Tuesday, 4 March 2014

HUNGERFORD ARCADE: THE DARTMOUTH YEARS

We are very fortunate here at Hungerford Arcade by not only having very dear friends such as Stuart and Caron Miller-Osborne, but by having Stuart as the talented author of our stories, one of which we have here.  Stuart has written this wonderful story which really gripped me as I am sure, it will you too.
Rita
Flora Thompson - The Dartmouth Years

Flora Thompson
Many of you reading this will have visited Dartmouth in South Devon. My wife and I have been visiting this beautiful town for over thirty years. Dartmouth is lucky in its geography in that because of its location it has not really suffered the impact of mass tourism that nearby Torbay has. In the course of my researches, I found out why Dartmouth is the only town in England to have a railway station built but never to have seen a train. It appears that Brunel wanted to run the railway down from Totnes along the Dart and onwards via a tunnel along the Slapton Line towards Kingsbridge and onwards towards Plymouth. Thankfully, due to the lack of capital and awkward land owners, this never happened and the railway only reached Kingswear on the opposite bank. Indeed, I am led to believe that the idea of a bridge was considered but the depth of the river ruled this out and Dartmouth was never connected.

Recently I visited Dartmouth to winter for a while. All was familiar as usual however, I did notice that the town was selling its connections with Agatha Christie even more than normal. The pleasure boats were boasting of trips up the Dart past her house (now owned by the National Trust and well worth a visit) and indeed, Agatha cruises were also being advertised. The Harbour Bookshop (opened by Christopher Robin Milne the son of A.A . Milne in the 1950s) had a nice selection of Agatha literature. This was very acceptable but I thought what of Flora Thompson who lived in Dartmouth between 1928 and 1940? Indeed her ashes are buried in Longcross Cemetery at the top of the town. Agatha, although a resident in Dartmouth, is buried in Cholsey near Wallingford in the church you can see from the railway.


Although her books are available there was none of the hard sell that Agatha enjoys in the area. Indeed when I was visiting Longcross nobody knew where her grave was which was a little surprising as the BBC have just begun to show Lark Rise To Candleford which I hope will raise the authors profile.

In this short piece, I intend to give a brief history of Flora’s time in Dartmouth and also, if you are in the area, directions to her house in the town and should you wish to pay your respects, the location of Longcross Cemetery.

We find Flora in 1927 living in Hampshire with John Thompson whom she married in 1903. They have three children Winifred, Basil and Peter. Flora is just over fifty and has been writing for various journals such as The Ladies Companion and the Catholic Fireside. The work is well received (although her poetry collection Bog Myrtle and Peat is less successful). 
She had also written a guidebook to Liphook in Hampshire a year or so previously. John now works for The Post Office as Flora had done. 

In 1939 Flora is working on Over To Candleford which in time, is the second part of the trilogy. However, war clouds are growing as Europe prepares to tear itself apart. Dartmouth, because of The Royal Naval College and the shipyards, becomes a target for Nazi bombers. Indeed, a number of people lost their lives in strikes against Dartmouth and nearby Beesands to name but two. There was an even greater loss of life in the Slapton Sands tragedy later in the war.

In view of the threat, John and Flora move to nearby Brixham and a residence less vulnerable. We do not leave Flora here as although she was no longer resident in Dartmouth, she was destined to return under different circumstances a few years later. In 1941 she completes Over To Candleford .

However, a short time later tragedy strikes when her youngest son Peter is killed when his ship The Jedmoor is torpedoed. Later that year, she contracted pneumonia and is confined to bed for some while. When she recovers, she commences Candleford Green which is seen as the final part of the trilogy. In 1943 it is published and is very well received. Flora’s health at the time is sadly declining.

The following year the Oxford University Press decide to publish Flora’s three books as a trilogy and it is called Lark Rise to Candleford . Its advance run of 5000 copies is sold out in advance. The book is a huge success. During 1945 she starts Still Glides the Stream (a title taken from the Wordsworth poem River Dudden). She is suffering now from angina, although during the later months of 1946 she is correcting the proofs of Still Glides the Stream.

In the early months of 1947 her health improves to such an extent that John (now retired) decides to go away for the day on business. Whilst he is away Flora has another angina attack. He returned to find her in bed. She has a further heart attack later in the evening and passes away peacefully on the 21st May 1947.

After a service at St Barnabas’ Church, she is cremated and returned to Dartmouth. Her ashes are interred at the Longcross Cemetery with her gravestone in the shape of an open book, which she shares with Peter. It is a simple affair with the following inscription.

"To The Dear Memory Of Flora Thompson May 21st 1947". On the left hand page and on the right hand page, "And Of Her Beloved Younger Son Peter Redmond Thompson Lost At Sea Sept 16th 1941".

The memorial is very moving in its utter simplicity and in my view reflects the very unassuming woman. Her beloved husband John joined her in the July of the following year, although I cannot see a trace of his grave at Longcross. Also in 1948 Still Glides The Stream was published with Flora never seeing it in print.


The first thing that anyone who knows Dartmouth sees are the hills, they fan off in all directions. If you are going to follow the Flora trail then be prepared (or prepare your motor car for some stiff gradients). Firstly, to her Dartmouth house. It is reasonably easy to find and indeed it can be spotted from the river. If you head in the direction of Dartmouth Castle (well signposted) you will rise very quickly above the town (with superb views of Kingswear to your left). Above Town can be spotted as a very steep lane on your right a short while before you reach Warfleet where the Dartmouth Pottery was once located. Keep your eyes peeled as it is easy to miss. You can drive up the lane which must be one in three or if you are fit, it is a challenging walk. Flora’s house is a short while past a rather nice Modernist residence and happily, it is marked with a plaque for ease of identification. Flora must have trod these steep lanes and paths many times over the twelve years she lived there. Although, now owned by outsiders, (as a lot of houses are in Dartmouth) you can still feel her presence.

She also, after she settled in and let Dartmouth into her blood, began to take walks to Dartmouth Castle and the very original St Petrox Church (rebuilt 1641). There is a splendid tea room near the castle with fine views out to sea. Also, if you have any energy left after visiting her house, there is a rather pleasant cove (Castle Cove) below the castle which is reached by a very steep set of steps. Further up through the woods, you can trace Flora’s walks towards Sugary Cove and beyond.

Longcross Cemetery is quite easily found. If you head off in the direction of Totnes, it is about a mile or so out of the lower town. The cemetery is situated on the left, shortly before the Leisure Centre. If you take the main road nearly opposite The Upper Ferry, this is the most direct route.

If you want to follow Agatha, then you only have to look at the many posters on the embankment for information or visit The Harbour Bookshop (easily found in the centre of Dartmouth).

But if you want to follow Flora, then you will have to delve a little deeper, as I did, to bring to life her Dartmouth years.
Stuart Miller-Osborne 


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