Friday, December 10, 2010


A short walk before sunset and there is just time to take a few photos of a frosty lane in mid-Devon before it gets dark again. The sunlight has melted the frost where it can but the shadows still remain frozen. The rectangle on the right hand side of the horizon in photo five is the church at Lapford, which originally dates back to the 12th century. This stone church is believed to have been built by William De Tracey as penance for his part in the murder of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas a Beckett on 29th December 1170. The church was extended in the 15th century.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

skaigh three

Well here we are again and apologies for leaving you all by a river on Dartmoor for the last two weeks. Much has changed since we started this walk: Autumn has come and gone in this time and it is most definitely Winter here now. We've even had snow here and what a pleasure it was to watch the swirling snow being blown about by the strong wind here last night.

Up on Dartmoor we follow the river Taw towards its source high on the moor, passing by some interesting gates, one of which is made from an old bedstead and has as its post a lovely piece of Dartmoor granite. We move around Belstone with its tempting pub and get to have a look at a tor from a distance with a darkening raincloud blowing in and we also see the wall known as Irishman's Wall which crosses Belstone Common at this point.

As you may see when we finally get out onto the open moor there are hardly any trees out here as most of them will not grow in these conditions and the ones that do remain very small and windbent. Oddly, even though it has hardly any trees this whole area is known as Dartmoor Forest, the reason being that the areas known as forests were actually hunting grounds for the king and these areas would cover much land including woods and also moorland without trees but they were called forests anyway. This also applies to The New Forest in Dorset/Hampsire which is mostly heathland with small amounts of woodland but is called a forest anyway, so for anyone thinking of buying one of our forests, best to check first that it actually has trees in it. Alternatively I can sell you a London Bridge for a good price.

One of the other odd things about Dartmoor is how hard it is to gauge the distance or size of anything out here, largely because there is nothing to compare anything to. A pile of rocks can be any size and likewise a hill. Without trees or buildings of any sort the eye cannot grasp the scale of anything and because the weather changes so fast things can look very far away or nearby, depending upon the current aerial perspective.

If you have keen eyes you may be able to see one of the wild Dartmoor ponies, there were quite a lot of them around and quite frisky they can be. This is as far out on the moor as we get today with our walk and we have to turn back now as the weather changes suddenly and we are caught in a very strong sideways shower of rain. There are not many places to shelter out here so I head for the river bank to hunker down and get out of the worst of it. The sheep have made themselves lots of tiny burrows under rocks and trees to get out of the weather and tempting though they look I think we better move on back to Belstone, with just a quick wave to the squaddies who are loudly shouting at each other, running up and down the hill and generally hogging the skyline.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

skaigh two

Crockern Tor, way across the moor to the south of here, is said to be the home of the mythical Old Crockern, variously described as a spectral figure on horseback, galloping across the moor on a skeleton horse with his phantom Wisht Hounds; or as a local god of the moor in pre-Christian times.

“The gurt old sperit of the moors, Old Crockern himself, grey as granite, and his eyebrows hanging down over his glimmering eyes like sedge, and his eyes as deep as peat water pools.”

The Wisht Hounds, stabled at nearby Wistman's Wood, are a pack of fearful hounds who hunt across the moors at night in search of lost souls and unwary traveller's. Old Crockern sometimes appears to the locals in their dreams, to give warnings about not disturbing the apparent emptiness of the moors and for them to pass on these warnings to whomever might be causing offence. People have tried to farm or otherwise tame the moor but these plans never work for long and the moors are littered with the remains of such attempts.

Crockern Tor, was also the venue for Devon's Stannary Parliament. The Stannary Parliaments (there was another for Cornwall) were the tin miners' own parliaments with their own set of laws which generally overruled the English Laws. These parliaments date back to the 12th century and Devon's Parliament last met in 1748. There are some unusual acoustics at Crockern, which give the effect of a natural amphitheatre and make it a suitable venue for speaking.

Crockern Tor is almost in the centre of Dartmoor, a little north of Two Bridges, making it the omphalos of Dartmoor. Tors are also known as pixie, or rather locally as 'piskie' castles. If a fog comes down here and you lose your path and get lost it is described as being piskie-led. The piskies also have their own parliament.

The rivers here can become quite dangerous and people do drown in them every year, to the extent that the river Dart even has this local rhyme associated with it;

"Dart, Dart, cruel Dart, every year she claims a heart"


"River of Dart, oh, river of Dart!
Every year thou claimest a heart"

When we leave the woods we should be able to get a glimpse of a tor.

