D ... Down the Devon roads to Dunkeswell - A-Z of Devon Places & Devon Women Writers

Churchyard at Dunkeswell Abbey
'Blest by the power, by heaven's own flame inspired,
That first through shades monastic poured the light;
Where, with unsocial indolence retired.
Fell Superstition reigned in tenfold night'
'Written on Visiting the Ruins of Dunkeswell Abbey, in Devonshire'
by Mary Hunt
Photo Julie Sampson

 If you've stumbled upon this piece you might wonder what it is. If so, please take a look at From the Devon Ridge where a Book Began, where I explain this blog... So I've reached D in this A-Z of places linked with Devon's women writers. There are several places I could have featured, but I decided on Dunkeswell, because the parish is the hub of a whole district towards the eastern edges of the, county s broad sweep of lands during the late C18 early C19 were owned and to a large extent, controlled, by one family, the Simcoes. It is usually General John Graves Simcoe, first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, you're likely to encounter if you search the family online. But my interest here is his wife, Elizabeth Posthuma Gwillim Simcoe. You won't find it hard to gather information about the Simcoes. There is a gallimaufry of data out there about them. I have written of Elizabeth Simcoe in another blog. She appears in Devon Women: Travelling and Writing; and in Devon Celebration: Ten Women Writers. You can also find about her life and useful links at South-West-Women-Writers.

   Meanwhile, I have to confess that Mrs Simcoe only appears in passing in Writing Women on the Devon Land (see DevonBookFindsaWay); but, given that, although as well as artist, Simcoe was a prolific and expert diarist, and letter-writer, in my opinion her writing does not feature in the top league of those women writers from Devon whose texts are pre-eminent. But then, neither should she be ignored; Elizabeth Simcoe's contribution to literature was not insignificant. Simcoe  compiled insightful diaries of her stay in Upper Canada; classics of their genre, the journals provide the arm-chair traveller and historian with graphic and spirited documents detailing the rich diversity of that country during the late C18.Here are a couple of little tasters; hopefully, if you're not acquainted with Mrs Simcoe they may whet your appetite. 
Wed. 28th Nov. Went to the Fort this morning. Mrs. Macaulay drank tea with me, and I had a party at whist in the evening. The partition was put in the canvas houses to-day, by which means I have a bedroom in it as well as a sitting-room. These rooms are very comfortable, about thirty feet long. The grates did not answer for burning, and I have had a stove placed instead, though as yet a fire has not been wanted. The weather is so mild that we have walked in the garden from eight till nine in the moonlight these last two evenings.
 Mon. 3rd Dec. The Governor went to the Landing, and I went to the Fort to see Capt. Darling's stuffed birds. The most beautiful of them he called a meadow lark, the size of a blackbird, the colours the richest yellow, shaded to orange intermixed with black; the Recollect, a light brown with a tuft on its head and the tips of the wings scarlet, like sealing wax; a blackbird with scarlet on the wings they abound here in swamps; a scarlet bird called a King bird, the size of a small thrush; a bird like a canary bird, but the colours much brighter; a grand Due Owl. Among the animals there was a skunk like a pole- cat, with black and white marks.   (Elizabeth Simcoe, Mrs Simcoe’s Diary, ed. Mary Quayles Innis)

        Just snippets I'm afraid. As well as all the info. available online, there is at least one biography about the writer, with detailed narrative following her life in and out of Devon.

    Here, I want  to spread the word about Elizabeth Gwillim Simcoe and her work and highlight her family links with Devon. And also, I'd hope to tempt a few of you who might read this to go out and explore the places and their connections with Mrs Simcoe and her family,

   I want to outline some of the places in these parts that connect the family Simcoe with Devon. You can find special sites associated with them in the Dunkeswell district, because, scattered around in these territories are various fascinating remains that are in one way or other connected with the many members of the Simcoe family, or/and their friends. If you take time to look there is a plethora of history still ingrained in the very stones in, on and around buildings in this area. There is a fascinating recently published book The Historic Landscape of Devon, (by Lucy Ryder), which contains a section telling us all about the local landscape, its historical layerings and the details of Elizabeth Simcoe's land ownership hereabouts. Unfortunately, the day I went off on recce for the sites, a few obstacles came my way. At Dunkeswell church there was a special prayer meeting in progress, which meant the interior of the church could not be seen. Meanwhile, at Dunkeswell Abbey, the ruins were cast in scaffolding, which meant they were neither visible, nor photogenic. Also I found it was not possible to view the inside Holy Trinity church and last but not least, access to the path nearby the abbey ruins, which runs out along the nearby Madford river, was blocked.

