Topsham Past

You don’t have to spend much time in Topsham before you start to get the impression that our illustrious town has a rich history. From the beautiful architecture to the abundance of Churches and pubs (for a relatively small town) to the stunning riverside setting, it is of no surprise that Topsham has been the site of many comings and goings over the year. Here at The Passage House Inn we are proud of our characterful, ancient building. A pub, originally named The Ferry Inn, opened on the current site in 1721 and was renamed after 101 years in 1822. In a previous post we looked briefly at the ferry men who left their mark on the pub, namely TN Parker and Charles Hall. But what of the wider community around the pub? And what was happening before the 1700’s in Topsham?

A bit of research shows that Topsham has been a hub of activity for 10,000 years with evidence of Mesolithic hunting and the finding of Neolithic tools. In 1999 Archaeologists also discovered evidence of a 1st Century Roman Fort in Butts Park. According to the enthusiast at Exeter Memories, it is thought that ‘the name derives from Topp who was an Anglo Saxon landowner, while ham is a small village or settlement. There have been many variations of the name including Apsham, Apsam, Toppeshore, Toppeshant and Toppesham.’ Although it’s name may insinuate that it is a village, Topsham has evolved over the years and in 1300, was granted it’s very own town charter, giving it a degree of independence from nearby Exeter and allowing it to claim the title of ‘town’.

A little drama occurred a few hundred years later when Topsham was an important stronghold for Royalist forces during the English Civil War. A Parliamentary fleet attempted to land at Topsham in 1642 but was attacked by the Royalist defenders resulting in the capture of 2 ships and the burning of a third. However, despite their ferocious attempts to defend the town, in 1645, General Fairfax drove the Royalist forces out prior to the surrender of Exeter in April 1646.

By the 17th Century, Topsham was one of the busiest ports in England and when shipbuilding was revived from 1790, there were at least seven shipbuilding yards in the town. In addition to many civilian vessels, 27 warships were built in Topsham with the frigate Fawn, being the largest weighing in at an impressive 500 tons. One of the most prominent ship builders was master mariner, John Holman, who founded the West of England Marine Insurance Company, now one of the countries largest marine insurance companies.

Although shipbuilding may not be the centre of Topsham’s economy anymore, the river still plays an important role in defining the town. Locals and tourists alike enjoy walking down the Exe Estuary Trail to admire the view, taking to the water on boats and canoes and generally spending time in the vicinity of this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Here at The Passage House Inn we feel blessed to be situated so wonderfully close to the river and nestled in the heart of Topsham. As the summer unfolds before us, we look forward to welcoming many of you through our doors to enjoy a delicious meal with a drink or two by the River Exe in beautiful, historical Topsham.

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A beautiful painting of Topsham by local artist, Geoffrey Teece

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The Finer Things

I think it’s fair to say that here at The Passage House Inn we definitely appreciate the finer things in life; good food, well selected wine, beautiful works of art… In fact, so much so that we are proud to display the works of talented local artist, Geoffrey Teece, on our walls. We also have a selection of his cards, all featuring a beautifully painted scene from around Topsham, for sale at the bar. It’s a fairly popular pairing, advertising art in eating establishments and you can understand the logic behind it. If you are enjoying a delicious, freshly cooked meal and spot a painting nearby that catches your eye, what better time to ponder on whether you want it on your wall at home than as you relax with a post dinner coffee or slice of cheesecake? 

View from the Passage

Since retiring from full time university work and moving to Devon, Geoff has made his watercolour painting ‘much more central’ in his life. Of his chosen medium he says ‘watercolour, painted freely and wet is, in my opinion, the best medium for portraying the rapidly changing softness of the temperate climate of these islands.’ (1). Interestingly, he sticks to a very specific range of colours in his painting and it obviously works as the finished artifacts are, without exception, beautifully created, soft and oh so pleasing to look at. He chooses to paint mostly places in and around Topsham, creating sublime pictures that I’m sure will soon become the pride of place in many local homes. Only a few weeks ago, at Topsham Art Group’s Summer Exhibition, his talent was further acknowledged as he won the Joy Armstrong Cup for the most popular painting in the exhibition.