Information from High Dartmoor by Eric Hemery (Robert Hale 1983) drawing upon folklore research by Theo Brown [kindly supplied by Tracy Brown of Wisht Maen magazine].
And the fantastic website Legendary Dartmoor: which is very much recommended.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

skaigh valley

This morning we set out to walk onto Dartmoor proper, first by traveling to Sticklepath and following the river Taw upstream in the Skaigh Valley, around Belstone Cleave and out past Belstone and onto the moor. This is a very pretty walk this time of year as it is early Autumn and the leaves are just beginning to turn. The path is mostly fine for walking but does become rocky and slippery in places so good walking boots are very much recommended and keep an eye on those rocks underfoot as we don't want to turn an ankle out here.

The river Taw where we are walking is mentioned as a location in Henry Williamsons Tarka the Otter and the river winds its way northwards from here until it meets the coast of Devon 45 miles away. The Taw is in a sunless valley this time of year for most of the first part of the walk and the river courses over many rocks and boulders on its way. As we reach the latter parts of the walk we will come out onto the open wilds of Dartmoor where there will be another very rocky part of river and finally a very quiet smooth stretch on the moor to look forward to. We should also be able to see some Tors on the tops of the hills but we won't have enough time to go up and look at them today so we must save them for another time. There will probably be wild Dartmoor ponies too, which I will not eat my sandwiches in front of so as to not upset them or arouse their curiosity.

The weather as we set off is very fine; still and sunny and bright, though this being Devon and more specifically Dartmoor it can change pretty much instantly into torrential rain or dense fog, so it is good that I am fully equipped with my all terrain mountain hiking slippers, kiss me quick hat, a bit of water, sandwiches and of course plenty of good healthy cigarettes to help invigorate the lungs. Actually it already looks like its going to rain soon and although we are out of the wind down here we won't be when we get out onto the moor. I'm starting to think that waterproof trousers would have been a very good idea and seriously, a compass and a map are a must.

Hopefully next time I might have the space to talk about some of the myths and legends associated with Dartmoor. There are more legends and myths around these parts than sticks can be shaken at, even here with all these sticks we have at hand to shake at things. You go on for a bit and I'll catch you up, I've got a few photos to take and a fag to smoke. See you in a bit.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

yew tree three

And welcome to the last part of our voyage around the yew tree. Here are the last of the yew tree photos, showing some detail of the berries and some photos of the general effect that yews have in a churchyard. The berries in photo five are just slightly larger than life size on my monitor, so unless you are viewing this on a giant screen in a contingency bunker under a mountain they should be about the same for you.

It was announced here last week that the government plans to sell off about half of the 1.85 million acres of woodland overseen by the Forestry Commission. The news was greeted with a large degree of dismay because these things can only be sold once and will probably be sold off very cheaply (though not to us little people) and they are not really the governments to sell anyway.

The thought of walking through one of our forests and coming up against a large fence erected by Dismayland or McDogshitz doesn't really gladden the heart. Large parts of our woodland are what are sometimes referred to as 'conifer desert' meaning that because the trees are planted so close together no light can reach the ground and nothing else will grow there. These forests would admittedly not be missed very much but I wouldn't trust private companies to be willing to allow access, as it has been hard enough already to gain these rights to roam that we have. It seems to me to be part of the proposed fire sale of the countries assets to pay for some tiny part of the bank bailout, which also gives the kind of people who caused this mess in the first place the opportunity to pick up important parts of any countries infrastructure at a knock down price. A bit of a cheek really which hasn't gone unnoticed.

The other parts that would be interesting to investors would be the 'famous bits' like something called Sherwood Forest, so we can look forward to a funfair experience and hotels in the middle of a forest instead of peace and quiet. Another idea has been for the use of golf courses. I am not a huge fan of golf and I don't know a lot about the game but a forest doesn't seem to me to be the best place for a round of golf, what with there being rather a lot of trees in the way, though I expect something could be done about that particular problem.

Coming soon. We finally leave the graveyard and have a nice river walk, somehow ending up on the wilds of Dartmoor. Well fresh.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

yew tree two

Well, plenty going on as usual. Here we have the inquest into the events of 7/7/05 which is being ignored by the media as much as possible but luckily there's some good catch-up and comment at places like this

Austerity measures have been coming in so thick and fast that it is difficult to put the whole picture together, needless to say that it's looking pretty bad as well as a bit mad. The Government seem to be doing a good job of pissing off nearly everybody with their cuts and are apparently happy to be pissing off the police as well as the armed forces, so are making plenty of fairly powerful enemies for themselves. Most people that I talk to are perfectly aware as to how the government and the banks have stitched us up and that this mess wasn't caused by poor people with big televisions. What can be done about any of this is another problem and all is quiet here so far.

