Down narrow lanes

Those of our friends who live in town find the journey out to us from Exeter, along the B 3212, interesting. Well, that is often the adjective used to describe 12 miles of narrow road, with few places to overtake safely and locals who are confident in their ability to get back on to their side of the road in time. It is certainly windy but is the most beautiful journey, at all times of year and in all weathers.

Leaving Longdown, you sweep right handed along the ridge and suddenly, there, in the far distance, is the Moor. On clear nights the lights of Drewsteignton and beyond Whiddon Down glitter on the horizon. Five miles further on is the boundary of the National Park, on the straight road by-passing Dunsford that for a short time runs parallel with the Teign. Dunsford village is on the slope above, and its churchwardens often fly the flag of St George from the battlemented church tower.

Across the Teign and then the steep, winding climb up from Steps Bridge through the woods to Doccombe. At this time of year the trees are bare and from the vantage point of the passenger seat of the Land Rover it is possible to look down the slope towards the river. There is a family group of roe deer that live in this part of the Teign valley, dark brown, almost black coats, and they are a common sight, especially in the half light of late afternoon or early morning, as they move along below the road. It doesn’t happen often, but when they cross the road, you get very little warning. They don’t always make it.

At Steps Bridge you can just see the start of the wild daffodils. Come late March and early April, weekend afternoons see the car park above the guest house full and cars parked back beyond the Baptist Chapel, with visitors stopping to look at the yellow carpet that runs down to the river. We go, but early in the morning, to miss the crowds. Better still, park at Clifford Bridge and walk through the fields and woods on the north side of the Teign, down to Steps Bridge.

From Doccombe the road climbs again to Cossick Cross and, dropping down towards Moretonhampstead, the Moor seems closer, filling the horizon. Cossick Cross is just on the 300 metre contour and this is one part of the journey that in winter, to use that adjective again, is interesting. Frost lasts all day and the road can be very slippery. 12 months ago, in one of those rare March snow flurries, I had to abandon my car below Cossick Farm and walk up to the top of the hill. No signal on my mobile ‘phone but the farmer drove me back down in his four-wheel drive pick up. Next morning you would not have known that it had snowed.

In winter the buses out from Exeter are single deckers, busy only at the start and finish of each day. In summer, they run a double decker across the Moor, through Moretonhampstead. A friend living opposite bought her house in the late autumn. When the timetable changed in spring the next year, I am not sure who was more surprised, our friend or the passengers on the top deck of the 82, as she threw open her bedroom curtains: they looked in and she looked out, the only difference being that they were fully clothed.

But back to the road: we are used to it. We know the passing places and we know where and when to expect drivers on our side. We also know where the potholes are (ice plays havoc with tarmac patches) and where there will be mud, or water, or deer or barn owls. It is different for visitors. This summer Caroline was in the Information Centre when a couple came in, quite shaken. They were from the United States, en route from Exeter to Marazion in Cornwall and had been persuaded (rightly) that the route across the Moor was not to be missed. He was all for taking the long way round, on the A30; she was braver (and not driving). She won and they left to keep going south. He was far from sure (and not reassured by Caroline’s remark that they had survived the worst bit of the journey!). They had taken just short of an hour to travel those 12 miles: and they hadn’t stopped to admire the view. I am glad I wasn’t stuck behind them.

Spring comes slow

We have had our snow, overnight on Friday but for a short time only. Saturday was a bright spring day and by evening most had gone. In Exeter they had had no snow at all and looking east the hills were clear. The south west was a different story and the Moor is still white.

We should have walked yesterday but the prospect of watching the rugby at home was too attractive. So I sat with the boy and we saw the English deservedly lose to the Scots at Murrayfield. It was not a good game; certainly, with hindsight, not one worth missing a clear sunny day on the High Moor for. Instead, we said we would go today, that the weather would hold. Well we went, and it hadn’t. It was cold leaving the house, with the odd drop of rain. It was clear by Okehampton but colder, the streets completely empty; and as we climbed up towards the camp, there was ice on the road and snow across the Moor.

We weren’t the only ones out. There were a number of minibuses parked up, a sure sign that Ten Tors training has begun in earnest. Three of ours have been through Ten Tors, two doing the 35 mile route and the youngest girl doing both 35 mile and 45 mile. Each year, throughout the early spring, we see groups of six teenagers, the team size, with their adult ‘sweeps’, training hard at weekends. The Ten Tors Challenge takes place over a weekend in May, when 400 teams hike between ten nominated tors, covering either 35, 45 or 55 miles between 7.00 a.m. on Saturday morning and 5.00 in the afternoon on Sunday. Each team carries all they need for the two days they are out, and each team member has an allotted task – navigator, team leader etc. There have been years when it has snowed, and years when the temperature has been in the 80s fahrenheit. The Army run it superbly and for those who take part, it is something that they will never forget.

