RE-RIDING THE OLD ROUTES

Are you going to be in Withypool on Monday morning (if so read to the end!)

As part of their new archive project, staff and volunteers at the Exmoor Society are investigating the old postal routes across Exmoor. Never the easiest place to navigate, up until 1970 post was routinely delivered on foot, by motorbike and from horseback, with walking routes of 15 miles and more. The posties were Exmoor’s main method of communication in more ways than one – as well as the post, they took with them village news, and (unofficial) deliveries of newspapers, bread, tobacco, even medicines. For farms with no road access, the postie was sometimes the only visitor in days.

Trustees of the Society are particularly interested in the old postal routes and ways of delivering mail between around 1930 and 1970. Using maps and significant material from the Society’s Dulverton Resource Centre, the Society is piecing together the history of the postal service on Exmoor.

This was a time of great change, as the telephone superseded the need to communicate by mail or telegram. No longer was the post the main method of communication as roads improved and the motor car became more common. As less post was delivered and it became quicker to get from farm to farm by car or van, walking rounds were limited to towns, and ponies and motor bikes were no longer needed.

So what was it like to walk or ride one of these routes? It’s easy enough to sit at a desk and plot them out on a map, but that doesn’t give a sense of the experience of the posties, tramping across Exmoor in all weathers, over what could be steep and difficult terrain. The Society was fortunate to be able to employ an intern during the summer, who walked some of the old routes and got an idea of how tough some of them could be. Now, the Society’s archivist Dr Helen Blackman would like to go one further and see what the ridden routes were like.

To help with this, Helen has been in touch with the Exmoor Pony Centre near Dulverton and, with the aid of a volunteer and two ridden ponies from the Centre, she will be retracing the steps (and hoofprints) of one of the last ridden rounds on Exmoor. The round started in Withypool and went out to many of the local farms, including Lanacre, Blackland and Hillway. It was ridden by local man John Blackmore, for as Exmoor writer Hope Bourne recounted in the late 1960s, “Horsemen’s country this has always been, and still is” and horses were “the simplest way of getting round the parish, from farm to farm, before the days of tarmac”.

Dr Blackman said “investigating the old postal routes has been more than an academic exercise, it is very much a social history. We cannot really understand the difficulties of communication on Exmoor, which persist to this day, without experiencing them. And as a horse rider I’m fascinated by the role horses and ponies have played in bringing news and information across the moor. This is also a wonderful opportunity to work with the Exmoor Pony Centre and highlight how hardy and useful the Exmoor ponies are.”

Helen and the Pony Centre volunteer are planning to undertake the ride on Monday 6 November, leaving Withypool village at 10am. Following the old postal route it will be around 12 miles. If you see them, give them a wave!

PHOTO: William Blackmore, mounted postman (image by kind permission of Barbara Adams).