The strikes in France have been interesting to follow. The subject is simplified for us here by the media telling us that the french strikes are all about them not wanting the retirement age raised, but I would guess there might be a bit more to it than that.

There was an amusing piece by a Radio 4 reporter the other day where he went to various locations to catch up with the strike action only to find when he arrived that the strikers had all moved on. It went something along the lines of: "I've been told there were strikers causing disruption at the train station and they were sitting on the tracks stopping a train from going to Paris but when I arrived they had caused disruption and seemed to have moved on before the police turned up" He visited other locations where the same thing happened, with him arriving to report on all the action but with there being nothing left to see.

How unfair of the strikers not to be playing the game properly. They are supposed to strike all day in the same place, giving the police plenty of time to get there and turn the strike into a riot and enabling the media to get their shots of rioting strikers. It's almost as if they had got wise to the fact that hanging around all day and letting the police beat you up might not actually be a very good idea and that you can take your disruption elsewhere or just come back later when the police have gone and have another go. How naughty of them not to play by the approved rules and thanks for the tip BBC!

Above are photos of yew tree two, who is swallowing a gravestone. Yew tree two is a tree that looks good for climbing, comfy for sitting in and is shaped in the 'lightning strike slow motion dance' form. More yew trees coming soon.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Yew Tree

There are many good yew trees in Devon and most of the oldest are found in the churchyards. This tree, though not particularly ancient, is a lovely example and is in Sidmouth to the northwest of the church, hiding in plain sight right by the footpath that runs past the splendid bowling green. These photos are all of this one tree but there are other interesting yews around here, so I will put up some pictures of those in a few days time.

For some reason I don't find a lot of yew trees in my travels and explorations of the woods around here. Some smaller yews can always be found but the large ancient yews do not seem to be in the woods here anymore, or if they are I haven't found them yet. They usually grow as solitary trees but groves of them do still exist, the nearest one that I know of is in Wiltshire and is on a private estate. The yew offers very good shelter and protection from the rain and other elements, making it a useful friend to be around. At the moment the yews are dropping their berries, as can be observed in the photos. Despite what most people think, the flesh of the berries is actually edible and it is rather the seed contained within them that is extremely poisonous. This place is covered with squirrels and their caperings do lighten the sombre mood of the place somewhat.

Here is a short extract from The Sacred Yew by Anand Chetan and Diana Brueton.

Perhaps the most famous yew grove in Britain is Druid's Grove in Surrey. It consists of what appears to be the remains of an ancient avenue of yews, plus many scattered ones, growing in a dense, mixed woodland containing many box trees. The oldest here have long been considered ancient. The novelist George Meredith lived nearby from 1867, and he encouraged his visitors to visit the trees, telling them that 'anyone walking under them should remember that they were saplings when Jesus Christ came to earth'.

Allen Meredith first visited the site in 1981 and has returned several times since to document the trees. He writes:

We came across twisted, shattered fragments, the skeleton remains of ancient yews. In the main avenue we saw enormous yews, some upwards of 24 feet in girth. I found a particularly ancient yew, much of it a mere shell, with rotten decayed wood inside, but as so often with aged yews fresh growth has occurred over many centuries. This relic is still a large tree, over 20 feet in girth. Of the most significant trees, five are over 22 feet in girth and four are over 20 feet. For the trees to have reached this kind of size in such a crowded area must have taken many years. This is one of the few remaining ancient woodlands which has trees that would date back to Roman times.

There is no known historic evidence to tell us how Druid's Grove got its name. Allen believes that some of the trees are over 2,000 years old and the name is no coincidence. The trees seem to form an avenue, which suggests purposeful planting rather than natural distribution. The intended use of the grove is much more open to speculation. Many people have commented on the unusual atmosphere of the place. Some strange things have happened there which, although not dramatic in their own right, when added together suggest that this is a special place. Allen has twice found that he has 'stepped out of time' while in Druid's Grove - that when he has left the grove his watch has shown the same time as when he entered it, despite the watch apparently working perfectly. This also happened to him when he visited Knowlton. On another visit to the grove he came across just one other person, whose name was also Allen Meredith.

The wonder of the world
The beauty and the power,
The shapes of things,
Their colours, lights and shades,
These I saw.
Look ye also while life lasts

Thursday, October 07, 2010

a gathering



A Hawthorn tree with it's full display of berries. This particular tree is on the top of a cliff where it is very windy and so becomes bent and shaped by the wind. Hawthorn berries are edible but not straight from the tree because of their bitter taste. They need to be made into jellies and the like. Lichen grows freely here which is taken as a sign of good clean air.

