Christmas 1973 – and so to church…

St Peter's, Tiverton

Winter light, early afternoon at St Peter’s Church, Tiverton, 2013. A gallery of hassocks, appreciated by someone enough to raise them from the ancient floor so they can greet visitors with all the flourish of a medieval pageant. The subjects are wild and varied, many birds and even Saint George tackling a dragon. In particular their are owls. Many owls. (Currently owls are all over our high streets, from stylised 1970s versions staring saucer-eyed from tea towels to teapots, doorstops, notebooks… this is definitely the decade of the wild wood. If only people loved the real thing as much.)

Owl 2

Only in winter. They’re the most convincingly shy owls I’ve met.

owl 3

I wish you could buy this kind of light as an electric bulb.

St Peter's Church, Tiverton

At one end of the church is this wall painting, a pristine postcard from the early seventies, a trail through centuries of townspeople. It’s folk art perfection with more than a hint of medieval heaven and hell. There’s so much to see – from the artist’s effort to write the times into the face of each decade to the turn of each head. And it ends in louche, 1970s perfection. You can almost read a quiet, assertive knowledge in the girl’s face: ‘Look how far we’ve come’. Where did we go?

Tiverton 4

I could almost be going home to watch the 1973 Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special, for here’s the Queen Mother. In this corner of Devon she’s still graciously doing her thing.

Synchronised dreamscapes

Tim Walker - Devon cream

Postcards from an exhibition of Tim Walker‘s photographs, which was held over the summer at the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle. All the images were displayed in light boxes, so the darkened room created a night-time setting to make the experience entirely dream-like. I like the above image particularly, because it must have been projecting quietly in my mind when I was transferring my parents’ slides from the 1950s here. It’s also called Devon Cream, which I didn’t know until I drew it out for this post. Synchronicity indeed…

Tim Walker - It rained outside

The above image is called It rained outside so we camped indoors.

Tim Walker - Snow in Summer

Snow in Summer (above).

Tim Walker - Flying saucer with members of hunt

And another hunting image – Flying Saucer with members of the West Percy Hunt. All these photographs are constructed, using props, and are not the product of digital manipulation… to quote the essay, “To reveal the ambition of photography as an integrated, collective undertaking where the pressing of the shutter on the camera is the closing moment in the creative process”.

I’m not sure how many exhibitions work so successfully, when small elements sit quietly in your mind and then crystallise a particular moment in your own history – my parents, Devon, and the 1950s – a time before I was born. I’ve looked at my parents’ slides many times over the years. They’re blueprints in my memory of a time I never knew, acting like gentle magnets, as I drift along.

An Exmoor September

Exmoor 1

Tangled wood: Horner, one of England’s largest oak forests.

Exmoor 3

Coming down like the wolf on the fold, cohorts gleaming purple and gold…

Exmoor 2

Church of All Saints, Selworthy. A gleaming monument from across the valley, an iced confection when face-to-face.

Exmoor 4

A little too much confection for some, but it’s too pure not to be enjoyed…

Exmoor 5

Exmoor is even more special because the ugly signage frenzy has yet to reach it. Black and white metal-embossed roadsigns abound, as do National Trust signs of the same vintage – beautiful, timeless lettering and craftmanship.

Exmoor 8

Exmoor 7

Or this plaque on a seat at Webbers Post, originally a viewpoint once used by a local huntsman to watch his hounds.

Exmoor 6

Memento Mori in Stoke Pero churchyard, although he didn’t follow his wife so soon, having another 20 years in which to wander free…

Exmoor 9

Now to savour the time-worn signwriter’s art. Make the most of it while it lasts…

Exmoor 10

North Devon, 1950s

In the 1950s my parents moved all the way from Yorkshire to North Devon and bought a new bungalow on the edge of Tiverton. Not long after they went to the railway station to collect a puppy, a cocker spaniel who had travelled by train, in a wicker basket, from a breeder somewhere up country. I can’t imagine if the basket was shut or closed on the journey, but assume the breeders knew what they were doing for the time.


The puppy was called Sherry, after the drink which matched her fur, but her kennel club name was the grander Gatehampton Caroline (although no-one would have any interest in dog shows).

These slides were taken on a camera which never worked by the time I was born, but I loved the beautiful brown leather case (which led to me choosing my current camera over ones which were probably much better value…) Taking photographs was much harder in the 1950s, and I’ve found the guide to ‘successful photography’ which must have been bought in an attempt to make sense of it.


