The clutch of texel tups on our field were taken off in May. They’d been scratching vigorously and moulting freely of late. Some I thought looking more dead than alive in repose. Note to self; must gather droppings and fleece pieces to add to the store building in our new wood planked open top compost boxes. they look great and fitted together neatly. Standing near the new greenhouse all looks right with our little gardening world…Reality bites back as I set to clearing apple mint from in the bed by the pond. Never realised its roots were so pervasive or its progress so rapid. Uncovered lost grasses Kim had put in last year, alongside lily of the valley and hostas. Hard at work on hands and knees I slowly become aware of grunts and rustling in the greenery. Look up to see a cow chewing the young willow that grows by the field fence. We’ve not had cattle quartered before and such edible niceties were always out of the reach of sheep.
Stabiliser is a souless name for such good looking and well conformed beasts. They are an artificial commercial construct, bred in America, blending the ideal characteristics of a handful of breeds and franchised out to farmers in this country. Morrisons supermarkets have a contract with the Stabiliser farmers which meets market demand for smaller leaner steaks. Our neighbours have invested, built new housing and got a bull last year to service their heifers. Now the herd is divided in two with the older cattle in with the lambs and ewes in the big pasture across the road while the suckler cows and recent calves are on this side with us. Our four acre field has a trickle of water at its lower end, sufficient to supply a small cohort. A wetter than average May/ June has secured the larger spring that supplies our two properties as well as meeting the demands of the beasts, and cows are thirsty creatures. Bovines chew the sward differently than ovines which evens out the grazing and keeps the land in better heart. Different offer on the dung as well of course…Increasing the chance of mushrooms next year with any luck. I’ve noticed that most evenings each herd converges in adjacent corners of their respective ranges to stare companionably – communicate? – across the width of lane that separates them.
Cows are certainly curious and that can sometimes be intimidating, occasionally dangerous, especially when calves are at heel or a dog is involved, on or off the lead. The other day I met a German hiker at the gate who said she’d had a run in with a suckler herd back along the Pennine Way which had left her very concerned about crossing the field with the herd clustered on the path. I sympathised. A recent walk in Devon had seen us making a wide detour from the field path for the same reason. I walked her through our garden and pasture to the point where she could rejoin the long distance trail, out of any potential harm’s way. She was relieved and I was happy to help her on her way.
Our journey back north was broken for a stop over with old friends Penny & Brian in Caerleon, Gwent. They drove us into Cardiff and the national gallery & museum of Wales to catch the current main show: ‘David Nash 200 Seasons at Capel Dewi’ Nash is one of the country’s leading exponents of land art; an Englishman who, for the last 50 years, has lived and worked with his family in a converted chapel at Blaneau Ffestiniog in north Wales.
Fresh from of our holiday home in the wildwood that now covers the remains of mining we were ripe to respond to the wonders in wood produced by this original and influential artist. This retrospective exhibition reflects a wide body of work created in a post industrial slate producing enclave like Blaneau within the wider hinterland of rural Snowdonia. The 73 year old sculptor operates with chainsaw, axe and blowtorch on an large scale, producing outdoor works made from living woods or indoor ones of recycled timbers in geometric variations – cube, sphere and pyramid.
Nash’s most famous works are still both in motion back in north Wales: Wooden Boulder (begun 1978) and Ash Dome (begun 1977). Videos in the exhibition documented their conception, history & development. Wooden Boulder is a crude oak ball the artist cut, fashioned and left by a stream. Over the years rain, wind and flood has moved it by fits and starts from mountainside to ocean and back again to estuary. Ash Dome is a living sculpture in a secret mountain location where ash saplings planted in a circle are cut each year to develop into an intersecting dome. (BBC4 viewers will be familiar with the work as a channel ident).
I particularly liked the conical oak bark sculpture made in co-operation with cork farmers in Portugal…its scale, texture and colouration. There’s a collection of major work here until end of show in September so feel really lucky to have experienced it. It’d be hard to take a walk amongst trees and not be engaged by David Nash’s inspiring take on the form and feel of wood.
