GENERALLY most of the activities of village life are centred around the village church, but in Braunton, Cross Tree, almost in the centre of the village, was the liveliest spot. This was the site of the old Saxon East Cross and was marked by an old elm tree. The site was almost a square and was the site of all open air gatherings and activities.
On summer evenings the band of the local volunteer corps would entertain the villagers and afterwards the local orchestra would follow suit.
It was the pitch of the Salvation Army, for open air meetings on Sunday afternoons, previous to being led by their band to their citadel in South Street.
After the Sunday evening services in the local places of worship there would be a united open air service under the tree Local worthies would speak and often shout and the voice of one sea captain could be heard a mile away.
Cross Tree was the pitch for cheap-jacks, quack doctors and people who had various wares to sell. On these occasions great crowds gathered. The cheap-jacks often started their sales by holding attractive competitions.
On one occasion an apple dumpling eating competition was held under the tree. A well known craftsman won the prize by consuming no less than sixteen boiled apple dumplings in quick time, a feat which was the topic of conversation for a very long time.
Hard by the tree was the Red Lion Inn and the ground outside was the pitch of quack doctors. I remember one American Quack who called himself Wanga. His pills were guaranteed to cure all ills and his lotions and medicines were unsurpassed. Wanga was a clever dentist and he gathered his crowd when he gave free dental extractions. As the patients climbed on to the platform in front of his wagonette the crowd cheered, and the applause was greater when the extraction was performed on a yelling patient. After the dental operation Wanga would lecture on various common ailments and proceed to sell his pills and lotions. Needless to say he did a roaring trade, and the local chemist had less customers after the quack's visit.
On one occasion a traveling phrenologist visited the village and gave open air demonstrations at a charge of one shilling each. A local farmer's son who was always spoken of as "John Little Truth" was there. Of him it was often said : "If you don't believe me go and ask John L." Some local wags who had previously primed the phrenologist, prevailed on John L. to get his bumps read.
After he had consented, he mounted the platform and sat on the chair. The phrenologist began by passing his fingers over various part of the victim's head. making casual complimentary remarks regarding the bumps of knowledge. health. business acumen and other qualities. At last his fingers rested on a spot and he said : " Yes ! This is the bump of truth. It isn't very perceptible but the little that there is, is as good as anybody else's." There was laughter and applause from the crowd, but poor John came down crestfallen and quickly disappeared.
The vans of various political and religious organisations also made Cross Tree their pitch. On one occasion the van of the United Kingdom Temperance Alliance made its appearance and for several nights temperance meetings were conducted from the platform. The peripatetic speaker, William Harbud, a well known temperance advocate, at that time, was waxing eloquent on the evils of alcohol when suddenly a well-known character of the village emerged from the Ilfracombe Inn, walked to the front of the audience and, holding up a quart bottle of beer, offered the speaker a drink. His offer being declined. he put the bottle to his mouth and demonstrated the way to empty it. Then, supported by his mates who had come out to join him, he coolly walked away.
Although the old Cross Tree could weather the gales of centuries. it had to give way to modern road improvements which eventually spoiled the character of the village and a stone plaque is all that brings to memory so many interesting events that took place in Victorian days.
(reproduced with the kind permission of John Lerwill visit his Devon tales site )