The South West of England is formed of six counties whose weirdness quotient and sense of character grows incrementally the further westwards you head, as places become less and less reachable. This article will limit itself to the two Westernmost counties, which are overlaid by any number of trails and footsteps and include Exmoor, Dartmoor, Bodmin Moor and the Quantocks.
Of the artists mentioned, all have one thing in common; they were great walkers. Coleridge, to take one example, once walked nineteen miles from Grasmere over the fells to Kendall in four hours thirty-five minutes without feeling tired. In a later attempt to shake his addiction to laudanum he walked 263 miles in 8 days, from Arrochar to Perth, Scotland.
Dartmoor –Ted Hughes
Devon was Ted Hughes country as much as the Yorkshire of his childhood. In 1961, he and his wife Sylvia Plath moved to North Tawton, just outside the boundaries of Dartmoor national park. In the 1970s, he worked his father-in-law’s farm near Winkleigh, the setting of Moortown Diary, one of his strongest collections.
Hughes loved long walks. In “Black Coat” he describes:
The tide far out, the North Shore ice wind
Cutting me back
To the quick of the blood – that outer-edge nostalgia,
The good feeling.
He walked and fished the Taw and the Dart, and his ashes were scattered near to Taw Head.
Hughes’s memorial stone lies in a spot close to the rising of the Taw, Dart, East Okement and Teign rivers on Dartmoor (very key that preposition, a shibboleth revealing those from the area and those who purport to be from the area). The stone which was requested in Hughes’s will and laid in 2001 was controversial, and required the co-operation of Prince Charles and a helicopter to transport the granite slab.
Dartmoor itself is wilder than Exmoor, to its North East, and some believe Hughes chose to be buried there to give himself half a chance should his spirit need to fight.
Details of the location can be found here: http://www.richkni.co.uk/dartmoor/hughes.htm
Please note – Dartmoor and the river Dart can be perilously dangerous if you are not familiar with them. People have drowned and frozen to death there. Please be sensible and plan your trips carefully.
The Tarka Trail – Henry Williamson
“After the First World War, Henry Williamson found himself out of love with mankind, at odds with his family, weary and nerve-wracked… He lived alone, hermit-fashion, tramping about the countryside, often sleeping out. The doors and windows of the cottage were never closed, and his strange family of dogs and cats, gulls, buzzards, magpies – and one otter cub – were free to come and go as they chose.” (This account by Eleanor Graham)
In such an environs, Williamson wrote a book that has been described as poetic by Ted Hughes, T.E. Lawrence and Ann Carson and won the Hawthornden Award in 1927. The men who appear are either incredibly coarse, disciplining a dog by trapping it in a door and hitting its head with the butt of a whip, or delicate – entering a cave with a torch to trace the cry of a white and silver seal pup. Tarka the Otter – his joyful water-life and death in the two rivers was a great influence on the young Ted Hughes, specifically his refusal at any point to anthropomorphize the animal or sentimentalize nature. At school, Hughes took it out of the library at the age of 12 and carried it around with him for two years. He later moved into the landscape of this myth of his childhood without realizing, and in the 1980s became a campaigner against the pollution of the Torridge.
The Tarka Trail is a series of footpaths and cycle paths around North Devon that follows the route taken by the fictional Tarka the Otter, covering a total of 180 miles (290 km) in a figure-of-eight route, centered on Barnstaple.
The Coleridge Way
“The little toe of Quantock is better than the head and shoulders of Surrey and Middlesex,” said Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who loved to walk the North coast of Devon, often setting out at twilight to witness the change from sunlight to moonlight.
Not only is it possible to walk from Coleridge’s home in Nether Stowey to Porlock (from where the man came on business and interrupted his composition of “Kubla Khan”) one can trace the route where he fell ill and took refuge at a farmhouse and composed the poem under the influence of opium. From the tiny Culbone Church, biographer Richard Holmes believes it is possible to see the view he describes in the lines:
that deep romantic chasm, that slanted
down a green hill athwart a cedarn cover
A statue of the Ancient Mariner bearing crossbow and life-size albatross stands in the coastal town of Watchet. Coleridge conceived the poem one long winter’s walk over Quantoxhead to Watchet and Dulverton begun when the sun was setting over Longstone Hill.
To do the walk in true Coleridge style one would set out just as the moon was coming out and walk through the night, restoring yourself with coffee, bacon and Schnapps in milk (as he insisted his fellow walkers regale themselves with in Germany).
NOTE Coleridge’s Cottage is not open throughout the year – check in advance.
The River Dart – Alice Oswald
In 1797, Coleridge conceived a project to be called “the Brook” which traces a stream
from its source in the hills among the yellow-red moss and conical glass-shaped tufts of bent, to the first break or fall, where its drops become audible, and it begins to form a channel; thence to the peat and turf barn, itself built of the same dark squares as it sheltered; to the sheepfold; to the first cultivated plot of ground; to the lonely cottage and its bleak garden won from the heath; to the hamlet, the villages, the market town, the manufactories, and the seaport.
(Richard Holmes: Coleridge – Early Visions p162)
Oswald, a former gardener, is fiercely linked to her environment and has spoken of “mapping” the poem onto the terrain of Dartmoor as a memory aid when composing Memorial. Her T.S. Eliot award winning collection Dart traces the river from its source to the sea. Dart is a magnificent poem, mingling the voices of workers on the river with kayakers, fishermen, the drowned and the river itself as it moves towards the coast. It’s a poem to be read in a single sitting.
