Category: Exmoor

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:

Email:   bette.baldwin@btinternet.com
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