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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An Ancient Breed – The Exmoor Pony

Exmoor beckons at this time of year despite the harsh moorland climate. The landscape may be drab – the bracken and heather has lost most of its colour and the predominant colours are greys and fawns with just the occasional rusts and greens. However we were lucky – the sun shone for much of the time giving us additional blues from the sky and also from the sea, for the rolling moorland tumbles steeply into the sea on its northern edge.

The tiny clifftop hamlet of Countisbury – the far distant horizon is the south coast of Wales

The origins of the Exmoor pony date back into pre-history, for they are the oldest surviving breed in Britain and have remained virtually unchanged from the earliest days. They are perfectly adapted to surviving on the moor all year and, as can be seen from the photographs, look fit and well having come through the snow and bitter weather of the coldest winter for very many years. The ponies that live in the Valley of the Rocks (photo below) are used to seeing people for it is a much visited area with easy access despite its rugged terrain. The ponies of the high moor are far more wary.

On a walk across Brendon Common there would appear to be no ponies or wildlife of any kind at all. However, ponies and red deer are common and buzzards and ravens soar and call overhead. Despite appearing to be a rolling plateau, the moor is divided by deep valleys, locally known as coombes. The little stream at its foot is Farley Water, a remote and a beautiful place. If you look carefully at the lower photo you will see the ponies – totally camouflaged. Their coats are the colours of the winter bracken, their mealy coloured muzzles (which is one of the breeds identifying features) the colour of the bleached winter grasses.

There are fewer than 500 Exmoors left and the breed is recognised as being endangered. Many of these are kept as pets and riding ponies in other parts of the country and there are probably no more than 150 of these free roaming ones left on the moor. It took quite a while to approach this group but patience was rewarded by finding the herd at rest with two lying flat out in the first sunshine of the year.

Getting too close for their comfort, they were soon up on their feet and ambling away. In a matter of moments their camouflage made the moorland look empty once again.

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