Now Newton Abbot has had as good a share of English history as any Devon town of its size, but you would be visiting a long time before the word quaint came to mind. For it owes its past prosperity to the nineteenth century, to the railways and china clay and to the growth of agricultural markets, so that by and large its architecture, such as it is, reflects the period when it made its money. In its main streets, the few buildings with any pretensions to elegance have been tightly bookended by others less worthy, and over the years the town's governance has not exercised much aesthetic control of its lansdcape or more particularly the type of buildings that have been shoe-horned into its little commercial centre. Money, or the lack of it, has usually won out, preventing any guiding coherent vision becoming apparent. It is a town built on pragmatism. The age of the internet and the out-of-town superstore has only served to debase and impoverish it the more. Sadly, of how many English towns is that true?
Nevertheless, on a sunny day, the west end of Courtenay Street, now mercifully freed of traffic, still has the remnants of charm, and the impression is enhanced by the remains of St.Leonard's Tower (familiarly known as the Clock Tower) and the row of, I suppose, seventeenth century buildings that face it to its north. Unfortunately, Wolborough Street then degenerates within a few yards to a traffic light circus and the tarmac acres of Asda, where the River Lemon has been allowed to languish barely visible at the bottom of a drain.
However, facing west, with the tower before, you are for a moment looking at a relatively unmolested piece of history: and it is to the credit of nineteenth century Newtonians that amid all the changes going on around them and the clamour for improvement and modernity, they went to considerable effort to preserve this stumpy little edifice, which has become in consequence emblematic of the town.
The original chapel on this site, of which the tower is the remnant, was built around 1220, we are told, as an adjunct of Torre Abbey, down the road in what is now Torquay. The Abbey was indirectly a beneficiary of Richard I, and the patronage of St Leonard was therefore considered appropriate, St Leonard being the saint of prisoners and to whom Richard had particular reason to be thankful. The Chapel was a mere distant outlier, and so by all accounts a plain little building, in keeping with the tower, and no architectural gem. But in the thirteenth century, Newton was little more than a huddle of thatched wooden houses round a crossroad, with a newly created market. Even this small building would have been dominant.
The chapel survived the dissolution of the monasteries and thereafter became the principal church of the town, notwithstanding more elaborate competitors in the neighbouring parishes of Wolborough and Highweek. It had a brief moment of glory as the site of William of Orange's declaration of his Glorious Revolution in 1688, but thereafter passed into that twilight of ecclesiastical neglect that characterised the eighteenth century. With the growth of the town the Church wanted to offer parishioners something more suitable, and once the uninspired but new St Leonards was built a little down the road, the original was demolished in 1836, leaving only the tower. It remains virtually the only reminder of Newton 's medieval past.
There are a few Newtonians who attach a value to the past, and they turn out each week in the summer to shepherd the curious into the tiny rooms and up the steep and twisting stairs of the tower. They grasp gratefully at this little scrap of heritage, and are happy to shower you with as much local history as they can ring out of it. There is a pleasure in climbing the last ladder and viewing the clock mechanism and the girt bells above (which they will strike for you) from an age when it was possible to look at a piece of technology and deduce how it functioned. And part of the pleasure lies in the pleasure and pride with which it is exhibited to you.