Our base for the 10 days we spent near Calstock in a restored and modernised part of Okel Tor Mine. A scheduled ancient monument, in an SSS1 within a UNESCO world Heritage Site…You don’t get more protected than that. Leasaed from the local Harewood estate, the mine operated from the 1840’s – 1880’s and utilising the tidal river Tamar to export its precious output of copper and tin. This complex of shafts & adits, pump house and burners, settling pits and buddles strung out along the steep valley slopes employed some 200 men, women, boys and girls at its peak. But this was a wildly precarious boom/bust economy and eventually the buildings and infrastructure were run down, abandoned, gradually reclaimed and colonised by a wealth of native flora and fauna.
Our intimate quirky accommodation at the original entrance to the works was where the mine captain assayed ore and paid his employees. Next door the former smithy, where tools were made or mended and metalwork fabricated, has likewise been tastefully converted. Morning or evening from our deck here on the Cornish side we surveyed a fine slice of rural Devon – its fields and farms, glasshouse nurseries, woods and marshes, abandoned railway discernible in a linear trace of may and cow parsley…This studied and relaxed intimacy I loved, having been born downriver at Saltash and largely brought up the other side of the hill in front of me. Our peace and tranquility was only be broken by the occasional chatter of unseen canoeists below or Canada geese above descending to nest on the abandoned Victorian brick works chimney rising incongruously out of willow and alder carr on the Devon bank. The mass of oak, rowan, maple at our feet rang with songs of blackcap, blackbird and robin while blossom fell from apple and hawthorn through dappled sunlight…The contrast with the mine’s heyday could not have been starker. Old photographs show the steep slopes completely denuded of any kind of vegetation. We were reminded of the days when arsenic – the equally commercial by-product that filled economic highs and lows of mineral extraction – was worked here. At the parameters of our idyllic private view, upriver at the site of Gawton Mine with its crooked stone chimney poking out of the greenest of forests, a massive bare mound rears up…An arsenic waste tip so deadly nothing will grow on it. Yet there’s a terrible beauty in it. Nature & man’s industry gifts us a permanent art work.
For me Dartmoor will always be home. More precisely that S.W. corner of it where the high plateau gives way to downland, intake and steep densely wooded valleys. My childhood and adolescence spent walking and cycling the high banked lanes and open moor. Our little gang would go building sone and mud dams in the brook and stock them with bullheads and minnows. Or we’d go tickling trout and trapping elvers. Rope swings and dens in woods, climbing trees and keeping lookout….Later there were trysts with my first serious girlfriend under the watchful eye of her aged and very posh parents who lived in a big modern house on the moor’s edge. As a younger actor I’d be touring the West Country & Cumbria in plays by Dartmoor farmer Jane Beeson inspired by her long experience of upland farming life or playing native sons of the soil in historic recreations at Buckland Abbey and Cotehele for the National Trust’s Young Peoples Theatre Company. Later ‘Dartmoor and its Environs’ would be the subject that won me the semi-final competition of Mastermind in 1991.
On this return journey Kim & I only had a small window of opportunity to visit the moor and we wanted a walk that was accessible, circular and packed as much as possible into those few miles. Thanks to Peter Tavy’s excellent guide book ‘Walk Dartmoor’ (pub; Bartholomew) we found one. Parking off the Yelverton – Princetown road we struck off east to Black Tor. A huge logan (rocking) stone, now immobile but still imposing, while it’s twin granite pile boasted a sheer face and an interesting interior rock chimney. We dropped to the infant Mewy (or Meavy) river below and on crossing picked up a double row of granite stumps leading to a small ruined stone circle which in turn led us gently up to Hart Tor and some fine views over this section of the high moor. Down once more, this time to Hart Tor Brook and its eventual confluence with the Mewy at Iron Bridge. On our way we came across the remains of a Bronze Age village and put up cows and their calves, one of many herds turned out by commoners for Summer grazing, and cautiously gave the agitated beasts a wide berth. Skylarks above and butterflies at our feet fluttering over wild bilberries. Otherwise, away from any discernible path, the dried tussocky grass slowed our progress. Surprised to discover that the Iron Bridge was in fact an acquaduct and not a footbridge as I’d supposed when viewed from a distance. The cleverly engineered gated channel bears the contour hugging Devonport Leat with its rushing waters downhill to a final destination in Plymouth some 12 miles away. Another short leat fed off the conjoined Mewy/Hart Tor Brook at this point. Loved jumping back and forth across the combined crossing waterways to take photographs and look for fish and insects. Following the Mewy back upstream to just below where we’d originally crossed it revealed a hidden dell with a deep pool overhung by mountain ash – Black Tor Hole. We could clearly see the remains of its medieval tinning works. Most notably, with lintel still in place, a ruined blowing house where the precious metal was separated from ore and processed before being transported by pony to Tavistock, the nearest stannary town. From here a short steep climb brought us past the family groups of wild ponies descended from those earlier pack animals on to the lonely open road where a stream of hardy lycra light cyclists whizzed by, head down, oblivious to the ancient sites & hidden sights around them.
