A lot can happen in seven days

A lot can happen in seven days. We saw a house in late September, liked it and the following Sunday we went for a second time to look at it. Monday, we made an offer that was accepted, but with the caveat that we had to sell our present home. By midday Tuesday it was clear that the buyer we thought we had, was not going to be able to move in time to let us buy the house we had seen. Three days of worry followed, with our agent talking of dropping the price of our house, “to engender interest” (and I thought only lawyers used language like that!).

We walked on Mardon Down on Saturday morning, and as we walked we talked. And as we talked, we realised that there was another option: to stay where we are. It is a big house, and as the children grow and leave home, it can be quite empty. But with luck they will be back.

We talked of why we originally bought the house, of what we can and will do, of the changes that we will make and the decision was made. We looked out over Moretonhampstead, from the stone where Caroline scattered Foggy’s ashes on a cold January Sunday. It is a view of which I never weary, and we turned back to the Land Rover with the feeling of a great weight lifted. The children are delighted: after all, this is home to them and is where they have spent their teenage years.

It is now two weeks since we made the decision. Our builder has been round and we are starting to sketch out the timetable for the work that will need to be done. In the meantime, we have been deciding what furniture to keep, and what to let go. It is almost a new beginning in the house. When we arrived in Moretonhampstead nine years ago, we put our energy into the family. There was a lot we have had to do to the house over the years: wiring, a new roof (we kept a Cornish slate quarry busy), various bits of plumbing, a new boiler, new windows. What we have not really done, other than change the colour, is the interior. This is what we are now going to do over the next twelve months. Watch this space!

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Autumn Gardening

It is raining hard, and has been for three hours. We managed a couple of hours after lunch in the garden: mowing the lawn and generally tidying up. When we moved here nine years ago, the garden was overgrown and ill-kempt. Our predecessors would be horrified to read this, and perhaps it is not entirely fair. When they had first arrived, they had done much; but as they had grown older, they lost control of the garden. It was one of the things that attracted us to the house: the opportunity to make our own garden.

We set about clearing it: all but one of the trees came out, and over time we reshaped beds, changed the levels and made a pond. The first autumn after we moved, we lost the one tree we had kept, a large mulberry. Caught in a storm, it split, with half blocking the road and the other half in the garden. We had no alternative but to have it dug out: the trunk was rotten and it was past saving. We planted another mulberry, although that was damaged in a storm two years ago, its crown split.

We are thinking of moving on. Four of the five children have left school; one is in Berlin; two at university and another will start next autumn: just the boy is left at home, and then for only two years. We don’t know exactly when we will move, or where: we have seen a couple of houses not that far away, and know that it is now not so much if but when we move. As I mowed the lawn I wondered if it would be the last time. I love the garden we have made. I can remember where we bought nearly all the plants, and when. Some have done really well; others have struggled. This summer has been so dry that at times we wondered whether we should simply have had a Mediterranean garden. I think that at least one if not two of the trees we have planted have been killed by the drought. The rain we are now having is probably too late, although the resilience of plants never ceases to surprise me.

Caroline spent the afternoon tending her streptocarpuses. They will come with us, as will the olive tree, the acers and the camelias. How we will move everything, I have no idea. I imagine that there are people who move plants, or perhaps it will be us in the Land Rover, with a trailer (so we had better not move too far!). Most of the plants we will leave, for whoever buys this house, in the hope that they will give them as much pleasure as they have given us.

October Blues

This year we have had one of the longest dry periods I can remember. Autumn came in mid-Summer, as the trees started to lose their leaves and the ground is iron-hard. Not much fun for a rugby playing 16 year old. Dry pitches may make for fast rugby in South Africa (or so we were always told when I was younger); over here, you simply get skinned knees and elbows, and tackling is an effort of will! Ed finds it very frustrating.

It has been all change this weekend, and we are now getting the rain (and wind). About time to, but we need a lot more. This afternoon we took ourselves up to the Hennock reservoirs: Tottiford, Kennick and Trenchford. Built between 1861 (Tottiford) and 1907 (Trenchford) to supply water to Newton Abbott and Torquay, the three reservoirs lie on the wooded ridge between the Teign and the Wray valleys. It is easy walking, and there are never that many people about. The woodlands are mainly forestry and there is little wildlife: buzzards and, over the reservoirs, shags. We have see roe deer on the edge of the forestry but little else.

