Local resident and ‘Gardeners World’ presenter Carol Klein is on record as saying that it’s easier to get a place at Chelsea flower Show than a stall in South Moulton pannier market. I love it. Reminds me of a Victorian engine shed, wide open at the lower end. the once great cattle market has receded from and today a much smaller mart is still held for sheep. Originally farmers wives would bring their wares to market – butter, cheese, eggs, vegetables etc – in panniers astride a donkey or other beast of burden. That’s no longer the case of course but the market still thrives on a Thursday and Friday, with a variety of quality goods on sale and a good buzz about the place. On previous visits Kim bought plants but this time we’re on the train so limited to compact things like…books! The main big stall here is run by a very amiable and knowledgeable collector. It takes him an hour and a half to set up of a market day morning. The stalls were full of delights – maps, children’s books, topographical volumes, histories etc – and yer man was doing a brisk trade. He told me endearing anecdotes of Henry Williamson while I bought a mint condition 1948 edition of his most famous work ‘Tarka the Otter’. Williamson (1895-1977) lived much of his long life here in north Devon and the still operating Exeter-Barnstaple branch line is named after the eponymous creature. (The two rivers – Taw & Torridge) Charles Tunicliffe’s illustrations added greatly to its effect, giving birth to a new genre in nature writing for the modern age.   Was also fortunate to dig out a 1978 W G Hoskin’s ‘Devon’ as published by David & Charles – the definitive County guide. A hat trick completed by another classic from the same year – David St John Thomas’s ‘The Country Railway’. (The David in David & Charles). The previous night Michael had taken us to join a packed house of locals in the old church rooms nestling in a corner of the old churchyard at nearby Swimbridge to hear the local historian give an illustrated lecture on the village’s station in particular and the Taunton to Barnstaple line in general. Great atmosphere and lots of lovely poignant anecdotes of that lost rural line and the characters who worked on it up to closure under the Beeching cuts of the 1960’s. The station and a long stretch of trackbed into Barnstaple now lies under the A361 North Devon link road. Our lecturer had an easy conversational style and really bought the subject to life for visitors like Kim & I. He had brought along objects from his collection including a copy of ‘The Country Railway’, now long out of print, which I photographed, determined to look out for… As it turned out I did not have to wait long. The old friendship with our wonderful host Michael allowed this leisurely weekend to be full of such happy events…And for that I am truly and everlastingly grateful!

