The hall chest was carved oak, some four feet long and three feet deep. Late nineteenth-century, I would guess, and brought to Golsoncott from my grandparents’ previous home in St Albans. Indeed, it features in a photograph in one of the albums, doing duty in that other hall. At Golsoncott the chest housed the albums, a great pile of them, the hefty leather-bound objects favoured in the early part of the twentieth century. Here was the pictorial history of the house and garden, and their predecessors at St Albans; through the pages troop family and friends, from the 1890s onwards. Edwardian skirts and Norfolk jackets give way to twenties shapeless dresses and Oxford bags. People are decked out in silks and morning dress for weddings; young mothers pose with babies by the sundial in the rose garden. The babies grow up and are wed in turn; more babies peer down into the lily pond.
At the other end of the chest was a welter of dog leads, brown wrapping paper, lengths of string and bald tennis balls.
On the top of the contents lay the picnic rug, stained and weathered tartan, veteran of many a moorland lunch or tea and potent symbol of how it all began – the family’s hundred-year addiction to north-west Somerset, now into the fifth generation.
You could say that this addiction was fuelled by the advent of the Great Western Railway. Wordsworth and Coleridge had a hand in it, which would perhaps have been news to my grandmother and her siblings – not a bookish lot – whooping it up on the moor in their youth around the turn of the century. There they are, the Hewetts, in the earliest album, the late Victorian family incarnate, their names alone pinning them firmly to a time and a class: Walter, Gilbert, Maud, Beatrice, Harold and Douglas. On a Sunday afternoon in 1895, having tea on the lawn of Wootton Courtenay Rectory, rented for the summer, the party expanded with a couple of friends. Most of them are sitting on chairs, but the two youngest are sprawled on a rug similar to the one I knew in my adolescence. There is a table with white cloth and silver kettle; on the grass is a three-tier cake stand, the cakes largely demolished. The girls – all are in their late teens or early twenties – wear hats, round straw with shallow crowns and brims and wide petersham bands. All have long skirts and sumptuously swollen leg-of-mutton sleeves, either on their white-frilled and pin-tucked blouses worn with a dark ribbon tied in a bow around the neck, or on their jackets. Other photographs are less posed – here they are on Larkbarrow in the autumn of 1901, on a moorland hike, in deerstalkers and straw boaters, Norfolk jackets and long skirts. Here is Harold in a larky pose with his head on one side and boater tipped jauntily to the back of his head, beside his nicely smiling sisters, a pipe jutting incongruously from his youthful face. And here he is flat on his back on the shingle of Porlock beach with Maud leaning over him, bespectacled and wearing a man’s tie, apparently admonishing. Often some or all of them are on horseback – the horse always named in the handwritten caption: Lorna, Hard Bargain. Dogs too are meticulously identified.
In all these photographs the family is defined by dress. What they wear and how and where they are wearing it tells you who they are: upper class. They may be on holiday, in an isolated spot, engaged in strenuous country pursuits, but they cannot be without their badges of identity. The girls must have their matching coats and skirts, their hats, the men their tweed jackets, their collars and ties. Looking at family parties in summer Somerset today, I note that everyone is again clad very much alike – in jeans, leggings, chinos, T-shirts, trainers. But nothing tells me where the wearers fit into the social system – they are classless, anonymous. Until they open their mouths, and even then distinctions are blurred. Back in 1900 that family’s dress and utterance set them apart instantly. Anyone seeing and hearing them could have told you what sort of home they occupied and their manner of living.
The story of Golsoncott over the seventy years of its occupancy by this family has two dominating themes, and those are social change and absence of change. The style of its habitation over time reflects in microcosm the shifting sands of this country’s class structure. Things are done differently now – up to a point. The structure remains, but at the end of the twentieth century it is opaque, furtive, lurking behind the engineering feats of educational opportunity and social mobility. We all know who we are and whence we came, but it is harder to define others. This subtle reconstruction of how people view one another is nicely expressed, for me, in those sepia photographs of six twenty-somethings on Exmoor back then.
Sepia. A descriptive term for a kind of early photograph, but also a loaded one. The photographs themselves are loaded, indeed. I have to look at them with a cool dissecting eye because images such as these are tainted. They have become the currency of the remembrance industry – the stock of grainy postcards for sale by the bundle, the furnishings of souvenir guidebooks, representing a past that is reinvented in tune with the requirements of the present. Heritage. Nostalgia. Freighted words – nostalgia especially, a term itself subject to reinterpretation over time. Pejorative today, implying a distorted vision to be avoided, but a term that carried a clear and precise meaning once, in the eighteenth century: “homesickness’, German Heimweh, a condition recognized as requiring treatment and thus, when diagnosed in a soldier, entitling him to a spell of home leave.
