A graceful writer

First published in ‘Dartmoor – the country magazine,’ summer 2004, and slightly expanded.

Readers of W. G. Hoskins’ classic history of Devon (1954) may have wondered, as I did for years, about some lines of verse he quotes in his chapter ‘The Land.’ These fit perfectly with the chapter’s material, but Hoskins, surprisingly, for such a professional scholar, gives no source:

The old well-trodden lane
Shadowed with broad-leaved sycamores,
And hung
Along its rocky sides with soft green moss
And sunny stonecrop: at whose farther end
The open porch, beneath o’er-arching boughs,
Gleams like a welcome.

A few pages further on, he uses more from what is clearly the same poem. The lines are beautifully evocative, painting a picture of quintessential upland Devon:

The child who played
Beneath the ash trees by the riverside,
Saw the same quiet home his fathers knew,
Save that a deeper shadow from the boughs
Fell on him…
So the same life passed down from sire to son.
To the same granite font-stone each was borne;
And the same chime from out the time-worn tower
Called them to prayer; and by the same dark bench
Carved by rude hands of old, they knelt to God.
Year after year they trod the same green path
Over the moors with wild thyme thickly spread
To the far valley; where the church lifts up
Her pinnacles beneath the sycamores;
And there, beneath the shelter of their boughs,
Each, as he passed away, was laid to rest.

In fact, Hoskins does tell us what the poem is, without actually doing so, later in the book, in his section on Devon’s literature. He singles out ‘The Hill Farm’ by Richard John King as being one of the few pieces ever written about Dartmoor to get the atmosphere right. The poem can be found in Devonshire Scenery (1884), edited by William Everett. If you take the trouble to seek out this volume (and maybe Hoskins wanted, or just expected, his readers to make the effort) you will find that, indeed, ‘The Hill Farm’ is the poem from which the lines are taken, and that the whole work is as satisfying as the extracts suggest. When I first sat copying it in the Westcountry Studies Library, many years ago now, I felt as if I had known it all my life.

‘The Hill Farm’ was first published in Fraser’s Magazine in July 1867. In its eight stanzas the author describes an ancient Dartmoor farmstead and meditates peacefully on the life it has seen through the ages. The viewpoint is that of a Romantic, gentlemanly observer. Dartmoor’s hills are invariably ‘mountains,’ and the poet’s Wordsworthian idealisation of the purity and wholesomeness of moorland life is some way from reality: not a hint of the endless struggle to survive in a harsh environment, the constant threat of chronic illness, or all the other accompaniments of rural poverty. But the modern reader, after duly acknowledging this partiality (which is not, after all, unique in English literature), can still sink into his gentle vision of ‘ancient peace and stillness,’ and enjoy his masterly evocation of the slow passing of time and sense of oneness with previous generations. This is Dartmoor farm life not as it ever was, but as it should have been.

So who was the author of the poem, and what else did he do? Richard John King was born at Pennycross, Plymouth, in January 1818, the son of Richard King of Bigadon, high in the hills above Dean Prior and Buckfastleigh. The family claimed to be one of the oldest in Devon, and even fancied they were descended from the ancient royal house of the Dumnonii, the ancient British kingdom that covered Devon and Cornwall from the Iron Age to the Saxon invasion. R. J. King took his degree at Exeter College, Oxford, in 1841, and settled at Bigadon to develop his literary talents, obviously expecting to enjoy the comfortable, satisfying life of a gentleman antiquary. He published a collection of ballad poetry, and a novel on the wanderings of St Anschar, the apostle of Sweden (a surprising choice when he had, so much closer to home, all the Celtic missionaries of the South West, and the Devon-born St Boniface). Many of his writings were published in the Quarterly Review and in Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country, the latter edited, from 1860 to 1874, by King’s exact contemporary, the Dartington-born historian J. A. Froude.

