Widecombe History Group Talk on Dartmoor Artists & Writers

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The speaker Mr John Weir, Head of Communications for Dartmoor National Park Authority, gave the meeting an interesting illustrated talk on the subject of 'Dartmoor Writers and Artists'. He avoided to a large extent many of the well-known Dartmoor writers and made the meeting aware of those authors perhaps not so well known. This held the attention of all those present and gave us all food for thought!

Dartmoor Artists and Writers

by John Weir - Head of Communications, Dartmoor National Park Authority

John started with a couple of quotations.

Dr Johnson returned to a hopeful young writer his manuscript with this remark:-

"Your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good!"

Dorothy Parker, when reviewing a new novel said :-

"This novel is not to be tossed lightly aside, but to be hurled with great force!"

There are books specifically about Dartmoor, the place, the history and culture, the scenery, the wildlife, the people. In this respect one thinks of William Crossing, Hansford Worth, John Lloyd Warden Page, Eric Hemery, and so on. Their works are original books, good books, and not to be hurled with great force. There are also many novels whose story lines are set on Dartmoor. There are also many books written over the years with various degrees of credibility.

There are some inspiring Dartmoor books out there, and it is well worth browsing particularly through second hand book shops to see what can be found. Not all books on Dartmoor are good, but they are fascinating for at least some of their content. One can find some real gems about Dartmoor in the most unlikely books, and they can portray Dartmoor on occasions in ways one least expects.

Some certainly contain quotes that can make you smile, such as Ierne Plunckett's The Mystery of the Tor:

"What does one do here when its wet?" - "You get wet too!"

There is a surprising number of authors who have written mysteries about or dramas set on Dartmoor. Even several American writers have used the area as the stage for their stories. For example, Audrey Peterson and her Dartmoor Burial - a Claire Camden mystery (1992). Famous British mystery writers are there too. Agatha Christie's - The Sittaford Mystery, published in 1931 - a crime mystery book set on Dartmoor worth a read for its descriptions on setting the scene. Another mystery is The Documents in the Case centred around a series of letters revealing the solution to a suspicious death and set in the Manaton area by Dorothy L. Sayers - an excellent read.

Vian Smith was mentioned for his book Portrait of Dartmoor but the question was posed - "Did you know that he also wrote novels?" One novel was The First Thunder and particular mention was made of his The Wind Blows Free (1968) - a very good and interesting novel set some 150 years ago centring on the newtakes and enclosures on parts of Dartmoor.

Ewan Clarkson wrote a wonderful book set in the Teign valley about an escaped mink from a fur farm (Break for Freedom) (1967). Tim Pears recently brought out a novel (1993) based firmly and ably on the Christow and Bridford districts (In the Place of Fallen Leaves). Sam North's novel - The Lie of the Land, (1999) is about a small group of people living at Batworthy Corner. The film Run Wild Run Free is based on the book by David Rook called The White Colt (1967); he also wrote The Belstone Fox and both these books are first class novels.

The author John Trevena wrote a series of novels based on Dartmoor. He was a bit of a recluse living in the Sticklepath area. He used characters that he knew in his books, and this did not go down too well with the locals - they could often identify themselves and no doubt others of the district in the text. Ernest G Henham was his real name and he wrote a trilogy back in the early part of the twentieth century. These were Furze the Cruel, Heather and Granite. John Weir said how much he liked the later in particular as it describes the area so well and gives a tremendous sense of place. A quote was read from one of these books and it asked the question whether it is possible to capture in words the character of Dartmoor, and then goes on to do just that in its own prose. The quote showed the quality of the writing of John Trevena, descriptive and yet questioning his own ability to do so!

"There are secret places among the rocks of Tavy Cleave. The river has many moods; one time in the barren lands, another time in bogland, and then in hanging gardens and woodland. No other river displays such startling protean changes. The artist always fails to catch the Tavy. He paints it winding between low banks of peat, with blossoms of pink heather dripping into the water; but that is not the Tavy. He presents it as a broiling milk-white torrent, thundering over rocks, with Ger Tor wrapped in cloud, and bronzed bracken springing out of the clefts; but that is not the Tavy. He represents it shaded with rowan and ferns, its banks a fairy carpet of wind-flowers, and suggests a gentle river by removing the lace-like pattern of foam and the big boulders, and painting the water a wonderful green, with here and there a streak of purple; but still he has not caught the Tavy. " the elusive Tavy has escaped somehow ". The pictures go into galleries, and win fame perhaps; but the river of Tavy chuckles over his rocks, and knows he is not there.

It is a river of atmosphere. Only a dream can produce the Tavy; not the written word, nor the painted picture."