So I look at the photographs for what they can tell me about their time, trying to extract information, to see beyond the obscuring sepia haze that gives them nostalgia status. But they have a further dimension. Those people fossilized in that particular fraction of a second subsequently stepped out of the frame, assumed flesh and personality. Several of them are vibrant within my own head – my grandmother, my great-uncles – reconstructed for the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Nostalgia in any sense of the term is out of place.
Four members of that turn-of-the-century group would eventually settle in west Somerset. My grandmother brought her family there in 1923 to Golsoncott, a Lutyens-style house built some ten or fifteen years earlier at the foot of the Brendon Hills, and set about creating a large Gertrude Jekyll-style garden to complement it. Aunt Maud set herself up in a gloomy house in Porlock that matched her aloof, acerbic style – I remember visits to her in adolescence, neither of us finding anything to say to the other. Douglas and Harold, the youngest of the siblings, became Uncle Chuff and Uncle Herk, pursuing brief parallel careers in the Burmese and Indian Civil Services before retiring at a comfortably early age to live together in a house overlooking Porlock Vale, purpose-built for them before such refinements as planning permission. They were bachelors in the old-fashioned sense of the word – not a woman in sight, nor anything else. Their long and gleeful retirement was devoted entirely to walking and riding on the moor, rising to the seasonal high of stag hunting, on which Uncle Herk published a small but definitive work, The Fairest Hunting. The house was astonishing, a cross between a London club and an officers’ mess somewhere in the East – huge battered leather armchairs, brass coffee tables, moth-eaten oriental rugs, bamboo screens, a tiger skin. Bits of foxes and stags sprouted from the wall – grinning masks, tattered brushes, a forest of antlers. We used to go there for tea – the uncles served copious schoolboy teas: jam puffs, doughnuts, sponge rolls, rock cakes. They wore ancient hairy tweeds deeply impregnated with cigarette smoke. Uncle Chuff was purple-faced and convivial, Uncle Herk was beaky, weather-beaten and equipped with a silver cigarette case on the back of which each fag was briskly tapped before being lit. They addressed each other as “brother” and my grandmother as ‘sister”, treating her with joshing affection, as someone deeply familiar but of another species. And, looking again at the photographs, I see that she and Maud are always standing together but slightly apart from the others. Their brothers in plus-fours and jackets are a uniformed brigade: the Men.
My great-uncles seem to have hammered their sex drive into total submission and settled to a satisfactorily uncomplicated alternative of pursuing red deer over the moor. I remember them fondly and admire their genial treatment of a young and awkward female relative – they can’t have had much to do with schoolgirls. Indeed, when I knew them in the forties and fifties they had not had much to do with a good deal of twentieth-century England, holed up down there, and hence were relatively untroubled by what was going on elsewhere. There were ritual fulminations about the horrors of a Labour government after 1945, but with a certain detachment, as though they could not conceive that they themselves would be severely inconvenienced, as indeed they probably were not. Rather surprisingly, both of them went in for versifying – carefully typed selections survive still, some of them dating back to 1900. Cod verses after Tennyson and Kipling. Heavy-handed Edwardian humour – “Apology to a Lady” makes you wonder for a moment about their bachelordom: “If you met an angel / You would surely find / You for once had lost your head / Got confused in mind / Now perhaps you understand / Why I always put / Into every social trap / My ungainly foot.” But another poem by Uncle Herk sets the record straight by pondering the advantages of marriage, and then deciding that his horse is preferable as a companion – biddable, controllable and, it would seem, more congenial. A somewhat ham-handed Longfellow parody has Hiawatha out with the Devon and Somerset staghounds and failing to be in at the kill: ‘very wroth was Hiawatha / To have missed the glorious finish.” But a high proportion of their verse is jingoistic stuff hymning the glories of Empire and the virtues of being English. I read it now with bewilderment, thinking of those jovial figures, plying one with jam tarts and talking to my grandmother about their dahlias – realizing that the climate of their minds is as alien as that of another century.
The attractions of Exmoor and west Somerset for those turn-of-the-century young people were sternly physical. They would pursue their favourite activities – riding, walking, cycling. Walking, above all – punishing long-distance walks across the moor, the ritual morning ramble. My grandmother considered a daily walk an essential part of civilized existence – she continued the regime into her eighties and lived to the age of ninety-seven. In the Golsoncott cloakroom was a stack of walking-sticks, their handles burnished with use, the necessary props for swiping nettles, lifting gate latches, hooking down a high spray of blackberries. The family took walking seriously, and in that sense they were eerie descendants of those great walkers, the Romantic poets, and also precursors of the early twentieth-century passion for hiking and rambling, when striding out into the landscape ceased to be a middle-class preserve and became a leisure occupation for the masses. Type the keyword “rambles’ into the British Library on-line catalogue for publications before 1975 and up come a dizzying 969 entries, some indication of the spread and intensity of interest. In the twenties and thirties the urban young and fit poured out into the countryside, on cycles and on foot, perfectly enshrined by those Shell posters of the period in which rosy-cheeked figures in shorts, shirts and hiking boots pause to consult the map on a five-barred gate.
