Travels with a Donkey, Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson’s well-loved travel tale is threaded with longing for the love of a woman he was not sure he would ever meet again.
Music: Ólafur Arnalds, Improvisions
Here, Daphne du Maurier talks about her first impression of the isolated Jamaica Inn on Cornwall’s Bodmin Moor.
People say that my fictional characters seem to emerge from the places where my stories are set, and certainly when I first set eyes on the old, granite-faced inn itself it made me think that there was a story there, peopled with moorland folk in strange harmony with their back-ground.
In her early twenties, Daphne du Maurier had an eerie experience on Cornwall’s Bodmin Moor, which gave her the bones for Jamaica Inn, one of her most popular novels. She owed her first sight of this now famous inn to a suggestion by her friend Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. Q, as he was known, lived in Fowey, across the water from her Bodinnick home Ferryside. He was a Cornish writer and academic and something of a mentor to Daphne. In November 1930, he suggested that she and his daughter Foy should go on a horse riding expedition on Bodmin Moor and spend a few nights at a wayside hostelry called Jamaica Inn.
As du Maurier explains in Vanishing Cornwall, most of the backbone of Cornwall consists of moorlands, from the source of the Tamar River in the north to the south-west, all the way to Penwith and the claw that is Land’s End. The greatest stretch of moorland, where Jamaica Inn lies, is a timeless place with abandoned mines and infinite open spaces, ‘a country of stones, black heather, and stunted broom.’
This is a ‘sacred’ or ‘ritual’ landscape, full of hundreds of stones that have been shifted to visually align with the moorland topography. There are ancient monuments here: the Hurlers, Rillaton Barrow, Trippet Stones, Leskernick stone circles, and numerous cairns, menhirs and settlements. Nobody knows the origins of these Neolithic monuments nor much about the people who so long ago managed to heave huge stones on top of others in what is now recognised as the very beginning of architecture.
In his book Rising Ground, Philip Marsden notes how the architecture ‘does not tell us what preceded it, what led to it, the centuries and centuries of story and song and memory, that poured over the site, and left no trace.’ Yet walking through this place there is the sense that the land still holds these ancient memories. Daphne keenly felt its mystery and later worked it into her novel: ‘there was a stillness in the air, and a stranger, older peace, that was not the peace of God.’
After walking for just half a mile on Bodmin you can become lost in a brown/green landscape stretching as far as the eye can see. The craggy granite outcrops and tors might provide some shelter in a shower, but they offer little respite from the chill winds that rise without warning, regardless of the season.
There are real perils here for the walker and horse rider alike. Near the highest tor on the moor, Brown Willy (from the Cornish bron wennyly, hill of swallows), the terrain is soggy and treacherous. Its stretches of darker green with tussocks of grass suggest firm ground to the uninitiated; yet underfoot it will sag and tremble, before sinking under water. Further down in the smooth pastures lie bogs and marshes that have swallowed sheep, cattle, people, whole.
Daphne and Foy took off on horseback from Jamaica Inn on an overcast afternoon, heading for Trebartha Hall, five miles east of the inn. They planned to call on an elderly friend, estimating the ride would take forty minutes. After tea they would return to the inn on a road that skirted the moor. Du Maurier later described their expedition through this moor as foolhardy: ‘I came unprepared for its dark, diabolic beauty’, she wrote.
Soon they would be experiencing the same plight as Mary Yellan, the heroine of Jamaica Inn who becomes lost in the moor and fights off mounting panic and a sense of dread. In the novel this young woman had honoured her mother’s dying request that she join her Aunt Patience and husband Joss Merlyn, the owner of Jamaica Inn. Mary first sees the inn on a raw wintry evening and meets her menacing uncle for the first time. The inn is dark and full of evil secrets. She finds herself very alone, in the midst of a forbidding land of bent and twisted trees, ‘marshland and granite’. Du Maurier incorporated into the novel aspects of her own experiences of the moor and this particular journey with Foy.
It was a cold grey day in late November. The weather had changed overnight, when a backing wind brought a granite sky and a mizzling rain with it, and although it was now only a little after two o’clock in the afternoon the pallor of a winter evening seemed to have closed upon the hills, cloaking them in mist. It would be dark by four.
An hour after leaving the inn, Daphne and Foy had come no closer to their destination. What had appeared to be a straightforward ride of some five miles over a plateau to the wooded hills of Trebartha and North Hill became impassable on horseback. As menacing crags and tors loomed up to bar their way, they resorted to a slippery downhill track, but it petered out beside a swollen stream. Daphne later discovered this was Withey Brook, that runs perilously close to marshy and boggy terrain. Typically for the moors, the sky had darkened and the black clouds that appeared above them burst. As Daphne described it, in a moment ‘all was desolation.’ The swollen stream became a torrent and to escape it they had to scramble uphill to an abandoned cottage. They were roughly equidistant from both Trebartha Hall and the inn, but many miles from either. Daphne, soaked and freezing cold, had ‘never known greater despondency.’
