Exmoor’s legendary lovers
PUBLISHED: 10:53 13 February 2017 | UPDATED: 10:53 13 February 2017
Simone Stanbrook-Byrne takes a look at the history behind St Valentine’s Day and Exmoor’s legendary lovers
February. That chilly, dark, damp time of year when days are short and gloom is sometimes all-pervading. But for those of a romantic inclination a frisson of anticipated warmth is just around the corner: Valentine’s Day.
There is little to associate the third century St Valentine with romantic love, indeed very little is known about him apart from the fact that he was martyred on February 14. He may even be an amalgam of two different people with the same name. Whatever the truth about him, his existence continues to be celebrated in the customs associated with St Valentine’s Day.
Written evidence of the association of Valentine’s Day with love first appears in the 14th century when Chaucer told of the belief that birds chose their mates on this day; it is possible that the date was adopted as it was close to the pagan festival of Lupercalia. Over time the customs associated with Valentine’s Day developed, varying from region to region across the country and driving the quill of many a poet.
By the 15th century, the mode of choosing a Valentine was sometimes based on affection, sometimes by drawing lots, and gifts were exchanged.
Ever since Chaucer’s time English literature has enjoyed a rich heritage of romance. Love, requited or otherwise, has been the life-blood of many tales, and one of the most enduring romances of all time was born on Exmoor.
Isolated, mysterious, a place of wind-hushed heights and deeply folded combes, Exmoor’s legend and history inspired the creation of two of Somerset’s best-known lovers, Lorna Doone and John Ridd. These fictional characters were set at a time when the Valentine’s tradition had become widely popular.
R.D. Blackmore’s Lorna Doone blends fact with folklore to create an intriguing fiction of 17th century revenge and romance. In the novel, John Ridd, a farmer from the Exmoor village of Oare, chances upon Lorna and they fall in love. But there is a violent fly in the romantic ointment: Lorna, kidnapped as a child by the Doones, a once-noble but now-outlawed clan that haunts the area of Badgworthy Water (today known as The Doone Valley), is the intended bride of Carver Doone. To add complication, John’s father had been murdered by the feared and hated Doones. Lorna and John’s love seems doomed.
As romantics know, the unsmooth course of true love can be overcome. Lorna is eventually discovered to be a long-lost heiress and she and John marry in Oare Church. But an uninvited guest in the shape of Carver Doone rides pell-mell off the wild moor and shoots Lorna as she stands near the altar. The distraught John pursues Carver onto the moor, they fight and Carver is killed.
True love, we frequently hear, doesn’t die and, thankfully, neither does Lorna. She recovers from the attack and she and John live happily ever after, their love immortalised by the ever-popular story.
In the West Country of Lorna and John’s time it was the custom that the first person one met on 14 February became one’s Valentine. This left rather too much to chance for some determined Valentines-seekers who would walk blindfolded to their chosen one’s house to make sure that the first person they saw was the one they actually wanted.
The tradition became an opportunity for an expression of light-hearted esteem and respect. The famed diarist, Samuel Pepys, would arrange for a pleasing young man to turn up and present a Valentine’s gift to Mrs Pepys, an annual treat to brighten her day which, it seems, she came to expect.
By the 18th century the custom had evolved to leave less to chance and more to choice. Written messages became more common and the trend towards anonymity developed. In the 1820s Valentine’s Day cards began to develop, gradually becoming more elaborate in design. But trends changed and in the late 19th century Valentine’s cards became increasingly less decorous and more vulgar, so much so that their receipt was no longer a delight and by World War One the custom had dwindled. Then, in the 1950s, it enjoyed resurgence, driven, inevitably, by commercialism and American influence. The ‘tone’ of Valentine’s Day reverted to the timeless appeal of romance, love and respect, ensuring its endurance.
Up on Exmoor, on the edge of imagination, where real and unreal merge and mythical entwines with mortal, I feel sure that John and Lorna would have approved.
Facts about the Fiction
Lorna Doone was first published in three volumes in 1869. In 1870 it was reproduced in one volume and has remained in print ever since.
R.D. Blackmore used the names of real families in his novel.
Oare Church was once shorter than it is today, which would have enabled Carver Doone to aim at the altar through a small unglazed window.
A real John Ridd was churchwarden at Oare between 1914 and 1924.
Tradition speaks of an outlawed Doone clan settling on Exmoor after leaving Scotland in the 17th century.