Friday, 27 July 2012

From there to here

This will be a sort of diary.

Almost finished packing books. We have too many books. As I have packed I have put them into categories – on bookshelves upstairs, on bookshelves downstairs, to be stored on shelves in the garage and to be kept but we don't need to have access at the moment AND deciding which books are still in good condition but we know we shall never read again. These last have ended up in the hall at the bottom of the stairs because we have arranged for a van from the Children's Hospice to call and collect what we can no longer keep. Hopefully it will help: there is something so heart-rending about those two words – children's hospice.

Meanwhile Marcia has been looking through our clothes and at the various bits and pieces in the place. We seem to have accumulated so many clothes and so much 'stuff'. Being a big house, when someone gives us something we have had no problem in finding it a home. That will not be the case. Lots will have to go and again we want most of it to end up in the hospice.

Turning my attention to our studies. In some ways they are even worse. After a while I realise that all I am doing is moving things from one pace to another simply because my mind refuses to take any more decisions. Time for another break.

Today there is a service in the village church it being the Patronal Festival (St Germanus – there are six of them to choose from: the one to which this church is supposed to be dedicated is the bishop of Auxerre (378-448) founder of the Carolingian abbey of Saint-Germain en Auxerre. Marcia attended so as to bid farewell to all the folks. This wasn't until late in the afternoon and by then I was so tired that I decided to take a break and actually fell fast asleep in my chair only to wake when she arrived.

At least that gave me a second wind but my energies went into write one of the two political blogs which are posted onto the web on Mondays.

The van from the hospice is due some time during the afternoon so the morning was spent in trying to decide what 'stuff' would be worth them trying to sell and also what furniture they could have. There is a very good reclining chair that my father bought shortly before he died. It is in very good condition but there just won't be room for it at the other end. Unfortunately the label saying is complies with fire regulations has come adrift with the result that the hospice is not allowed to take it. You would have thought there was a mechanism for reinspecting such pieces of furniture but there isn't so this will end up on the tip. It is such a waste.

Finished with the stuff for the hospice so back to the study. Tension is fairly high now as the removal men are due to be here early on Tuesday and I seem to have so much to do. Eventually, but not quite before I had finished, I ran out of boxes so the rest will have to be left until tomorrow and it will be up to the removal men. At least they are always very good at sorting through a shambles. Just as well. Mind you, we know what we have to do tomorrow: provide endless cups of tea and coffee and keep everyone's sugar levels up by feeding them with lots of biscuits and chocolate cake.

Woke in our new home after and incredible day yesterday. We have known Mark Carter for something in the order of twenty-four years when he started a 'man and van' business working evenings and week-ends. Then he took the plunge and gave up the day job in order to create a removal firm that specialised in removals that involved narrow, twisting lanes, difficult entrances and all the other problems that we experience in rural areas. Today he runs five or six vehicles of various sizes the largest being still small by removal standards for obvious reasons. He know trades as South Hams Removal (not surprisingly is the web site) and has built up a truly formidable reputation in this part of the world.

Mark did quite a few small jobs for us when we lived in the South Hams before moving to the north of Dartmoor eleven years ago – and yes, he moved us then – so obviously there was no question as to who it would be this time round.

Four vans and eight men arrived at about a quarter to nine and started packing. At eight-thirty in the evening we said good-bye to the last pair. The day had been extremely hot and they had all worked so hard and so willingly that they took most of the stress out of the whole thing. I left about lunchtime and arrive here just before the first van arrived. Marcia stayed behind so that she and the wonderful Jean (who has been mucking us out every week) cleaned the house through. Because this is a serious downsize, we only need about a third of the furniture so the rest is staying put until we have sold the property. By the time Marcia arrived here, I had been able to get the kitchen, the sitting room and our bedroom reasonably straight but even so it was nearly midnight before we fell into bed.

Quite a lot of stuff had been dumped in the garage – including most of my study furniture – and there was one more load to be fetched being the stuff in the garden.

So a couple of Mark's chaps arrived here quite early this morning, moved in the study furniture and then dashed off to get that final load while Marcia finished off in the kitchen and the bedroom and I sorted my study. To my horror the telephone connection and broadband which we had so carefully ordered wasn't working. Everything should have been working and so it looked as though there was a problem with the wiring in the house. There was nothing we could do (and we both have mobile telephones so we weren't completely out of touch) except arrange for someone to call around tomorrow.

In the middle of the morning, the first visitor arrived – bearing flowers. She and her sister-in-law used to live just around the corner from us so we have known Christine for over twenty years. It was lovely to see her again (sadly her s-i-s died some years ago) and to know that once again we shall be living in the same village. It was now that we realised that we had left all the vases when we moved.

Since neither of us wanted to cook, we went down the road and had lunch in the pub – a great treat since we have been living where the nearest place to eat was over five miles away.

