Conceived on Exmoor?

There used to be a standing joke between my mother and I that I must have been conceived on Exmoor as it has such a magnetic hold on me.  My parents had honeymooned there, staying at Ye Olde Cottage Inne at Barbrook in the mid-1940s – the fact that I was born in the early 50s and had an older sibling we conveniently overlooked.

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Wedding Day

When I first came across Exmoor, in the summer of ‘68, I thought I had stumbled into a paradise, if not unknown to others, certainly unknown to members of my family.   “Stumbled” is an accurate description. My intention had been to cycle further west into Cornwall before returning south to Exeter for the train journey home.  Poor map reading skills took me instead to the North Devon Coast at Westward Ho!.   During my final term at school we had studied the novel Lorna Doone and now seeing Doone Valley, Exmoor marked on the map it seemed logical to visit despite it being way off to the east.

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Badgworthy Water, Doone Valley

Brought up in the Chiltern Hills, I was used to a hidden landscape of narrow lanes, high beech hedges and dense and extensive beech woodlands.  Rarely, was there an unbroken view of far-distant places and, almost as rarely, large expanses of sky and cloud.  Cycling across Exmoor with its open, rolling landscape ablaze with heather and gorse and views across the sea to the Welsh coast was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.  Sometimes the lanes would pass between high banked hedgerows or descend into well-wooded coombes reminding me of home.  I came across a farm where I pitched my tent intending to stay two days before leaving for Exeter.

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A Chiltern lane winds its way through dense woodland

 

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The open views of Exmoor

Helping on the farm, two days turned into weeks and then into months by which time I had moved into the farmhouse and embraced Exmoor life.  I occasionally telephoned my parents, or sent a postcard, always being evasive about where I was staying and only telling them I was working on a farm and being well cared for.  With the benefit of maturity, I sometimes wonder how they coped with their sixteen-year old son, on his first lone holiday, disappearing for so long in an era of no mobile phones or credit cards for them to track my progress.  They only succeeded in finding me after I foolishly reversed the telephone call charge and soon after arrived on the doorstep to drag me away, kicking and screaming.  It was time to get “a proper job” but Exmoor and the farm had completely changed my outlook on life as well as the direction it would ultimately take.  After twenty years of “a proper job” I finally escaped to agricultural college and a life of outdoor work.

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Brendon Barton 1968

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At agricultural college 1994

I had been surprised and a little disappointed when I first discovered my parents also knew Exmoor.  Despite not having been conceived there, my attachment to Exmoor has never waivered and more than fifty years later I regularly return.  Upon entering the moor the same emotion of discovery, as if seeing it for the first time, remains.  Many of the old friends that I made in those early years and their unique way of life that I was privileged to be part of, albeit in a small way, have gone but the landscape remains remarkably unchanged.  The heather and gorse are still a carpet of purple and gold, the sea (at least, on a fine, sunny day) still blue.

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Countisbury Common, where the moor falls into the sea

Very recently, through researching my family history, I have found that an earlier cousin, at a similar age to myself, had also discovered Exmoor.  He too had never settled in school and life on Exmoor changed him.  He also chose to write about his time on the moor, something else we have in common. Although I was surprised to learn of his life and his book, this time I am delighted!

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PostscriptJust a few years before she died at the age of 93, I spent a few days on Exmoor with my mother and took her to revisit the honeymoon hotel.  Long widowed, the day must have been a mix of emotions.

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At Ye Olde Cottage Inne, renamed The Bridge Inn

 

 

 

Seek and Ye Shall Find

Several years ago I wrote of my fruitless search for my great-aunt.  I hadn’t physically lost her for she had died many years earlier – she was just one, albeit an important one, of the conundrums that constantly arise when researching your family history.

Aunt Baba had left a lasting impression on me when I met her for the first and only time; me just entering my teens, she as an elderly lady of ninety.  Although she certainly was elderly (ancient to my young eyes) she still had the quiet energy and sparkle that had endeared her to my father and his siblings as youngsters.  Perhaps because of the happy visits to her that he would tell me of, I too, adored her instantly.

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Aunt Baba, aged 90, c.1965

As youngsters, my father, uncles and aunts, around the time of the Great War,  would travel to Rudgwick, Sussex in what is now the South Downs National Park to stay for short holidays.  There they were allowed to run wild, roam the fields and woodlands and generally be spoilt in a way that would never be allowed by their authoritarian parents.  Brought up as Plymouth Brethren, a strict Christian sect, their usual life was one of bible study, education, chores and prayer meetings.  At aunt Baba’s, although she too was Plymouth Brethren, life was very much more relaxed.  In later years, when I was a child, the Brethren became more rigid and dictatorial about who they could associate with.  My father had rebelled as a young man and as a consequence, contact with us became forbidden.  Family meetings were very few and aunt Baba’s visit was shrouded in secrecy for fear of her being ‘caught’.  Many years later, long after both she and my father had died, I realised I had no idea whether she was a relative or not and my research was drawing a blank. In desperation, I wrote of her  in the hope that someone ‘out there’ might respond.

Frances White - auntie baba watermark

Relaxing in the 1940s?

The blog post (link here) created quite a lot of interest but no hard leads.  It did generate correspondence from the Rudgwick Preservation Society which although useful didn’t produce the breakthrough I hoped for.   Fast forward to a couple of months ago when I discovered a letter from my father’s eldest sister.  In it she told of how, when staying with aunt Baba, she had met her future husband whose parents also lived in the village and were Brethren.  This was the first ‘hard’ fact I had to go on and from there aunt Baba’s story unfolded.

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My aunt as a young woman with aunt Baba, about 1924

Born close to midsummer’s day 1875, aunt Baba, who remained unmarried, by 1916 had become housekeeper to an elderly farmer and his son who lived in the wonderful, ancient house of my father’s memory, Greenhurst.  By the time of the Register that was conducted of all households immediately prior to WW2, it can be seen that by 1939 she had moved to a house in the heart of the village.  Within its grounds stood a Plymouth Brethren Meeting House.  Further correspondence with the Rudgwick Preservation Society has revealed that when the son died, (his father predeceasing him by several years), the house had been left to their loyal and long-serving  housekeeper; a wonderful gesture.  By 1943, old telephone directories show that she had moved once more, this time to a smaller house in the same street.  She was still living there in 1953.  She may have continued to reside there after that date but the trail disappears until the record of her death in 1965 – which means she must have died within months of my meeting her.

postcard of Greenhurst, nr Rudgwick watermark

The house where my father ran wild c.1918

The research has revealed that her name was, as I had thought, Frances White, and that she was a close family friend and not a relative.  I am rather sad that she isn’t blood related for, in theory, she doesn’t belong on my family tree.  I have placed her there for posterity anyway as an honorary member, in the process, no doubt, causing some confusion to future genealogists.

Is there more to find out?  Indeed there is, for how on earth did she end up being called aunt Baba?  That is the part of her history that, I suspect, she has taken to her grave.