It is much the same for the parents. We have waited for the start gun on three May Saturdays and willed the children on. Last year, with filthy weather – rain and mist, Celia was taken off the Moor late on the Saturday evening, virtually unable to walk because of her blisters, having covered close on 20 miles in the day. She was gutted that she wasn’t allowed to continue but she and another team member, with a badly sprained ankle, were slowing the team up. It doesn’t always go right. Two years before, they had been one of the first 35 mile teams home.

Today was not much fun, either for those training or for us. The Moor was white and the sky steel. We parked where we could, warned that the military road ahead was like glass. Even in a four-wheel drive the going was hard. Having parked the Land Rover, and setting out south towards East Mill Tor, we were passed by a couple of saloons, ignoring the warnings and all too soon having to reverse and slide back down the road. It was not a long walk. We met the Falmouth scouts making their way back towards their minibus. It was their second day out and even though they had not been under canvas they looked tired. Walking was difficult, the wind bitterly cold and even on the road, it was slippery. We each have two poles but it is unusual to see these used by teenagers out training: probably because poles are seen as very much a piece of kit for the middle aged! But we kept our feet; they were having more difficulty.

Coffee on East Mill Tor and we turned back, the road ahead impassable with drifting snow and going cross country too treacherous. The snow isn’t hard enough to support you and there is little point to wading knee deep in soft snow. The forecast is for the cold to continue in the first part of the week but next weekend may be better.

February fill dyke, be it black or be it white

February is the first month of spring, although you might today be forgiven for thinking that here on the edge of Dartmoor we are still in winter. We have had heavy, persistent rain most of the day, and with the rain it has been cold. But should we expect anything different? There is a mid-16th century saying, “February fill dyke, be it black or be it white” and driving over to pick up one of the children the other side of Chagford, nothing could have been more accurate. There was standing water on the road, and the fields and ditches were wet and full.

The forecast for the week ahead promises snow and bitter north-easterly winds. So we may well get both black and white.

Never mind the weather or the forecast, spring is in our garden: snowdrops under the magnolia and crocuses in flower next to the witch hazel, yellow flowering H.mollis ‘pallida’, at the top of the steps. This year it has scarcely flowered at all. In contrast, the H.mollis ‘brevipetala’ at the far end, against the wall by the pond, has had wonderful rust coloured flowers.

We spent last weekend in the garden, tidying up and starting the spring clean. This weekend, the weather has been too awful although I was out for an hour or so mid-morning, clearing up the small strip at the front of the house, next to the street. When we bought the house, the sale particulars described this as a “small area of garden enclosed by iron railings and with slate paving”. The slate has now gone, replaced by gravel, and among the stone pots and a granite trough too heavy to move, are creeping thymes – and until this morning a lot of weeds, dandelion, wild garlic and grass.

But if our plans for the garden were stymied by the weather, the same cannot be said for the surfing children. Having been brought up in the era of thin wooden boards (which I didn’t have but which I envied) and cold Cornish summer seas, I am continually amazed that they think nothing of surfing throughout the year. Even though they have heavy neoprene wetsuits, gloves and boots, paddling out into a winter sea in fading light is not how I would wish to pass a February afternoon.

Today they were at Saunton, out with about 100 others. It has been quite a month for surfing. Storms the other side of the Atlantic have meant huge seas off the Cornish coast last week. Another of the children, studying at Falmouth, was surfing at Newquay on Wednesday, but, she assured us, not being jet-skied out to the reef two miles off-shore, where the waves were 40 foot and the surf attracting people from all over the world.

I think I prefer the moor, rain or not.

Out and Doing

At this time of year Dartmoor weather is, at best, mixed. Yesterday was a beautiful January day: bright and sunny, not too cold and as we drove the slow road to Okehampton to collect the new gas stove, all we really wanted to do was get out and walk the moor.

It wasn’t to be: the stove came first and then we paused at the farmers’ market (third Saturday of each month and excellent North Devon fish, if the boats have been able to get out from Bideford) and poked around in Red Lion Yard, looking for a table. It was too late to walk by the time we were home and there were (as there always are) jobs to do in the garden. This time taking out the David Austin roses we planted five years ago, which we have reprieved each year despite their constant failure, and replacing them with five Roseraie de l’Hay Rugosas. These have spent the winter in containers and so should be thankful to be out and in the soil. I am keeping my fingers crossed that they will do better than their predecessors.

