In the Steps of Morton in the Moor
(or, “I’ve had a ride in a Bullnose Morris!”)
… being the story of the recording of a BBC radio 4 programme presented by John McCarthy, produced by Stephen Gardner, entitled: “H V Morton: Travelling into the Light”, broadcast on Friday Sept 21st 2012 at 11.00am (originally circulated as HVM Society Snippets no’s. 140a and b).
Anyone who wishes to hear the broadcast can do so, until roughly September 2013, using the BBC’s “Listen Again” facility on this link: www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01mqr4t
On the 22nd of June I was approached, via the HV Morton website, by Stephen Garner of BBC Radio 4 who announced he was making a programme about HV Morton. He said the broadcast was intended to “to retrace one of Morton’s journeys as featured in the book In Search of England and mark the differences which have taken place in England since its publication whilst reflecting on his memoirs and diaries, discovering the life and personality of this intriguing and charismatic man whose influence continues to this day“. Cunningly, he also made complementary remarks about the web site and suggested it would be useful to have me along on the recording which was scheduled for some time in August. Well, how could a lover of both Radio 4 and an admirer of Morton resist such an opportunity (or indeed, such flattery) – I agreed to help by return of post.
In subsequent correspondence I discovered that the programme was to be presented by John McCarthy, the well known journalist who was also a lover of Morton’s writings and of Devon, which he had visited many times as a child. As we got closer to the time of the recording the date was set for Tuesday the 21st of August, when we were to visit 3 locations in Devon to recreate parts of chapter 5 of “In Search of England”. The actual broadcast was finally scheduled for 11.00am on the 21st of September.
I was asked if I could track down a Bullnose Morris car of the sort driven by Morton which could be included in the programme as this was an aspect of the journey which they wanted to explore – and a recording of its Hotchkiss engine during an interview would make for excellent radio!
This task proved somewhat tricky, almost impossible in fact, as I was told repeatedly by everyone I asked that the amount of notice was insufficient and besides, this was the height of the motor show season when many owners would be tied up with other things. Finally however, and to my great relief, Malcolm McKay of the Bullnose Morris Club, showing incredible patience in the face of my repeated pleadings, came up trumps by personally phoning the few members in that area who didn’t have email so hadn’t been contacted earlier. It was one of these, the last on his list infact, who finally answered my call.
I managed to book the day of the recording off work in order to visit each of the three scheduled locations to get a feel for how the programme was to be made to mark the occasion for the HV Morton society by giving this account. I had also been asked to take part myself by giving an interview.
I arranged a photographic unit (my wife Alison, to whom I am incredibly grateful, acting above and beyond the call of duty!) to record the day for posterity and before we knew it the day had arrived.
The day arrives, controversy at Widdicombe:
“… I saw Widecombe! A line of tiny, white thatched cottages lying in luscious hedges, a hollow full of thick green trees, the tall grey tower of a church above them, a village green, an inn; and over the roofs, whichever way you look, the smooth, bald heads of the moor making a curve against the sky”
HV Morton – In Search of England 1927
We set off from Glastonbury at 8.00am on Tuesday 21st August and made excellent progress heading South West to our first destination, Widecombe in the Moor, where we were to meet Stephen and John. We got off to a lovely start, the weather was beautifully warm with fleecy clouds in the sky and patches of sunlight on the tors as we got closer to Dartmoor. Finally we were treated to the magnificent approach to Widecombe itself, down a steep road to a collection of cottages at the bottom, dominated by a large church, surrounded by a patchwork of green fields, each bounded by neat dry-stone walls. We arrived in the centre of the village which, unlike so much on the modern tourist trail seemed utterly unspoilt. With the pub, the tea-room and the village shop all completely in keeping with the rest of the village, we felt that we had actually stepped right into chapter five of “In Search of England”. Surely this had to bode well for the rest of the day to come.
We had arrived about 9.45am so had some time to spare which we spent meandering around and taking a few photographs. During our wanderings we met, leaning on a walking stick of indeterminate direction, a robust and merry silver haired gentleman with whom we had a most pleasant chat while we waited. Morton’s “Uncle Tom Cobleigh” made flesh to be sure!
Pretty soon a small blue car appeared from the end of a little lane and out stepped John McCarthy with notebook in hand and Stephen Gardner clutching armfuls of audio equipment. They had both stayed in the Warren House Inn the previous night.
