Two Weeks Left in America
Friends: good news – we have a few spaces available for the year course due to an upscale in venue. Deeper into the moor. These are getting snapped up daily – but if you know someone that this would be right for – please send them the link. Exciting times..firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up
Just two weeks now till we board the plane home to Britain – no doubt we will be peering into slate-grey gusts of rain at Heathrow wondering how to get back to Devon bearing in mind the rail track we charioted up on then got washed away with the flooding. Times have been rich here though – and there is a last flurry of events to celebrate the launch of SNOWY TOWER – readings and tellings in Point Reyes and Santa Rosa for the next two saturdays – scroll down or look online if you want details.
In an attempt to lure myself and la fam away from this life of hot-tubs/margaritas/pacific swell and coyote yips, i am going to put in some very local Devon writing today. I’m working on the final book in the trilogy that LIGHTNING TREE and SNOWY TOWER started – these stories with a tangible, localised geography. The commentary for the story is a much influenced by me walking the route as working with associative myths and folklore. One day soon i’ll givc you the story this comes from – the place is around Berry Pomeroy Castle. In short it’s a love story of a young woman of the parish and a farmers boy. it’s geographical span runs the length of the forest and up to the church. When i first arrived in Devon with my black tent – over a decade ago – i was lucky enough to have it in the gardens of the castle lodge house awhile.
Walking the Story
Little Hempston is very old Devon – thatched, white-washed cottages, small bridges, small rivers just begging to have stick-races down. In the spring, every available piece of public soil erupts yellow with daffodil.
Walking from it towards Berry Pomeroy, you soon come to the fast moving road between Totnes and Newton Abbott. Left at the pub, and on for another few hundred yards until a swift crossing over and down into Berry. Not that our Sally would have been negotiating a seemingly endless sweep of 4x4s and horse boxes.
Past a few houses and the road widens, the castle’s surrounding forest on the left and onwards to the village itself. On the right is a green lane – once beloved of a motley assortment of travellers who lived quietly at the top. There were trucks, caravans, hastily assembled benders, folks coming and going. Some settled for as long as the law allowed, others – what locals call ‘blow ins’ – just passing through. Cara and I have known a few people up there, and as I passed I remembered dusk visits, clutching wine and cakes firmly whilst negotiating the slippery rutted track, settling comfortably by a wood burner for an evening of music and story.
Still, that is many years past, and I don’t have the time or inclination to wander up today to see the thin trails of smoke through the green that used to indicate occupancy. Just past the travellers turning is a swift cut to the left, into the greenwood. There is much felled conifer, two great banks of it, but behind, in the shadows, stands old growth forest, badger dens, and a bluebell patch. In the years that I was at the castle’s lodge house, these rough routes through the woods were a kind of open secret to the locals – there was dog walking, and surprise meetings, in the most unlikeliest of places. But today they are cordoned off, no goes, keep out.
Down at the ruins I produce coins and let them fly over the ravine that protects a good half of the castle. The original owner, Ralph De Pomeroy, apparently wilfully picked the most inaccessible keep he could find, on a ghostly knoll high above a low-sunk tributary of the Dart. I like his style. The coins don’t make the tributary today but simply disappear into the abundant ferns gripping the steep drop.
Scattering the wintering banks is the plant ‘Lords and Ladies’, what the scholars call Arum maculatum. This robust little plant is many named in England: the Cuckoo-pint, Naked Boys, Starch-Root, Devils and Angels, Bobbins and Wake Robin. In autumn, it cheers the grasses with resilient clusters of bright red berries, but take heed, they are not for eating. The root, when roasted well, is edible, and was even once traded under the name Portland sago. It was a working folks’ drink before the introduction of tea and coffee, but prepared incorrectly it’s highly toxic. I doff my hat, and leave it alone.
The wind is up. As a child I thought it was one of two things: the sound of all the felled ghost trees of Dartmoor talking to themselves, or the moans of elderly patients at Torbay hospital gathered on the breeze. When a little older, my father and I would walk down through the small woodland behind the estate I grew up on, he would stop me under the boughs and we would go very quietly and listen. It didn’t take too much of this to realise where this sound was coming from.
I see something I had long forgotten about. The Wishing Tree. A tall, wide-spreading beech. They say that three walks around it in the sun direction, and then three times backwards, always thinking of the wish, will lead it surely to come true. Surely Sally stopped at this tree? Despite some viscous pruning, even across the trunk itself, I can make out carved names of old lovers and wishers from other generations. In the three massive branches, I find, to my delight, attached lace, symbols of wishes. Unable to stop myself, I am soon clambering the slippery roots and holding a dear wish.
