New Year

Three generations walk up the road to the pond and cattle grid that loop by East Farm this new year’s day. Reluctant little ones revive with the running in as we pass under a clear blue sky yielding fine views over rough grazing, escarpments and blocks of woodland. We point out to them the young spinney of deciduous and conifer that marks the burial place of animals destroyed in the wake of the foot and mouth crisis. Further speculation on the larger, linear stretch of birchwood and heather further north. No habitation there so not a shelter belt. Old mine workings? Was the soil poisoned by heavy metals, rendered unfit for grazing maybe? Subsequently, whether by accident or design, becoming home to those arboreal colonisers with their silvered barks. Fenced and fended I feel it must be home to an interesting selection of wildlife….More research required! Now we pass a sloping field with plastic wire fence posts randomly planted when our 8 year old supplies an answer for such apparent randomness. They’re marking molehills, or rather the traps set there. Yes, of course!

At the farm, as we make the return, a glint of subtle colour in the green shade of the uncultivated verge catches my eye. Creeping habit and labial flower will later, back home, bring in an agreed definition of Ground Ivy. A common wayside plant at one time diffused in tea to treat digestive disorders It’s two months out of its official flowering season but the winter so far has been mild and these days so much is out of sorts that we don’t worry further. (Here’s a library image taken in May…) Our half hour extended family perambulation was not only welcome holiday exercise but another way to experience and share observations and knowledge across the generations…thus starting the year as we hope to carry on!


Our Boxing day walk threaded forest edge and reed dense rough grazing. Two peat rich burns merge below the forestry village and our short walk encircles the modern settlement of some 30 + houses and village hall. It was created by the forestry commission for the permanent workforce after huge swathes of conifer began to be planted here in the 1950’s, but is now occupied as affordable housing by a population with only tangental connections to commercial forestry. We cross a footbridge and follow the tributary stream past an attractive series of small waterfalls marking the boundaries between underlying shale and sandstone layers. We navigate a tricky fording of the peat rich flow and trace our way over a mass of moss and reeds to a corner of mature forest with its diminishing avenues drawing our eyes to distant vertical exits. The village campsite, now bereft of tents, lies closed until Spring. Power here is proudly renewable, thanks to national park & government grants, all solar or wind. At the village visitor car park where we started & finished our mile and a quarter hike, there is an information board and a composting toilet. Below the dark skies observatory the sad sight of three fallen totem poles lying on the ground. Carved some years ago and a local landmark, the fallen timbers show clear rot at their hearts. Will they be replaced we wonder? Let’s hope so. Somehow they catch a spirit of place here in this remote spot, perfectly still under a grey sky with not a soul in sight; just the odd vehicle passing.


A theme running through BBC programming this year has been social isolation. When BBC TV’s ‘Countryfile’ appeared in this corner of Northumberland last month they picked up on an annual activity performed by our local community choir. ‘Carols by Car’ sees choir members spending a long mid winter evening travelling from one remote dwelling to another in and around the upper reaches of our Pennine valley singing carols and bringing a happy set of familiar seasonal tunes to kitchen, living room, farmyard or byre. Sweets, mulled wine and mince pies often in evidence by way of thanks and always a glow of delight in the recipients for being so toasted. Choir members committed to up to two days of filming, in company with presenter Tom Heap and the crew, on locations outdoors and in, with volunteer contributors who bravely submitted to being termed ‘socially isolated’. A widower, a disabled retired shepherd and a young farming couple with two small pre-school children all allowed our circus into their lives and played their parts well. Meanwhile the other strands of the programme were assembled elsewhere round the county – from foraging in the forest to making Xmas tree decos at a family forge – culminating with a knees up at the newly re-opened old pub in a nearby village (complete with micro-brewery at the back, the subject of another strand). The programme ended with a mass singing of ‘Deck the Hall with Boughs of Holly’ (above). I enjoyed my walk on role in the chorus to a Teleland cheerful melee, even if it was pitched way nearer entertainment than reality. Being the ‘Christmas Special’ one should have known it would be feather light on content and heavier than usual on presenter led conventional cosiness. Lots of missed opportunities to create a coherent meaningful narrative and a reminder how much lies in the editing process. Last week, to put matters right the choir did the real thing and visited some seven properties out-by finishing our long carolling evening with a simple supper (with more singing) in a local restaurant/camp site in the valley’s heart. Their dining room fir was huge in height and width, simply and effectively decorated with 2.000 little white bulbs. On Sunday, at the same time the TV programme went out, the choir would join forces with the Ceildh band and local schoolchildren and the gathered community. A full house at the most remote church in the vale for the Christmas carol service. No mains supplies so the the candles will be lit and the scent of pine fill the air. Mulled wine and mince pies served at the end. A scene Thomas Hardy would have recognised from his childhood. This is the real rural community. Alive and well, welcoming and inclusive. Warm hearted, and above all, real. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, whoever you’re with, have a happy Christmas!

