Henry Williamson (1895-1977) is perhaps best remembered today for his much-loved Tarka the Otter and his other nature stories. One of his less well-known books is On Foot in Devon, published in 1933: Williamson had been approached by the publisher Alexander MacLehose in the summer of 1932 to write the Devon volume for his ‘On Foot’ travel series. Williamson agreed on the condition that he could not/would not write a straightforward travel guide. The result was a mock travelogue entirely different to other books in the ‘On Foot’ series, being quirky, light-hearted yet serious, and encompassing a view of north and south Devon which, although of an era long past, is still pertinent today, and possibly of even more interest as a picture of that lost time.
Anne Williamson, Williamson’s daughter-in-law and biographer, has been inspired to write Following Henry Williamson’s Footsteps, an explanatory commentary on the book, for within its pages a wealth of information lies. However, a great deal of it is ‘hidden’, rather like a series of cryptic clues for a crossword puzzle. The thoughts that Williamson had, and the places, characters, and objects that he discussed, were in some cases obscure, even at the time of the original publication, and are possibly even more so today. While that is perhaps one of the charms of the book, it is also one of its irritations. Anne’s commentary clarifies and enlarges this aspect, and she illustrates the various points with a lavish scattering of quotations from the original book. It is a wander not just literally through the lanes of Devon, but through the lanes of literature, and indeed also down the lanes of memory to a time past. A detailed knowledge or prior reading of On Foot in Devon is not a prerequisite, for the numerous and sometimes lengthy quotations mean that the commentary can be read and enjoyed independently of the book itself.