Plymouth now brands itself as ‘Britain’s Ocean City’ and next year they’ll be pulling out all the stops to celebrate the 400th anniversary of sailing of the Mayflower from the Barbican for the new world in 1620. Consequently all museums and galleries are currently closed and undergoing major refurbishment, being rebranded into a cultural hub to be known as ‘The Box’. For me Plymouth was THE city just 15 miles away on the 84 Bus from Tavistock but a world apart. The place I was occasionally taken to with mother to shop as a child in the 1950’s & early 60’s. Having been badly bombed in the war the centre was in effective a new town in the aftermath. I remember swathes of pink flowered rosebay willow herb – fireweed – growing profusely in undeveloped bombsites. Armada Way, a leafy pedestrian thoroughfare in the heart of the city, leading us from rail station to the Hoe, has since matured into a leafy green pedestrian corridor. Not that anyone was sitting around to enjoy it much; only the homeless, the alcoholics, the crippled elderly. Where once I was led as a child into big aspirational department stores like Dingles or C&A there were now only Poundland & B&M bargain basement emporiums.
ofThe new huge statue standing acrobatic guard outside the Theatre Royal (Where I once performed with Orchard Theatre Company) has split public opinion. The massive dark figure is modelled on an actor playing Bianca in Othello in rehearsal at the theatre. Can’t say it does much for me but as Mae West famously said “It’s better to be looked over than overlooked” and given the dramatic imperitive for attention in the public forum then the theatre cannot really lose. The structure that appealed to us in this great city in the process of rediscovering itself was the Royal William Yard. It’s an ongoing regeneration project by Urban Splash of the interconnected complex, severely elegant stone built warehouses built around its own self contained dock. An eclectic mix of restaurants, galleries, shops, artists workshops and a terrific commanding view from Devil’s Point over deep and fast moving tidal waters to Mount Edgcumbe on the Cornish side. We took the nearby Cremyll passenger ferry there and back. Only a short distance but it yields a magnificent vista full of interest. We clock Royal Marines on exercise in high powered landing craft, a frigate sailing in at speed, tug boats, yachts in harbour, small supply boat with a pair of divers at work. Plymouth Sound with its series of docks and sheltered river estuaries is a superb natural harbour which has given birth to a long and proud maritime and naval history. Mount Edgcumbe is the city’s country park, all 865 acres of it + the big house at the end of the avenue and drive ascending from the shore; lots of interconnected historic listed gardens & scores of monuments, scattered amongst fields, villlages, paths and tracks offering much to explore and with stunning views of city, harbour and western approaches. We only had time to sample a part of its generous multi-faceted offer and learned that due to Government imposed austerity cuts to both Plymouth and Cornwall County Councils (who between them run the park), the future funding of this magnificent estate – gifted to Plymouth & Cornwall by the Edgcumbe family – now lies in doubt. It’s inclusive free access is threatened, leaving it ripe for exploitation by profit making commercial interests if proper ongoing local authority funding is not secured. How good to see Plymouth in a new light, a place with great possibilities if they get their economic and socialpriorities right and secure the hearts and minds of citizens and visitors in the 21st century…I wish them well and look forward to returning one day to see the results.
The joy of walking this all too easily overlooked corner of Devon is its ease of access by train. The villages of Bere Alston and Bere Ferrers are both on the Tamar Valley Community Partnership line. We get there from where we are staying outside Calstock, across the border in Cornwall. Day One is an outing to Bere Ferrers where we discover the ‘Tamar Belle’ rail heritage site, separate from but part of the Victorian station. The signal box says “Beer Ferrers’ while the platform signs (in old Southern railway green livery) ‘Bere Ferrers’. We are informally hosted by Chris the owner and his passing friends, all seriously committed rail buffs, who between them have collected, repaired, maintained and developed the carriages, engines, cranes and assorted equipment redolent of the age of steam. We are shown the brilliantly converted B&B accommodation of the carriages and are Refreshed with tea we set out on our ramble. It takes us past an orchard – one of many that used to dominate this region – on a rough farm track that, with the coming of the railway in 1890, was used to convey early season fruit and flowers ferried over from Cargreen on the Cornish side to catch the trains that would rush the fresh produce up country to the London markets. (The route, via Tavistock & Okehampton, was axed in the 1960’s Beeching cuts). Cautiously sidetracking a herd of cows and calves we divert steeply downhill to link up with the ‘discovery trail’ following the tidal river upstream between lush species rich meadows and a strip of ancient woodland overhanging the wide waterway. We quit the footpath and return to the station uphill via a deep lane with high hedged banks full of campion, stitchwort, bluebells, vetch etc. At the top we pass a farm selling home produced honey and take in great views of the two rivers moving towards their esturial confluence with the distant Cornish and Devon moors providing the finest of backdrops. We follow the long village street down to the ancient parish church overlooking the Tavy with its fine stone tomb effigies of the Ferrers family, Norman lords of the manor here. A more recent memorial – a polished brass plaque on the wall – commemorates ten New Zealand soldiers killed by a passing express in September 1917 while stepping out of a troop train that had halted unexpectedly at the station. These ill starred Kiwis, after travelling half way round the world and before ever seeing action on the western front were killed in their allies land, far from home…A terrible, if ironic, tragedy.