The wonderful Sloes growing on the Blackthorn tree . A good harvest of these this year. Best picked when they have a pale bloom, they can be as large as the size of your thumbnail unlike the Whortleberry, which though unrelated, are only the size of your little fingernail or smaller, making them much slower to pick. We managed to pick three and a half pounds of Sloes in forty five minutes which is enough for our needs.

These photos were taken on two separate walks in September on two different local hills. At the moment the Autumn weather is veering between very hot summerlike days, to fog and damp darkness to gales and intense squally storms and showers, all of which can happen in one day - though generally don't.

Reality does seem a lot better out here. There is a peace and vastness of sea to experience and the sight and smell of nature getting on with it all, unbothered about whether we are here or not. Picking berries is good because instead of just being an observer you become an active part of the landscape, involved and concentrating on the picking of Sloes and on not catching your hands on the very sharp thorns of the Blackthorn, which protect the berries and can leave the careless picker with a bloody puncture that will go septic. A scratch you might get away with.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

the field of the cloth of gold

Summer slowly changes into Autumn, the colours of the landscape change from green to a golden hue and just now the trees are beginning to turn again. On Radio 5 there is much time to talk about the England/Pakistan cricket matches but what is happening to people affected by the flood in Pakistan goes without mention.

Up on top of the hills whortleberries are harvested with sloes coming soon. Whortleberries are about the same size as the nail on your little finger making picking them a slow process. Down below grapes are ripening, the last cucumber has been cut and carrots are lifted from the ground. Standardised supermarket carrots bear little resemblance to the uniqueness and the earthy flavour of organically grown carrots, with many having the shape of a small figure or other amusing similarities. Marrows, Squashes, Beetroot, French Beans, Purple Sprouting Broccoli, Tomatoes and assorted salad leaves are harvested, along with Cobnuts.

The woods remain lush and dark and at this time of year many are impenetrable due to the scale of their overgrown condition, where attempting to pass through them would cause too much destruction they are best left to clear themselves for a while and for visitors to remain outside.

Horsetail Ferns can be seen in photo 12. They are called ferns though they are actually Equisetaceae, which has no direct affinity with any other group of British plants. These used to grow to the size of trees in the Carboniferous Period, but like the Dragonfly we now just have a smaller version. They grow in wet places and the dark green woods in these photos follow small rivers down to the sea and so remain well watered for most of the time. These small valleys are known locally as Combes whereas in Dorset and the Isle of Wight they are called Chines. The nights grow longer again as the planets above perfom their alignments and the wind in the Poplar tree sings a lower and darker note, signaling the change of the seasons.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Vernon Hill - The Arcadian Calendar for 1910

Vernon Hill's illustrations for the Arcadian Calendar for 1910 accurately describe the progression of the months and seasons here in our part of the northern hemisphere. His two characters, male and female, seem fairly at ease with the sometimes terrifying appearance of the presiding deity. It has been suggested that the presentation of the child in January is somehow blasphemous or peculiar but I would have thought that this is not a depiction of the Christ child but merely of the New Year, as an aged figure turns up in December being led away upon what seems to be a donkey. (hmm, maybe this isn't helping)

One of the things that I like is that there is the depiction of much sound in the illustrations. The deity plays bagpipes and other forms of wind instruments which the couple sometimes respond to by dancing. In another we can almost see the sound of a gun going off and in August the deity seems to be regaling the couple with stories of some sort. We can hear the sound of the wind screaming in many of the others.

The deity also appears affected by the weather, as in June he lays under a tree to rest in the shade from the hot sun and in October he blows upon his hands to warm them up against the weather. He often wears bells so that a tinkling sound would accompany him, though in March the bells become apples, windblown and then spiked upon his pointed garb. In January his mouth forms the sound of surprise. The two figures have been described as being stock characters but there is nothing stock about his depiction of the deity which seems to be a figure of singular invention.

Born in Halifax in 1887 Vernon Hill's career in illustration seems to last only about two years. The Arcadian Calendar of 1910, The New Inferno and Ballads Weird and Wonderful is all there is to see of it, although there are other later drawings. In this short period of time his style changes from these linear and decorative post Beardsley pictures into something that seem to me much less powerful and more like designs for woodcarvings, which is appropriate, as he appears to have spent the rest of his life working on carvings for the churches and cathedrals across England, so that from this slightly unusual beginning he went on to find a place for himself in the structure of the orthodox Christian church in England.