Buckfast. Report from the Literature and Art Section

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Author(s): Milton. Patricia; Year published: 2017; Origin: Section Conference Reports; Pages: 
Topic(s): art and literature; Location(s): Buckfast

In the early 1600s, Tristram Risdon, when approaching the Dart near Buckfast, looked down on the: “skeleton of a huge body, whereby might be conceived what Bigness it once had, whose ruins might move the beholders both to wonder and pity”.

This striking description of the Cistercian Abbey’s remains attracted artists in search of the picturesque. The location continued to excite interest when a ‘cockney gothic’ mansion visible in Turner’s Buckfastleigh (1826) was built on the site, and interest has been maintained since 1882 when the on-going restoration of the Abbey began.

Between 1629-1647 and 1662-1674, Robert Herrick held the living of Dean Prior, a small, scattered parish to the west of Buckfastleigh. Herrick, now judged to have written some of the ‘most exquisite lyric verse in English’, reveals a sensitivity to nature and country customs, though there are intimations in the Hesperides (1647) that, with exception of a number of women, he disliked the indigenous population and was discontented with his isolated life in Devon.

Richard John King, born in 1819, lived for many years in a fine mansion near Dean Prior. He produced The Forest of Dartmoor and its Borders; Sketches and Studies: Descriptive and Historical, articles on local matters (including Herrick), was editor of and contributed to Murray’s handbooks, and was President of The Devonshire Association in 1875.

King’s contemporary, Charles Kingsley (DA President 1871) was born in the Vicarage at Holne, a village on the ridge above Buckfastleigh. While he was still an infant the Kingsleys left the area before returning to Devon when the boy was twelve. After taking Holy Orders, Kingsley settled at Eversley and, through writing and speaking, tried to raise awareness of the unsavoury social conditions endured by the poor. In the summer of 1849 his unstinting ‘hands on’ assistance around Eversley during a fever epidemic resulted in his collapse. Then, convinced that “the magnetic effect of the place where one has been bred” would effect a cure, he returned to Devon. The culmination of his recuperation was a long walk across Dartmoor to Holne during which he experienced the “infinite relief and rest” he needed.

Kingsley offers a very different perception of Holne and its environs from that revealed in one of Eden Phillpotts’ major novels, Demeter’s Daughter (1911). Here, the Cleave family’s struggle to survive leaves little time for aesthetic appreciation or rest.

There has been conjecture as to whether the idea of the hound in Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901) could have derived from a legend connected with a supposedly wicked member of the Cabells whose family tomb is prominent in Buckfastleigh’s Holy Trinity churchyard. An uphill stroll to the church provides pleasant views across country enjoyed by the various artists and writers mentioned here.

The Section’s presentation at the Annual Conference will include images of the Buckfast area by artists of the last 300 years.

Patricia Milton

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