             So, instead, for my photos, I concentrated on the peripherals: the views; the entrances; the paths; the trees; panoramas through the trees. I didn't get to Buckerell church that day; it's where the Simcoe couple married, but if you want to find more about them there do look at Beacock Fryer's biography of Simcoe . The present-day Wolford Lodge (built on the 5000 acre site which the heiress Elizabeth was able to buy on her marriage), Simcoe's original Wolford - there is a photo at DCC Dunkeswell here) sounds wonderful, but on the day of my visit time allowed just a cluster of photos of Dunkeswell's landscapes, in phone camera's burst mode. 

Best place to begin a Devon Simcoe travel trail (perhaps depending which direction you're arriving from) is at Wolford Chapel, as far as I am aware the sole little piece of Canadian land you will find in the UK., but which was originally thought to be the remains of a Medieval chapel. 
View to Wolford Chapel through trees.

         I have to confess on my visit, on a damp cold winter's day, the interior of the chapel felt disheartening, a little too chilly and dank to stay and appreciate the C16 panelling, which is thought to have been brought over there from the parish church  (then in ruins), probably due to Elizabeth's own influence. The chapel requires a sunny spring or summer day to encourage one to go inside. 

Memorial Plaque to Eliza Simoce, one of the Simcoe daughters.

For me, Wolford chapel's most moving features are found outside, where at the bottom of and alongside the south and east walls, memorial plaques are placed to five of the eleven Simcoe children. I had read that only one of the Simcoe's daughters (the youngest, called Anne) married and that that was after her parents' death and that even harshly, it was the girls' mother who insisted that they must not marry. I can not verify this theory, but I have a feeling if it was true then it was more likely because after her own marriage Elizabeth realised that to maintain independence girls in the C18-19 were much better off staying single.

Leaflets inside Wolford Chapel

            Before I leave the chapel, I note that there are exquisite views and vistas to be glimpsed along the track to the chapel, where in between winter's tree skeletons and laurel greenery, you can see out over the ridges, woods and fields, toward the area around Awliscombe. 

View between trees from Wolford Chapel

           Up the road a mile or so, there is Dunkeswell parish church, whose main interest apropos Elizabeth Simcoe is that it was the main place for her family to worship, and indeed, was rebuilt through her own influence  (using stones from nearby Dunkeswell Abbey and from her own funds).

Dunkeswell Church

Elizabeth Simcoe was a dedicated evangelist and directed her own children to follow her own zeal in a plethora of good works. You can read the sermon preached at the church on the occasion of Mrs. Simcoe's funeral on January 27th 1850.

Dunkeswell Churchyard

        Given that when we reached it, along the bendy lanes north from the village, Dunkeswell Abbey's ruins were covered with scaffolding and the church not accessible, I have to confess my visit there this time was disappointing. 

Peep through the trees to the C19 church on site of Dunkeswell Abbey
But, I cheered myself up with thoughts that this must once have been an impressive structure, which inspired at least one poem written by a woman with local Devon links, the rather mysterious Romantic woman poet Mary Hunt, who wrote the Wordsworthian inspired Lines written at Dunkeswell Abbey. Hunt was a close friend of Elizabeth Mary, and because of her connection with the Simcoe family is also linked with Dunkeswell. I have written a piece about her, and her poem, Devon's Romantic Woman Poet, which is published on Scrapblog of the South-West and also today, a follow up, Mary Hunt Devon's Romantic Poet and the Devon Connection at Dunkeswell.

          Before we left Dunkeswell we took a look (but could not walk beside, as our way was blocked) at the idyllic Madford river, which borders the parish and I think is a tributary of the river Culm.