Unfortunately for King, the life he had planned was not to be. When he came to inherit his estate, he found it to be heavily mortgaged and everything had to be sold, including – a scholar’s worst nightmare – his precious library, said to be one of the finest in the kingdom. The sale of the books alone took three days, which must have been agonising. After this blow to his self-esteem he retired quietly to a house at Crediton called ‘The Limes,’ where he spent the rest of his life, writing and studying, until his death in March 1879.

R. J. King was known to his contemporaries as a shy, gentle man, popular with his friends and possessed of a profound and unparalleled knowledge of his county’s history ‘in its minutest ramifications.’ He was a leading member of the Devonshire Association, serving on many committees and becoming its President in 1875. He wrote the earliest reports on folklore for the association’s ‘Transactions.’ In fact, he was a pioneer of the whole discipline: when W. J. Thoms, in a letter to the Athenaeum in August 1849, invented the term ‘folklore’ and asked for examples (originally the words were hyphenated, but this died out in the mid-twentieth century), one of his first respondents, with a study of Dartmoor pixies, was ‘RJK.’

Some aspects of his work as a folklorist have become part of the local consciousness. He was the first to suggest a connection between the Dartmoor tinners and the famous image of the three rabbits or hares (though he seems to have been wrong about this), and he gave to the world one of Devon’s best known ghost stories, that of Weaver Knowles of Dean Prior, repeated in book after book ever since. If you open a volume on Devon history or antiquities published in the mid to late nineteenth century, you are likely to find him fulsomely praised and thanked in the acknowledgements.

A natural writer, with a fluent, lucid and colourful style, he would have been better known had not much of his work been published anonymously. He was the original author and editor of many of the famous ‘Murray’s Handbooks’ to the English counties, including the volumes for Devon and Cornwall, Kent and Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridge. A substantial volume of his articles and papers was published in 1874 with the less than exciting title of Sketches and Studies, though I was pleased enough to see it, and his name, on a battered copy which I picked up in Exeter a few years ago for almost nothing.

King’s work continued to be respected into the next generation. William Crossing called him ‘one of the most graceful writers on Dartmoor,’ and regretted that his short 1856 book, The Forest of Dartmoor and its Borders, was all that he completed of a projected history of Devon from the ancient British period onwards. Eden Phillpotts reckoned that he was one of the few contemporary commentators to understand Herrick, whose parish of Dean Prior was, of course, just down the hill from Bigadon.

But during the twentieth century he sank below the horizon, quoted occasionally in various contexts, but no longer seen as a distinct figure in his own right. A recent study of the West Country in literature refers both to him and to the author of Murray’s Handbook, without realising that they were the same person. But everyone who studies the history, landscape and folklore of Devon is indebted to him, and he deserves to be remembered as a careful scholar and as a writer of evocative verse and prose. Here is his description of Devon, as the incoming Saxons would have experienced it, from his Presidential Address to the Devonshire Association:

‘The country into which the English first made their way was for the most part covered with forest and brushwood, or was broken into high upland moor and rock-strewn heath; such a land, with its deep valleys and dashing hill streams, as formed the stronghold of the Celtic race all along the western side of the island. The wolf still howled in the woods; the beaver, it may be, still built his huts in the bays of the more quietly flowing rivers; the golden eagle haunted the tors of Dartmoor, and flung the shadow of his outstretched wings upon the deep oak woods as he sailed high in the air above them. All wild creatures of flood and field abounded; but the population, scattered over the whole of Devonshire, was perhaps not nearly so numerous as that of Exeter at present… Far and wide must have stretched away the great cloud of forest, and the broad moorlands, glowing with furze and heather. A faint wreathe of smoke might indicate at rare intervals that some kind of dwellings were there grouped together; but… we should see no human being. A great silence would be resting on the whole country, broken only by the scream of some bird of prey, or the cry of some wild animal.’

If you are interested in the idea of the Longmarsh Press publishing a selection of R. J. King’s writings, please get in touch.