moorland 1953 front    
First edition, Macdonald, 1953  

The background


The stories


Critical reception


Book covers



First published Macdonald, 16 March 1953, 12s 6d net

Illustrated by James Broom Lynne, with a vignette for each of the twelve chapter headings, two of which also adorn the dust wrapper

(Broom Lynne also designed the covers for A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight.)


Panther, paperback, 1970, 6/-

Text as first edition


The book was incorporated into Collected Nature Stories (Macdonald 1970), with a new preface, slight revisions and a different order. The opening story, 'A Winter's Tale', was moved into the section for The Peregrine's Saga.


Macdonald Futura (Heritage series), paperback, 1981, £1.75

This edition, oddly classified as non-fiction, follows the text as set in Collected Nature Stories (i.e. 11 stories only), but without the illustrations





To Miss Imogen Mais


(Imogen being the daughter of HW's long-standing friends Petre Mais and his partner Jill.)


There is an accompanying letter to the dedicatee which explains the background to the stories within the book. This is the revised typescript:



moorland dedicatory1


moorland dedicatory2


moorland dedicatory3



(Candlemas is the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, 2 February.)


Tales of Moorland & Estuary is a collection of twelve short stories – 'Tales' – several of which had already been published in the earlier Devon Holiday (1935), where they are part of the stories told nightly in 'Arabian Nights' style; the others had been previously published only in magazines, and a couple perhaps not previously printed ('perhaps' advisedly, as my research cannot be said to be exhaustive). It is interesting to note that on the day HW began to write Devon Holiday, Monday, 1 October 1934, he recorded in his diary:


Began DEVON HOLIDAY: Tales of Moorland and Estuary this day.


That sub-title was never used – and it now resurfaces as the charming title for this new book.


HW's choice of stories for this volume needs close consideration. This is no spur-of-the-moment, thrown-together selection to produce a book to earn money (although that was also a necessary factor!). These stories were chosen with care and are among the best that he wrote. Indeed, by any standard, they stand high in the ranks of the short-story genre. They also have either direct content, or allusion and allegory, about war and death, and so emphasise again the overwhelming influence of the war on HW's writing and psyche.






The background:


There is very little information within HW's personal archive about the writing of – or rather, the preparation for – this book.


At the beginning of 1952 HW was hard at work on Donkey Boy, the second volume of the Chronicle; the first volume, The Dark Lantern, had been published in November 1951. He noted on 6 February that while writing hard with the wireless playing music, he heard it dissolve into a long hissing silence (and thought a valve had gone): then a grave voice announced the death of King George VI. He finished the first draft of the novel on 27 February – 'at 3.30 am this morning' – and then began revisions to pull it into a coherent 'whole', noting that the first writing was always by necessity only a draft, as the pen (or mind) took its own course during the writing, so that earlier material had to be adjusted accordingly.


In his diary he notes:


Thursday, 13 March 1952: Macdonalds have taken it [Donkey Boy] for £750 advance.

Also Tales of Moorland & Estuary for £250 advance.

So I feel secure – except that since the budget [stocks have fallen drastically].


Tuesday, 1 April: Signed & returned to Macdonalds contract for Donkey Boy.

Also contract for Tales of Moorland & Estuary.


Thursday, 3 April: Macdonalds sent cheque: Donkey Boy £500

Tales of Moorland, £250


(The contract shows the remaining £250 advance for Donkey Boy was due on publication.)


The typescript for Tales of Moorland & Estuary was due to be presented by 30 June, but there is nothing to note this. At the beginning of June HW attended a West Country Writers' Association congress at Plymouth with Charles Causley, having given the latter a lift from his home in Launceston, where he noted that he 'talked with Frank Swinnerton, a dear'. (Swinnerton had been very helpful at the time of publication of The Gold Falcon and was a good friend.) But he found 'St. Ervine's talk on G.B.S. too long, though moving in parts'.


Two days later, on 5 June, he left for Ireland to stay with John Heygate and his third wife Dora (noted in brackets as 'Lady Heygate': Heygate had inherited the baronetcy in 1940 on the death of his uncle) at his Bellarena estate. This was the first time HW had been to Bellarena, and it had been a long time since he had seen Heygate. Problems arose, and Dora suggested that Christine join them, which calmed things down. HW returned on 25 June.


