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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Where Waters Meet

With two rushing rivers – Hoar Oak Water and the East Lyn River – merging in a series of spectacular cascades and rapids it is hardly surprising that Watersmeet is one of Exmoor’s most popular visitor’s attractions.  Its deep, wooded valley is doubly protected for not only does it lie within the heart of the National Park 340 acres were gifted to the National Trust.   Watersmeet House, now a café but originally built as a romantic fishing lodge, and with car parking nearby makes a good place to begin and end a walk.

There are numerous paths that can be taken from here and most link up to create walks of varying lengths.  They hug the valley bottom or rise steeply to the tops of the surrounding hills so it is possible for almost anyone, regardless of their ability to have an enjoyable outing.  It should be remembered that even in dry weather the paths can be quite rugged so good, solid footwear is always recommended.  A stout stick or walking poles won’t go amiss, especially if you choose the hillier paths.
 Apart from the noise and excitement of the rivers, the other awe-inspiring feature of Watersmeet is its woodland which clings to the steep, three hundred foot sides of the valley.  These are some of the best examples of ‘hanging’ woods in the country and are relics of the ancient woodland that once covered lowland Britain.  Mostly the trees are sessile oak although there are some fine specimens of beech in the better soil of the valley bottom.  There are also a number of Whitebeam species that can only be found here or in neighbouring woodlands making them of national importance.
As soon as you start walking, any crowds are soon left behind and you have the splendour of the place to yourself.  Following the East Lyn River upstream the remains of a nineteenth century lime kiln can be explored.  Lime was brought by sea from Wales to be burned before spreading onto the fields to counteract the land’s extreme acidity.  Fuel for the kilns was provided by the woodland which was coppiced and some of this timber was also sent back to Wales to be used in the iron foundries.
 Wildlife abounds; there are dippers and herons by the water’s edge, and red deer, badgers and otters can all be seen by the fortunate few.  On quieter stretches of the river the calls of raven and buzzard can be heard overhead.
After an hour or so, the tiny hamlet of Rockford appears, consisting of just a few cottages and an inn – another great excuse for a stop.  From here you can trace your route back to Watersmeet or continue along the river to the village of Brendon to make a longer, circular walk.
Watersmeet is open to the public all year round and every season has its special moments.  In the spring, the valley is lush and green; in summer the sunlight filters through the canopy to play on the water’s surface; in autumn there are the changing colours and in winter, the extraordinary beauty of the gnarled trees adorned with grey lichens come to the fore.  It needs to be visited more than just once!
 

For more information take a look at these websites:
National Trust
The Rockford Inn
Exmoor National Park

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The Constant Drip

When I was a small child I was traumatised by the sound of water, even a dripping tap would trigger nightmares of drowning.  This was not because my life had ever been at risk, although it could be argued that my afterlife was: it was down to baptism by total immersion.  My soul might have been saved by water but it was years before water became something that I would delight in, rather a problem for a lad that was brought up on the banks of the Thames, that great English river that flows sluggishly from its source to London and the North Sea beyond, a distance of 215 miles.

                                        
                                                   The River Thames at Marlow

It was not until, as a young teenager visiting the West Country, I came across clear, rocky bottomed streams that were so unlike the silty bottomed, muddy waters of the Thames and the smaller brooks back home.  At first the sight and the sound of their fast flow rather unnerved me but there was a swift and dramatic change once I discovered the joys of splashing about, ‘tickling’ for trout and generally getting soaked. Not only could I not get enough of them, I ended up living beside one here in the secret valley.  Our river, to be truthful, is a compromise: it likes to believe it is of world class comparable with the Amazon or the Zambezi as it winds through the landscape in great (or in reality, miniature) curves and sweeps.  Sometimes it is slow moving half hidden by lush foliage that spills over its banks but in other places it is as fast running and noisy as a Devon stream as it gurgle and clinks its way over rock and pebble.
Our little river in the secret valley

                                        

    In winter, our river doesn’t look quite so inviting!

Recently I was staying high in the mountains of Snowdonia.  The house that we were in had to its right, a larger river crashing noisily downwards and, to its left, a much smaller gully with an equally fast flow.  ‘Our’ house, which inreality belongs to a friend, is not exactly standing on an island; more it is the solid filling of a watery sandwich. The main river, the term is used loosely for it is even more jumpable over than the one back in the secret valley, tumbles down the mountainside in a series of rocky chasms interspersed with quieter small pools.

One of the nicest aspects of returning to a place time after time is that certain things become so familiar, whether it is buildings or the wider scenery does not matter.  This is good for once you stop looking at the overall picture, the detail becomes more noticeable and things that would be overlooked if you only ever visited once begin to stand out.  Here there is little in the way of buildings, apart from the numerous ruins that stand as ghosts to a time when the hills were more densely populated with miners and farm workers.  On my morning walk and musing on how terrified I had once been by the sound of water, I began to notice the change in pitch and volume which alters constantly as you pass by.  Where the water falls several feet, not surprisingly the noise is at its greatest but, even there, it can be a deep sound or a lighter one, depending on the rate of flow and whether it lands on rock, water or pebble.

Then there are the waterslides: these can be steep or barely inclined, narrow or wide, fast or slow flowing.  Whichever they are, for me they are the most visually exciting of all with their water moving effortlessly, literally sliding along the surface and their ‘shushing’ sound building up to a more dramatic crescendo as the rock bed alters in character once more.

       A massive waterslide on Exmoor …..

                                                            ….. and a smaller one in Snowdonia

And then, of course, there is the sound that once traumatised me but that I now find the most fascinating of all, perhaps because they entice you to explore: they draw you further into their world, often a secret one.  The sound of dripping.  Sometimes it is obvious where it is coming from and where it is landing but often it is a sound that demands you to seek it out and then, not infrequently, only one half of the equation can be solved, if you can find the source you cannot find the landing place or vice versa.

Higher up the mountain is an old disused slate mine, long abandoned and with its shaft open for all to explore. Little natural light enters the low tunnel entrance and unable to see far inside there is only the sound of water seeping through the roof landing in the shallow water that collects in the passage below.  Here the sounds are as varied as those of a xylophone, the music made being both enchanting and unnerving; it is both welcoming and threatening at the same time. 

Not a place for the faint-hearted!

I may have got over my old phobia of scary water sounds but, I have to admit there is still one place that makes me shudder.  Just up the track beyond the mine there is a patch of grass and moss that has to be crossed and here, if you pause, you can hear the sound of fast moving water and the crash of a waterfall but there are none in sight.  The sound comes from below ground under your feet – childhood anxieties rise if I loiter here and as I continue my walk I notice, with wry amusement, that it is at an increased pace.

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