CHRISTMAS OFFER Subscribe to Devon Life today CLICK HERE

Fern fever

PUBLISHED: 10:00 13 October 2014

Dr Sarah Whittingham

Dr Sarah Whittingham


Adventurous Victorians once flocked to North Devon on the hunt for coveted ferns, as SARAH WHITTINGHAM explains

An advertisement for Edmund Gill’s Victoria Fernery in Lynton, north Devon.An advertisement for Edmund Gill’s Victoria Fernery in Lynton, north Devon.

What is it that attracts thousands of visitors to Devon every year? Many people would say the stunning scenery. Not to mention the cream teas. But 150 years ago it was ferns.

From the 1830s until the First World War the British went fern crazy. Charles Kingsley, author of The Water-Babies, christened it Pteridomania, or fern madness. And Devon – particularly the area around Lynton and Lynmouth – was a Fern Paradise.

In the 19th century these villages were difficult to get to — there was no railway station until 1898 and no pier for steamers to dock at. They appealed to the holidaymaker who preferred the attractions of the natural environment to the commercial entertainments at some other resorts. Essentially, they provided plenty of Rational Recreation. This meant pursuing edifying and educational activities that would exercise both body and mind. So the North Devon coast was full of amateur naturalists using their time profitably — peering into rock pools and capturing their contents, tapping rocks with hammers, catching butterflies in nets, or setting out on fern forays in the valleys of the East and West Lyn rivers, on Countisbury Hill, or in the Valley of Rocks.

Fern hunters often got themselves into peculiar situations while out collecting their spoils. For instance, fern expert Charles Druery, who caught Pteridomania on Exmoor in 1881, wrote how he once dislodged a ‘very desirable’ hart’s tongue fern that was growing on the side of a stone bridge spanning a fast-flowing stream near Barnstaple. He leant over the side and used a trowel lashed to a stick to tickle the fern out of its retreat. He then caught it in an open umbrella suspended under the arch by a piece of string.

Never miss an article

This article first appeared in the July issue of Devon Life. Make sure you never miss an issue by taking up one of our great subscription offers. Learn more at

Locals made a little money from the craze by guiding tourists to fern localities. But some realised that it was more profitable to keep the sites secret. They supplied the ‘addict’ with sought-after rarities, while asserting that it was far too dangerous for the lady or gentleman to find the plants themselves. Writer Margaret Plues recalled that her specimen of maidenhair fern came from Ilfracombe, “but I had not the delight of finding it. The donkey-women make a monopoly of it, and sell it to all Fern-lovers. It was in vain to coax and wheedle, to promise a larger sum for the pleasure of gathering it myself.”

Most Victorian plant nurseries sold ferns, and many specialised in them. Edmund Gill established a fern nursery in Lynton in about 1868, when he described himself in commercial directories as an experienced collector, and issued catalogues such as One Thousand Species and Varieties of British and Exotic Ferns, Collected and Cultivated for Sale.

The main fern dealer in Ilfracombe was John Dadds, who started collecting ferns around 1852, and set up Dadds’ North Devon Fernery and Rosary in the Langleigh district of the town at the end of the decade. In 1890 the Ilfracombe Gazette wrote (seemingly without irony): “Armed with a basket, trowel and a few short sticks...he has gone over nearly every inch of hedgerow in North Devon, and the choice species and varieties of the fern which had previously adorned their banks have been carefully removed and replanted in the Langleigh Fernery.”

Even when visitors returned home there were ways to supply their continuing fern needs. Ladies from Devon, such as Miss Griffiths and Miss Clyde from Barnstaple, advertised mail order operations in Myra’s Journal of Dress and Fashion, offering “Devonshire Ferns. Twenty roots, six varieties for one shilling, or 100 roots, nine varieties for five shillings.” Professional fern touts scoured the countryside for huge numbers of ferns, sent them up to the cities in hampers on trains, and then sold them in the streets, or hawked them from door to door. In 1896 The Gardeners’ Chronicle reported how, as there was then no bye-law against taking ferns from the wild, two fern stealers – who had hidden 5 cwt of roots in an outhouse – had been charged at Totnes with damaging Devonshire hedges. They were sentenced to four and six weeks’ hard labour each.

The overwhelming desire of fern lovers and fern stealers to find rare specimens led them to lean over fast-flowing rivers, descend precipitous ravines, wade through bogs, and scale rock faces and waterfalls. Fern-hunting accidents were common, sometimes even fatal. Perhaps admiring the beautiful Devon countryside while enjoying a delicious cream tea would be a more enjoyable holiday pursuit after all. n

Sarah Whittingham is the author of Fern Fever: The Story of Pteridomania (Frances Lincoln,

2012, £35).