There is no mention of Tales of Moorland & Estuary until 2 January 1953, when a problem about the illustrations is revealed. HW was by then working hard on volume 3 of the Chronicle, Donkey Boy having been published in October 1952. His diary reveals the strain he was under:


Harvey of Macdonalds [Eric Harvey, their editorial director] writes rather severely that the illustrations done without my sanction or knowledge for Estuary Tales must stand. He wrote some months ago that if I didn't like them when I saw them (i.e. after revision) I needn't have them. They are now revised – they arrived on Xmas Eve & ruined it for me, partly – and are poor, unknowledgeable. The Filleigh Viaduct sketch particularly bad. Tunnicliffe in the Salar illustrations has this exactly. In the Tales, the same pool etc as in Salar is used in the final story, Where the Bright Waters Meet. It is, by this new illustrator, all imagined. The 'viaduct' is a few feet over the river – river with deep banks – with iron tubular supports etc. The Viaduct is described in the story, accurately, too. I wrote saying I would accept the others, but begged him to scrap the phoney bridge, & substitute a burning Bentley, & ghosts by it, instead. Whether he does or not remains to be seen. Meanwhile it is worrying, worrying, worrying. . . .


10 January 1953: Harvey wrote that he would get another drawing for 'Bright Water' in Tales of Moorland & Estuary. Greatly relieved.


16 March: Tales published today.


20 March: Good review of Tales by SPB Mais in Oxford Mail & News Chronicle.


31 March: Someone I met in connexion with James Farrar book – J. Wynne-Tyson – writes that he reviewed Tales for Observer – only short – & likes them very much.




12 April: The Tyson review in Observer today upset me greatly. He says the book is patchy & I have a grudge against the human kind – this his reaction to my splendid tributes to Old-Mast-and-Yards in Crake, to Charley, & Stroyle George in Hero of Sands, & the sad Oodmall of Crown of Life. I was very upset – all my old doubts returned –


That this disturbed HW so greatly shows how important these stories were to him. It also stopped him short temporarily with writing the Chronicle. How easily is the creative equilibrium unbalanced. Jon Wynne-Tyson (self-styled 'King of Redonda' after John Gawsworth's death) was something of a hanger-on and a little too full of his own self-importance with small reason. However, three days later, HW's faith in himself and his work was restored:


15 April: A wonderful talk by Brian Vesey Fitzgerald on Tales of Moorland & Estuary on the West Regional BBC tonight. He praised all the nature books. I wrote him a warm letter of thanks.


11 June: George Painter had a fine review of Tales of Moorland in the Atheneum. Oddly enough, the editor (Kingsley Martin) was staying the same weekend as the issue, at Negley Farsons. I did not meet him. This was at Whitsun, nearly 3 weeks ago.


(There is no Atheneum review in the file, though there is a review by Painter in the New Statesman.)






The stories:


I want to reiterate here the importance and worth of the tales in this collection, and that HW himself set great store by them. Those from Devon Holiday were a little overshadowed by the slapstick joking that surrounds them there – and the remainder were published in ephemeral magazines and essentially inaccessible to later readers. Here, as a cohesive collection, they take on a new and vivid life, and show HW's skill and power of imagination and structure. Broom Lynne’s vignettes head the considerations of each story.



A Winter's Tale:



moorland tale1



This story was originally published as 'A Night on Dartmoor' in Nash's & Pall Mall Magazine, February 1936. In his preface in Collected Nature Stories, where the story is placed in The Peregrine's Saga section, HW wrote that after the departure of 'Julian Warbeck' (Frank Davis, in 1922) he was able to get on with his writing in peace:


I put aside Dandelion Days & began to write a story, based on a walk during the winter of 1919/1920 to see a friend who lived near Dartmoor.


It is a chilling tale in both senses of the word! A few days before Christmas 1919 a young man sets out to walk from fog-bound London to spend the festivity with a friend at his house beyond Princeton deep on Dartmoor. 'It was a period of intense cold.'


The description of this young man with his army blanket etcetera immediately suggests to the reader that it is HW himself. Many readers in the past have fallen into the trap of believing HW really did walk from London to Devon, and HW tended to encourage this – but there is no evidence whatsoever that this was so.


The young man reaches Exeter, and quite late on Christmas Eve sets off to cross Dartmoor. One can, as always with HW, follow his progress on a large scale map. The description of the landscape – Dartmoor in winter: snow, wind, ice – is 'HW superb'. Lost in the dark and cold and at the end of his tether, our hero comes across a cottage and persuades the occupiers (reluctantly) to take him in. His reception and the behaviour of his hosts seem decidedly odd. As the night progresses our young man becomes increasingly nervous, hearing unexplained noises from a cupboard and the suspicious sudden appearances of his host. Half asleep, his mind imagines several horrors. Plucking up courage he eventually opens the cupboard, to find a large barrel inside from which these strange noises emanate. Prising off its lid, he sees the face of an old man peering up at him from the liquid inside, and is convinced he is himself about to be murdered by a pair of maniacs. As dawn breaks on Christmas Day he looks under the bed for something with which to protect himself and discovers an empty coffin there. He then understands the situation, but hurriedly prepares to go on his way.