Where to start? At the beginning, of sorts. I was born by the Tamar, in Saltash Cornwall, but grew up from the age of 6 across the river in my mother’s home town of Tavistock in Devon. I left for London and drama school aged 18, leaving there for Lancashire (my father’s county) in 1973 and have been happily based in the north ever since. Today, for the first time on the annual return visit west, am staying in the upper Tamar valley outside Calstock in Cornwall, looking eastward to Devon on the other bank. It’s given me new perspectives on the lie of the land and opened up new ways and means of appreciating the area’s rich industrial archeology, wonderful natural beauty and the many facets of its cultivated landscape. They all call to be acknowledged so I will attempt to do so here in the days and weeks to come….
The greenhouse has arrived. Hurray! Jim from Sunderland arrived this week and within a few hours had erected our green greenhouse, complete with shelving. we added wood treads and I carefully surrounded with a layer of gravel & placed big pots. Kim put seedlings in little pots and we both stood and stared in small wonder at the welcome addition to our happy acre of garden. The old cold frame will survive another season and has done good service hardening off a full house of tender young plants, most now put into borders and beds. A minor emergency with two days of late arctic wind and sleet saw us fleecing in advance our apple trees and cordons all in blossom plus some of those vulnerable annuals in the studio border. We were helped out by my old school friend Dave, up for a fortnight from Devon volunteering down the road on the annual dig at Vindolanda. The eight tups billeted on our four acre field looking an increasingly sorry sight with their peeling fleeces, lethargic grazing and chronic scratching and rubbing on gates and fence posts. The field is liberally scattered with their discarded wool and mega droppings. On return from holiday I intend to gather both and add to the contents of our new wood slotted compost box, next the greenhouse. Our old plastic ‘dalek’ shaped bins are removed and ready for recycling. That whole corner of the garden, with replaced turf and bark looks infinitely better and brought into productive use for the very first time. We couldn’t be happier! The meadow next the west end is filling with ewes and their new offspring. Southridge’s later lambing time has had one major drawback, we’re told, in that good Spring grass and later birthing meant that many ewes were too fat and struggled with delivery. All our neighbouring farmers have been scarifying the fields with chain drags and some have been muck spreading. All the hawthorn is out, buds opening, plants flowering, grass greening in the growing…All good.
The cold blow of April deters us spending more time in the garden but the necessity spurs us on. A cold frame full of tender plants escapes the effects of late frosts. Cosmos in pots inside a trough with just muslin covering do not. We are excited to have tracked down and purchased (with all the trimmings) a small metal greenhouse (5’3″ x 6’5″) which will be with us around the end of May. The company we bought it from will send their contractor to erect it but we have to get the ground cleared and prepared. To that end, in the vegetable garden I’ve felled a conifer, transplanted ground covering euphorbia and geraniums, transplanted a former Xmas tree, re-positioned moss covered boundary stones and (most challenging of all) dug up half a dozen tree stumps. Sharp sand and stony gravel await in dumpy bags in the yard. I’ve also dug a drainage ditch between grass and beds and filled with stones to help drain what is otherwise a soggy edge to the garden. Our cheerful retired builder and his son will be shortly giving us a concrete pad on which the smart green greenhouse can be secured…Can’t wait!