January is a quiet month in the garden, but there are signs of spring everywhere, buds on the clematis, red tipped peony shoots breaking the surface and the early green of daffodils and crocus. It is still winter, with colder weather forecast for next week, but everything is getting going. As we packed up for the day, we agreed that a short walk over Hound Tor would be just right for today.

Instead of the sun we expected, we woke to a grey, cloudy morning. For a number of reasons, we haven’t had a proper walk on the moor this year, and the route we intended was scarcely difficult. Nonetheless it is a pretty route, down from Hound Tor through the remains of the mediaeval village and across Becka Brook before a steepish climb up to Smallacombe Rocks and then round, down and back across the Brook. All in all, it cannot be more than four miles and all along well-trodden paths. Only at the last moment did we decide to take the OS map, as we reckoned we knew the way well.

The Hound Tor car park was half full although the cloud was too low to see the Tor. It cleared as we skirted the ruined village. Abandoned at the time of the Black Death, each time we walk past it, I wonder what life was like living on Dartmoor 600 years ago. Although the village is tucked down, sheltered from the prevailing westerlies, it must have been hard and bleak sheep farming right on the edge of the moor, especially in winter.

It was good to be “out and doing”, aware of muscles softened by the Christmas lay off and enjoying the freedom we always feel when walking. Under Smallacombe Rocks we climbed into the cloud base – and lost our bearings. We struck off south but followed the wrong route. It was a matter of degrees only but with no landmarks to guide us, we then took a wrong turn, compounding the error. Instead of meeting the old granite tramway, we missed it, probably by little more than 100 yards. Busy talking, we quickly found ourselves some half a mile further on than we should have been. It was then map and compass work (and thank goodness we had them), and back across the gorse, neither of us wearing gaiters but wishing we had, before we found the tramway, and the route.

The weather lifted for the last mile and in boots and waterproofs, with sticks, we felt rather overdressed among the Sunday morning walkers on Hound Tor. Next week we will be back on the northern moor, and there will be no question of not taking map and compass.

Flowers on New Year’s morning

I don’t think that Moretonhampstead is any different a community to any other. Living among people involves much more than simply acknowledging them across the street. The importance of acts of kindness and consideration, of shared concerns, reminds us of this each and every day. We are not always very good about these small gestures but the events of yesterday afternoon and this morning brought this home to me.

A wet and cold afternoon walk yesterday had taken us out from Headless Cross on Mardon. North towards Exmoor, there was a last glimpse of sun and we could just see the very bottom of a rainbow. We were losing the light, and were not going to be out long. We hurried along the muddy track across the heath land, turning back towards the Land Rover into a bitter north westerly wind, rain stinging our cheeks. Foggy is too old and tired to come up to Mardon any more, so when we got home, we took him out for his afternoon jaunt. He doesn’t like the cold and wet and it is now a very short walk. Making our way back across the top of the Inner Sentry we met Eunice. She told us that Sophie, Sylvia’s blind lurcher was lost, somewhere on the path back from Mardon. Eunice had been told, she said, by Roly Brinacombe, and, she then added, half the village was out looking for Sophie. Somewhat of an exaggeration but a number of people had been or were out.

Poor Sylvia. Whatever the weather, Sylvia, who must now be in her early 70s, walks Sophie up to Mardon and back. We hadn’t seen them on our walk, as we often do, but Caroline had said, as we had turned for home, that she expected that Sylvia would by then be on her way back.

Leaving Foggy with me, Caroline joined Eunice in the search. Through the graveyard, they reached the bottom of Lime Street and started to walk the back way up to Mardon. Given a lift by Arthur in his Land Rover to the top of the lane, from there they cut across the fields below Mardon. No sign of Sophie anywhere. I was at home when one of our neighbours, Judy called; Sophie had been found and was safe home with Sylvia. Graham Wilson’s son, home for the New Year, had found her in one of the bottom fields. I am still unclear how she became separated from Sylvia; something about a gate that Sylvia had been unable to open and Sophie, blind, had found herself in a field with no way out of, because of the wire. Next Caroline got back. She and Eunice had been out over an hour until the light had gone. They had walked back to Sylvia’s, to find Sophie safe home. Later that evening, Arthur’s wife, Jeanie had called for news. All’s well that ends well. The church bells rang in the New Year at midnight and we both felt that it had been a very good end to a mixed year.

Mid morning and there is a knock at the front door. It was Sylvia, with flowers for Caroline. “But I didn’t even find Sophie”, Caroline said. For Sylvia that was not the point. She simply wanted to say thank you.

Bring the Christmas life into this house

The children are disappointed. Last Christmas morning it snowed and we woke to perfect stillness: something we rarely experience, and certainly not in this part of Devon, where the blustery west winds bring rain through much of the winter. In the nine Christmases we have now spent here, it has only snowed that once on Christmas Day.

