Forgotten tales re-visited

Winter-flowering thorn

Regular readers of my brand of verse have probably realised my predilection for tales of nature and the country, probably stemming from a childhood spent on the moorland vastness of Exmoor acting as a human sponge for the sights and tales of a remote area little known by the majority.

Again I can relate a little piece of alternative history… a seldom related story of one of the most elegant yet enigmatic great houses to be found on the wilds of Exmoor.

Glenthorne is an elegant Georgian mansion set high on a cliff top on the North Devon coast, formerly almost inaccessible unless by cart, on foot or by boat, overlooking a secluded beach and the expanse of the Bristol Channel between Lynmouth and Porlock bay.

The original Glenthorne estate was created by the Rev Walter Stevenson Halliday, son of a Scottish naval surgeon and banker, who made a fortune during the Napoleonic Wars and died in 1829. Having resigned from the Church on inheriting his father’s fortune, Halliday chose to invest in a country estate and eventually settled near Countisbury, where he gradually bought the entire parish – some 7,000 acres in all – and became the local squire.

Less well known is a possible reason for the spot that he chose to build his home, the seat of the estate on the Devon/Somerset border. A magnificent mansion standing totally isolated on the cliffs looking out over the Bristol Channel to the far coast of Wales, twenty miles distant. It is well known that William Blake’s dramatic poem ‘Jerusalem‘, familiar nowadays as an oft-sung hymn, was based on the myth that Christ himself may have visited Glastonbury with Joseph of Arimathea and ‘walked on England’s mountains green‘.

The myth on which the Reverend Halliday may have been relying on was as follows. Nowadays it is seldom repeated but it was well known on 19th century Exmoor.

Joseph of Arimathea did indeed visit Glastonbury with the boy Jesus. As their boat sailed up the channel to their Somerset destination the crew complained that they were running low on water and becoming parched. They put in to the shore on a shingle beach at the base of a high cliff. The same landing spot as would be suitable and utilised for the delivery of the building materials later used to build the mansion.

Not finding any form of stream from which to replenish their water barrels, either Joseph or Jesus himself drove their staff into the ground and a stream started to flow. The staff itself proceeded to flower and does so every year around Christmas time, still believed to be growing, unlike the rather better-known Glastonbury equivalent. Hence the name, “Glenthorne,” and the choice of site for the building. despite the difficulty of supplying the men and materials for such an undertaking at that time.

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