No holiday for Kim & I is complete without a garden visit or two. This time we revisited one and discovered another. Both have strong roots in their communities and compliment each other with their histories, sound principles of design and dedicated husbandry that have gained them their respective outstanding reputations. The known plot is the ten acres that make up The Garden House at Buckland Monachorum tucked away on the south west edge of Dartmoor. Set in a sheltered wooded combe the 1920’s house now houses cafe and offices but was formerly the Vicar’s house. Its ruined predecessor sits in the garden below and is for me the site’s USP. Dating from 1305 the old priest’s house with its winding stair allows access from one terrace garden to another. A breathtaking view of the whole ten acres is had from the open top floor…The gardens giving way seamlessly, outdoor room to outdoor room, artfully linked, transformative and consistently enchanting. Best enjoyed on a quiet day, which we and our friends Paul & Monica were fortunate enough to do mid week in May. The garden was the brainchild of Lionel and Katherine Fortescue who sustained a living here as market gardeners and seed growers supplemented by a herd of Jersey mikers from the late 1940’s until 1961 when the gardens were given over to a charitable trust which continues to skillfully manage and astutely develop the place today.
The other garden we visited, on our journey back up country, was near the village of Blagdon in the Mendips, near Bristol and has a more fundamental link with cows (Friesans this time). Many people are familiar with Yeo Valley Dairy products as a leading organic brand of milk, yogurt and butter but much less well known is their 6.5 acre organic garden next door to the dairy and cow housing. The ornamental garden is the only fully certified organic one in the country. A rural success story, the business was started by local farming family The Meads with one small herd in 1961 and today a large pedigree herd of descendant milkers roam 1,000 acres + 400 acres given over to arable. (Outside supplies and markets are secured through organic co-operative alliances as part of Arla). The garden is Mrs Meads concept and design enterprise. Initially private gardens round the family home it is now open to the public on Thursdays and Fridays and also stages events and courses at other times. We enjoyed refreshment in the funky organic tea rooms before setting out on a discovery trail through all cultivated quarters. The showstopper at this time of year is the architectural avenue of tea crabs, liberally showering white blossom. At GH it was the wealth of Wisteria on the wooden bridge and old walls that held seasonal sway. At GH smart use has been made of bracken off neighbouring Dartmoor, which when cut, dried and chopped makes for an effective mulch. At YVOG we were awed by the series of big compost bins – the organic engine rooms – complete with draw blinds. I also liked the way the surrounding landscape is used in framing and referencing the world beyond. At GH it was done mainly through mature trees and the church tower as eyecatcher. At YVOG through a combination of ha-ha, field crops and recreational lake,
Yeo Valley’s prevailing spirit is playful, inventive and bold while the Garden House is imbued with the quiet and easy confidence of a long term loving relationship…As mere young in heart creative souls we left both gardens having been very happily entertained, informed and inspired.
