Exmoor writer Hope Bourne's lost Withypool manuscript rediscovered
- 30 August 2014
- From the section Somerset
A little-known manuscript by a writer and naturalist, who became famous in the 1970s for her self-sufficient lifestyle on Exmoor, has been discovered after being "lost" for 45 years.
Hope Bourne's remote, rural lifestyle was at odds with the 20th Century. For more than two decades she shot game for food, grew her own vegetables and lived alone in a leaky caravan without electricity on the open moorlands of Exmoor - all solely due to her sheer willpower, resilience and love of the countryside.
She was a well-known figure in Exmoor whose views and knowledge on farming, hunting and wildlife became well-known locally through her popular newspaper column and books.
But her colourful character is how she was brought to national attention in the late 70s in the first of two TV documentaries about her life.
Now a fresh insight into her life has been unearthed, in the form of a manuscript previously thought of as lost.
"A Village of the Moor" was found in the Exmoor Society's old storeroom during a move to its new premises and has been described as an eloquent insight into village life in the late 1960s.
It reveals a world that was in the midst of changing from the traditional to the modern.
'Woman of Exmoor'
- Bourne was born in 1918 and lived with her widowed mother until her 30s. When her mother died, the house was sold off
- She lived in her caravan for 24 years, from 1970 until 1994 when, to her great distress, she had to leave due to her age and asthma
- In the 1970s Bourne's way of life attracted widespread media coverage in the national papers and two television documentaries; About Britain: Hope Bourne Alone on Exmoor (1978) and Hope Bourne - Woman of Exmoor (1981)
- She had five books published: Living on Exmoor, A Little History of Exmoor, Wild Harvest, Hope Bourne's Exmoor: Eloquence in Art and her only novel Jael, which was published after her death
- According to her publisher, Steven Pugsley, "her work sums up better than any, deep rural life in the late 20th Century when technology, mass media and the tentacles of urban living had made inevitable inroads"
"Farming, hunting, gossip - such as a wedding or funeral - these make the pattern of life here," she writes.
"The radio and the telly, it is true, bring the wider world into almost every home, but here a hold-up in London or war in the Middle East is of far less importance than yesterday's rain or to-morrow's sheep sale."
"I found a box labelled Village Survey and it was just sitting there in these little orange folders," said Dr Helen Blackman, the society's senior archivist.
"To be honest I didn't quite register its significance because I was a few weeks into a new job."
The work dates from the time Bourne had temporarily abandoned her self-sufficient lifestyle and moved to Withypool, a village in the heart of Exmoor, to recover from a broken heart.
At the time, Bourne would have been in her late 40s, early 50s while the man she had fallen in love with was two decades younger.
In the preface, she wrote: "Just about three years ago from this time of writing I sustained a complete breakdown due to some very great personal unhappiness and upon recovering found myself, for the time being at least, unable to continue the same way of life."
Book publisher Steven Pugsley, who knew Bourne from when he was a child living on Exmoor, said he was was "very excited" about the discovery.
"What it is, is Hope's understanding of the place where she lived, peopled by those who she knew and loved and her journey of discovering what her home village was all about," he said.
Bourne died aged 91 in August 2010 having never married or had children.
"In a way Withypool was her husband and children rolled into one and it's almost like a love letter to her surroundings, her environment," said Mr Pugsley.
"I think as a part of her oeuvres, it's very important. It's an extremely good example of her writing, a very enjoyable piece of writing of Hope at her best."
The manuscript is about 60,000 words long with evocative scenes of country life. Of Withypool Hill she wrote: "I see it streaked with snow, black and sodden with winter rain, tawny-gold with the bleaching winds of spring and heather-crowned with the purple glory of high summer."
There are also affectionate memories of people who she knew and who died in the village.
Of her friend May Common, who died in 1960 she described May's dogs as being the "chief mourners" at her funeral.
She added: "They followed the coffin into the church and up the aisle to the chancel steps and then sat with May's sisters in the front pew, just as though they understood everything."
Normally Bourne, who was also a gifted painter, wrote only using a pencil, storing her mouse-nibbled notes in old tins.
The manuscript for a Village on the Moor was typed up by her publisher Victor Bonham Carter but was later rejected as being too contemporaneous.
But now - some 45 years later - the manuscript has acquired new value as a piece of social history and is set to be published early next year.
"She was quite a mass of contradictions in many respects," added Mr Pugsley. "She was a very small lady but she was extraordinarily tough. She was a very private woman but she had an awful lot of friends.
"She had no family but she did have a very wide circle of friends who I think I would say she was mother and sister and sometimes daughter to them."