Date for the Diary: Alas Poor Johnny…. Birdie Johnson at the Simonsbath Festival

Birdie Johnson – Wednesday May 13 – 7.30pm – St Luke’s

Alas Poor Johnny –

Buster Johnson’s memoir of life on an Exmoor farm, edited by Birdie Johnson with a foreword by grandson Boris

Birdie Johnson, Buster Johnson’s daughter, talks about Alas Poor Johnny, her mother’s highly entertaining memoir of life on an Exmoor farm in the 1950s, and how, after all these years, it has finally come to be published.

In 1951 Buster moved with her husband Johnny and their four children to West Nethercote, a remote farm four miles from Winsford. Cut off from the world she used to know, of domestic servants and bridge parties, she threw herself into her new life. Her world shrank, revolving around Johnny and the children, an assortment of friends and neighbours, and, above all, around the animals. Isolated as she was, Buster kept in touch by writing letters, sharing with friends and family the seemingly daily dramas of life at Nethercote; it is these letters she drew on, some ten years later, when writing Alas Poor Johnny.

Refreshments available in the interval and an optional snack, costing £4, may be booked in advance for the interval by telephoning Marian Lloyd on 01643 831451.

Admission: £10 to reserve the seat of your choice; £5 for unreserved seating; 14 year-olds and under free.


Birdie JohnsonBirdie Johnson, editor of Alas Poor Johnny, is the youngest of Buster and Johnny’s four children. Brought up at Nethercote, she spent a large part of her life there, moving back twice as an adult and continuing to live there after Buster and Johnny had died. In 2002 she produced the Exmoor Oral History Archive ( and, with photographer Mark Rattenbury, co-authored Reflections: Life Portraits of Exmoor, the book of the archive. In 2009, with some reluctance (looking to the future), she made the final move away from the isolation of the Nethercote valley to the High Weald of East Sussex, where the landscape serves as a replacement for the Exmoor she has left behind.

For more information about Alas Poor Johnny go to


Buster Johnson’s vivid and entertaining account of life on an Exmoor farm in the 1950s, edited by Birdie Johnson and with a foreword by Boris Johnson, her grandson

“It is wonderful to hear her voice again”
Boris Johnson

Alas Poor Johnny cover“Few people can have been less qualified than I was to become a farmer’s wife. Town bred, I had been groomed by my French mother for the diplomatic arena.”

In 1951 Buster Johnson moved from Surrey to Exmoor with her husband Johnny, four children, a couple of dogs and a vanload of pigs and poultry. Naturally gregarious, she exchanges a life of domestic servants and bridge parties for a remote and spartan existence at West Nethercote, a farm in the heart of Exmoor national park. Alas Poor Johnny, written some ten years later, is her vivid and fascinating account of their life there, and of farming on Exmoor in the fifties, told with a strong sense of drama and of the absurd.

The void left by her lost cultural and social pursuits becomes filled by the minutiae of everyday life, and by her husband Johnny and their four children. Above all, it is filled by the animals. These take the place of absent friends in her affections, their personalities permeating the book. There is a small but strong supporting cast, including busybody Mrs Stevens at the next door farm; Arthur the ex-cowman who moves with them from Surrey; SRN Tommie, the butt of an aggressive ram – and Alby the rabbit catcher, who plays the mouth organ and dances wild dances, enchanting the children. Finally, threading through all this with a glint of steel, is Johnny. He is her antithesis; strong and undemonstrative, generally preferring animals to people. Their relationship is the heart of the book.

Alas Poor Johnny is a first-hand account of life on a farm in the 1950s, written at the time but reading with the freshness of the present. It will appeal to anyone, whether interested in Exmoor and old farming practices, a lover of the countryside and of animals, or just wanting to cheer themselves up with a good story, well told. It is a delight to read, hugely funny and, at times, touching.

Buster and Johnny spent the rest of their lives at Nethercote. She died in 1987, without ever publishing her book. Her daughter Birdie, who herself lived there for many years, has now done so on her behalf. Boris Johnson, Buster’s grandson, has written a foreword.

