You know how you may have a favourite haunt: a campsite, hotel or out-of-the-way town? Well, Cloud Farm in the Doone Valley on the edge of Exmoor was one of those places for us. The valley itself is unspeakably beautiful: a place where you feel re-energised after a short stay there. It never failed to deliver. It is just a short drive up across Exmoor from where we live now. The perfect getaway for a short break.
The story of Lorna Doone has reached notoriety in English literature. On Exmoor it divides opinion: fact or fiction? Legend or nonsense? Cloud Farm is situated near the village of Oare in the heart of this country.
The origin of the Doone legend is obscure, but it existed by the early 19th century. It focuses on a band of outlaws – the Doones – who were supposed to be descended from a noble family of Scottish origin. The legend claims that they were busy on Exmoor in the 1600s, robbing and pillaging the locals. This is a great story; it is a story that tantalises, mainly because Exmoor has been seen for a long time as beyond the law…for example, by the very early 1800s it had an established reputation for smuggling, with a group known as the ‘banditti’ terrorising Simonsbath.
The novelist Richard Blackmore, living at his father’s rectory at Oare knew of the legend of the Doones, and it inspired his historical novel Lorna Doone which was published first in 1869. It went on to become a national treasure, devoured by the nation’s readers on a huge scale.
The novel is drawn against the upheaval of the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685 (in which Exmoor became, albeit obliquely, involved). The hero is John Ridd of fictional Plover’s Barrows Farm near Oare.
Cloud Farm was run by a corpulent “farmer” when we first discovered it. In true Doone tradition he was not so far as beyond the law, but certainly had a healthy disregard of rules, like booking, arriving or leaving on time, or for that matter being overly fussy concerning health and safety. The showers and toilets were totally inadequate for the size of the site, you took your chances when trying to enter the river from your pitch (fences have now appeared near some) and some of the reviewers on websites found it disgraceful. We loved it. He would ride around the campsite on a quad-bike and collect money each morning and if you took the time would engage in friendly conversation in his thick Devon accent. We once stayed here for a month between moving houses whilst waiting for the legal stuff to be completed. He was worthy of the Doones’ legend. You could not book, there were no marked pitches and you made a campfire wherever you fancied. Despite often being seen with a wry smile on his face, he still managed to come across as a bit gruff. But friendly at the same time. When he passed away in 2019 the land went to probate and the National Trust, who, having had their eye on it for some time, jumped at the chance. So now it is a National Trust campsite.
The new proprietor assured us that she did not want to change it. It was perfect in its rustic glory and laid-back approach. Except that it is is now a completely non-smoking site (I couldn’t work this one out). You can still have a campfire (if you use one of the fire-pits provided); there are arrival and departure times; you have to book with your car registration, make, model and length of vehicle, details of storage tents, gazebos, home address and phone number, party members and their ages, size of pitch required etc… The various fields now have twee names. The reception/shop/tea room is still running, but I suspect it will not be long before National Trust merchandise appears there and there are numbered pitches. What sums it up is the old farmhouse. I had always seen it as ramshackle, in the same way that the farmer was ramshackle (if a person can be that), with its rotting windows, collapsing roof and guttering sagging down against the walls – it now has more of the appearance of dilapidated rather than ramshackle. No more rock up, pitch up and enjoy. No more big, friendly farmer. Something has been lost.