The Valley of the Doones
— He whose lucky star may chance to guide him, in his summer wanderings, through the rocky fastnesses of north Devonshire into the valley of the Doones has no disillusionment of the fancy to fear, howsoever dear a lover he may he of the noble romance that has given the valley its farspread fame. If he will but make haste to visit this glen beloved of the muse, he may have, in addition to all the delights that nature, in her fairest mood, can give, the minor but intensely personal delight of feeling himself a pioneer in pleasurable discovery. The tramp of the tourist, it is true, is beginning to penetrate further and further into the deep-hearted valleys and through the moors of lovely Devon. But as yet its dull thud has not frightened away from the remote stronghold of the bandits of yore the sense of loneliness aud aloofness that is the climax of pleasure to the sentimental traveler everywhere, and is here essential, if one is to feel the inmost spirit of the scene over which Blaekmore has cast the vivid spell of his imagination.
If fortune should happen to be in the mood to be prodigal of her favors, she will bring the traveler who is quick of eye and feeling to the mouth of the valley, through the medium of a nondescript one-horse vehicle, of liberal capacity and uncertain age, but of very certain stiffness in springs and hardness in cushions, on a day when clouds and silvery showers have been struggling with sunshine, and at the moment when the latter has begun to predominate in a radiant triumph of blue sky. On such a day, the clouds will have rolled themselves up into large fleecy masses that hang low over the crests of the encompassing hills, as low as only the clouds in an English sky can hang without falling in moisture over an already moist land. Every blade of grass, every tall bracken, every feathery spray of fern, will have its burden of shining drops, and all the low, dense undergrowth of the valley will be alive and alight as with the sparkle of diamonds.
Into the valley which it once required all the nerve and prowess of “ girt Jan Kidd ” to penetrate, you may now venture freely and alone. If, however, your Devon Jehu has deposited you at the nearest of the cottages that cluster in a group at the margin of the valley, you will probably have the offer of a guide and his services. A genial temper, or even a wish to be better acquainted with the local character, will make it hard to say him nay. By way of overture, as you set out under his care, it may perhaps be worth while to ask him, deferentially, how long he has lived in these parts. “ Eight years ” — or rather, “ nine,” by the revolving of the year, will be the answer next season’s traveler may receive. Then, with due circumspection, another question — “ How old are you ? ” — may be put. “ Nine years old,” the guide will say, with decision in his tone, as be thrusts his fists deeper into the pockets of his abbreviated trousers, and trudges manfully on before. You have but to follow this mature resident of Exmoor a few hundred yards, and then, passing through a rude gateway, you will find yourself at the wide-open end of the loveliest of the valleys that honeycomb the vast moorland.
The pathway, rough and uneven, and in places hardly better than a sheep track, lies by the side of the stream that flows through the valley into the Syn, and thence into the sea at Synmouth. Low trees form a bower over the path, but the leafy roof is not dense enough to shut out the view of the wall of rock that towers, rugged and impenetrable, overhead. On the other side of the stream, to the left, no overarching growth fringes the foot of the hillside. From the stream’s edge below to the clouds above, it rises in a vast, unbroken slope. Its glory, however, is not in its height, nor yet in its extent. Like an infinitely unfolded tapestry, hung in myriad folds aloft the stony wall, there spreads a magnificent growth of heather and of gorse. The purple of the one and the glowing gold of the other are mingled in harmonious splendor of hue. " The scent of the gorse on the moors drove me wild,” said Lorna, on her return from London to her own Exmoor. And to the sojourner among the scenes that gave to Lorna her habitation and her name, the gorse shining out from the reddish purple of the heather, and lighting up its melancholy to brilliant radiance, is a sight that can never be forgotten.
Stiff pikes of that same heather catch at the clothes of the traveler, as the path up the valley gradually becomes steeper and narrower. The tall bracken rises above his ankles, — or over the fetlocks of his " pony,” if he has been tempted by one of the sedate animals offered at the homestead of the embryo yeoman, whose short legs are still carrying him sturdily onward. The water rushes more noisily and precipitously over its now wilder bed. The embowering foliage disappears from overhead, and the cliffs, with their rich tapestry interspersed with huge gray boulders, close in on either side. On the left, a single wind-swept tree crowns the summit of the ridge. There is something pathetic in its gnarled and lonely persistence on that solitary height. More than once the eye will revert to it. It seems to speak to one with the deep intimate insistence that belongs to the mysterious voices of nature.
The solitude, however, is not quite so absolute as it at first seemed to be. As the eye becomes accustomed to the spaciousness and ruggedness of its environment, it discovers some details that before had escaped it. Faces are to be seen peeping from behind the gray boulders, and above the clumps of gorse and heather on the hillside. Strange, clear, yellowish eyes peer, half timidly, half curiously, at the peaceable invaders of this domain of ancient outlawry. They are not eyes and faces of pixies, such as peopled the solitude to the fancy of the Doones, but of honest sheep, grazing industriously in the upper sheep walks of the valley. Their low woolly brows and smooth long cheeks have a singularly sympathetic expression. They seem to be wandering at their own sweet will on these rocky declivities, but they have nevertheless a distinctly human guardian near at hand. Although it would be an infinite pity not to prolong the time by loitering to double that length, an hour’s strenuous walking will bring one to his cottage at the head of the vale, the spot where once the fierce, lawless Doones built their habitations.
The shepherd is now the sole dweller in this lonely stronghold. His house is hard by the ruins of the “ huts,” as the country people may be heard to call them, now there is none so poor to do reverence to the Doones. The shepherd will point out the formless heaps of stone that mark their sites. There is not much in these meagre, overgrown remains to linger over. Their half-legendary antiquarian interest will, it is more than likely, soon give place to the human interest of the rosy-cheeked children who have come out of the cottage shyly to stare at the strangers. The shepherd, beside his flocks and herds, has charge of another rural tribe. Hives of bees are here to add to his cares, and to his revenues. A shilling is the price he asks for one of the small clear panes of honey that has been extracted from the rich bells of the heather. You will acknowledge that it is not a dearly spent shilling, when you come to test the fragrance and the flavor of the honey. Add to the feast the Devonshire cream that is awaiting you on your return to the foot of the valley, and you will have a combination as delicious as it is unique.
But while a Devonshire Phyllis is yet preparing this feast, and you are still wending your way downward, you will be sure to fall into a train of reflection, the outcome whereof will be that you will once more pay your individual tribute to the might and majesty of genius. For, lovely as this enchanting valley is when seen in its length and breadth, it yet needed the power of a creative imagination to describe so vividly and circumstantially the scenes of a tale of two hundred years ago that they seem to have historical and topographical reality. Lorna’s bower, together with the dreadful pool and the eyrie-like egress, may be searched for in vain. So, too, the impregnable Doone-gate, and the “slide,” or waterfall, that came so near costing Lorna’s lover his life. These and other features owe their definite form to the novelist’s inventive faculty. So powerful is this faculty that when you come finally to drink your tea and spread your bread with clotted cream, at the tiny hostelry, Lorna and John, their friends and foes, their joys and sorrows, will seem for the moment more real than the actual facts of life. One more glimpse of the places that knew them is still in store for you, when, an hour or so later, on your way back to the inn at Synton, or Synmouth, you stop to see little Oare Church, the scene of their troubled nuptials.