A Literary Tour of Devon
A literary tour of Britain
By Paul Wreyford
Explore Devon's literary connections down the centuries from Charles Dickens to Agatha Christie.
Devon has provided inspiration for a host of literary greats down the centuries. Many of them lived in Devon; some stayed here for a time; and others holidayed in the county.
Writers such as Charles Dickens, Agatha Christie, Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Arthur Conan Doyle, RD Blackmore, Henry Williamson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge - to name only a few - all have links in one way or another with Devon.
There are very few parts of the county which are not linked with England's literary past, so let's explore Devon's literary map.
Henry Williamson (Tarka the Otter)
Tarka the Otter was published by Henry Williamson in 1927. It was only natural that Williamson should base the story around the Taw-Torridge rivers, as he spent most of his life in North Devon.
The Tarka Trail, as it is now called, is a honeypot for visitors every year. The countryside described by Williamson has remained virtually untouched. For those wishing to see the place where the Tarka's journey started and ended, it is Canal Bridge on the River Torridge near Weare Giffard.
Doone Valley on Exmoor
RD Blackmore (Lorna Doone)
The top of the county - and Exmoor especially - is Lorna Doone country, as brought to life by Richard Doddridge Blackmore. RD Blackmore, who penned Lorna Doone, was actually born in Oxfordshire, but will forever will associated with North Devon, where he spent most of his childhood. The book's Doone Valley is around five miles from Lynton and is best reached via Malmsmead.
The Poet Laureate Ted Hughes was born in Yorkshire, but he moved to North Devon in 1961. He loved this part of the county and much of his later writing reflected this.
Following his death in 1998, a memorial stone - made of Dartmoor granite - was engraved with his name and placed at his favourite spot on northern Dartmoor.
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Dartmoor born Charles Kingsley wrote Westward Ho! - and a resort on the North Devon coast was later named after the novel.
And the Lynmouth area was visited by many of the romantic poets such as Shelley, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Ilfracombe, meanwhile, was a favourite holiday destination for George Eliot and Beatrix Potter.
Torquay-born Agatha Christie
This is where most of Devon's literary connections can be found - from Agatha Christie to Arthur Conan Doyle, and from Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Oscar Wilde and Rudyard Kipling. The biggest name was, of course, the Queen of Crime.
Dame Agatha was born in Barton Road, Torquay, in 1890. She later bought Greenway - a big house overlooking the River Dart near Galmpton, which is now managed by the National Trust. Dame Agatha used locations in Torquay for scenes in her whodunnits - a clifftop in St Marychurch is believed to have been the setting for 'Why Didn't They Ask Evans?'.
She loved the little coves around Torquay - like Ansteys and Beacon. The Imperial Hotel also features in some of her books, while the Grand Hotel was where she spent her honeymoon.
A bust of Torquay's most famous daughter now stands proudly at a spot near Torquay harbourside.
Fox Tor Mires was in the Hound of the Baskervilles
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
The poet and short story writer Elizabeth Barrett Browning stayed for around three years in Torquay - in Beacon Terrace to be exact. She was sent to the resort on her doctor's advice, as it was felt the fresh air would improve her health. But she hated the place. She arrived in Torquay in 1838, but her stay was a tragic one, as one of brothers drowned in an accident in Babbacombe Bay.
Arthur Conan Doyle
The creator of Sherlock Holmes used Dartmoor as the inspiration and backdrop for his most famous tale, the Hound of the Baskervilles.
He stayed in Princetown, while carrying out research for the book. There are many theories about where the book was based, but it is widely believed that Fox Tor Mire was the setting for the fictional Great Grimpen Mire.
The tale is thought to be based on the legend of local squire Richard Cabell, of Buckfastleigh. He had an evil reputation and legend has it that when he died in the 1670s, black dogs breathing fire raced across Dartmoor, howling.
Baskerville Hall itself may, in real life, be either Hayford Hall or Brook Manor - both of them near Buckfastleigh.
Benjamin Disreali started to visit Torquay during the 1850s. Unlike Elizabeth Barrett Browning, he loved the town and came back many times, staying at the former Royal Hotel. His career as an author was later to be overtaken, of course, by politics - he was twice Prime Minister, before he died in 1881.
