On the Ways to the Old Literary Roads around Okehampton

Okehampton Castle
Photo Julie Sampson

Writing Women on the Devon Land
A-Z of Devon Women Writers & Places

On the Ways to the Old Literary Roads around Okehampton

        I could have chosen Offwell, Ogwell, Okeford, Otterton, or Ottery St Mary. But for this Alphabet of Devon Women Writers (up to about 1960), I settled on Okehampton. It's partly nostalgia, the town being a favourite place of my childhood, where I (albeit fairly briefly) and before me, both my parents attended school. I don't know of any individual woman author whose home was in the parish up to circa 1960 - but I do know several who included the place in their writings. Rosalind Northcote, Mary Ward and Sophie Dixon all set down in text their personal responses to the scenic, and/or historical characteristic of the Okehampton locality ...

     ... It is not just the romantic lines of Okehampton castle ruin that call, either when you spot Okehampton castle from the dual carriageway of the A30, or as you negotiate the upward swirls of the road curling up and away from the old town deep in the valley beneath, or through light reflected leaves on the left of the road. It is also the intricate lineage of the genealogical patterning of the past, which suggests that this near empty shell must once have harboured both men and women closely connected to the topmost ruling class, who were likely to be of the then literate fraternity. By the time you see the ruin you have entered the hallowed receptacle of the moor. Before you, are a multitude of enticements.

       For me, the northern doorway to Dartmoor's charm has always been the historical marker of this well-known Devon castle. Rosalind Northcote's travelogue/guide-book/historical survey, Devon; its Moorlands, Streams & Coasts (See on Project Gutenberg) outlined the ruin and its vicinity as it appeared in the rustic environment of the early C20.

   The castle of Okehampton stands about half a mile from the town and looks on one side over fertile hills and valleys, woods, and rich meadows, and the gleaming waters of the West Okement, on the other towards the bold, changeless outlines of the outer barriers of Dartmoor. The castle was once surrounded by its park ... The Okement rippling over a rocky bed – the name ‘uig maenic’ means the ‘stony water’ – hurries past the foot of a knoll on which the castle rises out of a cloud of green leaves that shelter and half hide the walls. Protected by the river and a steeply scarped bank on the south, a natural ravine on the north and a deep notch cut on the western side, the mass of slate rock that it stands on was a point of vantage.[i]
By West Okement, from where you can see glimpses
of ruins of Okehampton Castle glinting through the trees.

Old Town Park
Local Nature Reserve

          There are copies of Northcote's Devon book available from various sites, including Abe Books. I tend to agree with the fairly recent review of the book on the jsbookreader blogThe best feature of Devon; its Moorlands, Streams & Coasts is its inclusion of colour plates of Devon scenes, by acclaimed painter Frederick John Widgery. I feel rather mean saying this about this, but tend to agree with jsbookreader's assessment: Devon; its Moorlands, Streams &Coasts is 'largely built around scraps of learned but much-recycled material'.
Colour Plate of Okehampton Castle, painting by FJ Widgery.
taken from Devon: its Moorlands, Streams & Coasts.

         Devon; its Moorlands, Streams & Coasts is a book which anyone who likes to collect Devon history, or landscape books collectors, would love, and ought to have in their library. Of nostalgic value, the text is in the tradition of and influenced by such canonic male-authored Devon books as Crossing's Guide to Dartmoor; but once you get into the mind-set of the time in which it was written,
Devon; its Moorlands, Streams & Coasts does have a certain time-less appeal and Rosalind Northcote's passion for her home county is evident. There are individual touches which the author most likely obtained from personal visits to many of the places she describes. 
        Daughter of Walter Stafford Northcote, Second Earl of IddesleighLady Rosalind Northcote wasn't the only author in her family. I'm not sure whether she had any literary female relations, but both her father and her brother Stafford Harry Northcote, Viscount St Cyres  also wrote and published books, whilst her grandfather, Stafford Northcote First Earl of Iddesleigh, also had literary interests. For centuries, the Northcote family seat was at Pynes House near Exeter, which, though nowadays known as Devon's Downton Abbey and popular as a local wedding venue, is also known locally for its apparent close association with Jane Austin:
'The second Earl, Walter Stafford Northcote, was a huge admirer of the literary talent of Jane Austen and believed most fervently that his house was indeed the inspiration for Barton Park in Austen’s iconic work, Sense and Sensibility. This tale is still told in the local area and remains as popular as ever' (Pynes House Website) 
         I'm not saying the information isn't out there in the archives, but in the limited time I've been able to devote to researching Rosalind Northcote I've not found much about her life; maybe someone out there does know about her, or has come across documentation about her in a record office somewhere. The Pynes archives  at A2A certainly seems promising. There are a couple of tantalising snippets dotted round the web. One concerns Lady Rosalind's next youngest sister, Lady Elizabeth Northcote, who in 1914 married Sir Randolph Bruce in a celebrated wedding held at Pynes. According to one source, there had initially been plans for Bruce to marry author Rosalind, eldest daughter, but she was found 'prickly' and 'unapproachable' (see Lady Windemere) Elizabeth was 38 at the time of her marriage, quite old for her generation. There are various easily accessible online accounts about this couple;  a year after their marriage they travelled to Paris with Rosalind, which suggests the two sisters were probably close. The same description notes that unlike her sister (!) Elizabeth had a 'sweet disposition' and 'was very thoughtful of others' (Lady Windemere). Sadly, Elizabeth died within a year of her marriage, probably of appendicitis.

        Lady Rosalind survived her other siblings and died at Pynes in 1950. A visitor to Pynes during her last years is said to have commented: 'She was a law unto herself quite a formidable woman. She used to spend most of her day in a large sitting room with the windows open, chain smoking.' (Lady Windemere).