Some of Sherry’s walks in these days look impossibly idyllic, and this picture of Bickleigh looks like a stage set. The blossom at the end of the road looks as artificial as Ronald Coleman and Greer Garson’s cottage in the 1940s film Random Harvest (I know this because it was my grandad’s favourite film so have watched it again). Here’s a hastily found Youtube clip, and the scene is around 8 minutes in…


It looks a particularly lovely moment in time, but my father could never settle in one place and Hollywood films are artificial for a reason, though I can’t imagine Yorkshire stock being under any illusions about this.


North Devon and Exmoor is still, and always has been, organised around hunting and shooting. I’m not sure what Sherry is making of this sign, but on Boxing Day she may have gone into Tiverton to see the spectacle of the hunt meet. I’m sort of ambivalent about hunting, despite a gut reaction of repulsion, because there’s something primeval and ancient about it: a dreadful fascination. These photos from 1958 look so vivid I can imagine every sight and sound in the town square, and the colour of the winter light is beautiful.



And then perhaps another walk over Tarr Steps, washed away and replaced time and again over the centuries…


Sing Oak and Ash and Thorn…

Of all the trees that grow so fair,
Old Engerland to adorn,
Greater are none beneath the Sun,
Than Oak and Ash and Thorn.
Sing Oak and Ash and Thorn, good Sirs
(All of a Midsummer’s morn)!
Surely we sing of no little thing,
In Oak and Ash and Thorn!

Beltane Border are a ‘border morris‘ group (folk dances originating along the Wales/England border). Here’s a short film found on Youtube, the work of Lucy Lightchild Scott, from an appearance at Stonehenge.

Over the midsummer weekend Beltane Border performed in Devon. There’s much stick-clashing, drum beating and flaming torches, and it’s not often you find things like this that still seem honest and uncontrived. A highlight was a magnificent version of Oak, Ash and Thorn, in the glow of a few torches as the sun went down.

Beltane Border

I’d no idea the words of this song came from Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill. It sounds as old as the hills, which I imagine was his aim. Anyway, here’s the song arranged by Peter Bellamy.

Whistler in the wind

There is much more recognition of Rex Whistler these days, but his brother Laurence has also left behind some amazing work. Here are two windows – inscribed on glass with scriber and drill – from St Nicholas Church, Moreton, Dorset.

Summer, Laurence Whistler

Detail of the Seasons window, with butterflies about to burst from the bubble

The church was hit by a German bomber in World War II, and rebuilt with the windows engraved or deep cut, acid-etched or sandblasted by Laurence Whistler with craftsmen where necessary. These images (with a little adjustment) are reproduced from the guide book and are originally from Scenes and Signs on Glass from the Cupid Press, Woodbridge.

The Trinity Chapel window, Laurence Whistler

Trinity Chapel window, 1982

The Trinity Chapel window is a tribute to a pilot shot down in the Battle of France in 1940, and genuinely stunning. Sunlight and rain reveal nature regenerating, with scenes of Salisbury Cathedral near to where the pilot was stationed, and his cottage home. Vapour trails are suspended and in the corner is a broken propeller bearing two sets of initials and the dates of the pilot’s brief marriage.

I can’t help thinking this would have been quite a personal and possibly a difficult project. In his book Initials in the Heart, Laurence Whistler records the happiness of his marriage to the actress Jill Furse, and the cottage in Devon they shared. She died in 1944 at just 28. It was the same year in which his brother Rex was killed in the war.

Laurence Whistler, Jill Furse, 1941

Laurence Whistler and Jill Furse, with family, Devon, 1941, from Initials in the Heart, published by Rupert Hart-Davis, 1964

I’ve collected quite a few of Laurence Whistler’s books of poems and his biographies of his brother. The diligence with which he kept memory alive is incredibly moving, and I think he is an excellent, insightful writer.

More of that another day…

Waters of the Moon, 1951

Waters of the Moon

Here’s another scene which carries a theme from the Billy Liar post – ‘escape/something more’ in mid-century Britain (or anytime, come to that). Waters of the Moon ran between 1951 and 1952 at the Haymarket Theatre, London, at the same time as the Festival of Britain. At first glance it’s everything the angry young men and women came to dismantle in the coming years: a drawing room drama about the lives of the ‘bourgeois’ classes…

Waters of the Moon, Haymarket, 1951

Waters of the Moon, Haymarket, 1951

The playwright, Norman Charles Hunter, spent some time convalescing in a Devon military hospital during the war and throughout his recovery would go walking around Dartmoor. On one occasion he stopped for tea at a mothballed hotel, of the type with long-standing residents. He recalled it later when coming across a quote from William Hazlitt: “To what a point of insignificance may not human life dwindle! To what fine, agonising threads will it not cling!”