The wind tore at the roof, and the showers of rain, increasing in violence now there was no shelter from the hills, spat against the windows with new venom.
After an hour the rain slowed but now a blanket of dank mist had settled that would prevent them from finding their bearings. Foy, who was the better horsewoman, suggested their only hope was to let the horses lead them home. Daphne worried that the horses’ idea of home might be a thirty-mile trek to Fowey instead of the shorter journey across the moors to the inn, but there was little choice. They climbed into their saddles in darkness and in silence.
…the heavy fog clung to the ground, obstinate as ever, with never a breath of air to roll away the clouds.
After the cottage that had filled Daphne with despair, the open terrain came as a relief. The horses were making steady progress despite loose stones and heather, until they reached what appeared to be a disused railway. Foy said it was a trolley track for a stone quarry and they should dismount because if the horses strayed into the quarry, they could break their legs. ‘Bogs, quarries, brooks, boulders, hell on every side’, Daphne later wrote.
At this point she was reminded of a book from her childhood, Sintram And His Companions, about the journey of a despondent knight with the devil in disguise, called The Little Master. Its illustration depicted a terrified horse rearing near a precipice. This, thought Daphne, would be their fate at the quarry, and The Little Master would come to claim them.
But they managed to veer safely away from the tracks and after remounting, the horses moved forward more boldly. It was too dark to see their watches; it felt as if seven o’clock had become nine, and nine became midnight, while they pressed blindly on and on.
…Mile upon mile of bleak moorland, dark and untraversed, rolling like a desert land to some unseen horizon.
Then Foy cried, ‘They’ve done it. They’ve done it…Isn’t that the road?’
Sure enough the Launceston to Bodmin road lay ahead and, incredibly, the chimneys of Jamaica Inn were just visible, looming out of the fog.
In the novel, Mary Yellan arrived at the inn in darkness:
Mary stood alone, with the trunk at her feet. She heard a sound of bolts being drawn in the dark house behind her, and the door was flung open. A great figure strode into the yard, swinging a lantern from side to side.
‘Who is it?’ Came the shout. ‘What do you want here?’
But for Daphne and Foy it was a different experience. They could see figures with lanterns; the people from the inn had begun to search for them. Their lamplight shone a warm welcome and instantly all fear, all sense of having been in danger disappeared. It was eight o’clock and the innkeeper and his wife had only just begun to worry. Inside was a much longed for turf fire, ‘brown and smoky sweet’, and a supper of bacon and eggs with scalding hot tea.
A year later the friends returned to Jamaica Inn and visited Dozmary Pool, and the village and church of Altarnun. At the church called St Nonna (also known as the Cathedral of the Moor) they met the vicar who called on them at the inn that evening. By the fireside they talked late into the night while he told them all about Bodmin Moor and the legends it had inspired. Daphne later used some of this material for Jamaica Inn. They learned that the inn’s isolation had made it an ideal halting-place for smugglers’ contraband, before it was shunted off to the larger Cornish towns of Bodmin or Launceston, then onto London or Bath. The contraband would usually arrive from the notorious smuggler’s cove of Polperro or the neighbouring coastal village of Looe.
Packages were brought by the wagons and unloaded at Jamaica Inn. They were stored in the locked room…as soon as the wagons were unloaded they would take their departure, passing into the night as swiftly and as silently as they had come.
When Daphne was eight she had been given a copy of Treasure Island ‘and from that moment a whole new world awaited me. I soon had the first page by heart.’ She incorporated the story into imaginary games, becoming Jim Hawkins (with occasional lapses into Long John Silver) roping her sister Jeanne into playing Blind Pew.
Rereading it now, Daphne’s own tale of wrecking and smuggling began to take shape in her mind. The vicar from Altarnun had long white hair and as she crafted her characters she imagined him in a more sinister light, turning him into the albino ringleader of her novel.
We will visit Jamaica Inn another time to discover other aspects of the story and those fascinating moors.
Arnalds is a multi-instrumentalist and producer from Iceland – a crafter of delicate symphonies that leave spaces for rich imaginations.
I was driving home one late rainy afternoon in Cornwall, when heavy fog began to descend. Ever since reading about Daphne and Foy’s experience on Bodmin described in Vanishing Cornwall, I had wanted to experience foggy conditions in the moor for myself. So I turned left at the village of Dobwalls, and headed for a part of the moor I know quite well. I was at the start of the walk for the Hurlers, about five miles from Trebartha, the destination that Daphne and Foy had failed to reach on their ill-fated horse ride.
The Hurlers are a series of three Neolithic or early Bronze Age stone circles near a village called Minions. They lie adjacent to each other, and are easily reached just a quarter of a mile down a wide, flat path that I judged safe enough to traverse in such conditions. I turned in to the car park, where the last dog walker was loading her labrador into her car.