Alas Poor Johnny…. Boris Johnson’s Grannyfesto

Alas Poor Johnny coverBoris Johnson announces his ‘Grannyfesto’ to a packed and appreciative audience of friends and family at the launch of Alas Poor Johnny, a memoir of life on an Exmoor farm written by his grandmother Buster (Granny Butter), Dulverton Town Hall, Easter Monday, 6 April 2015

“It is fair to say that no one in our family has much of a reputation for meeting copy deadlines – and indeed one of the reasons my brother Jo has had to zoom back to London this morning is that someone rang him before breakfast and reminded him that they needed 4000 words by 7pm for the Tory election manifesto – don’t worry – it’s going to be superb. 

But Granny Butter has today beaten all comers by producing her book not just late but fully 28 years after her death – to call her the late Granny Butter is an understatement, my friends – and it is a triumph. 

Her memoirs have been brilliantly edited by Birdie and every page of them evokes a world that has almost vanished – Exmoor in the 1950s. A world without television and the internet, a world without central heating and mains electricity. Where life is an elemental struggle to start the fire and light the tilley lamps and pull the cows from the bog and save the sheep from an appalling disease called blackleg, to which they invariably succumb.

And yet I am sure that Jo would agree with me that there is so much we can learn from this book. And in this tense pre-electoral period I believe it is time to cull the 10 key points and put them to the people.

Yes; here it is – the Grannyfesto.

1. Abolish VAT on hearing aids.

2. Apply to the UN for immediate recognition of the superior intelligence of rats, geese and other animals.

3. Create a fourth emergency service, staffed by volunteers, to perform that humanitarian function essential to any civilised society of pulling your husband, and his landrover, from the river when he has had one too many at the Royal Oak.

4. Institute forthwith an NHS for animals, funded out of general taxation, to help cope with the appalling and vaguely obscene consequences of terrier tail baldness.

5. Admit asylum seekers from Italy and other Eurozone disaster areas on the strict understanding they speak English and help with the lambing.

6. Bring back hunting to Exmoor. While always respecting the feelings, and indeed the wishes, of all animals involved.

7. Relax planning bureaucracy so that hard pressed hill farmers can build attractive tractor sheds for machines that ceased to function at least 20 years ago.

8. Negotiate an immediate opt out from all burdensome and intrusive EU legislation on vacuum cleaners and other electric appliances, because sometimes the wood is so wet that the only way to get the fire going is the old Electrolux on reverse thrust, and put it to the people in the form of an in-out referendum.

9. Make scrabble an Olympic sport, provided that joey with a small j is globally recognised as a valid term for a baby kangaroo.

10. Finally, above all, bring back MANNERS, in young people. So that they stand up when all grown-ups, particularly ladies, enter the room. And so that they eat crisps in the proper way, with a knife and fork, as Granny Butter was taught to do when she was brought up in the Pavillon du Barry, Versailles.

That is the Grannyfesto my friends, these are the ten key policies that I think will carry this country, or indeed any country, on May the 7th. If you seek any further elucidation it is all here in this wonderful book, for which we thank Granny Butter, as indeed we thank her for so much else. So well done Birdie on a brilliant job – and forwards to victory with Granny Butter.”


Alas Poor Johnny by Buster Johnson

Edited by Birdie Johnson, with a foreword by Boris Johnson

paperback £7.99 and ebook £3.99. For more information go to


Memories of Exmoor: The Small Farmer

by David Hill

In the 1950s there weren’t the number of large farms there are today around Exmoor. By and large small farmers were the norm, and if you were farming land with an acreage of over a hundred acres you were considered a big farmer.

One Monday, dad sat down at the dinner table with a broad smile on his face, “Apt us should be having cold pork,” he said as he ladled out a large dollop of bean chutney, made from a recipe passed on to us from my two Methodist Sunday school teacher great aunts, who were really first cousins once removed. Before speaking again, he added the customary mountain of salt to the side of his plate.”Little Leslie have had an accident.”

I pricked up my ears. Little Leslie was a near neighbour and he was a little, short man.

“What sort of accident?” Asked mum. “It’s no smiling matter.”

“Just let’s say he’s a smaller farmer now than when he got up this morning. Out feeding the pigs when one upped and bit one of his fingers off.”

I wanted to ask which finger, but a look from my aged maiden aunt indicated she knew what I was thinking, and I thought better of it.

Grace was said, and dad, having heard the five to one weather forecast, turned off the wireless. “He was lucky,” continued dad.

“How do you make that out. He’ve just lost a finger,” added my aunt.

“Lucky the pig wasn’t really hungry, otherwise he might have eaten all of little Leslie and not just his finger,” laughed dad.