Trees & Creepers

A Sunday stroll in good weather looping out from and returning to our valley village. The path over the fields takes us by an old farmhouse and outbuildings sympathetically renovated and now being lived in by an Anglo-Dutch couple, friends of friends, who both trained as architects. They’ve also started tree planting and hedge restoration. We then descend suddenly into the shaded seclusion of a wooded gorge where the rapid burn rushes noisily through. Residents of he former mill house complex uses ladders to access the bed below the little arched bridge which carries the lane over. At this point it ceases to be metalled and becomes gravelled. Later, as we climb steadily out of the property on the other side, it transforms to bridleway through a sunken lane banked with a magnificent row of isolated ancient oaks. Horses, sheep and cattle tracks all present in the mud of the pass. Further over the woodland slopes are fenced and regeneration is slowly taking place, saplings being free to grow when not grazed by animals. Circling, we pass an ivy covered farmhouse. Picking up a paved lane once again we descend into another, even narrower tributary valley, where a metal gate marks a move into estate land. Here commercial woodlands – a mix of soft and hard woods – have been felled and cleared with new planting high up on the far bank. Later on our walk, where stream enters river, the removal of a dense stand of pine and fir has opened up lovely views of the wide water rushing south through a fertile valley of barley and wheat. Here though, in the steep sided shady combe, the effect is more akin to a battlefield site. Many silver birches though still line our way. One mature tree has a cluster of honey fungus round its base. Further on the pale trunks highlight the flickering ranging presence of a small flock of little birds. I need the binoculars to follow their rapid progress but systematic motions in racing up the bark and out on to twigs, reveals them to be treecreepers. I observe one on a trunk perfectly still for at least a minute, intent on spider or insect, before darting in with its long downturned beak. Due to loss of hearing in the higher registers I don’t properly take in the birds fine thin trill, but fortunately Kim does and I can then start to tune in. Fascinating creatures and delightful to see them in action.


My last production ‘A Winter Warmer’ had a successful trial run in the studio at Dumfries Theatre Royal last weekend. Now back home and free of work that has too often confined me indoors It was now time I did my own winter warmer. Yesterday it took the form of a short bike ride up to the forest and today it was a circular by back roads and footpath, which took just over an hour. Bright clear blue skies and very cold so perfect conditions. Set out, past a flock of sheep with a Texel tup in marker harness about his duties. Our neighbours at Southridge are planning to lamb later next Spring, at the back end and not the fore of April. All due to the poor early Spring grass growth of 2018, made worse by the ‘Beast from the East’ weather event preceeding it. The roadside pond by East farm well frozen over and the sedges all browned and bent. Turn off down the steep back lane (also a national cycle route) and have to watch my step as the sun doesn’t touch this north facing edge of the whin sill ridge and it would be easy to slip on the permanently frosted tarmaced surface. Pick up the long distance trail at crosslanes and follow the cul-de-sac which leads to Oldstead. A handful of Silkies, those most exotic of chickens, discovered here pecking for food in the garden. I’m impressed with our neighbours planting of woodland on the ridge to the east as well as more apple trees in their garden with its beech hedge. Through the gate and over boggy rough grazing to a low bank boundary, all that remains of hedge or wall that once ran here and now marked only by two lines of impressive mature ash trees. We here the adult tawny owls call from their haunts here in winter and from our house they dominate middle distance views. One of the trees, rotten at its core, has been cut down and I marvel at the contrasting textures of sectioned bark, moss, good wood and rotten timber at its core. Natural decay I wonder, or Ash Dieback? I hope the former, but fear the latter. Leave the trail at our boundary, climb the gate and take in the view from our crags before coming home via the garden. The sight of field mushrooms frosted with crystals catches my attention. Come milder weather I may yet catch a morning crop before harsh weather returns to put a stop to growth.


