Take a walk around Topsham’s churches
Most visitors to Topsham – and residents for that matter – have an affection for St Margaret’s Church, which has dramatic views over the Exe estuary, As important to many is the fact that it stands on the oldest site of Christian worship in Topsham.
There may have been a very early Christian building in the old village and we know that a parcel of land was granted by Athelstan, King of the Anglo-Saxons, to the monastery church of St Peter and St Paul in Exeter in the 10th century, and a series of church buildings have stood here ever since. The magnificent current building was consecrated in 1877, replacing the medieval church of which only the tower – of Norman origin – remains.
The building is dedicated to St Margaret of Antioch and in the corner of the churchyard between the tower and the back door, you can find the memorial stone to Thomas Randle, who served on The Victory with Nelson. During part of the 2020-2022 pandemic period it also hosted a dramatic carved ‘Angel of the South’ – created by Topsham sculptor Brendan Rawlings – which many residents and visitors admired, a symbol of hope.
Turning left in front of the church, a short way along Fore Street you will find St Nicholas Methodist Church. Completed in 1867, this building was the product of a Wesleyan congregation which had met at a former Quaker Meeting House on nearby Majorfield Road.
John Holman – of the Holman shipbuilding family, which plays a prominent part in Topsham’s history – was instrumental in launching and funding a plan to build a church. It contains a small stained glass window on the south side in memory of those lost at sea in the ship ‘The John Holman’ in 1865. Other Victorian stained glass depicts the lives of St Andrew and St Paul.
With St Nicholas Methodist Church on your left, walk round into Victoria Road, just a few steps away. About halfway along you will see what appears to be a church, but is in fact a series of private homes. This was the Congregational Church and School. You can still see the inscription above what was the door to the school: ‘Independence Church 1839 and School 1897’.
At the far end of Victoria Road, stroll along Parkfield Way to Station Road and opposite the station – next to the level crossing – you will see the Roman Catholic Church, built in 1936. In the 1920s Catholic Mass for Topsham residents was celebrated in private homes – nearby Broadway House, a popular B&B for many years, was one such location.
Then in the 1930s the congregation moved to what had been a non-conformist chapel, in Chapel Place in the heart of ‘old’ Topsham. This building has also been The Cosy Cinema and The Glove Factory, and is now a private house. For around five years there was no Roman Catholic Church in Topsham, until the current building was opened in 1937.
From this church, walk down Station Road and left into Parkfield Road, then right into Majorfield Road. Near where that meets Fore Street you will see – set back a little from the road – the former Friends’ Meeting House. This is where the Methodists met before it became Topsham 1st School until 2001, when it was converted by Exeter Housing Association into homes.
To complete your church quest, turn right and walk past many of Topsham’s shops towards the far end of Fore Street where – again set back from the road – you can see Topsham Gospel Church. It dates from 1967 and although small in size it is large in history – at least so far as its site is concerned. There was once an 18th century independent chapel there, for non-conformists, and then the building took on a secular role housing both the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Society and a Ladies School during the 19th century.
The functional 20th century building you see now took under a month to build by local contractors. In its early years it was a Sunday school and youth centre before becoming a permanent place of worship – and by far the most modest in Topsham.
For further reading, Topsham Museum has a book called ‘Churches of Topsham’ that you can buy online here.