As he leaves his host explains with dignified reticence that the ground has been frozen too hard to bury his wife's old father, and the only thing they could do was to pickle him in a 'og's-'ade' (hog's head – a barrel of ale) until the thaw came. The last paragraph gives the tale a perfect ending of humanitarian thought.



The Crake:



moorland tale2



As HW explains in the preface to the Collected Nature Stories, the story appeared in Esquire (USA) in June 1953, where, to his extreme annoyance, it had been altered and hacked about without his permission.


However, the story had been written when HW first arrived in Devon – he states 1922 in his Dedicatory letter. Here is actually a more serious and considered variation of a story told in Chapter XI of Devon Holiday (1935): 'We encounter a Fearful Mystery, and experience a Frightful Horror, which nearly ends this Awful Book', which is a more slap-stick version of the Orca Gladiator story and had in itself originally been entitled 'Death to the Killer', and had already appeared in Golden Book Magazine (April 1933) and Storyteller (July 1933).


'The Crake' tells the story of fishermen in the Devon village of Appledore who are being terrorised by a dreadful portent of death, the Crake, so-called because of the terrible noise heard one night, and the deaths that come to be associated with it. It is certainly based on a real tale of superstition and dread. In the end the Crake is revealed to be an 'Orca Gladiator', a grampus, or killer whale. The local fishermen and other characters that appear in the story can be traced back to real men whom HW observed and knew in his early sojourn in 1920s Devon.


The story paints a vivid picture of the village of Appledore of the 1920s, with superb portraits of the men who lived there, particularly Old-Masts-and-Yards and his sole surviving son, Whistling Paddy. His other four sons had been killed at sea during the First World War. Whistling Paddy, indeed, had also been blown up and seriously injured. The hardships endured by the fishermen are evident. William Crang, the 'Hell-fire & Brimstone' preacher, is prominent. Also a young doctor who was compiling a natural history of the Two Rivers, who gives a lecture on the life cycle of the salmon: none other than Dr Elliston Wright, a well-known local naturalist who brought HW's first-born son into the world!


Whistling Paddy is sadly drowned, in effect by the Crake – Orca Gladiator – thus reinforcing the legend. His father, Old-Masts-and-Yards, then lives alone. He is often seen standing alone for hours on end by the local War Memorial, where he feels near his sons.


It is a sobering and salutary tale, yet uplifting in its sincere simplicity and told with consummate skill.


Towards the end of his life, suffering from dementia and living with us before going into the care of the monks at Twyford Abbey, HW was much troubled by thoughts of the Crake, and had to be frequently soothed. It was obvious that in his muddled state he was reliving this story of the portent of death.



A Hero of the Sands:



moorland tale3



The opening vignette here about a Pekinese being attacked by an Alsatian wolfhound and rescued by 'the hero of the sands' is but a forerunner to the real story: one concerning Charley Ovey and his famous terrier, the Mad Mullah, and Stroyle George and his cattle-dog Roy. These are characters that have appeared in the early books about life in Georgeham and are well known to regular HW readers.


The two men meet in the street below the observer's window (HW, looking down from the window in his writing study over the garage at Vale House in Georgeham). The two dogs size each other up by continuously running round the two men. Male exchanges are phlegmatic, as tends to be the way with countrymen. The stand-off between the dogs continues until Roy suddenly seizes the Mullah (old and toothless) and turns him on his back. Stroyle George shouts at Roy, who lets go and disappears under the culvert that carries the little stream under the road – followed by the Mullah. Charley and George depart about their own business.


The two dogs follow the stream down to 'Cryde' (Croyde), the elderly Mullah some way behind, where Roy encounters the Pekinese 'Consuelo', of the opening vignette. Consuelo follows Roy down to the beach where it is again attacked by the Alsatian wolfhound. Roy panics. But the Mullah, coming behind, attacks the Alsatian, which retaliates with intention of killing him. Roy now attacks the Alsatian, which drops the Mullah to concentrate on his new opponent. The previous day's 'Hero of the Sands' again grabs the Alsatian's back legs, shouting to another to grab Roy's legs. But they do not part: and are finally separated by holding a burning newspaper under their noses, Roy becoming the four-legged 'Hero of the Sands'. The next day Roy again meets the Mullah in the street: where they are seen to be the best of friends.