On a recent visit to London made first ever visit in the company of daughter Stephanie to view the Grant Collection of Zoology housed in University Street off Gower Street, part of University College London (UCL). Free entry to a ground floor study centre and couple of rooms crammed with all manner of preserved creatures in an array of glass containers or artfully displayed with wire…from snake skeletons to neanderthal skulls, embryos to eggs, scale models and skeletons. Wonderfully old fashioned and very informative. Interestingly, no shortage of willing supporters to adopt an exhibit and thus further the institute’s work. One of my favourite displays was this macabre mass of pickled moles in an old sweet jar. Am sure a fine writer must has been inspired to pen a horror story or poem after viewing…


At back end and the best time to get started on those structural jobs around the garden. A large bed abutting porch and downstairs bedroom wall needs to be de-constucted and contents moved elsewhere. Plants have already been replanted elsewhere or abandoned. Having James up from Derbyshire for the weekend to help gives Kim & I the extra muscle and impetus we need to get the job done. Soil goes to fill the boxes in the kitchen garden and the rougher stuff under the trees. The old railway sleepers that make up the two low borders of the bed require nifty work with the sack truck. Once lifted we move them to edge the gravel path between front border and studio. After a bit of prep in clearing a space the old worn timbers fit wonderfully and look as if they’ve been in place for years. Two large regular stones complete the line, tucked in under a cotoneaster in the corner. The last sleeper we move reveals a surprise…a half dozen small frogs of various sizes pop out of gaps between wood and compacted soil and start leaping about. We cup them carefully in our hands and decide to release them by the pond which is a good 70 yards away, at the other side of the garden. Our surprise compounded by discovering other inhabitants, cheek by jowl, in the form of two adult palmate newts in a state of torpor, dust covered crinkled skin. Harder to spot than the still active frogs. We release the little creatures between beached pond end and the logs deliberately stacked there to shelter amphibians in winter. Returning a short while later there was no sign of the newts so I assume they’d made their slow way to safety and a further – undisturbed – hibernation. Fascinated that both species should, literally, find common ground to congregate and ponder why that particular place and that distance from the pond. In any case we were sorry to have unwittingly destroyed one refuge but glad to have provide another.


Having a dozen trees planted around the garden makes for our modest orchard with a day to day juicing requirement for home consumption. It suits. Going back to Devon on this trip and visiting a small producer like McG makes for a very interesting afternoon. We enjoyed a lovely lunch Jake & Miriam in their village centre home in Dolton. Their four grown up children help them out, when at home. The big orchard lies below the garden. Former pastureland, sloping down to a small stream, is where the enterprising couple planted some 200+ apple varieties, all suitable for juicing. They also put in a few crab apples to aid pollination. In a large wooden shed on site they crush, juice, pasteurise & bottle their lovely apple product. The old barn opposite the house is used for storage (carefully insulated against freezing in Winter) before orders are labelled top sealed and dispatched. (Labels designed by Miriam). The couple have grown a good customer base, both wholesale & retail, across the county. One growing product line is apple vinegar while a brisk trade in bottling juice for other growers balances output flows and brings in extra income. It’s all go each autumn of course and having a mini-tractor and cart for the heavy work makes all the difference in harvesting effectively. 2018 has been a good year so they – like many others – have surplus product, like these Lord Derby apples, left lying in the orchard this November. Michael, Kim & I left even more appreciative of people like Jake & Miriam whose dedication, hard work and skill set have brought new life to old ways, here in the heart of Devon.


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 Molton 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 brilliant 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!

p.s. The green bikes hanging from the market walls are a proud reminder of the Round Britain Race when the mass of competitors streamed through the the length of the venerable building, cheered on by crowds of locals!

War & Peace

Recently returned from a long weekend with our friend Michael Gee, 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 which helped thaw the land and quicken grass growth and increase the fertility of poor soils and rough grazing. The hardy farmers tapped into head streams, diverting flows through fast moving open channels (leats), often taking them through the farm’s yard, where muck enriched the mix, down into the still frozen intake fields, slowly thawing them in the process of running in rills to a lower lateral drain which in turn would fill and brim over to repeat the process down to another lateral cut and so on to the valley bottom where any remaining water would drain away into the lower wider stream. The result of this comprehensive system brought thawing and 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!