Following the Fairlynch Winter Talk about R.F. Delderfield by his biographer Marion Lindsey-Noble on 12 March comes a colourful and informative display at the Museum about the East Devon writer, part of the centenary celebrations to mark his birth on 12 February 1912. Some of the novels by this prolific author are shown above.
Delderfield loved this area. Many of his novels such as A Horseman Riding By are set in East Devon. In later life he was a prominent defender of Woodbury Common, pictured above, when it was threatened by development. He was an early supporter of 'the right to roam.'
"The people of East Devon have, for generations, considered themselves to possess this right and I for one have walked and ridden over it, without challenge, since I was a boy back in 1924," he is quoted in Margaret Wilson's book A Woodbury Triumph (2004).
The proposal to develop its 500 acres for use as a golf course, was not, he stated, the provision of an amenity, but "an exercise in despotism reminiscent of the Land Enclosure Acts of the early nineteenth century."
It's well known that he lived in Exmouth where his father had bought a printing press along with the local newspaper, The Exmouth Chronicle. And Sidmouth, where he moved later in life, has a memorial stone overlooking Jacob's Ladder beach, commemorating his achievements.
It's also known that that he lived at Knowle House and then at Shortwood House in this area. Less well documented is his time in Budleigh Salterton itself. The assertion that he ran an antiques shop in the town is without foundation. As Marion Lindsey-Noble mentions in her biography, the business was based at Newton Poppleford.
Yet in a collection of autobiographical essays, published in 1951 as Nobody Shouted Author, Delderfield is quite specific about his move just after the end of World War Two to a house called Spion Kop in a village called Pebblecombe Regis, "a solid, red-brick structure, perched on the extreme edge of a sandstone cliff, with a sea view extending from Torbay to Chesil Beach." In a piece entitled 'Migration to Valhalla' he goes into considerable detail about Spion Kop and its surroundings.
American commandos had occupied the house since 1942 and according to the new owner "seemed to have played baseball all over the house with cannon shot." At one period during their occupation, writes Delderfield, they "appeared to have been pitifully short of firewood, for every shelf in the house had disappeared, together with most of the dining-room panelling and two-thirds of the banisters."
You'll search in vain for Pebblecombe Regis on Ordnance Survey maps. It sounds as if it could be near Salcombe Regis or even Lyme Regis but no village of that name exists.
Nobody Shouted Author is worth reading for the hilarious adventures that the Delderfield family enjoyed during their time at Spion Kop with their pigs Eggs and Bacon, hordes of chickens, two cats and a horse, not forgetting their terrier bitch Punch and Dixie the Dalmatian.
|R.F. Delderfield in the 1950s|
But it's through his portrayal of Pebblecombe Regis and its residents that Delderfield raises the most laughs. As inventive as the name of the village is the story of how its popularity originated in the 19th century.
A "battle-scarred colonel", so Delderfield would have us believe, while sipping his whiskey-peg in a Bangalore club a year or two after the Indian Mutiny, is just about to give his attention to an article about a justifiable massacre of Sikhs in a month-old service periodical when his eye is caught by a letter from the preposterously named Major Bullington-Headrush CMB.
Written from the Major's home at "The Stockade, Pebblecombe Regis", the contents are worth quoting for their burlesque humour.
Firearms are making poltroons of us all, reads the Colonel, with what Delderfield describes as "a kindling eye." Let us accept the challenge of the hairy savage and trounce him with his own weapons! What has happened to the bowmen who cut up the French at Crecy and Agincourt!
And the Major ends with a question which fires his reader with the desire to meet and congratulate such a "dam' sensible feller." Where are the yews that supplied our bowstaves and for so long were a compulsory adornment of all our churchyards?
Delighted by this "challenging appeal for the reintroduction of the longbow into our national armoury" the Colonel straightway writes a letter to Pebblecombe Regis enquiring about vacant houses in the immediate neighbourhood, having decided that such a good chap would make an excellent neighbour when he retired in two months' time.
"It wasn't so long after that one began to see masses of iron-bound trunks, together with bundles of rusty assegais, Afghan firelocks, snarling tigers' heads and tarnished Benares wares piled on the quays of Calcutta and Bombay, stuck all over with labels marked: 'Poona to Pebblecombe Regis', 'Quetta to Pebblecombe Regis', 'Cawnpore to Pebblecombe Regis', and so on, whilst Pebblecombe Regis itself began to take on the aspect it wore right up to the end of the Second World War."
And that aspect, Delderfield tells us, makes the village unique in the region.
