Words by Will Foster
Originally published in Architecture Today
Exmoor is a place of wild moors and wet weather, rolling hill farms, deep wooded valleys and fast rivers, many of which come to an abrupt end on treacherous cliffs where they meet the sea. This place of water and wind, where the explorer Ranulph Fiennes trains for his expeditions, is my homeland.
Exmoor was designated as a royal forest in 1508, a preserve of kings and their hunting parties – essentially a private estate. Three centuries later, the ironworks heir and agricultural pioneer John Knight acquired the majority of the land, and over a period of 80 years, he and his son invested heavily in the land for commercial purposes and shaped much of the cultivated landscape that remains today.
Escaping the industrialisation of the late eighteenth century, Samuel Taylor Coleridge moved to Somerset and took to roaming on Exmoor – or what his fellow Romantic poet William Wordsworth called, his “enchanted surroundings”. The Coleridge Way is a popular footpath formed in 2005 to link sites associated with the poet across Exmoor, which is now a National Park, albeit the smallest of them – approximately the size of present-day Manchester city.
I grew up in Roadwater, a village that sits within one of the many deep valleys around the outskirts of the moorland. My family arrived in 1972 and I was born a few years later. We lived in one end of a derelict inn suffering from serious subsidence. The inn was built into a steep hill, which meant that I could easily jump out of the window of my bedroom – a former skittle alley – into the woods and fields beyond.
I was usually armed to the teeth with guns, catapults, knives and the odd axe, with which I would experiment to build dens, tree houses and dams, using whatever material I could gather from the woods and fields. Such an upbringing has helped shape my interest in improvised structures and a sense of freedom to experiment.
Roadwater is endowed with an Arts & Crafts village hall designed by Norman Reckitt (who trained and worked under WD Caröe and Lutyens). His daughter Rachel was a pioneering contemporary sculptor, whose works were exhibited alongside those of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, in the so-called London Group. She was a patron of Roadwater and its surrounding villages, and her constructivist pub signs, designed in the 1930s, are still hanging in place today.
There are a great number of makers on Exmoor, and I began to discover them when undiagnosed dyslexia led me to look beyond school for inspiration. With my mother’s encouragement, I spent time at a local artists’ commune at Nettlecombe, and later worked for master blacksmith James Horrobin at Doverhay Forge in Porlock.
Tired of doing the repetitious work that such a craft can bring, he had begun to venture into the realms of art, design and architecture, and the forge was full of inspiring material experiments, drawings, sculptures and reference books. In that workshop I learned the thrill of making, that banging the hell out of wrought iron bar can transform it into beautifully-moulded, silk-like sculptural objects.
While working there, I also met the boat builder John Hesp, who taught me about jigs and fabrication techniques, and his blacksmith brother, Dominic, who took great care to show me the sculpting capabilities of an angle grinder.
In the forge I was told that there are gates that welcome you and gates that will keep you out. For me the gates to Exmoor are always open, and it’s a place very close to my heart.