John Trevena, Furze the Cruel, 1907

Crossing's Dartmoor Worker was considered, how he recorded the way those who worked, lived their lives, and carried out their skills and crafts. In that book is a chapter devoted to the artists of Dartmoor. "It takes time to know Dartmoor, the artist that does not know it, who has not fallen under the spell of this romantic region, who is not fascinated by it, can never paint a satisfactory picture of it. There are times when nature Dartmoor simply refuses to be captured"


E. W. Martin in 1958, in a book called Dartmoor, says that despite what has been written, no writer has been able to depict a full picture of this area. It comprises so many aspects that still have not been fully captured. And go back to 1826 when Carrington mused over the beauty of Dartmoor, he too said how difficult it is to capture the character of Dartmoor.

By coincidence this meeting was being held at Widecombe-in-the-Moor on November 6th 2002 and a booklet by Beatrice Chase, a Widecombe authoress who lived at Venton entitled The Corpse on the Moor, was mentioned, based on a happening on November 6th 1934. An unsolved mystery about a body found this very day November 6th, in Archerton Newtake, Walter Howard it appeared had come from Warrington and the book ends not with a conclusion but with several questions. The last question in the book, number 10 asks - was the unidentified body really that of Walton Howard? A film has been made looking at the mystery which will be broadcast on television in the New Year, early 2003.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries there was a plethora of people discovering Dartmoor and hell-bent on letting people know about it. For example The Romance of Dartmoor by Jeffrey W.Malin published in 1935, a lovely quote from the synopsis on the jacket cover:- "If you want to find your way around Dartmoor and enjoy the beauty of its approaches and be fascinated by its wild expanses - read this book - If you want inspiration how to seek out the various attractions of Dartmoor on or off the beaten track - read this book - If you want your interest in Dartmoor increased by observing on your way the evidences in association with past ages and modern activities - read this book - If you care to come into contact with the mind of a writer in the search into the heart of Dartmoor because he loved it - read this book" - shall we all rush out and buy a copy?

Some books are simply a collection of items 'plucked' from the work of other writers. Plagiarism - regurgitating words that have been written before by other writers. Many authors in the past have been guilty of this and when buying a book beware for it may not contain much original script, just a collection of previous comments and very little imaginative or creative new writing. If written as fact, pieces of information that have been 'borrowed' in this fashion, trouble can follow as a check is needed to ensure that the opinion is correct before going into print. It can all end up in 'right ol' mess'.

A wonderful example of how one can be 'led up the garden path' by someone pretending to be knowledgeable but in fact far from it - a person intending to write a book on some aspects of Dartmoor, interviewing an old timer at a mine, pretending that he is just interested, asks the old fellow about his work. The conversation was on the following lines. - "You're trying to write a book I expect says the old chap". "Oh no" says the interviewer. "Ah" says the miner, "I gets lots of people asking me questions - they expect me to tell they in a few minutes what it has taken me a lifetime to find out". "Not at all" says the visitor. "Oh that's all right then" says the old miner, and then fills the writer up with the biggest load of rubbish that you may ever have heard, and keeping a straight face all the time. It brings to mind that lovely old saying, "I may be cabbage looking but I ban't that green!". Reiterating the story to the writer C W Pilkinton-Rogers (circa 1930) the miner explains about the fellow who came the other day with a list of questions all written down, ticking each one off as he asked me, "Is that all right" he says, "Yes says I", and down goes another tick. "Was it?" Pilkinton-Rogers asked. He looked at him colourfully, "No" he answered, "But it was good enough for he". "So the books all .wrong?" "I don't know" he replied, "I never saw it but I don't suppose there's much right in it!"

Some of the very early writing on Dartmoor didn't have a lot to say complimentary about the place. In 1599 - "All the year throughout, commonly it raineth or it is fowle weather in that moor or desert". (From Synopsis Chronographic of Devonshire).

Rev John Swete was not that complimentary either, in a dreary style he wrote of a melancholy place - nothing upbeat about the place at all. Wild and rugged but nothing romantic about it. In 1847 a book written by a Frenchman (M Catel), about Dartmoor Prison, 'Un vraie Siberia', he called Dartmoor, so he wasn't impressed. Risdon in about 1714 wrote of Dartmoor and the black earth, the tin mining and the snow of winter and how the livestock was taken up onto Dartmoor during the summer months. Conan Doyle in 1901/2 however wrote with passion in describing Dartmoor and created a real atmosphere in his well known Hound of the Baskervilles.