An excerpt from
 Elizabeth Simcoe, Mrs Simcoe’s Diary, ed. Mary Quayles Innis)

C ... Caribbean Seas at Cheriton Fitzpaine

C  ... Caribbean Seas at Cheriton Fitzpaine

On the Raddon Hills near Cheriton Fitzpaine

Looking back northward toward Cheriton Fitzpaine from the Raddon ridge
Photo Julie Sampson


The Blue Hour: A Portrait of Jean Rhys, by Lilian Pizzichini)

A to Z of Devon places and Devon women writers - B

During the very early 1960's  for almost a couple of years two of the twentieth century's now most famous women writers lived within twenty miles of one another, in mid Devon. One was Sylvia Plath, who moved to North Tawton, in 1961 and left there late 1962; the other Jean Rhys, who moved to Cheriton Fitzpaine in 1960 and stayed there until her death in 1969. Plath and Rhys are probably the two foremost C20 writers whose Devon home base must appear on this A to Z of Devon women writers places. Both authors have drawn countless followers and admirers to seek out their Devon homes and in Rhys' case, grave, in Cheriton's churchyard. One of these visitors remarked that finding the grave was a 'moving moment'  Another, the poet Olive Senior, wrote a long poem called Meditation on Red about her visit to the Cheriton grave, which both conjures up the sensual response of the poet herself and also expresses the complex reactions of both author herself and the locals at the time of Rhys living and writing in their village:

Opening of Senior's poem
making faces/
 at you/  
who knew/
 how to spell/
 little knowing /
in that grey mist /
hanging/ over Cherton Fitzpaine/
how cunningly
 you masked/  
your pain/ 
how carefully
 you honed /your craft/ 
how tightly
you held /your pen  (extract fron Meditation on Red)

        It has taken me many years to visit Rhys' grave in Cheriton, but I eventually made it, on a brilliant sunny winter's day. Rather surprisingly, the stone is propped up against the church wall just left of the main door. At least the village has recognised the author's once presence in their parish, because she is mentioned in the church guide book. 

Jean Rhys' grave, Cheriton Fitzpaine churchyard

Jean Rhys' grave, Cheriton Fitzpaine

Cheriton Fitzpaine church

Jean Rhys' grave Cheriton Fitzpaine

       Going back some years, back in the sixties and seventies, following publication of and acclaim for her most famous novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, people frequently went to the village in search of the novelist. One visitor wrote up an account of her trip to Devon; Rhys had seemed preoccupied by her ambivalent feelings to her home. 
Then she said, suddenly “I’ve lived here six or seven years. I loathed it at first; then I got resigned to it. Fixed it up, found it better. I miss a lot living in Devon, miss meeting the people who wrote to me after the books were re-published. I don’t think I’m liked in the village, they think I’m strange. I’d like to get away but I won't now.

Another visitor, Louis James, wrote an academic paper about her experience with the novelist, The Lady Is Not A Photograph: Jean Rhys, D.Litt., and "The Caribbean Experience". See Journal of Caribbean Literatures, Vol. 3, No. 3, Jean Rhys (Summer 2003), pp. 175- 184. Louis explains how, with colleagues, she went down to Devon from Kent, to present Rhys, with an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Kent. James explains that
She accepted the Honorary Doctorate when it was offered her. But, at the age of eighty-seven, with deteriorating health, she did not wish to make the long journey from Cheriton Fitzpaine in Devon where she was spending the summer, to receive her degree.
So, as James tells us, in an unusual change from protocol, the university took the degree to its recipient:

 In the case of Jean Rhys, the University made the exceptional decision to award the Honorary D. Litt., in absentia. On that day of July, an empty red leather chair represented Jean Rhys on the dais, addressed by the Public Orator Professor Robert Gibson with an accolade recording her life and achievements. At the side, a portable Grundig tape deck ticked away, recording the oration. On the 20th of July two cars set off from Canterbury to her cottage in Cheriton Fitzpaine, carrying Professor Foakes as Chairman of English Literature at Kent, together with Professor Mark Kinkead-Weekes and myself as teachers of Common- wealth Literature. We also took a set of doctoral robes, the Grundig tape recorder, the Orator's recorded speech, and several bottles of champagne. The summer Jean Rhys spent at Cheriton Fitzpaine in 1977 was proving, in Carole Angier's words, "fairly disastrous" (638). Apart from intensifying health problems, Jean had begun to fall violently out with Janet Bridger, her young companion, nurse, and typist, with strains intensified by Jean's struggle to find the right approach to writing her proposed autobiography. Then there were other anxieties, too, of which I knew nothing at the time.

