Lines on the Landscape: novels and drama

Across the AONB

From : Valerie Belsey


Many contemporary writers have chosen to live and work in the AONB but they did not always write about the area. Agatha Christie  (1890-1976) is the most famous one. There are references, rather than full descriptions of places on the River Dart where she lived at Greenway from 1938 and Burgh Island is the setting for a Poirot mystery. Here she is writing about the boathouse and her own house at Greenway in Five Little Pigs, 1943, Harper Collins (2007), the heroes of which are Lord and Lady Dittisham.

The path came out of the trees and skirted an outcrop of rocks. Meredith pointed up with his hand.

‘That’s what they called the Battery. We’re more or less underneath it now – skirting round it.’

 She used Dartmouth as the backdrop for Ordeal by Innocence, and a short story The Regatta Mystery.  Bantham features in The White Rock.

Henry Williamson (1895-1977) is a writer more associated with North Devon than the South and above all remembered for another children’s classic, Tarka the Otter.  However he wrote many more works besides this including the fifteen volume novel sequence entitled A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight.

Ted Hughes said of Williamson ‘I believe he was one of the two or three truest poets of his generation. He was a North American Indian sage among Englishmen’. 1977.

Although Williamson lived in North Devon he often visited the south and this extract from the volume entitled The Innocent Moon, 1961, is about Kingsbridge and Malborough. These are some of the greatest lines ever written on our landscape.

 ‘….at long last he came to a town built down a hill, with a narrow High Street leading to what he thought was the sea, but arriving at a quay, saw it was mud-flats. There would be flat fish there when the tide came in, he thought, and wild duck fighting in winter. After talking to a sailor beside a moored sailing boat he went on up another hill, and through more twisty lanes until suddenly before him and below lay a wide valley of pasture land. He stopped, arrested by the sudden strange appearance and change in the countryside. The grey road descended before him, to rise, after a curve at the bottom, up the reverse slope. But what had startled him was the sight of the dark mass of a church on the horizon, with a shortened spire on its western end. It was as prominent a landmark as the church on the Passchendale ridge before the bombardment of Third Ypres’.

[Extract reproduced with permission of The Henry Williamson Literary Estate]

Wiliamson refers to Malborough church as Clayborough reminding him of the Hospice on the Wytschaete ridge on Christmas Eve in The Great War 1914.

In his great novel sequence Williamson also wrote about ‘Operation Tiger’ on Slapton Sands which were training grounds for the American invasion of France during the Second World War. He also wrote a travel book entitled ‘On Foot in Devon which shows him visiting Salcombe and Prawle  in 1933.

Vian Smith (1919-1969) was a journalist and writer from Totnes who wrote numerous novels set in the area and his Portrait of Dartmoor is considered a classic work about Dartmoor. This extract comes from Bob Mann’s edition of extracts from his writings published in 2009. It describes the coming of the circus to town and shows how skilled he was at painting a lively human scene even though his evocations of the countryside have perhaps earned him more fame.

‘It’s a patch of waste land where the irises grow. It’s all that remains of the acre where the circus used to be.

Ours was a small market town, so it did not qualify for a big circus. It made do with those that toured the green country in days when the radio was wireless and films were silent and cars were as few as birds in winter. May to September was the tenting season. The circus came for two days and four performances. You could get in for sixpence, for half price if you were young enough. You could also get in for nothing, which is what I had to do.

..The tent breathed up and the sons hammered stakes while the daughters fixed wooden tiers around the ring in readiness for a full house. I wanted to warn them. The day was Friday, pay-day for the workers of saw mill and corn mill, and therefore a good day, but the town wasn’t impressed by what the circus family had to offer. They were out of date. I’d heard my parents say so. Our town had a picture-house now and some families had the wireless. We no longer needed the old tricks and familiar clowning which were all a small circus had to offer.


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Lines on the Landscape: novels and drama

Other novelists who have set their works in our area include Leslie Thomas on Slapton and Jules Hardy on Newton Ferrers, Noss Mayo and Thurlestone. Others such as Mary Wesley and Flora Thompson who lived here would require a separate listing and they did not always use the landscape as a backdrop to their writings.

The AONB has also featured in adaptations of literary works for TV and film. Treasure Island  on Wonwell Beach and Sense and Sensibility on the Flete Estate.


The most famous dramatist to have set his works in our area is more well known as a painter and for being a famous writer’s brother. Jack Yeats (1871-1957) lived in the Gara Valley for thirteen years. His first theatrical works were premiered here in Strete National School and other venues along the coast for ‘the valley children’. The plays featured pirates, sailors and smugglers, circus characters and local heroes and heroines. He wrote and made all the scenery for these toy theatre productions. In 1990 one of these plays was revised by the children of Stoke Fleming Primary School.

R.C. Sheriff (1896-1975) wrote Journey’s End whilst staying in Ringmore, hence the name of the pub there. It was first produced in 1928, ten years after the end of The Great War in which 12,000 Devonians lost their lives. There are few characters and most come from the upper classes and use a language which sounds strange to us now. But it is a tensely written play with fear at its heart. The characters talk about their lives outside the war and wonder why they are fighting at all.

Apparently Noel Coward was staying at Burgh Island and wanted to see Mr. Sheriff, but Sheriff refused to go over the water so Coward came over to the pub.  

Photo: Detail of stained glass window in Ringmore Church (Valerie Belsey)


More to enjoy

You might also enjoy the other pages about Lines in the Landscape on this site. Here's a link: Lines on the Landscape

Please also go to the same page for Valerie Belsey's bibliography.  

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