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John and ann parnell

Visiting My Great-Grandfather’s Great-Grandfather!

What an extraordinary day!

Parnell FamilyAs you may know, I have been tracing my ancestry and one of the reasons I came to stay in Devon for a couple of months is to investigate and actually (hopefully) find the grave of a particular ancestor and the church in which the family worshipped.

The photo on the left, taken in around 1925, is of my great-grandmother (who largely raised me), her husband and their daughter.

This particular quest was following my Pop’s line (the man in the photo – my great-grandfather who died four years before I was born) – the Parnell family, who hail from Devon; in particular, a small village just a few miles north of Exeter called Brampford Speke.

While still living in America, I was blessed to find online a genealogist, Graham Parnell, with the same last name from the same area as my ancestors (although we have yet to find how we are related) and finally the day came when we would meet and he and his lovely wife Jan had offered to take me to see the area and to (fingers crossed) find the grave of my great-grandfather’s great-grandfather!

Parnell Family Quest Adventure…

Beginning at the beautiful Victorian Torquay Railway Station, I boarded a train for Exeter St David’s.

Opened in 1859 and rebuilt in 1878, the station is a lovely piece of Victorian heritage.

As we travelled along the coast, it was amazing to see the sea SO close to the train as we went through Dawlish.  Just yesterday, the waves were so fierce, they were breaking over the top of the carraiges and actually broke the window on a train!

You can actually read more and watch a video of the trains being hit by the waves here.

Mother Nature is quite magnificent!

Well, finally reached my destination, Graham and Jan found me and we set off on our adventure.

Parnell Family Church

First stop, the beautiful St Peter’s Church of England in Brampford Speke.  This is the very place John and Ann Parnell – my great-grandfather’s great-grandparents – not only worshipped but were buried.

First recorded in the early 1100s, when Walter de Treminet gave it to the monks of St Nicholas Priory, Exeter, the church was largely rebuilt in the 1400s and then again in the mid-1800s when unfortunately most of the building – apart from the tower – was demolished.

My extended Parnell Family - Graham and Jan

My extended Parnell Family (even though we have yet to find the actual link) – Graham and Jan Parnell.  We have only just met, but I love them dearly.

I was curious about the term ‘speke’ and discovered that from the time of around King Henry II, 1154-1189, the manor of Brampford Speke belonged to the family of Especk, from which the family name Speke later derived.

The population of the village is only around 300 but the church is still a lovely centre of the community.


It’s times like these I wish I had paid more attention in Latin class!  I did some digging, and according to my rough translation, it reads, “Be Faithful To The Dead And I Crown You Life” (although if anyone reading this has a better grasp of Latin, please feel free to comment with a correction!)

In the (rather blurry – sorry!) photo below, you will note that it is a “free” pew.  From the beginning of the 1800s to the 1960s, many churches ‘rented’ pews as a way to increase revenue to cover the rising costs of maintaining the buildings.

If you want to know more, there is an excellent article on the renting of pews here.

I love this church – it is simple yet elegant, unassuming and beautiful.

Then we proceeded outside in an attempt to find our target – John Parnell.

Although you cannot see over the wall, the church is built on the red sandstone cliff overlooking the River Exe, after which Exeter was named.

Parnell Family Ancestor – FOUND!

Although largely overgrown, this is the resting place of John and Ann Parnell – my great-grandfather’s great-grandparents!

Graham and Jan have said they will come back, clean up the grave and take some photos for me (so will post them at that time).

I cannot begin to express just how lovely it was to find them!  I will be writing a whole post on them at some other time – and several of their children and grandchildren (my 2x and 3x great-grandparents) will be featured in a future edition of Bridgit’s stories!

I could have stayed here all day – I love this place!

Then it was on to see where many of Jan’s family were buried – and along the way, so many beautiful buildings – I mean, just check out the roof in this one below!

…but first, a spot of lunch!

‘The Ring of Bells’ pub dates back to around the 1400s and was such a treat.  We had a delicious plowman’s lunch, equally delicious glass of wine (ok, two)…

Located in a lovely village called Cheriton Fitzpaine, this Grade II listed pub has been serving the local community literally for centuries.

This long building below used to be the pub’s skittle alley…

…and just around the edge of the building is the church!

…but before we get to the church, check out the old school next door – in particular, the pigs on the roof!  Seriously!

Parnell Family Church

…and from there it was off to St Mary’s Church in Upton Helions where John and Ann were married in 1805.

On the side of a steep hill looking over the River Creedy, Upton Helions is a small village with less than 150 people.

Now, while this may seem a narrow Norman door, it is not until you have something – or in this case some one with which to compare it, do you get a sense of just how small it is!

15th century lion carving at the end of the pews…

This was very interesting…  Carved from alabaster and though to commemorate Richard Reynell of Creedy Wiger (d. 1631) and his wife Mary. Typical of the Jacobean era, they face each other across a prayer desk.

I traced this organ down – it is a thirteen stop foot pump organ, purchased from Chicago Cottage Organs’ distributor in London.  As best I can tell, it dates from the end of the 1800s.  Here is a rare find where you can even view one of their entire catalogues from 1890.


What’s that saying about “measure twice and cut once?”  Obviously someone had a challenge somewhere when the church was being restored…

…and on our way back to Graham and Jan’s home, we crossed the “Bridge Over Troubled Water” – yes, the song.  Bickleigh Bridge in Tiverton, Devon is ‘the’ bridge.

…and then………  I made a new friend!  Isn’t she BEAUTIFUL!!!!!!!!!  This is just one of Graham’s much loved automobiles.

…and then a lovely ride back home on the train to Torquay.

Valentine’s Day 2017 will always hold a special place in my heart, for this was the day I met my ancestors and my Parnell Family history really came to life.

~ Bella