James provides a fond and amusing account of the time she spent spent at the by now renowned author's house. I can't resist including another short extract:

There is no shortage of material about Jean Rhys on the internet. A google search will coax out all sorts of goodies. In particular the Jean Rhys Archive has information about the whereabouts of various materials and texts. I wrote a little about Rhys and Plath in a very early piece in Scrapblog from the South-West.  Some thoughts about them appear in Crossing the Water, a more recent feature in my other blog. A poem 'Rhys and Plath; Cheriton and Court Green' was published by Shearsman and appears in my collection Tessitura. You can read the poem on Scrapblog.

B - Beside the Sea at Brixham and Budleigh Salterton

At Brixham
'The merry boats of Brixham
Go out to search the seas;
A staunch and sturdy fleet are they,
Who love a swinging breeze;
And before the woods of Devon,
And the silver cliffs of Wales,
You may see, when summer evenings fall,
The light upon their sails'.
(The Wives of Brixham
by Menella Bute Smedley)

      A to Z of Devon places and Devon women writers - B

Excerpt from my poem about Flora Thompson in Brixham

B for Brixham
Page from Miss Green's Journals 1841
It's unlikely that you reading this don't know of Brixham, in Torbay in the south of Devon. Chances are you may have been there. Brixham is one of the county's prime tourist places as well as one of Devon's most famous fishing towns, In my first post in this A-Z of Devon places and women writers I noted that, as I've trawled the county in search of places associated with various authors, it has often happened that my quest to find one or other writer has coincided with individuals from my own family history. The coincidence has happened enough to make me decide to include snippets of our own family genealogy as a kind of sub-text in my own MS., Voices from Wildridge. Sometimes, that has meant that a writer was living in the place during the same time as certain people in my own family; sometimes the author lived at a house or home nearby where a branch of the family lived. In either case, for me the coexistence is often intriguing. My dual research subject fields meet up with one another and each has helped in some way with the other (if that makes sense). Here, at Brixham, the resonance is especially meaningful. My late mother's paternal family, fisherfolk, the Greens, were from there; or, at least, were in Brixham for a couple of generations, after a great grandfather ran away to sea, to escape an unhappy childhood in Suffolk.

     Though, as I've since discovered there were other women writers connected with the town (including Menella Bute Smedley, who wrote The Wives of Brixham quoted above), two women authors with direct Brixham links stand out and in each case, as I've explored their respective lives and writings I've also stumbled upon insights about my family; and vice versa. One of the writers was the C19 diarist Miss Green who I'll talk about in a minute. The chances are you have not heard of her. In contrast, everyone knows about Flora Thompson, especially since the BBC's production of Lark Rise to Candleford. Perhaps though, you reading this may not have known that Thompson spent the last years of her life in Devon. Much has been written about this popular author, including the recent biography, Dreams of the Good Life: The Life of Flora Thompson and the Creation of Lark Rise to Candleford by Richard Mabey, which is available from Kindle.  Flora does  make an appearance in my own work, and there is an excellent Flora Thompson website devoted to her. Here, I'd like to comment a little more about her Brixham and Devon links.

