As is often the case, i start painting what later becomes words which later becomes books. With even a momentary twist in the weather, it’s a refreshing thing to be outside and making work. Here’s something on a real outdoorsman.
Frederick William Symes – the MooRoaMan
You could often see him in my father’s youth – what locals called ‘MooRoaMan’. There he is, striding briskly, tattered jacket, rucksack filled with gathered kindling, staff, hair sticking up madly in white tufts from his endlessly wrinkled forehead. He is down from his two-roomed cottage at Huntingdon Warren on the moor. Through the dew scattered lanes he swaggers, focused on the bacon, eggs, toast and piping hot tea he will soon enjoy at the café in Buckfastleigh. On his return, the best part of ten miles all round, he will frequently be spotted carrying enormous tree branches for timber, his deeply browned face resolute in the morning’s sun. Dr. Edward Lunt describes him as a “moving tree”.
Frederick William Symes was a classical scholar, a lay preacher, and, in latter years, something of a hermit. Lunt’s description continues: “ his sparkling eyes and snow white hair emphasising the shabbiness of his stained, rope-belted raincoat…he made the thickest, brownest tea of anyone I knew, brewing it in an orange-coloured tin teapot over a fire of peat.”
The son of a methodist preacher, he had served time as a popular school teacher, and on retirement went to lodge in the two rooms up at the remote Huntingdon Warren. When winter approached he would look for lodgings in Buckfastleigh, advertising in the Western Morning News. Those who visited him described his dwellings as “indescribably derelict” – a kind of two-roomed cave, decorated liberally with the remains of an aircraft that had crashed outside. Still, his peat fire was merry enough, where he would endlessly place toast onto the glowing peat and remove with skill at just the right moment, or slurp a constant supply of his industrial strength tea, thickened with oatmeal. He was known to be immensely strong and very fit. Not just content with early morning wander for breakfast and firewood, he often went further at night. With the bone-white stars overhead or the un-toppable beauty of a Devon spring dusk, he would stride down to the pubs of Ivybridge for warmth and companionship. When he had had his fill of the red beer, he would wend his long way home via the disused railway track from Cantrell to Redlake.
Such was his intelligence, such was his desire for simple company, he would sometimes write letters to himself to ensure a visit from the postman, who now visited twice a week. We can see now the startled expression of the postman leaning on the gate as this shiny eyed man of the moors talked lucidly and with depth about Greek philosophy, or gently turned over the meaning of the book of Luke. Although visually startling, those who knew him loved him. He was a true earth man, his knowledge of the localised region thorough, his relationship to it visceral and immediate, but his imagination far ranging, not bound with fear.
This man who made his way through life as a kind of storyteller – a preacher and a teacher – withdrew into the curly folds of the moors for his final years. But we know he yearned for company, loved it. As I have written before, the business of eldership (and surely he was one of a sort) is not just the gaze of the aged to the youth, but from the youth up to the aged. Something brilliant is freed in the elder, some blessing shoots back, as they absorb the respect their years should have appointed them. How many MooRoaMen and MooRoaWomen grow steadily duller in nursing homes without the keen eyes of youth pulling them back from the dreaming into this world, a world that needs the insights that arise slowly and with patience?
He innately understood the need for real edges for the soul’s survival (not just the body) – the fire that rarely went out, the autumn lightning storm, the gathering of the kindling, but also the warm reward of the smile over the café counter as they gave their order, the gaffers in the pub shuffling to pull out a chair for him when arriving from the darkening moor. I think in this brief description of Mr Symes we are looking at a true Devon Seannachai – one learned in story, weather and life, one who used high language for his daily bread, one who those old oral storytellers would have recognised in an instant.
copyright Martin Shaw 2014