This post is the first of many “Voices of Exmoor” to come. Several years ago, Birdie Johnson went around Exmoor to record the oral history which is so much in danger of getting lost forever. The clips are available at the Somerset Archives as well as in Birdie’s book, “Reflections”.
Hope Bourne talked for the archive sitting in the shade of a hedge on Withypool Common, looking across to Ferny Ball. She lived in a remote caravan there, above the river Barle, for over 20 years. Getting up at 5am she’d do the farmer’s stock, write her journal, and then go for a 20 mile walk with her sketch pad, mapless, guided by an inner compass.
She followed the hunt on foot, shot and fished, never washed up, and ate 1lb of meat a day. Which, she says, is why she didn’t feel the cold. She believes that hunting and farming are the backbone of Exmoor.
With no money, she turned to journalism, writing a column for the local paper and several books which she illustrated herself. She sent her first book, written in pencil, to Anthony Dent. He returned it neatly typed and visited in person shortly afterwards.
Recording made: 2001
Hope Bourne, who died on August 22 aged 91, was an author who celebrated life on Exmoor, where she lived for more than 60 years; her knowledge of this beautiful corner of England – of its flora and fauna and its traditional communities – was encyclopedic, and was gained by submission to a lifestyle which few in the 20th century would have dared even to contemplate.
Obiturary in THE TELEGRAPH, 27 August 2010
For more than two decades – between 1970 and the early 1990s – Hope Bourne lived in isolation in an old, leaking caravan in the ruins of a farm at Ferny Ball above Sherdon Water, about four miles from Withypool. To her, untamed nature was not just something she desired, it was also a means of testing human resilience and ingenuity.
At Ferny Ball she kept bantams. A small but wiry figure, she was often seen in pursuit of wood pigeon, deer, rabbit or hare, wielding her American-made .22 rifle or 12-bore shotgun – “What one didn’t get, t’other did,” she would say. To feed herself, as well as shooting for the pot, she fished and grew vegetables. She ate 1lb of meat a day (some of which was none too fresh) and drank from a stream.
Her caravan was 14ft long and 6ft wide, providing only one room which was festooned with the skins, antlers and hooves of animals she had slaughtered and gutted herself. At the centre was a wood-burning stove. She converted two of the three bunks into bookshelves and slept in the third.
Hope Bourne’s eating equipment was equally rudimentary. She had three mugs (one for tea, one for coffee, one for water or lemonade), and ate her enormous breakfast of meat and vegetables straight from the frying pan. There was thus no need to wash up.
Earlier Hope Bourne had lived on Exmoor in several remote and primitive cottages. There too she had lived off the land. Throughout her life she earned a small amount of money by helping farming friends, tending their stock and helping out during the lambing season. Her income was usually about £100 a year, of which she saved nearly half, claiming to live on £5 a month, most of which went on cartridges.
Although she chose geographical isolation, Hope Bourne had many friends, claiming to send out 100 Christmas cards each year. When out and about on the moor she would call in at the farms, and her visits were reciprocated by the local community. Neighbours, even though they lived miles away, would always come and help her if she was in need.
She spent 30 Christmases at Broomstreet Farm, the home of her oldest friend on Exmoor, Mary Richards. In the 1950s she enjoyed a year on a sheep station in New South Wales, and in the 1970s she spent three months with friends in Canada.
Hope Bourne taught herself to paint and draw. She also kept a diary, using this a resource to write her first book. She sent the manuscript (handwritten in pencil) to the publisher Anthony Dent, who returned it neatly typed and shortly afterwards visited her in person in Devon. The book, Living on Exmoor, published in 1963, is a month-by-month chronicle of her life and activities, illustrated by her own pen and ink drawings.
Her next book, A Little History of Exmoor (1968), was also published by Dent. This is an account of the area from prehistoric times to the 20th century, with a special emphasis on the history of farming, accompanied by her drawings of farmsteads through the ages.
