Tales for children inspired by the moor
by Mark Young
The wonderful contrasting scenery of Exmoor with its changing moods throughout the year has long been a source of inspiration to painters and writers alike. Children’s books have been and continue to be written with Exmoor’s scenery and especially Exmoor’s ponies as the main backdrop to the story. Anyone visiting Exmoor will soon become aware of the Lorna Doone story by R D Blackmore. This fine old saga, originally published in 1869, is perhaps a bit daunting for a young person to read (the current edition weighs in at 700 pages) but visiting Oare and following the legend of John Ridd and Lorna Doone on the moor is a rewarding way to spend a day.
Inevitably many of the books mentioned below are out of print, only obtainable through secondhand bookshops or via the internet, some at steep prices. Happily a few are being reprinted: Katherine Hull and Pamela Whitlock wrote The Far-Distant Oxus when still in their teens (15 and 16 respectively). They sent the handwritten manuscript to Arthur Ransome with a letter suggesting that he might pass it on to his publisher, Jonathan Cape. The letter is a masterpiece of juvenile optimism and bravado:
Dear Mr Ransome
We enclose a manuscript of a book we have been writing together. We don’t want to bother you with it if you are busy with other things, but we are not quite sure what to do with it and we thought you might help us. If you
cannot be bothered to read it, perhaps you could ask Titty or Roger, as they might like it. We think the Amazons might be rather disdainful. We should like to send it to Jonathan Cape, but if you do not think it is good enough we will think of something else to do with it.
We enclose stamps for return postage, and remain
Katherine Hull and Pam Whitlock
Ransome, after reading the whole exciting story of the children who spend their summer holiday on Exmoor, their adventures by land and water, highly recommended it and the book was published in 1937. Cape reissued The Far-Distant Oxus in 1978 in its original format along with Ransome’s introduction and it has now been reissued in paperback. It is understood that the further two books of Exmoor adventures, Escape to Persia andOxus in Summer, will be reissued over the next couple of years.
Margot Pardoe wrote children’s books from 1936 until the 1960s and one of her heroes, Bunkle, visited Devon and Exmoor in Bunkle Began It and Bunkle Scents a Clue. These fine mystery stories have just been reissued in the same format as the Oxus stories.
The Exmoor Pony has and continues to be a lasting source of inspiration. A W Seaby published Exmoor Lass in 1928. Beautifully illustrated with his own line drawings, the book was reprinted six times before 1946. Now out of print, copies seem to be around at reasonable prices.
Both Lionel Edwards and Cecil Aldin hunted on Exmoor and both illustrated a number of children’s books, most notably some by local author, Eleanor Helme. Helme and Nance Paul introduced Jerry in Jerry, the Story of an Exmoor Pony in 1930. All of her books are out of print but can be found. Her books all had a background of real events and White Winter is a fine portrayal of the winter of 1947 when Exmoor was completely cut off by snow for six weeks or more.
Edwards illustrated another pony book, Exmoor Ben by Pamela Macgregor-Morris, which was first published in 1950. The illustration of Exmoor Ben and his mother beautifully captures the filthy weather of the summer of 2008!
Many people who visit Exmoor yearn to live there but, for sound family reasons, are not able to realise their dream. Tiverton-born Mary de la Mahotière compensated for living in Hampstead with her husband who was a journalist by writing about children’s adventures on Exmoor. Thus the author of The Newspaper Children penned Round-Up on Exmoorpublished in 1961.
Happily there are some Exmoor Pony stories readily available. If you haven’t discovered them yet, look out for Victoria Eveleigh’s trio of stories about Katy, and Trifle, her Exmoor pony. The author lives and farms in North Devon and has published Katy’s Exmoor (2002), Katy’s Exmoor Adventures (2003) and Katy’s Exmoor Friends (2005). A further book set on Lundy is rumoured to be on its way!
A final entry in the Pony Stakes must be Moorland Mousie and Older Mousie, written by Muriel Wace under the pseudonym Golden Gorse. They were illustrated by Lionel Edwards and published in 1929 and 1932 respectively. Both of these lovely books are constantly sought after, have become progressively more expensive and it is hoped that they will, one day, be reprinted.
While the Exmoor Pony has dominated this survey there are also some fine stories about the deer and the dogs who live on the moor. John Fortescue’s classic, The Story of a Red-Deer was first published in 1897 and is quite easy to find. A re-issue by Halsgrove in 2003 is still in print.
G R Acton published Exmoor Rover in 1938 with some good illustrations by C Gifford Ambler. This is an exciting story of a wild dog found on Exmoor and his moorland adventures. Ambler also illustrated a book by Joseph Chipperfield, Storm of Dancerwood(1948).
And, for those who enjoy something a little spooky, a touch of the supernatural, here are two suggestions. Josephine Poole published Billy Buck in 1972, while renowned author Penelope Lively brought out The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy the previous year.
The books listed in this article represent a good cross section of children’s books written with an Exmoor background. It is by no means a complete listing: Eleanor Helme in particular wrote several more books than those highlighted.
As mentioned before, many of these books are out of print but most can be obtained with a little effort. If you live away from the moor, you will need to access through your local bookseller or do your own internet search but mind the prices! If you live on the moor, nag your Mum or your Granny to check the barn, the loft, under the bed: they are there somewhere!