Friday, 28 February 2014

On our way to Dartington Hall

We think (hope?) that we have finally found where we want to live. We can't buy the house because it is extremely unlikely that it will ever be sold on the open market. However, we can rent it and do so for as long as we want to stay put - hopefully for a very long time. It is substantially smaller than the house in which we have been perching for the eighteen months or so but that is not a problem as you will see.

The explanation is that the house in question is on the Dartington Hall Estate. This estate - which has featured here on my blog on a number of occasions in the past - covers over twelve hundred acres, includes Dartington Hall itself (where Marcia has spoken at Ways With Words) as well as a couple of schools, a farm, the Barn Theatre, The White Hart (a pub), The Roundhouse (coffee and snacks), the Cider Press Centre (now called Dartington Shops), a number of office blocks and, crucially, lots of houses and cottages. Click here to see more about Dartington Hall.

In addition to the house we are renting a couple of small offices (which is why we can manage in a much smaller house) and earlier today we took possession of those offices and have started to move things into them.

Gosh - even golly gosh. It has all happened quite quickly and incredibly easily which - rightly or wrongly - persuades us that this move was meant.

From the above you will realise that we have been very busy indeed, sorting things out and beginning to pack up ready for the move which will be in two parts: all the rest of the officey bits next Wednesday and then the house stuff about half way through March to give us time to have curtain poles and so on put in place first. So we are in for a fortnight of general chaos and a tumbling of our usual mediocre cuisine which will, I fear, major on quantities of unhealthy snacks and pub lunches during this period.

Fortunately there is one thing we will not have to worry about. The move is so local that we shall be able to stay with our present doctor and dentist which, for some reason, I find quite comforting.

The proposed cover for Indian Summer which will be published in October.
Meanwhile, on the booky front, last night I finished checking through the copy editing for Indian Summer - the book that will be published next October - and the final mss has gone off to Transworld and to Marcia's agent, Dinah Wiener (for the foreign publishers to read).

Dinah has just returned from the island of Bhola, off the coast of Bangladesh, where there is the headquarters of a children's charity - Bhola's Children - of which Dinah is a trustee. The island is not the easiest place to visit: there is an overnight ferry journey which follows the long flight from London and I cannot help but take my hat off to Dinah who, despite being in her seventies, makes this trip at least twice every year.

There is a big problem looming on the horizon for this charity, one we are beginning to see only too clearly here in the UK. The land that the charity has bought on which the hospital and school have been built is very low lying - as, indeed, is most of Bangladesh. There is an ongoing concern that rising sea levels will make this area untenable - and there is absolutely nothing that can be done to protect the island. Here in the UK we are realising that large areas (such as the Somerset Levels here, in the South West) are under attack in two directions: from rising sea levels and heavy rainfall. Now it seems that it is California that is in the firing line as, after months of drought, it is now facing its second torrential downpour: one that forecasters are suggesting will dump two inches of water in less than twenty-four hours. Hmm.

Colin the collie cross will not be going to Spain with the four "D's" (see last week's blog) but will remain behind to look after Debs' mum.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Sunshine and water

Last Sunday and something quite unexpected happened. The sun shone, it was warm, there was spring in the air. Then, also out of the blue, Marcia received a text from a friend of ours: he was on his way to Totnes with his family (and dog) - could we meet?

The Royal Seven Stars

So it was that found ourselves sitting outside the Royal Seven Stars enjoying excellent coffee and listening to his plans. Allow me to introduce David Hurst, his wife Debs and two small sons, Daniel and Darley . . . and Colin their collie cross, destined to be the blog dog next week.

The four D's: Debs with Darley - David with Daniel 
David worked for the Evening Standard as an editor until deciding that life in some rural spot would be better for them as a family rather than living in London. Accordingly they bought a cottage in Devon and David became a freelance writer. He is a very good journalist and works very hard so, almost against the odds, is very succesful. This next part of the story came as a bit of a shock - you will see why in a moment.

