Iddesleigh and the War Horse Story

Iddesleigh

Iddesleigh and the War Horse Story

Iddesleigh is one of those delightful little cob and thatch villages that lies hidden amongst the rolling hills of the West Devon countryside.

It’s not somewhere that you just stumble across, and even in this modern age where everywhere is near somewhere, thanks to the ever-increasing ability of motorists to seek out the most obscure places, it still takes a bit of finding – but it’s worth the effort.

The home of less than 200 people, Iddesleigh has a church and a pub but not much else, and were it not for a nearby farm I don’t suppose too many people would bother to seek it out at all.

Between 1830 and 1836 Parsonage Farm was the home of the Reverend ‘Jack’ Russell, the curate of St James’ Church. He was the first breeder of the terriers to which he gave his name, but this isn’t the reason why people come to take a look around the farm. They come here to find out more about another animal – Joey the War Horse.

Parsonage Farm

As you wind your way down through the lanes towards the farm you’ll come across Nethercott House, a Grade II listed Victorian building, and this is where the story of Joey really belongs.

In 1976 the house was bought by Michael Morpurgo and his wife Claire. Michael, after a few career changes had become an author of children’s books, and Claire must have also known a thing or two about this subject because her father was founder of Penguin Books.

The reason they came to Nethercott to live was not to write books, but to set up a Farm for City Children. As its name suggests, this was a charity to help city kids come to the farm and engage with the countryside, farm animals and wildlife. Ted Hughes, the well-known poet was the charity’s first president.

Anybody who has been in the wonderful Duke of York pub will know only too well how easy it easy to get involved in conversation, and a chance meeting between Michael Morpurgo and Wilfred Ellis, a World War I veteran, was the start of the inspiration for Michael’s book War Horse.

Wilfred had been in the Devon Yeomanry working with horses, and it gave Michael the idea of writing a book telling the story of the Great War from a horse’s viewpoint, but he wasn’t quite sure how to go about it.

Another couple of villagers helped him out; Captain Budgett, who had been in the cavalry during the war, and Albert Weeks, who remembered the army coming to the village to buy up horses.

The Duke of York
The Duke of York

Back at the farm something else occurred that inspired Michael on his thoughts for the book.

One of the young city lads that turned up at the farm had such a terrible stammer that he was rarely able to speak, and it was suggested that nobody tried too hard to engage him in conversation, but it was noticed that this young boy called Billy would speak to one of the horses on the farm, and Hebe, the horse, would seem to listen. It was like a two-way thing in that they both understood each other.

The final piece in the jigsaw came about when Claire was left an oil painting that, as Michael put it, “Was not the sort you’d want to hang on the wall”. It showed horses charging into barbed wire fences, and the rest I’ll leave to your imagination.

The book was published in 1982 and the plot centres around a horse called Joey and his handler, Albert.

I’m not going into the storyline too much because the book, the theatre production and the film can do it so much better than me.

All I’ll say is that Joey ends up on the front line on both sides of the fence, so to speak. It is a bit of a tear jerker, but it’s also a children’s novel, so there isn’t any reason not to read the book or watch the play and film if you don’t like the horrors of war.

The book was turned into a play that started out in the National Theatre on the Southbank in 2007 and it’s gone around the world ever since. As I’m writing this article, it’s back at the National Theatre again.

The film, which was co-produced by Stephen Spielberg, was a box office hit in 2011 and still readily available to buy on DVD.

Today, Nethercott carries on what it was bought for, and is still going strong, although Michael and Claire have now taken a back-seat.

I expect you’re all wondering where Parsonage Farm fits into all of this. Well, first of all, it’s right next door to Nethercott, and the way I see it is that it provides a focal point for anyone who wants to learn more about Joey without encroaching on the work of the Farm for City Children.

The War Horse Exhibition
The War Horse Exhibition

The farm is still in the same hands as it was a hundred years ago and they’ve got a fabulous set up for anyone who finds their way here.

They have a War Horse exhibition in a 400-year-old cob barn, as well as other aspects of farming over the last hundred years.

