Axminster. Report from the Literature Section

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Author(s): Wootton. Pamela; Year published: 2011; Origin: Section Conference Reports; Pages: 
Topic(s): literature; Location(s): Axminster

Axminster must have been on the route in the last millennium of many writers using the main road to and from the south west counties, staying in the many inns or travelling south to Lyme Regis and the coast. Since the railway arrived in 1860 many more will have passed through, but only a notable few have written in or of the area. The main road, ancient trackways, the railway, are all well documented, as is the fire which devastated the town centre in 1834 and the rebuilding, with greater central space. John Betjeman commented favourably to a councillor that ‘every street has a curve in it . . . a new vista at every turn.’

Beatrix Potter, it is said, set Little Pig Robinson in this good agricultural area. Cosimo de Medici, who visited in 1669, was clearly impressed by Axminster, favourably by the well-tuned bells ‘exceedingly harmonious and agreeable’, less so by a road full of water. Francis Kilvert’s diaries for 1871 and 1873 record visits to Hawkchurch and expeditions to the coast and hills. In 1932 Mazo de la Roche, whose Jalna books we may remember, leased Hawkchurch rectory and there wrote for children Under a Norman Tower with delightful local descriptions.

These writers are all fleeting visitors. For a more sustained impression of the area we must read the works of two nineteenth century scholars who lived there. James Davidson, a ‘learned industrious antiquary’ published a small book on British and Roman remains in East Devon and the outstanding History of Newenham Abbey. Fortunately, the completed but unpublished manuscript for his intended history of Axminster and the huge collection of meticulous notes he made for it, are in the West Country Studies Library, providing material and inspiration for others, as Graham Chapman acknowledged in his fine 1998 book The History of Axminster to 1910. The second 19th century scholar, George Philip Rigney Pulman, a keen angler and the proprietor of Pulman’s Weekly News, wrote and published several small books with long titles and one very large one simply titled The Book of the Axe. His 1871 Rustic Sketches Being Rhymes etc on Angling opens with a long dissertation on West of England dialects, in which many of the rhymes are written, and concludes with a glossary of almost ninety pages of, to us, unusual words. The Book of the Axe follows the river, fishing rod in hand, covering the geology, archaeology, history, agriculture etc of the riverside parishes. The nine hundred pages, plus map and extensive index of the 1875 edition, are well worth studying, by any reader who can accept being frequently addressed as ‘Piscator’.

Kilmington, just west of the River Axe, is the home village of Greta Stoddart, an award-winning poet. Cecil Day-Lewis, later Poet Laureate, lived for twelve years at Musbury writing poetry in his own name and detective stories as Nicholas Blake, and for the war years commanding the local Home Guard. In 2005, Sean Day-Lewis gave the section a particularly good talk about his father’s Devon years which then became a paper in the 2006 Transactions.

Pamela Wootton

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