Thursday, 18 September 2014

Budleigh in Books: Part 4

After my survey of Budleigh as used by so many authors as a ‘small town’ setting I’m left wondering  what the future holds. I was going to stop after Part 3, but a friend told me the other evening that he’d enjoyed my rambling in previous instalments so much that I thought I’d now go a bit imaginative in this one. If you haven't seen my previous postings they are  here  for Part 1, here   for Part 2 and  here  for Part 3.

The St Bartholomew's Day Massacre, 23-24 August 1572. Painting by François Dubois, a Huguenot painter born circa 1529 in Amiens, who settled in Switzerland. Although Dubois did not witness the massacre, he depicts Admiral Coligny's body hanging out of a window at the rear to the right. To the left rear, Catherine de' Medici is shown emerging from the Château du Louvre to inspect a heap of bodies.  Image credit: Wikipedia

For example, will the budding creatives who gave us Summer Storm transport us back to the age of Sir Walter Raleigh in next year’s publication, with a gang of Famous Five young Devonians intent on a mission to save the Huguenots from their evil oppressors?   For information about the ambitious Budfas Young Arts programme click  here

On second thoughts, maybe the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre isn’t quite suitable as a subject for primary school pupils.


The Rolle Arms, overlooking the sea, was one of Budleigh Salterton's grandest hotels

Even less suitable would be a racy novel set in the Edwardian era, when, so I’ve been told by a highly respected Budleigh historian, the goings-on in the town’s grand hotels would make even Noel Coward blush. 


And the story of how love bloomed on a Budleigh beach for an unhappily-married princess is more chick-lit for readers of romantic fiction than edifying material for a Famous Five adventure recounted by 11-year-olds. 

Well, it was certainly one of the selling-points of a book called Princess in Love in which journalist Anna Pasternak told us about the doomed affair between Diana, Princess of Wales, and a dashing officer - no, not the one in the photo -  who becomes her lover. The first print-run of 75,000 copies sold out within hours of its publication on 3 October 1994.

I tell this story during my ‘Walk with Words’ tour of Budleigh as a counterblast to the awful things that Noel Coward wrote about the town in his play Blithe Spirit.


I mean, who could deny the romantic nature of a walk hand-in-hand over the pebbles towards the sunset as you set out from Steamer Steps? Out of season, on a deserted beach, with a stormy crashing sea to convey to readers the violent, passionate and ultimately destructive nature of your secret adulterous liaison.


The title page of The Moonstone 

Let’s go back in time to find something more suitable for the 11-year-olds. 

Could Budleigh’s Anglo-Indian heritage provide a thriller on the lines of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone?  For people who don’t know, that’s the 19th century work which is reckoned to be the first detective novel. I’ll quote a summary from Wikipedia: “Rachel Verinder, a young English woman, inherits a large Indian diamond on her eighteenth birthday. It is a legacy from her uncle, a corrupt British army officer who served in India. The diamond is of great religious significance as well as being extremely valuable, and three Hindu priests have dedicated their lives to recovering it.”

Maybe a sacred ritual sword originating from Poona and presented to Fairlynch by the 21st century descendants of a brutal East Indian Company general - or perhaps by amateur archaeologist George Carter, whose daughter co-founded the Museum - could arouse passions even more violent than those stirred by the Elgin Marbles.  

In the early 20th century Carter had spent time out in the Indian sub-continent, in what is now Pakistan. He’d carried out archaeological excavations, investigating customary practices and cosmological beliefs, collecting, recording, interpreting and translating myths and stories, writing a string of published papers on these subjects.  

More of him later.


You can meet this spookily realistic figure of Jack Rattenbury in the Smugglers' Cellar at Fairlynch Museum

Then there’s smuggling of course.  Jack Rattenbury, born in Beer in 1778, seems to be the smuggler that everyone’s heard of - we even have a talking version of him at Fairlynch. But reading about the Reverend Doctor Christopher Syn the other day made me wonder about the possibilities of using East Budleigh’s smuggling vicar, the Rev. Ambrose Stapleton as the central character of a book set in the Lower Otter Valley.  Dr Syn was the smuggling hero of a series of novels by Russell Thorndike first published in 1915 and based on smuggling in the 18th century on Romney Marsh in Kent, where brandy and tobacco were brought in at night by boat from France to avoid high tax.

We know so little about the Rev Stapleton that I feel he deserves some attention, even if it means fictionalising a bit of his story. There was tragedy in his life: all his sons died before him.


I have to confess that I haven’t read any Dr Syn stories, but I can imagine that the famously “bleak and eerie” atmosphere of Romney Marsh - counted by the BBC as one of Britain’s Seven Man Made Wonders    - contributed to the success of Russell Thorndike’s work. Click on  to read more.