After the shower, Topsham

As you can tell, we are so proud to be exhibiting his paintings and have received much positive feedback about them. We’re also very proud to be following through on our ethos of ‘supporting small and local’ by displaying the work of a very local artist. We really believe that close knit communities are built on the premise of building each other up and by supporting local businesses and people with your consumer choices. So next time you pop in for a pint or sit down for one of our delicious meals, why not take a bit more time (if you haven’t already!) to have a look at the amazing artwork adorning our walls? Or if you need a card to send to a loved one far away, don’t forget that you can buy a gorgeous watercolour scene of Topsham from just £2. In our opinion, a handmade piece of art beats a postcard any day! 

The Waterfront, Topsham

Celebrating Topsham

I know you might think us something of a broken record but we can’t help but love and shout about what an amazing community exists in our humble town of Topsham. All year long there are events for the residents to get involved in; carol concerts, the Ferryman’s swim, beautiful gardens opened to the public, musical nights galore and much more. And whilst we sadly saw the final Topsham Carnival last year, this summer we have something new and very exciting for the whole community to get involved with. On the 27th August we will be celebrating Topsham’s inaugral Town Charter Day! Dreamt up in the wake of the carnival, the folk on the town committee recognised the need and desire of residents to still be able to celebrate Topsham once a year. And thus, they decided to start an annual community gathering to celebrate the awarding of our town charter.

Topsham was granted its town charter on 22nd August 1300 by King Edward I. Now I don’t know about you, but I didn’t know much about what this signified for the town at the time. A little bit of research though tells me that it was a pretty big deal. In medieval England, there weren’t that many towns in existence. In fact in the Domesday Book of 1087 only six towns were included. Most people lived in villages and just travelled to towns for trade. Having a charter though, ‘gave people in a town certain rights that were clearly stated in the charter that town had.’ (1) Common rights granted included the right to collect their own taxes and the establishment of their own law courts. So Topsham being awarded its own town charter would have been very important at the time, especially given its relatively modest size.

So why not come down and mark the occasion on the 27th August with us all? It looks set to be a brilliant day with a peal of bells, the Honourable Lord Mayor of Exeter in attendance, hawk displays, storytellers, jugglers, medieval stocks and much more. The day will culminate with a celidh before a firework display at 9pm. The first annual Town Charter Day certainly seems like it’s going to go with a bang! Here at The Passage House Inn, we’ll be open as usual, serving ice cold drinks and delicious homecooked food, offering a refuge for those needing a quick sit down and a breather before heading out again to experience the best that medieval Topsham has to offer! 

Communal Dining

In less than a month, the streets of Topsham will be closed to cars and people will be piling out of their houses armed with picnic baskets laden down with delicious food, bottles of wine and oddly, a dining room chair. It can mean only one thing, the biennial event that is fast becoming a favourite Topsham tradition, Nello’s Longest Table. Here at The Passage House Inn, we’re looking forward to the street party atmosphere that descends on the town and to sampling the culinary delights that our chefs will be cooking for the tables right outside our front door. Then later on, we’ll be getting our dance shoes out as we’ve booked the Fab Beatles to come and entertain the masses!

Nello’s Longest Table is an event that was started by friends of Nello Ghezzo, a much loved Topsham figure who sadly died in 1999 after a battle with cancer. He had a dream of a longest table event in Topsham whereby tables are placed end to end around the streets of the town and folk join together for one gigantic communal meal. His dream was first realised in 2008 by his friends as part of Topsham Food Festival and since then it has become a biennial event. Tables cost £30 each and are sold by Route 2 and all money raised goes to Topsham Community Association and Force Cancer Charity.

Marc Millon, a close friend of Nello, kindly shares his thoughts about the event. “Nello’s Longest Table is a truly extraordinary event. I love to walk the full length, from Topsham Fire Station all the way down Fore Street, around the Quay, and then down Ferry Road and the Underway along to the Passage Inn. It’s great to see this longest table, stretching endlessly through the town; to catch a glimpse of what people are eating and drinking; and to greet friends and new acquaintances along the way. There is such a warm, happy atmosphere everywhere. The amazing thing is how, as dusk begins to fall, everyone clears up, returns their tables to the designated collection points, takes away their garbage and litter, and before long, the town is completely back to normal. It’s almost as if it were all a dream, that it had never really happened! But it had and it will.”