(As will be seen – one reviewer attacked HW for his description of the 'Pekinese' (strictly, 'Pekingese'!).



Incidents of an Afternoon Walk:



moorland tale4



Again the opening, together with a second amusing diversion, serves as a prologue to the main story, setting the story in real life: a walk following a 'runner' (small stream) which ends in a pond. Arriving at the pond we also arrive at a tale of the life in that pond: an observation involving frogs, a rat, and a heron – a story of spring mating, hunger, and survival.


This is actually a version of 'Some Marvels of Pond Life', printed in The Linhay on the Downs (1934), but smoothed with small revisions. The story was first published in The Bermondsey Book, August 1929, as 'The Drama of a Pond'. (It should not be confused with another story entitled 'The Old Pond'.)



The Heller:



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This story had first appeared in the American Atlantic Monthly (May 1928), then in Cassells Magazine (September 1928), Argosy (1935), and the Daily Express (22 October 1935).  It had further been published in Devon Holiday, Chapter IX.


It is set on the Braunton Marshes which lie between the town and the famous Burrows (a massive dune ecosystem) and flanked on its eastern side by the River Caen which runs into the estuary of the Two Rivers (Taw and Torridge).


HW, out on a walk down the wall, an earth bank which flanks the estuary and guards the marshes from flood, meets the marshman who lives at the toll-gate cottage. The flood tide is extra high and causing some slight flooding on the marsh. The marshman has a grievance: his brood of ducklings are being eaten by 'The Heller', which, after cursing it several times, the marshman identifies as 'that darned old mousey-coloured fitch' in other words, an otter. At that moment it is seen, and the marshman fires at it with his ancient gun, but it escapes (to the relief of HW). But the marshman now sets a trap over the sluice to catch it, weighted so as to drown the otter once it is caught.


Later, as he wanders, HW sees the otter again – 'the biggest otter I had seen, with the broadest head' – and watches it play while the tide floods, slightly over-topping the sluices, and spilling over into the marsh. It is getting dark, and he hears a lot of squelching and odd noises coming from the marsh somewhere in front of him. Then he hears a noise which indicates that the otter has been caught in the trap.


The next day the marshman takes HW to retrieve the otter, its skin being worth money. As they return they find a large dead conger eel which has obviously been killed by the now dead otter. The marshman takes it home and cuts it open:


. . . then stared into my face with amazement and sadness, for within the great eel were the remains of his ducklings.


The otter, having killed the real 'Heller', had died in vain.



The Yellow Boots:



moorland tale6



This extremely gory, superbly crafted, short story first appeared in The Old Stag (1926), but was not printed in the 1933 illustrated edition, instead being added into Devon Holiday, Ch. XVI, as 'The Story of the Poisoned Hounds', being the tale told at Lydford. The story was also printed in Argosy in 1928, and notably in the new West Country Magazine, in two parts, Summer and Autumn 1946.


The Inclefell Harriers are due to meet for the final hunt of the season, but inexplicably the Meet is cancelled. Rumours abound. Then it is officially announced that the hounds had all been put down for sheep-worrying. Even so it is all considered to be rather peculiar.


The scene shifts to Convict 76 – who had fought bravely in the First World War – newly escaped from Princeton Prison on Dartmoor, who (thinking himself in luck) finds a bag of hidden clothes, including a pair of yellow riding boots, and changes out of his conspicuous prison uniform. However, the clothes have been used to sabotage the Hunt by making a drag scent to lure hounds away from their legitimate prey by two renegade youngsters, one of whom is the daughter of the Huntsman. The young couple try to warn him but he does not listen. So, dressed in these clothes, Convict 76 finds himself hunted by the hounds bent on tracking the addictive smell of aniseed. But all will be well, he tells himself – he has a lucky talisman, a pin. This pin has been his protection against all evil.


This hunt is comparable to the last great Hunt in Tarka the Otter. The scene is set on Dartmoor, and we find Convict 76 struggling through the mire of familiar place names: Links Tor, the Great Kneeset, Cranmere Pool. But here, instead of being an allegory, it is linked openly to Convict 76's terrible experiences in the First World War, and how thoughts of his new bride had sustained him through it all.


He was so fatigued when he reached the Great Kneeset that he had to walk. His feet, with blistered toes and heels, felt as hot and heavy as they had felt when he had trench-feet, swelled and red as tomatoes. . . .


