Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Budleigh in books: Part I

From time to time I've been asked by the Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival organisers to give a tour of the town's landmarks associated with creative people of the past and present who've lived or who are living in Budleigh. That includes writers, artists, musicians and scientists. 

A bit of exercise is involved with some uphill stretches, but there are good views to make up for that, and sometimes some benches.

When I've done this sort of thing in the past, people asked if there was a book or leaflet where all that information was written down. Well, there isn't really! So I thought I'd have a go here, but focusing on writers who have used Budleigh Salterton as a setting for their novels or who've described it in their memoirs.

Many writers have mentioned Budleigh Salterton or a similar name evoking it, among  the most famous being Noel Coward and J.K. Rowling.

If, like me, you think this is one of the most romantic and magical views in East Devon you’ll find it hard to accept Coward’s opinion of the town. 

"Nobody but a monumental bore would have thought of having a honeymoon at Budleigh Salterton," complains the eager but frustrated young bride Elvira Condomine in the play Blithe Spirit.     


J.K. Rowling on the other hand...?  Well, yes, that magical view may well have inspired her to set one of the scenes in her novel Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince in a village called Budleigh Babberton. She may even have seen it while studying at Exeter University.  It ought to be noted however that some Harry Potter experts think that East Budleigh is the more likely candidate.

Noel Coward and J.K. Rowling don’t have much in common but somehow they do seem to have been drawn by Budleigh’s name. However it’s fair to say that the town has not had a good press over the years, at least not in its literary incarnation.

Coward’s character Elvira Condomine famously pictured it as “potted palms, seven hours of every day on a damp golf-course and a three piece orchestra playing ‘Merry England’.”


But then, as far as we know, Coward never came to Budleigh. The 19th century writer George Gissing, on the other hand, came at least twice and mentions one of its well known landmarks in his novel Born in Exile, though he is better known for his novel New Grub Street, published in 1891. He is one of a number of writers who have lived in the town and used it as a setting in their works of fiction.   
Here he is writing to his brother on February 9, 1891
“Yesterday I went to Budleigh Salterton. It is a delightful place; I hope to be there more often. Wonderfully sheltered and much richness of vegetation. The furze along the roads is in full yellow bloom; perhaps that is the same with you.  Hard by is a farm called Hayes Barton, where Raleigh was born, and Coleridge’s country lies in the valley of the Otter, which flows into the sea just beyond Budleigh.
A few months later on 29 April 29 he tells his sister Ellen, writing from Exeter:
“I have finished Volume I. of Godwin Peak [Born in Exile] and tomorrow morning we start for a three day holiday in Budleigh Salterton some 15 miles away. The weather is sunny and warm; it ought to be pleasant on the sea-shore.”  
Poor Gissing had many personal problems. He was a prolific writer, composing  21 novels, more than a hundred short stories, a travel book, literary criticism, essays, a diary and enough surviving letters to fill several volumes. But he suffered from ill-health and depression: he stole for a young prostitute whom he later unhappily married and was imprisoned for theft. His second marriage also ended in failure when he found that he had married a violent and mentally unstable woman.

This commemorative tablet is located in Thompson's Yard, Westgate, in Wakefield, West Yorkshire.  I don't see why we shouldn't have a little plaque to mark where he stayed in Budleigh. 

Even the French have honoured Gissing at 13 rue de Siam in the 16th arrondissement in Paris.  Perhaps they appreciate his tortured artist side. 

Maybe this description of a walk on the Coast Path west of Budleigh, taken from Born in Exile, reflects Gissing’s own mental state of turmoil:

"Early in the evening there was a temporary lull in the storm; rain no longer fell, and in spaces of the rushing sky a few stars showed themselves. Unable to rest at the hotel, Peak set out for a walk towards the cliff summit called Westdown Beacon; he could see little more than black vacancies, but a struggle with the wind suited his temper, and he enjoyed the incessant roar of surf in the darkness. After an hour of this buffeting he returned to the beach, and stood as close as possible to the fierce breakers. No person was in sight."

He was in Budleigh again in the Spring of 1897 when H.G. Wells called on him at his lodgings at Parkholme, 14 West Hill. 