This event perfectly encompasses everything that is great about Topsham; the strong sense of community, the drive to do good and raise money for worthy causes and the love of good food and drink! This year’s theme is ‘celebrating Topsham’s salmon fishing heritage’ which should certainly give you some inspiration for your menu. Here at The Passage House Inn, we’re counting down the days until this amazing event. So why not take part in the biggest meal with friends you’ll ever attend, raise a glass to Nello and then when you’ve eaten your fill, wander through the streets to join us and dance into the evening to the sounds of the Fab Beatles!

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Location, location, location

I think it is fair to say that when it comes to the hospitality industry, location really is everything. No one wants to go for a meal or a drink in an establishment overlooking a motorway, with a view of a landfill or just in a dreary dull street with no redeeming features. Ambience and location really are an important part of the dining experience. And here at The Passage House Inn, we think we’ve hit the jackpot! Not only are we in the much loved harbour town that is Topsham with it’s beautiful buildings and village like atmosphere, but, we are situated right by the water with gorgeous views across the River Exe and smack bang in the middle of the Exe Estuary Trail. We’ve recently put up boards in our beer garden with birds you might spot on the estuary and a map of the trail itself for those walking or cycling their way around.

Since 2001, Devon County Council have been developing the trail as part of the National Cycle Network Route 2. Once completed it will be almost 26 miles in length although you can obviously pick and choose individual sections to complete, especially if you utilise some of the ferry services available (such as the one just metres from our door!) Devon County Council are rightly very proud of this route, not only does it provide “an exciting opportunity for people to experience cycling or walking around the entire Exe Estuary, appreciating the wildlife and passing through some beautiful riverside towns and villages steeped in maritime history” but the different habitats on the Estuary are so diverse that it has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a Special Protection Area, a Ramsar Site (internationally important area for birdlife) and is a candidate for a Special Area of Conservation.

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The Passage House Inn is in a very unique and beautiful area of the world and we still can’t believe our good fortune at being nestled amongst it all. No matter what time of year, no matter what the weather, we are always afforded a changing view of wildlife on the estuary that provides extra interest and variety to those coming to visit us at the Passage House Inn. So whether you’re just ambling along the Topsham to Lympstone stretch or ambitiously cycling along the whole trail, make sure you visit us for a coffee before you go, a refreshing drink mid walk or a meal to refuel once you’ve completed your day of discovery along our very own Exe Estuary Trail. There’s really no place we’d rather be.

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Talking with…Mike the Ferryman

The last rays of Spring sunshine are fading as I enter the Passage House Inn on a quiet Monday evening in April and am met with a gaggle of smiling faces. One of the things I love about this pub is that you are always guaranteed to find someone friendly to talk to, it’s just that kind of place. This evening however, I’ve come with a purpose. I’m here to talk to Mike Stevens, the well loved official ferryman of Topsham. He’s already at the bar with his drink of choice (Guinness, if you fancy buying him one!) and his partner in boat-related affairs, Lesley.

I wrote in our inaugural post on this blog, about the link between the Passage House Inn and the ferry crossing just metres away from our front door so it seemed right to write about the current ferryman. A lot was said over the evening but the thing that struck me most was Mike’s absolute love and passion for the river and the people he meets. He absolutely lives and breathes the river, his boats and life in general. He is very philosophical about his beginnings as the ferryman. In 2004, an 18 year relationship that saw him living in Dawlish came to an end and he moved our way. Some boys from the council told him that the job as ferryman was available and he decided to give it a go. He said that it was ‘a complete change of life. Amazing’ and that he shouldn’t have wasted his previous years.

His first boat, a little rowing boat, was bought with some money left from his Mother and was named after her, Mary. It was sufficient at the time so he revived the little used crossing, built it up and by 2011 it was time for a new boat. The council got involved in funding a new vessel and Shimmer was built and named by a young lad (aptly called Noah) from Topsham Primary School. Her launch was a real community occasion and still remembered by many.

Today, another five years on, Mike actually has a few more boats! And this is where Lesley enters the picture. I learnt that Mike doesn’t just run the Ferry Passage Crossing. He also has Edwardian Lady and Regnum, both available for small private parties. Mike and Lesley have been offering one of a kind trips for the last three years, offering people the opportunity to have an amazing experience on the River Exe. Edwardian Lady is available for dining with Lesley providing delicious home cooked food and Regnum is available for river trips. Lesley and Mike tell me that their goal is to ‘make history for people’ and I’m sure they’ll succeed.