      I am fascinated with the way some writers such as Thompson transfer places so that a beloved home is written about only when the writer has moved to another location. It seems as though often there is need to put space and distance between one's real life and one's imagined life, before the former can be written about. The book that made Thompson a household name, Lark Rise to Candleford, (the first book of which was written 1938-9) was not set in Devon; yet Thompson, as 'exile', admitted that unless influenced by the nearby Devon moorland: '[she] might never have felt driven to record her inland childhood as she did exiled in Devon'. It's as though Dartmoor revivified a lost memory trace for the writer; the landscape transformed into a beautiful interior landscape recalled from her childhood in Oxfordshire, which allowed the vista of tors and moorland space to set the writer free to travel to other inner regions. Thompson's fascination with moor and its impact on the writing of her own work intrigues me, as does her close association with Brixham itself. Flora's home in the town, called Lauriston, (see the plaque to Thompson and photos of the house) in New Road, is in Higher Town, the same part of the parish in which my grandmother met my grandfather in her grandma's parents dairy, Tregembo and where my mother was born and brought up, at Polhearne, the farm round the corner from the Pound House where my grandparents had first moved as a married couple, in 1912. The street called Dashpers is nearby. One of Thompson's unfinished fictional works is titled Dashpers, (see manuscript draft here), so I have always assumed she took the name from the nearby Brixham road.

       In her later years my mother wrote about her own love of the fishing-village, a home which she left when she was eleven:
We never ceased to be excited by the sight of seagulls, which flew in by the hundreds, catching and swallowing large fish whole. The smaller fish would be discarded and then the auctioning would take place. No large co-operatives in those days. All this took place under the watchful eye of William, Prince of Orange whose statue was and still is a landmark on the quay in Brixham ...
... On bank holidays or in the school holidays we would walk to Broadsands from Higher Brixham where we lived on the farm. In those days the beaches were practically deserted and we spent long, happy hours playing in the seaside pools or picking buckets full of winkles which our mother cooked for tea. Mansands was out of bounds to us, being considered far too lonely and desolate. Another secluded beach we used to play on was called Mudstone. Walking down to it with warm sand trickling through my bare toes was wonderful.
          Her childhood in the town was spent many years before Flora Thompson moved there, in 1940, but my mother's own memoirs about her years in Brixham are detailed and poignant, in a way reminiscent of the style of the well-known Thompson.

         I had the criss-crossing meeting-points and places of personal family and well-known writer in Brixham in mind when I drafted a poem about Flora Thompson. I decided to create a layered text, with the poem about the author superimposed on a description of my family in the town. The poem reflects the multilayerings of life and text. Here is an extract from the under-layer of Flora and the Family, reinventing my own family in the town:

Brixham home of my maternal forbearers, whose lives and bodies are now shadows weaving in & out of Burton Street up across to Bolton Street - shapes coming from doors - they're waving back up to us - feet stepping towards the harbour - linking houses and family lines across time  - some lost & forgotten for ever -   a few resurrected here and given space-in-print to exist in this text-in-time. Walk the streets of this their seaside town and walk into the margins of darkened lanes, merge lines of  text into the C21 virtual version where fisher and farming folk live again - throw the fishing net and catch them against a background of brimming Brixham red skies and silver seas. the fleet coming in skimming the waves and preening glorious sails.
       Brixham's C19 personal journalist, Miss Green, in complete contrast to the well-known C20 Flora Thompson, has not left any published works and remains obscure and unknown. She is one of the invisible missing authors in my own MS Voices from Wildridge - because I found I could not include everyone I wanted to - and so is one of the writers for who I wanted to develop this blog.

       Miss Green was probably born and lived most of her life in Brixham, whereas Thompson only spent the latter part of her life there but the chances you have heard of Miss Green are remote. I call her Miss because as yet I have not been able to identify the journalist's christian name.

       You will find that the the website SouthWestWomenWriters  includes reference to Miss Green.
For me, happening on the existence of the manuscript of Miss Green's journals in an archive far away from Devon, (Birmingham University - also see Diaries for detailed commentary on Green's writings), was a real discovery, for my grandfather was a Brixham 'Green' and to begin with I thought the two families might be related. Concerning the journalist's identity, the Birmingham archive notes:
From internal evidence, it is likely that the writer is a Miss Green, daughter of Joseph Green of Parkham Cottage, Brixham, Devon. A record of the marriage of Joseph Green nd Elizabeth Adams at Brixham on 23 January 1791 is listed in the International Genealogical Index. The writer spends several months with her uncle Robert Adams, of Brompton, near Chatham, Kent who is possibly her mother's brother.
       Sometimes, the complications re establishing writer identity and my other co-passion for family history research, as with Miss Green, took me off on tangents into the mires of online genealogical sites, away from the main subject of my Devon women writers project. Apropos Miss Green, I'm afraid I'm still floundering amongst the C19 higher Brixham lanes, up in Burton Street with Parkahm Villas, or New Road, St Mary's church and surrounding area, with various C19 censuses details laid out on my desk concerning the various branches of Green families, rope-makers, ship-owners, bankers and other fisher-folk kith and kin. If and when I establish exactly how Miss Green fitted into the Brixham Green family trees I will update this at a later stage. Meanwhile, if any of you finding this blog can bring any fresh insights, please do let me know.