Meanwhile, elsewhere round the garden I plant our main crop desiree seed potatoes in the raised bed after clearing the last of the old year’s salad vegetables….Out front I find a slumbering toad tucked up in grass and moss round the bole of the infant gean we planted on the roadside. There’s delight at the spread of fierce yellow globeflowers fringing the pond and sigh at the sad sight of one of our resident dunnocks floating drowned in the overflow of one of the water butts. However did it end up in there I wonder? The hedgehog Kim discovered (and re-covered) with leaves and moss on the bank border in the February warm spell has upped and left. Or has it? Searching for permeable liner in the railway carriage Kim once again uncovered a slumbering hog under an insulating cover of fleece. Is this the same creature seeking what it thought would be a berth where it would not be disturbed again? He/she sleeps on for now…We’re all wanting the year to properly turn and wake up our north country dormancy.
This website has been down for the last month (trouble at ‘electronic mill) hence no posts. It’s a busy time of year for farmers and growers of course and the thread that links most farming activity around us is that of lambing. Fields get parcelled up: ewes with singles in one, twins in another, tups in a third. Barns start to fill with animals taken in by, ready to start delivering, and soon farmhouse kitchens will be lodged in by bottle fed orphans. Meanwhile, down in the valley with its richer sheltered ground the ewes and their lambs are already turned out. March brought the weather extremes it’s always associated with. Mid month, taking a short stroll up the lane from home, the ewes carrying started moving downfield to the lea of our garden wall. The incoming weather was so fierce I was pricked by needles of hail which half blinded me to a heads down stagger back with coat iced solid by the time I reached sanctuary. Another day, the massed assorted daffodils in our garden radiate in the sun, celandines glisten, plentiful buds on the damson display a beautiful subtle green, while the air is filled with birdsong and the curlews liquid call reverberates over the freshening fields. This hard land is low in minerals so our neighbour early in March had rounded up the pregnant ewes & walked them back to the farm where they were dosed with copper supplement. This reduces the high risk of illnesses like ‘Swayback’ where new born lambs can’t stand on their back legs. Another day the farmer is driving his quad over the rough ground dispensing pellets through a concentric feeder – the ‘snacker’ – with the flock in hot pursuit. The family have decided to lamb later this year due to the problems caused last Spring by the ‘Beast from the East’ and the poor grass growth. Even now in early April we’ve had two days of non settling snow showers and sharp east winds; just the sort of weather hill farmers do not need with masses of newborn lambs arriving. Before that, on a dry sunny day, as Kim & I gardened, the next door flock put up a hue and cry, baaing and trotting fenceward, convinced we were there to feed them, as we wheelbarrowed cuttings and foliage to the bonfire pile on the crags. These beasts are so keen eared to particular engine pitches that they set up a-bleating when the quad leaves the farm a third of a mile away. Our field is currently occupied by the half dozen tups that Southridge keep to service their mixed flock of Blackface, Swales, Mules and Cheviot. Mostly Texels (a favourite choice of farmers round here) these boys won’t win any prizes for pedigree, but they do the job they’re bred for and earn their keep. No longer rivals these testosterone driven progenitors are docile enough now but stand their ground, chewing mechanically when eyeballed, yet looking more done in than the ewes do. Often scratching lower bodies with their hooves I suspect the presence of ticks and other ovine irritants. Meanwhile they skillfully chew on anything vaguely edible deposited on the fire site and we grow grateful for the gift of lengthening days and a gradual return of colour and form to our upland topography.
The weeks fine weather eventual gave way to Storm Freya but not before we heard the first curlew of the season, back from wintering on the coast to inland breeding grounds, we’re heartened to hear that most liquid and haunting of Springtime calls. The return was heralded that same day by a burst of blackbird song, seemingly in response that same unseasonable flush of warm weather. Meanwhile at the feeders whole tribes of finches are battling it out, making short work of sunflower seeds currently put out on a daily basis. Dunnock and robin as industrious as ever in foraging the fallen seeds the more aggressive finches spill in their full on feeding frenzy. Fat balls in a wire basket hooked outside the study window are drawing ever adaptable sparrows in competition with great and blue tits. Their contrasting acrobatics always raise a smile. On the deck last night catch what appears in a second’s impression to be a humming bird moth. Is instead a wren wildly whirring on the storm’s edge to cut skillfully in under to disappear in the ivy that covers the house wall. We may well discover another of their many nests there later this year.