It is a drawing room drama, with all the familiar devices. And yet there’s some genuine empathy for the characters whose lives are disturbed for a few days at New Year by the rich and dynamic Helen Lancaster, whose car and family have become snowbound.

It’s a fascinating study of how Britain is perceived at this time: the hotel residents are mostly stereotypes, but either wrestling with aspects of the ‘leash’ that Shelagh Delaney is talking about here, helpless in the face of change, or simply ‘used to it’.

Evelyn Daly is the daughter of the hotel’s family, her mother is widowed, her brother may or may not have TB, and her life consists of tending fires and the needs of the guests. Aided by the crate of champagne bountifully shared by Helen, who has instigated an unheard of ‘party’ for New Year’s Eve, she steps out of line.

This clip is from a version filmed in 1980, with stalwart actors of the time reliably producing an era: Joan Sims, Virginia McKenna, Ronald Pickup, and Penelope Keith flawlessly recreating her stock role. So many things echo back and forth over these decades, from the fifties to the eighties. Evelyn (played by Lesley Dunlop) is politely consoled as unbalanced and bundled to bed with an aspirin, while Helen Lancaster/Penelope Keith says it all with her verdict at the close.

A bookshop made for R F Delderfield

R F Delderfield (1912-1972) was a popular writer with a talent for telling epic, decade-spanning novels that are still in print today. He was decidedly mainstream, probably quite reactionary, but not without sensitivity. Many of his books were made into lengthy TV adaptations that ran for months on BBC TV in the late seventies/early eighties.

The most successful of these was To Serve Them All My Days, about a teacher from a working class background who returns shell-shocked from service in World War One and takes up a post at a public school in Devon. Several of Delderfield’s novels are set in the Westcountry and his affection for and appreciation for the region and its landscape runs through his work.

In 1983 Andrew Davies (now famous for his version of Pride and Prejudice) adapted Diana, which was a combination of two novels from the early sixties, There Was a Fair Maid Dwelling and The Unjust Skies.

It follows sixteen-year-old John Leigh who has returned from Brixton, London, to his mother’s birthplace in Devon. There he meets Diana, daughter of the wealthy family at the local manor. She proceeds to infatuate him through the 1930s, as he becomes a journalist and moves to London, and into World War Two and the French Resistance. Davies adopted a Brideshead-style voiceover as Leigh looks back on the story and it seems to be quite a cult guilty-pleasure these days with internet message boards anxious for a DVD release.

No, it's not a royal wedding - Kevin McNally and Jenny Seagrove played the roles of Jan and Diana in the BBC TV adaptation from 1983

I remember watching this when I must have been about 12 – impressed by the Devonshire setting and moorland I could relate to, and the Dickens-ish Great Expectations aspects.

Diana and Jan (she renames him, with the confidence of her class, because John is ‘too dull’, but also because her favourite book is Lorna Doone) meet around the moorland which is covered in yellow gorse and purple heather. They call it ‘Sennacharib’, after Lord Byron’s poem ‘The Destruction of Sennacharib’:

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,

And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold…

I’ve remembered these lines over the years, even today when the gorse comes out and smells of coconut, and the moors really are armoured in purple and gold. I’m not sure how well the books stand up today – it’s years since I read one – though at his best Delderfield has been compared to John Galsworthy.

There’s another scene in the TV series however which is all credit to Andrew Davies’ adaptation – it doesn’t appear in the book.

In the early days, Jan saves up to buy Diana a leather-bound edition of Lorna Doone. The bookshop he goes to is a bit special because the owner, Miss Westcott, is a fantastically no-nonsense, straightforward and genuine type (the like of which have faded away). It’s just a small role from character actress Mary Morris, but it’s a moment that I want to capture – because she loves books above all, because she is generous with her learning and kindness and most of all because of the way she says ‘Knowledge is power’.

In the first scene, Jan meets Diana’s old governess in the bookshop…

Later, Jan returns to collect the book and Miss Westcott explains why she is running an empty shop in a tiny Devonshire village…

I believe some of the outdoor scenes were filmed in Drewsteignton village (mentioned in this post here.)

I’ve included an interview with R F Delderfield’s daughter from 1983 below – click to view.

Spectral evenings at Berry Pomeroy Castle, Devon

One of the more unsettling tales surrounding this ruined castle tells of a Lady Margaret, who was imprisoned by her jealous sister Eleanor on account of her beauty. Margaret was imprisoned for two decades before being allowed to die of starvation, and her ghost, known as the White Lady, is said to rise to the ramparts and impart dread and malaise. Late 20th century excavations shed doubt on the existence of a castle during the crusades, but the legend remains…