Local history: the earliest known settlements in Exmouth

The view today looking from the Point to Starcross

The view today looking from the Point to Starcross - Credit: Mike Menhenitt

Welcome to the first regular feature on aspects of the history of Exmouth. Much of course has been written about our town over time in both books and magazine articles. Sometimes the accuracies of these have been questioned but as always, some historians have put their own personal slant on that aspect of history they are writing about. The aim of this column is to help those with a passing interest in the history of Exmouth rather than provide a detailed scholarly paper. If it encourages you to want to delve deeper then so much the better! 

Where do we begin then? It has been suggested that the history of Exmouth began around a thousand years ago with a crude ferry running between Starcross and a landing stage at the beach. The picture shows the view from The Point across the estuary to Starcross as it is today. A further theory is that earlier than this, fishermen were working around the area known as The Point and had established a settlement there. It is perhaps more likely that around 8000 BC, when Britain became an island and Devon as we know it was beginning to take shape, Stone Age peoples followed by Palaeolothic and then Neolithic peoples inhabited parts of Devon and it was these latter ones who established a settlement in or around what we now know as Exmouth. Evidence for this exists in the thousands of flint tools found in the area and it is thought they were the ones who first constructed defence works on Woodbury Common.  

Around 2000 BC the Bronze Age folk arrived here and a sword of that time has since been discovered on the Pole Sands. This is on show at the British Museum with a replica at Exmouth Museum. These people established a settlement near the beach but also moved inland and further fortified land on Woodbury Common with the beginnings of a mound known as Woodbury Castle, which is still there today, as the picture below shows.  

Inside Woodbury Castle, the Iron Age hill fort

Inside Woodbury Castle, the Iron Age hill fort - Credit: Mike Menhenitt

It is 175 metres above sea level and gives far reaching views across the river Exe. Bronze Age peoples established themselves on both sides of the Exe estuary and it is likely that two of their routes crossed Woodbury Common and met at what is now called Four Firs crossroads. The common at that time was largely forested and there were few clearings as there are today. It is the Bronze Age peoples who further constructed the many stone rows, stone circles and barrows across Devon which had first been built by much earler peoples.

Barrows are ancient burial mounds of which there are several on Woodbury Common and two of them can be found only a short walk north of the castle. Purchase of the Ordnance Survey Explorer map will enable you to walk across the common and find and enjoy these ancient monuments and imagine these ancient peoples walking where you now do. 

Next time we will explore the coming of the Iron Age and Celtic tribes and you can discover how Exmouth got its name. 

Local historian and committee member of the Society of Exmouth Museum, Mike Menhenitt

Local historian and committee member of the Society of Exmouth Museum, Mike Menhenitt - Credit: Mike Menhenitt

About the author: Mike is a local historian and committee member of the Society of Exmouth Museum. He was brought up in the town from the mid 1950s and he is related to the Clapp family of Clapp’s Café that was on the corner of Rolle Street and Strand for 200 years. His grandfather, Leslie Clapp, was the last member of the family to run the business until 1966 when on his retirement the café ceased to trade and a longstanding part of the history of Exmouth came to an end. Mike’s mother Pauline Clapp lived in the town until her death in 2007 and after being away for his work since the early 1970s Mike returned to live in Exmouth in 2020. He has had various magazine articles published and also a book on the Menhenitt family, which he researched and it charts the history of his family over one thousand years in Cornwall. 

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