But that particular revolution was a long way off in the 1890s. Walking for pleasure was a socially restricted activity. Furthermore, Exmoor itself was a relatively recent discovery, opened up by the railway in much the same way as the Rocky Mountains or the Sierra Nevada. People had not realized it was there – except of course those who had been living and working in those parts for centuries. But from the moment Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s line snaked west towards the toe of the country, and in due course threw out tentacles to net the whole of the peninsula, nothing would be the same again.
My great-grandparents were West Country holiday pioneers, beneficiaries of the Great Western Railway. At the turn of the century they started to remove there with their brood, renting a house and settling in for a season of determined activity. Exmoor was ideal – it had overtones of Scotland but was now more accessible and was furnished with equivalent fauna, some of which you could slaughter on horseback rather than with a gun, thus combining two favoured activities, riding and blood sports. The men shot, rode and walked. The women walked and sketched. They were after all late Victorians and knew what was expected of them – my grandmother indeed went briefly to art college in London (where she attended classes given by Gilbert Tonks) and had a talent which was later expressed in superb needlework. But, most importantly, they were celebrating the scenic glories of the place – the great curves of the moor, the melting colours, the green tapestry of the combes. West Somerset had arrived as somewhere you visited for aesthetic enjoyment.
It had not always been so. For centuries discriminating travellers seldom set foot further west than Bristol and Bath and those who did steered well clear of the barren wastes of Exmoor and Dartmoor. The ecstatic discovery of the Quan-tocks by Coleridge and the Wordsworths was the beginning of the gathering perception through the nineteenth century that there was much to be said for points west, but initially this was a revelation restricted to a small number of cognoscenti. Philip Gosse trawled for seashore specimens on the north Devon coast. The Tennysons visited Lynton on their honeymoon and explored the Valley of the Rocks. Large-scale visitation of the area was still a long way off; the three counties, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, got on with what they had been doing for centuries, agriculture and local industry – a world apart. The moorland was simply there, the soft grey ridge on the horizon – rising from green distances and crowned with a fleece of cloud along its length – that one sees from the train today.
Early topographical travel writers steered clear of the moor. Celia Fiennes, indomitably riding west in 1698, ignores it entirely as she travels from Taunton to Wellington and Cullompton and thence deeper into Devon. The charms of Exeter merit several pages (‘spacious noble streets and a vast trade is carried on”) and the plunging Devon hills are noted in passing but the distantly looming moor is of no apparent interest. Daniel Defoe was also inclined to focus on town descriptions but with a distinctly wider range and depth; and he did at least notice the moor, travelling north-west from Taunton to take a look at the coast and thus, by the way, “Exmore [which] gives, indeed, but a melancholy view, being a vast tract of barren, and desolate lands; yet on the coast, there are some very good sea-ports.” He also nails the perceived otherness of the west with his comments on local speech in Somerset:
It cannot pass my observation here, that when we are come this length from London, the dialect of the English tongue, or the country way of expressing themselves is not easily understood, it is so strangely altered; it is true that it is so in many parts of England besides, but in none so gross a degree as in this part.
Later eighteenth-century travellers paid hardly any attention to areas off the beaten track. Dr Richard Pococke was a clergyman whose duties were sufficiently undemanding to allow for frequent and extended travels. Indeed, he cut his teeth as a travel writer with the grandly titled A Description of the East and Some Other Countries, an account of a journey to Egypt and the Levant. But in later life he concentrated on home territory with Travels through England, a busy and informative survey which included a tour right down through the West Country into Cornwall. He sticks to the south coast of Devon, sternly (or wisely) avoiding the interior and is mainly interested in cathedrals, castles, the seats of the aristocracy and country gentry. He was writing with an eye to his readership, presumably, and was well aware that they would be no more inclined than he himself was to risk a foray into the wastes of the moor.
