Wessex Worthies: RD Blackmore

Richard Doddridge Blackmore (1825-1900) was a Berkshire-born novelist most famous for his "romance of Exmoor", Lorna Doone. Other Wessex based works include Cradock Nowell: A tale of the New Forest and Christowell: a Dartmoor tale. Each of these works will be the subject of their own blog post, so I will only give them a cursory treatment here, after briefly surveying Blackmore's life

Blackmore was born in Longworth, Berkshire, the son of the parish curate. His mother died of typhus a few month later, and the family ended up moving back to their native Devon. He spent much of his childhood in the Exmoor countryside that he later came to immortalise as "Doone country". He was educated at Oxford, and later called to the bar in That London.

His literary career initially began with collections of poetry, but it was his third novel, Lorna Doone, that really made his name, and which remains his best-known work. It inspired the Victorian romantic movement in literature, and Thomas Hardy wrote approvingly of it.

His previous work, Cradock Nowell, was set primarily in the New Forest, an area Blackmore only knew from fishing trips. It is perhaps this lack of an intimate connection with the landscape which prevented it from becoming as successful as its immediate successor.

Blackmore returned to Devon for his Dartmoor-set Christowell, published in 1882. The novel was well-received in its day, but is barely remembered now.

Blackmore died in Teddington, Middlesex, and his funeral was reported to be well-attended. Memorials to him were established in Exeter Cathedral, and at the parish church in Oare, Somerset, where Lorna Doone was married in the novel.

Wessex Attractions: Studland Bay

Studland Bay in Dorset is situated within the Purbeck Heritage Coast and is a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It is rich in history, wildlife and outdoor activities.

One of the main attractions of Studland Bay is its beautiful beaches. The bay has four miles of golden sands and clear, shallow waters,. The main beach, known as South Beach, is the largest and most popular, with a range of facilities including toilets, showers, and a café. There are also several smaller beaches along the bay, including Knoll Beach, one of Britain's best-known naturist beaches with 900m (just over half a mile) set aside for nude bathing. The naturist beach is clearly signposted, to prevent accidental encounters with those who may be offended by public nudity. Those who wish to avoid this area are advised to use the Heather Trail, which bypasses this stretch of beach.

Another highlight of Studland Bay is its rich wildlife. The bay is home to a range of animals and birds, including seals, porpoises, and dolphins, which can often be spotted swimming in the waters. The surrounding heathland and sand dunes are also home to a variety of species, including the rare heath tiger beetle and the Dartford warbler. The area is also popular with birdwatchers, with several species of seabirds, including guillemots, razorbills, and kittiwakes, nesting on the cliffs. It is the only place in Britain where all six native species of reptile can be seen.

Studland Bay also offers a range of activities for visitors to enjoy. The South West Coast Path runs along the coast, offering beautiful walks and breathtaking views. There are also several cycle routes through the area, including the Studland to Swanage cycleway, which takes in the picturesque villages of Studland and Corfe Castle. For water sports enthusiasts, there are several companies offering windsurfing, kitesurfing, and paddleboarding lessons and equipment hire.

One of the best ways to experience Studland Bay is by taking a boat trip from the nearby town of Swanage. These trips offer the chance to see the bay from a different perspective and to spot some of the wildlife, including seals and dolphins. There are also several boat trips that take visitors out to Old Harry Rocks, a series of natural rock stacks located at the eastern end of the bay, which offer views across Poole Bay to the Isle of Wight.

Studland Bay also has a rich history, with evidence of human activity dating back to the Iron Age. The area was also used by the Romans, and there are several ancient burial mounds, or barrows, in the surrounding area. The village of Studland itself is home to several historic buildings, including the 12th-century St Nicholas Church and the 17th-century Studland House. Operation Smash, a full-scale rehearsal for the Allied occupation of Europe, took place at Studland Bay in April 1944. some of the concrete anti-tank defences known as Dragon's Teeth can still be seen at the bay.

Studland Bay was donated to the National Trust in 1981 by its previous owners, the aristocratic Bankes family. It is located at the end of the B3351 from Corfe Castle via Swanage, It can also be reached by ferry from Sandbanks, Poole; and by Wilts and Dorset bus number 50 from Bournemouth to Poole. The nearest railway station is Swanage, on the heritage Swanage Railway, which runs from Wareham on the South Western main line. But that's a subject for another article.

