Poor Hester had been sitting in the background for many months waiting for Marcia to finish writing Echoes of the Dance. When that day came, it was back to Exmoor to try and find her. One thing had become clear during that time – water in all its forms was to be important. There is a lot of it on Exmoor but this made us look at the various streams, waterfalls and rivers rather more closely than we had before.
We were already aware that west country rivers can rise from a quiet trickle to a roaring spate in a matter of hours: we had lived with the River Avon at the bottom of the garden for this to be part of our lives. Even so, Exmoor rivers do it very dramatically and there are plenty of records of problems as a result with none more famous than the great flood at Lynton in August 1952 in which thirty-four people lost their lives. Years ago Marcia and I were invited by a friend of mine who was a member of the Leander Club to be his guest at the Henley Royal Regatta His secretary was there and we learned that she was from Lynton. On the night of the flood she was woken by the roaring of the river and leapt out of bed. When she opened the door, she discovered that there was nothing there – the front half of the house was gone, completely washed away. Talking to someone who had actually experienced that night was strangly moving and I suspect that it lodged somewhere in Marcia’s mind to surface as she brooded about this book.
It seemed likely that Hester lived on the banks of one of these rivers and it did not take Marcia long to become convinced that the one in question was the Barle. The Barle may be a tributary of the River Exe but such matters are determined by chance. Above the confluence of the two rivers, the Barle is the greater and there is a sign in Dulverton showing the depth of water in the town in that fateful month in 1952 to have been six foot above road level.
‘Why do you want a river that can be so dangerous?’ I asked. There are times when Marcia is brooding about something and she is afraid to share it in case the germ of an idea is snuffed out by being brought out into the open too quickly. This was one of those times and I had to wait for some weeks before she would explain.
If you look at the map, you will find that the Barle and the Exe come together just to the south east of Dulverton and that it rises up on The Chains at Pinkery Pool. We started at the wrong end. I suppose there have been times when we have just gone to the right place with no fuss but if we have I can no longer remember the occasion. At Simonsbath the river was still too small to meet the specification. Next stop was at Withypool as we decided to ignore the ford at Lanacre but that still wasn’t right. It was nearly lunchtime and I suggested that we eat at Tarr Steps.
After lunch Marcia asked whether we could go to the other side of the river. There is a ford at Tarr Steps and some people drive over it if they have a suitable vehicle for the conditions. I once tried it in our Honda CRV when the river was quite high. Disaster: we had to be towed out by a very kind chap who worked at the Tarr Steps hotel and who had a far bigger vehicle than ours. So, there were two very good reasons not to try again. First: Marcia has said very firmly, ‘Never again!’. Second: we were in our old Ford Transit camper.
On the way, we gave Max, our black Labrador, a quick run on Winsford Common and then drove into Dulverton and out over the bridge where we turned right and climbed up the hill to East Anstey Common at which point my life took a downward turn. The road to the other side of Tarr Steps is bad enough when you are driving a car: in the Transit it was, frankly, horrible and rather frightening. The road drops down a steep hill, crosses a stream at Venford and then climbs up the other side. Then there is another steep hill (1 in 4) down to a bridge over Dane’s Water before hitting a climb (also 1 in 4) which takes you up to Hawkridge where there is an absolute gem of a church. The real problem is that bridge over Dane’s Water. It isn’t straight: you have to slow down to get over it without hitting anything and so you grind up the other side in bottom gear watching the temperature gauge creep up as the engine cooling water approaches boiling point. Even then you haven’t made it because there is another steep hill down to the river itself.
Once you get there, it is magical. Marcia fell in love with it (and so did Max). That meant we returned time after time with each trip adding a couple of decades to my life until the day came when Marcia calmly announced, ‘It’s wonderful here and I love it and I know we’ve seen a dipper but Hester doesn’t live here. Sorry.’
Hester continued to prove evasive through the remainder of that trip and it was not until about three weeks later that all was revealed. Marcia was reasonably sure that it was the River Barle and that the house was not too far away from a town. There is only one town on that river: Dulverton. So, on our next trip to Exmoor we decided to do our shopping there (after all, that is where Hester would do hers) and Marcia felt a tiny connection when we stopped mid morning for a cup of coffee in Woods – probably best described as a bistro.
A couple of days later we stopped at the ford on the lane between Webber’s Post and Cloutsham and we all set off down the footpath that runs alongside the river called East Water. On the way back, Marcia asked to be taken back to Dulverton and to park out by Marsh Bridge.
Unusually, the place was empty. I suppose there is room to park about six vehicles at a pinch so it is easy for it to become pretty crowded. Understandably, it is only when we have places to ourselves that Marcia is able to connect with her people.
We usually brew up and have a cup of tea or coffee after a walk but not this time because Marcia wanted to get over to Marsh Bridge. By the time we arrived I had only one thing in mind so I put the kettle on and Marcia wandered off to sit on a bench there beside the Barle.
‘She’s here, I can get on now.’ Magic words – often heard and always very welcome!
Now, ‘get on’ is not the same thing as ‘finished trawling around for inspiration’. A couple of weeks later we were checking out various details (which flowers are out, how long does it take to drive from A to B, etc.) and we were relaxing quite late one evening sitting in our camper van near the top of the Porlock Toll road enjoying the view It was a glorious evening and Marcia picked up the paper to look at the weather forecast for the next day.
‘It’s a full moon tonight’, she said. ‘With any luck we’ll see it rise. Let’s go up a bit higher.’
We drove up to the top of the Toll Road, left along the A39 and then took the first turning right. As I approached the top of the hill, we just had to stop: we were presented with one of the most stunning sunsets I have ever seen. Then we realised we were in the wrong place to watch the moonrise so, as soon as the sun had set we rushed back through Porlock and Horner and up onto Dunkery where again there was magic in the air as a huge moon gradually heaved itself out of the hills to the east. This became the journey taken by Hester and Jonah – and I am sure everyone will agree that Marcia describes it brilliantly in the book.
I think this is the only occasion when we have done something which, at the time, we thought was unconnected with the book but which then became an integral part of the story.
Water was to be terribly important in this book (which is why I have used water in all the photographs) and it is absolutely true that if you keep your ears open the sound of water follows you everywhere after a heavy fall of rain.
For some notes and photographs describing Memories of the Storm country the link is MOTS Country.