One tiny problem is that there is only space for one car outside so one of them has to go into the garage – and the garage was where all the boxes of books had been stacked. At the moment my car is down in the car park – which is fine but I would not want to leave it there for too long. So today we have been busy unpacking books – and sorting out the telephone/broadband problem.

It seems that at some time there were two lines into this property although one one had been in use for the last five years or so. The telephone company had disconnected the line pending further instructions and then reconnected it – but to the one that had been out of use. The results was none of the sockets in the house were working. It took nearly two hours to work out what had happened and then ten minutes to put it right.

While the electrician was here, another friend arrived – also bearing flowers. Jill cleaned for us all those years ago but she and Marcia have kept in close touch and Marcia has become a surrogate aunt to Jill's two daughters. The kettle had just boiled when the postman delivered yet another huge bunch of flowers – sent by Marcia's editor at Transworld. We were trying to decide what to do with them all when the local florist's van drove up the lane with even more. It really was a serious mistake to forget the vases.

By now it was lunchtime and (this really must not become a habit) it was over to the pub again.

Mid-afternoon and the chap from the IT company down the road called to get the broadband running. At four forty-five everything was working properly – and just over seventy emails arrived. We had been hard at it all day and decided to ignore them until the morning and so, after a nice long soak in the bath, to bed.

A rather late and leisurely breakfast followed by a session sorting emails and now writing this and hoping to post it before Nancy arrives for lunch (not at the pub this time). I wonder who else will pop in? It really is quite a shock having lived where you saw nobody for days at a time.

Basic decision: we are not doing any more unpacking or sorting things our until Monday. All that is left is the spare bedroom (which is where we dumped all sorts of bits and pieces) and the boxes of books in the garage (all neatly stacked to one side out of the way). Both can wait.

Sorry there are no photos this week but I am sure you will understand why.

Friday, 20 July 2012

On the move

This is the last blog before we move back to the South Hams of South Devon. We shall be sad to leave as we have loved living in such a remote and quiet place – and we shall be sorry to leave the wild life that we have attracted into the gardens. We can but pray that the next people to live here will want to nurture them or, at the very least, leave the wild bits around the ponds as untidy as they are at present. This is a state of affairs that would shock any self-respecting gardener but would appeal greatly to anyone who is as nutty about the natural world as I am.

I have never actually seen the herons that pop in catch any of our frogs (which is not to say that it doesn't happen) and so have no photographs of such an event. I fear this cartoon will have to suffice. The caption is “Never, ever, give up!”

Having said that we are sorry to leave, I should add that we are excited to be going back to the area which we both think of as home. I suppose the centre of our lives will once again be the lovely town of Totnes which, and this is becoming quite important, has a railway station. No doubt we shall be looking in at places such as Salago and Effings (both mentioned in the books) as well as some of the hostelries where we shall be meeting old friends for coffee or a drink. At the bottom of Fore Street is the Seven Stars where Marcia and her family stayed. They always sat at the big round table in the dining room and, there being two parents and five girls, they became know as “the seven stars”. Quite right, too.

Totnes is connected to Dartmouth by the river. This river has been important throughout my life and for much of Marcia's, I learned to swim in the boat float at Dartmouth (would you be allowed to do that now?) and to row and handle a sailing boat on the river itself. Marcia and I have owned three boats which we kept on the river which we have thoroughly explored from outside the mouth right up to the weir just up the river from Totnes. Hattie's Mill owed much to these jaunts.

Apart from the fact that we lived on Dartmouth for a while shortly after we were married, we have both known it for ever. My mother was born there (in what is now the hotel associated with Dartmouth Marina) and my father arrived when his father became the Borough Engineer for the town just after the first world war. It was in the Royal Castle overlooking the boat float that I enjoyed the last drink I had with my father shortly before he died.

A rather odd thing happened the other day. I was sorting through things (as you would expect) when I came across a membership card for the South Hams Society. It told me that I became a life member about forty years ago. I had completely forgotten this. It was formed to protect and enhance the natural beauty and heritage of the South Hams – which is something I agreed with then and still do. In those days the society was busy planting hundreds of primroses along the lanes. Now these are well established and we are able to reap the benefits of all that hard work. They are even more active now: tomorrow they are organising an event to clean up the West Charleton beach and the have another eight events planned during the next few months. Reading the list of the present committee members I have to confess that I recognise not one – and I am sure they have forgotten all about me, too. I might pop along to one of their meetings just to repair that connection.

Now I must return to the packing while Marcia, who will be at Chagford Library this afternoon (an event planned long ago), is getting ready to meet some of her readers.