      The National Portrait Gallery has a portrait of Lady Rosalind here.www.columbiavalleypioneer.com/news/the-lady-of-lake-windermere/ ....

         But, at this point, though it is tempting to stray further I must not wander away too far from Okehampton, the subject of this blog piece. One hundred years before Northcote's Devon book another local Devon author wrote about Okehampton castle and its surroundings.  Sophie Dixon's C19 journals provide us with another detailed panning shot of the castle and its vicinity in an even more pastoral, pre-technologically dominated landscape than that about which Northcote wrote.

Pages from Sophie Dixon's Journal
which mention Okehampton,
        I get the feeling that unlike Rosalind Northcote, Sophie Dixon had more first hand acquaintance with the places she wrote about. You'll find Dixon's name pops up readily in Google searches, especially linked to various descriptions and accounts of Dartmoor. For instance:

 For sometime Dartmoor was the home of Miss Sophie Dixon, the charming writer, and her acquaintance with it was extensive. She was in the habit of taking long rambles, setting forth at an early hour, and covering as much ground in a day as many would do in three. Sometimes when on a pedestrian tour she would rise at midnight, and start on her journey soon after, in order to avoid walking under a burning summer sun (Quoted in William Crossing's One Hundred Years on Dartmoor). 
          Contemporary writers often refer to Dixon, probably because her writing is striking in its detail and immediacy. In his Garden History of Devon Todd Gray notes that she was 'decisive in her writing'. Along, with Anna Eliza Bray and Rachel Evans, two other contemporary female author/travellers whose homes were in the vicinity of Tavistock, Dixon contributed to the C19 discourse of Dartmoor discovery.
      In her book Ten days excursion on the western and northern borders of Dartmoor, you can still sense the immediacy of the rapturous, pseudo-pioneering mode of discovery experienced and then voiced by Dixon after she crosses the C19 wild Dartmoor reaches, in 1830:

… we passed near the source of the Lyd, and then altering the direction of our steps the Sourton Tors rose before us, until again diverging to the right we came in view of the West Okement, winding amid a rocky channel, below a descent almost precipitous ... The valley inclining almost to a ravine, the river enters by a winding channel at the foot of Black Tor, which closes the view in a southerly direction. An extensive range of hill, dark with heath, occupies the opposite side of the valley, while a third mountain meets it below.’

     ... Following a trip to the locality of Fatherford I scribbled a short piece reflecting simultaneously on my own visit and what I re-imagined of Sophie Dixon's ...

         If you're lucky ... on moor's northen slopes, at the, just, still, tranquil site of Fatherford, just east of Okehampton and on the edgelands of the multiplying, mushrooming new housing estates, you can reflect and muse beside west Okement’s mirror river, where the wooden bridge crosses over into the glade the other side, where water’s lyrics, a ‘voice of waves’, will lull you to the beguiling wild haunts that writer Sophie Dixon intuited a hundred or so years ago ... Royal ferns flutter at our feet, taking us, slowly, surely, into their green and empty world, beyond glittering light.
        Sophie knew she felt, she heard, here, where road and river dissect, where dual worlds seem to briefly meet and part, here, where one looks (and moves us to loop unhurriedly, like snails snaking the undergrowth at our feet), back to the past and the other hurtles us onto the future, which can’t wait; this conveyor belt of concrete we cannot get escape.
      As you leave the glade,  spin around to catch a glimpse of your past, and hers, before a covey of orange monbretias in the hedge by the stream flare a signal, we are still here, still here, here, here, find us. Us ...

         Sophie Dixon also wrote poetry. Her Castalian Hours is made up of a sequence of poems; its title poem Stanzas Written on Dartmoor revels in the wildness and solitude of Longaford, and the surrounding moorland. It's with pseudo-Wordsworthian delight that she captures the scenic grandeur of moor's romantic enticements

And these are yours oh Mountains, these around
Your time-bleached summits, mingle in the air
A potent voice, a passion stirring sound ...
        William Crossing praised Dixon’s poems in his Dartmoor travelogue 'Amidst Devonia's Alps' but nowadays, like Rachel Evans and Anna Eliza Bray, although versions of her books are still obtainable, unlike that of their male equivalents, Crossing and Carrington, these women’s published writings are not generally recognised or acclaimed as being significant Dartmoor texts. This is a shame, for between them the trio of C19 Tavistock women fully documented a kaleidoscope of Dartmoor’s richly diverse data. There are, I believe, as yet unexplored interconnections between the three women, Bray, Dixon and Evans, linking both their lives and their texts. All three left a rich legacy of documents, which are testaments to the moor’s unique contribution to Devon’s landscape and heritage and are also encyclopedic in their value to the researcher. If a researcher wants to know something about someone or somewhere concerning Dartmoor’s history, then the likelihood is that they will eventually find the answer in one of the texts of Bray, Dixon or Evans ...

     ... I'm asking myself,  am I straying again from the ostensible main theme of this blog-piece? I hope not. I don't think so. Okehampton is very much enclosed within, or in the dip of the wrap-around protective landscape cloak, so the Dartmoor-linked comments about the women authors I've so far discussed are relevant ...

