As we can’t travel at the moment, one of the best ways to experience North Devon is through the eyes of other people, like the novelist Charles Kingsley, who not only wrote about the region, but also grew up there. His book, Westward Ho! is how the town got its name after all, so, here is a brief history of Charles Kingsley, one of North Devon’s most famous residents.
As well as being an author, Charles Kingsley was also a priest, a socialist, a university professor and a historian. It’s any wonder that he had any time to write at all!
He was born in Holne, Devon, and being the eldest son, was named after his father (also Rev Charles Kingsley). His brother Henry and sister Charlotte also went on to become writers. He is also the father of Lucas Malet (who was born Mary St Leger Kingsley), who was famous for being a novelist – creativity ran in the family!
After being born in Holne, the family moved to Clovelly, where he spent most of his childhood, and where his father was the curator and rector. While residing in North Devon, he was a pupil of Rev Coleridge, son of Samuel Colridge, the poet, who also had connections to North Devon and Exmoor. Later, he attended Bristol Grammar School and Helston Grammar School before moving to King’s College London and the University of Cambridge. For a time, he was Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge and his interest in history influenced much of his writing. His book, The Heroes, is about Greek Mythology, for instance.
He was particularly good friends with a number of influential people including Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens.
In 1859, he was appointed personal chaplain to Queen Victoria (she lived in Devon too for a time, but it was at the other end of the county on the Jurassic Coast) and then a few years later became the private tutor to her eldest son, the Prince of Wales.
His written works included: The Water Babies, which won a Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, Westward Ho!, Hypatia, Two Years Ago, Hereward the Wake, Madam How and Lady Why, and the Heroes.
His novel Westward Ho! is particularly important to the North Devon area, not only because it had the village named after it, but because it also inspired the construction of the Bideford, Westward Ho! and Appledore Railway. A hotel in Westward Ho! was also named after and opened by him shortly after the village’s founding. Currently, Westward Ho! (the place) holds a record for being the only place name in England with an exclamation mark in its name.
Despite Westward Ho! inspiring a place name in North Devon, its main setting is in South America, but he did use his experiences of living in North Devon in his book, Two Years Ago. Westward Ho! (the book) is about the friction between England’s protestants and Spain’s Catholics during the 1500 and 1600s.
Despite spending most of his life working and living in Hampshire where he became the rector of the parish of Eversley, Charles Kingsley would regularly stay in Clovelly, staying at what is now Kingsley Cottage. He wrote his most famous book, The Water Babies, while at his Clovelly cottage. His wife also had a home in the region, a villa in Ilfracombe, and from there, they would visit Exmoor.
According to biographers, Charles Kingsley and his brother would walk over the moors averaging about twenty miles a day! His book Two Years Ago, which is largely set in North Devon is thought to be inspired by the people he would meet while visiting Exmoor.
As we’ve mentioned his brother, we should point out, that he too wrote novels, with several of them set in Devon. His book Geoffrey Hamlyn was set in Devon and Australia and his epic, Ravenshoe, is partly set on Exmoor.
If you’re missing North Devon, why not see if your local library has a copy of Charles Kingsley or Henry Kingsley’s books?
As the UK is currently under a national lockdown, travel is not permitted. For the latest updates regarding the restrictions and travel, please visit gov.uk/coronavirus.