Today there was Christmas quiet but no snow, and none in the air. Walking Foggy, the day promised sun but the air was cold and damp, the fog in the valley thick: not weather for snow. It is forecast for later in the week, in the Eastern counties, but it is unlikely that we will get it in the South West. Later, sitting at my desk, I felt some warmth on my back and hoped for a sunny afternoon walk on Mardon. By then presents will have been opened, the table set for dinner and the turkey slowly cooking.

Mardon Down is a strange piece of country, a mixture of bracken and gorse, and long grassy rides. The last outcropping of the Moor, it is easy walking and no distance from us, overlooking as it does the town. It is also, for this part of the world at least, high: a respectable 350 metres at Giant’s Grave, allowing tremendous views with minimum effort. In the 50 minutes or so it takes to walk the road that skirts Mardon, going clockwise from the cattle grid above North Kingwell Farm, where the children once kept their ponies, you first look south, to Hound Tor, Haytor Rocks and Saddle Tor. The in-country in front is a patchwork of fields, lanes and farms and there is Bowerman’s Nose on Hayne Down, before Easdon Down. The road to Plymouth climbs due south from the town towards the Moor proper with the forestry above Fernworthy reservoir on the skyline. Further round there is Cosdon Hill, with the high deserted tors south of Belstone in the far distance; then Cranbrook Castle and Butterdon, with the village of Drewsteignton a little to the east, just under Prestonbury Common. On days when there is a north wind, you can hear the traffic on the A30 and look north, beyond the gentle ridges and valleys, towards Exmoor on the far horizon. This quarter is farming country, with a mixture of pasture and woodland; and the villages south and west of Crediton: North Tawton, Cheriton Bishop, Yeoford, Tedburn, Bow, Copplestone, Zeal Monachorum, Down St Mary, Lapford,; Next the Whitestone aerial and the start of the Haldon Hills, hiding Exeter, with Haldon Belvedere white on the horizon. Closer by, Blackingstone Rock and the woods, beyond which are the reservoirs of Kennick, Tottiford and Trenchford. It seems that all Devon is in view

It wasn’t sunny this afternoon and that view from Mardon was obscured by mist and cloud. It didn’t matter, as the light was lovely; well known landmarks disguised by shifting patterns of light and shade. We walked the road, before cutting up to Giant’s Grave, past the ruined stone circle rediscovered less than 50 years ago. No bracken and this year’s gorse. We saw no one. This is one of the pleasures of Mardon. Even on the busiest of summer days, with the ice cream vans below Haytor Rocks surrounded by eager children and the car parks on the Moor full, Mardon will be empty, ignored by the holidaymakers eager to see the “real” Dartmoor. On days like those, there is nothing better than to stand alone on Giant’s Grave and look at the stick men on the top of Blackingstone Rock.

As the light went, home for tea, as in all the best stories, and preparations for Christmas Dinner. This year I found a poem by Wendy Cope, The Christmas Life. The last verse captures all our Christmas wishes:

Bring in the shepherd boy, the ox and ass,
Bring in the stillness of an icy night,
Bring in a birth, of hope and love and light.
Bring the Christmas life into this house.

Christmas Day 2005

Rain and Wind

Our small corner of England has had an unseasonable amount of rain in the past week. The roads are deeply puddled and for those travelling by rail, the line from Exeter south, along the Channel coast, has been severely disrupted: an onshore wind and heavy seas damaging the sea wall at Dawlish and trains delayed.

Friday morning and Virgin Voyager trains were being towed into Exeter St Davids by heavy duty diesel electric locomotives, two services at a time; Friday evening, and with the rail company believing the weather was improving, one train was hit by a huge wave while standing at a red light outside Dawlish, stranding nearly 200 passengers for three hours. There is still a lot to be said for going outside to get a better idea of what the weather is actually doing. October is usually the month for rain although this year we seem to be getting it later.

But even if we suffer the weather, the delight of living here is that it comes over fast. So this morning was a more typical one for December, bright and a light frost underfoot as I walked Foggy over the Sentry. At 14 he moves slowly, enjoying the opportunity to revisit familiar smells and explore new ones. The sheep have been out of the Outer Sentry for some weeks, from before Bonfire Night, but their presence is still evident, to Foggy’s pleasure. The December sun was not making much difference to the frost and there was mist in the valley, down towards Hayne; looking west, the Moor was bright, new washed.

We won’t get out today and so another weekend will pass without being out on the High Moor but it may be just as well, as the ground will be sodden, the bogs larger and those tracks and paths that are always dry will be that much more crowded. Perhaps next week.

Sunday 4 December 2005