The novelist Ralph Ricketts (1902-98) may have benefited from longevity through living in Budleigh in common with many of its residents. But the picture of the town, thinly disguised as Pebbleton, which emerges from his 1961 novel Henry’s Wife is even more sombre than Gissing’s description of the Coast Path Walk.



 “A few men and women were walking along the pavements; most of them looked cold and all over seventy. I glanced at the shops and houses as if seeing them for the first time, and decided that the atmosphere was approximately nineteen hundred. Again I felt irritated by Henry’s choice of abode. I was not naïf enough to suppose that writers invariably lived in an environment of velvet trousers, beards and brandy bottles, but Pebbleton seemed to me an unnecessarily extreme antithesis. That we all had to grow old and die, I was becoming painfully aware. But why choose to accomplish these necessary, evil processes in such depressing surroundings, hemmed in by the tastelessness of the pretty-pretty, fretted by fanciful names painted on genteel gates, rock gardens, stunted fir trees and thorn bushes fleeing before the wind?”

But then Ricketts, according to his 1998 Times obituary, also suffered from ill-health including vertigo, claustophobia and nervous exhaustion.  He apparently regretted to the end of his life that his full ability as a novelist had not been realised or recognised. Unfit for military service in World War Two, he and his wife moved to Budleigh and took to market gardening and raising pigs. His last novel, Henry’s Wife, is set in Venice and “a thinly disguised Budleigh Salterton” where indeed he was living in the 1940s. 


Another author resident in Budleigh who describes his experience of rearing pigs - their names were Eggs and Bacon - was the novelist R.F. Delderfield.  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. 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, both on the leafy western outskirts of the town.  Less well documented is his time in Budleigh Salterton itself. Yet in a collection of autobiographical essays, published in 1951 as Nobody Shouted Author, Delderfield mentions his move just after the end of World War Two to a house to which he gives the name ‘Spion Kop’ in a village that he calls Pebblecombe Regis.

‘Spion Kop’? A typical Budleigh name in a way, given the town’s colonial heritage. But who on earth would have named their house after a British military defeat? A bit like a Frenchman calling his house ‘Waterloo.’  One of Delderfield’s little jokes, I think.

‘Spion Kop’ was, he tells us, "a solid, red-brick structure, perched on the extreme edge of a sandstone cliff, with a sea view extending from Torbay to Chesil Beach."  A poke in the museum archives will tell you that the house was ‘Broomleas’, at the top of Victoria Place.

While Ralph Ricketts may have been depressed, Delderfield may have been influenced by his own political views. 

“His pioneering sense of social justice and sympathy for his fellow man would strike a chord with many Guardian readers today” wrote Sam Jordison in 2007 in the Guardian

 In a chapter of Nobody Shouted Author entitled 'Migration to Valhalla' - another little joke at the expense of the ancient “grizzled” warriors who’ve traditionally retired to Devon coastal resorts - Delderfield goes into detail about Pebblecombe Regis and its residents. The village is, he writes, “unique in the region” for their particular character.

This nautical fantasy scene was created by Budleigh artist Joyce Dennys as a bathroom mural. I love the fierce moustache

"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."  

Unique also was the way in which Pebblecombe Regis was governed.


East Devon Golf Club, supposedly the seat of power in the area according to Delderfield

"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," writes Delderfield. "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’re 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." 

Budleigh Salterton's much vaunted exclusivity is the butt of 1930s cartoonist G.S. Sherwood in this illustration from The Humorist  

The text reads:
 He:- Could you direct me to Budlear-Saunterton?
She:- I could, but I must ask you not to press your question, as we are anxious to keep the village exclusive

Delderfield blames the Americans for bringing about "the first real change in more than seventy years" to Pebblecombe Regis.  "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."

However 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," he writes. But by the time that Delderfield 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."

Pebblecombe Regis -  "the ante-room of Valhalla" as Delderfield calls it - echoes the epithet 'God's Waiting Room' often applied to a certain East Devon seaside resort. Yes, I’m afraid, it’s very definitely dear old Budleigh Salterton. Delderfield’s frequent references in the book to his friend "Doctor Tom" are surely to the town’s GP, the husband of artist and fellow-writer Joyce Dennys.

And in 1970 Delderfield 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."

 Budleigh in Books: Part 2 follows here

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