For the kids (and me), they have plenty of animals to have a chat with including ‘Joey’ with his distinctive white diamond flash.

At milking time, you can jump on the back of a trailer and have the bumpiest ride of your life and follow the cows across the fields, past Nethercott down to the parlour.

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07-A-Nosey-Pig

There’s also a half mile farm trail that takes you down to a brook, through a wood, and back to the farm through Joey’s paddock, and I defy anybody not to have a cream tea at the end of it all.

The farm is advertised as the War Horse Country Farm Park, and wherever you come from I’m sure you’ll love it. It’s run by a smashing family who have the same mentality as Michael Morpurgo. They’re open to the public on afternoons between Easter and September. If you want to find out more take a look at their website

https://www.warhorsevalley.co.uk/

The Farm Trail
The Farm Trail
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This weekend is the centenary of the armistice of WWI, and there’s a host of events commemorating the fallen of that horrific war. While we’re all paying our respects to those who laid down their lives, it’s worth remembering the 9 million or so horses like Joey who were also killed. May they all rest in peace!

Joey and a little friend
Joey and a little friend
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11 thoughts on “Iddesleigh and the War Horse Story

  1. starship VT

    Wonderful, and thoughtful article on Iddesleigh and especially remembering Joey and all the horses, as well as other animals, that died in World Wars. I could barely read this article without breaking down, much less bring myself to either read, see the movie or stage version of the story of “War Horse.” Some time ago I began to read “All Quiet on the Western Front,” and when it began to tell about the moaning of dying horses I became physically sick and threw the book away. And, I didn’t think any book could make be feel as bad about the mistreatment of horses (and other animals) as “Black Beauty” — I was naive then.

    As a youth, thanks to my mother’s sacrifice to give me riding lessons, and to my advantaged friends who owned horses, I was able to spend many days riding and caring for horses — some of the best memories of my life. Loving them as I do, it swells my heart for war horses to be remembered today, and by this farm/museum. Malcolm, thank you for bringing it to light! P.S. I love Jack Russell Terriers as well.

    Reply
    1. Malcolm Post author

      War is a terrible thing and the horrors of WWI can only be imagined. These days it’s good to see that people have feelings for the animals involved as well as for the humans who paid the ultimate sacrifice. All we need to do now is learn from the past.

      At least Iddesleigh is a peaceful place where the world’s problems seem so far away.

      Reply
      1. starship VT

        Yes, and today was Veteran’s Day over here too — something I’m also mindful of as both my husband and brother are military veterans as well as other relatives.

        Reply
  2. Sarah Wilkie

    I worked for many years as a children’s librarian and met Michael Morpugo on a number of occasions, also Michael Foreman who illustrated War Horse and many of his other books – both greats of the children’s book world. But I never dreamed when War Horse was first published that it would become the sensation it has

    Reply
  3. Barbara

    My children and grand children all loved the books of Michael Morpurgo and we now have a great grandchild – I am sure he will be introduced to them at an early age.
    Thanks again Malcolm for another lovely contribution.

    Reply
  4. Don Porsché

    Yes, the number of horses killed in WWI was staggering. Back on VT I had a post on this that I apparently haven’t re-posted yet on my website, but I’ll try to do so before long. (Also in the Napoleonic Wars the battlefields were strewn with dead horses after the smoke cleared.)

    Reply
      1. Barbara

        My children and grand children all loved the books of Michael Morpurgo and we now have a great grandchild – I am sure he will be introduced to them at an early age.
        Thanks again Malcolm for another lovely contribution.

        Reply
  5. Albert

    It is staggering to think that over 9m horses were lost in WWI. Add to this the many ‘put out to pasture’ in various parts rather than being brought home. Of the large number of Australian horses brought over to Europe and other theatres of war only one was brought home.

    Reply
    1. Malcolm Post author

      I’m not sure how many horses were wounded but it was a colossal amount, and as you say I suppose transporting horses from Australia to Europe was worthwhile while they had a use.

      Reply

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