As mum and my aunt joined in the laughter I stared at my cold pork, my appetite not quite what it was, wondering to myself if the pig that I had eaten yesterday and was about to eat again today had ever chewed up a finger.


There are only fifty copies left of THE FARMHOUSE TREE now so that’s pretty good from  900 copies, and they should go quickly following the Radio Devon readings. My editor and publisher is thrilled and says it is very good for a small publisher.I’m thrilled because so far my two charities have each received £500. I owe my little primary school at Bishops Nympton so much.

Christopher Lillicrap, a children’s  TV presenter, will be reading five 6 minute extracts from my book THE FARMHOUSE TREE  on Radio Devon. Book of the month on The Judi  Spiers Show. First reading around ten past ten on March 21st and then on the next four consecutive Fridays at the same time.

You kindly did a feature on the book back along.

My royalty cheques have been sent to my old primary school at Bishops Nympton and Michael Morpurgo for the Farms for City Children.

Am now hard at work on, what will hopefully be, a  follow up book  – LEAVES FROM THE FARMHOUSE TREE. Have finished third, and hopefully final draft. Less sadness in this one,with more recollections of my aged maiden aunt and the life of a nine year old boy on the family farm Eastacott, at East Knowstone.It includes the tale of the two brothers who lived in a hen house and also my aged maiden aunt’s recipe for her yum-yum-pig’s-bum home made butterscotch which I wrote about in my first book. Up and coming article in Western Morning News is about the old smithy at East Knowstone.

Exmoor Memories in Watercolours

Yesterday we received this message from Andrea Newton Wesselius on our Facebook page:
Hi, I am from the Netherlands but lived in London for four years in the mid to late eighties.
On one of their visits to the UK I took my parents to stay at a cottage in Porlock Weir. Both my parents were artists and always making sketches wherever they went. Based on their scribbles, sketches and photos my dad made a gouache painting of Bossington Hill and some watercolours of the Porlock Weir harbour. I realize they are not completely true to reality, but perhaps they are of interest to you, in which case feel free to show them to the facebook group. Both my parents have passed away in the last three years, and as I am particularly attached to these works they are not for sale, but really just in case you were interested….
These were made by my dad, Jacques Wesselius (1931-2012)
This is a link to his website, in case people want to see what else he did in watercolour.

I’m working on a new website on which I can show all his work (oils, acrylics as well as watercolour) as well as all of the work my mum (Jeanne Wesselius) made.


Porlock 1

Porlock 2

Porlock 4

Porlock 5

Porlock 6


Exmoor Memories: …. the air of Exmoor is like a dry champagne…

Excerpt from Cecil Aldin, Exmoor. The Riding Playground of England

( first published in 1935)

The air of Exmoor is like a dry champagne; to breathe it makes old men and women young and gives sparkle and “life” to all young people.  No one can be listless or suffer from a liver on the high altitudes of Exmoor in summer. When we descend to the villages and coombes we may feel the heat, but after wading the cool stream and once again arriving on the tops our spirits rise with Exmoor’s life-giving qualities.

Here, on a fine day, at a moorland meet or hacking party, everyone has that party spirit, which nowadays we are so fond of talking about; not a party spirit gained by drinking numerous cocktails but by healthy exercise and an invigorating atmosphere.

In winter time travel on the hill-tops may by an overrated amusement, for the north and east winds come across the Bristol Channel from Wales in a way that makes anyone journeying over the moor at that season long to reach the  shelter of Exford or Porlock.

When it rains here it does it well and truly, … One can get wetter on Exmoor on a rainy day, or when a cold, drenching fog covers the hills, than in any other place in England.

(from Chapter II  Some of its villages and folk)

Exmoor Memories: Summer on the Exmoor Coast

IMG_6677A.G. Bradley, “Exmoor Memories”

(first published in 1926)

 But Lynton, whether at the first boyish encounter, with its high, uplifting scenery, or at eighteen, when I had come to feel its attractions more deeply, was always my favourite place for these exhilarating trips. (…) Sometimes we took the rough moorland road, as it then was, turning off left-handed on the way to Simonsbath and heading across the open moor for Oare and Brendon, by Brendon Two-Gates, nowadays so familiar to tourists, and so down the glorious valley of the East Lynn. At other times we would take the Combe Martin road, and turning right-handed at Blackmore gate, in those days what its name portended, a turnpike, follow the coach road through Paracombe and on down the valley of the West Lynn. This was the route from Barnstaple for the comparatively small number of visitors that then found their way to Lynton. A long and hilly road of nearly twenty miles, over which agonised honeymooners from flat counties clung together on the coach roof as, with groaning brakes, it rocked down the steep hills, over loose stones and a stream-riven surface. Even Ilfracombe  had only as yet talked of a railroad.  Lynton had not even dreamed of such a thing. It would have seemed to us nothing short of sacrilege. (…)

