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Childhood idyll kept calling me home

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 29, 2012

Clare and Michael Morpurgo take a walk near the village of Iddesleigh in Devon, where they have lived and worked for many years and established the charity, Farms For City Children

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Children's author Michael Morpurgo is used to the media spotlight. On the late summer's day when we met outside the pub in his home village in Iddesleigh, though, he was very happy to hand it over to someone else – his wife Clare.

Where My Wellies Take Me is the story of Clare's childhood walks around Iddesleigh, as told in Michael's inimitable style, with charming illustrations by artist Olivia Lomenech Gill. And while Clare has typed just about every manuscript that Michael has ever written, and there have been more than 100, this is the first time the couple have collaborated on a book.

The pub – in the centre of the village in the middle of North Devon farming country – is an appropriate place to meet. It was here that Clare spent every Easter holiday as a small girl, staying with poet Sean Rafferty and his wife Peggy, who had left London to run the pub in this beautiful corner of the country.

Michael leaves us to it while he fetches the drinks. This is Clare's story and he wants to let her tell it in her own way. And so Clare tells me how she first visited with her father Allen Lane (later Sir Allen), the founder of Penguin Books, who was friends with the Raffertys. Her father had given the couple financial help to keep the pub going and this was their way of paying him back – "although I think I got far more out of the deal than they did".

She fell in love with the wildness of the place, so different from her home near Windsor.

"There were unmade roads, everyone was open and very friendly, it was paradise for a child," she said. "Coming at Easter there was always lambing going on and the hedgerows were full of birds and slowworms.

"I used to go right down to the river, and wander along it by myself. Nobody said to Auntie Peggy 'that child shouldn't be wandering around on her own'. It gave me a really connected feeling. I really felt part of this place. People were pleased to have a child around rather than saying 'be off with you'."

Years later, Clare took her new boyfriend to Iddesleigh to meet everyone. Later still, married with a young family, Michael and Clare moved to live in the village and founded their charity, Farms For City Children. They made their home in what was once the "big house" of the village, Nethercott, to give urban children the chance to enjoy this part of Devon.

While we have been talking, Michael has been calling on a few people he and Clare would like me to meet. Joan Weeks, now in her 80s, met Clare when she was a little girl. And she was the Morpurgos' right-hand woman for years at Nethercott, cooking large meals for all the children. Les Curtis is a champion gardener – he swept the board at this year's village show – and lives in a cottage beside the pub. They both feature in the paintings in the book, Les as himself, and Joan as "Auntie Peggy", waving Clare off for the day. That, she and Clare agree, was definitely a bit of artistic licence because it was more a case of the formidable Peggy chucking Clare out for the day to go off on her rambles.

I leave Iddesleigh – the setting for Michael's most famous book, War Horse – with a warm glow after spending a lovely afternoon in this unique spot. Clare Morpurgo is right. It really is a special part of the world.

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