Western Morning News features the Beaford Archive

If you missed the printed feature in the Western Morning News earlier this month, you can read the full article by Hannah Finch here:


The Gritty Recent Past of Devon’s Chocolate Box Villages

For those of us who get our dose of rural life from Sunday night dramas or Escape to the Country TV shows, there is a view that country living is all exposed oak beams and flower meadows. Cheaper cars and the birth of the internet has transformed our hamlets and villages to the extent that, nowadays, you’re more likely to have a neighbour working remotely from a barn conversion than a working dairy farm these days.

Indeed, a study undertaken in 2011 indicated that more than six dairy farmers are leaving the industry in Devon and Cornwall every month.

With the average house price in the South Devon costing ten times average wages in the South West - and much more in the most sought after areas - these new homeowners can’t imagine the dirt floors and rats in the roof that once inhabited the lowly cottages and longhouses they now call home.

Gone are the damp, heatless bedrooms and outside toilets. For modern rural dwellers, you get all the heritage without the hard work.

But through the work of the late photographer James Ravilious, this recent past is brought to life with a poignancy that slices through any fluffy notions of easy pastoral living.

Taking on a job that was supposed to have been only for a few years and ended up being a life’s work he documented realities for people living and working around Beaford and Mid Devon from the 1970s - 1990s. In that time James took over 80,000 black and white images of all aspects of local life: landscape, farming, everyday life in the local towns and villages, and their special occasions. He also borrowed and copied over 5,000 early photographs of the same area.

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Son of the acclaimed artist Eric Ravilious, he took up photography to embrace his own medium. And he came into his own in being asked to create for the Beaford Archive, a phenomenal record of an area that was largely untouched by modernity but was on the cusp of change.

James died in 1999, leaving his widow Robin, who had worked alongside him cataloguing the photographs.

She said: “He felt that this was an area that was changing radically with modernity of every kind, from the roads and  communications to the way the buildings were being used bringing an influx of outsiders.”

“Outsiders have a romanticised view of the past and that was what James was working against. He was determined to show the realities of life and it was a hard life. We are lucky to live in a much more comfortable age.”

A huge collection of previously unseen photographs  by Ravilious were published online by the Beaford Archive at the end of 2018. And interestingly, the archive also includes the early work of celebrated cinematographer Roger Deakins, who took on the Beaford Archive commission before Ravilious.

Deakins recently won an Oscar for his work on Blade Runner 2049 -  and these early images show a filmic quality that he would go on to develop throughout his career.


Mark Wallace, Director of Beaford said: “These extraordinary photographs are of international significance and serve as a vital record of our rural past. In exploring our social history we hope that this new collection will help us consider our future and what our legacy will be for the next generation.’

As part of a project undertaken by Beaford, a charity in North Devon and funded by the National Lottery, over 80,000 photographs have been digitised and are available to view online. These newly available photographs, although not considered by Ravilious himself to be of the same quality as his earlier published work, offer an unparalleled portrait of Devon at that time.

From old phone boxes to labour-intensive ploughing with heavy horses, these photographs capture life in rural Devon over a twenty year period starting in the early 70s and provide an unparalleled view of Devon’s landscape, its communities and agricultural practice.

Ravilious’ photographs have been the subject of many films, exhibitions and published books. Devon author Michael Morpurgo has frequently cited his photographs as an inspiration and playwright Alan Bennett in an interview for The Telegraph has praised his work for its unvarnished view of rural life.

He said: “‘These photographs, anything but nostalgic, reveal the persistence of an England one had thought long gone.”

And Robin explained that it was the attitude of the people themselves that kept the modern world at bay.

She said:  “They did have a bloody mindedness and in some ways, that is what preserved the way of life. They never wanted to leave the county, many of them never left Devon, the furthest they ever went was to the Devon County Show. They didn’t see the need for travelling far.”


Among the subjects that James famously photographed was Olive Bennett, who lived at Cuppers Piece farm near Dolton. Robin recalls how she was a fiery character. “She swore like a trooper,  she defied the MAFF when they visited during foot and mouth, telling them ‘You are not coming onto my farm, you’ll bring it in on your boots.”

Characters like Olive are fast disappearing from our rural communities. But fresh blood is a good thing, said Robin.

She said: “They bring a huge number of benefits, they fill up the schools and keep the shops going.”

 But the countryside has changed,  it’s all about agri-business now rather than farming. The loss of small mixed-use family farms has led to diversification - barns become holiday homes and farmland turned over for industrial units.

And that means our relationship with the landscape has changed too.  For many, it has become a place of leisure rather than work.

Robin said: “The countryside has changed, nowadays there are people who are working online from home, they are people who love to be in the country but see it in a different way,  they are now doing all sorts of jobs that could not have been done in the country before.

“Once upon a time you would go down the road and everyone would have known and recognised everybody, now you get Waitrose and Tesco delivery vans coming out here,  increasing traffic at evenings and weekends.”

And as the next generation of people move in, out goes the old ways, said Robin. “Everywhere is so neat now, there are no nettles at the door or stuff laying about in the garden. In James’ day there was junk.

“Now it is all respectable and tidy, but these old farmers didn’t care two hoots if a tractor died and was left in the orchard to become overgrown with nettles.”

“For that to be recorded so intensely and over such a long period, in what is not a politically interesting or glamorous area, is unique.”

Kelly Johnson