Topsham, Devon, is an atmospheric little town on the Exe Estuary, now a suburb of Exeter, that used to be a major port. Many aspects of its features and history are well-known but for a time I've been intending to compile some of the more obscure facts, mostly omitted from official guides, that I've encountered since living here. They may be of interest to visitors, and can be viewed in a circular walk that takes about an hour.
Leaving the church, take the steps from the churchyard down to the river and turn left to follow the Underway to the Quay. Since I first wrote the article, the heaps of garget shells left over from the defunct fishing industry have been cleared away as a nuisance, but you can still see a prominent landmark, the King's Beam. This cast iron structure on the Quay is one of the more sinister relics of Topsham's maritime heritage. It was used well into the 19th century for the summary punishment of sailors. Those who had absconded from their ships or "engendered an affray" in the local brothels were suspended here to be flogged, and the beam was also used to hang those condemned to death for more serious offences. In the late 19th to early 20th century, a stylised depiction of the beam was used as a religious symbol by the Topsamite Reformed Brethren, a non-conformist sect who preached that Joseph of Arimathea had visited Topsham with the young Jesus. The sect is still technically banned by an emergency law passed in 1915 when its leader spoke out in favour of the Kaiser, but it still exists and members can be identified by their secret pronunciation of the town's name as "Topsam". It's of related interest that Oscar Wilde stayed incognito at the quay, "posing as a Topsamite", before sailing to exile in France.
Almost opposite the cemetery you'll see a railway arch. Go under this along Denver Road, which will take you to the Exeter end of Topsham. Unfortunately there is little sign of the once-famous Topsham Gum Mural on the wall opposite. This unusual piece of art, called Spirit of Youth and commissioned for the Topsham 2000 Heritage Year celebrations, consisted of hundreds of carefully placed blobs of chewing gum, installed as a performance art piece by Exeter sculptor Trago Mills. Mills says of it: "The gum is a metaphor for our recycling of cultural influences. We take in the indigestible ephemeral images of the mass media, extract what we can from them, then return them in a changed form to the field of discourse." Already sadly dilapidated in 2005, the work was doomed by failure to gain Lottery funding for its upkeep.
Just beyond the statue, you'll see Matthews Hall, the centre of Topsham's community life, and named in honour not (as is commonly stated) of the footballer Sir Stanley Matthews, but of "Ma Thews", the celebrated 19th century lady wrestler immortalised in Jean Veber's 1898 painting Women Wrestling in Devonshire. In a tradition commemorating the rebel Duke of Monmouth's speech to the people of Topsham in 1685, on Saturdays anyone may proclaim themselves monarch and address the public (either from the street or, for a small fee, from the balcony). The Union flag is normally flown above Matthews Hall, but during the Town Fair held every summer, it is replaced by the Topsham flag, whose heraldic description is "a serpent with its head thrust in its own fundament".
London and South Western Hotel (later Drakes, and now pending conversion to an extension of the Co-Op). Despite an attempt at trephination treatment, she died young from a debilitating disease that medical historians have identified as tripanosomiasis aggravated by a tryptophan deficiency. She was survived by one daughter, Tripitaka. (Note: sufferers from triskaidekaphobia should on no account approach the building).
This brings you back to the centre of Topsham, completing the tour. If you find Topsham's more unusual features were to your taste, you'll enjoy reading about another of Devon's lesser-known attractions, the Dunchideock Treacle Mines. Topsham's official town page can be found at www.topsham.org.uk.