The Heart of the Moor, Beatrice Chase’s 1914 novel is set among the Dartmoor landscape where I attended school. Beatrice Chase moved to Dartmoor on the recommendation of her doctor. Her work among the poor in the East End of London had brought the onset of tuberculosis and the moor was considered to have therapeutic qualities. Chase and her mother bought a farm outside of the village of Widecombe in the early 1900s and Chase testified, “the Moor saved my life and transformed me into a robust woman.”
Forty years after her novel was published, Heathercombe Brake School was opened in a house that was four miles from Chase’s farm, among the pupils for whom the school was established were those considered to be “sick and delicate.” I was among those who were to be considered so, and in 1974 was sent by Somerset County Council to attend the small boarding school that was tucked among the Dartmoor hills. I am not sure I was ever “robust”, but I became considerably healthier than I was when I first set in the school is a pale, sickly, underweight teenage boy.
It is Chase herself speaking in the novel when she says that much of the therapeutic quality of rural life lay in its routine:
It is a huge relief to turn . . . to the peaceful routine of farm work. That is no doubt, its main value for healing the ills of soul and body . . . there are the placid, orderly animals, the silent, fruitful fields, all working out their allotted destiny, untroubled by the passions that ravage humanity . . .
Half its value lies in the necessity for regularity, and this imperative regularity is due to the fact that it is life which is calling. When you are dealing with living things, you cannot defer your duties till the next day. Men must be fed, beds made, fires lighted. Animals also must be fed, and watered, and the cows must be milked. The work of the farm, like the work of the house, cannot be postponed for death, marriage, birth, or any other event, however mighty.
Yet neither she nor I were farmers. Beatrice Chase owned a farm worked by tenants, she was free to follow whatever routine she chose, as she herself acknowledges. I was no more than a schoolboy among dozens of others who might have endured the spartan regime of the school, but never had to step out on a cold morning to engage in farmwork.
What was therapeutic was not the routine, ours was one of boredom, but the Moor itself. Beauty, colour, landscape, mystery, fear, danger, incessant change and timeless changelessness, the Moor defied definition. It brought detachment from the world below, awareness of the infinite intricacy of nature, respect for the land and the elements.
Perhaps, the ultimate therapy of such a place, is a reconciliation with one’s own mortality. Chase found that among the hills I would walk in my teenage years. I would take many years before I understood the Moor’s lessons.