Exmoor celebrates the 150th anniversary of R D Blackmore’s Lorna Doone
PUBLISHED: 16:43 07 May 2019 | UPDATED: 17:14 07 May 2019
This year marks the 150th anniversary of a famous novel set in the wilds of Exmoor. Philip Dalling follows in the footsteps of its characters with a newly revised guidebook
Exmoor in 2019 will be dominated by Lorna Doone, as the novel celebrates its 150th anniversary. For a century and a half now R D Blackmore's masterpiece has never been out of print and its characters have continued to haunt the moor.
From the Valley of Rocks on the western edge of the National Park, eastwards along the Bristol Channel to Porlock, and from the windswept heights of Dunkery Beacon to the deep glens gouged out of the rocky landscape by the Badgworthy Water and the East Lyn River, literary pilgrims and tourists alike will mark the anniversary by treading in the footsteps of Lorna and Jan Ridd, Carver Doone, Jeremy Stickles, Tom Faggus and the rest of Blackmore's unforgettable list of characters.
Matching scenes in the novel to the actual places which inspired them is not always a simple matter and has led in the past to much speculation and no little argument. The enthusiast's task in 2019 will be greatly aided by a new edition of a book that helps to disentangle fact from fiction in Blackmore's timeless best-seller.
Exmoor enthusiasts John Burgess and Caroline Tonson-Rye have revised and expanded the original text of The Lorna Doone Trail by the late S H Burton, first published in 1975. Burton was head of the English department at Blundell's School, Tiverton where, in the novel, Blackmore's hero Jan Ridd was educated. Blundell's is the setting for the opening scenes of the novel, with Jan being summoned home to Exmoor following the murder of his father by the Doones, a band of thieves and murderers living beyond the reach of the law in the fastnesses of the moor.
S H Burton's original concept skilfully juxtaposed extracts from the novel with commentaries and descriptions of the main places which feature in the story. As well as including additional extracts and commentaries, the new edition is fully illustrated with excellent up-to-date photographs of the places associated with the novel.
John and Caroline explain: "We know how often the complexities of the plot and Blackmore's heightened treatment of scene and place can baffle the explorer. But it is only fair to remind ourselves and readers that he was writing a novel, not a guide book. Blackmore was, in his own words, 'shaping an old tale'. We hope S H Burton's popular book will, in its revised form, and without making dogmatic and potentially misleading claims, help lovers of the novel to follow confidently in the author's footsteps."
Sub-titled A Romance of Exmoor, the novel's main theme is undeniably the love story of Lorna, the well-born child abducted and raised by the Doones and Jan Ridd, the sturdy Somerset yeoman farmer whose own father was killed by the same outlaw gang. Yet it runs the full gamut of experiences and emotions, from comedy, through conventional adventure and derring-do, to the dark tragedy of the Monmouth Rebellion, which today still casts a dark shadow on West Somerset, the Levels and Exmoor.
The Lorna Doone Trail embraces all these aspects of the novel and the locations identified and described are well chosen for this purpose. The actual site of Jan Ridd's farm, Plovers Barrows, may still be a mystery, but the Badgworthy Water and the modern-day Lorna Doone Farm at Malmsmead provide classic Exmoor scenery and the hamlet is a magnificent centre for setting out to tour Blackmore's Exmoor.
Landacre Bridge is a prime location for high adventure. The King's Messenger, Jeremy Stickles, assigned to keep a watchful eye on both the Doones and the Exmoor men tempted to follow the Protestant Duke of Monmouth in his ill-fated bid to overthrow the reigning Roman Catholic monarch, James II , narrowly avoids death at the hands of the outlaws.
Stickles' presence leads the reader into the Monmouth rebellion, which sees the end of so many Exmoor rebels and nearly leads to the deaths of Jan Ridd and Tom Faggus, the highwayman. Faggus, married to Ridd's sister Annie, joins the rebels but when Ridd sets out to find him and persuade him to return home, it is Jan who is captured as a suspected Monmouth man and only escapes execution by the timely arrival of Stickles.
Both the novel and the book end at Oare Church, where Lorna Doone is shot by the arch-villain Carver Doone as she stands at the altar during her wedding to Jan Ridd. Believing Lorna to be dead, Ridd pursues Carver and their wrestling match in an Exmoor bog ends with Carver being sucked under to a hideous death.
The rest of the novel, as the book acknowledges in a chapter entitled Happy Ending, is the fairy-tale conclusion beloved of Victorian romantic novelists. But that, surely, is how a romance should end?
The Lorna Doone Trail is published by Halsgrove, £9.99.
Pupils track Lorna Doone:
Pupils from a South Somerset school have celebrated their own Lorna Doone anniversary. Maiden Beech Academy in Crewkerne has visited Exmoor for 25 years, giving thousands of students a chance to experience the landscape that inspired the novel. Teacher Chris Stacey says: "Our copies of Lorna Doone are almost worn out now, but the children so enjoy the story that the study continues. They love visiting the places described in the novel."
Exmoor National Park's Dave Gurnett has led all 25 visits. He adds: "It's an incredibly atmospheric place and taking the children there makes such a difference to their understanding of the book."
A programme of events will take place during 2019 to mark the anniversary, including a Lorna Doone exhibition at Dulverton Heritage Centre, running from April to October, together with themed walks, arts events, literary sessions and a variety of other events around the National Park.
The Two Moors Festival in October is also involved and has commissioned a new work based on the story. The composition will be scored for solo voices, choir, instrumentalists and narrator and will be performed at All Saints Church in Dulverton on 12 October, with professional musicians and students from Blundell's School in Tiverton where Blackmore himself studied.
Richard Doddridge Blackmore (June 7, 1825 - January 20, 1900), although born in Berkshire, spent much of his early life on Exmoor. His grandfather John Blackmore was rector of Combe Martin and Oare and his uncle Richard was rector of Charles.
For details of Lorna Doone 150 events go to: exmoor-nationalpark.gov.uk/lorna-doone-150th-anniversary.