A wild ending

Wild weather has kept us off the High Moor this holiday, but the upside has been the opportunity to watch birds. This we have taken and have spent the last four days doing just that.

On Boxing Day we were at Lydford Gorge: a short walk as the main route is closed over winter, but after the descent to the waterfall, we climbed back up and along the old railway line to the hide at the end. Just before high tide on Thursday, we watched squadrons of Oystercatcher and Dunlin arrive on the Dawlish Warren mud flats, the sun catching the flash of wings like glitter. We watched Marsh, Coal, Blue and Great Tits at Yarner Wood very late on Friday afternoon, with fleeting glimpses of a Nuthatch and a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in the half-light. Yesterday we saw more Godwit along the margin of the flooded area at Bowling Green Marsh than we have seen before, and mixed in among them Redshank, Lapwing, Pintail, Shoveler, Wigeon and Teal, as well as Canada Geese; and in the tree next to the hide, Longtailed Tits. Add to that watching Dippers on the Teign just up from Clifford Bridge on Christmas Eve, and seeing a trout (or perhaps even a very late salmon) jump in one of the pools.

This morning we were closer to home, back up to our favourite walk on Mardon Down, the weather rushing in from the south. In the space of 45 minutes we lost sight of the Moor completely but we missed the rain, which came just as we reached the Landrover (very clean and if not new, then definitely more pre-owned than second hand! One result of the problem with the central locking which I posted about in Technology is not all it is cracked up to be, was being persuaded by the silver-tongued salesman at Matford to trade in and up: another 110 Defender but three years and 70,000 miles younger).

2006 is not going out gently. The rain is hammering on the windows and it could already be tea-time, not just after lunch. It is all too easy to concentrate on our own small corner of Devon. But perhaps I do so because to understand the world beyond sometimes seems so difficult. These past few days have seen the unfolding drama of Saddam Hussein’s end, and yet more turmoil in Iraq. We caught the last half of Brian Walden’s Sunday reflection, A Point of View, on Radio 4 as we lay in bed this morning.

In five minutes, he put into words far better than I could ever hope to, a view many share. He spoke of lessons that need to be learned about the occupation of Iraq, calling it one disaster that we must never repeat. While entertaining no doubt about the physical courage of our troops, he asked our political leaders “to find the moral courage to face some unpalatable facts about Britain’s status in the world”, and in particular “the embarrassing impression that other countries look to us for ethical leadership”. As he put it somewhat bluntly, they don’t. And as for the rest of the world standing in awe of our righteousness, this illusion, he averred, is the source of many of our follies.

If I were to have one wish for 2007, it would be a government that understands this.

A change of scene

Change is both exhilarating and frightening. I do not necessarily subscribe to it being as good as a rest, and there are aspects of change that I find somewhat depressing, especially the gradual loss of physical attributes that I once took for granted. Nevertheless change is, by and large, a companion I welcome. Perhaps this is just as well, given the events of the past year.

Although I have spent much of the the past few months working in Bristol, I have, again, moved office within my firm. I am now back in Plymouth, where I began ten years ago, when I first left Bristol. Much has changed, both in the office and in the city, but I had a feeling of coming home. It was a change I did not look for but which was welcome for all sorts of reasons, and which I am enjoying enormously. A number of people have asked whether Caroline and I are moving. I have been able to tell them that we are staying put.

Ten years ago living in Moretonhampstead, and working in Plymouth, raised eyebrows; this is now not the case, as the professional and business community no longer live exclusively in the city. Not perhaps that they ever did, as many of the people I met and worked with lived in villages across the South Hams and up the Tamar valley. It was just that for many Plymothians the northern edge of the Moor was terra incognita.

Moving office means a different drive to and from work: from home along the Wrey valley to Bovey Tracey, then skirting the Moor on the A38, before dropping down to Marsh Mills, where the River Plym meets the sea. It is a longer journey, and at this time of year I drive much of it in the dark, but it has such variety. A local coach firm’s slogan, “Moor to Sea” is certainly true of my morning journey. At this time of year both woods and Moor seem almost monochrome in the early light, and such colour as there is, is to be found in the sky. I had forgotten this aspect of the daily drive until a week ago, when the black wooded valleys framed a dull blue sky with clouds of the deepest magenta to fiery orange. It was not the picture-pretty red sky of autumn evenings, but a meteorological warning of imminent storm (which we duly had). What leaves had been left on the trees are there no longer.

