The Dartmoor Writers’ Hotel

Laura White
Laura White

By Karen Farrington

Chagword, Dartmoor’s Literary Festival, starts this weekend with big named authors coming to the festival in Chagford, but literary links go much further back, including to the 1940s to when Evelyn Waugh wrote
‘Brideshead Revisited’ at the Easton Court Hotel a mile outside of town.

After that, many well-known literary figures stayed at the ‘Dartmoor writers hotel.’ Already a well-known novelist, Waugh was recuperating from a parachuting accident when he decided to pen ‘Brideshead Revisited’ at the hotel on Dartmoor.

During a short-lived posting to the Household Cavalry Waugh, a captain, had asked for extra time off to spend at Easton Court in Chagford.
‘I came to Chagford with the intention of starting on an ambitious novel tomorrow morning,’ he wrote in his diary at the end of January 1944.

‘I still have a cold and am low in spirits but I feel full of literary power which only this evening gives place to qualms of impotence.’

He wrote the first 3,000 words within two days. Reflecting his army experience, the opening line of the prologue is set during the Second World War.

‘When I reached ‘C’ Company lines, which were at the top of the hill, I paused and looked back at the camp, just coming into full view below me through the grey mist of early morning.’

The book’s narrator Charles Ryder is also an army captain, poised to return to Brideshead – the ancestral seat of a family he knew well when he was an Oxford undergraduate – now requisitioned for army use.

Charles’ intense friendship with Lord Sebastian Flyte is at the core of the novel, although he also forms significant relations with Sebastian’s sister and devoutly Catholic mother.

It was thought to be loosely biographical, given his close links with the Lygon family during the thirties, although Waugh denied a link.

Little more than a decade later Waugh became uncomfortable with what he thought were the excesses of the novel, written in ‘a bleak period of soya beans and basic English.’

‘The book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, or the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful.’

Yet it was the reverence with which he wrote about life on the country estate that captured the imagination of most readers and later, viewers.

‘Brideshead Revisited’ became a successful television series in 1981, starring Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews and featuring Sir Laurence Olivier. It was made into a film in 2008.

Waugh, who died 49 years ago, was introduced to the remote hotel with its views of rugged Dartmoor years before by his brother Alec and had previously stayed at the hotel while he wrote two earlier novels.

Assorted famous writers of the era headed there too, among them C P Snow, John Steinbeck and John Betjeman. Other names that appear in the guest book include actors Richard Widmark and John Gielgud.