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For Mike it really is all about making sure folk are happy. He told me that ‘everything is amazing at the moment. Carly and Neil have made the Passage House Inn a welcoming place for locals and visitors and I’m very fortunate to be working with Lesely with the boats making people happy. It all works extremely well’. He’s a very special man. And also very accomplished! I discovered that he holds the Guinness World Record for Underwater Endurance, a record they have since frozen as it is so dangerous. Mike spent an incredible 212 hours and 30 minutes (that’s 9 days!) underwater with no breaks. Not a feat to be scoffed at!

So whether you’re a Topsham local or just the visiting the area, why not take the ferry across the Exe to go for a walk, have a chat with Mike or buy him a well-earned pint at the Passage House Inn if you see him after a long day’s work. Or if you’re interested in hiring Regnum or Edwardian Lady for an unforgettable trip down the Exe, give Lesley a call on 07890 298 399. Here at the Passage House Inn we’re very proud to be connected with this interesting and immensely likeable gentleman, Topsham’s very own ferryman, Mike Stevens.

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An enduring partnership

A visit to Topsham Museum recently revealed a new exhibition looking at the crossing of the Exe at Topsham. As you might expect, both the ferry and pub were featured in it and it was with much interest that I read about the history of our beloved ferry. Given that we celebrated our annual Topsham to Turf Ferryman’s Swim last weekend (raising money for Estuary League of Friends), I thought exploring the heritage of the ferry and it’s connection with the pub might be the perfect first post for this blog.

Although there would have been folk crossing the Exe by small boat for a long time before and an unofficial crossing at the Strand during the Civil War, it wasn’t until 1736 that Benjamin Buttell and John Wear were granted permission to make a path suitable for ‘man and horse’ at a landing place on the Newlands Salt Marsh across from Topsham. The annual rent was a princely 2 shillings and sixpence accompanied with the vague condition of repairing the landing place when necessary. The Passage actually preceded the official ferry though with a pub opening on the current site in 1721.

From the inception of both, the ferry and pub have been intertwined both through ownership and supply of ferrymen. By 1800, the ferry had several owners including one Thomas Parker, probably the son of the T N Parker whose name is on a plaque by the front door of the Passage dated 25th July 1788. Another ferry owner who left his mark at the pub was Charles Hall whose name is engraved on a stone trough with the year 1859. His daughter married Edward Harbottle whose heirs eventually sold the rights to the ferry to Heavitree Brewery in 1928, a connection that has remained until this day.

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Before the rights went to Heavitree though, it was a Robert Bolt who was publican of the Passage from 1891. From the information in the museum, apparently he and his eight brothers were all known to have manned the ferry at times and were something of a novelty in that when residents strolled by, there always seemed to be a different Bolt boy onboard.  Robert himself though, was the real ferryman and, seaman until the end, he rowed the ferry until his death in 1936 aged 86.

The ferry rights were then sold to St Thomas Rural District Council in 1943 and so the commercial link with the pub ended. Following this, the rights were handed to Exeter City Council in 1966 who from that day, have employed a ferryman to run the crossing. Over the last 40 years there have been 3 ferrymen, Stan Pym, Mike McCabe and since 2004, our beloved Mike Stevens who oversaw the launch of a new ferryboat, named ‘Shimmer’ in 2011. And although the Council might now run the ferry, it’s intertwined roots with the Passage House Inn were commemorated at the same time by the stain glass panels that hold pride of place over our bar. Aylesglass were commissioned to make six panels that combined fused glass and leadwork and they created a stunning piece that simultaneously fits in with the old building around it but also grabs your attention. As well as featuring St Margaret’s Church and some of old Topsham, Mike himself is pictured rowing a ferry back to Topsham from the other side.

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So there you have it, the Topsham ferry and Passage House Inn have endured together since 1721. I’ll pause for a second, 1721…almost 300 years ago (I foresee an almighty birthday party in 2021)! I just find it incredible that an establishment can have endured for such a phenomenally long time. It has remained standing and strong through major wars, the death of Kings and Queens, the changing of governments and on a more local level, through floodings, births, deaths, weddings and numerous publicans. Take a moment to pause and think about all that has happened over the last 300 years  next time you walk through that crooked wooden doorway and all that the ancient walls have witnessed – I know I will.

Thank you to Topsham Museum for their exhibition ‘Crossing the Exe’ which provided much of the history for this post.