Category: Exmoor

Exmoor HistoryThroughStories KidsWriting StoryCompetition Storytelling

“Stumbling across a ruined house”

Congratulations to Ben Stevens, aged 9, who wins a £10 Book Token for his entry in the 500 Word Writing Challenge.
Thanks so much Ben for your thoughtful and colourful writing and asking the questions many people ask about the cottage and what life must have been like for the people who once lived and worked there.  Just like Ben they are fascinated to visit the cottage but often start the long walk back feeling pleased that they have a warm, comfy home near the shops to return to! And like Ben we’d all miss our WIFI!!

Here is Ben’s story…….

Strolling on the Exmoor moors on a freezing November day I pulled my coat over my shoulders just as an icy gust of wind hit my body and it started to pour with rain.  In my rush to find shelter I stumbled across a ruined house that looked extremely old.  It was a wreckage and had clearly been through a lot of things.  Although it was a ruined house I still managed o find a small place to shelter in it.  When the rain started slowing down I began to investigate the house.  There were only a few rooms so not many people could stay at a time.  I wondered how many people have ever lived here?  I certainly wouldn’t like to live here in this old house on the moors which had no WIFI.  /also, there were no shops nearby so you would have to walk miles to buy food or get to school.  There were many sheep around me happily grazing on the luscious grass around the cottage or being nursed by their mothers.  You could see their warm wool on the ground where they had last been. 

On cold and snowy days what would the people who lived here do with no heating?  Would they just cuddle up in a warm blanket?  It would be freezing cold with no place to go to keep warm for miles.  You must have been very poor to live here, no neighbours or people who know you nearby, with no friends to play with, no school nearby to go to, it would e a life for a very poor family.  You would get very lonely out here with no one to play with you except your brothers and sisters. It would also get very boring after having to walk miles for food and drink every day.  As I was wondering about all  of these things I took my coat and my jumper off to the boiling hot blaze of sun that came out. The dark misty rain clouds had finally gone away so I was free to walk home.  As I was walking home I could the lush grass and everything bright and clear.  I was glad to be walking home to a warm house in the town close to my friends unlike Hoar Oak Cottage!
The End!


Posted by Bette Baldwin
Agricultural History Exmoor Heritage History Scottish Exmoor Links sheep Sheep Farming

Exmoor – Land of Goshen?

Exmoor may seem like a forbidding, remote or even extreme environment to our modern minds.  To the Scottish shepherds who travelled south to Exmoor in the 19th century to work for Frederic Winn Knight it would have felt very much like home from home.  Most of them came from similar, or even more, remote rural areas in the Scottish Borders and they were used to wild weather and wild countryside.

But could it be that coming south might seem like coming to the Land of Goshen for these shepherd families?  Frederic Knight seemed to think so. On the 6th of November 1883 he had an article published in the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette about Exmoor sheep farming.

He says in the article that although the climate of Exmoor may seem severe to a native of the Devonshire sea-coast the “shepherds from the Scotch borders have frequently remarked, on receiving accounts of snowstorms in their native hills, that on coming to Exmoor they had come into the land of Goshen.”  

He explains how his sheep flocks need no additional feed during the winter months and that “only twice in the last twenty years have I lost sheep in snowstorms and the loss compared with the number of sheep wintered has been infinitesimal, as it was accidental.  No sheep with liver-rot or fluke has ever been known on Exmoor.” 

Although Mr Knight doesn’t make clear precisely what he means by Land of Goshen – nor what the accident was that caused the loss of sheep during winter – it can probably be assumed he was referring to the balmy climate and agricultural benefits of farming in Southern England.  The newspaper article gives a very positive view of sheep farming on Exmoor at the end of the 1800s and should probably be seen as a bit of free media for Mr Knight wishing to put a very positive spin on his agricultural activities on Exmoor.

The Friends researches into the Scottish shepherds at Hoar Oak Cottage and elsewhere on Exmoor don’t necessarily paint a similar picture.  Their lives, for the most part, included highs and lows, good times and bad times.  Some stayed on Exmoor.  Most went back to their homes and families in Scotland.  So was Exmoor their Land of Goshen?  Maybe it was a bit warmer then the Scottish Borders.  Maybe the chance of a job with a cottage was attractive.  Maybe sheep farming in the south was easier than in the north.