In her third and fourth books – Wild Harvest (1978) and My Moorland Year (1993) – Hope Bourne returned to the themes of Living on Exmoor, describing her experiences of farming, local lore, encounters with neighbours and the rhythm of the seasons.
In the early 1970s she began to contribute a weekly 1,000-word column to the West Somerset Free Press. Every Friday she walked the three and a half miles from Ferny Ball into Withypool to collect the newspaper, along with her bread and mail, at the same time posting her article (again, handwritten in pencil) for the next issue. The column attracted an enthusiastic following, and she also contributed articles and drawings toExmoor Review. She reached an even wider audience as the subject of two television documentaries: About Britain: Hope Bourne Alone on Exmoor (1978) and Hope Bourne – Woman of Exmoor (1981).
Hope Lilian Bourne was born in Oxford on August 26 1918 (she claimed not to know her age, having lost her birth certificate), but in childhood was taken to Devon, where her widowed mother became headmistress of the village school at Elmscott, near Hartland.
Hope herself left school aged 14, and as an asthmatic remained at home with her mother, who in 1939 moved to the Cotswolds; there Hope worked on the land, but she missed the wildness of Devon. She was in her thirties when her mother died, and their house had to be sold to pay off debts. Hope was therefore left with no home, little money and no income, and no qualifications on which to build a normal life. She decided to become as self-sufficient as possible, in the area of England that she loved.
Throughout her life on Exmoor Hope Bourne’s habit was to rise at 5am. Having written up her journal, she would walk up to 20 miles a day with her sketch pad. Knowing the countryside intimately, she carried no map; if she found herself lost, she put her trust in her inner compass.
One winter, in the 1970s, a 48-hour blizzard marooned her in her caravan. “At intervals I ventured out to clear snow away from the area around my door,” she later recalled. “I knew I must keep that space clear or I would be trapped. I did not go to sleep until I was sure the snow would not drift too high against the door before I woke again.” She also dug into the waist-deep snow to save the lives of 76 in-lamb ewes and 20 head of cattle.
In 1979 Daniel Farson interviewed her for The Sunday Telegraph Magazine. She told him: “I have never taken a penny from public money. Friends tell me I could live better on National Assistance, or whatever they call it now. Over my dead body! Anyway, I’ve never been able to afford the stamps. I’ve told them this would be more than my entire income. It’s a good life but it’s a tough life. You’ve got to be 100 per cent physically fit to live as I do. You’ve got to be tough, body and soul. Whatever happens at Ferny Ball, I’ve got to cope with it alone.”
She eschewed the companionship of a dog, explaining that “my meat supply is so irregular that it couldn’t feed a dog. I can pull in my belt and live on potatoes when things get bad, but I couldn’t expect that of a dog. And I can’t afford to pay for pet food.”
In the late 1980s she was eventually persuaded to install a telephone in case of emergencies. But as her asthma worsened, concerned friends persuaded her to move to a new house at a community housing scheme in Withypool.
Hope Bourne compared this to living in a city, an experience that was anathema: people who live in towns, she said, “all look so miserable“. Although the house was fully equipped, she rarely used the electricity and never the central heating, sleeping on the living room floor in front of the open fire. The rest of the house she left to her bantams. Having sold her guns, she was unable to go shooting, and instead bought her meat from the butcher.
She cared passionately about the future of Exmoor, its farming and its wildlife, but believed that there had been too much “taming down” of Exmoor by both the National Park Authority and the National Trust – even though both had done good work by preserving large chunks of moorland that otherwise might have gone under the plough.
Hope Bourne once declared: “I’m bloody-minded. My independence is the most important thing in the world to me: freedom and a vigorous outdoor life.”
Convinced that the wildness of Exmoor can teach self-reliance, she lamented the proliferation of paths and signs, which prevented people from finding things out for themselves. She further believed that hill farming and the hunt (which she followed on foot) had been the backbone of Exmoor life, and mourned their passing.