        ... Some fifty years or so before Dixon's journal was published, in 1807, in her collection Original Poems, a Devon poet called Mary Ward evoked the ruin in a poem titled 'Oakhampton Castle'. Albeit rather laboured in tone, Ward's poem's darkly laboured iambic lines project an appropriate mood of Gothic splendour:
stupendous pile whose mouldering towers/declare the wide uncultured day/when thou couldst boast terrific powers/that sought to make the world obey.      
         Ironically, the considerable historical significance of such an ancient skeletal and now ruined building as Okehampton Castle is emphasised because of the poet's use of overly ornate language. The style may be ornate, as well as foreign to contemporary ears, but the underlying message is authentic and eternal. Such an edifice, sunk into the foundations of solid earth within our land was – and is – forever replete with the stories of those who lived before. Nevertheless, Ward’s poem about the once striking and significant castle makes its own original contribution to the maintenance of the site’s importance in public memory. 'Oakhampton Castle's' flourish of romantic ornamentation can help to preserve reflecting fragments of history as they are wrapped within the sparse shell of a ruined building in the landscape. The poem aims to mirror the reality of what was.

       However, other than her poems in the collection Original Poems, little seems to be known about the poet herself. Mary Ward herself is elusive and attempts to discover anything substantial about her have proved well-nigh fruitless: she is said to have come from Brixham; she dedicated her book to the Countess of Loudon (who might be this Flora Campbell)she was an acquaintance of the owner of Raithby Hall, in Leicestershire, Robert Carr Brackbenbury, who rather intriguingly, was also known as a poet. Yet, that is all I have found... If there is anyone out there who knows anything about this elusive C19 poet, please get in touch, so I can add more information about her ...

          ... Before I leave the lanes and literary losts of Okehampton I'll just mention I've included a short fragment of fiction based on an imagined scenario at Okehampton castle in Part Two of the as yet unpublished Writing Women on the Devon Land. It's based on Hawisia ... a real noblewoman of the C12, whose ancestors from Okehampton were closely connected to the Norman/Plantaganet royal court. Following a lot of detailed and genealogical research, it occurred to me that this Hawisia may well have known the mysterious C12 poet Marie de France ... 'Someone, who in the mind's interior depths, heard a whisper from that long-ago past, telling me that yes indeed, she was Marie and not to leave her (and her circle of kin including Hawisia) out, from my own reinvented (or as I now see it, reinventing) story' ...

Here's a snippet from the opening of the fictional fragment:

Okehampton Castle’s ruins lie like an abandoned fairy-tale
 in a hollow on a spur of shale between two rivers flowing beneath Dartmoor. 

There’s a deep ditch between it and the country around. 

Outside the still quite massive wall of the castle,

above the curling west Okement river,
lie the immense lands of the Chase - 
the hunting-park of the medieval Courtenay family - 
which once sprawled its green-throw beneath the splatterings of C20/21 edifices. 
There’s the army camp, 
the relatively recently constructed A30, the golf-course, 
various other houses and paraphernalia ...

Noting the Ns in North Tawton


Writing Women on the Devon Land

A-Z of Devon Women Writers & Places
 Noting the Ns in North Tawton 

View from beside river Taw
at North Tawton
toward Cosdon
Photo Julie Sampson

        North Tawton, my Devon parish of choice for 'N' in this alphabet, will often feature on this blog. You will already find the parish mentioned in its introductory pages and at least one other post. This small central Devon town, the place of my childhood years, is anchor for my book about Devon's women writers. It has to be the parish of choice for this A-Z, although I could have picked out several other 'Norths', such as North Molton, North Lew or North Bovey, or other N's, such as Newton Abbot, Newton St Cyres ... For this letter, unlike some, I was spoilt for choice.

      Sadly, during the last few weeks, when I have been reflecting on this blog piece, a prominent member of the contemporary North Tawton community has passed away. I  want therefore firstly to join in the tributes to Dr JeanShields, an acquaintance, a family friend of my late parents and of my uncle, whose invaluable, painstaking and rigorous research and writing about local history over a period of many years has provided the community with a wealth of invaluable historical material relating to North Tawton and beyond to many other Devon places. Amongst many other achievements - including those attained in her other medical personal - Dr Shields co-edited The Book of North Tawton, a rich resource for anyone who has connections to the parish, or indeed is researching its past. Many times since I've started to research for my book on Devon women writers, when looking up information about the parish and its history, but stumbling on a block, I've turned to the book shelves for The Book ofNorth Tawton. Invariably, a fact, a new or overlooked detail will surface somewhere and I'll be off again. Down a new track of discovery. Some of the information which I'll use in this piece emerged in this way.

      Dr Jean Shields, North Tawton's, local history researcher/writer will be sorely missed ...

…  Here we’re in the very centre of the beating red-heart of Devon, the farming centre of the county, whose distinctive earth, generated by the underlying red sandstone, explains the landscape’s densely imprinted patterns of criss-crossing tracks, green-lanes, high-hedges and copses. This special territory lying within the remit of Devon’s nemetostatio, in the heart of the land of once sacred groves, (See for example Blaen's book Devon's Sacred Grove) whose gentle rolling hills front the distinctive dramatic grey-blue backdrop of moor, has already garnered a frisson of attention from archaeologists. But it’s not only historians, and like-minded specialists who’ve remarked on the unusual interest of this landscape; it’s also garnered attention, from creatives, such as noteworthy writers. Many who come about this blog and piece about North Tawton will know of the parish's links with the C20's most famous literary couple, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, who lived in the centre of the area; both authors intuited their Devon homeland as cynosure of mysterious presence. Now, in the years since the poets’ deaths, the vicinity in and around North Tawton has become focus of literary quests and pilgrimages, as those in search any hint of missing narrative connected with the literary pair trawl the local byways in search of a special symbolic token of their lived and textual pasts. It feels entirely appropriate that any researcher looking for missing threads of female literary lineage should begin here, within the boundaries of these distinctive lands lying just beneath and north of the county’s most famous moorland slopes. After all, it was in this landscape that Nemetona/Diana, (See for Example Trees of Anglo-Saxon England) the Celtic goddess presided over the once sacred groves ...

