Henry Williamson’s writing hut, built by the author from 1929-30.
Reasons for Designation
The Writing Hut of Henry Williamson, built in 1929, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
* Historic interest: built by and for Henry Williamson, an important and award-winning C20 writer of natural and social fiction, built using the prize money awarded for arguably his most famous work, Tarka the Otter;
* Architectural interest: a simple yet characterful building that fully reflects its use as Williamson’s writing sanctuary;
* Intactness: with the exception of some repairs, the building has been little altered since the author’s death in 1977.
Henry Williamson (1895-1977) was an author, and keen naturalist. Perhaps best known for his award winning novel Tarka the Otter (1927), his writing predominantly focused on natural social history. The critic George Painter stated: ‘He stands at the end of the line of Blake, Shelley and Jefferies: he is the last classic and the last romantic.’
Born in London in 1895, he served in the London Rifle Brigade during the First World War. His experiences during the conflict were to affect him deeply, particularly his participation in the Christmas Truce 1914, an unofficial ceasefire in which soldiers on both sides met in the middle of No Man’s Land. He wrote both directly and indirectly about his wartime experiences.
In 1921 Williamson moved to Georgeham, North Devon, and a place where he had spent an idyllic holiday just before the war. He had already written a number of books by the mid-1920s when he began composing a story about an otter (during his research he met and married his first wife, Ida Loetia Hibbert). In 1927 Tarka the Otter: His Joyful Water-Life and Death in the Country of the Two Rivers was published. The story followed the life of Tarka and his adventures in North Devon, along with a detailed observation of his habitat in and around the River Taw and River Torridge. The novel was well received and in 1928 it was awarded the Hawthornden Prize for Literature. It was presented by John Galsworthy (1867-1933) who praised Williamson as 'the finest and most intimate living interpreter of the drama of wild life'. It also sparked a friendship with the author T. E. Lawrence (1888-1935) that lasted until the latter's sudden death. The prize money was £100 and Williamson used this to buy an isolated field at Oxford Cross, just outside of Georgeham. By the following year he began building a timber hut and planting trees, creating a place of sanctuary where he could carry on his writing.
In the early 1930s he moved his family to Shallowford in South Molton, Devon, where he wrote, among other novels, Salar the Salmon; however, he retained the land at Oxford Cross. In 1936 Williamson and his family moved to Norfolk where he took ownership of Old Hall Farm, Stiffkey. It was here that he met with controversy from the local community, due in part to his support of the British Union of Fascists leader Oswald Mosley. He was drawn by Mosley’s agricultural policy, his membership of the BUF and his favourable views towards Adolf Hitler who, following a trip to Germany before the outbreak of war, Williamson viewed as a man achieving great good for his country, and who as a former soldier would never contemplate another war. In June 1940 he was arrested under the Defence Regulation 18B, but after a weekend was released unconditionally.
In 1946, following his divorce, he returned to North Devon. He began to use his writing hut at Oxford Cross again and after a time he came to live semi-permanently in the field. He married his second wife Christine Duffield in 1949 and upon the birth of their son, Williamson built a larger studio next to the hut for the family to live in. However, this was felt inappropriate for a young child and so the family lived in Ilfracombe. He continued to use the buildings at Oxford Cross for his writing and the field became a miniature nature reserve which was an important place of solitude for the author. In 1951 the first of his 15-volume historical novel series, The Chronicles of Ancient Sunlight, was published. This writing effort would often involve 15 hour-long days. After the publication of the final volume (1969), he began to wind down his writing, and his visits to the field became less frequent. His final book was The Scandaroon (1972). In 1973 a family home at Oxford Cross known as Ox's Cross was built to the north of the writing hut. Although the author had planned it, he never lived in it himself as he died shortly after it was finished. Henry Williamson passed away in 1977, the year in which a motion picture of the Tarka the Otter novel was being made, and poignantly on the same day that the death of Tarka was being filmed. Williamson was buried in Georgeham church cemetery.
The timber hut at Oxford Cross was the first building on this site, built by Henry Williamson in 1929 and used by him intermittently for writing, and as temporary living accommodation for the rest of his life. In an interview he gave to BBC Radio 4 near the end of his writing career (1969), Henry Williamson confirmed that he continued to use the timber hut for writing. It has been subject to repairs over the years including to the timber cladding and roof structure; historic photographs also show that an extra window was added to the east elevation at some point. The writing hut has been left in the state it was in when the author passed away in 1977.
Henry Williamson’s writing has become an important part of North Devon’s cultural heritage. For example, the Tarka Trail, inspired by arguably his most well-known novel, a well-established 180 mile-long signposted route that follows in the footsteps of the eponymous otter through the landscape, weaving a route along the North Devon Coastline and down towards Dartmoor.
Henry Williamson’s writing hut, built by the author from 1929-30.
MATERIALS: elm, oak and slate.
PLAN: single-cell hut on an east to west alignment.
EXTERIOR: a single-storey hut with waney-edge cladding. The west elevation contains an off-centre plank-and-muntin entrance door with peep hole and decorative metal strap hinges. The north and south elevations each have a casement window; the cill under the south window is inscribed with the letter ‘W’. The east elevation has two casement windows to the ground floor (the left of which is a later insertion) and a thin casement under the eave. A stone chimney stack rises on the north side of a half-hipped slate roof.
INTERIOR: the hut interior has been maintained as it was when the author passed away in 1977, with furniture and furnishing belonging to the author (many of which are personalised) left in place and items of his clothing hanging from the coat hooks at the entrance. Next to the door is a built-in corner cupboard. There is a brick fireplace in the corner opposite the door. Above is a small mezzanine level where the writer used to sleep. This is accessed via a trap door above a set of steps built into the fire surround. The underside of the trap door bears two inscriptions; one appears to be initials reading ‘HW M IH AT’; the other reads ‘HIS TEARS ARE CLOUDS/ THESE MANY CENTURIES’. Another inscription can be seen on the underside of one of the timber tie beams and reads ‘HW 1952’. There are further shelves within the roof space. The walls are decorated with the dust jackets of many of his works including The Dark Lantern, How Dear Is Life, and Donkey Boy, as well as cuttings referring to his work and other articles of interest. The roof is an A-frame construction.
Henry Williamson’s 1940s studio, which stands to the north-west of the writing hut, is excluded from the listing.