Before we left Totnes, I noticed something I had never seen before. This building on the left used to house the old Bradford and Bingley Building Society where I had an account at about the time we set off on our journeys around the country. What did I see? The first floor windows - detail below.

Shortly they will be setting off in a camper van - but leaving Colin with Debs' mother - and will be spending a fortnight travelling around Spain, spending time in various camp sites. All of this will result in an article about exploring that part of the world in a camper van with two smalls - four and two-years old. Watch this space for further news on this adventure.

I love these little details - see the stonework to the left and that little window looking up the road.
Now let us wind the clock back about thirty years. The year before there had been a "Village Ventures" competition throughout England supported by the Duke of Edinburgh and sponsored by Shell. I was to write a short book describing some of the more interesting entries into the competition and this meant, obviously, that I had to visit the various places to find out what people had been doing and to interview the movers and shakers.

The walk back to the car took us through this arch into one of the many narrow lanes in the old part of the town.
So it was that two adults, Marcia and I, set off in a camper van with two smalls. The basic difference was that our smalls were both dogs. We made three trips in all: the first took us up the western since of the country and back down through the Midlands, the second covered the eastern side and East Anglia and the last started in Bath and then followed the Kennet and Avon canal and the River Thames towards London before swinging south to visit the counties bordering the English Channel.

We had already passed the children's play area made from old house timbers.
Three events in particular stick in my mind.

In a small village in Shropshire, a village hall had been built which combined a number of functions. One of these was a doctor's surgery. The doctor in question was a delightful character who, half way through the interview, jumped up and sat cross-legged on a work top (we were talking in the hall's kitchen) looking like a very benevolent gnome.

On the way home we saw our first hazel catkins proving that spring is on the way . . .
Then there was Carlisle. I should explain that our camper van was an old Bedford with a three speed gearbox with the gear lever on the steering wheel column. Over time the links below had worn and every now and then she would jam in neutral. The cure was to jump out, crawl underneath and pull one of the levers back to reset everything. In the centre of Carlisle in a square that has traffic criss-crossing it in every direction and in the rush hour this is exactly what happened. A very small and very efficient young policewoman very kindly stopped all the traffic so that I could effect the needed adjustments.

. . . and another example of corrugated iron.
Our next encounter with the police was extremely upsetting. It was on the second trip and we were in Nottinghamshire. The miners' strike was at its height and as we travelled around, the sense of menace in the air was tangible with groups of miners confronting squads of policemen. We did not see any actual violence but on the ventures I visited was the creation of a sports field complete with a superb pavilion all on what had been a piece of wasteland. This had all happened thanks to the efforts of miners. We do well to remember that it is a terrible simplification to blame either the miners or the police for the the times when matters did get out of hand. On both sides there were a few hotheads but the real problem was that a situation had been allowed to arise where the outcome really mattered - was it to be the government that ruled the country or the unions? As in all cases of war - for that is what this was - it was the end result of the failure of diplomacy

Finally we can to the water. The lane passes under the main railway line and, as you can see, it was flooded. "You're not going to drive through that, are you?" asked Marcia. "Well, it's either that or we turn round and go back to the main road." Then as we were wondering what to do, a woman arrived (wearing gumboots, of course) and she told us that if we kept in the middle it should be all right. And it was.
Hopefully David, Debs, Daniel and Darley will encounter nothing but sunshine and friendliness wherever they go.

This week's blog dog is called Charlie. Charlie bounces a lot and most of the photographs, such as the one to the left, demonstrated this habit which, from the photographers point of view is unhelpful.

Luckily his owner had a treat in her pocket which, as you can see in the top picture, overcame all such tendencies which were instantly replaced by intense concentration.

Friday, 14 February 2014


It is Thursday and we are in Totnes. That is a nice simple sentence but like its famous cousin, eats shoots and leaves, is open to misinterpretation. Did I mean because it is Thursday we are in Totnes or it happens to be a Thursday and it happens that we are in Totnes?