Lane north of North Tawton on Bondleigh road
Photo Julie Sampson

           As a female poet/writer acclaimed internationally, who had close links with NorthTawton, Sylvia Plath stands alone. I have not found evidence of any other individual woman writer who was closely associated with the town (except of course our recently bemoaned contemporary researcher Jean Shields). But, as with so much of Devon's lost literary heritage concerning the contribution of its women, as the researcher turns the pages of archival references, or clicks through a series of linked google searches, there are many tantalising gaps, which often seem to almost touch on a snatch of lost information. Someone who may have written, or have had special interest in literary activities. A woman who was closely related to a learned man. A  figure, silhouetted, lurking in the shadows.

        The further back we go, the more interesting things become.
        Way back in the medieval period North Tawton emerges as a point of convergence for a cluster of royal or courtly celebrities, the notoriety of whose lives left distinctive marks on the pages of the distant future. The notion that the environment of a backwater mid Devon medieval town may have witnessed the shenanigans of medieval entanglements may seem unlikely and yet there are historical and other familial associations which, for me, are suggestive of such. For, from the time of the Domesday Book until at least C13/14, like its twin parish South Tawton a couple of miles away, North Tawtonwas an ancient demesne of the crown; its manorial lands were in the hands of the king. Its manors might have been held by people close to the monarch, either as family members, or closely associated with the court. There are at least couple of families whose associations with the parish are verified in its manorial histories and whose close and complicated interweavings leave a host of tantalising questions. Their various intrigues centred in or around the edges of the parish weave in and out of the labyrinth of Devon’s female writers, occasional hinting at a smidgen of other lost female centred literary links. Not of course that one is going to stumble on a long lost woman writer. It is too long ago and archives have already provided names and texts for known woman writers of the C12/13 - such as, for instance, the mysterious Marie de Meulan or Marie of France (who may herself have had links with the southwest of England). It is a question of raising the possibility that certain identifiable women from this long ago time may have been well-educated and as such, been potential candidates for having taken an interest in literature, perhaps as readers, or patrons. It was common for noble women of the time to be cultured and to have literary inclinations.
            For instance, given her close associations with people of high status, Joan/Jeanne de Bath or Valletort, who was reportedly wife of Ralph, or Reginald Valletort, then of Alexander Okeston and the probable long-time concubine of Richard Earl of Cornwall (son of King John and brother of Henry III) and mother of several children by him, probably had literary skills. 
            Richard of Cornwall is said to have interceded on behalf of Joan’s brother, the learned knight Henry de Bath, who became Chief Justice of England during the mid C13. The siblings were said to be children of Walter de Bath. When Henry, a judge during the reign of Henry III, fell into disgrace with the king, he was eventually restored following the Duke’s intercession.
            Interestingly, in the context of Devon woman writers, the C19 Tavistock author Anna Eliza Bray placed Henry de Bath and his plight into the heart of one of her short stories. You can read the story, Fontina, or The Pixies' Bath, taken from A Peep at thePixies. Although it is a fairy/pixie tale apparently based on folk-lore and legend, at the story’s core is a background of considerable historical research. Bray must have read round her subject thoroughly; her texts can prove quite valuable for a modern researcher. On the other hand, her facts do need checking. The background of the life that she has provided for her ‘hero’ Henry de Bath may or may not be authentic.  
            As far as I'm aware there is no evidence to back my theory about his (alleged) sister Joan as a literary woman (and there is as yet no verification that she was definitely daughter of Walter de Bathe from North Tawton, although there is general agreement that seems to make this likely), but, given the ins and outs of her family and social associations, we can assume this enigmatic lady to have been highly cultured. It seems feasible that like her brother Joan would have been educated to a high level. The de Bath/Bathe/Bathonia men feature in Devon and the nation’s canonical history books. For over many generations  they established reputations as intellectuals, judges, barristers, learned knights and antiquarians.
            Richard Duke of Cornwall was himself a man of intellect and was widely read. What may be especially intriguing with regard to Joan de Bath/Valletort, is the context of the literary associated background apropos his creation of Tintagel Castle down in Cornwall. Here is an account provided by English Heritage:

What attracted the earl to Tintagel was something else, something literary: a reference in a text written in the previous century, the History of the Kings of Britain, by the cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth. Tintagel plays a central role in Geoffrey’s racy story of how an ancient king of Britain, Uther Pendragon, is driven mad with lust for Ygerna, the wife of one of his barons, Gorlois of Cornwall. Gorlois prudently removes his wife to an impregnable stronghold on the coast, the castle of Tintagel, but then rather less prudently withdraws to another fortress nearby. The pursuing Uther and his men inspect Ygerna’s refuge and realise that no ordinary attack can succeed: The castle is built high above the sea, which surrounds it on all sides, and there is no way in except that offered by a narrow isthmus of rock. Three armed soldiers could hold it against you, even if you stood there with the whole kingdom of Britain at your side. At this point in the story, the ‘prophet’ Merlin proposes a supernatural remedy: by means of a magic potion, he transforms Uther into the exact likeness of Ygerna’s absent husband. The ruse is entirely successful. The guards of Tintagel allow him into the castle, and Ygerna takes him into her bed: That night she conceived Arthur, the most famous of men, who subsequently won great renown by his outstanding bravery. If these were not literary credentials enough, Tintagel also features in a second legend, which confusingly later became part of the Arthurian cycle, but almost certainly had completely separate origins. This was the story of the adulterous love of Tristan and Isolt, the wife of King Mark of Cornwall, Tristan’s uncle. Much more of the action in this late 12th-century story takes place at Tintagel, presented as the stronghold of King Mark. Earl Richard was a cultured and literary man who would have known these legends extremely well. The overwhelming likelihood is that he built the castle at Tintagel to recreate the scene from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s story and, in so doing, write himself into the mythology of King Arthur. English Heritage

