HW outside Skirr Cottage, 1921 Encouraged by his Aunt Mary Leopoldina, with whom he had stayed in Georgeham just before the war broke out,who had herself written a short but powerfully mystical book in 1910, and who had sent him a volume of the work of Francis Thompson whilst he was in the trenches, which was to prove a great influence on the young adolescent, Henry Williamson had already begun to write secretly in his room whilst on army duty and whilst on leave but he felt very isolated and very much a lone voice in the wilderness.


However, whilst on army duties at No. 1 Dispersal Unit in Folkestone in early 1919 and struggling with the emotions of an unhappy love affair, he was browsing in a bookshop when he found a copy of Richard Jefferies’s The Story of My Heart, and read in rapt attention to the very end, the book being for him a ‘revelation of total truth’. He determined to tread a similar path. He began to write seriously from then onwards.


When he was first demobilised Henry became rather wild, but fortunately his grandfather procured him a job in Fleet Street and so HW worked as a motoring correspondent for the Weekly Dispatch and was soon having nature articles and short stories published in various newspapers and periodicals. But he found the return to the family home and life too narrow and frustrating. His father’s disapproval of everything that he did was a constant source of friction and in 1921 he decided to leave home and escaped on his Norton motorcycle to Devon. He had returned briefly to Georgeham for holidays once or twice during the war years but mainly he remembered that idyllic holiday from just before the war, and felt that it was his spiritual home, for he claimed links with Exmoor via a family name of Shapcote. These ancestors had at one time lived for generations on the edge of Exmoor, and had been a very well-to-do family of landowners and naval officers.


He arranged to rent the same cottage next to the church in Georgeham for £5 a year which he named ‘Skirr’ after the calls of barn owls living in a space under the thatch, and began his writing life. He walked day and night on the cliffs and beaches at Baggy Point, Putsborough Sands, Braunton Burrows, and the high moors drained by the rivers Taw and Torridge. He enjoyed an almost mystical relationship with Exmoor, thinking of The Chains as his ancestral homeland, giving race-memory of the source of divine creation that he called 'ancient sunlight'.


In many ways this was a time of healing from the strain of the war years. And in the autumn of 1921 his first book The Beautiful Years (the first volume of the tetralogy The Flax of Dream) was published. This detailed the childhood of a lonely motherless boy, Willie Maddison, growing up in the west country in the early years of this century. For this he was given the princely advance sum of £25, riches to the struggling young author. More importantly, the book was well received and was very favourably reviewed.


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