As it stands it probably suggests the former. To swing it in the other direction some writers would add a comma. 'It is Thursday, and we are in Totnes.' I feel that works quite well but a better solution would be to rethink the sentence so let's start again.

Since I could think of no photographs to illustrate commas, after the blog was written we popped over to Dartington Hall to see how the spring is getting on in the gardens there. This is the main gateway into The Courtyard with the entrance to the Great Hall in the background.
In fact it was really neither of those options. Yesterday (Wednesday) this part of the world was suffering from hurricane force winds (not at all usual in the UK) and torrential rain. The forecast suggests that tomorrow will be the same. Today there is a break in the weather complete with sunny spells. It would have been a shame not to make the best of it so, even though it is very cold making it essential to wrap up well, we decided to spend the morning in Totnes.

I write these blogs in all sorts of places - sometimes on Friday morning, sometimes on Thursday. I am in The Brioche for no other reason than that it seemed the right place to be today. Often I am on the other side of the road and a bit further down - in Rumour - and I have also worked in The Boathouse between the sea and Slapton Ley at Torcross. You may remember that the last blog of 2013 was devoted to the village and The Boathouse.

This is one corner where the crocus is king at this time of the year.
The storms that hit Torcross last week resulted in waves breaking over the sea wall and carrying tons - and that is no exaggeration - of pebbles from the beach and, like many other buildings facing the sea, The Boathouse suffered from smashed windows, broken furniture and general water damage. As if that wasn't enough, a few days later a fire broke out. Despite some seven fire appliances attending there was a great deal of damage done before everything was under control. I have no idea how long it will be before they are able to open for business. We both feel deeply for what they are going through and hope that getting things sorted out will not prove too traumatic.

Back to commas. A few days ago there was reported that John McWhorter, an associate professor of English at Columbia University, believes that the comma has outlived its useful life and should be abolished. His reasoning is that this is much misunderstood and misused - with which I agree - and should be put out of its misery - with which I do not agree. (The word 'actually' is much misused but I would not wish to see it abolished.)
How do these delicate flowers cope with this sort of weather?
One of the most important uses of the comma (well, two commas in this case) as far as I am concerned is to flag up a parenthesis where the clause between the commas offers additional information but is not an essential part of the sentence. Dartmoor, with its deep valleys and high tors, is one of the most beautiful parts of England. Take out the commas and what they contain and you still have a perfectly good sentence.

Problems arise when a sentence contains three commas. Let us look at the sort of sentence I have in mind. "The sense of anti-climax was almost overwhelming and, walking back down the drive to the narrow lane, he'd felt oddly hurt, thinking that she might at least have offered him a cup of tea."

The first daffodils.
Now I am treading on very thin ice. That sentence is taken from the opening chapter of The Golden Cup. Two of the commas here flag up a parenthesis and the third a pause but I feel that using the same punctuation to do two different jobs in one sentence can cause a muddle and so I am not that happy when it happens. The third comma, by the way, is what is known over here as the Oxford comma and (I think this is right) in the U.S. as the Harvard comma.

Accordingly there may be an argument for using something different to differentiate between a pause and a parenthesis. Actually, in some old documents everything was punctuated simply to mirror the speech patterns. They used all sorts of marks including forward slashes and dashes as well as most if the ones we use today.

So why do we use punctuation at all? If you look at a well drafted Will, for example, it will see no punctuation. This makes it harder to read but avoids any risk of misunderstandings and there is the key. Punctuation helps the reader to make sense of the sentence. As such it is not cast in stone but the way it is used will change with time. If I were given the job of copy editing (line editing in the U.S.) one of Charles Dickens’ works I have a horrid feeling that the only marks I would leave in place would be the full stops. The fact is that he was writing for his time and I am writing for now but, if I am honest, I am already out of fashion. Marcia, quite rightly, is moving with the times which is exactly what you would expect.
One thing I do remember. When I was a student, it was drummed into us that a bad sentence can never be improved by the use of punctuation and that a good sentence stands with none at all. And, (another use of the Oxford comma which I claim to dislike) where all that came from I really do not know. I promise that next week I will not write the blog in The Brioche.