            I can’t help but imagine that, in his creation of Tintagel perhaps Richard, known as notorious womaniser, was influenced by his apparently long-standing liaison with Joan de Bath/Valletort. As far as I am aware, she is the only one of his woman concubines whose legacy has lasted as her name is documented and also she is the only one whose children by Richard are also named and recognised.
            But not only was Richard a man of learning, so were the women who surrounded him. Both of his first and second wives are linked with literary pursuits. Isabel Marshall, Richard’s first wife, Countess of Cornwall, and widow of Gilbert de Clare, plunges us right into the centre of the medieval female literary milieu Isobel Marshall's family were focus of literary connections and patronage centering round the well-known C13 chronicler Matthew Paris, who ran a kind of C12 circulating library amongst his aristocratic friends. These included Isobel's nieces, Countesses of Winchester and Arundell, who were daughters of her sisters Sibyl and Maud. Isobel may herself have been a recipient of books and manuscripts disseminated by Paris. The chronicler requests: 

Please send to the Lady Countess of Arundell, Isabel, that she is to send you the book about St Thomas the Martyr and St Edward which I translated and illustrated and which the lady Countess of Cornwall may keep until Whitsuntide.
            Isabel was mother in law of Maud deLacy who founded Canonsleigh, (which I’ve written about elsewhere), so there are familial links with the county of  Devon.
            Isabel Marshall's successor, Richard Earl of Cornwall's second wife, Sanchia of Provence, sister of the culturally famed Eleanor, also seems to have received literary favours and 'borrowed' books from Matthew Paris. Her son by Richard, Edmund of Cornwall, married Margaret de Clare, who was the daughter of Maud de Lacy.

         But, to return to Devon and North Tawton and the elusive Joan, Richard of Cornwall's alleged mistress. As so often happens, tracing the identity of a woman, even one of high birth, from these far off times, is a project fraught with complications. Not to be entered into lightly I have found, if you don’t want to end up tearing out your hair! Although various sources refer to Joan as Richard's long-time mistress, there is by no definitive consensus about her identity. And there is still uncertainty about her family origins. Rather than marrying into the Valletort family, Joan de Bathe may have been born one of them. Or, indeed, she could have been born de Bathe and married a Valletort. Both of these are given as possible identities of the woman. Different pedigrees provide alternative family trees. And not only is their uncertainity as to Joan's authentic family origins, historians give us conflicted accounts about the timeline of Richard's and Joan's liaison.
      For instance we are told in The House of Cornwall that

by Joan, daughter of Sir Reginald de Valletort, he [Richard of Cornwall] had an illegitimate family, consisting of at least two sons,* Richard and Sir Walter, with apparently Sir Lawrence, and as is affirmed two daughters, Isabella and Joan. The date of this prolonged liaison cannot be determined. It was probably early in his career, but the evidence adduced by authorities is slender, and their statements contradictory. It seems, for example, uncertain as to whether Joan de Valletort was widow of Sir Alexander, or Sir Andrew, Okeston when she is said to have been mistress of Earl Richard, or whether after the Earl tired of her, she married Sir Alexander, to whom she bore a son and successor.

            It is beyond the scope of this blog piece to trace and argue the various possibilities of Joan’s birth family. I doubt anyone will ever be certain of Joan's parentage. Nor am I in any position to have an opinion as to which may be correct, but I am sure that if she was daughter of either of the families Valletort or de Bathe Joan was in some way closely linked with North Tawton. Both de Bathes and Valletorts had established home bases in the parish during the period of C13. And  serendipitously, taking us back full circle to the two women writers mentioned in this piece (Sylvia Plath and Jean Shields), the two sites were later to be each of their respective homes.

            The site at de Bathe (with its famous and mysterious pool) was the home of Dr Shields. Traditionally, it is said to have once been the  'Great' estate of the de Bath family and is located on the periphery of the once Roman site, just south of  the town of North Tawton. Many sources claim that from a long line of Devon's male de Bath worthies, Walter de Bathe, Sheriff of Devon held the de Bathe estate at North Tawton (as well as that of nearby Colebrooke, Sheepwash and Topsham). It seems generally agreed that the North Tawton site had long been the family's chief residence (for instance, one of the Devon historians remarked that their residence there 'ran so very far back that he could not trace out and overtake the original thereof'. Quoted in The Gentlemen's Magazine).    
            We are told by historian Risdon that the mound, which still survives in the grounds of Court Green (now famous as the iconic home of Plath and Hughes), was once the mid Devon manor house of the Valletorts, the moat being still visible in the early 17th century. 
           Although Ralph (or Reginald) de Valletort, Joan de Bathe's (probable) first husband, does not seem to have been affiliated directly with North Tawton, it is hard to resist the picture of Ralph/Reginald meeting his young wife Joan (who may have lived along the tracks at de Bathe) at the home of his Uncle Joel (Valletort) just past the parish church. Many of Joel's predecessors had prestigious ancestry, as did those of his wife Emma Botreaux, daughter of Isabella de SayLady of Clun, in Shropshire, a well known Anglo Norman heiress, and benefactor of monks, whose third marriage was to William Botreaux of Boscastle in Cornwall, Emma's father.
            Joan de Bathe's liaison with the king’s son apparently resulted in several illegitimate births. Although there are disagreements amongst academics concerning the identities of these offspring, it is generally agreed that the couple's daughter, also Joan deCornwall, Heiress of Modbury  (1258-1319), who was apparently brought up by her step father Alexander Okeston, married Richard Champernoun I of Modbury. As with so many of the families of this period the genealogical threads of the Valletorts are extraordinarily complicted. Anyone reading this who disagrees with my conclusions re lineages etc is welcome to challenge them! One of the many sources that has aided me is Tudor Place , which supplies the following:

