Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Following Father’s Footsteps; Freya Stark & Dartmoor

Scenes of Dartmoor
Scenes of Dartmoor

            Over to the far west, beyond the Tamar border, Virginia Woolf’s love affair with the far west of Cornwall was largely prompted by her father’s relationship with the locality around St Ives. The writer inherited his love of walking and of place and in 1905 ‘tramped the Cornish landscape in her Father’s manner’.1
              Woolf was not the only woman writer who spent time in the south-west whose affinity with her father prompted and inspired her own work. Freya Stark’s account of her childhood in Devon has a similar resonance; she loved to stride across the wide Dartmoor spaces, metaphorically stepping in and over her Father’s footsteps, whilst ostensibly projecting onto the moor a maternal ambiance, which is expressed in this extract by Beatrice Chase, another well-known Dartmoor writer:

And with the inspired thanksgiving came the comprehension of the magnetic attraction, the irresistible spell of Dartmoor. I felt her, like a living thing, twining herself round my very heart strings. Then and there I realised that this place was my fate, that if ever I left her she would draw me back to her heart, and that if I should resist her my own heart should break. 

            These writers’ presentation of their loved territory in their own texts is viewed through their father’s lens. He’s the one who symbolically has ownership of the land-space; she is psychically obligated to follow in his footsteps. Freya Stark Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark (Modern Library Paperbacks)spent her adult life travelling to real, far away places and writing about them. Yet for all the exotic appeal of such locations as Turkey and Arabia she  was intensely aware of the moor and of its lifelong effect on her. In 1950 Stark wrote of her early acquaintance with the moor in Traveller’s Prelude:
‘I must have been very small – perhaps six years old. Our land ran into Dartmoor and held in its heathery edges stone circles where people brought flocks and lived through forgotten summers before the Romans came. I would play in and out of the boulders they had propped up to make their houses.’
          In 1902 when Beatrice Chase, another well-known Dartmoor writer, 28 years old, had just moved to Widecombe in the Moor, Freya was nine. Already her nomadic way of life had been established; her parents were always travelling with their family; from Asolo in Italy; to Cornwall; to Paris. They also frequently stayed in various farm lodgings in the Chagford district, so she had ample opportunity to explore the moors. However, her father was by now completing the building of Ford Park, the last of a series of properties that Stark constructed in the Chagford area during the 1890’s and it was Ford that became the place Freya chose to call her home, although she only stayed there for short periods.
Around Chagford
         It was from Robert Stark that Freya inherited her deep passion for Dartmoor. He had
‘walked [there] as a boy, [it] was to him a dark and refreshing well, from which the water of life was drawn. It gave him silent serenity, and a sort of patient endurance very like its own high and gentle, cloud receiving hills.’
Stark’s daughter’s stays at Ford Park were crammed with magical encounters in the midst of the intoxicating landscape around her. Some of these were imaginative dreams, perhaps instigating and foretelling her future travelling compulsion. Sitting in the bay of her bedroom, she
 ‘looked over the granite boulders of a rockery … to where Meldon Hill, cone-shaped like a volcano, dreams in moonlight on summer nights’.
Or, playing in the grounds, she and her sister
‘had the run of the woods and were let loose there, to climb every mossy tree we liked, and to live the Mowgli stories …’
Other experiences left her with more understanding of the sometimes harsher aspects of life on Dartmoor. Their father took them for picnics
‘jolting in a cart that met the heather as a clumsy creaking fishing-boat meets the waves, and would fry a pancake mixture from a jar over a fire of heather stalks … we carried a little bottle of ammonia with us in case an adder bit our feet. The dogs’ noses would get bitten and they would be doctored with brandy and nearly die, until they were bitten a third or fourth time and became immune.’
Freya was introduced to the moor’s archaeological features, to stone rows and circles; those of Middle Tor and Kestor became ‘favourite playgrounds’, yet she was sensitive to the aesthetic and geological aspects of her surroundings:
‘The granite oldest of rocks, rounded by weather, wrinkled and rough to the hand as some old grandfather’s cheek, has written itself into me so that it seems part of my being, a thing like our bones that we carry till we die; and I can think of nothing purer and cleaner than the wind-whipped pools mad by the whirling pebbles on the summit, where the rain-water keeps the rock creamy white amid the surrounding weather-darkened grey.’
         Freya couldn’t bear to be stuck indoors, at parties organised by her mother, who ‘turned away from the moors’. Stark’s deep identification with her father and the moor left her with a passion for wild open spaces; it became a place where she could roam to her heart’s content, letting her untrammelled self fly free. Five years later, when she was 14, the family returned to Ford Park for a long idyllic summer. The girls were encouraged to camp out by the river Teign,
sleeping on a mattress of dried bracken in an old caravan, where the river dropped through woods from pool to pool’.

          Many of Stark’s travel writings interlace comments about the foreign place with special memories of places on Dartmoor; its landscape had become an indelible part of her mind. Moor is a playground for her adult journeying and seems subconsciously ever-present, even when she is in more exotic climes. Stark grew up ‘a child of Dartmoor who acquired in its solitude a lasting love for the uncommon and the wild’.2 And yet, without the foregrounding influential passion of her father, it is intriguing to consider whether she would have developed similar preoccupations.
My poem about Freya Stark is part of a longer piece called Triune which was published in Shearsman
is Artemis attuned to earth
new land    cone-shaped    a volcano
opens every morning over the eastern brow
of Meldon Hill    nose to peat ground
she’s discovering buried cities in the husks of silt
and sand   yet curiously oblivious to lost voices
of invisible fates   she’s immersed in this landscape
the source of the starting points of life’s journey
a future for travel yet grounded in moor
and steeped with its bones    Stones
in her pocket weigh forever her way
salt to dust-earth   Moor is her playground  Prelude
Treasure   later she will make her own map
text uncoiling in a long ravishing italic sigil
over shadier foreign lands   At last Arabia!

1.  Simon Trezise. 2. Andrew Rothovius.

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