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Rudyard Kipling and his wife lived for a time at Rock House, in Rockhouse Lane, Torquay - but this was an unhappy spell for him, as he often suffered from depression. He moved to Torquay in 1896, and described Rock House as his "dream home."
Oscar Wilde and Henry James were visitors to Torquay, while poets Lord Alfred Tennyson and Rupert Brooke loved the place. Tennyson descibed it as "the loveliest sea village in England," and Rupert Brooke is thought to have written " Seaside" about the resort.
Just up the coast, at Teignmouth, John Keats made himself at home. A plaque has been placed at the address, at 20, Northumberland Terrace - now called Keats' House - where he penned a lot of his work. He liked Devon, but in a letter, he described it as a "splashy, rainy, misty, snowy,foggy, haily, floody, muddy, slipshod county."
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Coleridge, who was one of the country's leading Romantic poets, was born at the vicarage of Ottery St Mary in 1772.
He was the 13th child of the Rev John Coleridge, and his early years were spent in East Devon. A plaque in honour of the poet can be found on the churchyard wall.
Although it is believed his childhood was not entirely happy, he nonetheless looked back on it fondly in many of his poems.
In Frost at Midnight, the bells of Ottery St Mary are remembered affectionately, and the poem is a romanticised version of his early years.
As a boy, he loved the countryside and often walked along the River Otter. Coleridge is best remembered for his work, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and the poem, Kubla Khan.
Devon played quite an important part in the life of a young Charles Dickens, and people he encountered here were later the basis of some of his quirky characters. The link with Devon is most concentrated in Exeter.
His parents lived in Mile End Cottage in Alphington for four years from 1839. The opening chapters in Nicholas Nickleby were written at the cottage.
Dickens described the Exeter area as "the most beautiful in this most beautiful of English counties." It was in the 15th century Turk's Head pub in the city centre, that he spotted an overweight boot boy - the inspiration for The Fat Boy in the Pickwick Papers.
Later, he based the sly Pecksniff, from Martin Chuzzlewit, on a resident in Topsham.
Dorset's Thomas Hardy used Exeter in four of his novels, only he gave it the name of Exonbury. The city is featured in The Trumpet Major, Jude the Obscure, A Pair of Blue Eyes and The Woodlanders. Hardy visited Topsham, where his close friend, Tryphena Sparks, is buried.
Happy memories of a holiday in the area prompted Jane Austen to set her first novel in the county. Sense and Sensibility, written in 1811, was set in the village of Upton Pyne - around four miles from Exeter. The marriage of Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars was set in the village church. Jane Austen also loved nearby Dawlish, which also gets a mention in Sense and Sensibility.
Novelist RF Delderfield wrote many much loved books - including To Serve Them All My Days, A Horseman Riding By, and God is an Englishman. He was also the inspiration behind the first Carry On film, Carry On Sergeant. RF (Ronald Frederick) Delderfield was born in London in 1912, but his family moved to East Devon when he was 18. He continued to live in Exmouth and surrounding area. He died of cancer at his home in Sidmouth in 1972, aged 60.
Hardy has connections right across the South West - including Plymouth, which was the home of his first wife, Emma.
And, it was while passing through the city, at Plymouth Railway Station - on New Year's Eve 1873 - that he noticed a billboard advertising the Cornhill Magazine and its first instalment of Far From the Madding Crowd.
He bought a copy, and walked to Plymouth Hoe to read the opening of one of his greatest novels. That was a happy memory from the city.
But Plymouth also brought him sadness. His wife's death in 1912 prompted him to go on a pilgrimage to the city, to trace the places where she was brought up. He poured out his grief in a number of his poems.
The novelist and hymn-writer lived at Lewtrenchard, near Okehampton, for 43 years. He is best known for the hymn, Onward Christian Soldiers, and also wrote the song about Widecombe Fair. He was still writing right up to his death at the age of 89 in 1924. His body is buried in the churchyard at the village.
Best of the Rest
Best known as the author of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe fell in love with Plymouth. He came to the city on his Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain.
This is by no means a full listing, but it gives you an idea of the role Devon has played in England's literary past.
last updated: 08/02/2008 at 15:18
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