When you look down on Lynton, from Barbrook Road, the town appears to lie in a combe beside the sea; but when you look up at it, from Lynmouth harbour, it appears to cling from a cliff above the sea. Lynton’s setting is Lynton’s name, the tun on the lilynn or torrent. Strictly speaking, Lynton bestrides two torrents, for the River Lyn has both arms, East and West. With Lynmouth, the town forms an urban district; but hill and harbour remain as they always were, self-consciously separate. Not even Parliament can join what Time and Space have set asunder.
P.72, Portrait of Exmoor
A semi-aimless drive, with no more in mind than to visit Exmoor in north Devon and Somerset. Along the M5. Ignore Bridgwater. Ignore Taunton. Ignore Minehead. So junction 26, somewhere I don’t know called Wellington. Head north, north, north, towards the coast. Signs for Watchet – too far east. Signs for Minehead – still too east, and too familiar. Lynton and Lynmouth? Yes. I don’t recall visiting since I was I kid. What will it look like? Will I recognise it?
An enchanting, and circuitous, journey. Sunken lanes of red sandstone; steep up and steep down; deciduous woodland; passing places; old two-pronged tractors; Victorian manorial farmsteads. Then wind-blasted heaths, rolling and roiling, with Wales way off. Then: 30 or so car-towed horse boxes, their back gates swung wide, and empty inside. Few people around; I imagine local horse-owners suddenly and simultaneously overcome with compassion, and releasing their horses to the wild. The road demands concentration, but I look around: I see nothing, but know it’s most likely the sign of a hunt. My car is sealed so neither bark nor horn reaches my ears.
The slopes steepen once more, and become heavily wooded, leaving behind the unpleasant underbelly of rural life. Some of these roads are half-familiar from cycling from Barnstaple to Bridgwater last Easter; a lot, though, is beguiling in their newness.
As I near Lynton and Lynmouth, older memories peel into my consciousness – those maybe-memories/maybe-will-to-believe of a place I treasure for the two short weeks I spent here when I was little. The road follows the West Lyn river through a steep-sided valley; a road junction and a choice of the twin villages: Lynton at the hilltop, or Lynmouth on the bay where rivers East and West Lyn meet briefly, before plashing over granite slabs and into the Bristol Channel.
I choose Lynmouth, and everything is still kind of in place. There’s the hotel we stayed in! There’s the House of the Rising Sun! The park where I learned to play catch! The funicular! In an odd way, Lynmouth is a much diminished version to that which I held as a memory. Was it not a sizeable, bustling town, like Minehead? But this is all it is. My memories may not record accurately, but the steep slopes show that this place could not have been much different those 30-odd years ago.
I have little stories for those things familiar. The hotel’s food was bad, but they cooked the fish we caught when we went sea fishing. I learned to play catch with a large golden sparkly ball. I’d already decided before the trip, that if I ever owned a pub (such ambition!) I should call it the House of the Rising Sun. That the funicular ran by using water as a counterweight to bring the opposing carriage down – and that at least once I walk up the cliff path to get the railway back down to Lynmouth.
There are also less obvious reminders, which need to be picked at to induce recollections. The flood which devastated the place in 1952, and on which my middle school pal JF did a presentation. Since my last time here, a wooden cross has been erected at the point where the river wall collapsed, on the flood’s 50th anniversary. Then there was the walking up the Valley of Rocks into Lorna Doone country. There was the son of my parents friend who was staying at the same time (who I am assured was rather unpleasant, though I remember nothing of him it but his name). I want to walk up that valley; see what it conjures: but that will have to wait. Will it activate something? Will I again find rainbow trout in one of the river’s pools? Did that even happen? For now the memories – no matter how time-encrusted and incomplete – must suffice.
* * *
Memories are a fickle thing. I once heard it said that memory is not continuous, but rather contiguous: that the act of remembering is merely a process of recalling an earlier act of recalling that is a process of recalling an earlier still act of recalling, and so on. In retrospect I question whether I have not been to Lynmouth and Lynton since I was little; not having returned seems unlikely. But all I have are these memories, recollections butting up and scraping against other recollections, jostling alongside wishful imaginings.
My compact camera didn’t work for this trip, so all images are from my phone – something that annoyed me at the time, but I think well suites the musings of this post.
Peel, JHB., 1970, Portrait of Exmoor, London: Robert Hale