But there is also the crucial matter of aesthetic taste and fashion. Neither Exmoor nor the Quantocks had achieved the essential qualifying factor of the time for serious inspection. They were not classified as “picturesque”. The Revd William Gilpin, whose writings were so influential in focusing the interest of discerning late eighteenth-century tourists, concentrated on the Lake District and the Wye Valley. Those were the chosen perfect places, where the visitor might examine landscape “by the rules of picturesque beauty: that of not merely describing; but of adapting the description of natural scenery to the principles of artificial landscape; and of opening the sources of those pleasures, which are derived from the comparison.” The philosophy of the picturesque emphasized the search for scenes of natural beauty that rose to the requirements of artistic composition and indeed in Gilpin’s more robust interpretations warranted definite interference. The obstinately rigid lines of some parts of Tintern Abbey annoyed him: “A mallet judiciously used ” might be of service in fracturing some of them “” Ruins could be more easily manipulated than those other stalwarts of the picturesque scene – mountains, lakes, cascades, the play of light and shade, the glow of sunset. The sensitive traveller thus sought out views in which such factors met their most ideal combination. A flood of publications gave guidance in the last half of the century and conditioned the vision and the opinions of commentators, amongst them Arthur Young. He himself ventured no further west than Bristol and Bath in his tour of southern England, though he dutifully visited Monmouth and Chepstow to marvel at the Severn and the Wye valleys and registered all the correct responses: “what makes the whole picture perfect, is its being entirely surrounded by vast rocks and precipices, covered thick with wood ” nothing has so glorious an effect, as breaking unexpectedly upon a cascade, gushing from the rocks, and overhung with wood”. He goes a step further with stern criticisms of the artificially created picturesque walk at Persfield, on the Wye, which in his view falls short of the received requirements at some points – this from a man whose main concern and reason for travel is agricultural practice, crop rotation and breeds of cattle. If you saw with a late eighteenth-century eye and wanted to rate as a person with taste, you could see in one way only.
For most earlier travellers, the perfect landscape was man-made. Celia Fiennes disliked the Pennines and the Lake District. Dr Johnson deplored the “hopeless sterility” of the Scottish Highlands. Ordered fertility was the ideal – cornfields, fat cattle and the symmetry imposed by the Enclosure Acts. This attitude remained widespread throughout the eighteenth century and beyond, but alongside it grew a more specialist taste for nature and wilderness, encouraged by the cult of the picturesque and fed by a familiarity with European art – including the paintings of Claude, Salvator Rosa, Poussin. The Lake District and the Wye Valley became Meccas for the sophisticated traveller, along with the Scottish Highlands and the mountains of Wales. And in due course the conviction of many eighteenth-century commentators that manipulation of nature was essential in order to achieve picturesque perfection gave way to the romantic idealization of the untouched natural scene. But the remorseless spread of agriculture meant that uncontaminated nature was increasingly hard to find. Wild and romantic scenery had been all but obliterated by the neat fields and browsing cattle that were once the ideal landscape. Those ultimate connoisseurs, the Romantic poets, looked west and saw the Quantocks and Exmoor rising from the agricultural order and fertility of Somerset like symbols of the apposition between nature and human intervention.
Exmoor was not picturesque – its rolling skyline being short on peaks and gradients, devoid of lakes, its cascades not up to Lake District standards. The eighteenth century ignored the place, to all intents and purposes. It took the pioneer enthusiasm of Coleridge to put it on the map – or at least on the highly select map of the nineteenth century litt”rateur – bouncing into Nether Stowey in 1797 and then dragging the Wordsworths there to share with him the delights of the Quantocks. But literary vision is capable of wide and potent dissemination over time and space. Poetry above all becomes so interwoven with place that a landscape can take on an enhanced identity for ever after. My grandmother had no great literary inclinations but she knew what was appropriate. “”Where Alph, the sacred river, ran “”” she would declaim, stumping along the cliff path through the woods from Porlock to Culbone, “”Through caverns measureless to man “” Over to you!” That was as far as she could get, and anyway I was supposed to be the bookish one. The Romantic poets did not directly take my grandmother’s contemporaries to west Somerset but they created the climate of mind that would eventually send them in that direction. Coleridge’s opium-ridden night at Ash Farm above Culbone was to resonate in curious ways. A poem was fuelled by his vision of those woods and cliffs, but the place subsequently claimed the poet. For generations of visitors the area would be mysteriously incandescent with some hidden code of reference – half-remembered, half-known. In the summer of 1997 a white hoarding marched bold black letters along the side of a warehouse on Watchet’s docks: “The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew, the furrow followed free.”
Poets expand our vision. Specific landscapes seem to require the endorsement of literary recognition. West Somerset had the good fortune to lure that unique group in the dying years of the eighteenth century; a hundred years later the poets’ fleeting passage and its enduring legacy had lent depth and resonance to those hills and woods, that coast. Another century on, and it is the same.
