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.
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.
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 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.
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
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!