On the Literary Trail in Devon

Published: Monday 16th Nov 2015

Devon has quite the literary heritage. Wordsmiths extraordinaire, such as Dame Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Henry Williamson, Ted Hughes and Rudyard Kipling, all have connections to this scenic corner of the country. Some were born here, others came here of their own accord. All found that Devon’s remarkable landscapes – whether the atmospheric moors or the spectacular coastline – kindled their creative fire, providing ample fuel for their fiction and poetry. Which is exactly why this southern county makes a top destination for well-read travellers. Here are just a few of Devon’s literary highlights.

Agatha Christie

It’s impossible to write about Devon’s literary heritage without mentioning the so-called Queen of Crime, Dame Agatha Christie. Even the most reluctant reader will be familiar with her mystery tales. Her stories weren’t just confined to the pages, but also spawned several plays, TV series and films, and she quickly became known as one of the world’s greatest exponents of detective fiction. Christie was born in Torquay and frequently returned to her birthplace throughout her life. She also used the county as the setting for many of her much-loved Miss Marple mysteries.

Christie fans can pay homage to the crime writer at various locations throughout the county. Visit her Greenway holiday home (now a National Trust property), walk the Agatha Christie Mile (pick up a leaflet from Torquay’s tourism information centre for further information on the route), or stop off at the Imperial Hotel in Torquay, which featured in Christie’s novels, ‘The Body in the Library’ and ‘Peril At End House’. For the ultimate Christie-centric holiday, time your visit to coincide with the International Agatha Christie Festival, which takes place every September and draws Poirot pilgrims from far and wide.

Arthur Conan Doyle

Perhaps there’s something in the air in Devon, because Christie isn’t the only murder-mystery literary star to find inspiration here. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Homes, chose Dartmoor – Devon’s stunningly wild, mist-swirled moorland – as the setting for the fictional detective’s most famous case: ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’. Conan Doyle was inspired to write the chilling tale while out for a walk on the moor. As he strolled, a friend relayed a local legend about a terrifying, spectral beast that roamed the region.

Literary fans who wander the moor nowadays can use their own detective skills to seek out a few of the real-life locations that are thought to have stimulated Conan Doyle’s imagination. There are the Bellever and Vixen tors, both of which are named in ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’. Many Sherlock devotees believe either Brook Manor or Hayford Hall to be the inspiration behind the fictional Baskerville Hall, while swampy Fox Tor Mires – found in a valley south of Princetown – is often assumed to be the real-life version of the fictional Grimpen Mire. Ramblers who make the journey here should take extra care after rain or fog because, as its name implies, the ground here gets particularly boggy.

Henry Williamson

Novelist Williamson is best known for his much-loved ‘Tarka the Otter’ tale. First published in 1927, the captivating nature story follows the adventure of a courageous otter who spends his life around the Taw and Torridge rivers in North Devon. The book provides an otter’s-eye view of the area, while the trail enables visitors to explore the fictional otter’s habitat first-hand. Little has changed here since Williamson first published his seminal story and his detailed descriptions can still be recognised in many of the surrounding landscapes. If you are bringing kids with you, have them read the book before you go. That way, they can try to identify the particular locations described in the text.

The trail covers a total of 290 kilometres (180 miles), but if you’ve only got a day, make a beeline for the Beam Aqueduct (or “Canal Bridge” as Williamson called it in the book), where Tarka was born. Further north in Georgeham is Williamson’s old writing hut, which he built using the prize money he received for the acclaimed otter’s tale.

Ted Hughes

Though this poet laureate was actually born in Yorkshire, it is with Devon – where he mostly lived from 1961 up until his death in 1998 – that Hughes is most frequently associated. Not only did Hughes create a great number of poems describing the county in detail, but he, quite literally, left his mark on the county too. In his will, he requested that his name be carved into a long stone slab and placed in a remote Devon location. This monument, known as the Ted Hughes memorial, can be found at one of the poet’s favourite isolated spots in northern Dartmoor, near the sources of the Taw, Dart, East Okement and Teign rivers.

Just east of Dartmoor, at Stover Country Park, is the Ted Hughes Poetry Trail, where 16 poetry posts display Hughes’ verse, often referencing the type of landscapes and wildlife that can be seen in the park. There’s also a Children’s Poetry Trail here, which focuses on Hughes’ most youngster-friendly animal poems and includes illustrations by ‘The Snowman’ creator, Raymond Briggs.

Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling, of ‘Jungle Book’ fame, is yet another famous scribbler who found rich pickings for his fiction from his experiences in Devon. Kipling spent some of his school years studying in Westward Ho! (a town that is itself named after a novel), which he also used as the setting for the schoolboy tales in ‘Stalky & Co’. After stints in India, London and the United States, Kipling eventually returned to Devon – this time to Maidencombe, just north of Torquay – with his own family.

Here, they lived in a large, attractive villa known as Rock House. Despite its apparent curb appeal, Kipling complained of the house’s off-kilter Feng Shui and the family stayed for only two years. Kipling fans who make the trip out here won’t be able to enter (the house is privately owned), but they can check out the blue plaque outside, which states: “Rudyard Kipling lived here at Rock House from 1896-1898 upon his return from America.”