According to Dorothy Wordsworth, the idea for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ was born on a winter walk from Quantoxhead by way of Watchet to Dulverton. Some seventeen miles, that must have been. Nothing exceptional by Romantic poet hiking standards. Coleridge walked from Nether Stowey south through the Vale of Taunton and over the Blackdown Hills to visit the Wordsworths at Racedown in Dorset. The coastal walk from the Quantocks to Lynton was a particular favourite – a ninety-mile round-trip made by Coleridge with the Wordsworths, with Hazlitt and on his own (on one occasion completing the trip in two consecutive days). He walked to Bristol, to Cheddar. Cross-country journeys that ignored the inconvenience of inadequate turnpikes, about which travellers such as Arthur Young and William Cobbett grumble so bitterly, and that kept the walker in intimate contact with the landscape – with its gradients, its vegetation, its waterways, and of course with all the refinements of natural splendour which were essential inspirational material. The topographical writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were on horseback (hence the turnpike problem); the poets chose to walk – taking the immemorial way of moving around the country, engaging with it mile by mile as a medieval pedlar would have done, or a Saxon arrival, or a Bronze Age trader. And in so doing they gave to walking a new validity – the Romantic touch. It would cease to be a purely functional activity and take on overtones of something else, uplifting, reviving. You didn’t have to be a poet for walking to enlarge the spirit – you prospered just as much from it as late Victorian gentry or twentieth-century urban workers.
The young Hewetts holidayed on Exmoor year after year, with occasional forays to Scotland. And, in the case of my grandmother and her sister, across the Channel. The Grand Tour was at its last gasp by 1900 but their trips to France and Italy, both then and later in my grandmother’s life, exactly reflected the Tour’s purpose and aspirations. You went abroad to look at art and architecture; such travel was essential education and improvement. I caught a last whiff of it myself in the late 1940s, towed round the Romanesque churches of central and southern France, my aunt determinedly seeking out every remote crumbling edifice, and my grandmother equipped with a supply of Ryvita, sandwich spread, Marmite and Ovaltine for the point when she could no longer endure unremitting French cuisine.
But the intervening forty years had brought a revolution to the concept of travel and above all to the concept of “abroad”. One aspect of it has been aptly called the solar revolution. The Victorian and Edwardian traveller avoided the sun. A tan had unacceptable connotations, both social and racial; the sun was a menace and accordingly you kept out of it or protected yourself with hats and parasols. Equally, there was nothing wrong with grey English skies – a spot of rain did no one any harm. By 1940 this outlook had been turned on its head. The twenties and thirties saw the surge of sun culture, filtering down from the hedonistic writing of the day – by Norman Douglas, D. H. Lawrence, Robert Graves and others – and creating an obsession with heat, beaches, blue skies, the Mediterranean. By the time I was a schoolgirl the cult of abroad and the parallel dismissal of England was at its height. “No lovely abroad for us this year “” sighs the woman strapped for cash in Angus Wilson’s Hemlock and After. It is an attitude I remember keenly – the ferocious competition for discovery of uncontaminated Greek islands, Spanish fishing villages, charming French backwaters. If you were reduced one year to slinking off to Cornwall or the Suffolk coast, you kept quiet about it. Abroad was more scenic, richer in aesthetic experience, and the weather was much better. Abroad, the rural working class became a colourful peasantry and the urban crowds a stimulating spectacle. Abroad, you yourself blossomed and expanded. The travel writing of the day was a cult – no self-respecting coffee-table was complete without a copy of Bitter Lemons or the latest Patrick Leigh Fermor.
I had grown up in Egypt. Abroad was the norm for me and I didn’t quite see what the fuss was about, looking at England with the eyes of a newcomer and the appreciative vision of youth. What I saw seemed both beautiful and interesting, as I moved through my adolescence. There were rural landscapes and medieval churches here too – why were those on the other side of the Channel so necessarily superior? But I was out of step with the times. It has been edifying to live on into an age when Sunday newspapers can run travel pieces on Norfolk or Wales and still hold up their heads in polite society – let alone to see a hefty suntan eyed with misgivings, albeit for a rather different reason.
