The village of Oare has recently been in the newspaper highlighting the villager’s campaign to save their Vicarage from being sold by the Diocese as they believe this could impact on the viability of their church and in turn the church of Culbone which is also in the parish. I picked up on this as being a conservationist I have spent most of my adult life fighting to protect our wonderful built heritage, including churches and village schools, so can fully sympathise with their cause.
So let us look more closely at Oare the most westerly parish in Somerset, some 5mls from Lynton.
It was firmly put on the map by its connections with R.D.Blackmore’s book Lorna Doone as it was in the Grade 11* listed Church of St Mary that Lorna was reputedly shot through a lancet window by the villainous Carver Doone during her wedding to the hero John Ridd.
Parts of this church date back to the C14 and it has a most unusual Mediaeval Piscina in the form of a head held by two hands. In the early 1900s during some restoration work a large sum of money was found at the bottom of it as visitors had obviously been using it to put donations into!
Blackmore’s own Grandfather was Rector of St Mary’s from 1809 – 1842. The Church has a memorial to the writer. It is also where Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his poem ‘In Xandu did Kubla Khan.’
The name derives from ‘Are’ meaning boundary as recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 and was originally part of the hundred of Carhampton.
It has several bridges – Oare Bridge an C18 road bridge over Oare Water. A C17 packhorse bridge Malmsmead Bridge over Badgworthy Water and Robbers’ Bridge, an old stone masonry arch bridge in the Royal Forest of Exmoor carrying a minor road from Porlock Hill to Oare. Apparently a repair to this bridge in 1734 cost 5p.
As the village stands today it has no shop, no pub, no school. The Church therefore is the last remaining place where people can meet. This was not always so. It once had a little whitewashed Schoolhouse with a thatched roof opened in 1896, which was occupied in 1936 by the Head Mistress, Mrs Buckley, her husband and her two children.
The school only had four pupils so when Mrs Buckley sent in her resignation in the Summer and left in the October taking her own two children with her, it left only two pupils attending the school. These were Joan Robbins a 14yr old and John Burge a sturdy son of Exmoor who was a couple of years younger. They both used to ride on their bikes to school every day. Joan lived with her mother in a house on a slope of the Lyn valley overlooking the Church and the erstwhile Manor House of’ ‘Squire Snow,’ a character in Lorna Doone. John lived at Lorna Doone Farm just over the hump backed Mamsmead Bridge.
When Mrs Buckley left Joan decided she would leave at Christmas which would leave just one pupil. So the Somerset Education Committee ordered that the school be closed at the end of the year. A supply teacher Mrs Walker was appointed to give lessons to Joan and John for the remaining 3 months. When asked by a reporter why the numbers had dwindled so much she replied,
‘The numbers have been gradually getting fewer since the war. Before the war there was an average attendance of eleven. The population of the parish has been decreasing. It was about sixty five in the last census compared with eighty ten years previously. There is only one other child of school age and she is attending Porlock School 6mls away.
Though we only have two pupils the full curriculum has been continued as far as is practicable. It is a great pity it is closing. It has a splendid library – look here ‘she added, opening the cupboard to reveal several hundred books and novels,’ It is a far wider selection than many a big school library. Lady Mountain who has a Summer residence in Oare gave many of them’.
The reporter records seeing Lorna Doone amongst the novels. Then pointed out the King’s Silver Jubilee message to his people hanging on the wall. Also his Armistice day message ‘ Yes,’ said Mrs Walker. ‘We kept the three minute silence, just the three of us.’
When the school closed at Christmas 1936 John finished his schooling at Porlock School. The Education Committee arranged for him to board at Porlock.
When the film of Lorna Doone was made two years before, John had been chosen by Mr Basil Dean to take the part of one of the reapers in the harvesting scene. He declared it to have been ‘great fun to be with those stars.’
In the vast expanse of Exmoor with its isolated villages no school was more remotely situated than this C of E school where Oare’s scattered homesteads were taught the three ‘R’s’ for forty years. It was situated close to the site of John Ridd’s farm, Plover’s Barrow, and true to Blackmore’s description,
‘all above it is strong, dark mountain, spread with heather and desolate.’
Malmsmead which is within the parish of Oare does have a shop and cafe for tourists and walkers. At one time the Exmoor Natural History Society had its home there in a large wooden building which drew people to its varied displays.That too, has now gone and the Society currently has a base in the Porlock Weir car park.
It is easy to sympathise with the people of Oare who have so little left to hold their village together and provide for community bonding. A practising church, rather than simply a tourist attraction, is of utmost importance in such a remote situation and saving the 1960’s vicarage built on land provided by the church, with funds raised locally, is key to its continued survival.
Compiled by Sally Bainbridge on behalf of Minehead Conservation Society.
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