Combination of warmth, dryness and lengthening days throws up the first signs of Spring’s arrival which in turn stirs us and the natural world into life once again. We identify the two types of snowdrops that are doing so well all over the garden. The simpler taller one seems to be ‘Mrs Macnamara’ (Named after Dylan Thomas’ mother-in-law), the more complex ‘Lady Beatrix Stanley’ (after a committee member of the RHS) Earliest I’ve ever started the lawn cutting season was yesterday, the 23rd February. It looks better for it, on a higher cut, and will save labour later, but it still felt odd. The cuttings get fed to the pregnant ewes with their single lambs on our field. I then set to with trowel and bucket to weed the grass and other trespassers in the swathes of gravel around the house. Kim gets stuck into finishing her studio border one day, the semi-circular bank border the next, cutting back and clearing. In doing so she unearths, in a pile of moss dead leaves and stalks, a hibernating hedgehog! It stirs in its deep soft confinement but she carefully covers it back up. We are very happy to have this iconic creature on our patch. Having over the years created spaces and provided lots of insect and invertebrate cover to encourage them this is the first time we’ve evidenced a dormitory presence. I lift a stone by the pond and a young frog dives into the water. Driving home outside the village this evening another frog crosses the road in front of us. This is an annual mating migratory route, heading up from river to ponds, but I don’t remember it being as early in the year previously. We’ve been spotting barn owls too of late on our nocturnal travels and they’re always a beautiful entrancing sight. Also, out on the porch at night, we hear the tawny owls making their interactive presence known down in the north burn valley, a chorus of calling and answering. Our friends at Southridge are in the government’s Higher Stewardship Scheme (HSS) and nothing gives them greater pleasure than to plant native hardwood trees – hazel, alder, ash, oak etc – an ongoing extension of existing mature woodland in the steep valley of the southern burn that cuts through their farmland. The young trees are grown in a nursery further down the dale. Here’s our neighbour with his brother-in-law putting them in with stakes and guards amongst the dead fronds of last year’s bracken. A whole new ecosystem in the making and a heartening example of good husbandry & custodianship.
A spell of mild dry weather combined with lengthening daylight hours is a wake up call for gardeners everywhere so we gladly succumb to the urge and get out there, preparing to meet the Spring rush. Yesterday Kim made a start on the borders and I concentrated on clearing and re-sighting birdboxes. One of the three I checked or re-sited yielded a blue tit’s nest and an abandoned tiny egg. Put the box back under garage eaves, lapped by evergreen honeysuckle, and hope it will attract another tenant this year. I also sharpened most of the tools in readiness for another season. This afternoon’s activity centered on weeding the heavy clay bed around the pond watched by a dozen of Southridge’s Texel/Mule gimmers, pregnant with single lambs. In the few weeks they’ve been put on to our crags the flock have made short work of bonfire scraps like the Christmas tree and have (literally) stripped the willow. The only thing that’s defeated them are the pyracantha clippings Kim dumped there after tackling the long border outside her studio. Some thorns are just too tricky to deal with, even for these voracious consumers. All looks a lot better now on both the borders we concentrated our weekend efforts on. Last year’s clearings, combined with muck spreading seem to have done wonders for snowdrops whose numbers have tripled this Spring. Their cheerful presence in the beds, along with aconites in the spinney and wall side daffodils on the roadside, never fail to bring a smile.
We took another of our Sunday strolls early in Feb. Seeking to strike out from home to tread previously untrodden paths and bridleways that fill in missing pieces of our local landscape picture. A chance remark lodges with me from a passing conversation with our neighbour at East farm. It sparks further interest in the settlement’s rocky crags, which the lane shepherd crook’s around. ‘Chap told me it was a fort once’ says the old farmer. Later I’ll ask around and look up archeological websites which yield terse but intriguing information about local ancient sites and monuments. Discover that the crags in question was the site of a village first recorded in 1279 but abandoned by 1811. The last building being East Farm. There are sunken tracks, insets and bumps in the grass indicating foundations and traffic of some sort. The map names the surrounding big open fields we cross as one time common, which it would have been before enclosure in the 18th century. Today, with recent snow still lying in places makes it easier to see evidence of ‘rigg (ridge) and furrow’ – recalling days long gone when climate and/or economics saw what is now permanent pasture put to the plough to grow cereal crops. On this rain lashed freezing day we venture, for the first time, on a muddy by-way under phone lines linking two metalled roads (pictured). The view of the crags from this opposite side reveals a distinctly rounded cliff edged position between the valleys of the two burns, with a small tributary stream rising on its flank. Seductively reasoning its way to potential as a site for defence or associated settlement of some kind. Later circling on another short cut footpath, returning road to road, yields more views, although the weather’s too poor by now for a decent photograph.