Autumn Gardening

It is raining hard, and has been for three hours. We managed a couple of hours after lunch in the garden: mowing the lawn and generally tidying up. When we moved here nine years ago, the garden was overgrown and ill-kempt. Our predecessors would be horrified to read this, and perhaps it is not entirely fair. When they had first arrived, they had done much; but as they had grown older, they lost control of the garden. It was one of the things that attracted us to the house: the opportunity to make our own garden.

We set about clearing it: all but one of the trees came out, and over time we reshaped beds, changed the levels and made a pond. The first autumn after we moved, we lost the one tree we had kept, a large mulberry. Caught in a storm, it split, with half blocking the road and the other half in the garden. We had no alternative but to have it dug out: the trunk was rotten and it was past saving. We planted another mulberry, although that was damaged in a storm two years ago, its crown split.

We are thinking of moving on. Four of the five children have left school; one is in Berlin; two at university and another will start next autumn: just the boy is left at home, and then for only two years. We don’t know exactly when we will move, or where: we have seen a couple of houses not that far away, and know that it is now not so much if but when we move. As I mowed the lawn I wondered if it would be the last time. I love the garden we have made. I can remember where we bought nearly all the plants, and when. Some have done really well; others have struggled. This summer has been so dry that at times we wondered whether we should simply have had a Mediterranean garden. I think that at least one if not two of the trees we have planted have been killed by the drought. The rain we are now having is probably too late, although the resilience of plants never ceases to surprise me.

Caroline spent the afternoon tending her streptocarpuses. They will come with us, as will the olive tree, the acers and the camelias. How we will move everything, I have no idea. I imagine that there are people who move plants, or perhaps it will be us in the Land Rover, with a trailer (so we had better not move too far!). Most of the plants we will leave, for whoever buys this house, in the hope that they will give them as much pleasure as they have given us.

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