War & Peace

Recently returned from a long weekend with our friend Michael, staying at his cottage in North Devon. As always Kim & I are entertained, informed and integrated into local life by our extraordinary host. The afternoon of our day – Rememberance Sunday, 11th November – was spent driving over Exmoor into west Somerset, to explore the picture perfect settlement of Dunster on its lush eastern edge, overlooking the Bristol Channel. Not been here since touring an adaptation of ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ with Barnstaple based Orchard Theatre Company back in the 1980’s. The company derived its name from a line in ‘Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance’ by John Arden. It took Joan Littlewood’s Theatre practice out of the East End of London (Stratford Theatre Royal) into the rural heart of Devon, premiering and later touring lots of new work and adaptations. That morning I’d stood in silence with Kim in Michael’s cottage garden, remembering the fallen of World War One, exactly 100 years after the armistice. Grandfather William Tomlin was a Stratford lad (b.1890), a regular soldier in the Essex Rgt, wounded in action on the retreat from Mons in August 1914. A story he told was about breaking ranks on the march to take apples offered by Belgian civilians. He was charged and accepted field punishment, being tied to a gun wheel to take a beating. He reckoned it saved his life as on returning to his unit he discovered they’d all been wiped out by a German shell. So, there you go – Orchard, Stratford, War, Apples, Fate. But back to the present… Michael was awarded a British Empire Medal (BEM) two years ago for his services to Orchard Conservation in Devon. He’d been a consultant for Dunster’s community orchard project, established from scratch on a gentle slope just above the centre, on land donated by the Crown Estate, the largest landowner hereabouts. He was relieved and delighted to find it well pruned and established some five years on. The parish tithe barn (now a restored community centre), old priory dovecote, magnificent parish church and the equally impressive restored and rebuilt castle with its lovely encompassing gardens, (now in the care of the National Trust) all provided further delights to make our day out a truly wonderful one. Our drive demonstrated very clearly that beech predominates on Exmoor – a result of upland enclosure and improvement on a mass scale by agricultural developers in the early 19th century. As trees, hedge plants or windbreaks, beeches autumn foliage was shining dull gold everywhere in the fine clear weather. The Victorian landowners – led by the Knight family, fabulously wealthy ironmasters from Worcestershire – used every means at their disposal to settle the waste (as they saw it) and turn the former royal hunting forest into profitable farming acreage. One key aspect was drainage and here they built on methods already in place since Tudor times. Steep valley upland holdings had their fertility improved through ‘catchmeadows’ – open drainage systems. The hardy farmers tapped into head streams, diverting flows through fast moving open channels (leats), often taking them through the farm’s yards, where muck enriched the mix, down into the intake fields, cascading in rills to a lower lateral drain which in turn would fill and brim over to run into another lateral cut further down the steep slopes and so on to the valley bottom where any remaining water would drain away into the lower stream. The result of this comprehensive system brought increased fertility to otherwise unpromising land, thus increasing grass yield & hay crop. More animals could be stocked and a viable living generated. Some 240 farms on and around the national park have been identified to have had this system in operation at one time or another. It would take a keen eye, knowing what to look for, to identify the remains of such practices today. Michael knew someone whose job it was as a child to clear the plugs in the yard wall so the ‘catch meadows’ could operate in the early spring…A cold and thankless task for the otherwise ignorant youngster staying with relatives still farming in the old way. I knew of the systematic ‘bedworks’ system involved with seasonal ‘drowning’ of meadows in chalkland valleys in the southern counties of England but this sort of upland practice was a revelation. Put to wondering that it could not surely be unique to Exmoor. Did Dartmoor farmers of old must follow the same practices. It seems likely….More homework clearly required!


Kim thought she heard an unexplained bump in the garden one evening, but whatever the reason, it was a surprise to find the rear half a full grown salmon in the studio bed last week. I wonder if an owl had dropped its prey originally. The nearest river – one of England’s best game waters – is some three miles hence so most likely to be the source. At this time of year exhausted adult fish, having spawned at the headwaters, drift back on the current to die so a predator, animal or bird, could have found easy prey here. We will never know for sure. The tail end carcass remained for a few more days, to my surprise, as I thought our regular predators like fox or crow would see to it. Eventually I disposed of the rotting remains, adding it to the growing heap of a bonfire in the field. Another corpse materialised a little later in the elegant form of a field mouse, drowned in a bucket of water, the long rear legs still elegant in death. Meanwhile, two very live frog companions – one full size, one small – can be discovered in their usual hiding place under a ledge of stone at the pond edge. Their rival co-habitees, the palmate newt population, seem to have mostly evacuated the soon to be frozen water in order to spend the winter safely under the stacks of logs or among dense leaved plants we’ve planted between water and fence.


Serendipity…Upstairs one morning last week just about to get into the shower when the voice on the radio asks ‘Which is the UK’s most prolific native breed of bird?’ And I catch sight out of the window, flitting over the wooden sheep feeders edging the lawn, the answer – the wren. There it is, rapidly working invisible cracks for insects. With 8 million breeding pairs this supercharged loud voiced tiny bird appeals to us all. Oddly most people don’t really notice them, so quick and secretive their ways. (Hence the Latin name Troglodytes – Cave Dweller). Their lives may be short and populations catastrophically hit by hard winters but their powers of recovery are such that within a few breeding seasons their premier title is regained. Unlike most other native birds the cock is the nest builder and he’ll construct a number, leaving the inspecting female to decide which home suits best. We’ve also witnessed them convert a former swallow’s nest on our porch where they sometimes shelter for life preserving mutual warmth during the depths of winter. Our other garden seasonal residents – blue tits, great tits, chaffinches, blackbirds and robins – are also beginning to return, like the wrens, this back end. I suspect all these birds spend the summer in food rich territories down in the sheltered wooded valleys of the fast flowing burns that define the southern and northern flanks either side of our property. These species return to our sanctuary acre where supplementary food is always available by way of seeds and nuts. Whatever the reason, we’re always glad to welcome them back.


