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)


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