Hands were shaken and we were introduced properly to “Uncle Tom” whose real name it turned out was Tony Beard, retired farmer, broadcaster, historian and past president of the Devonshire association, otherwise known as “The Wag from Widecombe” who, as the local expert, was here to be interviewed for the programme.
Tony guided us to the beautiful church yard set at the bottom of the green bowl of fields and moorland all around us. John and he sat on a low bench, Stephen presented the microphone, and the interview began.
Well, I suppose controversy makes for good journalism but I don’t think anyone was expecting it when Tony’s first comment, delivered in his lilting Devonshire accent, was to the effect that, having read Morton’s section on Widecombe, he was of the opinion that Morton had never even visited the place.
This assertion was based on the report of the white thatched cottages which Morton describes as he approached the village in the mid 1920’s after having visited Cornwall. Tony, born in 1936, stated with great certainty there had never been white thatched cottages in the village so Morton’s account couldn’t be authentic.
As I looked around (once I’d picked my jaw up off the floor!) I noted the cottages in view were indeed of dark, ruddy, Dartmoor stone. I also recalled however, several cottages we had passed on the way (and later we were to see many other similar ones) which although not actually in Widecombe itself were close by, and which were of a pale stone or even whitewashed, and thatched to boot. Morton would certainly have driven past such dwellings on the way to Widecombe nearly a century ago, and they may have caught his eye as being typical of the region therefore worth including in his account. Perhaps a combination of a changing village landscape and a touch of artistic license might account for this apparent anomaly, who can say.
The interview progressed well despite this slightly wobbly opening with John, an admirer of both Morton and Dartmoor, managing to keep things light and with Tony imparting many fascinating facts about the village and its legends, people, history and landscape. By way of compensation perhaps for his initial remark Tony conceded happily that he had particularly enjoyed Morton’s description of the charabancs bringing tourists to the village at the time of his visit, something he himself remembered from years gone by. At the conclusion (and after some prompting from the producer) Tony suggested that John should see the prison at Princetown next (in fact they had been there the day before and done interviews at that time, such is the magic of broadcasting!).
In fact we were off now, not to Princetown but to the village of Bow, near Exeter for the highlight of the day (for me anyway) when we were to come face to face with a real live Bullnose Morris…
The Bullnose Morris:
“He asked me where I was going in that little blue motor-car.”
HV Morton – In Search of England 1927
We arrived just after 11.00am at the house of Nicholas Rhodes, owner of a two seater “sports type” Bullnose, circa 1923. This would have been similar to Morton’s (also a two seater), the most obvious difference being the colour of the body work which in this case was a deep maroon rather than blue as Morton describes his car. Other parts were a mixture of polished brass and gleaming chrome with a varnished plank of pine which served as a dashboard into which instruments were set, screwed or nailed apparently at random.
There was a large clock which wouldn’t have looked out of place on a mantelpiece, which Nicholas assured me was extremely accurate but only twice a day! Next to the clock was an old fashioned brass light switch which in turn was set next to a large brass lever. The driver’s foot-well was stuffed full of more impressive-looking levers and pedals of unfathomable purpose. The eponymous Bullnose shaped radiator was surmounted by a device of brass and clear glass within which was set a tiny indicator needle I was informed was a thermometer, to give the driver an idea of engine temperature.
Finally the moment had arrived and, after John McCarthy had been for a spin and done his interview, it was my turn to play. Without such modern luxuries as doors it was was one foot on the running board and a low hop over the gunwale to get settled into the somewhat small passenger seat. As soon as I had a decent grip on the brass handles inside the car (which seemed to be the nearest anyone got to seatbelts in the 1920’s) we were off into the byways of Devon.
The first thing that struck me was the impression of speed as we bowled along at what felt like a considerable rate of knots. Doubtless this feeling was enhanced by the precarious nature of the ride; open topped roof, no seatbelt and a worrying proximity to the solid walls of those notoriously narrow lanes; but actually we did seem to be going at quite a lick for such a tiny and venerable old vehicle. We whizzed along, frightening passers-by with the rich whine of the engine and the rattle of the superstructure, at one point bellowing a hearty good morning to a lady and her Jack Russell terrier as we roared past leaving them pressed into the hedge in our wake. It was all I could do not to shout “Poop poop!”.