       Before we depart from Brixham and Miss Green I must briefly comment on the journalist's writing and its importance to the area in which she lived. For although, yes, her journals are for the most part parochial, focusing on the immediate locality of her home parish, the specifics of Green's writing provide the C21 reader with a social history of the mid C19 in that town and indeed, probably the whole country. She conjures a contrasting world to the one we are now familiar with, a world in which families left their homes every day to walk, rather than drive, out and about their locality, to go to church, to church and other social meetings, to meet with neighbours, family and friends for walks into the surrounding countryside and then shared tea and meals; a world in which death was a persistent concern and experience in an individual's life, not a topic to be avoided; a world in which church, caring, community and charity were accepted as the norm of life. Her diaries also tell us about the topography of the landscape around the writer and illustrate the huge differences in the locality between then and now. Miss Green knew a few of the local leading lights of her time, including particularly Revd. Henry Francis Lyte, famous writer of the now popular hymn Abide with Me. Green, who seems to have been a Sunday school teacher, evidently knew him well as she attended many of Lyte's services and provides descriptive commentary about each sermon or lecture she heard. Miss Green's church was St Mary's at Higher Brixham. A few excerpts from her journals follow below:
'We took a walk to Parkham just before dinner in the evening went to see John's wife   after that to church they sang the 55 psalms 2 versions  poor Elizabeth's favorites the music was to me beautiful and the words brought many things to my mind which I cannot forget, Mr Lyte's lecture was very good on the Epistles for Trinity Sunday.' (26 May 1841) 
After looking at the old church we proceeded to the iron mines the view from there was very good. William accompanied us now and then we passed Mudstone but did not go down on the beach we reached home just before dark not a little tired with our long walks. (28 May 18410. 
      The journal entry that stays with me is Miss Green’s affecting farewell to a beloved cousin, and Uncle and Aunt, in June 1841, as they left Devon on the Steamer. They were returning to their Kent home after a holiday in Brixham. To our fast-paced C21 minds the woman's intense gaze over the water, watching the steamer pass across the bay seems tedious and slow,  How could it have been like this? Yet perhaps she was the lucky one, experiencing a luxury we, with the rush of our C21 lives, do not now have.

… after tea Harriet Fogwell kindly went up on Parkham with Priscilla and I to see the Steamer come out. We saw her pass across the bay at a little before 6 in the evening we waited until nearly ten past 7 when she came out and glided very quickly along we had he glass but could not distinguish one person from another the distance being considerable, we tied a white pocket handkerchief on a pole that was our flag but I can hardly think they saw it … all seems very lonely. (Extracts from Miss Green, Journals of Miss Green, from Brixham, 1840-1: Special Collections, Birmingham).

