The promise of spring

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.

On Mardon Down, St David's Day 2009Late 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.

A lot can happen in seven days

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!

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.

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