Lorna Doone Country, SomersetIn his day, the latter part of the 19th century, RD Blackmore was regarded as one of the great British novelists, but that reputation has slipped, and he is now remembered almost exclusively for one book, Lorna Doone. But what a book! And what a romantic evocation of the South West at its wild and rugged best.
Blackmore lost his mother when he was a baby, and moved to Devon after his father remarried, spending his childhood years in Ashford, King's Nympton, and Culmstock. An uncle was rector of Oare church, and it is from him that the future novelist is likely to have heard the local legend of Scottish nobles who descended into outlawry after they came to the area amidst political and religious upheavals in the early 17th century, finally returning to their homeland in 1699.
That legend is the basis for Lorna Doone, the adopted daughter of the outlaw clan who live in a natural fastness, Doone Valley. Doone Valley is narrow and rugged, almost impregnable to attack. Doone Valley today is a popular place for walking, in the fantastic countryside of the northern part of Exmoor National Park, which is two-thirds in Somerset and one third in Devon - indeed Doone Valley is on the border between the two counties.
Those who decide to walk Doone Valley would be well advised to take warm clothing and good boots, whatever the time of year - this is wild country. And don't forget Carver Doone's fate - sinking to a grisly death in the black mud! though it should also be remembered that such a death was almost a convention in Victorian novels.
There are plenty of landmarks for the Blackmore fan to seek out in the area: St Mary's Church in Oare is where Lorna is shot by Carver Doone as she waits to marry John Ridd; it also has Blackmore family connections. Oare itself is a lovely village worth spending a little time exploring.
Just a short distance from Oare is Malmsmead, reached via an ancient packhorse bridge that will take you right back to the Doone era. And in Malmsmead is Lorna Doone Farm, where respite and refreshment are in order.
From Malmsmead hikers can follow the course of Badgworthy Water. Hoccombe Combe is probably the site Blackmore had in mind when writing of the Doone stronghold, though Lank Combe has its advocates too.
Just at the edge of Doone Country is Porlock , one of the loveliest coastal villages in the area, and along that coast there are several areas preserved for the nation by The National Trust: Foreland Point to the west, and the land around Selworthy Beacon just to the east of Porlock Bay, both offering great views out to the Bristol Channel . Within a stroll of Porlock village there is the Iron Age hill fort of Bury Castle, and of course the much photographed Porlock Weir.
If you don't fancy walking through the lovely scenery a good alternative is the historic West Somerset Railway , its steam trains chugging by some of the prettiest parts of the Quantock Hills as it runs between Watchet on the coast and Bishop's Lydeard north west of Taunton.
This corner of Exmoor is a place where visitors can indulge in time travel as well as the more conventional sort: once away from the villages it only takes a little imagination to see the Doones in their fading finery, and the stout yeoman John Ridd striding the paths of Brendon Common you too can follow.
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