Unlike the Modbury and Ilfracombe branches of the family, the Champernownes of North Tawton are a bit more difficult to place. Vivian(p. 160) calls Oliver the son of John Champernowne and grandson of Sir William Champernowne of Ilfracombe, who died in 1305. However, insofar as Sir William's son John was a cleric, it does not seem likely that he was Oliver's father. The 1422/3 IPM of Oliver's grandson, Otho Champernoun, is quite extensive, and being childless, and an only child himself, names a number of relatives as his heirs. Included among several aunts he names a cousin, Alexander, son of Richard Champernowne. It should be remembered that by this time the Champernownes of Ilfracombe had died out long before in their male issue and only the Modbury family was still flourishing. Oliver could be a younger brother of Sir Richard Champernowne of Modbury. He was already an adult by 1332 and was married to Eglina Valletort, a daughter and co-heiress of Hugh de Valletort of North Tawton. Her sister, Elizabeth, was the wife of Sir Richard Champernowne of Modbury. Whereas Richardwas not a name that appeared in the Ilfracombe family, it certainly does so in each generation of the Modbury line. As the brother and brother-in-law of a Richard Champernowne, Oliveralso named one of his sons Richard. The 1332 Devonshire Lay Subsidy assigns only property in North Tawton to Oliver Champernowne and this came to him through his marriage, thus there appears to be way to connect him to property he may have received from his father. Eglina Valletort survived her husband, as Sir Richard Stapleton held the advowson of the church of North Tawton of Eglina Champernon in Edward III's time (Pole's Devon:427). She was still living in 1346 (Feudal Aids, 1, p. 422).
          It seems possible that Joan de Cornwall had two sons, who both married two Valletort sisters back in North Tawton: Richard Champernowne II married Elizabeth de Valletort whilst his brother Oliver Champernowne married the intriguingly named Eglina (or Eulalia). The sisters were daughters of Hugh de Valletort, direct descendant of Joel Valletort, and his wife Lucia de Brett. Egelina evidently survived her husband and was still living in 1346, during Edward III’s time.  Joan Champernowne who was one of the Oliver and Eglina’s daughters (perhaps named after her great aunt) married Richard Atwood of nearbyAshridge, and thus united these two families within the locations of their home sites.
            So… even if Joan de Bath/Valletort (daughter of North Tawton) moved away from the mid Devon parish when she was married, through her daughter Joan she returned her descendants to settle, at least for a while, in her own place of birth.
            Although it is not possible to surmise anything more about her taking into account the literary activities swirling around others of her female networks, Joan's de Bathe's own position in the midst of a learned medieval circle of aristocrats seems likely. She remains a tantalising enigma and also reminds me that the avid researcher out there who's looking for female contributions to the literature and culture of the past should listen more keenly to the silences in the archival repositories. Maybe the inexorable facts are lost for ever, but instead, it is possible, and valid to have a hunch and 'hear her', try to fill out some of the yawning gaps that confront us when we consider our lost heritage of literary pursuits involving women. North Tawton and its local environs may not only be honoured to be the home of an outstanding C20 poet, but also, long ago, may have nourished a few shadowy figures from the past who in their real-lives were once important women of literary influence.

Ma(r)king the Way to Martinhoe

Old Schoolhouse Martinhoe

Writing Women on the Devon Land

A-Z of Devon Women Writers & Places

Marking the Way to Martinhoe

Old Schoolhouse Martinhoe

         The little parish of Martinhoe in north Devon has to represent the 'M' in this A-Z of Devon Women Writers & Places.
I began the journey toward writing a book about women many years ago, long before I researched then embarked on the written study of particular women writers. During the late eighties and early nineties, whilst researching and writing up my PhD, I ventured up to the remoter landscape north of the county to find where author/poet H.D.’s once stayed, in north Devon. She was there For several months in 196, during World War One she lived at Martinhoe then along the road at ParracombeJust as many other women writers associated with the South West, H.D. had significant connections with at least two of its counties, in her case it was with three (Devon, Cornwall and Dorset). 

      What fascinates me about writers whose lives and texts cross county boundaries is the way their experience feeds into a kind of communication with the land space on which they writers lived and wrote, the way it affected their individual and combined selves and the ways in which their textual, literary roots also branch out and extend far beyond the surface, creating and recreating an endless kaleidoscope of inter/intra personal intertextuality.

       Born in the U.S., H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), but much of her life and writing was influenced by our South Western shores and coasts. Without her presence I would not be here writing at all.  

Woodland Cottage Parracombe

I've already written about H.D.'s stay in Devon during 1916 in an earlier blog Scrapblog of the South-West and also in companion pieces on the same blog. and again here. There is also an essay I wrote about H.D. in Devon on the H.D. Web. I have no intention of repeating the same material in this piece. It is more of a marker, a page to mark H.D's importance in my whole project.

