The North Devon countryside that inspired Henry Williamson, R. D. Blackmore and Charles Kingsley
Much of my childhood was spent reading the works of superb authors and amongst the best of them were Arthur Ransome (1884 – 1967), Denys Watkins-Pitchford (1905 – 1990), who wrote many of his works under the pseudonym “B.B.”, and Henry Williamson (1895 – 1977). As a youngster, I was lucky enough to be read to by Ransome’s nephew, a most captivating professional storyteller, and was given first editions of many of the works of all three of these early to mid twentieth century authors.
I had my first sailing lessons on Windermere, where Ransome set many of his works, and went shooting in the Forest of Bowland, a place dear to B.B. Though I also fished in many wonderful locations, until now I’d never been to the land of Henry Williamson and his most famous creation, Tarka the Otter. I currently find myself here enjoying a break from London and yesterday I randomly discovered, I am staying next to the setting of one of Williamson’s lesser known stories, Salar the Salmon, on the River Bray close to Exmoor.
Originally published in 1935, Salar the Salmon combines Henry Williamson’s great talent as a writer with his insight as a naturalist. The story tells the tale of a five-year old salmon named Salar, whose name means the “leaper,” and his return to the stream of his birth. Salar’s migration through the riverways of Devon involve him surviving porpoises, seals, nets, fishermen, otters, poachers and weirs and Williamson’s account truly gives the reader an insight into one of nature’s great journeys.
Henry Williamson wrote both Salar the Salmon and The Children of Shallowford (1939) whilst living beside the River Bray in a hamlet named Shallowford, near Lynton in Devon. The river plainly inspired him and whilst he lived there on the Fortescue Estate he also sired four children, joined Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists, was briefly imprisoned for his views and conducted several extra-marital affairs.
Salar the Salmon is a story I am not alone in recommending. Another Devon based author and poet, Michael Morpurgo OBE, best known for his acclaimed work, War Horse, speaks very fondly of Williamson and the novel in a dedication he prepared for a recent reprint of it:
“It is a rare gift indeed for a storyteller to be poet as much as a storyteller, to tell a tale so deeply engaging that the reader wants to know what will happen and never want it to end, and yet at the same time tells it in such a way as to leave a reader wide-eyed with amazement at the sheer intensity of feeling that can be induced by the word-magic of a poet. Henry Williamson is just such a story-maker poet.”
Where I am staying, I have a view of the very river on which Salar made his journey and here also a detached barn conversion is currently available to rent at a price of £1,150 per month. Malle’s Barn is a 2-bedroom stone-built property that includes a 25ft by 12ft open plan sitting room with a fully fitted kitchen and a dining area, as well as a study and shower room.
Tenants of the house will have access to the owner’s 60-acre estate which includes a mile of salmon and brown trout fishing on both the Rivers Bray and Holewater, ancient woodland and a lake in addition to a private garden and adequate parking for several vehicles.
Malle’s Barn would make a perfect retreat for any author or artist and is just 10 minutes from South Molton, Barnstaple is 9 miles away and Exeter 40 miles. The location is 30 minutes from J27 of the M5 and Tiverton Parkway Station, which provides mainline links to London Paddington within 2 hours.
Close to Malle’s Barn are the prettiest sections of a footpath named the Tarka Trail. Consisting of over 180 miles of footpaths and cycle tracks that take in the Dartmoor and Exmoor National Parks and the North Devon Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The trail takes in many of the locations described in Williamson’s most famous novel but this area of North Devon also galvanized the pens of a number of other authors.
Richard Doddridge Blackmore (1825 – 1900) set Lorna Doone: A Romance on Exmoor in the locality in 1869 and Professor Charles Kingsley (1819 – 1875) put pen to paper here when he wrote Westward Ho! in 1855. A village of the same name was subsequently established near Bideford in the 1860s by entrepreneurs, led by Lord Portsmouth, who saw an opportunity to capitalise on the novel’s success. Westward Ho! is the only place in the United Kingdom with an exclamation mark in its name. The only other place in the world that shares such is Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! in Quebec, Canada.
Aside from literary connections, the locality is famous for its excellent fieldsports. The Earl and Countess of Arran’s Castle Hill and the Molland shoot are considered amongst two of England’s finest high bird pheasant shoots and both the Devon and Somerset Staghounds and Devon and Somerset Foxhounds hunt on Exmoor.
Johnny Kingdom, who describes himself as having been “a farmer, quarryman, forestry worker, gravedigger and, if truth be told, a poacher” in his youth, also lives in the locality and is well known as a wildlife photographer, filmmaker and television presenter. He sets many of his series on Exmoor because of the vast array of wildlife he comes across here and is, like Williamson before him, often to be found exploring the valley of the River Bray.
In a 1965 BBC interview Henry Williamson was asked: “What influence has this [the Devon] countryside had on you?”:
“Everything, I should say. I came down here as a youth, aged just 18 in 1914, spent a fortnight’s holiday here in the beginning of May, beginning of June. I walked 20 to 25 miles every day. Everything I saw was radiant and beautiful.”
This idyllic part of Devon that Williamson loved so much remains unspoilt to this day. If you haven’t visited yet, it really should be added to your bucketlist.
For more information about Henry Williamson, go to The Henry Williamson Society’s webpage: http://www.henrywilliamson.co.uk
Watch the 1965 BBC interview with Williamson at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/devon/hi/people_and_places/history/newsid_8475000/8475989.stm
For details and a map of the Tarka Trail, go to: http://www.devon.gov.uk/tarkatrail and http://www.devon.gov.uk/tarka-trail-circular-routes.pdf
For information on the Molland shoot, go to: http://www.bettwshall.com/molland.htm
For more information about the Devon and Somerset Staghounds, go to: http://www.devonandsomersetstaghounds.net
For more information on the Devon and Somerset Foxhounds, go to: http://www.exmoorfoxhounds.co.uk
View the official website of the author and poet Michael Morpurgo at: http://www.michaelmorpurgo.com
View the official website of Johnny Kingdom at: http://www.johnnykingdom.co.uk/
For more information about Malle’s Barn, contact Charles Mitford Cust at: [email protected]