Henry Williamson, author of Tarka the Otter

 

 

HENRY WILLIAMSON, AUTHOR OF TARKA THE OTTER

 

A brief look at his Life and Writings in North Devon in the 1920 and '30s: The area known today as Tarka Country

 

 

brief look    
First edition, HWS, 2001  
   
brief look ebook  
E-book edition, HWS, 2014  

List of Contents

 

Extract

 

Critical reception

 

Book covers

 

 

Henry Williamson Society, 2001, stapled paperback, 52pp, illus.; 500 copies

Selected and edited by Tony Evans

Introduction by Anne Williamson: 'Henry Williamson's Life in Georgeham and North Devon'

 

Reprinted three times, 500 copies each

 

E-book, 2014

 

 

The driving force and inspiration for this booklet was Tony Evans, a native of Braunton, who perceived a need for an introductory booklet about Henry Williamson and his works to be made available in North Devon outlets – Tourist Information Offices, post offices, local museums, cafés and suchlike – for sale to both tourists and locals. It was imperative that costs be kept to a minimum, which allowed the booklet to be priced at £3.00, less a discount for the outlets. Tony acted as the Society's 'sales representative', and voluntarily made the rounds of outlets at regular intervals, topping up stock. Reprinted a further three times, the booklet has been far and away the Society's best-selling publication, with 2,000 copies sold. In e-book format too it is a perennially popular download, particularly in the USA.

 

This short anthology serves, therefore, as an introduction to Henry Williamson’s early writings about North Devon, which served to establish his reputation as perhaps the foremost British nature writer of the twentieth century. There are extracts from Williamson’s classic novels Tarka the Otter and Salar the Salmon, as well as from lesser known works including The Village Book, The Labouring Life, The Lone Swallows, The Pathway, The Children of Shallowford and On Foot in Devon. The extracts were selected and edited by Tony Evans, who also wrote accompanying explanatory notes. Anne Williamson, who designed the booklet, contributes a short biography which focuses on Williamson’s life in North Devon up to 1937, when he left to farm in Norfolk.

 

The selections are illustrated by contemporary photographs sourced from both local collections and Henry Williamson’s own albums, together with two maps of North Devon and Georgeham (the latter drawn by Williamson in 1932), the area today known as ‘Tarka Country’.

 

 

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Contents:

 

Henry Williamson’s Life in Georgeham and North Devon by Anne Williamson

 

1     ‘Reminiscence’, from The Labouring Life (1932)
2   ‘The Lone Swallows’, from The Lone Swallows (1922)
3   ‘Uncle Joe’, from The Village Book (1930)
4   ‘Muggy’, from The Village Book (1930)
5   ‘The Railway Bridge’, from Tarka the Otter (1927)
6   ‘Braunton Burrows’, from The Pathway (1928)
7   ‘The Estuary of the Two Rivers’, from Salar the Salmon (1935)
8   ‘Appledore and the Revenge’, from The Pathway (1928)
9   ‘The Fair’, from The Labouring Life (1932)
10   ‘Winds of Heaven’, from The Children of Shallowford (1939)
11   ‘Saunton Sands’, from Goodbye West Country (1937)
12   ‘Willie Maddison’s Home at Shelley Cove’, from The Dream of Fair Women (rev. ed. 1931)
13   ‘The Redds’, from Salar the Salmon (1935)
14   ‘A Journey on the Lynton Railway’, from On Foot in Devon (1933)
15   ‘Humpy Bridge’, from The Children of Shallowford (1939)

 

 

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Extract:

 

'The Lone Swallows'

 

from The Lone Swallows (1922)

 

 

Along the trackless and uncharted airlines from the southern sun they came, a lone pair of swallows, arriving with weakly and uncertain flight from over the wastes of the sea. They rested on a gorse bush, their blue backs beautiful against the store of golden blossom guarded by the jade spikes. The last day of March had just blown with the wind into eternity. Symbols of summer and of loveliness, they came with young April, while yet the celandines were unbleached, while the wild white strawberry and ragged-robin were opening with the dog violet. On the headland the flowers struggle for both life and livelihood, the sward is close cropped by generations of sheep, and the sea-wind is damp and cold. Perhaps the swallows hoped to nest, as generations had done centuries since, in the cave under the precipice at the headland’s snout, or that love for its protection after the wearying journey was new-born in their hearts. One cannot say; but the pair remained there.

 

Days of yellow sunshine and skies blue as their wings greeted them. Over the wave crests and the foamed troughs they sped, singing and twittering as they flew. Kestrel hawks with earth-red pinions hung over the slopes of the cliffs, searching with keen eyes for mouse or finch, but the swallows heeded not. Wheatears passed all day among the rabbit burrows and the curled cast feathers of the gulls, chiffchaffs iterated their joy in singsong melody, shags squatted on the rocks below, preening metal-green plumage and ejecting plentiful fish bones. The wanderer on the sheep-track, passing every day, joyed in the effortless thrust of those dark wings, the chestnut stain on the throat, the delicate fork of the tail. Winter was ended, and the blackthorn blossoming – there would be no more snow or ice after the white flowers, fragile as vapour thralled by frost, had come upon their ebon wilderness of spines.