       However I will pop in some extracts from a chronology, which details some of the events of the writer's Devon stay. If you want to read more it is taken from Louis Silverstein's H.D. Chronology Part Two 1915-March 1919:
1916 February 22. HD. at The Schoolhouse, Martinhoe, Parracombe, North Devon

writes to Amy Lowell, her book [SEA GARDEN] has been accepted by Constable but will not come out in three months as she had hoped because of paper shortage; tells Lowell that she IS m Devon; discusses poems [Fnedman notes: not seen by LHS (H D. to Amy Lowell, [unpuL letter],

1916 February 24. HD. writes to George Plank; gives new address on envelope: "New address / c/o Mrs Dellbridge / Martinhoe / Parracombe / N. Devon"; says "some of us, no doubt all will turn up Isola Bella on Friday"; sets tune for 7:30; continues "we must be back early as we take mornmg tram' We are movmg our furniture to 44 Mecklenburg Square Fnday PM. Indicates that dinner will include herself, Aldington and John Cournos and perhaps F.S. Flint as they had asked 111m to dme With them that evenmg--they had planned a tea on Monday [for Plank and the wnutalls?] but it has all gone mentions confusion [LHS note: from this letter It seems as If the decrston to move to 44 Mecklenburg Square was a hurrted one]; mststs that dinner must be Dutch—says " we can't ask Flint otherwise & we can't impose on you forever and ever" (HD. to GP, [unpubl. letter]).
1916 March 6. HD. at Woodland Cottage. Martmhoe. Parracombe. North Devon writes to Harriet Monroe (Zllboorg notes).
1916 March 22 (?). HD. in Devonshire: writes to F.S. Flint: describes wanting actX1ttes and domestic life: says they are on their own trout stream (called the Heddon): the place is charming but there is only enough room for them and John Cournos (If he comes): speculates that Pound had expected to get Aldmgton's post on THE EGOIST had writtten a "charmmg Macheavelhan [SIC] note" to them which they had not answered: refers to widening gulf with Amy Lowell (HD. to F.S. Flmt.

1916 March 27. HD. at Woodland Cottage, Martinhoe. Parracombe. North Devon: Richard Aldmgton writes to F S. Flint and comments on her erotic attraction and his desire to sleep with her (Zilboorg introd. [draft)). Richard Aldington writes to Amy Lowell giving above address (Zilboorg notes: Houghton)

      And here is a few extracts taken from a piece written about the journey I took with a friend some years ago down to the far west of  Cornwall, on a follow-up quest to Martinhoe, to find the location of the poet's stay there, a couple of years after her trip to Devon ...

    .... This has to be near Lyonesse’, I remind myself, echoing H.D.’s own description some (clock-time) 70 years ago. Sun-slant time is low behind this haze of mist, which envelops us, just as it does twenty clock years later, up on the wild north Devon coast reaches, when I am try to locate H.D.’s temporary home, near Martinhoe. 

       Today we’ve been driving along the snake-like, zigzagging B3306, between Zennor and Cape Cornwall. My friend finds this place creepy and would, I suspect, be content to turn around and make tracks homewards. I decide not to tell her about Alistair Crowley, about witches and other slightly sinister past inhabitants and goings-on in the area. All she knows, after I told her during the journey down from Devon, is that for a while during, World War One, D.H Lawrence lived not far away from here, up at Zennor, and that in 1918, H.D., the poet, (who was a friend of Lawrence) also spent some time (clock) somewhere round here; that she came away from the war turbulence of London to ‘accompany’ the composer Cecil Gray at the house he had rented (with Lawrence’s guidance) near, or at Bosigran; that she first met her lifelong lover/companion Bryher here, when H.D. invited her for tea; that she became pregnant here; that the pregnancy had had a negative impact on her already threatened marriage to Richard Aldington; that whilst here she worked on several significant texts, including the roman-a-clef Bid Me To Live; A Madrigal.[1]

        My friend knows that, for both personal and academic reasons I wish to find the place where H.D. stayed. I want to feel the impact of this moor and sea-scape that forms the west Penwith peninsula, to let it inhabit me, as it had then possessed H.D. 

         I feel a stranger, an impostor. Traditionally, Cornwall, not Devon, is known as the Celtic land. And yet, the spiritual atmospherics of this part of Cornwall correspond with and complement that elemental landscape in north Devon, further east along the coast, which is also associated with writer H.D. For me, this landscape also resonates with that of  Devon’s central mid-Devon region set between the two moorland plateaux, with its subliminal sacred-roots. I can imagine how extended and underground labyrinthine root systems which some call ley-lines, might travel through and along the line of the counties, beneath the palimpsest layers of their mutual prehistory, under the ancient field systems, the archaeological strata, the high moorlands. I understand my home county as a distinct entity, but also view it as part of a more extensive tract of land, which is defined by its common geological, historical, anthropological and social histories.

        I shall absorb the mystic, mysterious aura of the peninsula's territory so as to bind me back into the atmosphere of her book, which, in turn will open perceptions toward re-membering the writer's time/thyme here, in 1918. For, it was H.D.’s affinity with this west Cornwall landscape that prompted my own preoccupation with landscape and text. After serendipitously coming across her writings one day, I began to understand the magical sacred appeal of my child-landscape with fresh eyes and to see why the location of my roots had such an emotional pull. In turn, that enabled me to explore the implications, both for self-identity and for my own writing. 

      That’s why I’m here; I want to breathe in this Penwith air, absorb the intoxicating essence blend of place and poem, the mix of panorama and prose; read the elaborate script set in the exquisite scene:

      ‘The jagged line of cliff, the minute indentations, the blue water that moved far below, soundless from the height, were part of her.[2}

       ....We stop in this car-space beside the old mine-shaft by the road, and after a sip of coffee begin to make our way along the tinners' tracks, which define this strip of coast land reaching out onto the cliffs. Walking along the edge of exhilarating South Western coasts, we should soon be able to see beyond these cliff-paths. But, though seemingly guided by unseen presences, we can not see far A fog-horn's booming in the seaward direction and disembodied voices whisper to us, stealthily as the mist. We do not know the language, yet can follow the trail of hieroglyphs seaward/sea/w/ree/a/ds.

