Thursday, 5 January 2017

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.