He staggered across the plash in the peaty hollow of an old tarn, hid by swirls of fog . . . [Cranmere]


. . . all dropped into darkness. He heard the whining of ricochets, saw the greenish flares quivering in the water-filled shell-holes . . .


He prayed with broken shouts, as he had prayed under the barrage at Festubert. . . .


He throws off the clothes that are impeding him – three hours of running have passed – and getting into an icy stream evades the hounds for a short while. But then, feeling for his lucky pin, he finds it is no longer there.


Ever since he had been blown by a high-explosive shell out of a communication trench in the Hohenzollern Redoubt, with burst sandbags and pieces of a shattered Coalie, his chum, a spectre had fretted his life. . . .


The thought of his wife had kept the spectre away; as afterwards, the companionship of the pin in his cell had been a barrier against the dark fears which came into his disrupted mind. When he knew that the pin was lost, Seventy-Six threw up his arms and wailed.


Struggling on, he now re-lives the time of his first leave home: and arrival back in London during a Zeppelin raid: 'The minenwerfen in the Salient had made a lesser noise.' The Zeppelin torpedo falls near his own house – sixteen houses are flattened, but his was still standing. 'Won't old Dol be surprised to see me . . .'


But he finds 'Old Dol' in bed with another man, and in sudden blind rage he had stabbed viciously with his bayonet over and over, killing them both. As the story ends, his mind relentlessly re-enacts the scene of his crime: in reality he is being attacked by the hounds who have finally caught up with him.


The next morning the errant daughter of the Huntsman is out for an early morning ride. She comes across bloodstained hounds who greet her eagerly – and sees  


two shinbones sticking out of a pair of yellow boots.


The opening pages of the story now have an explanation.



The White Stoat:



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Again, this is a very early story, appearing in Atlantic Monthly in July 1929; in Passing Show, 14 April 1934; and gathered into Devon Holiday, Ch. VIII, under the buccaneering and much more descriptive (and apt) title 'Swagdagger Crosses a Field'. Both versions are hedged about with more or less nonsensical 'rigmarole' – although totally different in each case.


The reader finds that 'Mr. Ovey' of the original story becomes here 'MacShankles', and that our author has 'on sudden impulse sold his field . . . his sanctuary . . . which I loved . . . [and in which] I had planted trees, built a hut, dug a drive of sorts, and made a garden’. And what's more he has sold it to a Londoner, wearing a black Homburg hat (de rigueur in London but totally incongruous in the country).


Looking over the gate of his new field, MacShankles sees what he takes to be a piece of white paper blowing along and thinks a trespasser has been there and dropped it. He determines to padlock the gate and put up a warning notice. He does not realise that the white rippling object is actually a white stoat, which has a mate and a litter of young living nearby.


As the white stoat (Swagdagger) crosses the field on his way to the beech clump where his family are living he is attacked by a buzzard, but frightens it off by his hissing angry defence noises. This noise disturbs a pair of crows, then a rook, more rooks, and four magpies. All fly around in noisy cacophony, mobbing the white stoat. But the sentinel rook sees away in the distance, a far greater danger: Chakchek the Backbreaker – the peregrine falcon. Kronk the raven, King of the Crows, also appears.


More chasing involving all the birds occurs, until suddenly stoat and raven come face to face.


Raven and stoat remained still, brown and pink eyes fixed in the same stare. Instinctively, from the human point of view, the stoat is insane. He lives to kill; he drinks hot blood with frantic joy. Frustrated in his direct purpose, the white stoat's lithe and furious power blazed in his opaline eyes. . . .


But the birds are disturbed by MacShankles returning with his notice, and flee; all except the buzzard, which now attacks the white stoat, who sinks his teeth into the buzzard's leg, and they rise into the air struggling together; falling back down as the stoat wins an amazing aerial battle of life and death. He continues on his way.


But he is now seen by MacShankles – who recognises 'ermine', and potential money. He chases the white stoat into a woodpile, but Swagdagger has had enough and turns on what he perceives as a nasty smell with furious noises and attacks. MacShankles is then chased by the family of stoats, chattering in fury, into, through, and out of, his own field, with noisy accompaniment of the disturbed birds.


Back in the village, Macshankles, totally unable to cope with terrifying nature, meets up with our author and thankfully sells the Field back to its rightful owner.



The Dog who Ate His Punishment:



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The story was first printed in Windsor Magazine, No. 468, December 1933:



moorland tale8a      moorland tale8b



It then went into Devon Holiday, Ch. VI, and is revised for its appearance here.