What can one say of Lynton, or Lynmouth, that has not been told by pens innumerable since those old days of the ‘sixties? It is not so much the bold coast scenery, because that extends with equal, if intermittent grandeur all the way past Ilfracombe to Barnstaple Bay, and eastwards into Somerset, but rather those two lovely winding valleys, wrapped to their summits with foliage, and cloven by white streams foaming to the sea, which make it unique among English coast resorts.

Arthur Granville BRADLEY 1850-1943




Exmoor Memories: Discovering Exmoor Wildlife

Els van de Weg – Dutchels  – recently visited Exmoor. This is what she posted on her blog in the Netherlands to promote Exmoor amongst her Dutch followers :

On safari in Exmoor National Park

Thinking of wildlife safaris my mind wanders immediately to Africa, lions and elephants. It feels like an enormous adventure to explore the wilderness in a Jeep. However, there is no need for travelling that far to enjoy a safari adventure. In South West England for example, there are several companies that offer you a safari trip in one of the National Parks. Such wildlife adventure should definitely be on your list of things to do, when visiting this part of Europe.

On some trails there is only limited access, so the safari guides will take you in their 4×4 Jeeps to places you otherwise would never get to. Exmoor National Park covers about 267 square miles and the safari guides can tell you almost anything about the rare vegetation and unique animals that live here. The wild red deer and the Exmoor ponies are probably the most well known and most popular of all breeds here, and recently even dolphins have been spotted, just off Exmoor’s coast! There is a choice of different safaris lasting half or a full day and the trails lead you through deep wooded valleys, along fast flowing streams and vast purple coloured moorland to the tops of the highest cliffs in England.

The varied Exmoor landscapes, with so many contrasts, are a paradise for photographers. However, it is not only wild life which is a great attraction here. Exmoor is also a treasure chamber of the past, with its burial mounds, standing stones, castles, fortresses and well-kept medieval villages. Some guides offer to take you on a safari even after sun set, for a few hours of star gazing fun! Exmoor has put a lot of effort in minimising the light pollution, hence the intense, dark nights in this area and the consequently bright starry skies. There will be telescopes available and you will get a full explanation about the Milky Way. Exmoor National Park was first in Europe to be awarded the “Dark Sky Reserve” status and The Exmoor people have every right to be proud of this!

Ready for a new adventure? Join a safari and discover Exmoor!

All pictures were taken by Experience Exmoor (who are partners of Exmoor Club – club members receive 10% discount on all bookings)


Visit Dutchels’ blog at

Follow on Twitter: @DutchEls

Exmoor Memories: There are no bilberries in Zambia

Everyone tells me how lucky I am to live in a wonderful place like Victoria Falls and that it true. Not everyone has the chance to live just 10 kms away from one of the natural wonders of the world.

heather2However, I come from Tiverton, Devon and was lucky enough to be brought up just that same roughly 10 kms (perhaps a little further) from Exmoor and how well I remember that beautiful place. The heather and the bilberries spring immediately to mind. Picnics with my family overlooking the Devil’s Punchbowl, clambering over the stones at Tarr Steps and that wonderful drive over the moors to Lynton and Lynmouth, always asking my parents about the terrible floods and loving the ride from Lynmouth up to Lynton on the cable railway!

Or, over the moors and to Saunton Sands – miles of sand, great for swimming and surfing in the summer, wild and windy in the winter but lovely at all times. The allegedly haunted Saunton Sands Hotel high up on the cliff – “can we go there” – “no darling we’re having a picnic” And my mother’s picnics were wonderful on Exmoor.

The treat of treats? The drive back from Exmoor to Tiverton and stopping for ice cream in Dulverton, and oh what wonderful home made ice cream it was!bilberries2

Talking of bilberries us kids used to compete as to who could pick the most! Who had purple lips from eating not packing? Me! Home and my mother’s wonderful bilberry and apple pie with clotted cream for dinner dessert! Wow! Those are some memories!



Richard Chanter

Chanters Lodge, Livingstone,