Invisibility

9.30 in Okehampton Town Centre, and it is not busy. I am standing opposite the pedestrian crossing, just up (or is it down) from the entrance to Red Lion Yard, between it and the flower stall. There’s a yellow plastic bag at my feet, and I am wishing that I was wearing something a little warmer than a T-shirt, fleece and scarf. I can see the church clock. It is not moving very quickly.

I am holding a collection tin, although these days they are yellow plastic. I emailed one of the girls earlier in the week, and told her that Caroline and I were going to sell flags in Okehampton on Saturday morning. Yesterday evening she told me that she had had a vision of the two of us wrestling with flags and wondering how we would sell them, and, rather more, why anyone would want to buy one. Only when I told her that for my generation, today’s stickers were, when we were children, paper flags, attached with a pin – ‘flags’ – did she understand.

As I told her, I recalled, aged 12, standing in the Square in Wallingford, selling flags for the Lifeboats, a tray of flags round my neck, and the lifeboat shaped collecting tin on a red string. My mother organised two collections, a house to house collection for Imperial Cancer Campaign – I used to go with her up Wilding Road (one of the longest in Wallingford, or at least to a small boy it seemed that) – and the other for the Lifeboats, which despite being some 100 miles from the nearest sea was always well supported. You don’t need to live next to the sea to feel the call of a seafaring heritage!

But back to Okehampton on a cold, grey Saturday morning. What struck me most was my invisibility to at least half of the passers by. Rattling the tin is not allowed, and so the next best thing is a sturdy good morning, then catch the eye, and smile. But for many, hurrying by, I simply didn’t exist – they looked right through me. It was disconcerting and, in a very small way, I felt what I am sure many Big Issue sellers feel – a nuisance, someone who if you ignore you can pretend isn’t there.

And yet for every two or three persons who scurried by, head down or consciously avoiding me, there was one who replied to the good morning, fumbling for change, apologising that it wasn’t very much, engaging in small talk – or like the couple in their late 60s who told me that the CAB had been their lifeline. That’s why it is worth doing it.

The CAB has done a brilliant job in Okehampton this year, and they do it every year. I may be a little partisan – Caroline works for them – but an hour on the street on a Saturday morning is all you need to know this.

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.