B for Budleigh Salterton
At Budleigh Salterton
Photo Julie Sampson

         Now we're going to zip along the south Devon coast to the east of the county and meet up with another C19 woman writer who in her life-time seems to have become a well-known figure in the town of Budleigh Salterton, or in the nearby village of East Budleigh. Just as with Brixham this east Devon district harbours the bones of a branch of my own ancestors, so similarly to the south Devon resort finding this writer has provided me rich research material. But that belongs to another story (blog).
        Maria Susannah Gibbons wrote novels and travel books about Devon. She was apparently born in Middlesex, in 1841 (the same year in which Miss Green was writing most of her Brixham journals), but by the 1880s had moved to Vicarsmead, in East Budleigh. Gibbon died in 1900. The main texts which are associated with the author are We Donkeys in Devon and Travels in a Donkey, 1887. Maria Susanna Gibbons makes a brief appearance in SouthWestWomenWriters and there was mention of her in an old Devon and Cornwall Notes and Queries (3:2 1904 49-52).  There is not much information easily available about the author on the internet, except that The OVA (a civic society founded in 1979 to interest residents and visitors in the history, geography, natural history and architecture of this area of Devon), contains a wealth of material on the Otter valley, which includes some valuable snippets about Maria Gibbons. My comments on the writer are indebted to that site. The author is described thus:
A most delightful character who epitomised the Victorian scene in this town was the writer Maria Gibbons who, with her mother, moved from East Budleigh to live at the top of Victoria Place. Her charming reminiscences of Salterton have already been quoted in this chapter. She drove a donkey tandem, and was quite eccentric in her attitude towards animals. She once had a wooden leg fitted on her broken-legged cow. Maria was the author of 'We Donkeys in Devon', and several novels, now forgotten. When past middle age she took up nursing. There have always been 'characters' in Salterton (See Ova)
Maria was evidently not without eccentricity for we learn that
In 1886 the old vicarage was the home of two ladies of great character; Mrs. Gibbons, who allowed her hens to roost on her drawing room chairs, and her daughter Maria. (ibid.)
       I also learn that Maria Gibbons wrote an account titled Budleigh Salterton in 1809, a transcript of which is in Fairlynch Museum.

      Before I leave Budleigh and Maria Gibbons I must just mention another Budleigh woman writer who I would not have known about if Roger Lendon (TheOva) had not written about her on their website. Miss Jane Louisa Willyams (1786-18780 was apparently born in Cornwall and moved to Budleigh forty years before her death, where in 1841, 'she lived at Prospect (now East Terrace). Willyams with her sister wrote a three volume novel called Coquetry which was published in 1818'. (See Ova for more about Willyams). This is yet another writer from the south west who has disappeared from the radar, but one to watch out for.
By the sea at Budleigh

For introduction to this blog see Women Writing on the Devon Land

A for the ashes - Ashton and Ashridge.

Ashridge lane
'Ash trees often marked sites of special significance'
Forestry Focus
Photo Julie Sampson

A to Z of Devon places and Devon women writers 
A is for ... 
This track, leading to Ashridge Court, in mid Devon, is typical of this part of the county. It has always seemed to me that Devon's lanes, almost always edged with the high hedges associated with the county and also, intersecting with one another in maze-like interconnections, are unique.The first feature means that if you're in such a lane invariably you can not see over the top of the bank to the vista the other side; the second leads to visiting strangers becoming hopelessly lost in the lane labyrinth. These features match the experiences I have sometimes had with material for my book Voices from Wildridge. At times, in the early stages of writing, overloaded with material, and in the middle of a chaos of papers, I have sometimes struggled to find a way in, or indeed, out again.
Sampson family at Ashridge, circa 1920s.
   But that does not really explain why I have inserted the image of Ashridge lane at the head of this post. Any Devon lane would have served the purpose! But Ashridge is and was special. Sited just north-east of the parish of North Tawton where I was born and just a mile eastwards of what was once our family home at Wildridge, the estate is a mysterious and ancient one. You will not find much easily accessible information about Ashridge's history, except that its origins are thought to be C14, when in '1380 Richard de Bosco or Attewood of Ash Ashridge married Eulalia daughter of Oliver Champernoun of North Tawton' (See North Tawton: A Devon Market Town, by Rev. Fulford Williams, in Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 1954). There is a site of an ancient chapel marked on the Ordnance Survey map; yet, no information as far as I can find about the origins of that chapel. And just like the chapel, the estate's surrouding woods, ponds, fields, buildings and indeed, ubiquitous lanes, hold many secrets.
     At this point, I want briefly to bring in another sub-thread from my own book, that of family history. Ashridge, for instance, is the background site in one of the family photo-albums I've inherited, which contains several photos of the estate featuring members of my family. Ashridge's ancient woods, track and fields were a popular walking trails for my grandparents' generation. Problem is, I don't know who all the individuals in the images are, nor do I know anyone alive who will know. They will exist for ever as people in a picture in an album, but their names will not ever now be identified. Those who did know have gone. Often there is as much mystery, or missing information concerning these unknown individuals (who incidentally, more often than not, are or were, women rather than men) as that around the women writers whose lives and texts I've been chasing up. Likewise, as I have researched my home county's forgotten women writers I've often come up against that old brick wall impasse, finding a mysterious name buried in a list of author names, in an out of print and obscure source or, whilst knowing the title and contents of a novel, have not been able to find information relating to its author. Another common happening is that frequently, whilst looking up various women writers I've found myself meeting up with branches and individuals from my own ancestral tree.