As we drove Nicholas told me a little bit about the car which Morton, in his original Daily Express articles had christened “Maud” to lend a little light hearted colour to his accounts. The Morris-Cowley Bullnose was the most popular car of its day, being turned out at a rate of 10,000 per year at peak production in the 1920’s. It toppled the spindly Model-T ford from its premier position by virtue of being simpler to run and to maintain and went on to become the real “people’s car”, a direct precursor to the Minis and Morris Minors of the modern age.
Accordingly it suited Morton’s needs perfectly, lending a popular touch to his accounts as he set out to encourage a love and understanding of the countryside as the road network improved and personal transport developed and became affordable. According to Nicholas the car was also incredibly robust and when I mentioned Morton had taken “Maud” to the Scottish Highlands at a time when the roads in that region were even more wild and untamed than they are now he replied that he wouldn’t hesitate to do the same today. Apparently the Bullnose is “built like a tank” underneath.
Finally, with a roar and a waft of petrol we were back and shooting up the drive into the garage where, despite a frantic flicking of the big brass switch, the Bullnose obstinately continued to rumble and shake, and pour out a rich exhaust. I was told by Nicholas that this “running on” was because the magneto was failing to earth (I nodded politely at this, even though my understanding of things mechanical is approaching zero). It was only when he turned a tap under the dashboard to cut off the fuel supply that the racket finally subsided. Was this, I wondered, a case of “hysterical engine” as reported by Morton?
After politely declining the offer of a cup of tea and promising to send on photographs of the occasion we hopped back into our decidedly more mundane steed of the road and headed North, on the long trek to Clovelly.
Clovelly, the interview and home:
“Somewhere a donkey brays; and you walk slowly up the hill.”
HV Morton – In Search of England 1927
We arrived at Clovelly just before 2.00pm, somewhat later than scheduled. Stephen and John had already descended to the harbour to continue the recording and, after contacting them via the wonders of the mobile phone, we were shown past the reception point and through into this most precipitous of villages. It was the first and almost certainly will be the last time I have ever been able to say “Let me through, I’m with the BBC”!
After a precarious wobble down the steep cobbled street towards the harbour, taking in donkeys en route, we arrived breathless at the bottom, where I prepared to hold forth on the subject of my favourite author. Having now driven around 150 miles in hot Summer weather my old pate was becoming somewhat addled as we walked round the harbour wall to find a spot which was quiet enough to conduct a recorded interview yet still had enough background noise to lend a bit of atmosphere. A small part of me was beginning to question the sanity of my bright idea of following the recording all day as it processed around Devon.
Nevertheless I hope I acquitted myself passably well and managed to convey some of the reasons for my love of Morton’s works and the role of the HV Morton society in trying to promote the man and his writings, as well as talking a little bit about Morton and his Bullnose Morris into the bargain. How much of it will make sense when played back or, in fact, will survive the editor’s scalpel remains to be seen. Responses are always so difficult when one is put on the spot in-front of a microphone; it’s always so easy to think clearly after the event about what it might have been better to have mentioned or indeed, not to have mentioned.
Stephen, who did the interview, was first class however. The questions were straightforward and he managed to put me at ease as the consummate professional he clearly is.
Finally it was the parting of the ways, after a quick chat with the people responsible for marketing Clovelly in the competitive tourist business and a quick photo of John and me against the beautiful (and, yes, still “quaint”) harbour. Everyone shook hands with a feeling the day had gone well and then it was that weary, but oh so picturesque, climb to the top of the village, a quick ice cream from the gift shop and back into the car to begin the journey home to Somerset.
So, all things considered, a great day out which I wouldn’t have missed for all the tea in China. Tiring certainly and occasionally a little nerve racking to one unused to being interviewed and unversed in media techniques but a once in a lifetime experience for me. I now have a greatly increased respect for those professionals who do this sort of thing every day for a living, as well as for those amateurs we see being interviewed on the news from time to time who seem to come across so well; not at all like my tongue-tied ramblings!
The highlight of the day for me was without doubt whizzing precariously through the country lanes in a Bullnose Morris, getting a real, first-hand idea of how Morton might have felt, all those years ago, as he set out on his adventures, leaving his beloved London and going “In Search of England”.
Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, UK
17 September 2012