Reminiscences, stories? and a poem about Pepperdon
supplied by Peter Wills, great-grandson of George Wills
Pepperdon is a farm and a large house some miles east of Exeter, high on Dartmoor, and well off the beaten track to anywhere. My generation is the last that knew it when it belonged in the family. Before the War, the drive from London took most of the day, and it would be a carload of tired and fractious children who would finally be told ?There it is!? as they drove through the pair of granite pillars among the heather and the bracken on Pepperdon Down, down the steep road alongside a grey, drystone wall over which one could glimpse the farm tucked behind the great house with the huge porch at the front of it. Down in the valley, in those days, a little train used to puff its painful way from Newton Abbot, making for Moretonhampstead, and from Pepperdon there was a steep, narrow road, sporting a hairpin bend with an ominous overhanging rock, which twisted down past Pepperdon Hole to join the road which ran beside the railway line. There was a stunning view from the house across the valley to the high moors, and a huge, ancient ash tree by the side of the lawn.
It was never a very comfortable house, where candles and lamps had yet to be replaced by electricity, and the bathroom was a memorable disaster. But it was the family home, and as kids we could spend hugely enjoyable days on the farm, ?helping? with the cows, or watching the threshing machine, which was driven by a long, unprotected leather belt attached to the flywheel of a traction engine. ?Safety Precautions? consisted of injunctions not to go too near it. Behaviour like that these days would earn a long spell in the pokey!
The property was owned at that time by great uncle George, and one of my earliest memories is sitting in the bay window of the drawing room and hearing the Bible story for the first time in my life from Auntie Minnie, George?s wife. Perhaps, on reflection, I should have paid more attention!
Arthur Wills, one of G.T.?s brothers, who became a barrister and Member of Parliament, wrote:
They say the airs of Araby
Are dusty-thick with spicery,
But I would breathe the wind that shrills
About our home among the hills.
Birds that to other climes belong,
Boast brighter plumage, louder song,
But sweeter that brown thrush which trills
Anigh our home among the hills.
Troth may endure twixt Kith and Kin
In all the lands I wander in;
But my heart knows the love that fills
Our home, among the steadfast hills.
But whether I turn East or West,
This is the prayer I pray the best -
The Good God guard, and keep from ills
Our home, a hill among the hills.
Oliver Wills, G.T. Wills? eldest son, spent his honeymoon there in early 1918, and his sister Peggy Hamilton wrote of it with deep affection.
?Holidays at Pepperdon were the best we ever had in the pre-war days. Friends and relations from school or university were squeezed into the dear, damp, musty, ever-expanding, ramshackle old home, where they soon came under the spell of that magic place.?? The front door was never shut -- time did not exist -- though
meals were laid in the dining room at the appointed hour, it did not appear to matter at what time they were eaten, or if, indeed, they were eaten at all, for often Father would be out walking with some (I must admit, sometimes unfortunate) companion who lacked my Pa's stamina, and when luncheon time drew near. Father, taking out his watch, would say, "let's skip lunch, I've an apple in my pocket, much better for us, " and would stride on over the misty moors, his starving companion putting on the best face possible as he stumbled along behind.?? The last meal of the day was High Tea - time also elastic - but for those who had missed it or still felt hungry, there was a large jug of milk and a plate of ginger biscuits put out on a chest in the hall, with a row of candles for the bedrooms.
[?Oliver?, a biography of Oliver Wills written by his sister Peggy Hamilton and published in 1972, is available in the library.]??
For children of my generation, it was a place of hay and cows and happy, country life, as can be seen from a letter I wrote home, when we were evacuated there at the beginning of the War in 1939. I was then seven years old, brother David who is mentioned was three, and even at Pepperdon, we seemed to be expecting enemy bombers:
We have got our gas masks. I hope that you are all right. Nothing has reached us yet. We have got another little girl staying here and we often play hide and seek in the hayloft, we had a game this morning. The weather has not been very nice. Mrs Prowse let me name two calfs and I named them George and Wendy. There are 14 people staying here. We are having a lovely time down here. Arthur and Eric are still digging potatoes. They have not finished the feild(sic) yet. The two cows that had calfs are in the milking shed. Mathew showed us some films of us when I was as big as David and John was a teeny baby. I missed two because I went to fetch the cows.
Peter John and David
John Keep, too, has fallen in love with Pepperdon. G.T. Wills was right in his apprehensions about the building, but Mr. Keep has done his best to preserve it. Sadly, one of the wings, and the entrance porch, and the chapel have had to be demolished, and the gardens have been modified to be easily manageable in these days when it is too expensive to employ a large staff to maintain elaborate Victorian gardens in the back of beyond. But it is now a cosier and warmer place than I remember it, and obviously much cherished.
I think if Mr. Pipard is still watching over it, he would be well pleased!
? Peter Wills