HW introduces an American Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature staying in Devon on a research fellowship to write a book. This is Herbert Faulkner West, whom HW had met on his visit to the USA over the winter of 1930‒31, and who came to England, as in the story, in 1932. While here, he visited HW at Shallowford, where he wrote the percipient essay The Dreamer of Devon.


The actual story here, that the Professor's dog, Snapper, was accused of killing chickens and suitably punished, is purely fictional, but based on, or rather prompted by, HW's own dog, which on occasion did kill one of his neighbour's chickens – which HW had to pay for! The twist to the story is that a dead chicken was hung round the dog's neck to punish it – but he is beset upon by rats, who are of course the real culprits. The farmer shoots into the mêlée, luckily missing Snapper: nine rats dead altogether, six by the farmer, three by Snapper. Snapper is now considered a hero! The farmer's wife cooks up the chicken, carefully removing all bones, for Snapper's reward: thus he eats his punishment!



The Maiden Salmon:



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This important and most interesting story forms the last chapter of Devon Holiday. Written in 1934 and arising out of HW's anguish over his thwarted love for Ann Edmonds, it embodies a similar style and atmosphere as his earlier book The Star-born, published in 1933 but actually written in 1922. The story of the life cycle of a salmon from egg to maturity (a maiden salmon), as watched and aided by the poet is linked with the love of a beautiful and elusive, seemingly human, maiden. It is a powerful 'above and beyond' metaphysical allegory, embodying the role of love as a muse and its effect on the creative personality. It ends with the poet's death and his meeting with the maiden:


The poet looked at the maiden, and knew that his search was ended – for on that brow was the sunrise of a new world.


Full details of the background to the story can be found in the entry for Devon Holiday.






moorland tale10



While writing Devon Holiday HW noted in his diary on 1 October 1934: 'Embodied short story TROUT'. However, the story was not included in that published book. It may have been deleted, as its central character was too recognisable: the book's publishers – Jonathan Cape – were very concerned about possible libel action at the time. In January 1951 a story entitled 'Trout' was published in Chambers Journal, where it is the opening story:



moorland tale10a      moorland tale10b



In his 'Dedication' to Imogen Mais HW writes:


Trout has been added-to, but only by the events of another war, which further reduced the family whose history is written in the person and memory of Mrs. Houghton-Hawton (not her real name) who is still living.


This poignant story – sad, but ending with hope – is perfectly crafted and superbly told: totally evocative of a time past – and lost.


The disguise of the little town which places the story is pretty thin: South Dulton and the River Dull are surely South Molton and the River Mole, within a stone's throw of Shallowford where HW lived in the 1930s. His description of the behaviour of its inhabitants is not very favourable!


A mile away from this town stands Hawton Hall, occupied solely by old Mrs Houghton-Hawton of Hawton, 'who has known four wars and five generations of her family.' This 'châtelaine' (how cleverly the use of such an old-fashioned word creates the desired atmosphere) lives within her memories: her sense of time and people a little out of synchronisation with reality. Throughout, everyone's manners are impeccable, despite their private thoughts.


The Hawton men, by tradition, had all fished for trout in their stretch of river and been formally photographed with rod and first catch. A large silver photograph frame containing several of these photographs stands proudly in full view on the piano in the music room – with one space left to fill. All the men depicted had been killed in various wars.


Her father-in-law had been killed with the Light Brigade in the Crimean War; his son, Alethea Houghton-Hawton's husband, had died of enteric fever in the South African War (as did Sidney Cakebread in Donkey Boy, which was being written at the same time as this book). Their son, an Observer in the Royal Flying Corps, had died in the First World War. The most recent photograph is of his son, Nigel (all the first-born are named Nigel), who had 'found a soldier's grave far from his native land . . . in the desert warfare with the Afrika Korps'; while his son, and Mrs Houghton-Hawton's great grandson, lives with Grannie and is just home for the Easter holidays, and is anxiously wondering if he would live up to the family tradition.


The demise of the male Hawtons is reflected in the decline of the river and its fish, and in the farms and timber of the Estate lands, gradually being sold off to meet the successive crippling death duties involved.


There is a chilling description of the death of the RFC Hawton, which blends into the plight of the present young Nigel, bothered by which fly to use as he attempts to catch his first trout under the rather useless guidance of the ex-chauffeur and a village worthy. Eventually, with excited surprise, the lad succeeds in landing a small but legal 3-oz fish.