Though mystified, we know which track-fork to take when it splits, as it seems to, every few yards. Hiss-hiss. Here-here. Hiss-hiss. Mist here must represent the spirit/s of the place, I think. And, we have been travelling along the snake-road, genius-loci of Cornwall’s most sacred space. I do not feel threatened by stories of this area as an oppressive ‘spiritual black country’. On the contrary, the mist wraps itself comfortably around us and as we saunter across the grassy sward tracks, begins to trail into ribbons and then to lift, to disperse, so that by the time we reach what is left of the fortifications of Bosigran Castle, the sun is hovering over the Atlantic spread below us. Other than the springy, tangy and lightly scrubby heath at our feet, which is stippled with tiny violets, we are cocooned in a blue shroud. A heaven of Cornish seas; the bliss of springtime South Western skies.

My friend, sun-worshipper, wants immediately to bathe in one of the ‘room’ enclosures that are formed between the castle’s esoteric relics. I wonder if H.D. had occasion to do the same, to remove her garments and lie out in the sun when she visited the ruins. But then, I also wonder if, when she was here, the stone walls of this place were, at least to some degree, still intact. A lot can change in clock-time over seventy years. In its hey-day Bosigran must have been a massive and magnificent castle; it ran across the neck of the headland and may have been a ceremonial site. I remind myself to look out my copy of Bid Me to Live when I get home, so that I can re-visit the place as though from H.D.’s eyes, follow the footsteps of the poet as she trailed around the paths of this coastline.

It is whilst we are doing a recce of the castle that we hear the knockings. They are loud and are echoing over from the next hill of this broken line of headlands that culminates at Cape Cornwall. Instantly, I remember that Cecil Gray – and possibly H.D. herself - spoke of experiencing these phenomena and that the knockings were rumoured to be the ghostly after-echoes of tin miners quarrying in the locality. My friend shrugs, grimaces. I do not know what to think. Although this region is known for its mystical goings-on, both historically, and now, I am not really a believer in ghosts; just interested in the enigmatic possibilities of mysterious cryptic occurrences, which could as easily be interpreted in psychological as in psychic terms. But those knockings are for real; we both hear them. I allow them to melt and merge as soundscape to accompany the inner map of H.D. in Cornwall beginning to form in my mind.

Next question is, where did she stay? Where was this large house that was called ‘Bosigran Castle’ or, in H.D.’s novel BidMe to Live, ‘Rosigran’? Was it purposely named after this ancient ruined castle?[3] We venture down other tracks looking to find the site where a once ‘sizeable’ cottage may have been, may still be. But there are no buildings here and no evidence of any. We realise that we may not be at the exact location, that the site may be a little to the north east and that the house's name may have confused us. Did H.D.'s then lover Cecil Gray and his companions want their friends to think they were living in the castle? It’s also possible that the house may have gone, some years ago.

Today we have no more time to explore. We will return. H.D’s words buzz  around my head:
            I suppose we will come back ... I will never see you again ... I will go on scribbling.’[4]
I shall return to H.D’s South Western sea lands; even if I have to cover, or cross, the same ground.
It seems as though yesterday, though in clock-time is a long time.
In clock-time it’s a long-time; it still seems as though yesterday

There is also a sequence of my poems written in commemoration of H.D.'s time in Devon published in Shearsman Magazine 111/112: see a few extracts below.

Shearsman 111/112

at last we are here, 
at the sea-shrine, 
though few seem to venture to this abandoned plot, 
where at the time of the latest tide 
             a twist of drift left 
behind figures 
           for us, 
the gravitational curve, 
a centenary   - the sea's-time.

 'you are useless, O grave, O beautiful' (H.D. 'The Shrine') 

At the Fort; The Beacon, Martinhoe
We arrive from the old Roman carriageway
above the sea, next the sky, 

                                    way below 
in coastal chasms, white against white 
gannets and gulls 
                   breaking surf -
        at home 
our multimedia screens still on 
flashing in-perpetuum into our comfort-zone rooms,
every opportunity, we whip out phones from pockets or bags, 
photos flash,
burst from our finger-tips - 
we remain alive with interactive possibility, 
yet find it impossible to conjure a picture from the swiftly lit 
spark of a stated fact. 

Here    only flashes, a series of dots and dashes 
cracking along faults of the rocky screes on this north Devon coast
from long-ago beacon fires
intended for those, rudderless, 
tossed in the turbulent sea, 
                    in the Channel, 
watching for life or death landings.

'I have stood on your portal/and I know-/you are further than this, still further on another cliff' 
(H.D. 'Cliff-Temple') 

1. In which the name of the heroine, Julia Ashton, an avatar of H.D. herself, always seemed to me to be a close sound-echo of my own name. H.D’s writing sound-effect, or phonotext, is always significant, so this closeness had hooked me into the book.
2. From H.D., Bid Me to Live; A Madrigal.
3. Returning from her solitary walk along the cliff tracks, H.D./Julia in Bid Me To Live, briefly describes the house as it ‘loomed suddenly like a greyship, rising from the sea’ and someone noted it was a ‘big lonely house on the edge on the wildest part of the coast ... with seven rooms and a great view out towards the Scilly Islands out the front’ and that it was ‘near Gurnard’s Head’ (Mark Kinkead-Weekes, D.H. Lawrence Triumph to Exile, vol. 2, 1912-22; The Cambridge Biography of D.H.Lawrence (Cambridge University Press, 2011). Interestingly, H.D. did not refer to the castle itself in her book, which seems strange, given its size and historical importance.
4. Bid Me to Live. I have been down to Penwith several times since, including once with participants of the ‘H.D reading party’, in the early 1990’s, when a group of us manoeuvred the lanes and byways from Trevone Bay toward Cape Cornwall. Again, not one of us could work out where the house in which H.D. lived for several months was sited. I remember some heated discussion; but eventually we gave up our search in return for the delights of a local Cornish cream tea.
5. H.D.

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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.