Monday, 28 February 2011

Living on Exmoor

The photo is one of only two I have of Exmoor, and it is raining . . . bucketing down in fact!

This is the title of the most beautifully written book, one of several by its author, Hope L Bourne, who lived alone on Exmoor, near Withycombe. To say she lived a frugal self-sufficient existence is an understatement as she lived on £5 per month in the 1950s and 60s - most of which was spent on cartridges for her guns! Here is a link to a spoken obituary on her life (she died in August last year, aged 91): I had the greatest admiration for her indomitable spirit and determination to be self-supporting in every way. She is one of the "walkers" I thought of when I was writing about walking recently, though she puts any walk - even the longest and toughest, on Dartmoor - I have ever done to shame . . .

Hope was born around 1920, and grew up in Hartland, near the North Devon coast. Her mother was the headmistress of a small school, but Hope's education, like many of her generation, ended at 14, when she kept house for her mother and fought against the misery of Asthma (as a fellow asthmatic, I know only too well the miseries of it, especially before I had medication to control it). Sadly, her mother died when Hope was in her 30s, after they had moved to the Cotswolds, and the house had to be sold to pay off debts. Left homeless and virtually destitute, Hope took herself to Exmoor, where she was happy to live in a succession of remote and derelict cottages, growing her own vegetables, shooting for the pot, tickling trout and fly-fishing Exmoor's streams, gathering wood for fuel from the hedgerows. She worked for local farmers, tending stock, to gain an income of around £100 a year, half of which she managed to save.

She was an accomplished artist - indeed, the tribute to her speaks of there being few Exmoor churches which don't have one of her drawings of Exmoor beneath their roof. Writing only in pencil, she kept a diary, which she used to write the first of three books, Living on Exmoor, which was published in 1963. This was followed in 1968 by A Little History of Exmoor, which told of farming on Exmoor, from prehistoric times to the present and again, illustrated by her. In 1978 her third book, Wild Harvest, was published and her final book, My Moorland Year, in 1993.

During the 20 or so years she spent living in the burnt-out ruins of Ferny Ball Farm, in a ramshackle caravan, held together by binder twine, she rose at 5 a.m. to tend her neighbour's livestock at the busier times of the year, wrote her diary, and would set out to walk 20 miles or so across the moor, without any but an inner compass to guide her, following the hunt on foot and quenching her thirst, as ever, from the stream. The caravan, barely large enough for her needs, was strewn with the hooves, skins and antlers of the animals she killed herself for the pot and which were cooked (or dried as Jerky) on or above the wood burning stove which was her only form of heating. She didn't believe in washing up and ate straight from the pan!

These walks and her knowledge of the moor were fuel for the 1,000 word weekly column she wrote (in pencil of course) for the West Somerset Free Press, and she also submitted articles to the Exmoor Review. She reached a wider audience when two documentaries about her life were shown on television in 1978 and 1981.

is a link to the Daily Telegraph obituary of this remarkable woman (and from which I obtained the facts of her life, as well as from THIS article on the Exmoor National Park site, which also gives some excellent links to other remarkable literary people connected with Exmoor.

Let me share with you some of her writing:

This piece is the inroductory paragraph of her "Living on Exmoor" and aptly-timed on this, the final day of February:


"A February afternoon. Under the leaden, rain-filled sky the moor lies desolate, wind-lashed, streaked and curdled still with snow, rolling in heaving undulations like the billows of a tideless sea, reaching up to dark skylines swallowed in grey cloud. Soaking bent and sodden rush, black dripping heather, bracken soaked to dark mahogany, and the icy white of snow a livid dappling in every hag and hollow. There is no life, no sound but the beating rain, no voice but that of the wind. It is loneliness and desolation, the western land as it was in the beginning, storm swept and primeval. The wind blows over the dun-coloured bent and the squelching peat bogs, over the forlorn barrows sunk in mystery on the hills, over the long blue moorstone walls and down through the tattered, cowering beech and twisted thorn and into the combes where sallow and rowan coil about the rushing streams. The rain beats on tthe strange stones that stand knee deep in the wet lack heather and on the dark low thickets of gorse, and drives splashing into the pools that lie at the feet of the lonely gateways and all the little quivering rills among the rushes."

"Sun, shadow and a sou'west wind. Here I sit on the lonely barrow, set in the midst of the sea of sedge, with the sky like a bowl coming down to the horizon all round. North and south, east and west, the morass of bog laps unbroken about the barrow, about this one spot of sound ground in all the welter of sogging liquid peat. here is the heart of the Forest; here are desolation and emptiness. Here are silence and loneliness. Even the sky is empty, for neither raven nor buzzard quarters this preyless waste. Solitude, utter and complete.

As I sit on the sunward side of the barrow under the blowing breeze, I can just see, afar off, the summit of Exe Head, blue above the rim of sedge, and beyond, farther still, the head of Dunkery like a small smudge of cloud under the sky. That is all of the outer world beyond the great bog, and it is no different from the clouds. It might almost be a landscape from the moon, or some planet untrodden by man rather than a piece of our own country. It is as a world unformed, a land in the making, holding still the grandeur of desolation.
But now I must arise and go, retracing my uneasy steps by the way that I came. The going is slow. I tread from tussock to tussock of the short tufted deer-sedge, avoiding with care the thick mats of sphagnum moss that spread around in blotches of sinister yellow, coiling snake-like amongst the sedge. All beneath is the treacherous peat, black, oozing and seemingly bottomless. Here and there, thrusting up through the sedge and moss, are the lilac-purple heads of small spotted orchis, strangely exotic in such company. The ground for a moment seems even more spongy and uncertain; I thrust y stick into the mat to test it; the stick goes in up to the grip - goodness knows how deep is the morass. I veer my course a little and keep more carefully to the sedge . . ."

I share this piece of writing with you because it reminds me of walking on Dartmoor, far away from humankind, almost in another lifetime . . .


  1. what an amazing woman, I am going to look out for her books x

  2. That is lovely writing--but it makes me almost shiver away from the lonely landscape and the treacherous peat bogs that are conjured with her words.
    The living conditions sound primitive in the extreme--one wonders about bathing and laundry!

  3. Beautiful, a lovely piece of writing from both of you, what a life she must have led...

  4. Thank you for a lovely post and the links, too. A tough life, but one she pulled enjoyment from in ways we overlook now.