Rodney Denzil Westlake was the Simonsbath Carpenter from 1960 - 1992
Rodney Denzil Westlake, "Den", was the Exmoor Estate Carpenter from 1960 until his untimely death aged just 62 in 1992. He was the last resident estate carpenter in Simonsbath.
After he died the village was left without a carpenter for the first time since John Knight laid down the foundations of the village in the 1820s. Den Westlake was based at Simonsbath Sawmill which, after his death, lay unused until it was bought by Exmoor National Park Authority (NPA) in 1996 and restored in 2002/03.
Den Westlake was born near Bude in Cornwall on 29 May 1930. He trained as a carpenter in Cornwall completing his apprenticeship shortly after his twentieth birthday when, on 8 June 1950, he was awarded a Certificate of Completion of Approved Apprenticeship in Carpentry by the Building Apprenticeship and Training Council.
In 1952 Den did his National Service with the Royal Air Force. He attended a 6 weeks training course as an RAF motorcyclist at RAF Debden, a former Battle of Britain airfield near Saffron Waldon in Essex which was home to the RAF Technical College. He was trained to ride all types of motorcycles used by the RAF, to carry out routine maintenance, and to do convoy duties and any other work for which motorcycles are required. In hi discharge papers Den is described as being 5'61/2" tall, with brown hair, grey eyes and as being of smart appearance with a fresh completion. His conduct, co-operation and abilities as a tradesman were described as being very good.
Den returned to civilian life and on 17 March 1956 he married Doreen Mildred Eunice Jones from Holsworthy who he had met when she was on a trip to the beach at Bude. They initially lived with Den's family near Bude where their daughter, Denise, was born. Shortly afterwards they decided to move Australia where Den used his carpentry skills in house building. Den and Doreen's son, Dean, was born in Australia.
Doreen increasingly missed home and eventually, after three and half years in Australia, the family returned to Cornwall where they lived with Den's parents near Bude while Den looked for work.
Den saw an advert for the post of Estate Carpenter for the Fortescue Estate based in Simonsbath. His application was successful and the family moved to Simonsbath in 1960. They lived in Diana Lodge Flat, behind Simonsbath House Hotel. This had been newly-created in part of John Knight's unfinished mansion which had been reduced in size and roofed over shortly after Viscount Ebrington took over the Exmoor and Brendon Estates in 1897. Doreen worked at Simonsbath House. This echoes earlier times when the wives of the Estate Carpenters - like James Harvey (carpenter from <1834 – 1850s) and James Welch (carpenter from 1892 - 1911) were housekeepers there (for John Knight and Viscount Ebrington respectively).
Den was based at Simonsbath Sawmill and really enjoyed working there. In particular, he loved the Ruston Hornsby diesel engine which he kept in perfect working condition. The engine had been installed in 1952 after flooding had damaged the system that brought water to the old turbine. When Den arrived in Simonsbath in 1960 the engine was only 8 years old and he looked after it for more than thirty years - by far the longest period that anyone has cared for it and the time during which it is was in most regular use. The fact that the engine is still in such good condition today owes much to the dedicated care and attention Den devoted to it during his time at the sawmill. (After Den died, in 1992, the engine was rarely used. When the National Park Authority bought the sawmill in 1996 Stan Curtis, who had recently retired from his job as a tractor driver with the Fortescue Estate, looked after it in his capacity as the NPA's Honorary Warden for the Simonsbath area. After the NPA restored the mill in 2002/03 the engine was again used to power sawmilling operations but these ended in 2010. Since then the mill has not been in regular operational use and the engine is looked after by a small group of volunteers who currently run it about twice a month for demonstration purposes).
While working at Simonsbath Sawmill Den was not only involved in the full range of estate carpenter tasks but he also was responsible for the water supply to Simonsbath House and other properties in the village. This came from Ashcombe Water via the water-carriage that ran through Ashcombe Woods. This now-disused leat was built into the steeply sloping western side of the valley and required considerable routine maintenance. Until 1898 the leat also fed a mill pond north of the sawmill which supplied water to a water wheel at the mill. This function ended when a water-carriage system was installed to bring water from the River Barle to serve a newly-installed turbine at the mill.
Sadly, Den began to suffer from ill-health and on 8 December 1992 he died at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital, aged just 62. His ashes were spread in his beloved Ashcombe where a commemorative plaque was erected. Den's widow, Doreen, stayed on at Diana Lodge Flat but in 1994 moved to a Fortescue Estate Cottage close to the Castle Hill mansion in Filleigh.
Memorial plaque in Ashcombe Woods
The mill was little used after Den's death. Much of the Fortescue Estate land in the area had been sold to Exmoor National Park Authority in 1991 and in 1996 the sawmill and twenty acres of riverside meadows was also bought from the Estate thanks to generous funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The overall aim of acquistion was "to safeguard the character of the mill in its setting." The mill was restored to working condition in 2002/03, with further funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. It was used by National Park Authority until 2010 to prepare timber for conversion at the Exford workshops into signs, gates, stiles, bridge, steps, fence posts, etc. It is no longer in regular operational use but is maintained in working condition and is used for demonstration purposes and as the venue for educational events and activities. It is cared for by a small team of volunteers who help with maintenance, lead tours and are researching the history of the mill.
© Graham Wills