On return home the lad hands the fish over to the housekeeper saying it must be cooked for 'Gran's dinner'. He has forgotten about the required photograph until, suddenly remembering, it is too late. The fish has already been cooked. He is terribly upset – but Gran – Mrs Houghton Hawton of Hawton – rises magnificently to the occasion, saying it is not too late, and that such an unusual photograph of the victor holding a plate on which the cooked fish sits will be a great talking point for many years to come.


Nigel's photograph indeed joins the others in the silver frame on the piano in the music room. We learn that the grown-up Nigel has emigrated to farm in New Zealand; the old lady, nearly 100 years old, lives alone with her memories.



moorland tale10c



Incidentally, 'The Trout' was subsequently published in Best Fishing Stories, edited by John Moore (Faber, 1965) where John Moore states:


Henry Williamson is a man of Devon, and the rivers and streams in his books are the swift bright tumbling ones of his native county.  Salar the Salmon was a successor to his famous Tarka the Otter, and in both books the naturalist and the novelist go hand in hand; the precise and accurate observation of birds and beasts and fishes is matched with the story-teller's imagination and the poet's vision.


Moore's selection also included 'Black Dog' from Salar the Salmon--- and the 'Iron-Blue' chapter from Plunket Greene's Where the Bright Waters Meet.



A Crown of Life:



moorland tale11



This story first appeared in Nash's & Pall Mall Magazine, December 1935; then in Atlantic Monthly, January 1936; Fiction Parade and Golden Book Magazine, March 1936; Argosy, June 1936; The Adelphi, Vol. 22, No. 1, October–December 1945, where it was dedicated 'For Benjamin Britten', the composer (see the entry for The Adelphi).


This is another magnificent, extremely well-crafted, poignant and moral story. It paints a picture of village life exactly as it would have been from the viewpoint of a particular family who have lived there for five centuries. In particular it concerns Clibbit Kifft (from HW's early Georgeham era) and his most faithful dog, Ship. We read first of the history of the Kifft family – yeoman farmers struggling to make a living in their 'Frogstreet' farmhouse. (Frogstreet has a rather onomatopoeic ring of 'Plugstreet'.) At the time of this story the farm is very run down, the import of foreign corn being a major cause. (This is a constant theme in much of HW's writing, notably in The Flax of Dream and A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight.)


Clibbit takes after his father, who treated him badly as a child: he drinks and has a temper: his appearance so odd that the village boys called him 'Oodmall' (scarecrow). HW's description of this man is remarkable in its detail and well worth reading. He gains a reputation for being cruel to animals. The only things not frightened of him were the house martins that nested under the eaves. The only person who is kindly is the Rector. The old grey cattle-dog Ship also remained faithful, despite constant kicks and blows. But in due course his older sons, unable to stand any more, leave; and his wife, also unable to cope any longer, eventually also leaves him to go and live with her brother. And so Clibbit lives alone.


The farm runs down and every animal on it develops a problem, including his old pony. Reported to the Bench for cruelty, the horse is ordered to be destroyed and Clibbit sent to prison for seven days. When he comes out of prison he appears lost, but Ship is glad to have him back. The last straw comes when he picks some late watercress for his own youngest child, living with his wife's brother at Vellacott Farm. He is rejected and told to clear off.


Clibbit went away without a word. His body was found the next day lying in Lovering's Mash, gun beside him, and Ship wet and whimpering. Watercress was found in his pocket.


With a verdict of 'felo-de-se' (self-murder) he has to be buried in unconsecrated ground. The grieving Ship disappears, but is seen at nights to be haunting the grave of its master. The Rector hears about it and is kind to the dog, taking it a biscuit early every morning on his way into the church. Christmas approaches.


On Christmas Eve the yews in the churchyard were black and motionless as dead time.


The climax to the story comes at the early morning Communion Service in the church on Christmas Day. As the village faithful take communion, the frozen, bedraggled and dying dog appears and manages to drag itself up to the Communion Rail, where the Rector is administering the Sacrament to his congregation. The Rector bends down and gives the dog something out of his pocket (one feels he is giving the creature part of the Sacrament), but the dog is already beyond life. The Rector blesses it saying:


'Be thou faithful unto death; and I will give thee a crown of life.' The sun rose up over the moor, and shone through the eastern window, where Christ the Sower was radiant.


(The quotation is from the Book of Revelations, Ch. 2, v. 10. Interestingly, the phrase is also used by Algernon Swinburne (1831–1909) in his poem Dolores: Swinburne being the poet quoted continuously by 'Julian Warbeck' (Frank Davis) in the Chronicle novels.)



