When the Exmoor Society published Hope Bourne’s Exmoor Village (Withypool) in 2015 I was somewhat irritated. For me the only Exmoor Village is the book about Luccombe in west Somerset, published by Harrap 70 years ago, in 1947.
This is a fascinating social study, based on factual information gathered by researchers for the social research organisation Mass Observation in 1944 and edited by W J Turner. The introduction to the book explains that the observers lived for some time on the spot, inconspicuously and in varying roles. Their practice is not to resort to formal interviewing, but to gather information in a slow, roundabout way which gives a truer insight.
My friend the late Dee Ivey was one of those observers and I deeply regret not having asked her about her experiences there.
The book starts romantically with first impressions: On our first evening at Luccombe we drove up to Webber’s Post, the name given to the neck of land leading on to Dunkery Beacon. The road follows a narrow ridge overlooking the Horner and Cloutsham valleys, which are magnificently wooded. Looking down on them, we could not see the stream and path at the bottom of the valley because of the closeness of the trees. It was like looking down on to cloud from a mountain-top, only here the rolling clouds were of every variety of green, magnificently lit by the sun. Across the valley the land rises steeply to Porlock Hill and on to Exmoor.
Interestingly, they observe: Under the group of pines at Webber’s Post the National Trust have already set up a collecting box and a list of prohibitions. So far there is nothing either inviting or informative in their notices. (The National Trust was given the Holnicote Estate, including Luccombe, in 1944 by Sir Richard Acland, presumably shortly before the observers arrived.)
They go on to describe their approach to the village down off the moor by a track which drops down very steeply through woods.
They explain that Luccombe is T-shaped and they followed the track down into Stony Street, which is at the stem of the T. They describe each house and its inhabitants, for example, Mrs Gande and her three children who came from Bow in London; two council houses which are not in the least offensive, but they are out of character; a house standing on its own where Mr Shopland lives with his son Jimmy, both of whom work with horses.
They conclude that ‘to walk down Stony Street as we did on that first evening, knowing beforehand how all the people lived, made us realise how much the land itself still matters. Every man who lives in Stony Street works out of doors every day of his life, and mostly when he comes home in the evening he works on in his garden or on his allotment till darkness comes.
We learn a great deal about those who live in Luccombe and their way of life. Mrs Keal told the observers: If you do anything wrong whilst you’re here you’ll have time to clear out afore we get the policeman from Porlock. Mrs Wylde had three children and was worried that the third bedroom is over the sitting-room of the next-door cottage, and she doesn’t feel she should use it for fear of disturbing the neighbours in their sitting room below.
The residents are described in detail, with their occupations and the interior of their houses (number of bedrooms and living-rooms, colour of distemper, nature of wall-paper), what fuel they use, their typical days, how they use their leisure time, the village school and the nature of the farming. There are appendices listing the contents of two typical Luccombe bookcases and describing a typical Luccombe interior.
The chapter on politics observes that the people of Luccombe are more impressed by personalities than politics. One villager said: I think you need an experienced man. Like the one we’ve got now. I believe he’s a very good man. Vernon Bartlett—that’s who it is, isn’t it, for round here? He’s been all round the world, so, I mean, he’s had the experience, you see. Vernon Bartlett had won the Bridgwater seat in a by-election in 1938: he stood as an Independent Progressive candidate opposed to Chamberlain’s appeasement policy. Until then Bridgwater had been a safe Conservative seat.
The observers conclude: Class antagonism in this community is rare; such antagonisms as there are are personal, not general. Perhaps it was different in the old days, for Mr Gould, when asked if he argued about politics, replied: ‘I used to like it when I was a lad. Ay, there used to be some scenes down there in the pub; they used to get right wild about it, and many’s the time I’ve been in a fight about it.’
‘Don’t you get that now?’
‘Oh, no; the beer’s not strong enough now.’
Luccombe today is in the Exmoor National Park and is still pretty and unspoilt under the beneficent eye of the National Trust , but it is sociologically different from how it was 73 years ago. This painstaking Mass Observation record is of immense value and describes a way of life which has largely gone.