Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A Peerless jolly day

Exactly one hundred years ago today, Henry Peerless, was on holiday, as he often was, enjoying a very jolly tourist trip in North Devon. The tour included a stop at Malmsmead where he lunched on mutton, stewed fruit and clotted cream, and a visit to Oare Church, where Lorna Doone got married in R D Blackmore’s classic novel of the same name. But Peerless was equally entertained - as his colourful and lively travel diaries show - by a confrontation between his vehicle, a horse-drawn char-à -banc, and a steam driven motor car. Those were the days!

Peerless was born in Brighton into a middle-class family, and entered the family timber business when only 14. He married Amelia (Millie) Garrett in 1891, and they had four children. The oldest, Cuthbert, died during active service in the last year of the First World War. For thirty years, Peerless travelled all round the British Isles and beyond, by horse-drawn carriage, steam train, steam ship, bicycle and motor car, keeping a diary as he went. These diaries, only recently found, were edited by Edward Fenton and published by Day Books in 2003 as A Brief Jolly Change - The Diaries of Henry Peerless 1891-1920. Copies can be bought direct from Amazon.

Day Books says its book provides ‘a fascinating insight into one of the most important social trends of the past 150 years: the rise of mass tourism following the coming of the railway.’ Moreover, it paints ‘an unforgettable picture of a whole class of people striving for diversion and pleasure at a time of unprecedented and cataclysmic change’. Henry Peerless himself, the publisher adds, emerges as a cross between Mr Pooter and Mr Toad: ‘irrepressibly high-spirited (even after the death of his son Cuthbert in the Great War), fond of practical jokes, patriotic, sometimes pompous but always good-hearted, he had an almost childlike zest for discovering new places and embracing new fashions, and it is this which makes him such an engaging companion and guide’.

Here is Henry Peerless writing about his day exactly a century ago:

Wednesday 1 September 1909
‘Stroll out shopping, as Millie wants a pair of warm gloves for driving. She certainly buys a pair long enough, as they go nearly up to her shoulder.

At eleven o’clock, seven of us get on one of those hotel char-à -bancs and start for our drive, through very pretty wooded hills till we stop and water the horses at Rockford - a very sweet spot with the tumbling noise little river on our left. We push on to Badgeworthy Farm House, Malmsmead, where we partake of mutton, stewed fruit and clotted cream ad libitum.

After lunch, with a cheery ‘Now then horse’ from our driver, we clatter off. In a short time we reach Oare Church, famous as the place in which Jan Ridd and Lorna Doone were married, at the conclusion of which ceremony readers of Lorna Doone will recollect Lorna was shot by Carver Doone through the church window from the branches of an old oak-tree in the churchyard. Several of us tried to get into the church, but we had to content ourselves by peeping through the windows.

By Glenthorne and through the village of Countisbury, an episode occurred which might have had a very unhappy ending.

We were driving down carefully with the skid-pan on the wheel and the brakes on, when a motor came struggling, puffing and blowing up. To pass each other required care because of the narrow space. We drew in alongside an excavation on the hill on our left hand; the motor, nearly spent with the tug up the hill, stopped also, and a lot of steam escaped from the fore part of the car.

Then our near-side horse refused to pass, and our driver shouted out to the motorist: ‘It’s the steam she is afraid of, shut it off can’t you, then she’ll go by.’

‘It’ll lie down presently,’ says Mr Motorist.

Well there we stood, and our horses began to plunge and swerve, bringing some passengers’ hearts into their mouths. Our driver was very skilful and quiet, and in two or three minutes the steam subsided, and with a slap of the whip we were by and the danger was passed - but I should not expect to get off Scot-free in similar situations.

We ultimately reach Lynmouth. It is too much of a drag for our horses to take us up to Lynton, so Mr G., Millie, and I walk up the zig-zag path and find it a trying climb. The opinion seems to be ‘never again’.’

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