We’ve been troubled recently by wasps nesting in the cavity spaces above the downstairs bathroom. Our builder in repairing and replacing ridge tiles and fascia boards revealed an extra dimension to the problem. I had earlier cemented the obvious entrance under the eaves after fumigating the nest but G in taking down the fascia boards revealed more holes where the insects could also get through.These he filled, but his wise advice we followed. Wasps love fruit and our south facing front garden holds the most prodigious of our apple trees and espaliers. In burrowing into and hollowing out the fruit the wasps get drunk on the juice which in turn makes them more aggressive and more likely to sting. Hence the sooner the mature crop can be gathered the better! We now have lots in store to juice day to day whilst out in the porch stand old fashioned sweet jars containing this season’s batch of home made damson gin and, due to the success of bushes planted last year, gooseberry vodka is on the go too!

Metal & Muck

It’s always wonderful to get family input with the garden and tree surgeon J got his his chainsaw to work recently, thinning the trees in the copses. To save a boundary stone wall shared with our good farming neighbour at Southridge, we took out a major willow trunk that was leaning precipitously over the long distance path that runs alongside, through his pasture. The longer bough segments we saved and I’ve now used them to line the gravel path through the west copse, replacing the original logs I laid last year. Glad to discover thick juicy earthworms in the accumulated humus between rotting wood and weed suppressant liner. I looked up to see the pair of resident dunnocks (hedge sparrows) looking down from branches, hoping for an easy meal. We often catch them foraging: ground hugging, fleet moving, shadow coloured presences. An uneasy feeling that in taking out the big willow in front by the east gate may have unfortunate consequences in leaving that side of the property newly exposed to passing traffic and curious eyes. A dustbin sized corrugated zinc planter by the front door vanished one night. Thieves (It needs two to lift) had taken it as well as the box bush it contained. These planters have value in reclamation yards and garden centres, and of course on line, where no questions are asked. As it happened this loss coincided with a spate of thefts in town where three Victorian post boxes were taken out of the walls that had contained them for at least the last 117 years or so. Apparently since the post office started replacing and selling off old post boxes in recent years a market has grown up for such antiques and a box, depending on condition, can fetch anywhere between £100 – £400 pounds. It’s concerning that if such brazen actions can take place in plain sight in urban environments what hope is there for isolated old boxes scattered through our rural areas? On a happier note, and perhaps echoing remedial felling action, Southridge phoned last week to ask if we wanted any muck from the cowshed he was clearing out that day with the tractor. Yes please, said I. Where do you want it? Drop a load over the fence from your field into ours. Done that day; two full loads. No pressure on moving a heap while it rests there out the way. We’ll load the barrows and spread on the vegetable boxes and the borders in due course. The lawns have been cut for what I hope is the last time this year while out front the grass seed I planted late on in the cleared roadside border has taken well and will hopefully last out the coming winter and continue to thrive (if I keep weed free) come the Spring.


A weekend away in one of my favourite parts of the world, the Pembrokeshire coast. This part, around Newport, on the long distance coastal path I know relatively well and experiencing it in every season (outside of Winter) down the years only adds to its charm and natural beauty. Our autumn ramble this Sunday took us from the road bridge crossing the upper tidal limits of the River Nevern, whose short and rapid course takes it from the Preseli Mountains to Newport Bay. Mercifully free of industrial or agricultural run off it’s a clear and healthy stream running through ancient woodland and bog for most of its length. Our route picks up the old pilgrim track linking sea to the ancient church at Nevern village. Forage as we go; windfall apples in a box in the church porch and blackberries in the bank hedge. (Have for supper later with custard – divine!) Features of the walk: an abandoned cottage that every visit claws further back into the grip of nature; inviting pools you want to go swimming with brown trout; rusted wreck of long abandoned grass cutter; greenlane with stone banks bursting with harts tongue fern while other higher stretches support a line of dense packed beech trees; late cut of silage all black bagged up in steep meadow; surprising paired yellows of toadflax in the lane along with flashes of pink campion. Insects on tiny balls of ivy flowers for the season’s best nectar. Most striking, stated in slate, the Pilgrims Cross and below another gashed in the smoothed rock. Saint Brynach’s church by the pretty tributary stream with its famous Celtic cross & bleeding yews still a place for the modern pilgrim to visit, more likely by car than on foot, and justly famed at that. The hat and cheery invite to support a relatively new feature to greet the visitor!

