6 Mid-Devon; Spirit of Place & Plath & Pedler
& Plath & Pedler
from Writing Women on the Devon Land
Yes, I'm thinking, this part of Devon really is suffused with the spirit of place. To the casual visitor today the small town (often now, mistakenly labelled 'village') of North Tawton may not seem special, or scenic, or historically significant. After all, the town's sole claim to any fame is its fairly recent choice as the set for Clatterford St Mary, in the BBC’s production of Jam and Jerusalem.A little detective work however, will soon bring to light the distinguishing footprints of this parish and its bordering environs. Although it is the neighbouring village of Bow (or Nymet Tracey) which tends to be named as the locus of the region’s link with the sacred precincts of the nemetona groves, it is North Tawton which, with the presence in its earth of the large Roman site, contains the greatest number of historically significant environmental features as located on maps and indicated by relevant sources. Way back as far as Celtic times and even earlier, the area had long established associations with primitive and revered phenomena, whilst geographically North Tawton is the central parish of the whole county, its ‘heartland’. The late local historian William Skinner described how, if you
Place your finger in the centre of a Map of Devonshire [and] you will find that it points to the town of North Tawton. This is almost symbolic because here in the heart of the county, North Tawton is more truly Devon than any of the popular resorts around the coast.[i]
|Footpath just north of North Tawton on road to Bondleigh|
This topographical heartland of Devon’s palimpsest of invisible and lost criss-crossing labyrinthine landscapes and texts happens also to be the focal point of several of Devon’s foremost and famous literary sites. North Tawton is a place of pilgrimage for writers seeking other famed writers, for it is where the literary couple Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath spent the last years of their marriage. (I'm sure I don't need to provide any links here as the web teems with them - but just in case, here's Court Green Wikipedia.) The renowned writing duo lived in the historical heart of North Tawton, at Court Green, just east of the church, which built circa C13, was once an ancient moated manor house belonging to the Valletort family. Behind the house there is a large mound, an ancient earthwork, which is surrounded by a five-foot deep ditch. Scheduled as an ancient monument, little is known of the site’s history, but historians believe it was the location of the Valletort family motte. Plath is said to have told one of her friends that she loved her home, with its Iron-Age hill-fort and often imagined the Romans, who once walked the lanes near de Bathe.
Perhaps the poets picked up on the scattering of place-names – of villages, towns, hamlets, farms - that could almost crop up in a modern fantasy novel, which are set in the landscape swirling around a radius of about twelve miles from the centre of North Tawton. These places seem to encode cryptic meaning, about which we know little more than fifty years ago: Nymet Tracey, Broad Nymet, Nichols Nymet, Nymet Rowland, George Nympton, Bishop’s Nympton, Broadwoodkelly, Great Beere, Little Beere.
Near the site of the Roman road at Itton,
near North Tawton
Hughes and Plath both apprehended transcendental presences in the lanes, woods, fields and the very air of their North Tawton home and were mutually aware of mid-Devon's associations with mythic-spiritual sites; several of the poets’ texts written during these years in the town exemplify this.[ii] The contextual poetic settings in many of Plath’s late poems, written during her last months in North Tawton, frequently glimpse the transcendent. All intuit spectral presences in the outer landscape: ‘the air is a mill of hooks’ ('Mystic'); ‘the far fields melt my heart’ ('Sheep in Fog'); ‘full of wings, otherworldliness’ (Winter Trees) and ‘Fumy, spirituous mists inhabit this place’ (‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’). In his poetry collection Birthday LettersHughes picks up on Plath’s empathy with the Iron-Age site and explains that he brought his wife to the heart of Devon, ‘my dreamland’, which was his ‘land of totems. [His] 'Never-never land’, the town of North Tawton was, for him ‘Lyonesse, [with] inaccessible clouds, submarine trees/the labyrinth/of brambly narrow lanes’.[iii]
It is not a surprise (nor I think would it have been a revelation to Hughes and Plath), if the place is replete with yet unfathomed historical and scared meaning. This part of Devon, with its rolling folds of hills and fields, tucked in just beneath the great mass of the 'Great Source' of Dartmoor, the ancient archetypal moor-wilderness, is full of strangeness and mystery, chock-full of what another Devon historian, described as
... the stone for votive columns, propitiatory altars, and sacred avenues; for huts and houses and barns; for burial chambers; for the walls of man's earliest cornfields and cattle pounds.[iv]Maybe it was synchronistic destiny bringing the celebrated Hughes' couple to mid-Devon, which hooked their lives and writings into the very fabric of the topography of the area. For their presence, literary and real, still looms over the locality.
Plath’s future literary legacy seems secure. A different fate has befallen another woman writer who lived in a village neigbouring North Tawton approximately one hundred years ago and became one of the country’s most popular writers of romance fiction. Margaret Pedler (née Bass), born in Teignmouth, circa 1877, trained as musician at the Academy of Music, then married into the Devon Pedler family and spent much of her married life near Zeal Monachorum and Bow, in the mid-Devon heartlands.
When I was researching for my book, I started to re-read Margaret Pedler's inventive cliff-hangers, a hotchpotch of lost voices echoing in my head. Opening scenes in the novel House of Dreams Come True depicting the heroine's arrival in Devon, limn the early morning’s ‘gracious curves of distant hills’, where mist ‘filled the valleys to a nebulous pearly glimmer’, whilst the ‘foot of the hills seemed laved by some phantom sea of faery’. It's a scene of shadowed, half-revealed landscape, where ‘back of it all, adumbrated in a dim mysterious purple, the great tors of Dartmoor rose sentinel upon the horizon.’ (Chapter IX and X). During an early scene the heroine Jean ‘romanticises about the castle of her youth’, calling it the ‘House of Dreams come True’, conceivably confirming the presence of the real castle-folly in the imagined fiction.
See House of Dreams Come True for more about Margaret Pedler.
[ii] See especially his Birthday Letters (Faber and Faber, 1998), and her poems 'Moon and Yew Tree'. Hughes’ River, the illustrated poetic sequence which followed Remains of Elmet, is probably the most rich, complex and (in Hughes' terms) successful of all his poetic sequences. It embodies the accumulated knowledge and experience of his lifelong poetic/Shamanic quest for interaction with source energies, and the imaginative power of its poetry channels these energies.
[iii] Ted Hughes, 'Error', in Birthday Letters, 122-3.
[iv] Hoskins, W. G. Devon. (London: Collins, 1954), Chapter I. 14-15.