Having grown up in an urban Australian environment, I have little experience of dense fog. Visibility was down to some fifteen feet or less as I made my way through a cold, moist soup of pallid light. It felt like a blindfold of gauze that I wanted to tear from my eyes.
Dark shapes loomed before me, appearing for all the world like human figures, but up close turned into wizened trees. All sound was muffled, so the sheep that would have fled on hearing my approach stood transfixed as I passed close enough to touch them.
With two senses so compromised, my imagination ran riot. Of course there was someone following me. Of course I would be knifed horribly at any minute and no one would hear my screams. I had to talk myself out of a rising sense of panic, yet the extraordinary atmospheric mist kept me rapt and moving slowly in the direction of the ancient stones.
I reached the outlying pillars called the Pipers that signal the approach to the Hurlers but realised I would be unable to see the stones without straying from the path. This I’d already tried, having taken three deliberate steps away from it, and turning back, had seen nothing but pale void. I knew at once that any farther and I would become as lost as Daphne and Foy. Somewhat relieved, I turned back.
As I approached my car in the empty carpark, another car travelling down the road screeched to a halt. A man got out and began to walk quickly towards me with an air of intense determination. My unease and anxiety spilled into panic. Not waiting to find out what his intentions were, I ran for my car, crying out ‘I’m fine thanks, just FINE!’ Hurling myself inside, I locked the doors and with thumping heart, took off into the descending night.
Jamaica Inn lies in the hamlet of Bolventor. Since 1750 it has offered rest to travellers crossing the moor using the turnpike between Launceston and Bodmin. A Cornish friend of mine avoids the area if she can. ‘It always seems like it’s under a black cloud’ she once said, then shuddered.
The inn is touristy as it has a reputation for being one of the most haunted coaching inns in Britain (see the episode of Most Haunted – link in Weblinks below). The barman has sworn blind to me that all sorts of strange things happen there at night. Spooky tales abound: the woman and her child who pass through the bedroom walls, the sound of horses’ hooves and coaches pulling into the courtyard late at night, and sometimes, by the fireplace, appears the apparition of a young man believed to have been murdered on the moor. In the visitors’ book people report a sense of being watched.
On another rainy day I tried to track Daphne and Foy’s planned route, setting out from the destination they never reached – the beautiful farming hamlet of Trebartha, towards the inn. Alas, Trebartha Hall, where their friend lived, was pulled down long ago. Daphne wrote that the hills that had barred their way seem less ‘malevolent’ from this approach. She describes a steep road at nearby North Hill, that leads to the tors of Trewortha, Hawks’ and Kilmar. This I believe I found with the help of a local farmer. But in a tearing gale and drizzle, I did not persevere for long.
Writing about their experience later, Daphne seemed almost embarrassed: ‘The approach from the front that we tried still appears hazardous, but hardly stuff for nightmare.’
Yet as I now know at first hand, thanks to Daphne, those fog-bound conditions on Bodmin Moor can turn anything into the ‘stuff for nightmare’.
The invaluable Daphne du Maurier website.
The trailer for the BBC 1 (2014) adaptation of Jamaica Inn, starring Jessica Brown Findlay as Mary Yellan, Matthew McNulty as Jem Merlyn and Sean Harris as Joss Merlyn.
Watch the original 1930 Hitchcock adaptation of Jamaica Inn here.
Jamaica Inn at Bodmin Moor, where there is a museum linked to smuggling and Daphne du Maurier memorabilia.
As a young fan, Julie Myerson wrote a letter to Daphne du Maurier who replied. In this article she talks about how their ensuing two-year correspondence changed Julie’s life, helping her to realise that becoming an author (as she indeed became) could become a reality, not just a dream.
The Episode of Most Haunted featuring Jamaica Inn.
A short film with footage of the Hurlers on Bodmin Moor, featuring music by Ben Kingwell
Mark Camp from Walkaboutwest specialises in guided walks and tours around Cornwall and West Devon. He knows a great deal about smuggling, stone circles and Bodmin Moor.
An article from the Independent, Walk of the Month, featuring Bodmin Moor.
The website Walk Cornwall features seventeen circular walks around Bodmin Moor.
English Heritage manage the site for the Hurlers on Bodmin Moor.
Du Maurier, Daphne. Daphne du Maurier’s Cornwall: Her Pictorial Memoir, Piers Dudgeon (Ed), Mermaid, 1992
Du Maurier, Daphne. Jamaica Inn, Virago Press, 2015
Du Maurier, Daphne, Vanishing Cornwall: The spirit and History of Cornwall, Penguin Books, 1972
Marsden, Philip. Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place, Granta, 2014
Shallcross, Martyn. The Private World of Daphne du Maurier, St Martin’s Press, 1991