The Story of Lorna Doone – just a myth?

 Lorna Doone is the tale of a young boy, John Ridd, whose father is killed by Scottish outlaws – the Doones.   Exiled to a remote part of Exmoor (which is in England’s West Country and now a National Park), they rob travellers and local farms.  Living amongst them is the pretty Lorna Doone, kidnapped by them as an infant.  John enters the forbidden Doone Valley by climbing a steep and difficult waterfall, the ‘waterslide’, and meets Lorna for the first time.  Some years later he rescues her and as they marry Lorna is shot through the window of Oare church by the wicked Carver Doone.  John pursues him and after a struggle Carver perishes in a bog.  Lorna recovers from her wounds and so the story has a happy ending.

Oare Church

But is it true?  The simple answer to the question is that the answer isn’t simple.  When Richard Dodderidge Blackmore wrote his historic novel in the late 1800’s he mixed fact with fiction and local legend with the names of local people.

Blackmore placed the Doone stronghold beside Badgworthy (pronounced ‘Badgery’) Water.  There is a deserted medieval village beside a tributary in Hoccombe Combe and it is very probable that this is the site for the ruins were still visible in Blackmore’s day.  However the Waterslide is not found there but in another side valley, Lank Combe. Nowhere as sheer as described it is, however, an impressive sight with its three smooth slabs of rock especially when the river is in spate.  I like to think that he also had in mind the waterslide at Watersmeet a few miles further downstream which would be much more of a challenging climb.
The waterslide at Watersmeet
 

Because the precise location of the Doone Valley is uncertain it is no longer described as such on maps, the Ordnance Survey now describing the area more accurately as Doone Country.  A rewarding walk can be taken along the whole length of Badgworthy Water starting from Brendon Common by parking the car at Brendon Two Gates.  Here there are wide views of both the open heather moorland and also the grass moor of the Royal Forest ‘improved’ in the nineteenth century.  Badgworthy Water changes in character along its length from fast running rapids to smoother, deeper pools.

Badgworthy Water

The above walk is rugged and long but a more gentle approach is from Malmsmead with its much photographed packhorse bridge and ford that also denotes the county border between Devon and Somerset.

Malmsmead where Badgworthy Water crosses the road
 

Further along the lane nestles the village of Oare and the church where Lorna and John wed.  Inside is a memorial to Blackmore, a smaller copy of the one in Exeter cathedral.  A memorial can also be seen to the Snow family who lived at Oare manor and also feature in Lorna Doone. It is recorded that as Blackmore didn’t write kindly of the Snows he was afterwards much disliked by them.  Other local characters also existed: Tom Faggus, the highwayman was – in real life – from nearby North Molton and Ridd is still a local surname. 

Oare village and church nestle in a deep combe

Is Lorna Doone a story based on truth?  That is for the reader to decide, perhaps after visiting Mother Meldrum’s cave in the Valley of Rocks, for both are mentioned in Blackmore’s book.

The Valley of Rocks

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9 thoughts on “The Story of Lorna Doone – just a myth?

  1. One of those books we all read as a child. Not as popular for me as Wuthering Heights, I much preferred Heathcliffe. So memorable that those book stay in your heart forever, Thanks for the memory
    Janice
    and the lovely pictures too……….

    • You’re right, Janice, some books we never forget the pleasure of reading for the first time. With Lorna Doone, I ended up on Exmoor just a couple of miles from the Doone Valley – completely by chance – at the age of 16 and have been returning several times a year ever since. The more I get to know the area the more I love it and, of course, have developed many good friendships down there over the years.

  2. Pingback: 2014 in Review: July – December | Life in the English Cotswolds

  3. I was interested to read your account local connections to real people in “Lorna Doone.
    In fact my gt gt grandmother, Ann Ridd of Bratton Fleming, b 1821, had a brother called John Ridd, and in my family it was always said that he was the original person upon whom Blackmore based his character, ‘Jan’ Ridd. He was born in 1826 and was the son of a farmer at Bratton Fleming, also called John Ridd, b 1781. John Ridd and Blackmore were supposedly friends at school, though I have never verified whether John Ridd went to Blundells – which was not far from where they lived – but the family were Methodists and Blundells was founded by Samuel Wesley, so it may have been. My gt gt grandfather , John Gould Hayman, who married Ann Ridd, kept many newspaper cuttings about the Doone valley and the later C19th tourism associated with the novel, and my grandmother, who was Ann Ridd’s granddughter, always believed that her great uncle John was the original for the novel.

    Best wishes, Lisa Vine

    • Thank you for your response, Lisa. How fascinating to have that connection – even if it is difficult to prove conclusively. One of the problems is that Ridd is such a local surname that there are rather a lot of them when it comes to genealogical research!

  4. hi i always had interest and heard through family rumor that my family goes back to john ridd. funny enough a family member only tonight spoke to me about it. mainly due to recently loosing my mum. my dad was frederick ridd. his mum a blackmore i believe. i started a family tree. and ridd is such a smith name within devon. i again been led tobelieve story is just story but with in old lost members of family and me a child i often heard there ment to be a link to this story as true. i will keep searching on though proving hard at present as my grand parents seem rather hard to trace through with definate accrucary at present

    • Thanks for getting in touch and sorry to hear about the loss of your mum. Always a hard thing. As I mentioned, the problem is that Blackmore muddled fact and fiction and used one of the most common surnames in that part of Devon to confuse things even more! You might get some assistance with the family history from one of the genealogy sites on Facebook. People always seem rather helpful on the ones I’ve looked at. Good luck and let us know what you find out.

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