I’d have recognised it from your description…

  6. Ahhh I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading this, thank you 🤗 I’m a newish ‘ blow in ‘ & I found this interesting.
    I shall definitely ‘follow you’ & look forward to hearing/. seeing more.

  7. Oh wow what an excellent observation of Newton Abbot. As a relatively new resident I moved here 5 years ago despite the raised eyebrows from ‘friends’ and I love it – there’s history and natural beauty right on my doorstep. During lockdown I walked many miles with my dogs getting to know the town and it’s lovely neighbouring villages. Sadly I found bushes and greenery sprawling over pedestrian areas (with brambles a particular danger) and litter along the roadside. So why is the council excited about creating new ‘green spaces and pedestrian and cycle tracks when they don’t bother to maintain the ones we already have and are going to build on virgin land??

  8. Loved reading this….I so wish our local council would view Newton Abbot this way instead of diving headlong into making it just like any other town…makes me so sad that it is slowly being stripped of its beauty and individuality….with no provision for local affordable housing.

  9. Sadly Teignbridge District Council are hell bent on destroying the beautiful countryside that surrounds our town in favour of large housing estates. They aren’t interested in the least about what locals want for this area. It is a sad indictment of the times we live in – no use crying once it’s all gone – we should act now to stop this desecration

  10. Well, this makes me want to explore Noon’abbot all the more.
    How’s about some bite-sized nano-tales of fiction just for here?

  11. There should be a special hell for greedy developers who cant see a piece of green land without wanting to cover it with ticky tacky little boxes & then call the miserable development “ the Meadows” in memory of what they have desecrated.The same goes for the daft,supine councils who just roll over & let it happen,seduced by the promises of a few “ affordable” houses that never seem to materialise ,but keep “the little people”happy.Its happening all over this poor country.

  12. A wonderful piece. NA has much quality, and is underrated quite wrongly. There is a rich history, which seems to be getting lost under the urban sprawl. A victim of its location at crossing of the Teign has led to it having a reputation as a traffic jam, probably rightly. But it’s convenience is clear, roughly equidistant between moor and sea, both not more than 20mins away.
    There are far worse places.

  13. A lovely read to start the day. We suffer from uncontrolled, destructive development here in the US. One would think that with all of this manic construction that affordable, safe housing would be easily available. I live in a lovely city, Savannah, on the banks of a river just before it spills into the sea. Housing has become incredibly expensive. People like me who’ve moved here in the past 5-10 years or so have bought up housing in the older parts of town. Gentrification has taken off with original residents being pushed metaphorically and literally out of the housing market. The character of the city is intact, but her long-time residents need protection. There is a move afoot to address the affordable housing issue, something that is long overdue here.

  14. What I great read, I could have read all night about our town. I love newton abbot, and as you’ve shared there’s so much more to this town that many people even those that have lived here all of their lives don’t know about. Beautiful green spaces and equally beautiful clusters of community spirit. Lovely ready and I look forward to more, thank you

  15. I was so surprised to find this delightful rambling about a place I know so well. I knew Newton Abbot 40years ago – when it still had a ‘proper’ market centre and a bus station and a Madge Mellor’s Tea shop where the waitresses wore black dresses and white hats and pinnies. The hospital was conveniently opposite the cider bar in East Street so that the tourists who knocked back the scrumpy didn’t have far to crawl when they came out of the double doors and hit the chill wind. All THAT has long gone now, since before I returned to Devon a while back – but there are pockets of that charm dotted about, as you so cleverly observed.

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