Luscombe Cross

luscombecross

Luscombe Cross (SX792579) near Totnes, Devon stands upon an ancient ridgeway. The road it guards once (c.890 A.D.) linked Totnes to King Alfred’s defensive ‘burh’ or stronghold on the heights at Halwell, six miles to the South. Northward from the Cross (1 ½ miles) the route descends to the Rotherfold in Totnes, formerly a cattle market (‘hryther’ is Old English for cattle or oxen). Southward the road descends to ford the River Harbourne at Harbertonford (1 ¼ miles from the Cross). It then returns to higher ground. The Cross itself stands at the highest point between these locations (438ft. above sea level), at the very place where a traveller on foot from either direction is most inclined to stop and draw breath. The connection is unlikely to be accidental.

The Cross commands extensive views in all directions. To the West, between 6 – 10 miles away, lies the dark, steep edge of Dartmoor, from Ugborough Beacon in the South to Hay Tor in the North. The middle distance holds the folded contours of green and gold, field, hedgebank and woodland that make up the rural South Hams. No single road or moving line of traffic is visible in this vast, quiet landscape. In a good year summer skylarks and yellowhammers can be heard in neighbouring fields. In a good winter fieldfares forage in the open land alongside rooks from the big rookery in Factory Hill Wood at Harbertonford. At all times buzzards ride the western breeze that crests the ridge. At all seasons there are vast skies, vast clouds, westering sunsets, moonrise.

In the foreground lies Dundridge, formerly the home of Sir Robert Harvey, Lord Lieutenant of the County (died 1930, aged 82). He and his predecessors, through judicious planting of park, woodland and hedgerow trees, created for us a mature landscape of rich Victorian romanticism, like the descriptions to be found in Tennyson’s In Memoriam. Oak, ash, lime and chestnut predominate, punctuated by the occasional Scots Pine for rugged grandeur.

From Harberton, a lane that passes the North gate of Dundridge crosses the A381 at Langridge Cross and ascends to Luscombe Cross. It then drops down into the steep valley that hides Luscombe Farm, an ancient settlement (Luscombe = Pig Valley (O.E.)), thence to Painsford, Bow Bridge and beyond. Its final destination is Dartmouth, which almost certainly explains the presence of the Cross. The importance of these little lanes is underlined when it is remembered that the present A381 Totnes to Dartmouth/Kingsbridge road, which runs below the ridgeway’s western flank, was only created in the 1820s. The ridgeway is the original road, dating back beyond the Iron Age. Old Road is how it is known at Harbertonford.

The broad, octagonal base of Luscombe Cross (3ft.6ins. diameter; 2 ft.4ins, height) is a coarse, mossy granite, bevelled and cushioned with a profile characteristic of the late Middle Ages. It seems likely that this original section was sited here at the cost and under the care of the Abbot of Buckfast. Until the Dissolution Buckfast Abbey, 8 miles beyond Totnes, owned land close to the Cross at Monks Englebourne. The Abbot had jurisdiction (and a fine house) in Kingsbridge. Dartmouth was a port that served pilgrims bound for Compostela, monks journeying to Buckfast Abbey’s mother house at Citeaux in Burgundy, and Royal servants (like Geoffrey Chaucer) bound for France. Such lines of communication were important. The relief of travellers was a work of Christian piety. The Cross itself was to be greeted with a Hail Mary to ensure a safe journey. The monument’s broad plinth gave rest to the weary – a ledge on which a pedlar might rest his pack. The two men most likely to have commissioned Luscombe cross are Abbot Slade (died 1415) or Abbot Kyng (died 1498). Both had a zeal for building.

The plinth supports a granite shaft with a rectangular cross-section and chamfered corners. The lower section measures 2ft. 10ins. in height. The style of the single bold capital letter appearing upon each of its faces suggest that it dates from the early 19th Century. The letters are cut in high relief, to allow the unlearned to spell out the shapes with their finger. The letters are T (facing Totnes), D (facing the winding way to Dartmouth), K (facing Kingsbridge), and B (facing South Brent).

Originally the Cross, like those on Dartmoor, would have guided the traveller across rough open pasture, where sheep and cattle roamed freely between hawthorn, blackthorn, gorse, broom and bracken (still to be found in the surrounding hedgebanks, along with ash, oak, and sycamore). But by the 1820s, Enclosure Acts were taming these rough wastes, creating the field pattern that surrounds the Cross today. The width of the roadside verges, achieved by setting back the hedges over most of the route, indicates that it had long been used as a drovers’ road, shifting livestock down to Totnes and the Rotherfold. It has been termed the Welsh Road (‘welsh’ meaning ‘stranger’), an indication of stock driven longer distances across country. Troop movements during the English Civil War will have followed this path, such as the 200 men sent by Sir Hugh Pollard against the Harberton Clubmen in October 1645.