We’ll never know.  We can only be sure that Frederic Knight certainly thought it was.  At least according to what he wrote in this newspaper article published over 130 years ago.



Posted by Bette Baldwin
Biggar Crawfordjohn Exmoor Graham Scottish Exmoor Links

Shepherd Graham of Badgeworthy

Guest Blog from Donald Graham
Donald Graham,  pictured left, is a great great grandson of Thomas and Marion Graham nee Wilson who were one of the Scottish migrant shepherd families to come to Exmoor in the 19th century.  You can read more about the Scottish Shepherds on this link. Thomas and Marion took on the Badgeworthy Herding for John Knight.  Many of their descendants including Donald are still in and around Exmoor, Devon.   Below, Donald gives us an introduction into his interest in researching his Scottish grandparents and an account of his visit to Scotland to research their early lives and his search to find contemporary Graham relatives.

 In July 2017 I fulfilled my long time ambition to visit Scotland, the homeland of my forebear Scottish descendants who came from Biggar and Crawfordjohn in the border area of Upper Clydesdale Lanarkshire.

 I have always taken a keen interest in my Graham family history and during my teenage years remember asking my paternal grandfather who lived with us on the family farm “who were your grandparents who came from Scotland”?

 “I never knew my grandparents much” my grandfather would say. He told me they came from Biggar and grandfather Graham was tall with a big bushy beard and spoke with a gruff, broad Scotch accent. My grandfather couldn’t understand what grandfather Graham was saying half the time, and he and his siblings used to be quite scared of him. Grandmother Graham he remembered in contrast was short in height, quieter natured and wore a Scotch plaid around her shoulders.

 “Oh, I dare say they were kindly enough, but not a big part of our lives” he told me. Later they moved from Exmoor to Stockleigh English, Mid Devon to live near two of their daughters and never much was saw of them after then. And that was the extent of his memory of his Scottish grandparents and all I ever knew of them for many years following. 

My Father had not been born when both his Scottish great grandparents died in the mid 1920’s and he had learnt no more than I had from his Father.

 It wasn’t until 2000 that my desire to find out more about my Scottish ancestry was rekindled. By then I knew my Scotts great great grandparents were buried in Stockleigh English churchyard. I made a visit and found their weather beaten gravestone, the monumental inscription partially covered with lichen and difficult to read. There were flowers on the grave that looked as though they had been recently picked and arranged. Indicating to me the memory of the inhabitants was dear to someone, possibly a family relative. I contacted the Vicar and asked if I could put a research enquiry into the following months church magazine which soon generated a response.

 It was from another same generation grandson as my grandfather. The difference was, he had known his Scottish grandparents well and had a wealth of fascinating information to tell me. His name was Graham Madge the son of Marion Madge nee Graham, a daughter of Thomas and Marion Graham.

 Graham was a retired teacher who had worked in primary schools for many years and had received an MBE for his services to his local community. He had been brought up at Down Farm Nr Stockleigh English with his parents and grandparents. It was a privilege to have known Graham before he passed away in 2002. He was able to tell me the detailed life stories of my great, great grandparents Thomas and Marion Graham. Two second hand memories of his grandfather Graham which he remembered his father telling him about and amused me I will share with you here.

 Thomas Graham had a bit of a habit of stressing important things he was saying with great emphasis and sometimes reinforced special points by prodding his addressee in the chest with two fingers. He did this once when talking to the elderly rector of Stockleigh English. Unfortunately he caught the old boy off balance and he fell over!

 On another occasion he went into a haberdasher’s shop and asked for a ‘pern’ (pronounced  peern with a strong Scots accent). he could not make the shopkeeper understand what he actually wanted. A difficult conversation between the shopkeeper and grandfather Graham pursued with grandfather Graham persisting in trying to make himself understood for several minutes resulting in an inpatient queue of customers waiting to be served. What he actually wanted was a reel of cotton.

 Having been enriched with this wealth of information, hearing their stories and making pilgrimages to the often desolate and remote places they had lived out their lives on Exmoor and later in mid Devon, I knew I had to go to Scotland where their lives began.

 I planned my visit to Scotland well beforehand. I made notes of the places I needed to visit and checked census returns for addresses where my Graham ancestors lived. I also prepared ‘enquiry cards’ to hand out and pin on notice boards asking for information on Graham families and lines they married into living in Biggar and surrounding parishes during the 19th and 20th centuries. My objective was to find leads of enquiry to contemporary relatives in Scotland.

