Tag Archives: Dartmoor

My watery and “I Capture the Castle” type weekend

We’ve just spent the weekend away in Dartmoor.  The main purpose of the visit was for Mr FH to take part in the sort of  life-affirming event that only a forty-year old can.  We were lucky enough for this event to take place close to some old friends who have settled on the northern edge of Dartmoor National Park.  Our friends are a successful painter and a writer/internet marketing expert and this place provides them with the haven they need to be creative and take part in the outdoor lifestyle they so love.

If you’ve ever been to that part of the world you will know the roads are narrow, windy and often steep.  The house they rent is a vast, old, Hardy-esque stone farmhouse with views over the valley and the beginnings of the moor in the background – stunning.  It is surrounded by derelict outbuildings and stores, few of which are in use and mainly provide lodgings for local wildlife (we saw a barn-owl!).  The over-grown kitchen-garden has been converted into a small vegetable patch, pig pen and chicken coop.  Our children loved going out to feed and pet the animals, an experience a world away from what they are used to!  Inside, the farmhouse has large rooms, long dark halls, thick curtains hanging over door-ways to keep out the cold.   The enormous kitchen is dominated by the Aga, there are basic, thrown together units and shelving, plumbing open to the eye, all a bit shabby but so welcoming, comfortable and right for its situation that its shabbiness becomes its charm.  There were several bikes in the hall, one blocking the entrance to my friend’s huge study/library, where books are stacked neatly in handmade shelves and piled on almost every part of the large desk, leaving a small space for working on.  Walking, riding and welly boots scatter the corridors.  The house is cold and with the first bite of autumn in the air we spent the weekend in the kitchen where the Aga warmed us, wearing a couple of layers.  It was a fabulous weekend.  As soon as I walked through the kitchen door on Friday evening, I had a feeling I might see Cassandra curled up on the window seat, pen and notebook in hand.  It was a weekend of living like the Mortmains and I loved it!

Seeing and spending time with our friends was a lovely aside to our real reason for being there.  On Saturday Mr FH took part in a 10k swim along the river Dart from Totnes to Dittisham, where the Dart widens before curving round the headland to become the estuary mouth.  Swimming 10k is the equivalent of running a marathon, but in quite rough conditions.  This swim was the culmination of months of hard work and training.  It was great to see him so up for the swim on Saturday and we were so excited and proud to watch him emerge from the water about 2 and a half hours later, that I forgot to take any pictures!  To find out yesterday that he was in the top 17% of swimmers that finished (651 finished), makes us even prouder of what he achieved (he also raised a lot of money for his chosen charity).  Although I am particularly in awe of  Mr FH, I am blown away by all the swimmers who took part for their determination to push their bodies to the extreme.  The water was cold, current quite strong, the wetsuit chaffed and it took him 10 minutes to stop shaking with the cold, but he had a smile on his face.  Watching him at that moment, I was reminded of a line in Murakami’s book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running  “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”  Well done, darling!

Pictures courtesy of the Open Water Swimming Society website 


The Hound of the Baskervilles

The Hound of the Baskervilles is perhaps the most well-known of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, certainly it is the most adapted for film or TV.  When it was written in 1901, Arthur Conan Doyle had not written a Sherlock Holmes story for 8 years.  To all intents and purposes, Holmes was lying dead at the bottom of the falls as described in The Final Problem.  Conan Doyle worked around this issue by introducing the reader to a new mystery which took place before Holmes’ death.  The Hound of the Baskervilles is a tale well-known to most of us.  Dr Mortimer asks Holmes to look into the inexplicable and sudden death of Sir Charles Baskerville of Baskerville Hall in Dartmoor.  Sir Charles made Dr Mortimer aware of a family legend of the curse of the Baskervilles involving a large and bloodthirsty hound supposed to roam the moor.  Mortimer saw the paw prints of a “gigantic hound” at the place where Sir Charles died and is concerned for Sir Charles’ heir, a young Canadian, Sir Henry Baskerville.   Holmes sends Watson to Dartmoor to act as bodyguard to Sir Henry, investigate and report back on a daily basis by telegram.  Watson does a good job of describing the various residents of the moor and the goings-on in this eerie landscape. The story includes an escaped convict from a local prison, assumed identities, cruelty, family intrigue, ambition and the use of the landscape as a means to torment and frighten.  It is an atmospheric story, full of suggestion and strange noises breeding anxiety in the reader.  Conan-Doyle makes great use of the landscape and weather conditions to create a feeling of terror.  Needless to say in the end, Holmes steals Watson’s thunder and solves the case with seeming ease.

