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Place: Exmoor. Time: 17th century. January 29, 2009

Posted by Jenny in literature, nature, travel, Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , ,

exmoor-rising-moonlightIf your knowledge of literature is good, you will immediately suspect from the words above that I have been reading the novel Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore. Yes, it is true. I have been living on the wild, windswept heath of Exmoor, loitering by the fireplace in the cottage of the Ridd family, galloping on my faithful steed along roads frequented by highwaymen, and venturing up the roaring cascades of a hidden stream to visit the forbidden lair of the Doone clan.

The book was more of a favorite of my grandmother than my mother.  Grandma Johnstone had one of the old-fashioned three-volume editions.  She was not in a hurry to finish a book.  She loved the leisurely setting of a scene in  Sir Walter Scott, the tale that begins with a small figure making his way across a highland glen, or over a pass between precipitous crags, or through whatever mist-swirling, moss-festooned place Scott might have invented.  Blackmore was a bit later than Scott, writing Lorna in 1869.  But they were cut from the same cloth.  Their books were meant to be lived in for a while, as one sat in the parlor in the evening turning the pages, admiring the illustrations, lost in the romance and intrigue.

I would like to visit Exmoor someday. It takes its name from the River Exe, and many other streams and rivers flow through it. Most of it is now a national park.  Exmoor has the advantage of not being on the way to anywhere else, unless perhaps you are going from South Wales to Cornwall.  The area has only small villages.  Herds of red deer and wild ponies wander the moors.  The coastline is embroidered with waterfalls and ravines. There is said to be a “Beast of Exmoor,” southwest England’s answer to Sasquatch, that makes mysterious nocturnal attacks on livestock. Exmoor boasts many species of heather, some obscure lichens and mosses, a high-elevation beech forest, and something called a whitebeam tree. It is possible to walk many miles along the system of public footpaths that are such a wonderful feature of England.

exmoor-cliffsBlackmore was writing about a time 200 years earlier than his own, the period of the Monmouth Rebellion, also known as the “Pitchfork Rebellion,” against the rule of the papist James II. It was a harsh time. The bodies of criminals were hung from gibbets as a warning along the highways. Lives were short and often curtailed by violence. Some of the passages in Lorna are written in a dialect as impenetrable to me as Uncle Remus would be to a reader in England. But part of the enjoyment for me is to learn about those lives, the schools that were attended, the food and beverages that were served (the venison and the ale), the conversation that was had in a tavern, the gathering of the villagers, both men and women, to do the work of the harvest.  The plot of Lorna is pure rhinestones and moonbeams, but the setting is very real. Probably not much had changed in Exmoor between 1685 and 1869.

It’s fun just to read the captions to the illustrations.  (You can find an illustrated version of Lorna if you go to the Project Gutenberg website.) “I was grieved to see a disdainful smile spread upon his sallow countenance.”  “For, lo! I stood at the foot of a long pale slide of water.”  “As snug a little house blinked on me, as ever I saw or wished to see.”  “We happened upon a great coach and six horses labouring very heavily.” Ah, wonderful!






1. Susan Evenden - January 29, 2009

My family is from the Exmoors and I have been there on more than one occasion. (which actually means two times). I have picked heather on the moors and helped bring in the hay and gather the eggs at Birchanger Farm above Porlock Weir, which has been managed by my family for well over 100 years.

My cousin was lucky enough to be selected to play Lorna Doone for the entire 100th anniversary year in 1969. We were there for that event.

A favourite novel of mine is Jamaica Inn, by Daphne DuMaurier and is set in Cornwall where other members of my family live. I was fortunate to go there on a fog covered night.

Special memories. Someday I will go back.

2. Jenny - January 29, 2009

Susan, what a wonderful coincidence! How often do two unrelated North Americans have any knowledge of or connection with such a place? I really do hope to go to Exmoor someday. I used to travel to the UK fairly often when I worked for the Financial Times, and I always looked at the southwest part of the map with a lot of curiosity. I used to think about a drive through Cornwall (all the way to Penzance and Land’s End), but a glance at the map showed that when you got past the end of the motorway (the M5, I think), the roads were very slow indeed. And I never seemed to have that much time. Of course, the roads were slow because they were narrow and scenic and passed through beautiful country and interesting villages. I did have the chance to drive and hike in North Wales, the Lake District, and Scotland. I read Jamaica Inn years ago. Your mention of it is making me think of re-reading it.

3. Will Bowden - May 16, 2012

Hi, I just came across this site by accident. I am from Exmoor and given your Grandma Johnstones name you may want to have a look at our website here:http://www.hoaroakcottage.org/sarahandjamesmaxwell
You may have a family connection with the area hence Grandmas love of the tale…

Jenny - May 16, 2012

Thank you very much for your comment. I was aware of the Scottish Johnstones but not the Exmoor Johnstones. I want to spend some time looking at your website and the resources listed, and will communicate again when I have studied it. Thanks again.

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