Friday, 13 July 2012


This week's blog, as a bit of a treat, is written by Marcia herself but the photos are, as always, mine.   Rodney.

by Marcia Willett

I discovered what I know of Dartmoor through journeys. The first journeys began when I was very small; my father was a director of Staverton Contractors, near Totnes, and we made the monthly journey with him, travelling by car from our Somerset village into Devon, watching for the first glimpse of the great hills away to the west. Even now, nearly sixty years on, the sight of the moor from the top of Haldon Hill fills me with delight and with the sense of homecoming.
Whilst my father attended his meeting we – my mother and sisters – spent the day in Totnes or perhaps in Paignton. Actual visits to the moor were few and far between. These were confined to summer holidays on those days when the weather was too wet for us to venture out on to the beach and, instead, we piled into the car and my father drove us inland across Dartmoor. I think that it was because we’d spend the whole day journeying around the moor – given that I was very young – I gained the impression that Dartmoor was another country. It seemed immense, vast – and what was crucial to me – empty. I loved, still love, the bleakness. The fact that we often saw it in bad weather only added to its magnificence though sometimes we were lucky and the sun shone and it was hot. Sixty years ago it was very easy to be alone on the moor, apart from the ponies and the sheep, and I loved that. It added to its sense of mystery.

Another tremendous treat about these journeys was that we picnicked. My mother hated impromptu messy meals but not as much as my father hated the idea that he might go hungry. He had withdrawal symptoms if he were to be too far away from some kind of hostelry and so, on Dartmoor days, the hotel made us up a large hamper. Neither of my parents walked much but as the car drifted slowly through the landscape my imagination was fully engaged in the games that were begging to be played out there, and I pleaded to be allowed out of the car. Only when we picnicked, however, could I roam free. Dartmoor haunted my imagination.
the Dart flowing under the bridge at Hexworthy
There was a small but important milestone on the journey. When I was about ten my class at school was invited to enter a national competition. We each had to write an essay on any subject we chose but it had to include three words: Brooke Bond Tea. Easy. I wrote about a prisoner escaping from the prison. I’m sure that it owed a great deal to Mr Conan Doyle, and there were plenty of atmospherics, but my prisoner, worn out and exhausted, stumbled upon a remote cottage and was invited in by the elderly occupant. This compassionate and incurious woman, not knowing or caring who he was, offered him sustenance – but the bloodhounds and the prison warders were close on his heels. His last words as they dragged him away were ‘At least I had a cup of Brook Bond tea.’ It says much for the standard and quality of the other essays that I actually won the prize.

Even so, I had no other inclinations to write about the moor. It was the most wonderfully magical place in the world, and I felt that it was my place, but it wasn’t until I was a young married naval wife with a two year old son, Charles, that I realised my dream and actually lived on Dartmoor.
Combestone Tor
Moving to Dousland, to live at last on Dartmoor, really did feel like a homecoming. I could climb over the fence at the bottom of the garden straight out onto the moor. Every direction in which I drove took me across it. Tavistock was my local town and, when Charles was five, he went to Meavy School. My dream had come true. I’d walk to meet him after school and we’d have picnics at the ford with our golden retriever, Cassie. Charles did all the things I’d longed to do as a child and it was absolute heaven. When he was at school I’d drive around the moor guided by instinct rather than by maps, then park the car and walk. I often had no idea exactly where I was but I didn’t much care; I just wanted to be out there, alone, apart from my dog.

It was much later that I began to realize that I preferred to be out on the moor early and late. I avoided, if I could, the middle of the day. In the middle of the day, especially in the summer, the magic disappears. The landscape, no less magnificent, is flattened. There are no shadows, no mysteries, no mist drifting in the valleys; it was more difficult then to enter into my own private world of the imagination and so I avoided it when I could. In the same way I dislike high summer. The foliage heavy and fading and dusty, the hard bright sky. No mystery.
Venford Reservoir
It never occurred to me that one day I should write about it and that the mystery would be essential to me to be able to do so. My whole approach to Dartmoor is an emotional and spiritual one: I need to feel that sense of healing and comfort and joy that comes from an infinite and unknowable presence.

There were more journeys. I moved away, reluctantly, and Charles went as a boarder to Mount House School. Then there were the journeys from the naval base in Chatham when I’d drive from Kent, through Exeter and Moretonhampstead – no M5 in those days – and across the moor to meet him for exeat weekends and we’d stay at the Bedford Hotel. Later we moved to Avonwick and I’d alternate the journey to school; sometimes through Cornwood and sometimes through Ashburton but always across the moor.