Wessex Attractions: Watersmeet House

Watersmeet in Devon has been settled since the Iron Age. Situated at the meeting point of the East Lyn River and Hoar Oak Water, it provides a popular spot for fishing, canoeing and wildlife spotting. Watersmeet House, built in 1832, was originally a hunting and fishing lodge. and has served cream teas since late Victorian times.

The house is surrounded by a 2000 acre estate, including ancient oak woodland, all managed by the National Trust. The famous Exmoor ponies can be found on the estate, as can red deer, buzzards and otters. The whortleberry, a fruit similar to the bilberry, grows here, and makes excellent jam. The rivers contain salmon and trout when in season, hence its popularity as a fishing spot.

The nearby coast is home to some spectacular sea cliffs, including those at Countisbury. believed to be the site of the battle of Cynuit, where the West Saxons, led by Alfred the Great, overwhelmed an invading Viking force, and slew their leader.

There are four Iron Age hillforts in the area, Two fortified farmsteads, Myrtleberry North and South, are now scheduled monuments, though not much of them remains. The East Lyn River was also the site of one of the UK's first hydroelectric power stations, built in 1890; and of the Lynrock mineral water factory between 1911 and 1952, when it was destroyed in a flood.

The postcode of Watersmeet House is EX35 6NT, and it is served by bus numbers 300, 309 and 310 to Lynmouth.

Wessex In Literature: Far From The Madding Crowd

Far From The Madding Crowd (1874) is a seminal moment in the identity of Wessex as a region. Thomas Hardy was not the first author to mention the name Wessex in a modern context, William Barnes and Charles Kingsley had already beaten him to it, but he was the first to popularise it. "The appellation which I had thought to reserve to the horizons and landscapes of a merely realistic dream-country, has become more and more popular as a practical definition; and the dream-country has, by degrees, solidified into a utilitarian region which people can go to, take a house in, and write to the papers from", Hardy observed in his Preface to the 1895 edition of the novel.

In the first edition, there is but a single reference to Wessex, but later revisions increased its use. Hardy had always been a regional writer, but giving his "partly-real, partly-dream country" a name rooted in English history solidified it in the public consciousness. Hardy's literary Wessex expanded over the course of his career from basically a synonym for Dorset, to a six-county region that was still continuing to expand when his final novel, Jude The Obscure (1895) apparently included Christminster (Oxford) within its bounds.

The plot concerns Bathsheba Everdene and her three suitors, her neighbour William Boldwood, the faithful shepherd Gabriel Oak, and the flash Sergeant Troy. The novel was notable for its social realism, depicting the harsh lives of the rural poor in Victorian England. It had been adapted for film at least three times, the first being a lost silent version made in 1915. Hardy himself adapted it for the stage in 1879, and it has formed the basis of a ballet, a musical and a 1998 ITV mini-series. In addition, Suzanne Collins borrowed the surname Everdene for her heroine Katniss in her Hunger Games series of young adult novels, and Posy Simmons updated the plot to the present day for her 2007 graphic novel Tamara Drewe, which was itself fimed in 2010.

Far From The Madding Crowd remains as popular now as it was when it was first published nearly 150 years ago. It planted a seed that has grown into today's Wessex movement, and for that, we can all give thanks.

Wessex Attractions: Branscombe

Branscombe is a village at the Western end of Devon's Jurassic Coast, It features a sand and shingle beach, and three National Trust properties: a blacksmith's forge dating from around 1580; a 19th century watermill; and a thatched bakery which is now used as a tea room.

The name is Celtic in origin, from the personal name Bran, and the word "cwm", a valley, which later became one of the few Brythonic loan words into Old English (as "combe"). The order of the syllables suggests that the name is Saxon in origin, as a Celtic name would have put the personal name element after the topographic one, as in Cwmbran in Wales.

Branscome was once the haunt of smugglers, and a network of tunnels was discovered in the first decade of the last century. More recently it was the site of the salvaging of the shipwrecked cargo ship MSC Napoli, a salvage operation that took two and a half years.

The village was formerly a centre for the lace industry, giving its name to Branscombe point, a style used by lacemakers to this day. Unlike neighbouring Honiton, Branscombe lace was made using needles rather than bobbins, The lace was thicker than Honiton lace, and slightly quicker to make.

The postcode for satnav purposes is EX12 3DB, and the village is served by Axe Vale Mini-Travel bus number 899, from Sidmouth to Seaton.