DEVON, ENGLAND — One of the greatest joys of travel comes when you discover a vignette of history where some unknown person has a life-altering encounter with a well-known individual of the period. Such stories are even better when they revolve around a tale that links a family’s ancestry to days gone by in a way that somehow magically binds the past with the present. England’s Lewtrenchard Manor offers a fine example of this phenomenon.
In 1929, Frigyes Karinthy popularized a theory known as “Six Degrees of Separation.” Karinthy’s concept states that all people are six, or fewer, social connections away from each other. Making use of that idea as a basic foundation, history can leap, quite literally, off the pages of a manuscript or a website. In so doing, it can become a true “close encounter of some kind.”
Recently a high classmate, Dick Forbis, told me of a place that he and his wife, Sheryl, had visited in England which details just such a story.
Enter the history of Lewtrenchard Manor
The site that Dick and Sheryl encountered is located near Dartmoor on the edge of the Great Foggy Forest. Most locals know it as Lewtrenchard Manor, named after the village in which it is located. It has also been known as Lew House or Lew Trenchard, with part of its name referencing the nearby River Lew.
As with all such stories, we begin with some geneological connections. Captain Edward Marshall was Dick Forbis’ great-great-grandfather. Marshall married Lavinia Maitland Snow, who was considerably younger than he. Subsequently, the couple added two toddlers to the family line before the captain passed away.
Soon after, Lavinia remarried to Edward Baring-Gould of Lewtrenchard. Baring-Gould, who owned the manor house along with 3,000 acres of land, was a widower with two mostly grown children.
That union produced two more children. But when Baring-Gould died, Lavinia and her two youngest children were forced to move out to a dower house, since Baring-Gould’s first born son, Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924), inherited everything.
The travels of Sabine Baring-Gould
Because the family had spent much of his childhood traveling round Europe, most of Sabine’s education was the work of private tutors. Perhaps as a result of that, he marched to a very different drummer.
At that time, the first born usually became an officer of the Navy or a barrister. But Sabine felt a calling to the priesthood. Over his father’s objections, Sabine took on the parish of St. Peter on the hill just above the Manor House. Here, he also wrote hymns for the children and youth of his church.
Hymns, novels and the writing life
It is two of Sabine’s hymns which elevate this story from obscurity to eyebrow-raising reality. You see, Baring-Gould the Younger wrote the lyrics to Now the Day is Over and Onward Christian Soldiers.
Famously, Now the Day is Over was one of those sung at the hymn service, led by Reverend Ernest Courtenay Carter, honoring those who died in the tragic sinking of the Titanic. Sabine Baring-Gould had penned the lyrics in 1865. The tune it was set to, Merrial, was composed a bit later, in 1868, by Sir Joseph Barnby (1838-1896).
Sabine also wrote the lyrics to Onward Christian Soldiers in 1865. None other than Arthur Sullivan composed the music for the hymn in 1871.
Sabine was also a prolific author. And he had to be to cover the expenses of his huge family that included 12 children. He wrote several novels using the unorthodox writing style of standing at his desk to compose. In addition, he published nearly 200 short stories in assorted magazines and periodicals.
Upgrading the Manor House
Fascinated with architecture as well as music and literature, Sabine began buying parts of houses in disrepair. He made use of them in his continuing effort to expand and renovate Lewtrenchard Manor throughout the years.
Sabine also added on to the rectangular house, which had already undergone several renovations over the years. In the end it was finally shaped like a capital “E,” for Elizabeth, a popular style of the era which honored the greatest queen England had known. The property also includes a grand ballroom, a huge upstairs hall and luxuriously appointed bedrooms.
Likely as one result of this eclectic approach, each room’s ceiling is plaster with a different design, while the windows differ in design throughout the house.
Elementary, my dear Sabine…
Because Sabine was a prolific and well-known author, he became acquainted with many other authors of the day. These included Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes.
On one occasion, during a visit to Lewtrenchard Manor with a friend, Doyle mentioned that he was thinking about a myth of a monster and intended to write about it. When he saw the Moors nearby the property, Doyle changed the setting of his story. It became one of his best-known Sherlock Holmes tales, The Hound of the Baskervilles. The house depicted in Sherlock Holmes’ arguably most famous adventure is Lewtrenchard Manor.
One of Sabine’s grandsons, William Stuart Baring-Gould was a noted Sherlock Holmes scholar who wrote a fictional biography of the great detective in which, to make up for the lack of information about Holmes’s early life, he based his account on the childhood of Sabine Baring-Gould.
Sabine himself is also a major character in Laurie R. King’s Sherlock Holmes novel The Moor, a Sherlockian pastiche. In this novel it is revealed that Sabine Baring-Gould is actually the godfather of Sherlock Holmes.
My Fair Love Story
Beyond Sherlock however, there is yet another story. Sabine met his future wife, Grace Taylor, the daughter of a mill hand, when she was 14. They were married in 1868 and remained together for 48 years until her death in 1916. The couple had 15 children, of which 12 survived to adulthood.
George Bernard Shaw borrowed the early part of the love story between Sabine and Grace, using it as the basis for his drama Pygmalion. That famous play eventually formed the basis of an musical version known as My Fair Lady.
For Dick and Sheryl Forbis a visit to Lewtrenchard is a journey back into their English ancestral legacy. For anyone else, Lewtrenchard Manor – now a luxurious hotel – is an undiscovered treasure. It is here where literature, music and architecture literally immerse you into a glorious long ago era. But one that will never be forgotten.
Travel is truly just “one degree of separation” because in the end, it’s all about discovery.
“It’s elementary, my dear Watson.”
— Headline image: Lewtrenchard Manor has a diverse cultural legacy that captivates everyone who stays there.
(Photo: Public Domain, via Wikipedia entry on Lewtrenchard Manor)
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
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