Voices of Exmoor: Remembering Ted Lethaby

As part of our joint event with the North Devon Record Office and Barnstaple Local Studies Library, Voices of Exmoor and North Devon, Rob Lamerton from Libraries Unlimited writes about one of the contributors to the Exmoor Oral History Archive which is held by the North Devon Record Office…

I can’t claim to have been a close personal acquaintance of Ted Lethaby. My family moved to the warden’s cottage in the hamlet of Countisbury when I was three years old, and at some undefinable point over the next few years I became aware that he had always been around. Growing up, I came to know him as the kindly man who lived just below the church up the road (the church, incidentally, where Ted married in 1952), ever ready with a warm smile and a warmer greeting as I passed his house on my way to the moorlands where my brother and I would play and walk the dogs. Admittedly the latter task was occasionally performed under duress if the weather was particularly bad: the winds up on top of Countisbury can sometimes feel a touch hostile. This, when combined with the steepness of the surrounding slopes and (rather more prominent in one’s thoughts at such times) cliffs, can lead to some quite exhilarating moments, exhilaration occasionally crossing the border into abject terror if my mind is having an unhelpfully imaginative five minutes. I recently came across a quote by W.H. Thornton, a Curate who taught at the local school in the 1850’s, who had this to say on the subject:

“The wind blows so hard at the top of Countisbury Hill that I have, before now, waited for the children to leave, formed them into a string, and personally conducted them under the hill before I parted with them, fearing lest I should see some scholar going away to the height of a thousand feet, head foremost, towards Wales.”

Lynmouth From Countisbury Hill [Whybrow Bx17-Xd-008]

An exaggeration to be sure, and yet I can absolutely see where the man was coming from. If you were to tell me that something of the sort had once happened to a luckless acquaintance of yours, then I would probably have to sit down and give the matter some serious consideration before deciding, eventually, to call your bluff.

Probably deciding to call your bluff.

Maybe?

Put it this way, I’d have a hard time mustering up the confidence to bet money against you.

This was the environment in which Ted spent almost the entirety of his life. In fact, until I listened to his contributions to the Exmoor Oral History Project, I had somewhat naively assumed that it was where Ted had spent the entirety of his life: he was such a fixture of the area that I still find it next to impossible to picture him anywhere else. I mean, sure, on an intellectual level it makes complete sense that the man travelled during his lifetime, but even as I write this there is a part of my mind that is definitely trying to reject the notion of Ted in such far off lands as Russia and Cyprus. He was born in 1925 at Top Cottage, Wilsham, just a couple of miles away. Then in 1952, newly-wed to Barbara, he moved into the old schoolhouse just below the church of St. John the Evangelist, and he was living there still when he finally passed away in 2011, almost 60 years after moving in. He was fond of saying that, when his time came, they wouldn’t have to move him far, just through the gate and up the path a bit, but Ted dying seemed as impossible to imagine as Ted going on holiday. He had always been there, surely that would never change, could never change? I actually happened to be in the same ward as Ted in the North Devon District Hospital in 2011, and he still looked as vital and resilient as ever, waving away my concerns and questions as to his health in favour of enquiring after mine. Discharged a few days later I bade him adieu, confident that I would be seeing him up and about again soon.

Countisbury Church (Photo taken by Kara Stevens)

I don’t know that I can do justice to the shock that I felt upon learning that he died the very next day.  Or to the joy that I experienced upon discovering, only a few months ago, that he had been a contributor to the Exmoor Oral History Project. I listened to the recordings, almost certainly with an idiotic smile on my face, indescribably happy just to be hearing his voice again after the passage of a decade. Some of what I heard was familiar to me, much of it was not. Some of what was new to me came as a surprise (Russia? Nope, apparently my imagination still won’t stretch that far, sorry), but an awful lot of it just left me thinking yup, that sounds like Ted alright. Reversing a bus down Countisbury Hill because there was nowhere to turn around for the return journey at the bottom? Well of course he did, of course he did: why wouldn’t he? Thanks to the flood there were people stranded down in Lynmouth, and he wasn’t about to let them down. Maybe it’s the nostalgia talking, but that’s exactly the kind of man that I remember Ted being: no-nonsense, practical, and kind.