A lonely track on Woodbury Common

Could our own Woodbury Common compete as a setting for dastardly deeds in a smuggling novel? Or any other kind of novel for that matter. 


I love the wildness and vastness of the Common, the buzzards and the prospect of spotting a Dartford Warbler in all that yellow gorse and purple heather.

But I also sense something menacing there. Maybe it’s to do with the hidden and mysterious Bronze Age sites, or the fact that it’s been the site of military encampments, whether of General Simcoe in the Napoleonic era or constructed as WW2 preparations for the D-Day landings. Something menacing and lethal.  

Not too many people know that the gorse has apparently been responsible for two deaths in recent years, including that of a young and healthy Royal Marine recruit.


The first edition of Hardy's The Return of The Native

When I heard those stories on the news I was reminded of my own reading of Thomas Hardy’s novel The Return of the Native, where his Egdon Heath is given a similarly threatening presence. The lethal element is conveyed in the adder bite from which the character Mrs Yeobright dies. 

The Heath is considered by some Hardy critics to be the leading character of the novel: “profoundly ancient, the scene of intense but long-forgotten pagan lives” - just like our Woodbury Common! For some of the characters it is “a benign, natural place.” In the eyes of the heroine it becomes “a malevolent presence intent on destroying her.” 


Or, if you enjoyed the adventures of Indiana Jones, how about a plot inspired by Professor Chris Tilley's East Devon Pebblebeds Project, and especially the series of fine photos of sunrise and sunset, with his commentary on celestial events and the fire rituals in which our Bronze Age ancestors took part on the Commons? 

You can read about the Project at 


Incidentally, going back to George Carter, pictured above, the website acknowledges the debt that today’s anthropologists owe to him. In his time he was much maligned as an eccentric by conservative types. “He did not have much time or patience with establishment archaeological ideas and positions and fell out with some of the leading archaeologists of his day who did not appreciate the value of his work,” writes Professor Tilley. “Sadly he is now a forgotten figure in British archaeology. He was a man with ideas and interpretative approaches well ahead of his time.”

I reckon that the young authors of a Famous Five’s Adventures in the Bronze Age could play their part in helping to rehabilitate George Carter and his far-out theories, but it would involve some long-distance time-travel.

The people of Budleigh Salterton themselves will always provide an intriguing backdrop to any novel. 


The title page of W.F.R. Macartney's book Walls have Mouths

Summer Storm featured the fictional Gwen Watson, a retired MI5 secret agent living in Budleigh. But recently I discovered that a real ex-spy, Wilfred Macartney, was a resident of Marine Parade. His autobiographical 440-page Walls have Mouths had been sitting on my bookshelf for over 40 years when I came across mention of him on the internet as a declared bankrupt in 1944. 

The Exmouth Journal of 14 August 2014 thought that his eventful life made rather a good story. After all, Special Branch were keeping an eye on his home, noting that five women were staying with him, one of them being the wife of Harry Pollitt, General Secretary of the British Communist Party. 

W.F.R. Macartney had a notable role in the Great War as well, which I’ll deal with in due course on my WW1 blog at

By contrast with such excitements, so many concealed sadnesses, I feel.

Take for example, the large numbers of spinsters recorded in the pages of past town directories. How many of them had lovers or admirers who died in World War One, I wonder in this centenary year, and came to Budleigh for its reputed tranquillity, for consolation?  There were certainly plenty of war widows living in the town, many of whom never remarried. One of them lived in our house.

Some were plain eccentric. Consider the picture of Miss Henty, the elderly daughter of the Victorian author G.A. Henty, as remembered by the poet Meg Peacocke and recorded in Anthony Meredith’s wonderful biography of her brother Sir Richard Rodney Bennett.


When they moved from London to Budleigh in 1939 Meg, pictured here,  was happy, especially in the “rambling and dilapidated” house owned by the author’s daughter which the Bennett family rented for a time.

“Miss Henty was an amazing personality, really quite mad,” Meg Peacocke recalls. “Among her many eccentricities, for example, was a terror of getting bats in her wispy grey hair. But the house was thrilling! I used to sneak about, taking everything in, and I went up to the attic once and it was full of assegais, masks and marvellous red-leather volumes full of paintings of butterflies and insects.”

Sometimes I think of how many other rambling, dilapidated but thrilling large houses there must have been in the old Budleigh Salterton before they were replaced by apartment blocks. 

Meg Peacocke will give a talk on Monday 13 October at 7.30 pm in the Peter Hall, jointly presented by Fairlynch Museum and the Otter Valley Association.  The subject is ‘Budleigh in Wartime - a child’s viewpoint.’

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