John Peel

John Hugh Brignal Peel was born in 1913. He came from an old North Devon family and spoke of Exmoor as the home of his maternal ancestors. He was educated at Merchant Taylors’ School for Boys in Middlesex and Oriel College, Oxford. In the Second World War he served as a naval officer. During this service he published his first book, a volume of poetry: In the Country (1944). This was soon followed by two more volumes of poetry: Mere England: A Poem (1946) and Frost at Midnight (1947). Mere England was one long poem and was described by Richard Church as “the most ambitious effort in English poetry since Bridges’ Testament of Beauty.” He became friends with poet John Masefield, who wrote of him: “Mr Peel knows more than any other living man about the life of the English Countryside.”

Writing as JHB Peel, he became well known for his essays about farming and the countryside. From the 1960s, he wrote a fortnightly essay, Country Talk, for theDaily Telegraph. These were gradually collated into eight books in the Country Talk series, starting with Country Talk in 1970 and finishing with Another Country Talk in 1983. Several of the essays are about Exmoor. He travelled 20,000 miles a year throughout Britain researching for the essays and also wrote and narrated radio and television programmes.

His travels inspired a dozen books about British topography, beginning withBuckinghamshire Footpaths in 1949. His wanderings led to books such as Along the Pennine Way (1969), Along the Green Roads of Britain and Along the Roman Roads of Britain (1971). His Portrait series of regional books started with Portrait of the Thames and Portrait of the Severn. Portrait of Exmoor was first published in 1970. Whilst researching the book he arrived at Hunter’s Inn. Mentioning to the landlord that he was intending to stay for a while and was looking for accommodation, he was offered the use of a small building on the hillside above the inn that had been used for staff accommodation. This is described in the book as ‘The Haven’. The building has since been demolished and the area returned to woodland. John became very attached to the area and in the book he describes the walk from ‘The Haven’ up to Martinhoe village and back along the coast path as the ‘finest walk’ – praise indeed from someone who had walked the breadth of Britain. The book included a chapter on the impact on Exmoor of National Park status.

Before the Exmoor book was published John had moved from ‘The Haven’, where he spent two years, to ‘Mount Wistle’ cottage in Charles parish, which was almost as tiny but had two bedrooms instead of one. He continued writing until his death in 1983. His last volume of poetry, Light and Shade, was published in 1976. A year after his death the Daily Telegraph paid for a memorial to him at County Gate. This takes the form of a toposcope, describing the view over the East Lyn and Badgworthy valleys.  


Prudden, H, 1984, J.H.B. Peel: a literary geographer. Geography, 69, 339-341