Henry Williamson

Henry Williamson was born in Brockley, southeast London in 1895 and attended Colfe's School. The then semi-rural location provided easy access to the Kent countryside and he developed a deep love of nature. Although his father loved cycling, collecting butterflies and moths and flying kites, his strict Victorian attitudes were the cause of much unhappiness. The family spent a holiday with Henry’s Aunt Mary Leopoldina at Georgeham in North Devon just before the outbreak of the First World War. She had written a short but powerfully mystical book in 1910, and encouraged Henry to read the work of Francis Thompson. Becoming enthralled with literature and the wild scenery, Henry vowed to return.

In 1914, he enlisted in the army and fought on the Somme and at Passchendale, where he was seriously wounded. He was invalided home in 1915 but was back as an officer in France in 1916. He came out of the war as a Captain with a Military Cross. The Christmas truce of 1914, when Germans and Englishmen left their trenches to fraternise and play football, affected him greatly. He became disgusted with the pointlessness of the war and was angry at the greed and bigotry he saw as causing it. He became determined that Germany and Britain should never go to war again. He told of his war experiences in The Wet Flanders Plain (1929) andThe Patriot's Progress (1930).

After demobilisation, Williamson returned to his family home and entered employment with the Weekly Dispatch in Fleet Street. He had articles published in several major periodicals and began work on his first novel, The Beautiful Years(1922). In 1919, he read The Story of My Heart by the nature writer Richard Jefferies. This was to have a crucial impact upon him and from this he developed the ancient philosophy of a mystical union between the eternal sunlight and the earth. In 1921, he moved to Georgeham, living in a small cottage. He lived there hermit-like and studied nature in detail, tramping the countryside, sleeping out and gathering a menagerie of dogs, cats, gulls, buzzards, magpies and an otter cub. The otter, Tarka (meaning ‘little water wanderer’), had been rescued by Williamson after a farmer had shot its mother. The otter would walk like a dog alongside him until one day it fled. This inspired him to write his most famous nature book Tarka The Otter, published in 1927. He rewrote Tarka 17 times, "always and only for the sake of a greater truth." He strove always to illuminate a scene or incident with what he considered ‘sunlight’ and he sought to see the world as the sun sees it – without shadows.

He married Ida Loetitia Hibbert in 1925 and they honeymooned near Dunkery Beacon. In 1929, with a son, they moved to Shallowford on the Fortescue Estate at Filleigh, where over the next thirteen years four further children were sired, and more books were published, including Salar the Salmon, written from his experiences of fishing in the River Bray. The book drained Henry of his immediate enthusiasm for the Devon landscape. He also suffered from the death of his best friend: T.E. Lawrence, who had died after an accident sustained as he returned from sending Henry a telegram arranging a meeting for the following day. He had idolised Lawrence and thought that he had the charisma necessary to broker a peace with Hitler. In 1935 Henry visited the National Socialist Congress at Nuremberg and was greatly impressed. He subsequently joined Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists and at the start of World War II was briefly held for his political views. He indulged in several extra-marital affairs, for he was forever seeking for a perfect, almost mythical being but whom he never found for she could not exist in real life. Ann Thomas, daughter of the poet Edward Thomas, became his secretary and his mistress and bore him a child. From 1937-45 the Williamson family lived at the Old Hall Farm in North Norfolk, where many more books and articles were written, and a sixth child was born. The marriage broke up and in 1946 Henry returned alone to live with friends in Georgeham.

Henry spent his time writing in a hut, known as ‘The Field’, that he had bought in 1928 with money from a literary prize for Tarka. One of the first things he wrote there was an article about Exmoor for the new West Country Magazine. Soon he met a young teacher, Christine Duffield. They bought a caravan to live in at ‘The Field’ and, after difficulties over her mother’s disapproval, they were married in 1949 and produced another son for Henry. Henry decided to build a larger 'Studio' of solid construction in 'The Field' but it was considered rather a Bohemian life for a young child, so a cottage was also bought near the harbour at Ilfracombe, allowing Henry to use 'The Field' as his escape to allow him to write. He began to write his great series of fifteen novels collectively known as A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight. From 1951-1969 he produced almost one novel a year. He wrote sometimes for fifteen hours every day, often for much of the night. Each novel was well over the normal length, at almost two hundred thousand words, and all had at least one major rewrite. This put great strain on the marriage and he and Christine parted in the early 1960s after Christine suffered a nervous breakdown, although they did not divorce until 1968, when she was teaching at the village school at Exford. A series of assistants and secretaries came and went as they could not cope with Henry’s temperament or eccentricity. He also fell out with his close friend, critic Malcolm Elwin, who helped him publish his novels but gave up trying to edit them.

As a record of social history from just before the turn of the century to the 1950s the Chronicles have a high place in English literature and Williamson would be much more highly regarded if it had not been for his Fascist views, boorish temperament and eccentricities. The Gale of the World, the last volume of the Chronicles, covers the Lynmouth flood disaster. In it, Williamson’s main character, Philip Maddison, moves alone to Exmoor, searching for peace of mind. Although he finds great solace in the countryside and nature, he is haunted by the memory of the many comrades who fell in the First World War. He questions the legality of the Nuremberg Trials, the devastation of Germany, and puts the blame for the mass deaths in German concentration camps partly on the Allied bombing of the German transport system.

After Chronicles Henry saw his writing life almost ended. He lived alone in the tiny cottage in Ilfracombe, keeping up his natural history interest as chairman of Ilfracombe Field Club. For many years he had plans for a family house to be built at 'The Field' and in 1973 the large folly-like house was built, but he never lived in it. He wrote a chapter for the first Official Guide to the National Park, published by HMSO in 1970, but this was rejected, possibly because it dwelt on the controversial issue of hunting. Although he could always see the animals' point of view, he was in favour of hunting and on occasions went fox, deer and otter hunting. It was William Henry Rogers, Master of the Cheriton Otter Hounds, who had given him the material for the Exmoor otter hunt episode in Tarka. He published his final book The Scandaroon, the story of a racing pigeon, in 1972. In 1974, he began working on the script for a film of "Tarka". Unknown to Williamson, filming went ahead despite the failing health that prevented him from completing the task himself. Suffering from senile dementia, he became unable to look after himself and his family arranged for him to be taken into the care of Alexian monks in their hospice at Twyford Abbey on the outskirts of London. Willamson died in 1977 and was buried at Georgeham. In 1980, the Henry Williamson Society. Henry was deeply fond of Exmoor, regarding it as his 'land of ancient sunlight'. Works relevant to Exmoor are The Old Stag (1926); Tarka the Otter (1927); The Wild Red Deer of Exmoor (1931) (1937); The Children of Shallowford (1939) and Tales of Moorland and Estuary (1953). The Tarka Trail is a 180 mile long figure of eight walking and cycling route based around Barnstaple. The route follows Tarka’s wanderings around North Devon and over Exmoor.