Victorian Books About Devon Ferns

Charles Kingsley’s younger sister Charlotte, wife of the Reverend John Mills Chanter of Holy Trinity Church in Ilfracombe, published Ferny Combes: A Ramble After Ferns in the Glens and Valleys of Devonshire in 1856. In 1862 the Reverend Zachary Edwards published The Ferns of the Axe and its Tributaries, and the eccentric antiquary Peter Orlando Hutchinson produced The Ferns of Sidmouth Illustrated With Impressions of the Ferns Themselves.

But the writer who did the most to advertise the ferny charms of Devon was Francis George Heath. Heath (1843–1913) was a civil servant, a pioneer of the Open Space Movement, and author of around two-dozen books on rural life and natural history, including eight bestsellers on ferns. His first effort, The Fern Paradise: A Plea for the Culture of Ferns (1875), ran to eight editions (the last one in 1908). The Fern World (1877) ran to twelve editions, the last published in 1910. The romance of Heath’s descriptions, together with charming illustrations, encouraged many to follow him to ‘Fern-land’.

Where to Visit

Bicton Park, East Budleigh, near Exeter, Devon, EX9 7BJ

A very attractive rockery-fernery, created by Lady Louisa Rolle, in the form of a sloping glade littered with large, rugged, mossy standing stones, a stone-edged pool and winding paths leading up to a flint-stone shell house. Recently planted with tree ferns.

Canonteign Falls, Christow, near Exeter, Devon, EX6 7NT

A recently-restored hardy fernery created by Susan, third Lady Exmouth, in a small quarry-like hanging valley.

Greenway, Greenway Road, Galmpton, near Brixham, Devon, TQ5 0ES

A rock garden was remodelled into a delightful fernery by Susannah Harvey sometime between 1870 and 1882. Extensively replanted in 2003. Also, tree ferns in the garden running down to the River Dart.

Hartland Abbey, Hartland, Bideford, north Devon, EX39 6DT

A small, outdoor, rockery type fernery, restored in 1998.


Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other Devon Life visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by Devon Life staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique Devon Life account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

More from Out & About

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Devon is particularly stunning at this time of year and so we’ve picked out 18 stunning pictures that encapsulate the county during the festive period

Read more
Wednesday, November 28, 2018

From cosy pubs galore to winter beach walks, there’s plenty to enjoy in Devon at Christmas. We list 19 reasons you should come visit us this December.

Read more
Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Devon is a joy to explore with its beautiful beaches, pretty woodland and charming towns and villages. Made even more magical under a blanket of glistening frost, we pick 12 walks to blow away the cobwebs in the county this winter

Read more
Tuesday, November 27, 2018

A South Devon walk along a wreck-rich coastline with SIMONE STANBROOK-BYRNE

Read more
Tuesday, November 20, 2018

In the latest of our 24-hour tours of Devon’s best locations, we head to Britain’s Ocean City

Read more
Tuesday, November 13, 2018

With breathtaking beaches, rolling countryside, stately homes and unique villages, it’s no wonder high-profile film productions flock to Devon - how well do you know the movies that have set up camp here however?

Read more
Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Whether it’s on our beautiful beaches, in our magnificent moors or within our stunning stately homes, film productions are constantly setting up in Devon. Here are 16 that you might not know used the county as a filming location

Read more
Friday, October 26, 2018

From angry spirits to headless horses and ghoulish monks, Devon has more than a few supernatural stories to get your skin crawling. We have picked 11 haunted places in the county

Read more
Tuesday, October 23, 2018

October is the perfect time to discover the joys of Exmoor. Jennette Baxter of Visit Exmoor suggests five great ways to enjoy autumn on the moor

Read more
Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Wild camping can be one of the best ways to escape the crowds for a night or two and lose yourself in the landscape - SOPHIE PAVELLE chooses her five favourite places to ‘wild-life’ camp in Devon

Read more
Tuesday, October 9, 2018

From sandy beaches and lighthouse-topped cliffs to views of the Jurassic Coast, the Devon coastline offers many perfect locations for a seaside walk. We pick 10 of the prettiest routes to take

Read more
Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Take our quiz to find out how well you really know Devon

Read more
Tuesday, October 2, 2018

As the weather starts to warm up and the Devon countryside beckons, LIZZIE JANE of the National Trust in the South West offers plenty of walk ideas for you to try. Whether you want a relaxed Sunday stroll or a more strenuous hike, here are 10 walks across Devon (and beyond) to help you escape the crowds and head off the beaten track

Read more
Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The South West Coast Path is celebrating 40 years by calling on people to help raise £40,000. To show their support, teams from Devon’s top tourist attractions are preparing to take to the trail. CHRISSY HARRIS finds out more

Read more

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Topics of Interest

Food and Drink Directory

Subscribe or buy a mag today

subscription ad

Local Business Directory

Property Search