These two West Highland Terriers, Millie and Maddie, are following in the pawsteps of our last dog, Jossie. All three belonged to elderly owners and were found new homes by the Cinnamon Trust when their owners died. To find out more about the trust, please click here.

Friday, 7 February 2014


This last week our lives have been dominated by the weather. I am sure that all of you, no matter where in the world you live, will have heard that there has been a series of disturbingly violent weather systems streaking across the North Atlantic and hitting the British Isles with storms: torrential rain, winds in excess of ninety miles per hour and much higher tides than usual (thanks to the strong winds pushing more water towards our coast).

The results has been considerable coastal flooding twice a day at high tide times – flooding which in places has done serious damage – and flooding inland because there has been more rainfall than the rivers could disperse.

We are told this is due to the position of the jet stream and the difference in temperature on either side of it. That all sounds reasonable but then others say that there is more power in the weather thanks to climate change and that also sounds reasonable. To be frank I really don’t know about the causes but I really do know about the effects.

Probably the most dramatic is the damage to the cliffs at Dawlish. The sea has carried away all the supports under the railway tracks and they are now suspended in the air, swinging as if they were made of rope and not steel. It will be many weeks before this line is opened again. Click here to see video of what happened.

For the people living down here this is rather a disaster: it is the only railway line that feeds west from Exeter. Plymouth and Truro, both cities, plus all the main towns – Newton Abbot, Totnes, St Austell, and Penzance to name but four – and countless smaller communities are isolated from the country’s rail network.

It is a line dear to both of us. So many characters in so many of Marcia’s books use it. In the Chadwick Trilogy Fliss used it to come home every week-end when she was at Rolle College. Kate used it to go to London for the presentation in The Sea Garden. It has really hit home because the book Marcia is now writing (I shall call this The Book) was conceived as she was travelling down on that railway having been upcountry to visit her son. Furthermore, in the second paragraph of The Book Claude (you will have to wait until the autumn of 2015 to meet Claude but I can tell you that I like him enormously) travels down through Dawlish from his home in Salisbury on his way to Dartmouth.

Then there is Torcross. This one hit both of us. I am (as you know) struggling to finish the first book about Marcia’s West Country – the one dealing with Dartmouth and Start Bay and the novels set in that area. The text is all written and I am working through now popping in the photographs and adding the required captions. Here follows a photograph I put in on Wednesday and the caption that I wrote.

Huge boulders were brought in to protect Torcross from the sea although, on such a placid day as this, it would seem they would never be needed.
It just so happens that on the day I am writing this (5 February 2014) it has been announced that Torcross suffered from another storm last night with a number of houses being evacuated - and that despite the new sea wall.
I said “to both of us” because Jemima returns in The Book – and Jemima is now living in Torcross which is one of the communities that suffered from those coastal floods. The seas were so strong that they carried huge amounts of pebble and hurled them against the houses where they smashed windows and caused other damage. Some people could not escape by going out of the doors on the landward side of their homes as the waves were breaking right over the roofs and there was water – very active water – everywhere.

So, yes, it has been a worrying time but there have been very few casualties. What it has done is to make many of us think quite seriously about the fate of people in other parts of the world. We are remembering those who died and suffered other losses in events such as Hurricane Katrina and the dreadful tsunami that followed the volcanic activity in the Indian Ocean in 2004.

Marcia and I have escaped unscathed although the noise in the house as it is being battered by the high winds is sometimes very scary.

Meet Percy - a dog that lives in a doggy heaven, s "deli".