Odds & Ends

With the swallows gone, the nights drawing in and the temperature dropping more than rising, we start to readjust for the months to come. A good crop of damsons this year thanks to netting of trees still small enough to allow it. The raspberry crop is pathetic but its better than the none at all of 2017. Apples have done well and it’s great to have the cheery juicy reds of Katy appearing along the wall. Nicely contrasted with sunflowers that have truly appreciated this Summer’s warmth! It is also the first year our little pear tree has borne fruit in its sheltered spot by the spinney. Out on the road I have prepared and seeded a previous ragged and weed infested edge and sown with grass seed. In the Summer I’d put stone chippings down on the short funnel of drive to lessen water running off the new surface calibration pooling and icing there in winter. Roadside drainage ditches have been cleared once again and the carriageway widened using compressed earth banks, replacing the soft verges in many places to allow safer passing and reduce the ‘drop off’ dangers following the Summer’s tarmac resurfacing work. Our neighbours dozen hogs remain on the crags and eat everything green we pile on the bonfire. High hawthorn tree hedge on the east now artfully cut back. (I’ve the scratches to prove it) and Kim has cut, tidied, cleared and generally lifted the large cast of shrubs & perenniels to make them all look very presentable. Butterflies (Peacock & small white) alongside hover flies and bees hone in on the swathes of Michaelmas daisies in the main bank and annuals like petunia and cosmos look at their best when the sun emerges to cherish and burnish their colour and foliage. The ash has ominous sackfuls of keys dangling on every swaying branch and the pretty mountain ash in its wake is reddening up and the berries cluster. Wasps gain egress to finish off any apples pecked by birds….There’s always work to be done in the garden but for now it looks as good as it can be, by our standards at least, at season’s turn.


We recently joined the last guided walk of the season at Catcleugh Reservoir, led by Tony, with the help of his friend Ken and wife Margaret. The former are volunteer rangers with the Northumberland National Park and these tours of the last Blackhouse at Catcleugh together with the dam itself are held some 6 times a year and last up to 2 hours. We had a wonderful time and the story Tony revealed to us is absolutely fascinating…