I am leaving the castle behind, and its attendant human dramas, and following the story’s path again. I am heading up and out of the ruins’ aura. There is a small tea house settled in by the path side, and I try to keep my mouth clear of the taste of dark roast French coffee. It doesn’t work but I trudge on, none the less. It’s not hugely steep, this track up to the lodge house, but long enough for a little tight ache to move into the thighs.
Everything is tall. The trees, either old growth or conifer, seem vast, and the path’s crumbled leaves blow up in glyph-like patterns for seconds in front of me and then settle. The steep banks bring back the very familiar sensation of being watched. To my right, two crow couples seem to play on the brisk currents of air way out over a sharp dip, two above the other. There’s no violence and no jostling. It’s sweet to hear the caw.
I reach out to touch the rough bark of the older trees. Moss lies thick like drifts on the northern flanks. A white pheasant is seen for a second, to the left of the path, just as it opens out of the tree line.
I decide to break the law and walk past the do not enter! sign that stops entry to the lodge house or further fields. The signs are there for good reason – years of car loads of Torbay youth congregating at the gates at midnight; dealing, brawling, and generally getting a kick out of being so near a scene of dark power that somehow mirrors their own turbulence. The old initiations were a way of sacralising this kind of death-wrestling – as we know, when the rites-of-passage disappear, the longing remains but turns feral.
There is a view to end views just beyond this forbidden track. A dark soiled field, pine forest, and then a panoramic opening – of patchwork fields, budding tumps of woodland, glints of dusk light in nearby Totnes and Dartington, and then more forest and field before hints, just hints, of Buckfastleigh and Ashburton. And beyond them? Haytor and the moor, caught in shadows, bleary, forbidding lumps in the distance. To the right, just out of view, but salt-scented in the air, is the ocean.
It’s like a Ravilious painting. Cara and I often ate supper underneath the dry stone wall, or she would take her guitar and disappear into the field. One form or another of that view had held my attention my whole life. But Sally’s story doesn’t end there. That’s my layer of the story. Hers is still to be walked.
St. Mary’s the Virgin is on the edge of the village. Lovely to behold, ornate architecture, stone well cleaned, but, almost as a symbol of our recession times, resolutely locked. With that traditional pagan flourish, two yew trees add a dash of the old religion to the graveyard. But times have moved on in little England: I glance up at the notice board and see that the Reverend is called Deborah.
The birdsong is more playful here, clusters of starlings chatter noisily to each other, before taking short direct flights into other trees. In the distance a solo Mr Magpie passes. Catching its flight, I notice a sturdy stone hut between fields. In a second, I have a mad desiring of that hut. That looks like a writer’s hut. I can see Dylan Thomas, shirt crumbled with pasty flakes and balancing a couple of Guinness’s, making his way across the rutted field before delicately producing a secret, rusty key, and entering. After a minute, we would see kindling smoke from its discreet chimney. Or is that Alice Oswald at the small door, sending out for a double espresso? I am getting distracted.
I take in grave stone names – Henry Fletcher, William Jordan – I am almost expecting to find a Sally and a Will. I’m about to leave when I notice one finely carved thick stone, all swirls and baroque show boating. It’s been erected by a John and Mary Ann Hawkins. They lost three children in one month in June 1832.
Elizabeth and John Home, both five years and six months, and little Sophia, just seven-months-old. There must have been some sickness that just passed through the district, I am somehow resistant to digging up more information about it. Suddenly my eyes are filled with tears at the thought of the little bones underneath the soil and also for the utter heartbreak of John and Mary. I realise that this time my coins are for them. The walk has been leading here. I crouch in the dirt and place silver for each of their heads, and lay some simple prayers over the site. Something for the ancestors.
So a myth-line takes me to the grave of a flesh and blood family, and my flesh and blood experience of living in Berry leads me to the telling of the story. It’s a raw tangle. That wind has got up again. I look around, at the dive bombing starlings, and the church steps where maybe Sally met her true love, and I say goodbye. Minutes later I pass the old red phone box where my father would ring my mother in Berry village on breaks from rehearsing with his band in the local hall. All part of the courting. Only then do I burst out laughing – her name? Sally.
copyright Martin Shaw