Where the Bright Waters Meet:



moorland tale12



This story first appeared as 'Whatever has Happened?' in the Daily Express, 8 May 1935, and in Lovat Dickson's Magazine, March 1935:



moorland tale12a      moorland tale12b



The new title is taken from Where the Bright Waters Meet (1924), a classic book on trout fishing on the River Bourne (a tributary of the Test) by Harry Plunket Greene, a copy of which HW had at Shallowford, signed and dated 1930. HW included the chapter 'Iron-Blue' (about a particular blue dun fly – which also features in HW's story here) in an anthology he edited in 1966, My Favourite Country Stories (Lutterworth), thirteen years ahead of this present book – and thirty years ahead of the original story.


This short story is another masterpiece of the genre – this time with a twist and a very appropriate one with which to end the book. It is one of the very few (understated, but very chilling) ghost stories that HW wrote. That it was very important to him can be seen by the anguish he felt over the faulty illustration as noted above in the background section. It couldn't be just any old viaduct: it had to be the viaduct. This viaduct today carries the main road, and the scene that HW describes can be seen – briefly – as one speeds over it in a modern car.


The 'I' of the story (the author / HW) and his friend Basil catch a train to London (obviously from Filleigh Station, within a mile or so of HW's Shallowford cottage). But something is not right. The train crosses the viaduct that spans the Deer Park, and they vaguely wonder why they are not using the 4½ litre super-charged Bentley, such 'a pleasure to drive', for the journey.


The train was getting under way; we were passing the trees of the Deer Park on our right. Soon the tops of the firs and pines were slowly lowering themselves beside us. The cutting was dropping away; the viaduct over the valley was in front. We were now above the blue-green tops of the spruces. We sat on the right of the carriage, peering through the open window for a sight of the winding moorland stream with its fringe of alders and occasional great oaks, and of the thatched cottage far away at the end of the valley [Shallowford]. . . .


The viaduct of the Great Western Railway spanning the valley stands a hundred feet above meadowland and river. It rears itself on tall stone columns. . . .



moorland tale12c
The Fireplay Pool and viaduct in HW's Shallowford days



They notice two men fishing in the river below – the author's stretch of river: they must be poachers. The train stops – oddly – on the viaduct and they alight and scramble down to where these two 'poachers' are fishing. They look familiar, and one is fishing in just the very same style as the author himself.


Then, as the description of the scene continues, they merge into the author and Basil (although they are also still the watchers) – and the former has caught his own tame Loch Leven trout, named Peter. The trout is being killed. This is all wrong, and the author runs shouting to stop it, in vain.


The scene dissolves. He climbs up a tree and finds all peaceful: and then spies, in its usual position behind a particular rock, the big trout he calls Peter. There is a hatch of fly, of Iron-Blue duns (thus the Plunket Greene) and there is a lyrical passage ending:


A hatch of fly, and the consequent rise of fish, was a sight I had never ceased to watch with thrilling excitement. The river was alive, its multitudinous life in balance under the sun! My nature drew life from the living water.


After a while the author sees Basil walking by the Viaduct Pool and, getting down from the tree, goes to meet him. They both admit they feel odd – possibly ’flu – and decide to get back to the house to rest, feeling increasingly ill and finding the sunlight and noise unbearable.


The house is packed with people. Outside there is a lorry on which lies a smashed and burnt-out motor-car. They hear people describing what has happened. The author feels increasingly distraught and suddenly finds himself in the middle of a car-crash:


I heard, in a series of swaying recessions, the words – blazing headlights – seventy miles an hour, or maybe eighty - a terrible noise as the car crashed into the telegraph pole at the bend of the road, breaking it in two – the car turned over and over, and burst into flames – charred almost beyond recognition.



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Go to Critical reception.






Book covers:



First edition, Macdonald, 1953:


moorland 1953 cover


Front and back flaps:


moorland 1953 flap1             moorland 1953 flap2


Back cover:


moorland 1953 back



Panther, paperback, 1970:


moorland 1970



The lovely cover photograph is by Kenneth Scowen, and is tentatively identified as Instow, looking across the estuary from Appledore. Can anyone confirm this?


The flyleaf of this particular copy bears an inscription which clearly worked, as it is still in the archive!


moorland 1970 b



Macdonald Futura, paperback, 1981:


moorland 1981


The wraparound cover is taken from a painting by Miles Birket Foster, 'A Dell in Devonshire', courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum.









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