By the end of the 19th Century Newcastle Gateshead’s population levels had rocketed and there was a real crisis in housing and utility supply. A new source of fresh water was urgently needed and Newcastle & Gateshead Water Company undertook to create a new reservoir below Carter Bar on the headwaters of the River Rede. They started preliminary works in 1889 and the whole enterprise was effectively completed by 1905 with its filling. A temporary village for the army of construction workers and their families was rapidly erected on site, a sheltering wood planted and a 16 mile narrow gauge railway from West Woodburn built to handle the vast amounts of material needed. The pipeline still follows that now redundant track, taking Catleugh’s water down to the series of smaller lower reservoirs around Hallington and on to the conurbation. Catcleugh village was well provided for by the standards of the time. Music and dancing, legal (& illegal) drinking, elementary and further education, outings and excursions, weddings, births & funerals all played their parts in defining and shaping this thriving instant community made up of people who came from all over the UK to live and in some cases, die here. Work & social life is well documented in photographs, newspaper reports (25 years of village news in the local weekly newspaper), court reports, coroners inquests, journals, memorabilia, company accounts etc. Today the only sign of past occupation is a rough track through the woodlands below the A68, the resident engineers imposing stone built 12 bedroom mansion now a holiday let and the last restored Blackhouse (workers wooden hut so called because they were sealed in tar). 47 such uniquely styled habitations constituted the village. A fascinating experience wandering room to room today, filled as they are with artifacts recreating domestic existence here 120 years ago, getting such a strong sense of lives led. Later, with Ken as guide, our small party climbed through the lovely, now mature, woods of deciduous & pine to view the reservoir and dam, its immensely wide stone lined overflow, along with grand meter house at bottom and elegant valve house at top. A still functioning resource and a monument to another age. A great public service engineering triumph built in the most challenging of situations. The labour may have been hard but the wages were above average and the workforce enjoyed union representation. The villagers had a contemporary chronicler too in the shape of Billy Bell, the Redesdale Roadman, known as ‘The Border Bard’. His rhyming ballads are a wonderful contemporary source, adding colour and resonance to the documentation. (His work still in print and copies can be had at Bellingham Heritage Centre) Our tour finished with an extended visit to tucked away tiny Byrness Church, just down the A68, to see the remarkable memorial window from 1903, unique in being entirely paid for by worker subscription, honouring in a very moving way the 70 men women and children who died during the project’s construction. This beautiful artwork also features the only known stain glass representation of a steam railway! Tony, our modest and gentlemanly guide, was concerned that no book about the Catcleugh story so he has put his own money into rectifying the situation by privately publishing an illustrated definitive history. (There are only 4 copies). There’s a fabulous story here just waiting to be told to a wider audience, in theatre or film, that would resonate in our own time – a project for public good & the people who made it possible…We all, in effect, raise a glass to them every day of our lives!

Jamaica Inn

Probably the best known hostelry in Cornwall, thanks to Daphne Du Maurier’s full blooded page turner of a novel, Jamaica Inn lies at the heart of Bodmin Moor. Her wonderful tale set in the early C19th, and penned in the 1930’s, makes it appear remote and inaccessible. In reality today it lies by the A30 dual carriage and was (on my last visit) highly commercial and devoid of genuine character. Never mind, that should not detract from the inspiration and the imagination of the great writer who truly loved and understood the spirit of her adopted county and its people. At the diametrically opposite corner of England lies Northumberland. Different accent but very similar moorland and a shared history of unlawful violence in days of yore; wreckers & smugglers in the south west, Reivers and cross border raids in the north-east. I mention all this because I recently got involved accent coaching for a local promenade dramatisation of the above. The location was a Victorian manor house at the heart of a 5,000 acre estate high up the valley, most of it moor and rough grazing, close to the Scottish border. The owners are big supporters of the arts in all its forms and their support was crucial. The barns and gardens at the back of the grand house, with its sheltering woodlands, proved a wonderful setting for an audience of up to 60, over three nights. The main barn, candlelit and straw littered, was fitted out as the eponymous tavern. I particularly loved the way the wrecking scenes on the coast were staged using AV; big bales became rocks, sand covered the flagstones while a back projected screen with sea beating down on a cove shore gave a whole new dimension to proceedings. At the evening rehearsals I attended the cast did their best, with various degrees of success, to get their heads around what was for many of them a completely alien tongue. Never mind. This was a wonderful amateur theatre operation on all levels by a dedicated company with high technical standards and a welcome and constant ambition to create great drama in wonderful settings. Their previous outdoor shows included Hamlet in a local Bastle (fortified house) and Jane Eyre in a Georgian Rectory. It was also a lovely thing for me to be involved, however peripherally, in a wider creative arts project in my adopted rural home. One nice touch of many was having an interval bar in the courtyard with ‘Jem’s Ale’ on tap and costumed maids selling bit size home made pasties. Another was the way we all arrived up the winding lanes. With no parking at the venue we left our cars in the nearest farmyard (the farmer was in the cast) and were ferried back and forth in a vintage single deck bus. Dear me, I thought, I could be back home in the west, catching this very same type of vehicle into my home town, and the amateur production I would have been involved in as a teenager….Transported indeed, in every way. Just perfect!