Report on 15th November “Robert Graves of Vale House” talk by Dianne Richards

Author: Dennis Sheen

Dianne and husband Martin are long term Galmpton residents.  Following the observation of the Blue Plaque attached to Vale House (formerly Vale Farm) opposite Galmpton Institute, and discovery of the Robert Graves Museum at Gaia Mallorca, they have carried out much research on his life.

Graves was a much celebrated writer and poet and moved in exalted circles. One of his best known writings was I Claudius, the basis of the acclaimed 1960’s TV series with Derek Jacobi in the title role.

Graves was living in Mallorca in 1936 when the Spanish War forced him to return to England. In 1940 he and his partner Beryl were living in Essex with a baby on the way. Robert wanted to live near the sea and his sister was a GP in Bishopsteignton. They rented Vale House until in 1946 they returned to Mallorca.

Graves’ mother was German (his full name was Robert von Ranke-Graves), and at first the Galmpton residents were very suspicious of him. Someone carved “Heil Hitler” on a marrow in the garden and one of their visitors arrived with a daschund! However he gradually became accepted and helped villagers fill in dreary forms for tax and coal etc. He became friendly with Agatha Christie.

Dianne’s own writing, below, gives an excellent summary of his life.

As a long time Galmpton resident I have often passed Vale House in Greenway Road where the poet and author Robert Graves spent the years 1940 – 46. Despite the Blue Plaque I took little interest in this fact until I visited his home in Deia, Mallorca. There I found references to Galmpton – photos and letters, and discovered the story of a fascinating man who was one of the great literary figures of his day.

In 1940 Robert von Ranke Graves was 45. He had separated from his wife, Nancy Nicholson, in 1926 and for 10 years had been living in Mallorca with American poet Laura Riding. In 1936, with the outbreak of the Spanish civil war, they were forced to leave Mallorca. Subsequently Robert and Laura separated and in 1940 he was living with Beryl Hodge in Essex. With a baby on the way Graves decided to look for a new home away from the danger of bombing.

Robert wanted to live near the sea and as his sister was a GP in Bishopsteignton he was attracted to making South Devon his home. He caught sight of Vale House on a drive through Galmpton and decided on the spur of the moment to rent it. In May, Graves and Beryl moved in. The chief attraction of the dilapidated farm house was that it had enough space for all their visitors and for the family of evacuees who, together with a local cleaning lady (Mrs Maunder), provided their domestic help.

In the summer of 1940 William was born in Paignton hospital and, as an unmarried couple with a baby, it was not easy to gain acceptance in the village. This was not helped by the fact that Graves’ mother was German. The result was that someone carved Heil Hitler on a marrow in Graves’ garden and the Heil Hitler grew with the marrow! Some friends visited with a Dachshund which was considered highly unpatriotic and this increased the villagers’ unease.

Although Graves had fought with distinction in the First World War, wounds and shell shock made him unfit for service in the second. He joined the Local Defence Volunteers (later the Home Guard) and he was invited to join the Special Constabulary but the local police constable refused to put his name forward. Graves had his revenge a few months later when his age group was called for medical examination. The policeman brought Graves an order to appear before a medical board at Exeter and gave him a third class rail ticket. But Robert as a pensioned officer knew his rights and refused to travel except in first class as ‘the policeman and I might find ourselves in the same compartment and it would never do for us to mix socially.’

The villagers slowly warmed to Graves – he helped them fill in dreary forms for ration books and coal etc, which everyone had to complete but which few understood.

Vale House, for the whole of their occupancy, was a hive of activity. There were many visitors and life was described as ‘chaotic and rather Bohemian’.

One of the callers was in Robert’s words ‘a large impressive Mrs Mallow or Mellon or something from Greenway who walked in to call with an archaeological little husband. After twenty minutes Beryl and I realised that she was Agatha Christie herself’. She called regularly and they often visited her at Greenway. She dedicated one of her books – Towards Zero, to Robert Graves.

James Reeves (the poet) stayed with the family in 1942 as he had applied for the headmaster’s job at Dartmouth Grammar School. (He didn’t get the job.)

There was, of course, a war on and during the evening of September 4 1942  three German planes roared over the village – one had been shot down over Paignton.

The family lived at Vale House for 6 years. Their first 3 children, William, Lucia and Juan, were born there and William started at the village school, where his teacher was Miss Horsham.

Robert enjoyed long afternoon walks to the river Dart, often with one of the children on his shoulders. Sometimes he swam out to US boats anchored in the river. The seamen would give him tins of food that had lost their labels and would otherwise be thrown away – the Graves family would then have a surprise meal.

Despite food rationing it was always possible to obtain rich Devonshire cream, which Robert and Beryl code-named ‘O Be Joyful’, from the farm up the road where they bought their milk and they would often walk or cycle to Brixham where on the quayside there was a plentiful supply of fresh fish, lobsters and crabs.

In her diary Beryl tells of a great flood in Galmpton –‘thunderstorms for 10 hours and rain poured through the roof of The Railway Hotel. A whole field of young turnips was washed away onto the railway line followed by Farmer Tully who was crying like a baby – too late to plant more.’

After a while most of the villagers accepted Graves – they called him ‘Captain’ and liked it when he introduced Beryl to the vicar as ‘my wife by courtesy’.

At the end of the war Robert longed to go back to his home in Mallorca and in 1946 the family returned to Deia where he lived until his death aged 90 years.

On the 10th July 1950 the family returned to Galmpton for the day. They visited old friends, including Mrs Maunder, and had dinner with the Halls, remarking what fine children Sally and Robin had grown to be, and Beryl recorded in her diary:

‘Wet and windy weather but the village looked lovely – almost wished we were back.’

– Dianne Richards 2016