"At any time between 1860 and 1945 the High Street of Pebblecombe Regis could easily be mistaken for a European quarter of a garrison town. Anglo-Indians, with hard, blue eyes, fierce moustaches, and mahogany faces, literally rubbed shoulders round the fishmonger's slab, whilst their womenfolk, with that total disregard for eavesdropping characteristic among the wives and daughters of professional soldiers, exchanged bits of gossip across the main street, at the tops of their voices." Such characters often feature in amusing illustrations like the one above by the artist and writer Joyce Dennys.
Unique also was the way in which Pebblecombe Regis was governed.
"The village expanded, of course, but not nearly as rapidly as one might imagine, for it was administered from the Golf House and each prospective newcomer had to undergo fierce scrutiny before he was encouraged to settle. Qualifications for residence were never actually set down on paper but they were there all right, as an impudent wholesale ironmonger discovered when he blew in from his factory at Middlesborough and moved out with a flea in his ear three months later."
With the special nature of Pebblecombe Regis came prosperity. "All through the last decades of the nineteenth century, and up to the outbreak of the Second World War, Pebblecombe Regis retained its air of exquisite aloofnesss towards the rest of the British Isles," Delderfield writes. "Its politics were, of course, militantly right-wing, and a Liberal agent who ventured to speak an apologetic word there on behalf of Asquith in 1911 narrowly escaped a lynching."
The rest of Britain did not take too kindly to such attitudes, we are told, and in the 1920s Pebblecombe Regis "became a music-hall joke." But for people who depended for their livelihood on what had now become a popular and exclusive community it was no laughing matter.
"Those who lived within range of it, or had business in it, took its prejudices very seriously indeed. The High Street at noon terrified the boldest democrat. The tradespeople used the back streets and dared not send in their bills until they were demanded. Golf was played all day and bridge every evening, all other social activities, apart from the cultivation of giant vegetable marrows and white chrysanthemums, being prohibited as likely to attract visitors."
Delderfield blames the Americans for bringing about "the first real change in more than seventy years" to Pebblecombe Regis, when "one morning in 1944" a column of GIs appeared in the town to the discomfiture of the town's Home Guard "which consisted almost entirely of men above the rank of lieutenant-colonel."
The author explains that the Americans didn't stay very long. "Their officer made a few friendly overtures in the district but he somehow got the impression that he had run headlong into the German General Staff and hastily withdrew further inland."
But the experience of meeting their transatlantic allies had unsettled the town, and the damage was done. "Soon after that, a spirit of sullen defeatism spread through the town and cracks began to appear in the principal bastions. To say Pebblecombe Regis became like other villages would be a gross misstatement of fact, but it certainly never recovered from the shock of that first American parade."
Daily evidence of rot was now noted by observers. Delderfield quotes the example of an ice-cream vendor who stopped in the High Street and openly sold his wares to the children of a newsagent. The last straw came when a major-general, denounced as a Quisling by residents, sold "a house called 'Travancore' to a manufacturer of blotting-paper from Stoke-on-Trent."
"The Old Guard fought a magnificent retiring action and dug in for a last stand on the western edge of the town," writes Delderfield. But by the time that he and his wife May had moved in "at least a dozen families in the district were prepared to regard the writing of comedies as a profession and not a trade."
Fact or fantasy?
Was Pebblecombe Regis a pure invention of the author, or did it have a basis in reality with its supposed origins in army officers returning from the Raj?
Delderfield's description of it as "the ante-room of Valhalla" should give us a clue when we think of the East Devon town known as 'God's Waiting Room.' His frequent references in the book to his friend "Doctor Tom" are surely to Budleigh Salterton's GP, the husband of artist and fellow-writer Joyce Dennys.
And in 1970 the author confirmed the identity of Pebblecombe Regis when he described in another book, Overture for Beginners, how the road out of Exmouth climbs "east to the frontier of The Curry, otherwise known as Budleigh Salterton."
"There can be no doubt now that the column of G.I.s who slouched through the town in 1944 were instrumental in making Pebblecombe Regis safe for democracy," he concludes at the end of his light-hearted little chronicle of our town's history.
Could such a view be one of the many reasons why R.F. Delderfield is more popular in America than in Britain? Many of the papers relating to his life and work are stored in Boston University Library, Massachusetts.
Marion Lindsey-Noble's biography of R.F. Delderfield, Butterfly Moments, is on sale at Fairlynch Museum. There is additional material in two folders with material on Delderfield in the Museum's Local History Room. Fairlynch re-opens from Friday 6 April 2012. For details please see the website's home page.
This post relates to a shorter piece on Fairlynch Museum's website at http://www.devonmuseums.net/Delderfields-dwelling-places-OR-how-the-Yanks-brought-democracy-to-Budleigh-Salterton/Latest-News/Fairlynch-Museum/Museum-News/