There is also the question of what constitutes travel. The word itself has mutated. Today travel suggests distance, it implies leaving these shores – the notion of “abroad” is implicit. In the late nineteenth century that was not necessarily so. The promotional literature of the Great Western Railway makes this clear. A gazetteer of 1906 – serving as a kind of pioneer West Country AA / RAC / Good Hotel / Farm Holiday Guide rolled into one and clearly aimed at a wide market – subtly lures the reader by advocating the annual holiday as an essential palliative to the stress of modern living:
What was once a question of caprice and luxury is now a necessity if the danger of a breakdown is to be avoided ” A century ago holiday-making as we now understand it was practically the monopoly of the rich. “The Grand Tour of Europe” (performed either in lumbering diligences or little less cumbersome coaches) was, like a yearly visit to Bath, looked upon as part and parcel of fashionable life. The former, at any rate, was a condition precedent to the completion of a polite education. With very few exceptions ” the whole of rural England (though possessing natural, historical and climatic attractions of the highest order) was one vast and neglected terra incognita. A pilgrimage to Rome could be accomplished with greater ease than a visit to St David’s; it was less expensive to go to Paris than to journey to Penzance ” The storm and stress of life have increased commensurately with the rapid evolution of travelling facilities, and it is indeed fortunate that at the beginning of the twentieth century the indispensable modicum of quiet, rest, change and recreation can be obtained at all seasons of the year without either going abroad or spending a fortune.
By grace of God and the Great Western Railway. The sub-text here is clear: travel is no longer the perquisite of the nobs, you too can have your fair share, and what’s more you owe it to yourself. And another thing: whence the insistence on the superiority of foreign parts? Look at the undiscovered country near at hand!
That being said, these early guides to the West Country display a certain unease. They cannot quite allow it to stand up for itself but have to vaunt its charms in terms of somewhere readily appreciated. Dunster is variously the Nuremberg of Wessex and the Alnwick of the west. Wells is rather startlingly identified as the Bruges of western England. The Grand Tour spread a long shadow. Literary pedigree is seized upon. The Ship Inn at Porlock can claim Coleridge, Wordsworth and Southey as habitues, according to the GWR’s Wonderful Wessex of 1908.
The Railway Illustrated Guide of 1891 also ropes in Southey to endorse the splendours of the Valley of the Rocks:
Imagine a narrow vale between two ridges of rock covered with huge stones, the bare northern ridge looking like the very bones and skeletons of the earth-rock, imprisoning rock-stone held in thrall by other stone – the whole forming a huge, terrific, stupendously grand mass. I never felt the sublimity of solitude until I stood alone in the Valley of the Rocks.
Even more helpful is R. D. Blackmore’s novel Lorna Doone, with its lavish descriptions of Exmoor and a luridly romantic story. Exmoor became Doone country, given further validation by fiction.
Lank Combe running down to Badgworthy Water is still labelled ‘doone Country” on some of today’s maps; road signs also announce entry to this mythical and literary region. The majority of contemporary tourists are no doubt mystified. Those to whom the name means anything will probably know it from guidebooks and brochures. As it has been ever since its 1869 publication, R. D. Blackmore’s novel is still in print, today in editions polarized between that with a scholarly introduction and editorial notes and brash curtailed versions for children. I doubt if it is much read in either form. But Lorna Doone was the great late Victorian blockbuster, outselling The History of Henry Esmond Esq. or The Cloister and the Hearth, running through forty editions in its first forty years of life, with the 1911 edition marking over 760,000 sales. Its popularity continued further into the first half of the twentieth century, though by the mid century many editions were abridgements – the reading public had lost the stomach for a Victorian three-decker.
Its success was phenomenal, startling its author who was always a touch peeved that his fourteen other novels sank far behind, let alone his poetry and his translation of Virgil’s Georgics. Lorna Doone is a historical romance, but it is also a regional novel, precisely located in identifiable Exmoor landscape, and it is as such that it brought visitors to the area by the thousand, intent upon finding the watersplash up which young John Ridd climbed to his first encounter with the child Lorna and the church in which she was shot by Carver Doone as she stood beside John at the altar. It has all the essential ingredients for popularity – strong narrative, adventure, arresting characters and a vibrant love interest – and must have been enjoyed by a wide spectrum of Victorian and Edwardian readers, including those for whom reading was not a central activity, such as my grandmother and her family. Significantly, the horse ridden by my great-grandfather in one photograph is named Lorna.
For the contemporary reader, the novel is imbued with Victorian values, despite its seventeenth-century setting. Lorna is the archetypal Victorian child-woman heroine, John Ridd the worthy and hard-working farmer who advances himself to an eventual knighthood after an adroit display of selfless courage – thereby making himself a more suitable match for the aristocratic Lorna. City and country are set in apposition, with rural Exmoor as the idealized Arcadia which the lovers eventually achieve once more after an enforced spell amid the corruptions of London. There is even a side-swipe at the evils of industrialization in the depiction of an ill-fated and exploitative mining venture in the wastes of the moor. The Doones themselves are something of a puzzle – not just as debatable historical fact in the form of a possible early outlaw community, but also because of the ambiguity with which they are perceived in the book. They are a bunch of rapacious brigands, terrorizing the entire area, but they are also held in a sort of skewed esteem because they are of legendary high birth. The clan chief, Sir Ensor, is approached by John Ridd with awe and respect, despite the fact that his own father was murdered by the Doones. And of course Lorna is not a Doone at all by birth but was abducted by them in childhood.
