In England, the authorities recognised the potential of potatoes as a hardy and nutritious food crop. In 1662, the Royal Society recommended the cultivation of the tuber to the English government and the nation, but both rural and urban populations remained extremely suspicious of the vegetable. However, as food shortages associated with the Revolutionary Wars began to take effect across the country, the English government officially encouraged potato cultivation, and the much maligned tuber began to establish itself as a staple food. Blackmore’s characters would thus have been among the first people in rural England to cook and eat potatoes.
Tom Faggus was a well-known highwayman in the 1600s. His guns can be seen in St. Anne's Chapel Museum at Barnstaple.
Faggus was born in North Molton. A respected landowner, he earned his living as a blacksmith. Legend has it that, a few weeks prior to his wedding to a local girl, he won a very valuable reward for the best-shod horse in North Devon. This caused much jealousy among certain individuals who conspired to cheat him out of his land and smithy. His fiancé promptly broke off the engagement, now that he was penniless. He vowed to make the world pay for his maltreatment.
During his long career as a highwayman, he had several narrow escapes. His horse Winnie was legendary and was known as the "Enchanted Strawberry Mare". Her speed was a marvel, and when in danger she would get her master out of trouble using tooth and hoof.
On one occasion, Faggus was recognized in Barnstaple and pursued to the town's very long bridge. When he was half-way across, constables appeared at the other end of the bridge. Winnie leaped over the parapet and into the river, some forty feet below, and swam with her master to safety. On another occasion, Faggus was overpowered when drinking in an alehouse in Simonsbath. He whistled loudly for Winnie, who rushed inside, kicking and biting at her master's assailants, whereupon Faggus jumped on her back and they escaped.
Andrew Ailes has written an epic poem all about the rise and fall of Tom and Winnie, which can be read here. The first verse sets the scene:
If you find yourself on Exmoor,
And walk on a moonless night.
Or on the tors at Ilfracombe,
You may see a spectral sight.
You may see a man on horseback,
They cut a most handsome pair,
It’s the highwayman, Tom Faggus,
On his magical strawberry mare