Coming home, I have a choice: back up the A38 or across the Moor from Yelverton. If I am doing the journey in the light I invariably choose the latter. It is a longer exit from the city but once over the last roundabout at Roborough, it is open country; and after Yelverton only a short climb through Dousland before the Moor proper. Because most of our trips take us south from Moretonhampstead, and rarely beyond Princetown, travelling north from Roborough Down lets me see the Moor from a different, unexpected angle. A December evening, however, is not the ideal time to drive this way home: too many ponies next to the road, always the chance of sudden mist, and on the desolate stretch of country north of Two Bridges the possibility of a meeting with the Wish Hounds.

Technology is not all it is cracked up to be

I have always thought that we have a rather low-tech vehicle, when compared to most modern ones. It is a Land Rover Defender 110: drives like a flying brick but in this part of the world indispensable. Our first Defender was third hand and somewhat spartan. This one was bought new but although an updated model, it is, nonetheless, instantly recognisable as a British classic.

It may leak, is certainly noisy and is remarkably uncomfortable if you have the misfortune to have to sit on the back seats on any journey more than 25 miles, but we love it. In the past four years we have covered over 75,000 miles in it. It has taken us birdwatching in north Norfolk, garden visiting across the South West and is our usual transport onto the Moor. As well as being the school run bus, it has ferried children and all their gear to and from universities (although I would not recommend the cross-London route we took last September taking one of the girls up to the University of East London). This morning it was a straightforward pre-Christmas shopping trip into Exeter. We dropped Ed off at school (drama rehearsal this morning and rugby this afternoon) before parking in the Southgate Hotel car park.

Returning an hour or so later, the central locking did not work. This is where we found the Land Rover somewhat higher tech than it might at first appear. When we bought it we were warned never to unlock the door manually once the alarm was set, as not only would this set off the alarm but trigger the immobiliser (requiring an expensive call out to reset it).With this in mind, we called a daughter, borrowed her car and drove home (collecting the shopping first) to fetch the spare keys. Back, much later, in the car park, I discovered the spare keys did not work either. I had no alternative but to make the ‘phone call for the expensive call out: 30 minutes later Lamb Garage (aka Land Rover Assistance) appeared.

He had no qualms about opening the door. The alarm didn’t go off, nor did the immobiliser trigger. He did not know what the matter was, but the engine started and I was able to drive home, cold, £135.00 the poorer, and none the wiser. The Land Rover will have to go back to the dealer on Monday, and once plugged in to their diagnostic equipment, we will probably learn that the whole alarm/central locking system has failed, and will have to be replaced. Life was certainly much simpler when you simply used a key to lock, unlock and start your car!

It left me wondering what we would have done had it happened last Sunday. We had driven up to Okehampton Camp and a little beyond, and then walked the military road before cutting off, up Oke Tor and back along the Belstone Ridge. Parking, we caught the first icy squall. Hailstones coming in almost horizontally at 40 miles an hour is not much fun, but in between bright sunshine, tremendous wind and good walking. We lunched sheltered behind Oke Tor (and watched another bout of dirty weather come over) and 45 minutes later had to take shelter again. We got back to the Landrover as yet another squall caught us. Had the central locking failed then, we would have been very stuck (and very cold!). But we had our mobiles with us and even if it had not been pleasant, no doubt someone would have come and helped us.

We rely so much on technology. I have been very tempted to buy a GPS for walking, especially as weather on the Moor, as we found last week, is so unpredictable. The problem is that once you start to rely on this equipment, you run the risk of losing the real skills that hill walking requires: map and compass work, the ability to estimate time, direction and distance; and, above all, common sense. It is like having satnav in the car, and ignoring the road signs: I once arrived at the back entrance (locked) of a hotel in Redruth, courtesy of satnav; a friend of ours didn’t pay attention when tapping in Moretonhampstead, and instead found herself on the road to Mortehoe: yet she knew the way perfectly well.

Machines are no substitute for sense.


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.