Visiting Du Maurier’s Cornwall: Bodmin Moor

Last year we stayed at a fabulous bed and breakfast near Launceston in Cornwall, and one day asked the owners where we should explore. They recommended we should follow the footsteps of the characters in Daphne du Maurier’s novel ‘Jamaica Inn’ which we did. Our trip showed us just how much remains unchanged on Bodmin Moor.

One of the most dramatic scenes of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel Jamaica Inn takes place on the slopes of Rough Tor on Bodmin Moor, among the highest and wildest places in the county of Cornwall. From the top on a clear morning you can see a complete panorama from the north coast to the south, east over many of the other tors, creeks, isolated farms and moorland tracks that the heroine, Mary Yelland, came to know, and far to the west where the sun will eventually set. Climbing up and down Rough Tor remains a precarious rock-hopping scramble, but one that is well rewarded by that view.

Landscape as a Literary Device

Du Maurier first absorbed the landscape of Bodmin Moor on a riding trip with a girlfriend, when they got lost in an unexpected fog and had to rely on their horses’ instincts to find their way back to safety. From that experience she painted a forbidding picture of the area in her novel.

It was a remote place of darkness and inclement, threatening weather sparsely populated by some equally dark and threatening characters. Of all her Cornish books this one relies most on descriptions of the landscape as a literary device to build atmosphere. What would she make of the moor now, seventy years after her first visit?

Jamaica Inn Today

There are certainly blemishes. That stunning view from the top of Rough Tor takes in a distant wind farm. Retracing the villain’s final desperate journey from Alturnun to the denouement at Rough Tor would mean passing close to the busy four-lane A30 highway, now the main route in and out of the county.

The road sweeps on across the moor and immediately behind Jamaica Inn, making the story’s central location impossible to imagine as remote and dangerous. Ironically the novel’s success has contributed to the inn’s transformation and it has become a tourist attraction with an extensive car park and du Maurier museum.

Trekking Bodmin Moor

Nevertheless as with so many parts of modern Cornwall, finding peace and the many remaining gems of the natural landscape requires only a modest walk from a small car park or bus stop.

Kilmar Tor, ‘his slope a venomous grey,’ still towers over the real life farm at Trewartha where Jem Merlyn lived. Near the top, lines of granite sleepers mark the remains of an old railway from when this area was the centre of an improbable nineteenth century mining boom.

The novel’s infamous wrecking scenes were set on an unidentified beach on the north coast where footpaths still lead to remote coves that retain their essential character from ancient times.

The Slopes of Rough Tor: Still Unspoiled

Rough Tor itself offers more than its stunning view. The approach from the end of the road from Camelford crosses an ancient stone bridge over a stream that flows past the lower slopes. Nearby a stone monument marks the place where Charlotte Dymond’s body was found, recalling a true murder story worthy of du Maurier herself and the controversial trial is still played out as participatory theatre in the old Bodmin courthouse. Further on pre-historic hut circles line the track.

So while there is no doubt that parts of Cornwall’s rural beauty are far beyond redemption, the remoter areas remain unspoiled. They are perhaps at their best under a full moon or as the sun rises, shortening the shadows and turning the sky from black through pink, red, back to pink again and on to a delicate pale shade of blue.

Note: a basic reference for walking on Bodmin Moor is the Ordnance Survey’s Explorer series map 109.