I don’t know whether Arthur Conan Doyle felt inspiration from the landscape around his home, but according to WR Trotter in “The Hilltop Writers”, he was joined in Hindhead/Haslemere by several other literary heavyweights around the turn of the century.  There was a 10 year period when writers such as Grant Allen, George Bernard Shaw, George Elliot, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Margaret Oliphant and Christina Rossetti and others moved here permanently or stayed for extended periods.  With the industrial revolution came not only the railway, but also advances in printing and communications which allowed these writers to live in such wild country while remaining within easy reach of the capital city.  Whenever there is a congregation of talent they invariably feed off each other and for a while Hindhead and Haslemere became a hub of intellectual activity that included artists and scientists as well as writers.  The solitude of the hills, heaths and common land will have offered a welcome interruption to writing; a landscape to inspire.

The National Trust bought the Hindhead Commons and the Devil’s Punch Bowl soon after its inception at the instigation of Sir Robert Hunter, one of its founders.  Hunter lived in Hindhead and was often found walking on the common.  Arthur Conan Doyle was a member of the first Hindhead Commons Committee and often walked out with Hunter (according to The National Trust).  Conan Doyle was an incredibly active man and known as an able sportsman, so I can imagine he took solace in the exercise the landscape afforded.

I have walked there in all weathers and although on a beautiful day the views from the hills are amazing and far-reaching, there is still something mysterious in this beauty.  A week ago as I dropped one of the younger Fictionhabits at cricket practise, the low-lying cloud was clinging to the surrounding hillside, obliterating the summits, bringing a claustrophobic and eerie atmosphere to the village green.   Historically, the Punchbowl was regarded with fear and superstition as a dark malevolent province of
smugglers and deadly spirits and few people dared set foot there. I think it is a combination of this history and the legends of devils and feuding gods together with the barren, sandy landscape as well as the acoustics within the Devil’s Punch Bowl itself that evokes some of its mystery.  When you are at the bottom of the Devil’s Punch Bowl it is very quiet, which can seem quite weird.  In bad weather, it is desolate, but there is something quite lovely about trekking the hillsides in the rain and admiring the hollow from above.

Did Arthur Conan Doyle take inspiration from his surrounds when writing The Hound of the Baskervilles?  I don’t have any definite evidence that he did.  I know he visited Dartmoor as part of his research and walked the moors for a couple of weeks taking in the atmosphere.  He wrote the book itself, however, at Hindhead and there are some similarities between descriptions of Dartmoor in The Hound of the Baskervilles and the countryside around Undershaw.

Take, for example, the view Watson and Henry Baskerville first encounter when approaching the station and compare it to an engraving of a sketch by JM Turner from 1811 called Hindhead Hill.

Source: Wikipedia

“Over the green squares of the fields and the low curve of a wood there rose in the distance a grey, melancholy hill, with a grey jagged summit, dim and vague in the distance, like some fantastic landscape in a dream.”

Other descriptions in the book could also quite easily be Hindhead Common or the Devil’s Punchbowl.  The following are a few examples all taken from Watson’s first descriptions of the moor.

“Bronzing bracken and mottled bramble gleamed in the light of the sinking sun” “Both road and stream wound up through a valley dense with scrub oak ad fir”  “A steep curve of heath-clad land, an outlying spur of the moor lay in front of us”

Later in the story, while chasing a man during the night, Holmes and Watson “run through the gloom, blundering against boulders, forcing our way through gorse bushes” Gorse, bracken and heather are found in abundance on Hindhead Common.

This year, from 11th May – 25th September the British Library is running an exhibition called Writing Britain which aims to examine how the landscapes of Britain permeate great literary works.  As far as I am aware, Arthur Conan Doyle does not feature, so I can only wonder at how the landscape close to my own home and only a stone’s throw from his, may have inspired his most celebrated piece of writing.

By the way…the judicial review of Waverley Borough Council’s planning decision regarding Undershaw took place at the High Court on Wednesday 23rd.  No decision was made on the day, the judge will publish his findings by the end of July.  I will keep you posted.