 My first stop was Crawfordjohn on a very wet and foggy Monday morning. I easily found the lovely little chapel which is now the Crawfordjohn Heritage Centre. It so happened the church door was unlocked so I wandered in and met a really lovely local lady who introduced herself as Dee. She explained the church wasn’t open but was happy to let me in to chat and have a look around and dry off! I explained who I was, my interest in coming to Crawfordjohn and the gravestones I was hoping to locate. Dee was fantastic she came out with me to help me locate the gravestones and shown me the name of James Graham on the War memorial.

 From Crawfordjohn I made my way to Biggar where I stayed for two days. I had a lot to do, so bags unpacked at the very comfortable and highly recommended Kirkstyle Hotel I was off the Biggar Kirk churchyard and cemetery to look for family Gravestones. I found twenty Graham monumental inscriptions. Some names and families I recognised, others were new and welcomed discoveries. In the cemetery there are five Graham relatives buried since 2000 so my Graham relatives may still be living in the local area or returning to Biggar to be buried.

I visited the very interesting and Upper Clydesdale Museum where the Museum Curator was able to show me documents for Graham family members who had served in the Great and Second World Wars. She also produced six 19 century studio portrait photographs of various unknown Graham family from a folder marked ‘from a Graham family album’. I was delighted to have been able to have copies of these.

 The remainder of my two days were spent locating the streets, roads and some of the houses where my Graham families had lived at the times of the 19th century and 1911 censuses. All this was done in between a few refreshment visits to the local Crown and Elphinstone pubs in Biggar High Street. In both very welcoming hostelries I met some friendly and helpful locals who offered to take some of my enquiry cards and ask around about Graham’s in the area.

 It was a great visit and I  feel I shall be returning in the future. I’m forever optimistic and hopeful some more family research leads will follow.  Never wanting to miss an opportunity to appeal for family relatives I pin my last enquiry card here!

 Searching for Graham descendants in Biggar and the Border areas of Upper Clydesdale, Lanarkshire Scotland

Are you descended from a Graham family who lived in Biggar or the border areas of Upper Clydesdale Lanarkshire, Scotland in the 19th and 20th centuries?

If you are I would very much like to hear from you.

Other surnames who married into the Graham family and I would like to hear from are:  Anderson, Burton, Black, Campbell, Dickson, Dunn, Good, Geddes, Johnston(e), Maxwell, McLellan, McKinley, Nimmo, Proudfoot, Steele, Shields, Smith, Stobbo, Shiene, Wilson, Watson, Walker.

Contact: Donald Steele Wilson Graham


Tel: 01643 702170

Address: St. Louis Cottage, 38, Bampton Street, Minehead,Somerset TA24 5TT

Posted by Bette Baldwin
Exmoor Fauna Flora Uncategorized

The Flora and Fauna of Exmoor

Exmoor’s scenery: open windswept moorland; sheltered wooded combes; the highest sea cliffs in England; bog, fast-rushing rivers and man-made lakes.  With such varied habitats it’s not surprising that its flora and other wildlife are so diverse.  Living in one of the remotest parts of the moor and out in all weathers, the shepherds of Hoar Oak Cottage would have been intimately aware of the plants and creatures that they came across daily.

Country folk of the past utilised anything that could be readily harvested; not just those that could be eaten but also those that might make a hard life a little more comfortable.  These days worts (bilberries) and blackberries may still be gathered in the autumn for pies and jam but it’s doubtful whether anyone collects cotton grass seed-heads for stuffing pillows anymore. However, the great beech trees that still surround Hoar Oak Cottage continue to give shelter (and once firewood) and the trout in the river that provided the occasional tasty meal still dart for shelter whenever danger threatens.

The Hoar Oak Valley had been home to man for thousands of years from Neolithic and Bronze Age settlers through to the late 1950s.  Since then, Exmoor’s National Park status has protected the moor as well as many of the birds, mammals, wild flowers and insects they would have been familiar with.  Today, the wildlife provides a continuous and living link between ourselves, the shepherds and the earliest peoples.  In this occasional series of posts on the flora and fauna we hope to gather information from various sources; books and our research have already yielded many clues.  However, we would like these pages to also become a record of your Exmoor sightings and discoveries – new or old – especially if they should be from the Hoar Oak Valley.  If you have a photograph or story that we might share we’d love to hear from you – to reach us, click on the link at the foot of the page.