Trenchford was built following an exceptionally dry period in 1901. I am not sure how 2006 has compared to 1901, but in our visits this year, and we go up most months, we have seen the water levels in all three reservoirs drop, and all are now the lowest we have seen in the ten or so years we have been here. Tottiford, the middle one, is empty at its upper end and there is little water the dam end; Trenchford must be 25 feet down from its high water mark.

We had intended to walk the Belstone – Cosdon – White Moor stone circle – Steeperton Tor – Belstone circuit today. We last walked it late last autumn, in fog and driving rain, and had hoped that we would have better weather today. The route gives tremendous views over the wilder parts of the Northern Moor. We have been walking the Southern parts of the Moor recently and both felt that we were due a change of scenery. We should have gone yesterday. Overnight the rain came in from the South West, and we woke to day that was definitely not a day for the High Moor, even in the right clothes. So shaking off the lethargy of a late start, we drove up to the reservoirs. It went on raining and, sitting writing this three hours later, my jeans are still damp. I was told to put on waterproof trousers but knew best!

Perhaps next week.

Down narrow lanes

Those of our friends who live in town find the journey out to us from Exeter, along the B 3212, interesting. Well, that is often the adjective used to describe 12 miles of narrow road, with few places to overtake safely and locals who are confident in their ability to get back on to their side of the road in time. It is certainly windy but is the most beautiful journey, at all times of year and in all weathers.

Leaving Longdown, you sweep right handed along the ridge and suddenly, there, in the far distance, is the Moor. On clear nights the lights of Drewsteignton and beyond Whiddon Down glitter on the horizon. Five miles further on is the boundary of the National Park, on the straight road by-passing Dunsford that for a short time runs parallel with the Teign. Dunsford village is on the slope above, and its churchwardens often fly the flag of St George from the battlemented church tower.

Across the Teign and then the steep, winding climb up from Steps Bridge through the woods to Doccombe. At this time of year the trees are bare and from the vantage point of the passenger seat of the Land Rover it is possible to look down the slope towards the river. There is a family group of roe deer that live in this part of the Teign valley, dark brown, almost black coats, and they are a common sight, especially in the half light of late afternoon or early morning, as they move along below the road. It doesn’t happen often, but when they cross the road, you get very little warning. They don’t always make it.

At Steps Bridge you can just see the start of the wild daffodils. Come late March and early April, weekend afternoons see the car park above the guest house full and cars parked back beyond the Baptist Chapel, with visitors stopping to look at the yellow carpet that runs down to the river. We go, but early in the morning, to miss the crowds. Better still, park at Clifford Bridge and walk through the fields and woods on the north side of the Teign, down to Steps Bridge.

From Doccombe the road climbs again to Cossick Cross and, dropping down towards Moretonhampstead, the Moor seems closer, filling the horizon. Cossick Cross is just on the 300 metre contour and this is one part of the journey that in winter, to use that adjective again, is interesting. Frost lasts all day and the road can be very slippery. 12 months ago, in one of those rare March snow flurries, I had to abandon my car below Cossick Farm and walk up to the top of the hill. No signal on my mobile ‘phone but the farmer drove me back down in his four-wheel drive pick up. Next morning you would not have known that it had snowed.

In winter the buses out from Exeter are single deckers, busy only at the start and finish of each day. In summer, they run a double decker across the Moor, through Moretonhampstead. A friend living opposite bought her house in the late autumn. When the timetable changed in spring the next year, I am not sure who was more surprised, our friend or the passengers on the top deck of the 82, as she threw open her bedroom curtains: they looked in and she looked out, the only difference being that they were fully clothed.