It is still a rattling good read. To the modern reader, Blackmore’s insistent Exmoor dialect can be an irritation. Lorna herself is to be endured rather than enjoyed and one sometimes has to curb exasperation with John’s self-deprecating narration. But the suspense and setting are as compelling as they must have been for its mass readership around the turn of the century. Then, it conjured up a landscape so inviting that readers flocked to enjoy the reality. Some, indeed, were disappointed and complained that the Exmoor scenery did not match up to the dramatic quality bestowed on it by Blackmore – the hills not sufficiently precipitous, the combes (which Blackmore persisted in calling glens) not as large, gloomy and fearsome as anticipated. Even Baedeker’s Handbook to Great Britain was affected. The compiler of the 1887 edition felt constrained to write to Blackmore about the discrepancy between the actual appearance of the supposed Doone valley and the description given in the novel. Blackmore replied: “I romanced therein, not to mislead any other, but solely for the uses of my story.” Fair enough, I’d say.
But Blackmore’s romantic and high-flown picture of Exmoor had set a standard. In the wake of Lorna Doone even the guidebook authors get quite carried away by the opening up of the west. A down-to-earth gazetteer of 1910, crisply informative about population numbers, early closing and market days, places of worship and the various fares from Paddington, reaches for another kind of language when advertising the scenic delights of the moor:
Withal there is green, green everywhere, a luxuriant growth rioting in colour, from the moorland to the very foot of the cliff, where the waves kiss the woods, as if here the mermaids and dryads made close alliance, and met each other on common ground amid those many brawling streams that rush over boulder and through bracken down to the sea.
The railway had reached Plymouth by 1848, though the comprehensive netting of most of the peninsula by branch lines was to continue for many years. There were of course far more significant implications than those of increased tourism. The West Country had hitherto been isolated from national life. It was also highly regional – a patchwork of definitive inward-looking localities. The railway revolution not only united the area to the rest of the country but also facilitated internal communications with all that implied for commerce and industry. In that most symbolic of all railway innovations, Greenwich Time supplanted local time. Comment in the region’s newspapers expanded to include matters of national concern. Above all, alien accents were heard through Somerset down into the toe of Cornwall. The visitors had arrived.
The creation of the railway system prompted mass movement. Cheap fares, day trips, summer holidays. People began to look beyond their own immediate locality in a way never before possible. The expansion of horizons seems comparable only with that occasioned by cheap air travel in the twentieth century. Maps of nineteenth-century railway construction show those black lines creeping out from the cities to ensnare the country much as air routes net the globe today. A new landscape was created, not least in the private and particular scenery of the railway lines themselves – those isolated habitats which in summer can seem like ribbons of secret unvisited gardens winding their way the length and breadth of the country. Drifts of ox-eye daisies, banks of dog roses. Stands of lupins and rosebay willowherb. The great buddleia bushes that billow at the approach to stations. And perhaps above all that yellow flow of Oxford ragwort which seems like a herbal diaspora to match that of the liberated urban masses. Richard Mabey describes in his Flora Britannica how a plant was noticed in the Oxford University Botanic Gardens by Joseph Banks in the 1770s, an evident rarity, possibly raised by Linnaeus. Its seed drifted out and began to colonize the old walls of the city:
By the 1830s it had arrived at Oxford Railway Station, and from there it set off down the Great Western Railway. It found the granite chips and clinker of the permanent way a congenial substitute for its natural dry habitats in the southern European mountains, and by the end of the nineteenth century it was well-established in many southern English counties. The slipstream of trains seemed to help the seeds on their way. Now it is distributed over almost the whole of England and Wales, even down to the tip of Cornwall.
Brunel’s majestic feat of engineering crept west section by section. The Great Western itself opened as far as Bristol in 1841. Beyond that the several other lines later to be absorbed into the Great Western probed further west and reached out north and south within the peninsula – the Bristol and Exeter Railway, the South Devon and Dorset, the Cornwall and West Cornwall Railway. By 1862 you could travel from London to Taunton in three and three-quarter hours (just under two today) and by 1871 you could change there on to the West Somerset Railway and proceed all the way to Minehead (impossible today). The Exmoor area was easily accessible to anyone with the tourist-class return fare from Paddington (twenty-five shillings by 1910).
