A hard life – but a fulfilling one, lived in a Westcountry wilderness
An exhibition of the work of a legend of Exmoor, countrywoman Hope Bourne, prompted Martin Hesp to recall some special personal memories of an interview he was granted.
A book by Hope Bourne lies open on my desk and inside is a note written in September 1988 to my journalist father, Peter Hesp, which says: "You ask about a possible interview – the answer, sadly, must be no…"
I won't go into the reasons why the celebrated countrywoman and author refuses to be written about, as they are of a highly personal nature and concern her own health – but I will say that she relents to a degree by providing my father with her newly installed telephone number.
It's an ex-directory line, but Hope says she would very much like to see my father on a friendly, non-interview, basis – should he be minded to drive up to the remote corner of hills where she lived in a tiny, half-derelict, caravan.
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I tell you all this because it makes all the more remarkable the call that both my father and I received from Hope some two years later. On this occasion she nigh-on begged us to go out and see her. She was very angry with the government of the day in general – and with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in particular – and claimed she could no longer sit by without speaking out.
My father and I headed off for the hills above Withypool for the meeting. It was one of those "real" Exmoor days when the wind howls and the rain beats down in horizontal sheets…
I can recall sitting in my father's tiny Mini Metro which was actually being shaken from side to side by the gale as we waited for Miss Bourne to appear. I had a commission from The Guardian newspaper and from BBC radio to turn the interview into some kind of material – and I am looking at the resultant article as I write these words.
Here is an extract taken from my Guardian piece dated Friday, February 16, 1990 – the "other journalist" mentioned is, of course, my father…
Eventually what came out of the swirling torrents was a jaunty bundle of anoraks and scarves. After a great unravelling of these many outer layers, we at last met Miss Hope Bourne.
She took the front passenger seat and, holding the other journalist's hand, she turned to me: "Yes, I am a political creature and that is why I have decided to speak out. And yet for 30 years I have lived in these hills, no better than an animal."
"Miss Bourne shoots straight from the hip and at present all her guns – and she is a mean shot – are aimed at Margaret Thatcher. "It takes a woman to see the cruel, wicked misuse of powers which is undoubtedly taking us toward a totalitarian state," she said quietly.
"I have voted Tory all my life, but now I am lost. Yes, I hate that bloody woman. I used to hate because I envied her. I was jealous of the political power which she enjoyed while I remained out here in these lonely hills. Now I hate her because of her cruelty.
"She is, in no uncertain terms, out to crush the little people of this world. And I am one of them."
When it comes to material wealth Hope Bourne is very far from the stockbroker belt. The only stock she sees are her neighbour's cattle which she feeds and looks after in lieu of ground-rent for 12ft-long caravan situated high in a remote coombe. So decrepit has the modest dwelling become that a large tarpaulin is pegged down over the entire caboodle to keep out the weather.
We had to meet her at the bottom of the coombe in the car. My journalist colleague had been up to the caravan long ago and he remembers being unable to enter because there was only room for one.
Hope Bourne has lost her birth certificate but she says she is somewhere between 70 and 80, and she is in very fine fettle indeed. Without electricity, running water and, for that matter, any other consumer service, Miss Bourne owns just one practical luxury.
"I keep a high-velocity rifle with which I am able to shoot the odd deer. There are plenty of rabbits and the occasional hare.
"I've always been able to butcher my own meat. The things I have managed to teach myself, I have always done well. Shooting is one of them.
"It has been a great adventure. But don't think I'm just an oddball who likes living far away from civilisation. As I am poor, it has been a matter of necessity.
"At times, living no better than an animal has been tough. Once I broke my knee in that hollow down there. I had to crawl over two fields to get home. I made myself a splint and hobbled about for a few months until it got better. No, I didn't go to a doctor. He'd have only done it all up in plaster, and that is no good for me out here. I've only visited a doctor once in 30 years and that was when the midges stung my eyes and I went blind for a time."
All this rough and tumble belies the rather genteel and Victorian existence Miss Bourne experienced in her youth. It was when her widowed schoolteacher mother died, and with her the source of any income, that Hope was forced to sell the Devonshire home and, with a few hundred pounds left over, begin her wild life in the depths of Exmoor.
In a way fate has been rather unkind to Miss Bourne. In her teens she had been ambitious and full of energy: "I felt the urge to be a great speaker, able to influence people and events, and be one of those people who make history."
But life, being an unfair sort of a thing, saw the young Hope leave school at 14 and, afflicted with asthma, stay at home until her mother died 16 years later.
"Believe it or not I was more or less regarded as an invalid when I was a young girl, but I'll tell you how I managed to cure myself. I lived with my mother for many years until I was about 30. Things were rather Victorian I suppose. I was highly restricted for my own health's sake. And then there came a time when I thought – if I go on like this I may as well be dead.
"So I made a list of all the things I had been told not to do. Then I looked up at the heavens and said… well, you are going to have to kill me. I did every one of the things on the list and, believe me, felt very much better for it.
"In fact, I suppose you could new describe me as being quite robust."