Bideford – R. J. Lloyd
Oswald later approached R. J. Lloyd – a friend of and collaborator with Ted Hughes – to illustrate a book, presumably her Weeds and Wild Flowers, though it turns out he was too busy.
Lloyd still lives in Bideford, where he has a kiln in his garden, and Hughes and he would get together regularly. They collaborated on three projects, including the key – and overlooked – Hughes work What is the Truth? – a farmyard fable.
Consider their work as you dine in the fantastic Boathouse in nearby Instow: http://www.instow.net/boathouse/boathousemenu.htm
Morwenstow – Robert Stephen Hawker
The vicar of Morwenstow was something of a character. Occupying a hut built from the wreckage of boats washed up on the rocks below, he looked out on the waves, often spying wrecks, knowing full well he might have to recover the bodies and bury them in his churchyard. A writer of verse, lover of animals and a commanding speaker, he was also a practical joker. Indeed, for several days in a row he swam to a rock visible from shore dressed as a mermaid and sang to the astonished crowds on the beach in a deep voice. You can visit the hut – the smallest property in the National Trust’s portfolio – and, provided it is empty, sit inside and contemplate the unchanged view.
Exmoor – Lorna Doone
Lorna is a common Westcountry girl’s name, and this self-styled “Exmoor romance” has found great favor among readers since it was written by Richard Blackmoore in 1869.
This walk, which takes in some of the scenery of the novel and ends in the church used in the film of her wedding day, is a good excuse for a walk across Exmoor, something that requires little recommendation.
St Juliot’s – Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy’s heart might be buried in St. Michael's churchyard, Stinsford, Dorset, but a site of greater interest is St Juliot’s, which he converted in 1870. Arriving while the reverend was ill, he was let in by Emma Gifford, housekeeper there, and the two fell in love, as dramatized in A Pair of Blue Eyes. After her death it was along the Northern Cornish coastline that Hardy retraced their steps and was haunted by his wife calling to him from the hills.
Hardy’s architectural work destroyed many of the original features of the church, but this was standard practice in the day. A stained glass window in the church recounts their courtship, and there is a lovely walk along the river down to Boscastle (which was nearly washed away in 2004) passing signs to Beeny, of “Beeny Cliff” fame.
Jamaica Inn – Daphne du Maurier
“Perhaps there was no habitation in all the long one-and-twenty miles that stretched between the two towns of Bodmin and Launceston; perhaps there was not even a poor shepherd’s hut on the desolate highway: nothing but the one grim landmark that was Jamaica Inn.”
As ever in du Maurier’s work, this novel – Cornwall’s own Wuthering Heights – features a female narrator in strange surroundings. Du Maurier, who possesses the best author shot of anyone, is concerned with human ties, and a lot of her observations, on romance say, seem surprisingly modern.
A resident of South Cornwall, she knew her environment: Bodmin Moor “was never once the same, for it would be the glory of high noon to the east, with the moor as motionless as desert sand; and away to the westward arctic winter fell upon the hills, brought by a jagged cloud shaped like a highwayman’s cloak, that scattered hail and snow and a sharp spittle rain on to the granite tors.”
She had also heard the talk and rumor around Cornwall. At one point in the novel, Mary Yellan (herself a great walker) overhears the drunken confession of Joss Merlyn. His account of “wreckers” – the deliberate luring of vessels onto rocks in order to gain their cargo which even today is denied by Cornish and Devon sailors as being so evil an idea that it cannot be entertained – is shocking.
Du Maurier imagines the smuggler’s den Jamaica Inn, then a temperance house, as it might have been formerly. Today you can still visit the building en route to Launcestone: http://www.jamaicainn.co.uk/daphne-du-maurier
Launceston – Charles Causley
Du Maurier’s account of Christmas in Launcestone (pronounced Lawn-sern) is a lively one.
There was a brighter, more abandoned spirit about Launcestone; the crowd was greater and the voices mixed. There was space here, and a certain sophistication; Devonshire and England were across the river. Farmers from the next county rubbed shoulders with countrywomen from East Cornwall; and there were shopkeepers, and pastry cooks, and little apprentice-boys who pushed meat on trays. -Jamaica Inn
After serving as a sailor in the Second World War, Causley settled in Launcestone for his whole life, working as a teacher. Hughes praised this constancy in the last verse of his “Birthday Greetings” written for Causley’s 70th.
God give us half the wit
To recognize our own
And to stick with it.
Causley documented much of Launceston in poetry (including inventing a ghost) as well as the memories of his mother, whom he cared for over many years. During his lifetime, many critics were sniffy about Causley’s achievement – he wrote in rhyme, often in ballad form. Yet his stock is rising, with a residency at his former house and the anthologizing of many of his poems. Indeed, his best work is universally attractive, and goes down equally well in schools and care-homes.
The Causley Way is a walk through many of the places which appear in his poems: http://www.charlescausleysociety.org/CCcausleyslaunceston.html
My mother saw a dancing bear
My mother saw a dancing bear
By the schoolyard, a day in June.
The keeper stood with chain and bar
And whistle-pipe, and played a tune.
And Bruin lifted up its head
And lifted up its dusty feet,
And all the children laughed to see
It caper in the summer heat.
They watched as for the Queen it died,
They watched it march, they watched it halt.
They heard the keeper as he cried,
"Now, Roly-Poly!" "Somersault!"
And then my mother said, there came
The keeper with a begging cup,
The bear with burning coat of fur
Shaming the laughter to a stop.
They paid a penny for the dance
But what they saw was not the show;
Only in Bruin's aching eyes
Far-distant forests, and the snow.