Countisbury [Whybrow Bx17-Xd-011]

Ted talks of his childhood with a real sense of fondness: you can hear the smile in his voice even when he is describing his father’s attempts to discipline him, although this may simply be pride in the fact that his father could never catch him to administer the promised beating. You can also hear it when he remembers how well he got on with one of the girls who was evacuated to Countisbury at the outbreak of the Second World War, as well as when he talks about meeting Barbara. This, to me at least, is one of the main advantages that recordings such as these offer over other methods of documenting history. You’re not just getting the facts: truth be told, quite often the “facts” are distorted by the vagaries of memory when dealing with personal recollections such as these. Case in point: Ted mentions that the Foreland Point lighthouse was automated in 1993, when various official sources state that this happened in November 1994, but that doesn’t matter, or at least not here. Exact dates, statistics and figures can be found elsewhere: what we have here is a snapshot of the thoughts and feelings that pure facts don’t cover, the humanising element that can be lost in other material, even in something as closely associated to this project and to others like it as the transcripts of the interviews themselves. We don’t just have a record of what was said, but also of how it was said. So yes, if you were turning in an essay on the history of the lighthouse and you wrote down 1993 as the date of automation you’d be marked down a few points for inaccuracy, but outside of the realm of academia that’s not the sort of detail that really matters in our day to day lives, or at least I’d wager it’s not for the vast majority of us. Far more important to be able to look back and remember the lighthouse the way it used to be, what sort of a man the lighthouse keeper was and, of particular importance to Ted, when and how he met Barbara, the lighthouse keeper’s daughter. Thanks to the audio medium, we can get a greater sense of the feelings that memories such as these conjure up for the person relating them, be they happy, sad, indifferent, or anywhere else on the spectrum of human emotions.

Also, let’s be fair to Ted: getting the years 1993 and 1994 mixed up? That’s not too bad at all for a date pulled off the top of his head.

Foreland Point From Countisbury Hill [Whybrow Bx17-Xd-056]

I’d like to bring in some of Ted’s experiences of the Lynmouth flood of 1952, which he recalls vividly and, to my mind at least, evocatively. He was a bus driver at the time, and on the night of the 15th of August he was sitting in the Blue Ball Inn (handily situated a few dozen yards from both the church and the old schoolhouse: probably best to not think about that too closely) having a drink with the landlord, a man named Ted Hoyles. At some point during the evening, Hoyles’ son phoned from the Rising Sun in Lynmouth to say that the boats were being washed out of the harbour. Hopping into Hoyles’ vehicle, which in a 2008 interview with David Ramsay was recalled by Ted as being an old green Post Office van, they drove down Countisbury Hill to see what was going on for themselves.

In the middle of a storm.

In the dark.

Having been drinking.

Down Countisbury Hill.

To give Ted the benefit of the doubt, he doesn’t specify who did the driving. However, in the Ramsay interview he does state that he had been drinking with Ted Hoyles, so there’s a good chance that it was a terrible idea regardless of who was actually behind the wheel. Let’s just chalk that one up to the fifties being a different time and move on, shall we?

Anyway, in Ted’s own words:

“We went down at, say, 9 o’clock time and got to the bottom of Countisbury Hill, and it was all dark. It was raining and there was no street lights and we were there, just looking and listening (the noise was terrific), when the Lyn Valley Hotel, the side of that one fell out when we were there, and there was candles in the various rooms, and they gradually blew out, one by one, and the only time we could see anything was when there was a flash of lightning.”

The next morning Ted got on his motorbike (and here we once again come to an aspect of Ted’s life that will be in no way surprising to anyone who really knew him but which came as a complete shock to me, the naïve kid down the road who apparently never managed to shake off the “naïve” part of that description: before I met him the guy used to ride motorbikes, and apparently that’s a mental image that I just can’t cope with) and rode to Minehead, collecting a bus from the depot and returning with it to Lynmouth. He then spent the rest of the day ferrying stranded visitors to the Beacon Hotel part way up the hill, where another bus would collect them and take them onto Minehead while Ted went back down the hill for the next load. He remembers the last busload of the day being made up entirely of locals, and as there was no further need to go back down the hill he took them onto Minehead himself. Except, of course, that Minehead was no good for them. It worked for the visitors, because from there they could catch a train to take them home, but the locals had nowhere to stay. What they did have was friends and family ready to take them in at Lynton, a couple of miles up the hill from Lynmouth but completely inaccessible on the direct route due to the flooding. So Ted and another driver talked the Depot Inspector into allowing them to take their passengers onto Lynton by an alternate route, one that would ultimately extend the journey to a length of approximately one hundred miles. According to the Ramsay interview the Inspector was initially reluctant to allow this, not wanting to pay the overtime that such an endeavour would entail, but Ted’s response was: “look, if you don’t charge them for going, I won’t put in for overtime,” and to this the Inspector agreed.

You legend, Ted.

You even drove a bus down Countisbury Hill backwards, multiple times, because the flooding meant that there was nowhere for you to turn around once you got to Lynmouth. You silly sod.

I miss you.

…Rob Lamerton, Barnstaple Library, Libraries Unlimited

Ted’s contribution to the Exmoor Oral History Archive has also been used as one of the inspirations for a film by The Plough Youth Theatre called Listening to Lynmouth (the Rising of 1952)’. The film, which tells the story of the devastating flood that hit Lynmouth in 1952, will be shown at the North Devon Record Office on Saturday 18 September as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project.

With thanks to the South West Heritage Trust and the Exmoor Oral History Archive for use of the photograph of Ted Lethaby © Mark J Rattenbury

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