Posted by John Shortland
Exmoor Johnstone Uncategorized

Looking for Sarah

Sarah’s Story
In 1881, Sarah Thomason married James Maxwell Johnstone in a tiny church in the beautiful Welsh village of Betws Garmon.  The couple moved to Keswick in the Lake District and had two children before moving to Muirkirk in the Scottish Borders and having another child.  In 1886, Sarah and James and the three children moved to Hoar Oak Cottage  where they lived for nearly 20 years had ten more children.  In 1904, when the last child was just ten months old, James died and Sarah was left on Exmoor with her thirteen children – a long way from parents and family in Wales and Scotland. Sarah died in 1945 after a long widowhood spent living and working in Lynton before going to live with her daughter Agnes Sedgbeer in Gunn and finally with her daughter Jane Johnstone in Porlock.  You can read Sarah and James story and find out more about their 13 children  on this link.
Looking for Sarah
The search for Sarah and her story and the hope to find a photograph of this amazing and courageous woman was, in many ways, what started two of her descendants – Bette Baldwin and Will Bowden – on the search into Hoar Oak Cottage and the setting up of The Friends.  Now after many years it is time to return to that simple, original aim – of looking for Sarah.

Might there be a photograph out there somewhere?  Might there be a photograph of Sarah and James out there somewhere?  When James died in 1904 photography wasn’t all that common – certainly not for poor people.  But when Sarah died in 1945 it would have been much more common.  The hope is there may be a photo of her somewhere and we can track it down.  We know so much about her life but we do not know what she looked like. How nice that would be.

If you think you may be able to help or need more information please get in touch by contacting Bette Baldwin on:

Tel:        07967182903




Posted by Bette Baldwin
Agricultural History Exmoor Heritage History Uncategorized

John Shortland, Chair of the Friends, Discovers Hoar Oak

Forty-nine years ago, as a teenager fresh from school, I stumbled across an Exmoor farm and asked if I could camp for a couple of days.  As the days turned into weeks and then months, I moved into the farmhouse earning my keep labouring.  I thought I had found Paradise and would never leave.  The sudden appearance of my father – “time to get a proper job” –  changed that and, despite my protests, a career in the world of fashion was forged.  However, like so many of us that have been caught in its magic web, Exmoor never released me fully.  At every opportunity, I would rush back to the farm to gradually learn a way of life totally foreign to my Home Counties upbringing.  Many of the tasks I was carrying out had remained virtually unchanged for decades, quite probably centuries.  Over the years that followed I was privileged not just to be welcomed into the farming calendar but also into the social one, sharing times of joy and sometimes sorrow.

Exmoor, with its National Park status, gives the appearance of a place unchanged but this is not a strictly accurate picture.  The landscape is protected but much of the social structure has inevitably altered as the older generations pass away.  As a result, the Exmoor dialect is much less frequently heard and many of the local traditions and tales are in danger of being lost.  It is here where individuals and organisations like the Friends do such valuable work through research and by recording the memories of those that remain.  For example, it is thanks to the Friends that I now know that when, forty plus years ago I walked back to Brendon Barton from the Rockford Inn, and singing lustily (but not tunefully) the Exmoor Hunting Song, that I was following in the footsteps of Abe and Gert Antell, the last of the Hoar Oak residents, as they also sang their way home from the pub.  Writing of those times in a blog led to a request from the Friends for me to read my account of that first visit to Exmoor – captured in a video clip below.  Now I have the great honour of becoming Chair of the Friends. 

Discovering Exmoor literally changed my life: I finally got to follow my dream of working on the land – albeit in horticulture  and in the Cotswolds, another area of outstanding beauty.  Now, as Chair of the Friends, my hope is that in some small way I can give something back to Exmoor and, especially, to the people that love it.  It is those people, whether they live and work on the moor, are visitors, or only know it through the internet, that keep the landscape alive.  And it is through their eyes that the hardy shepherd families of Hoar Oak Cottage, who for generations toiled so hard in their splendid isolation, will live on.

 The tale of John’s discovery of Hoar Oak Cottage in 1968 and of his love of Exmoor can be heard here:

Posted by John Shortland