Many people know how my husband persuaded to me to write and for how long I resisted him. When at last, however, I reluctantly began to consider how on earth one wrote a book, and what it might be about, I had no problem with location. My characters brought the landscape with them and the landscape was Dartmoor. My journey now was a different one.
Holne Moor
The characters were no problem to me; they revealed themselves to me gradually but very completely, connections and relationships were made clear – but the landscape was a different matter. For nearly fifty years I’d revelled in it but describing it was something else again. How on earth can one do justice to it; how evoke it? And just as all my life I’d instinctively avoided the heat of the day and the height of summer, so now I knew that I must avoid too much description. I simply wanted to evoke so that readers could use their own imaginations and conjure up their own mysteries. Descriptive writing is agony to me, especially trying to bring something fresh to scenes and seasons I’ve described through twenty odd books. I spend hours writing three sentences, attempting to distil the essence of the mystery and the magic into words, but still, as I search for a phrase that might pin it down, Dartmoor continues to elude me, keeping me on my toes.

Nothing thrills me more than an e-mail or letter from a reader who has been touched by such a description. I have a reader in Tasmania who writes to me saying that the books make her homesick for the moor that she hasn’t seen since she was a child. Back then she could see it from her window, as I can now as I write, and sometimes it seemed so close that she might touch it and other times it was far away, mysterious, remote. She sends me e-mails saying from time to time saying; ‘Are the moors close today?’ and I know she’s feeling homesick.

Each time a new character appears, bringing the familiar landscape, I go out to find exactly which part of the moor it is and so the story reveals itself. The journey continues.

Today's journey is to visit the house we shall be moving into in two weeks time. It will take us through Tavistock and Merivale; past the prison at Princetown to the Two Bridges Hotel (sister to the Bedford Hotel) where we shall stop for coffee. We shall turn off the road to Ashburton and cross the Dart at Hexworthy before climbing up the hill which passes The Forest Inn and winds its way to Holne Moor. Here we will be in Forgotten Laughter country: dropping down to cross the O Brook at Saddle Bridge and up towards Combestone Tor and on to Venford. As always when we cross the moor, the landscape will be occupied by characters from previous books and sometimes, to my great surprise and delight, someone new: someone glimpsed who, as I turn towards them, fades leaving a promise that we shall meet again.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Through the kitchen window

There are times when trying to be a nature photographer is very trying. This last week has been such a time. We have had two stoats playing about ten feet away from the kitchen doors (through which I have taken many pictures of birds and some mammals) but they move so fast that all I have ever managed to shoot is a nice focussed picture with nothing animal in it (but, obviously, some mineral and vegetable) or terribly fuzzy shots that may or may not have included a whole family of stoats. All very . . . trying.
Is this what the stoats are after? A rabbit pops in from the field next door.

One big question: how much are we going to miss the ever changing panorama outside our door? A glance over my shoulder and there is a jay feeding alongside a pigeon with a gaggle of sparrows (or whatever the right collective noun should be – please tell me) in the foreground.
It is fairly unusual to see a jay in the garden but this one is now quite tame.
 A little while ago and Marcia was chasing a hen pheasant out of the utility room – our fault, I suppose, because the door to the garden was open and these birds aren't stupid, they know where the food is kept.
Oh, goody. Someone's left the utility room door open again!
We shall have a balcony off the sitting room which is on the first floor (this being an upside-down house) and there is a cherry tree that grows through the balustrade beside which someone has hung a bird feeder. So, things will be different but that doesn't mean they will be less interesting – they could even be more so. Bit like when Marcia finishes one book and we move onto the next: great sorrow that we are saying goodbye to a group of people with whom we have spent the last nine months or so and excitement as we look forward to meeting the next lot. Yes, we have started to talk about them but the usual mantle of secrecy will surround them until Marcia feels the time has come to take them out into the big wide world.
Something tells me that I shan't see too many herons on the balcony.
Some years ago she was asked to talk at the big Transworld sales conference that they hold each year. All the marketing people and sales representative attend this together with most of the editorial staff. She was, as you would expect, terrified. Odd that someone who is so scared of talking in public should be so incredibly good at it – so good, in fact, that many people refuse to believe that her terrors are real. They are, believe me.

Anyway, she was talking about her new book and she spoke of it as if it were a little boy about to go out into the big wide world for the first time – perhaps to school – and the fears that live in a mother's heart at that time. She explained to the Transworld people that she was expecting them to be kind to her boy, to make sure they did everything that they could to help him to succeed and to ensure that they kept all bullies at bay. I don't think anyone had spoken to them along those lines before but whenever I meet anyone who was at that conference they delight in retelling the story.
Some youngsters should never leave home. This sparrow with  the white flashes on the wings (obviously a genetic fault) was easy prey for the sparrow hawk - probably because he was an easy target on which to concentrate.
Most of this week has been spent in deciding what we shall take with us, what we shall have to sell and what we will give away (to our local children's hospice, by the way). Not only shall we have one room less but all the rooms are far smaller. Next week won't be that different except that we are away for four days out of the five so won't have much time to worry about it all.