 

Sometimes the swallows flew to a village a mile inland, and twittered about an ancient barn with grass grown-thatch, haunted by white owls, and hiding in dimness a cider press that had not creaked in turning for half a century. Once they were seen wheeling above the mill pond, and by the mossy waterwheel, hovering along its cool gushings and arch of sunstealing drops thrown fanwise from the mouldered rim. Everywhere the villagers hailed them with delight, and spoke in the inn at nights of their early adventuring. Such a thing had been unknown for many years; the oldest granfer had heard tell of it, but had never actually seen it before. The old man took a poet’s delight in the news, and peered with rheumy eyes and faded blue eyes, hoping to see them when tapping along the lane to his ‘tater-patch’. It became a regular thing for the wanderer upon the headland to report their presence when he returned from the high solitude and the drone of the tide, and the yelping cries of gulls floating white in the sunshine above a sea of woad-blue.

 

Light of heart the wanderer watched, and waited. Any day, new born and blessed by Aurora, would see the arrival, any day now – two dark arrowheads that did not miss their mark. There was a frail flutter of feathers in the sunshine, a red drop on the ancient sward, a scuttle of terrified rabbits, a faint scream trembling and dying in the blue. Then only the murmur of the sea far below and the humming of the single telegraph wire near the pathway. The peregrine falcons had taken the lone and beloved swallows.

 

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Notes

 

The headland where this story of a pair of lone swallows is set is Baggy Point. Henry Williamson’s writings reveal the deep feelings he held for this great rock-bound promontory that reaches out into the Atlantic Ocean; with its rich and diverse flora and fauna it divides the sands of Croyde Bay and Putsborough. To him it was a place of wonder and inspiration. He wrote of the wild flowers that struggle to live in the thin soil and salt-blasted air, of the ravens, the peregrine falcons, the buzzards and gulls. He loved them all. It is he who is ‘the wanderer upon the headland’. Another story where Henry Williamson describes Baggy, which he mostly refers to in his books as the headland, is ‘Tiger’s Teeth’: ‘The headland runs out into the Atlantic for nearly two miles, and is a mile wide across its base. They grow oats there, for the ground is starved. Some of it, indeed, is so poor that the plough never furrows it, and only sheep stray upon the sward. Gorse grows plentifully, hiding many rabbits’ holes, and in summer near the cliff-edge at the Point the curled cast feathers of the gulls tremble in the wind.’ In another essay in the same book, ‘A Bird Mystic’, he recorded the low numbers of nesting swallows in 1921: ‘In all the tallats [the loft above a barn] of my Devon village there were but four swallows’ nests during the summer of 1921. There are over fifty tallats.’ Although the falcons took his ‘beloved swallows’, he held no malice toward them; he laid the blame for the shortage elsewhere: ‘as the hosts [swallows] sweep southward in autumn, killed by electric wires on the Continent “for food” ’.

 

Baggy Point was once the home of ancient man; pottery of coarse earthenware, and arrowheads made from pebbles of flint, has been unearthed there by the plough. It was against the Baggy rocks in February 1799 that the sloop HMS Weasel was broken up in a storm, where all but one man was drowned; this was probably the worst, certainly most memorable, sea disaster to occur on the North Devon coast. According to Muggy Smith, Henry’s friend, ‘his grandfather had bought the wreckage of HMS Weasel that went on the rocks of the Hole [Seal Cavern in Tarka], over a century ago.’

 

The Misses Constance and Florence Hyde gave Baggy Point to the National Trust in 1939. In 1996 the Trust gave the Henry Williamson Society permission to erect a plaque at the entrance gateway to the Point. On it is inscribed:

 

 

brief look baggy plaque

 

 

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Critical reception:

 

Henry Williamson Society Journal (Anne Williamson), September 2001 (not so much a review as an informative note):

 

It has been obvious for some time that there is no publication for tourists to buy within North Devon and the West Country (or anywhere else for that matter). Tony Evans brought this up . . . and as it is a project I had wanted to tackle for some time we were both very pleased when the committee passed it in principle.

 

The finished book was to be as cheap as possible yet to be attractive and worthwhile: not easy parameters to encompass within a single project. But, with a great deal of hard work, we have I think achieved that. The absolute limit on number of pages was 52 to cope with the cheapest method of finishing – stapling. I worked out the balance of the various parts to get a good mix of content.

 

The finished book is attractive. At £3.00 it is incredible value for money. And it surely achieves our purpose: to provide the public with reliable information about Henry (which I've tried to make very readable for the outside market!) and to give some idea of the variety and quality of his writings about Devon (all chosen by Tony Evans) with the pièce de resistance – the explanatory notes by Tony, whose wealth of information about local places, people, and events is quite incredible. Several of the photographs have not been previously published: for example one of the tiny figure of Henry's mother standing outside a full view of Skirr Cottage in 1921 – the original photo so tatty and faded that even with professional enhancement I am amazed it has reproduced, and another of Henry standing on the scaffolding of the Hut when it was being built, which for some reason I never used in the biography!

 

. . . We are reaching out to a wider public in a very positive way. For the launch on 15 May there was some nice publicity in the local press and on the local television and radio – all organised by Tony Evans, who gave a book signing in Braunton Museum and a talk in the church that evening . . .

 

 

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Book covers:

 

The cover features a photograph of HW taken in 1921, on the path leading to Baggy Point, overlooking Putsborough Beach:

 

 

brief look large

 

 

The only reason that the e-book cover has a coloured border is that Amazon will not accept cover designs in black and white; however, the opportunity was taken to change the layout slightly:

 

brief look ebook large

 

 

 

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