Saturday, October 10, 2009

Writers on and under the Cliff Edge

The length of wild coastline between Ilfracombe in north Devon and Porlock, just over the border in Somerset, has attracted a bevy of women writers to seek its ragged contours. Not much surprise that writers would be drawn to the far reaches of the county as moths to a motivational light. The seascape presents awe inspiring, gut wrenching scenic dramas, whilst harbouring delicious sheltered coves and wooded valleys which sprawl with mazes of labyrinthine paths. On my recent pilgrimage to the area, following in the 1916 footsteps of  H.D., I soon found myself collecting information about, and darting off on side-tracks to search out the once-whereabouts of other writers.
In 1856, Ferny Combes: a ramble after ferns in the glens and valleys of Devonshire was published by the then Ilfracombe's vicar's wife Charlotte Chanter, who was sister of the famous Charles Kingsley. Chanter also wrote other books including the novel Over the Cliffs, but it was her book about travelling in search of ferns that established her name and reputation. Her story is fascinating because of the way it loops into the wider narrative concerning the town as an emerging centre of marine and natural history exploration. At this Devon life webpage you can find a little about this and an exhibition linked with it.
     What interests me here are Chanter's detailed accounts of the north Devonian seascape, as she and her companions follow it west from the Exmoor borders. Chapter  4 begins:
The coast of North Devon, from Lynton to Morwinstowe (the first parish in Cornwall), is about seventy miles long; and perhaps in no part of England, of like extent, - will you find so many romantic scenes, or such treasures for the artist and botanist.
It is the valley's untamed opulence that compels her to equally lavish description:
... at Heddon's Mouth, where great masses of stone shut in the land, shut out the sea, leaving only room for the rushing stream and narrow path to pass through.
  The valley is wild in the extreme. The mixture of grey rocks, fine trees, turf, moist meadows where the grass grows tall and green, and the rocky murmuring stream, overhung by trees and fringed by luxuriant ferns dipping into the water, is a sight not lightly to be passed by or easily to be forgotten.

       I had reason to find the beaten paths to Heddon's Mouth in my quest after H.D. and Chanter's description would be as pertinent today as then. To all outer appearances there is not too much that is different from her mid C19 evocations of the scenery - except of course for the number of people. Easy to elude others on the serpentine paths, but not at the cove itself; seclusion and solitude in the remote landscape are delights of the past. In early 1916, sixty years after Chanter's travels and book, when H.D., her  then husband Richard Aldington and various of their friends tramped daily to Heddon's Mouth, they were able not only to blissfully forget for a few weeks the city ravages of the first world war they had left behind in London, but also, to wallow hedonistically in the pleasures of bathing, scampering on the rocks and making teas (H.D.: letter).
  There will be more apropos H.D. and Martinhoe to come in  the second part of this entry.
   Chanter did not seem keen on Combe Martin, though the coast to its east bewitched her with the "bay studded with faery islands and indented by faery inlets". She revelled in the sea scenes to its west:
Descending into the valley, across fields and through narrow water-lanes, we pass through part of the straggling dirty street of Combmarten, which looks best at a distance; and ascending a precipitous hill leave the road, turning to the right into a footpath that meanders along the cliff. Here there is many an enchanting view. At length we reach Watermouth, standing at the end of a lovely valley which runs up by Berrynarbor, the tower of the church rising above the trees to our left. Close by are mysterious caves and arches, through which exquisite peeps are to be gained looking back towards Combmarten and the Hangman.
She comments on the coastscape between Ilfracombe and Mortehoe. "But let us away to more lonely scenes over the Tors, from whence the sea looks like some vast continental plain, and the ships like towns dotted here and there over its surface ; across the lovely valley of Lee, along by pebbly Eockham, rich in many coloured stones, till we come to the Morte, or " Stone of Death," whose jagged sharks' teeth peep from the foaming sea ready to fasten on any luckless vessel that may venture within the magic circle".

Lee near Mortehoe

 Charlotte Chanter is buried  in the cemetery at Holy Trinity Church Ilfracombe, under a yew, just to the left of the main door. You might just read the name Charlotte Kingsley here.



Marie Corelli must have seen something else in Combe Martin for she stayed there several times and in 1896 (forty years after Chanter's book and twenty years before H.D.'s visit) wrote her most famous and infamous novel about the place and based her characters on people there. You can read about The Mighty Atom and its links with the town  in Writers, Readers and Reputations. The Pack of Cards is still a pub folly  
and you can get good food there. However, the so-called Marie Corelli room is now the Manager's office and there is no invitation to view or mention of  the desk referred to on the Exmoor National Park siteCombe Martin Church, because for at least a generation it became the site of pilgrimage for avid Corelli readers, who were in search of the location of the real-life character of 'Reuben Dale'.

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