Exmoor: Lorna Doone
At County Gate, where Somerset rubs up against Devon, the visitor is treading ‘Doone Country', that strange melange of fact and fiction, folklore and legend that has so captivated the area that even the Ordnance Survey maps refer to Doone Country or Doone Valley. The countryside associated with Lorna Doone extends over much of Exmoor, but is most especially centred round the deep coombes and heather clad moorland of Malmsmead and the Oare and Badgworthy Valleys.
‘Lorna Doone', published in 1869, is a minor classic of romance, high adventure and not a little melodrama; it proved to be the most successful novel written by Richard Doddridge Blackmore (1825-1900). Set in the remoteness of Exmoor the story is based on a factual family, the Doones, who lived outside the law as bandits and terrorised these parts in the 17 th century. They lived in the thickly wooded areas near where Hoccombe Coombe meets Badgworthy (pronounced ‘Badgery') Water, the county boundary with Somerset; it was in and around this valley that the real and fictional Doones mostly operated.
There was much lawlessness and feuding in many country areas and the wilds of Exmoor remained that way longer than most, due to the difficulty of access to the region. One landowner added fuel to the flames by bringing in Scottish families dispossessed during the Highland clearances; he hoped the hardy northerners would more easily come to terms with the wild country and help tame it. The factual Doones appear to have been such a family, already Scottish outlaws who came to Exmoor, failed to support themselves from farming and turned instead to a life of crime. Legend of these exiles from Scottish justice at odds with local families on the moor circulated by word of mouth and in print long before Blackmore wove them into his famous romance.
The novel begins with the murder of a farmer, father of 12-year old John Ridd (a factual character who went to school at Tiverton) by the lawless Doones. The story then proceeds to revolve around the hero John Ridd - his determination to avenge his father's murder and of course his love for Lorna, whom the Doones have kidnapped from a noble family. The story culminates with Blackmore's fictional Lorna Doone being shot by Carver Doone whilst standing at the altar of Oare Church on her wedding day.
‘Lorna Doone' is perhaps most remarkable not for its storyline so much as for the way it has caught the public imagination. Oare Church, a factual building, draws an astonishing number of visitors, who eagerly seek out the site of an entirely fictitious event; again, to a lesser extent, the adjacent manor house draws visitors, this was Farmer Snow's fictional home. Lorna Doone and John Ridd lived in an imaginary valley farm after their marriage, now associated with an actual farm in Malmsmead, toward which devotees of Blackmore journey in the hope of glimpsing Lorna Doone memorabilia. This blurring of fact and fiction is encouraged by Ordnance Survey maps and signposts referring to Badgworthy Water as Doone Country. A memorial to Blackmore may be found here beside the river, there is also a monument to the novelist in Oare Church, where his grandfather was rector of Oare from 1809-42.
Today, the rural charm of the Doone Valley around Bagworthy has fittingly become an extremely popular tourist attraction, and is the focus of many special walking, horse riding and motor tours. The region's popularity is due in no small measure to Blackmore, who spent much of his childhood on Exmoor and managed to evoke to great effect the landscape near Malmsmead, drawing on intimate knowledge of its terrain. His Lorna Doone may have been fictional, but her ‘memory' now appears to linger in many an Exmoor valley and coombe, encouraged no doubt by the local tourist board.