With tongue in cheek John then related some of the early comments regarding Dartmoor in some of what could loosely be described as Guides to Dartmoor. No one would ever dream of visiting Dartmoor if the comments in some were taken literally, for example, 'You put your foot on a carpet of beautiful green, and plump in up to your knees - lucky if you get no deeper ' before you know you have taken a step. Down you go, and run a chance of trying its antiseptic qualities ' if you happen to be alone - by sinking in; seeing your waistcoat buttons disappear one by one, while the Moor echoes your yells for help, till the vile black mess creeps into your choking throat, the beautiful green closes over your head, your friends advertise for you, and you are unknown till that obnoxious New Zealander of Macaulay digs you up, a perfect specimen, and get you in some paulo-post-future museum for the pleasure of gaping sightseers, and the gratification of unfeeling science.' (From Leisure Hour 1880s). These gems of the written word are real classics, one can find them in the most unexpected places, they can be plucked out of various books and the pictures conjured up, bring everlasting pleasure to the reader. In a book published by Devon Books in 1986 there is an anonymous poem by a pupil of Ashburton School also about bogs; it simply reads:-

'Wet and boggy

Cold and soggy

Deep and smelly

Pulls off my welly'

Most Dartmoor writers have tried to capture what Dartmoor actually means to them. For example, Carrington back in 1826 mentioned the flora and fauna of Dartmoor, the magic of the area, the solitude and majesty, that means so much to so many people today. In 1889 J. L. W. Page wrote that he had felt more lonely in a crowd than he had felt in the most remote parts of Dartmoor. We still hear how people can feel more lonely and at risk in large cities, on the underground or in crowded places than they ever do in the vast wild country of Dartmoor. Many traveller writers have also said how the heather covered hills of granite here in the south-west, surpass the qualities of the sights that they have witnessed from their travels all over the world; there is that uniqueness which will always draw them back to Dartmoor.

Eden Phillpotts in his autobiography of 1951 - From the Angle of 88, wrote how Dartmoor is so special to so many, and how they long to return to the peace and tranquillity and beauty of Dartmoor. Beatrice Chase in her book The Heart of the Moor (1914) says, 'how special it is to stand on the soil of Dartmoor, listen to and see the wildlife, the creatures, plants and the potential of the land to produce food for us and beasts to eat, and feel that special bodily association with it, until eventually we too return to the earth!'

Eden Phillpotts was very descriptive in some of his writing. In one particularly descriptive piece he was depicts how nature reclaims the parts of Dartmoor that have been scarred by man, like Haytor Granite Quarry. The heather and gorse on the edge of the quarry gradually creep in and reclaims these sites, the Rowan trees begin to claim back and hide the activities of man that have had the effect of creating the Dartmoor landscape we treasure today.

A seven year old girl named Ursula Sugar wrote the following at the age of seven to describe her Dartmoor.

'The hills, the vales the gulleys and the tors.

The tors' craggy outlines decorate the moors

Those twisted bent and sharp ones against the night sky

Making shapes of wizards, lizards and wolves passing by'.

This description would take some beating by any standard.

There are Dartmoor writers and there are those who write about Dartmoor and each person can put their own interpretation to these efforts. Eden Phillpotts captured the atmosphere of a swarm of flying gnats on the top of a Dartmoor tor, and his description of their movement is fascinating. John Trevena is again, a writer that John Weir admires. Imagine a man using the old method of splitting granite, first using a 'jumper' to drill a line of holes in the stone, then placing three 'feathers', small strips of metal, into each hole and then the 'tare' a round pointed iron wedge and hitting the wedge to build up the tension that will ultimately crack the stone. He relates how the man has a large hammer with a keen edge on one end and a square edge on the other, like a double-edged axe, how the hammer was brought down onto the tares with the blunt edge and with the next stroke bring the keen edge down onto the granite between the tares, and so on until the rock was split asunder.

There are those that have captured the beauty and moods of Dartmoor in pictures, be it photographs, prints, sketches or paintings. The National Park Authority recently commissioned Brian Le Messurier to research and prepare the text for a book on Dartmoor Artists (published by Halsgrove) showing pictures of Dartmoor and very varied they are too. Artists that are well known, such as the Widgerys, and lesser known artists have contributed to recording Dartmoor as they have seen it, and photographers also have been creatively capturing the area and its qualities.

The conclusion of the meeting was a short slide show of aspects of Dartmoor, some very beautiful landscapes by well-known and lesser known artists. Some humorous pictures, for example, a military look out that had been painted with amazing colours on the outside and wall papered on the inside as a gesture or prank one night. Another depicting a group of people at Dartmeet in the form of a cartoon sketch painted in about 1911. Many pictures of Dartmoor capture the scenery and the landscape, but there are very few that show workers on the moors. One by Francis Traies was shown - Collecting Heather, a historically very interesting and informative work of art. Artists are not only painters; Peter Randall Page, an internationally renowned sculptor, has produced some quite remarkable stone work. Some of his work can be found on Dartmoor in situations that may be surprising to the walker, beside a river, in a village garden; this all stresses the point that when on Dartmoor keep your eyes open, you never know what you will see or where you may see it!

So artists, writers, sculptors and photographers cover a wide variety of talents, their work can be found in a variety of places, their work is in so many mediums, they are to be seen and enjoyed. "Some work is good and some is original - but all that is good may not be original and all that is original may not be good, but it is all there for us to see and make our own decision on."

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