Saturday afternoon and Celia (daughter #4) and I were on the 6th level of the Millenium Stadium, watching Wales lose a game to South Africa that they should have won, and which at half-time they were leading.
The noise from the 60,000 of us watching the game was such that at times it was difficult to think, with what was happening on the pitch mirrored seconds later by the response of the crowd. Warmed up by all that now accompanies a major rugby game in Cardiff, we had seen male voice choirs, the Lostprophets, three base jumpers off the roof, choreographed pulses of fire, before the gladiatorial entry of the teams, and the anthems: Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika, then Land of my Fathers. The final chorus, “Gwlad, gwlad, pleidiol wyf i’m gwlad” filled the stadium. Expectation rippling around the crowd, a sudden still, the referee’s whistle, and then game on.
Television delivers an experience stripped of passion, where the commentary and the camera angles shape how you see the game, and just in case you missed it, the replays. Very little is left to you. There is no sense of involvement, and your role is no more than a passive observer. Up close and personal, or as up close and personal as you can get on the 6th level, it is all very different. You see the whole pitch, and even if the the players are difficult to distinguish, there is movement: it is much easier to feel what is happening and to make sense of it. You can hear the stands opposite and at each end; and the bank of spectators behind you: to your front it seems little more than a wall of noise, with the occasional words of Cwm Rhondda suddenly heard; and yet behind and around there are the snatches of conversation overheard, laughter and groans, and “Wales, Wales”, taken up and echoed back.
And afterwards there are the crowds.
Arriving at the ground is easy: we were through the turnstiles at 1.00 and had an hour and a half, watching the stadium slowly fill. At the end of the game it is as if a plug has been pulled, and thousands are funnelled down the stairways, and out through the Gates. It has been a very long time since I found myself in quite such a crowd and making our way to the railway station, sometimes with and sometimes against the flow was not pleasant, even though he crowds were quiet: as if all excitement had been drained away.
Caroline and I were on Mardon Down, bright sunshine and wind making ripples through the grass. The bluebells may be past their best but they still tint the shallow slopes where the bracken is uncurling, pale green- still only a hint of what will be a dense covering in little more than a month. In the air Skylarks, floating in the wind, with Swifts hawking insects and a lone Buzzard playing at being a Kestrel, holding position with hunched wings.
Just the two of us, accompanied by birdsong and with views south to the Moor, caught in shadowed sunlight. And a slow drive home. Hawthorn in bridal white and campion splashing the green walls with colour.
For Caroline, today is always the first true day of spring. It is a point on which we agree to differ, as I always see spring coming much earlier. This year I was somewhat less certain, given the snow in early February. It has certainly been a varied four weeks, with bitter cold, which killed the Mimosa Tree in the garden, followed by heavy snow, which shattered the Magnolia Grandiflora, and then a warm change.
Late afternoon we were on Mardon Down for our usual weekend walk, setting off from the cattle grid and walking clockwise: warm sun, and frog spawn in the ditches alongside the road. The in-country is now green, and smoke drifted in the tea-time sun over Moretonhampstead. Sunday afternoon is clearly bonfire time.
There was little birdsong as we walked the road around Mardon, but first one Raven in the distance, calling for its partner, side slipping through clear air, and then another and another, before a fourth. We have seen Ravens up here before, but never so many: four in as many minutes.
Last week we walked the Teign Gorge, downstream from Dogmarsh Bridge, before climbing the Hunter’s Path up to Castle Drogo. We heard a Raven but failed to see it. That afternoon the highlight was seeing a pair of Dippers nest building in a tree stump on the bank opposite the pub at Fingle Bridge.
Spring is here. The Jackdaws were squabbling on the garage roof this morning, chasing each other around, while a solitary Goldfinch, in full colour, was on one of the seed feeders.
Mid afternoon yesterday on Mardon Down. Hoar frost not snow.
P.S. [some 24 hours later]: not hoar frost, but rime (or so my weather adviser has informed me).
A lot can happen in seven days. We saw a house in late September, liked it and the following Sunday we went for a second time to look at it. Monday, we made an offer that was accepted, but with the caveat that we had to sell our present home. By midday Tuesday it was clear that the buyer we thought we had, was not going to be able to move in time to let us buy the house we had seen. Three days of worry followed, with our agent talking of dropping the price of our house, “to engender interest” (and I thought only lawyers used language like that!).
We walked on Mardon Down on Saturday morning, and as we walked we talked. And as we talked, we realised that there was another option: to stay where we are. It is a big house, and as the children grow and leave home, it can be quite empty. But with luck they will be back.
We talked of why we originally bought the house, of what we can and will do, of the changes that we will make and the decision was made. We looked out over Moretonhampstead, from the stone where Caroline scattered Foggy’s ashes on a cold January Sunday. It is a view of which I never weary, and we turned back to the Land Rover with the feeling of a great weight lifted. The children are delighted: after all, this is home to them and is where they have spent their teenage years.
It is now two weeks since we made the decision. Our builder has been round and we are starting to sketch out the timetable for the work that will need to be done. In the meantime, we have been deciding what furniture to keep, and what to let go. It is almost a new beginning in the house. When we arrived in Moretonhampstead nine years ago, we put our energy into the family. There was a lot we have had to do to the house over the years: wiring, a new roof (we kept a Cornish slate quarry busy), various bits of plumbing, a new boiler, new windows. What we have not really done, other than change the colour, is the interior. This is what we are now going to do over the next twelve months. Watch this space!
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