The construction of the system had been a matter of mile-by-mile negotiation with landowners and others with entrenched interests. There was intense conflict between those who welcomed the railway and those who did not, those who had a shrewd understanding of all that it implied and those who shrank from innovation. West Country towns and resorts were quick to see that the arrival or otherwise of the trains meant prosperity or decline. Ilfracombe was a well-established “bathing place” on the north coast of Devon during the mid century, but its burghers soon realized that achievement of major resort status depended on a direct line. There were even instances of violence towards the supporters of an obstructing landowner (which culminated in readings of the Riot Act) but in 1870 the Barnstaple and Ilfracombe Railway opened successfully, after which the town reigned supreme on the north Devon coast.
Minehead was faced with a similar problem. The West Somerset Railway stalked towards the town with dismaying slowness. Its initial objective was Watchet harbour, which was achieved in 1862 by way of Norton Fitzwarren, Bishops Lydeard, Crocombe, Stogumber and Williton – that lovely litany of names with which I grew familiar riding the same line in the late 1940s as a schoolgirl. Watchet was not of course a resort but a serious working port trading up and down the Bristol Channel as it had done since Saxon times – the advantages of rail access were obvious. Indeed, at this point in the middle of the century it embarked upon its period of greatest activity with the opening of the West Somerset Mineral Railway in the late 1850s – a twelve-mile inclined railway bringing iron ore from the workings on the Brendon Hills for shipment to the foundries across the channel in south Wales. The Welsh miners too were visitors, many of whom came to stay, but visitors very different from the influx brought by the railway. Minehead struggled for inclusion into the network from the 1860s on but the Minehead Railway did not finally open the eight and a quarter miles from Watchet to Minehead until 1874.
The West Somerset Railway was axed by the dreaded Dr Beeching in 1971. I remember the outcry. I recall the intense pleasure of the journey, the train slowly creaking its winding way from the metropolitan neutrality of Taunton deep into the familiar hills. I got off at Washford, travelling to Golsoncott for the school holidays. That last stretch of the return was to be savoured – release from the horrors of boarding school, a fresh appraisal of the beloved landscape. The train’s shadow moved alongside, sliding across the tipping fields, topped with a trail of dark smoke puffs. Sometimes the engine ground to an unscheduled stop and sat wheezing steam while you stared in sudden intimacy at a bank of primroses a few feet beyond the window, or met the affronted gaze of a group of sheep.
The line survives today as a scenic railway, catering for the tourist trade. Back then, it carried much local traffic – schoolchildren, shoppers bound for Taunton – as well as the long-distance visitors. In its early years, these would have had one further change to make on arrival at Minehead, if they planned to penetrate further, to Porlock or to those favoured coastal villages at the foot of the moor, Lynmouth and Lynton. They descended from the train – that triumph of nineteenth-century engineering – and climbed on to a four-in-hand coach for the final leg of the journey, moving in effect from a modern transport system back on to that of the eighteenth century. A photograph of the Lynton coach on the Minehead seafront in about 1900 shows a small vehicle topped with fourteen passengers, never mind the invisible four inside. The horses have that resigned cab-horse droop, as well they might with the one-in-four gradient of Porlock Hill ahead of them – though a contemporary photograph of a coach outside the Ship Inn at Porlock, about to set off for Lynmouth, shows what seems to be a smaller six-in-hand with fewer passengers, so maybe a further change was made at that point.
I realize with a jolt of surprise that the coaches must have been a familiar sight to the young Hewetts. They rode in them, no doubt. And this fact makes their generation suddenly very distant. For my own grandchildren, a steam train is an interesting archaism. For my grandmother, once upon a time, a coach and four was not worth a second glance; not many years later she was the owner of a Standard 8 car – a pioneer woman driver. Her experience of this interface of transport systems gives me a sharpened vision of the way in which a life spans the metamorphoses of its backdrop. The furnishings are superseded, each one tethered to its time. People too are reinvented, adjusting according to temperament and inclination, vaulting ahead of their day, hanging back in distaste. The six young Hewetts would step out of their cluttered late Victorian clothes (up to a point), would assume the mind-set of the twentieth century (to a degree). But subsumed within each of them there would always be a person for whom a form of transport familiar to Samuel Johnson had been a perfectly normal sight.
Recollection cannot be shared – that fragmented vision of elsewhere with which each of us lives. In those old photographs of my young grandmother an incarnation of a person I would one day know looks out at me from elsewhere. The background scenery of Exmoor is today much as it was then, but when I pore over those groups I see them sited not in a place but a time. They invite deconstruction – I can only see them through the lens of my own curiosity. There they sit, people who are both oddly familiar and also absolute strangers; they are themselves – and a great deal more besides.