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 ...

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