1910 - 1998
Possibly the most formidable defender of the National Park of Exmoor (and all that therein is), probably the most learned and certainly the most articulate, has to be Miss Hazel Eardley-Wilmot.
Born in 1910, Eardley-Wilmot, a vicar’s daughter from East Anglia, went up to Oxford to read English – the archetypal Blue Stocking. After a period as a governess in South America, where she was a keen horse rider and enjoyed life on the pampas, there followed six years with the British Council at a tumultuous time in Prague. Later she worked as a teacher and education officer, visiting Exmoor from time to time, and writing fiction. It must have been frustrating that her three books – at least one of which drew heavily on her traumatic experiences in central Europe – remained unpublished. So Eardley-Wilmot returned to Exmoor, where she developed into an extraordinary archaeologist, advocate for Exmoor, and writer.
Her achievements as an archaeologist include the discovery, scrupulous documentation and defence of a large number of prehistoric monuments. Her apparently limitless diligence in all this, combined with a very powerful admixture of determination and courtesy, not to mention deep background study, stand as an example to any who would follow in her footsteps. As a result, she was able to save many monuments from destruction, to ensure that others were properly recorded even at the moment of their being ploughed up or otherwise irreparably damaged and, fascinatingly, to create links between them, which deeper theories reinforced her advocacy.
For Eardley-Wilmot, wise and learned as she became, was no dry student of the past. Here was an archaeologist who believed that this activity is concerned with learning about lives and living. The challenge is to try to enter into these very lives: through observation, knowledge, imagination and recreation to understand a little more about humanity itself.
Among many examples that may be cited, White Ladder shines. This wonderful set of miniliths was (re)discovered by her, and painstakingly documented. The ravages of modern history were clinically described, landowners and other agencies informed and liaised with, discussions with academic authorities initiated, articles written and supportive forces mobilised. As a result, she established the best way to preserve such creations, while making their history and significance understandable, indeed intriguing, to a wider public. Arguably, Eardley-Wilmot did more than any other single individual to discover, describe, conserve and share these unique aspects of Exmoor.
She wrote a variety of academic papers, such that she won high professional respect as an archaeologist, but there were many other articles in the general press, both local and national.
By the time she published her last book, Yesterday’s Exmoor in 1990 when she was 80, she had, as she writes in the preface with her characteristic modesty, spent nearly fifty years gradually becoming familiar with the moor. Here is the definitive history of Exmoor – beautifully written, scholarly but eminently readable. Through this, as with all her writings, her passion for caring for the community of lives, both lived and living on Exmoor, burns. Here is no sentimentalist, but a hard-headed, at times outspoken if not vehement, woman of imagination and conviction.
‘It is such a small and intimate moor, very vulnerable and perpetually encroached upon. Ugly new buildings may become outmoded and collapse, in a century or two, but piecemeal destruction is insidious and irreparable. Even the herring–bone earthen banks, the coigns beside field gates, or small slate culverts taking flood water away, were made by hand with loving care. Like the old stone houses and cob cottages, they carry steadiness from the past towards an uncertain future:
Tread softly, softly,
Oh men coming in.’
Eardley-Wilmot lived in North Molton where she is still widely remembered with affection and respect, her house now marked by a Blue Plaque, courtesy of the Exmoor Society. Her work as an amateur (in the best sense of the word) archaeologist and gifted writer continues to stimulate, inform, guide and delight, while her role as an intrepid defender of Exmoor sets an admirable example to us today, as strong as ever. And never more appropriate.