When the first hedgerows were laid down, young holly trees were often used as markers. It has always been regarded as bad luck to cut down a holly tree, some of which survive in local hedgerows to this day. The superstition may owe something to the legal penalties imposed upon communities attempting to resist enclosure, and something to the Biblical injunction still to be found in the old Book of Common Prayer: ‘Cursed is he that removeth his neighbour’s landmark’. Luscombe Cross gains much of its character from the wind-battered holly arch that spans the road behind it to the East. Five more venerable hollies guard the hedgerow to the West, rearing out of nowhere like the witches in Macbeth. The largest of the trees have a girth of over 6ft. Holly grows extremely slowly. The oldest hollies in England are barely more than 7ft. in circumference, so these are very old. In a summer dusk, or on a misty autumn morning, the Luscombe holly arch becomes the doorway to another world. Beside it a stone stile, constructed from one great piece of slate, gives access to the nearest field.

Beyond the arch the lane to Luscombe Farm soon passes an ancient horse-pond with its own place in local folklore. It is guarded by an oaktree so stooping, shadowy and twisted that it seems to hold the pond in its fist. Further down, across the lane, lies the field where a German Heinkel bomber crashed in February 1941 with the loss of its four crew. Had it not been for the solid structure of a Devon hedgebank they might have survived. World War Two had another effect upon the ridgeway. Before the 1940s much more of the road was over-arched with trees. But cheap labour, supplied by Italian prisoners of war, allowed the felling of many fine old trees for profit. They have never been replaced.

The top section (3ft. 10ins.) of the Cross is of more recent date and of finer stone. It follows the lines of the lower section, but tapering slightly towards the top, and with a concave profile to the chamfered corners. It was erected in 1896, to make good the loss of the original head section, of which there is no record. Incised on each of the four sides is a Roman numeral, positioned directly over the letters on the lower section of the shaft. Thus, over the T: VII, over the B: I, over the D: I, over the K: IV. Perhaps they are intended to measure distance in miles. But the figures do not correspond to the geography. They remain a riddle, a mystery. The top of the shaft swells out to form a sturdily decorated, wheel-shaped Celtic Cross, 2ft. in diameter, bringing the total height of the monument to 9ft. Directly below the western face of the Cross, the face presented towards Dundridge, three initials and a date are cut in high relief:
R G H
21-5
1895

A casual observer might suppose that these identify the restorer and the date of restoration. They may even suggest a touch of self-promotion inviting criticism. Indeed there was criticism from antiquarians arguing that a Celtic cross makes a poor match with a 15th Century base – unlike, for example, the carved head of the mediaeval preaching cross in Harberton churchyard. But the initials, the date, the restoration support a weightier theme, giving the Cross, in its wayside setting, a particular poignancy and character.

The restorer was Sir Robert Harvey of Dundridge, but the initials are those of his much loved elder son Robert Godefroy Harvey, nicknamed Tito. At the age of ten, on May 21st. 1895, he died of pneumonia in his first week at boarding school. The effect upon the family can be gauged from the 165-page illustrated biography of the boy, which Sir Robert wrote and had privately printed and published in 1896. He anatomizes his grief and love with an honesty that can still bring tears to a reader’s eyes.

A further reflection of that loss is the alabaster figure of the child which can be found in the North Aisle of St. Andrew’s Church, Harberton. He lies barefoot, in his nightshirt, clutching a long-stemmed lily as if in a charmed sleep. This unusual commission (carried out by Harry Hems of Exeter) is a rarity among church memorials. But in the family vault in the churchyard it is just possible to see a finer version of the same work in white marble, where Tito in his nightshirt lies between the sleeping figures of his parents. There remains a photograph of Tito’s younger brother Alfred, standing beside Luscombe Cross, newly restored in his brother’s memory. The picture was included in the book which Alfred’s German nurse compiled when he himself died of diphtheria in 1902. His mother, Alida, Lady Harvey, had died the previous year, aged 31.

The odd, desperate ways in which grief may find an outlet are illustrated by a custom still maintained at Luscombe Cross. Copper coins are left upon the plinth by passers-by, whether for luck, a traveller’s dole, or payment to the ferryman at the River Styx. In old age Sir Robert Harvey would still ride out to Tito’s Cross. Having lost his own sons, he was the first to leave coins for some labourer’s child to find. At hunt meetings, riders would leave loose change in the cusps of the Cross itself. In a dark incident on New Year’s Eve 2002, the shaft of the Cross was snapped off from its base. The tenant farmer of Luscombe Farm rescued the broken granite from the roadside. (As a little boy he had been taken to view the Heinkel bomber lying broken in his father’s field). Thanks to his efforts and those of others, the Cross was well restored in November 2003. Stone-masons from English Heritage laid newly-minted coins within the mortar. So even if there are no pennies left upon the stones, there are pennies within the stones. Old people in Harberton still refer to the place as Pennies Cross, though today’s village children no longer roam the lanes, nor encounter what one old man had believed in his childhood to be fairy gold. At other times flowers are placed below the Cross. In May 2005, a card tied with a black ribbon to a posy of Spring flowers was left in memory of a 22 year-old airman who had died in September 1943 in action over Hanover. The card simply said ‘Remember’.

Clive Fairweather

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