But back to the road: we are used to it. We know the passing places and we know where and when to expect drivers on our side. We also know where the potholes are (ice plays havoc with tarmac patches) and where there will be mud, or water, or deer or barn owls. It is different for visitors. This summer Caroline was in the Information Centre when a couple came in, quite shaken. They were from the United States, en route from Exeter to Marazion in Cornwall and had been persuaded (rightly) that the route across the Moor was not to be missed. He was all for taking the long way round, on the A30; she was braver (and not driving). She won and they left to keep going south. He was far from sure (and not reassured by Caroline’s remark that they had survived the worst bit of the journey!). They had taken just short of an hour to travel those 12 miles: and they hadn’t stopped to admire the view. I am glad I wasn’t stuck behind them.

Spring comes slow

We have had our snow, overnight on Friday but for a short time only. Saturday was a bright spring day and by evening most had gone. In Exeter they had had no snow at all and looking east the hills were clear. The south west was a different story and the Moor is still white.

We should have walked yesterday but the prospect of watching the rugby at home was too attractive. So I sat with the boy and we saw the English deservedly lose to the Scots at Murrayfield. It was not a good game; certainly, with hindsight, not one worth missing a clear sunny day on the High Moor for. Instead, we said we would go today, that the weather would hold. Well we went, and it hadn’t. It was cold leaving the house, with the odd drop of rain. It was clear by Okehampton but colder, the streets completely empty; and as we climbed up towards the camp, there was ice on the road and snow across the Moor.

We weren’t the only ones out. There were a number of minibuses parked up, a sure sign that Ten Tors training has begun in earnest. Three of ours have been through Ten Tors, two doing the 35 mile route and the youngest girl doing both 35 mile and 45 mile. Each year, throughout the early spring, we see groups of six teenagers, the team size, with their adult ‘sweeps’, training hard at weekends. The Ten Tors Challenge takes place over a weekend in May, when 400 teams hike between ten nominated tors, covering either 35, 45 or 55 miles between 7.00 a.m. on Saturday morning and 5.00 in the afternoon on Sunday. Each team carries all they need for the two days they are out, and each team member has an allotted task – navigator, team leader etc. There have been years when it has snowed, and years when the temperature has been in the 80s fahrenheit. The Army run it superbly and for those who take part, it is something that they will never forget.

It is much the same for the parents. We have waited for the start gun on three May Saturdays and willed the children on. Last year, with filthy weather – rain and mist, Celia was taken off the Moor late on the Saturday evening, virtually unable to walk because of her blisters, having covered close on 20 miles in the day. She was gutted that she wasn’t allowed to continue but she and another team member, with a badly sprained ankle, were slowing the team up. It doesn’t always go right. Two years before, they had been one of the first 35 mile teams home.

Today was not much fun, either for those training or for us. The Moor was white and the sky steel. We parked where we could, warned that the military road ahead was like glass. Even in a four-wheel drive the going was hard. Having parked the Land Rover, and setting out south towards East Mill Tor, we were passed by a couple of saloons, ignoring the warnings and all too soon having to reverse and slide back down the road. It was not a long walk. We met the Falmouth scouts making their way back towards their minibus. It was their second day out and even though they had not been under canvas they looked tired. Walking was difficult, the wind bitterly cold and even on the road, it was slippery. We each have two poles but it is unusual to see these used by teenagers out training: probably because poles are seen as very much a piece of kit for the middle aged! But we kept our feet; they were having more difficulty.

Coffee on East Mill Tor and we turned back, the road ahead impassable with drifting snow and going cross country too treacherous. The snow isn’t hard enough to support you and there is little point to wading knee deep in soft snow. The forecast is for the cold to continue in the first part of the week but next weekend may be better.

February fill dyke, be it black or be it white

February is the first month of spring, although you might today be forgiven for thinking that here on the edge of Dartmoor we are still in winter. We have had heavy, persistent rain most of the day, and with the rain it has been cold. But should we expect anything different? There is a mid-16th century saying, “February fill dyke, be it black or be it white” and driving over to pick up one of the children the other side of Chagford, nothing could have been more accurate. There was standing water on the road, and the fields and ditches were wet and full.

The forecast for the week ahead promises snow and bitter north-easterly winds. So we may well get both black and white.

Never mind the weather or the forecast, spring is in our garden: snowdrops under the magnolia and crocuses in flower next to the witch hazel, yellow flowering H.mollis ‘pallida’, at the top of the steps. This year it has scarcely flowered at all. In contrast, the H.mollis ‘brevipetala’ at the far end, against the wall by the pond, has had wonderful rust coloured flowers.

