Devon's Literary Connections

Charles Dickens

Here's an article I wrote for Devon Life magazine about Devon's literary connections:

I am a keen reader and never happier than when I have a book in my hand. So I love to visit places that have a literary connection. Here are just a few of those places, to include all my favourites would fill several columns.

The county has inspired some of the world's most iconic writers, from Charles Dickens to Michael Morpurgo and Agatha Christie to Ted Hughes. Then there are the books based in Devon like Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles or Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.

In a piece of shameless name-dropping, I can tell you I went to university with Michael Morpurgo's wife, Clare. We went on a field trip to their farm at Iddesleigh where the couple had set up Farms for City Children providing children from inner cities with experience of the countryside. Iddesleigh is home to The Duke of York, a delightful pub full of character. 

Still name-dropping… I went to school with Ted Hughes' last wife although she was a few years older than me and I can’t pretend I knew her, and I once worked with Rudyard Kipling's great niece, a really lovely girl.

So let's take an abridged and edited trip around the county. I'll start in North Devon with Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter, which I loved as a teenager. It is set around the Taw-Torridge rivers with the Tarka Trail a fitting monument to a man obsessed by nature and the countryside. You can visit Canal Bridge on the River Torridge near Weare Giffard where Tarka's journey began and ended. Williamson lived in Georgeham and the hut where he did his writing still contains many of his personal effects, coats hung on hooks, boots placed neatly near the door, his spectacles rested on a round writing table and a record still on the gramophone. 

Then there is Westward Ho! named after the novel by Charles Kingsley who was born in Holne on Dartmoor. I must admit I found the novel hard going but I do love Westward Ho!.

Travel south and you reach Tiverton, the setting for Snap by Belinda Bauer, one of my favourite contemporary authors. I loved this book not only because it was a thrilling read but also because it featured so many of the places I got to know well when I worked as a reporter on the town’s newspaper. She has also written psychological thrillers set on Exmoor and around Barnstaple.

Another contemporary writer is Michael Jecks whose wonderful historic mysteries are mostly set in Devon. 

Poet Laureate Ted Hughes was born in Yorkshire but in 1961 bought a house in North Tawton. In 1970 he married farmer’s daughter Carol Orchard.  He later took on Moortown a small farm near Winkleigh and wrote Moortown Diary, which details the everyday life of the farm. 

In the south of the county you are spoilt for choice for literary icons, like Agatha Christie who was born in Torquay and later stayed at Greenway, a house overlooking the River Dart near Galmpton, and now a National Trust property. 

Rudyard Kipling and his wife lived for a time at Rock House, in Rockhouse Lane, Torquay. And poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning stayed for three years in Beacon Terrace, moving to the county for health reasons. I'm not sure she is an appropriate inclusion in a magazine extolling all things Devon as Barrett Browning hated it here. She may have been a brilliant poet but not such a good judge of places! 

The county is a magnet for poetic geniuses. John Keats lived at Teignmouth. There is a plaque on his house at 20 Northumberland Terrace - now called Keats' House. He liked Devon but described it as a "splashy, rainy, misty, snowy, foggy, haily, floody, muddy, slipshod county."

Tennyson described Torquay as "the loveliest sea village in England," and Rupert Brooke is thought to have written Seaside about the resort. Back in North Devon, the Lynmouth area was visited by many of the romantic poets including Shelley, Wordsworth and Coleridge.

Coleridge was born at the vicarage of Ottery St Mary in 1772, the 13th child of the Rev John Coleridge. A plaque honouring the poet is on the churchyard wall. In Frost at Midnight, he remembers the bells of the town.  

Now back to Dartmoor where Arthur Conan Doyle set his most famous Sherlock Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Conan Doyle stayed in Princetown to research the book. It is believed that Fox Tor Mire was the setting for the fictional Great Grimpen Mire. The book could be based on evil squire Richard Cabell. Legend has it that when he died, howling black dogs breathing fire raced across Dartmoor.

After Shakespeare, Charles Dickens must be one of the most famous writers in the world. His parents lived at Mile End Cottage in Alphington. Dickens described the Exeter area as "the most beautiful in this most beautiful of English counties." 

It is believed that in Exeter’s Turk’s Head pub he encountered a plump boot boy who was the inspiration for The Fat Boy in the Pickwick Papers. And Pecksniff in Martin Chuzzlewit was based on a man from Topsham.

These are just a few of the literary stories of Devon. To include them all would make a novel in itself.

Look at this: 

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  1. It's a veritable hotbed of writing talent.

  2. I few days ago I watched a (very bad) time travel movie from the '70s because it was set in one of the oldest hotels here in Michigan on a famous and popular tourist Island. They time traveled back and forth from 1972 and 1910. Not exactly the same as seeking out a place mentioned in literature to visit---actually quite the opposite because I watched the movie just because I loved the setting.

  3. That is a lot of history in one area. Very cool.