The writing below is from an unpublished book I have written about Devonshire adventures and life in the late 1960’s and how I first came to Exmoor. The Friends of Hoar Oak Cottage are researching and recording the history of this very remote house, stranded on the moor, miles from anywhere. They say that they are ‘honoured’ to have been able to publish my account – the honour is completely mutual!
The website of the Friends of Hoar Oak Cottage is fascinating. It will appeal not just to those that love Exmoor but also anyone with an interest in times gone by and social history. Take a look by clicking the link here: http://www.hoaroakcottage.org/
“In 1968, as a 16 year old lad, John Shortland arrived with a friend on Exmoor on holiday intending to stay at Brendon Barton, farmed by Dick & Lorna French, for just two days. Exmoor took hold and he remained there for several months, in part due to the discovery of Hoar Oak Cottage, two miles distant as the crow flies. John says that the magic of the place remains as strong today as it did all those years ago. John has been a Facebook Friend of Hoar Oak Cottage for some time and The Friends feel honoured that he has shared with us, and with the Voices of the Hoar Oak Valley Project, the following excerpt from his (unpublished) account of that holiday.”
Recently, the Friends asked me to read the passage for them. I am sitting in front of the fire at my favourite Exmoor pub, The Blue Ball Inn at Countisbury. Dating from the thirteenth century, the welcome is as warm as the burning logs!
Discovering Hoar Oak Cottage 1968
We went off on foot across the fields. The transformation as we stepped off the ‘improved’ grazing of the farm onto the coarse, springy and sparse turf of the open moor demonstrated the miracle of the farming process. This moorland turf, specked with the yellow flowers of the rockrose, soon gave way to heather which carried on as far as the eye could see. In full bloom, the landscape looked washed with mauve, a darker purple in the shadows of the coombes. We walked, following the directions that Dick had given us and found ourselves descending steeply into the first of them. A little river, Farley Water, ran swiftly over the stony bottom, then more slowly over the calmer, deeper pools. Wild brown trout shot across to the far bank to hide, disturbed by our shadows on the surface of the water. Hopping from stone to stone, we were across and we wandered along the valley trying to avoid the boggier patches that would take hold of our feet with a sucking noise. We climbed to the next ridge where the heather was much taller and, now out of breath, we intended to take a rest. The ground dropped away again to another valley and the sight of two grassy fields beside the ruins of an old farmhouse on the far side gave us renewed energy. Running over, and sometimes falling into, the heather we reached the river at the bottom. This was more substantial than the first and, taking our boots and socks off; we waded across a ford and followed a long abandoned track to the farm.
Hoar Oak Farm had been deserted for many years, its windows and doors long gone. There were signs that cattle sheltered within and swallows flew back and forth to their nests, built in crevices which once had supported oak beams. The house looked as if it was being steadily reclaimed by nature but the fields remained as silent witness to the generations of hard toil that had transformed the moorland. It was – and still is – a wild and lonely place. Sitting with my back against a pile of the ruined stones, coloured yellow, white and grey by weather, time and lichens, I half closed my eyes trying to imagine what it must have been like to grow up here. The only sounds were of the river below, buzzards mewing overhead and bees foraging for pollen in the heather. The sound of black faced sheep brought me to and I watched a straggle of them following an ancient but invisible path down the steep, far slope to the water’s edge before they jumped agilely over and climbed uphill towards us. This coombe, even more remote and, in some intangible way, prettier than the first seemed the most perfect place to be. I felt as I had finally found home. Forty and more years on, it still has this effect and, even if Hoar Oak never actually was in this lifetime, perhaps it was home in a past one. Nick and I agreed that two days would not be enough time on Exmoor so we decided to stay for a week – we’d just say the rail tickets didn’t arrive in time …
… my friends on Exmoor have now all gone. The younger ones have left to find work and affordable housing elsewhere; the older generations, including Lorna and Dick, have died. But Exmoor remains, remarkably unchanged. And when I return and reach Brendon Two Gates, I stop and look out across the moor towards Hoar Oak and the passion I feel for this extraordinary land, that has played such an important part in shaping my life, never dies.