It’s a hundred and fifty years since RD Blackmore’s novel, Lorna Doone was first published. So, this autumn, I’ve been discussing it with some of my Creative-Reading groups.
It’s been an interesting journey, and a rewarding one. Not least, because part of my preparation included three days touring around Exmoor, tracking down identifiable locations. Comparing the spaces that inspired with the story was intriguing. Here are a few of my favourite locations.
The story opens in 1673, when the narrator, John Ridd is twelve years old. He’s studying at Blundell’s school, in Tiverton, and gives a brief history of the school, as he describes his last days there.
The building he knew is now called ‘Old Blunell’s’, as the school moved to a bigger premises in 1882. I didn’t go inside. The interior has now been divided into flats, but the exterior is as it’s described in the novel. Since Blackmore was a scholar there himself, it’s probable that the customs John Ridd describes are authentic, from singeing night-caps to learning to swim in the Lowman River.
Oare village, where the Ridds farmed is still tiny, and a long way down from the coast road. While my photo gives an idea of the scale of the landscape, it is unlikely that Blackmore would recognise the large fields, or the extent that they now stretch to. Much of Exmoor was cleared, and ‘improved’ from the mid nineteenth century on.
The debate about which of the village buildings might have been the model for Plovers Barrow, the farm of the Ridds, has been going on since soon after the novel was published. Many readers refused to accept that Blackmore imaginatively ‘rearranged’ the geography to suit his story.
We stayed near a farm that claimed to be the original. However, it had recently been taken apart and completely re-built. Lovely as it is, it didn’t seem to resemble the farm Blackmore describes.
Oare church, however, did seem identical. It is just visible in my photo of the village, above. The white painted porch is to the left side of the main clump of buildings.
Here’s the interior, with its box pews, and stone font.
Robber Bridge is mentioned several times in the story. The long narrow road leading to it had a timeless feel, despite the tarmac, and occasional car or tractor.
Tarr Steps, was worth a visit. Although, it’s only mentioned in passing, as being near the cave where Mother Melldrum had her summer home. My photo fails to convey just how huge these steps are, or how atmospheric this river is,
Mother Melldrum’s winter home, which John visits, is in the Valley of the Rocks, near Linton.
Finally, there’s Dunster. It’s another passing mention in the novel, but I couldn’t miss the timber-framed Yarn Market. It was rebuilt in 1647, and despite all of the twenty-first century trimmings surrounding it, standing under that roof felt close to stepping back through time.
I haven’t mentioned the countryside itself, because in the uncleared parts, it doesn’t seem to have changed much since Blackmore published the novel. If you want to know how it felt, looked or sounded as we lingered in the lane by Robbers Bridge, read some of John Ridd’s lyrical descriptions. Thomas Hardy said that those passages showed him something of what was possible in writing about ‘place’.
Blackmore’s novel is not an easy read. His style leans towards archaic, and has some interesting sentence structures. What impressed me, was the way he shaped his material, and how John Ridd’s narration works.
Lorna Doone will be going back on my shelf, and I think I might have to return to Exmoor for a longer visit, soon.