Topsham – a town’s spectacular history

Stroll along the Strand to see the Dutch gables; seek out ancient quays and causeways; peep into cobbled courts and explore narrow lanes; along the way you’ll enjoy stunning views of the Exe Estuary.

Two thousand years ago the Romans visited Topsham to supply the garrison at Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter). They landed goods, built a small fort and constructed the straight road into Exeter that is still used today.

At some time before 670, a Saxon called Toppa was granted the land by the king, and so it became known as Toppa’s village, or Tops-ham. There is still debate about whether we should pronounce it Top-sham or Top-sam!

In 1300, a grant was given by King Edward I to the Earl of Devon (Hugh de Courtenay) to hold an annual fair and a weekly market, and this Royal Charter elevated Topsham from a village to a town.

The 17th and 18th centuries were the ‘golden’ years. Farmers throughout Devon invested in long-wool sheep and Exeter became the centre of a thriving export trade for woollen cloth. The finished serge was shipped to the continent from its port at Topsham. Visit the Quay to see where the cloth bales were loaded onto ships bound for Holland and elsewhere. Take a walk along Strand to admire the Dutch architecture adopted by local merchants. In Topsham Museum (25 Strand) you can see how the merchants lived, learn more about the town and enjoy a cream tea in the garden.

The Exe Estuary and the Exeter Ship Canal (opened in 1566) were and remain central to local life.

From Topsham Quay, ships set off to fight the Spanish Armada, settle the Americas, trade with the continent or fish for cod off Newfoundland. Smaller boats ferried goods and passengers up, down and across the river, netted salmon and fished for mackerel. From the high churchyard wall, you can see up and down the estuary and imagine how life on the river has changed over the years.

Along the shore, shipbuilders sawed and hammered and while wooden ships ruled, Topsham shipyards were some of the busiest in the country.

Forges made anchors and chains, rope-makers twisted hemp, a factory produced specialised nails. During the 18th and 19th centuries, cargo ships for merchants and warships for the Navy were built here. One of these was HMS Terror. Commissioned as a gunboat, the Terror was lost in 1848 during Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated voyage to discover the North-West Passage. At Topsham Museum you can see a model of the ship and learn how it was rediscovered in 2016, following an improbable tip from an Inuit guide.

In the fields, market gardening was big business, and after the railway arrived in 1861, daily goods trucks laden with fruit and vegetables chuffed their way to Covent Garden. In this working-class environment, there were once 42 pubs and a reputation for rowdiness. As late as the 1990s, local students regarded a pint in each of the ‘Topsham Ten’ as a rite of passage.

Today, Topsham is both a tourist destination and a vibrant all-year-round community.

Further information

Two self-guided walks are described in the Topsham Trails leaflet available from various outlets in Topsham and online here. For more information visit the Topsham Museum website.

Guided walks run by Topsham Museum set off from Holman Way Car Park at 2pm every Wednesday and Sunday from May to September.

Topsham Museum Guidebook: Click here to walk room-by-room through Topsham Museum and discover the story of the town along the way

Virtual tour of Topsham Museum: Click here

Topsham Museum, housed in a 17th century merchants’ house at 25 Strand, with Tea Garden and Shop. The Riverside Garden is open all year round for everyone to enjoy. For more information including opening hours, click here.

Quick Guides to Topsham include walks around Topsham’s churches, pubs and much more.

Topsham Characters highlights some of the town’s residents who shaped Topsham into what it is today.