My best memories of the sea when young were the trips to Lansallos on the south Cornwall coast between Looe and Polruan. As a result of Operation Neptune in the 1960’s the National Trust had purchased this prime unspoilt section of coastline and it remains a haven for both people and wildlife. Access for me though was dependent on friends or family who were car drivers until such time as I passed the test in my thirties. The village of Lansallos is a small one and the church a good example of the granite and slate religious buildings that grace the landscape of the far southwest of England. It’s nicely proportioned, clearly well loved and boasts small treasures like the fine late medieval waggon roof and carved pew ends. I particularly admired the beautiful monument to the Elizabethan lady Margery Smith (d.1579), a large slab of slate with fascinating costume detail carved in shallow relief. The craftsman must have been proud of his highly skilled and detailed work because he’s put his name to it; Peter Crocker.
A descent to the sheltered cove via the coombe on a stony path crisscrossed by a little stream. Abundance of Spring flowers glowing in the dappled shade which eventually gives way to ferns and furze at the sea’s edge. Miles of cliffs and inlets with no building to be seen anywhere except the remains of a wartime look out post. I don my new rubber swim suit and take a refreshing dip in the cool waters our sheltered haven and later a further invigorating scramble up to the cliff to take in the magnificent views from the long distance coastal path. Look closely in the photograph and you’ll see Kim beach combing….always alert for suitable subject matter for her exquisite detailed drawings. Later we drive through the maze of high banked lanes to Polruan, park up, and take the passenger ferry across the impressive linear harbour to Fowey. Discover that the Daphne Du Maurier literary festival is in full swing, although events that night are sold out and we are running out of time to get back to our base. We settle for a relaxing drink on the terrace of the yacht club overlooking the seaway filled with all manner of small boats. The little ferry with its cheerful pilot gets us back to Polruan with a fish and chip supper in the quayside pub to follow. We then thread our way back uphill via the steep hillside terraces and enjoy a final view of town and country, coast and estuary from the remains of St Saviour’s Chapel here on the headland. Amused to note it had been rebuilt in 1488 by Sir Richard Edgecumbe to give thanks to God for his safe return from a diplomatic journey to Ireland. Have fond memories of my time with the Young National Trust Theatre Company playing the great man in our ‘Wars of the Roses’ themed season at Cotehele, the Edgcumbe’s family’s seat.
There was room enough for a guest to stop over at our wooded valley hideaway, utilising the bed settee in the living room. We’d arranged for my old friend Michael to join us for the weekend, down from Barnstaple. Three years extensive research and writing resulted this year in the publication of ‘The Story of Devon’s Orchards’. Lavishly illustrated with photographs, and generously supported by the county branch of CPRE, the book is a thorough and comprehensive study of an area not previously covered in the modern age so is a welcome addition to the literature on apple growing in general and Devon in particular. Michael generously took us cross country to visit Lewtrenchard Manor, a very fine Jacobean/Victorian mansion which was the former home of the great antiquarian, folk-song collector and hymn writer Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould (1834 – 1924). Sabine was the scion of two old county families and a man of great curiosity, a prolific author and speaker much rated in his day but best remembered now as the composer of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’. He was both squire and rector here and part of our visit took in the chapel like parish church which he and his wife Grace had restored and enriched in the high church manner, as here with the exquisitely carved Gothic rood screen…
We enjoyed a sublime lunch in the wood paneled dining room of this independent family run country house hotel. Afterwards went on to discover the adjacent ‘secret woodland gardens’. The three of us followed a path threading through lush banks and glades the Baring-Gould’s had created as a buffer between house & farmland which in turn had been rescued from neglect and lovingly restored by local villagers who, as luck would have it, were holding an open day & fete that afternoon. We rounded off our idyllic sun soaked visit with a nose around the mansion’s old walled kitchen garden. Its large Victorian glasshouses with underfloor coal fired heating were long gone, brick foundations covered in brambles and other colonisers but the broad well tilled beds were back in service providing many of the seasonal vegetables, herbs and fruit used in the hotel kitchen. We were cheered by the newly planted orchard with traditional Cornish & Devon varieties supplied by a local specialist nursery but noted that trees grafted on such large rootstock will eventually outgrow the restricted space allotted. They can never outgrow such lovely names though, like Star of Devon, Tamar Beauty, Plympton Pippin and Cornish Gillyflower.
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….