We spent last weekend in the garden, tidying up and starting the spring clean. This weekend, the weather has been too awful although I was out for an hour or so mid-morning, clearing up the small strip at the front of the house, next to the street. When we bought the house, the sale particulars described this as a “small area of garden enclosed by iron railings and with slate paving”. The slate has now gone, replaced by gravel, and among the stone pots and a granite trough too heavy to move, are creeping thymes – and until this morning a lot of weeds, dandelion, wild garlic and grass.

But if our plans for the garden were stymied by the weather, the same cannot be said for the surfing children. Having been brought up in the era of thin wooden boards (which I didn’t have but which I envied) and cold Cornish summer seas, I am continually amazed that they think nothing of surfing throughout the year. Even though they have heavy neoprene wetsuits, gloves and boots, paddling out into a winter sea in fading light is not how I would wish to pass a February afternoon.

Today they were at Saunton, out with about 100 others. It has been quite a month for surfing. Storms the other side of the Atlantic have meant huge seas off the Cornish coast last week. Another of the children, studying at Falmouth, was surfing at Newquay on Wednesday, but, she assured us, not being jet-skied out to the reef two miles off-shore, where the waves were 40 foot and the surf attracting people from all over the world.

I think I prefer the moor, rain or not.

Out and Doing

At this time of year Dartmoor weather is, at best, mixed. Yesterday was a beautiful January day: bright and sunny, not too cold and as we drove the slow road to Okehampton to collect the new gas stove, all we really wanted to do was get out and walk the moor.

It wasn’t to be: the stove came first and then we paused at the farmers’ market (third Saturday of each month and excellent North Devon fish, if the boats have been able to get out from Bideford) and poked around in Red Lion Yard, looking for a table. It was too late to walk by the time we were home and there were (as there always are) jobs to do in the garden. This time taking out the David Austin roses we planted five years ago, which we have reprieved each year despite their constant failure, and replacing them with five Roseraie de l’Hay Rugosas. These have spent the winter in containers and so should be thankful to be out and in the soil. I am keeping my fingers crossed that they will do better than their predecessors.

January is a quiet month in the garden, but there are signs of spring everywhere, buds on the clematis, red tipped peony shoots breaking the surface and the early green of daffodils and crocus. It is still winter, with colder weather forecast for next week, but everything is getting going. As we packed up for the day, we agreed that a short walk over Hound Tor would be just right for today.

Instead of the sun we expected, we woke to a grey, cloudy morning. For a number of reasons, we haven’t had a proper walk on the moor this year, and the route we intended was scarcely difficult. Nonetheless it is a pretty route, down from Hound Tor through the remains of the mediaeval village and across Becka Brook before a steepish climb up to Smallacombe Rocks and then round, down and back across the Brook. All in all, it cannot be more than four miles and all along well-trodden paths. Only at the last moment did we decide to take the OS map, as we reckoned we knew the way well.

The Hound Tor car park was half full although the cloud was too low to see the Tor. It cleared as we skirted the ruined village. Abandoned at the time of the Black Death, each time we walk past it, I wonder what life was like living on Dartmoor 600 years ago. Although the village is tucked down, sheltered from the prevailing westerlies, it must have been hard and bleak sheep farming right on the edge of the moor, especially in winter.

It was good to be “out and doing”, aware of muscles softened by the Christmas lay off and enjoying the freedom we always feel when walking. Under Smallacombe Rocks we climbed into the cloud base – and lost our bearings. We struck off south but followed the wrong route. It was a matter of degrees only but with no landmarks to guide us, we then took a wrong turn, compounding the error. Instead of meeting the old granite tramway, we missed it, probably by little more than 100 yards. Busy talking, we quickly found ourselves some half a mile further on than we should have been. It was then map and compass work (and thank goodness we had them), and back across the gorse, neither of us wearing gaiters but wishing we had, before we found the tramway, and the route.

The weather lifted for the last mile and in boots and waterproofs, with sticks, we felt rather overdressed among the Sunday morning walkers on Hound Tor. Next week we will be back on the northern moor, and there will be no question of not taking map and compass.