Sunday, October 11, 2015

Vintage postcard featuring goats and Devil's Cheesewring

England has, far and away, the best place names and addresses on Earth.1 This postcard, which was mailed in August 1915, features some goats on a hillside, next to some mysterious rock formations. The caption reads: "Lynton, Valley of Rooks, Devil's Cheesewring, Mother Meldrum's Cave."

Let's take them one at a time:

1. Lynton: A small town of about 1,100 located in the North Devon district of the county of Devon in South West England. The region has been occupied by human civilizations for thousands of years, as the barrows and quarries and henges attest. In modern times, Lynton itself owes much to George Newnes, who brought a town hall, church and rail service to the town around the turn of the 20th century.

2. Valley of Rooks: This is ... a typo! It's definitely supposed to be the Valley of Rocks, which makes more sense if you think about it.2 So, the Valley of Rocks is located less than a mile west of Lynton, along the coast. According to Wikipedia, it is "a popular tourist destination, noted for its herd of feral goats, and for its geology, having good exposures of the Lynton Beds (formally the 'Lynton Formation') that are among the oldest Devonian rocks in north Devon and are highly fossiliferous."

Speaking of the goats, there is a Lynton Feral Goat Preservation Society ("Friends of the Lynton Goats").3 They even have a Facebook page and a 2016 calendar that's available for order.

3. Devil's Cheesewring: This is the name of the tall rock formation featured in the center of the postcard. A cheesewring, historically, was a press-like device that was used to make cheese. The Devil's Cheesewring can be classified as a tor (or castle koppie) and should not be confused with the more famous Cheesewring in Cornwall. You can see other photos of the Devil's Cheesewring here and here.

4. Mother Meldrum's Cave: This spot, also sometimes referred to as Mother Meldrum's Kitchen, isn't really a full-fledged cave. And it's more tied to fiction than reality. "Mother Melldrum" is a character in the 1869 novel Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor, by R. D. Blackmore.4 This is how the character is introduced in the novel:
"Now the wisest person in all our parts was reckoned to be a certain wise woman, well known all over Exmoor by the name of Mother Melldrum. Her real name was Maple Durham, as I learned long afterwards; and she came of an ancient family, but neither of Devon nor Somerset. Nevertheless she was quite at home with our proper modes of divination; and knowing that we liked them best — as each man does his own religion — she would always practise them for the people of the country. And all the while, she would let us know that she kept a higher and nobler mode for those who looked down upon this one, not having been bred and born to it.

"Mother Melldrum had two houses, or rather she had none at all, but two homes wherein to find her, according to the time of year. In summer she lived in a pleasant cave, facing the cool side of the hill, far inland near Hawkridge and close above Tarr-steps, a wonderful crossing of Barle river, made (as everybody knows) by Satan, for a wager. But throughout the winter, she found sea-air agreeable, and a place where things could be had on credit, and more occasion of talking. Not but what she could have credit (for every one was afraid of her) in the neighbourhood of Tarr-steps; only there was no one handy owning things worth taking.

"Therefore, at the fall of the leaf, when the woods grew damp and irksome, the wise woman always set her face to the warmer cliffs of the Channel; where shelter was, and dry fern bedding, and folk to be seen in the distance, from a bank upon which the sun shone. And there, as I knew from our John Fry (who had been to her about rheumatism, and sheep possessed with an evil spirit, and warts on the hand of his son, young John), any one who chose might find her, towards the close of a winter day, gathering sticks and brown fern for fuel, and talking to herself the while, in a hollow stretch behind the cliffs; which foreigners, who come and go without seeing much of Exmoor, have called the Valley of Rocks. ...

"Now Mother Melldrum kept her winter in this vale of rocks, sheltering from the wind and rain within the Devil's Cheese-ring, which added greatly to her fame because all else, for miles around, were afraid to go near it after dark, or even on a gloomy day. Under eaves of lichened rock she had a winding passage, which none that ever I knew of durst enter but herself. And to this place I went to seek her, in spite of all misgivings, upon a Sunday in Lenten season, when the sheep were folded."
As the narrator approaches Melldrum's dwelling, he notes that "In patches underneath the crags, a few wild goats were browsing; then they tossed their horns, and fled, and leaped on ledges, and stared at me."

So, indeed, this is a very Lorna Doone postcard.

But the fictional character might have a little basis in reality. According to an article titled "Lorna Doone and Exmoor and the Exmoor National Park":
"The original 'Mother Meldrum' of Lorna Doone was a 19th-century wise woman, Aggie Norman, who sometimes lodged in a shelter under the rock known as the Devil's Cheesewring in the Valley of Rocks, and held consultations here for star-crossed lovers and sick people."
An article about R.D. Blackmore on the Exmoor National Park website adds that Norman, who died at age 83 in 1860, was "reputed to be a witch."

* * *

Getting back to the postcard, it was part of the Frith's Series and was postmarked on August 16, 1915. It was addressed to Mrs. Pye of Rochester, Kent. The note states:
"We have had 10 days' leave & have been spending it in the country six miles from Lynton. It has been glorious. We return tomorrow & have plenty of hard work to look forward to. Hope you are all keeping well & not too harassed with moving. We have long been trying to come & see you & hope to when we can get a day free. Love from us both. Alfred."

1. For example, this week I am sending a Postcrossing card to an individual in the UK whose address includes: The Moorings, Narrowboat "Take Five."
2. Although you could argue, too, that some of the rock formations look like rooks from chess.
3. Some excerpts from the Lynton Feral Goat Preservation Society's most recent online report:
  • "This year has had its ups and downs for Lynton's Feral Goat colony. In terms of health the general condition of the herd has been very good, and, although never far from controversy, they continue to delight and attract visitors to the valley."
  • "Prior to the April round up a number of the older billies, that had allegedly been making quite a nuisance of themselves in the surrounding villages and gardens, were culled in an area outside the valley."
  • "For those who weren't aware, Blossom was a billy that featured as a kid in an Animal Rescue TV documentary when he was rescued by helicopter from a ledge on castle rock. He was a distinctive and popular sight in the valley until his untimely death a few years ago, victim of an incompetent marksman, unknown. His offspring can be recognised from their lighter colouring and distinctive 'eyebrow' markings."
  • "The number of goats continues to cause concern, and the council are looking for possible rehoming opportunities."
4. I have no idea why the book's character is Mother Melldrum and the rock formation is Mother Meldrum. I guess spelling just wasn't as important to people of the past.

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