         Well, I'll leave the coincidences and interconnections between ancestry and literary history to another post and take you back to where I started this piece. Geographically, Ashridge is within the topographic territorial space which delineates the so-called nemeton area; land of the sacred wood or sacred groves. If you are unfamiliar with this term and its associations with the mid-Devon district, the online account Nemeton in the Ancient World provides a fascinating introduction. I first encountered the term and the local associations with it, in ‘Devon’s Sacred Grove’ (Westcountry Folklore No.17), by Dr. Angela Blaen. The opening chapters of Writing Women on the Devon Land include more about nemeton's links with mid Devon sites and literature.
      But, no, in case you are asking, as yet I have not found any particular woman writer associated with Ashridge! For me, the place is iconic, it represents beginnings, a way in to the heart of a mystery. In terms of my own research apropos Devon's forgotten women writers, as archetype, Ashridge stands sentinel for a great many other similar Devon sites and locations, whose rich past has become overlaid with superimposed layerings of history. And, I believe if only we could enter a time warp into the past we'd come upon women who were writing or in some other way involved in literary pursuits who lived in these great old houses.Taking into account the fragments of information that are available about mid Devon manor's past, I believe women living there could have been important bearers of literary activity. With that in mind, one of the protagonists of a fictional fragment included in my book, an imaginary female in the Wood family, lived and was brought up at Ashridge. I hope you will eventually meet up with her and her cousin at their C13 home at Court Green, in North Tawton.

A is for ...
Interior of Ashton Church
Ashton in the Teign valley is my other 'A' place, but for quite the opposite reason from Ashridge. It was to the parish of Ashton that one of Devon's most significant women writers, the proto-feminist C17 poet essayist Mary Lady Chudleigh moved on her marriage, staying there for most of her life, writing poems and essays and actively engaging with individuals from her renowned female coteries.Thus, for me, Ashton stands out as a special and unique site, where the once-upon-a-time woman who wrote lyrics making her famous in her own life time, in contradiction to many of the other women who appear in my own book, remained an important name in future literary histories. 

Interior of Ashton Church
If you don't know Ashton but want to go there in search of the poet, the first place to head is Ashton church, where not only will you find wonderful screens but also monuments and memorials to members of the Chudleigh family, including Mary Chudleigh's own children. Sadly, ironically, there are no monuments of the poet herself. Indeed, as far as I know, after her death there has never been a commemorative memorial anywhere. But, just down the road from Ashton's parish church there are still surviving features of this important Devon author's home, the once Chudleigh family manor, at Place Barton.
Interior of Ashton Church
You can find snippets about Mary Lady Chudleigh in old Scrapblogfrom the SouthWest posts ; there is information about her and a photo of Place on SouthWestWomenWriters, and a Timeline, which presents her in context with other female Devon writers. For more extensive commentary about Mary Lady Chudleigh's life and to read her poetry, Mary Lady Chudleigh: Selected Poems is available from Shearsman Books, or from my author website. I have also written extensively about the poet in Writing Women on the Devon Land: The Lost Story of Devon's Other Women Writers.

  Note: Please see Page One  for an introduction to this Blog.

Featured post

Talking about Tavistock: Mary Maria Colling; A C19 Maid-Servant Poet

Writing Women on the Devon Land  A – Z of Devon Women Writers & Places Tavistock canal Talking about Tavistock: Mary M...

Contact Form


Email *

Message *

Cottage at Cheldon

The cottage holiday-home of author Elizabeth Stucley in the 1960s. See Her-Story at Hartland.

Cheriton Fitzpaine Church

At Cheriton Fitzpaine church where Jean Rhys is buried. Gravestone on left of porch. See Caribbean Seas at Cheriton Fitzpaine.