Friday, 26 June 2015

A day best forgotten

Last week I mentioned that not all trips were fun and there were a few disasters. One of the most dramatic happened when we were up on Exmoor. As usual we had the camper van and we were staying at our cottage near Wheddon Cross. What did we do that morning? I am afraid I simply can't remember – later events expunged it from my memory. You can be fairly certain there was a definite purpose (simply because there nearly always was: it has never been in our natures to meander about simply to enjoy the views, well, not very often). Anyway it was shortly after we had stopped somewhere for lunch that we found ourselves driving west through the grounds of Lee Abbey (a retreat house in a spectacular setting a few miles west of the Valley of the Rocks). As you approach the western boundary of the abbey grounds, the lane drops down and, at the bottom, there is a drive with a large splay on the right whilst ahead the lane narrows and then starts to climb up quite steeply, passing a lodge on the left.

We were about level with the lodge when there was a really horrible noise from the engine and we jolted to a halt. Clearly we couldn't stay where we were – we were blocking the road – so I put her into neutral and allowed the slope to take us back into that large splay where I could stop without being in anyone’s way. Naturally there was no mobile telephone signal at that point – signals in this part of the world are patchy at best and it would have been too much to hope for. This, of course, posed a problem.

Shortly afterwards, a delivery man came down the lane from the west and I was able to stop him and he agreed to give me a lift into Lynton (now about two miles away). Leaving Marcia and Max I set off with him and, once there, began by telephoning the RAC (Royal Automobile Club) of which I had been a member since my early twenties. It was not easy explaining where the van was but they eventually found the place on the map and arranged for a pick-up truck to meet me there. Next was to find a taxi to take me back to the van and then drive Marcia and Max to the cottage where they would have to wait for me – and none of us had any idea as to how long that would be.
I settled down to wait – and wait. Having no signal there was no way I could check on progress and it was ages before a pick-up truck arrived from Barnstaple. The driver was, to put it mildly, fraught. He had had a horrible journey. Clearly he was not used to driving that truck through these narrow lanes and the whole experience was really too much for him. To make matters worse he had twice lost his way and on one of those excursions had driven down a lane that just petered out and he had no choice but to reverse back to the road he should taken. He said that was about two miles but he may have been exaggerating. He was most unhappy but cheered up when I was able to brew up some coffee for him – there are advantages in being broken down in a camper van.

The lane through the Valley of the Rocks looking towards Lynon.
He flatly refused to return up the lane down which he had come and to be honest, I couldn't blame him. So it was into Lynton and from there to Barnstable (about twenty miles) before heading south for a village called Northlew (about thirty miles if we had taken the shortest route but it was probably well over forty coming the way we did) where the garage we used was.

Obviously the way we came would not have been my choice but it seemed sensible to let him decide which route to follow. I suppose I felt it was best if he took responsibility – it would have been very difficult if we had come unstuck while following my directions. Eventually (that part of the journey took over two hours) we arrived at the garage, which was then closed. It seemed this was a worry too and it was only after I signed a disclaimer to the effect that I took full responsibility no matter what that he agreed to unload the van in the yard in front of the workshop.

I had decided that I would try and get him to run me home (a matter of some five miles) and was expecting a bit of resistance but I was pleasantly surprised – he did so with no argument although as we turned into the lane leading down to the house he said, ‘These lanes are even worse than those on Exmoor’. I felt that was a bit unfair – they are almost exactly the same in terms of width (or lack of it), gradients (steep) and the habit of winding seemingly without reason as if any straight stretch of more than a few hundred yards was an evil to be avoided at all costs.

The Exe Valley in autumn.
Then all that remained was for me to get into the Volvo and drive back to the cottage. Being on my own I took the quickest route to the A30 (known thereabouts as the Devon Express Way which is fair enough as it is a fast dual carriageway which links onto the M6 motorway at Exeter) then up the M6 to the spur that links the motorway to Tiverton. I managed to make the roundabout at the end of the spur in under the hour (driving at speeds that Marcia would not have liked) and then it was turn right and take the road up the Exe valley. No point in rushing, it's a good road but winds a lot so the best thing is to settle down and enjoy the fabulous scenery. Even so, I managed to pull up outside the cottage at about eight in the evening after a total journey time from door-to-door of under an hour and a half for the ninety-three mile trip which was the quickest ever. I was extremely pleased to collapse on the sofa while Marcia rustled up some supper and Max sat beside me with his head on my thigh and a deeply compassionate look in his eyes.
Not a good day - nor one easily forgotten.

This photo has nothing to do with that day but I rather like it. It was taken looking out of the sitting room window in our cottage just before sunset on a cold and wintry day.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Time for a face lift

As I expect you all suspected, we had a bit of a crisis last week. Luckily I wrote the blog on Thursday - as I usually do. However I had not selected and processed the pictures. If I had I would have scheduled the blog to be posted on the Friday morning. What I didn't know was that early Friday morning I was to hit the buffers as my iron levels suddenly dropped – again. Nobody seems to be able to explain why this happens but when it does I find myself stuck in bed. It is all rather horrid. What is really odd is that I don't feel it coming. All seems to be well and then, completely out of the blue, it hits yet again.

Anyway (and sorry about this), during the day I forgot all about the blog – the penny fell in the evening. When it did I was feeling a bit better so managed to put some photos – not very brilliant ones I’m afraid – with it and post it, just, on Friday. I was surprisingly pleased that I had not missed a week. Childish, really.

Since then I have had more tests and another iron infusion. My doctor – a really nice guy, by the way – has decided that in future I should have a regular monthly check up to try and stop me falling off the cliff, if you see what I mean.

After four days in bed, it was time to go and see something of the world. Marcia had to go down to Dartmouth so I went along for the ride although I didn't get out of the car. Imagine my surprise when I saw that the George and Dragon – the public house that was run by an uncle and aunt and in which my mother and I spent most of the war years – father being abroad – was undergoing what looks like a major face lift.

In those days the entrance was round the back in Silver Street and the bit this side was our back yard. It was enclosed by a high wall – you can see the remains of that to the right of the hoardings – in which there were a pair of large gates with a small wicket gate. Anyway, what really made me talk about this is that someone has drawn some rather jolly pictures on that hoarding, as you can see, which reinforce the family connection, Philips were an important employer and the biggest shipbuilding yard in the town. A number of relatives worked there including my grandfather, a couple of uncles (one being the son of the landlord of this pub who married one of my mother’s sisters) and my mother who ran the accounts office for some years. All these pictures are of craft (except for the paddle steamer) built by Philips.

Meanwhile, the 'Companion' has been progressing albeit more slowly than I had hoped. There are now pages up for The Sea Garden and The Christmas Angel. Matters are a bit more difficult now – I had already prepared notes for the earlier books but not for those two or the ones still to be dealt with. 
Thus the need to consult what materials we have – our diaries, my photos (thanks to the ‘date taken’ tag) and Marcia’s notebooks plus, of course, many discussions starting with, ‘can you remember that day when we . . . ?’

Actually it has been great looking back. There were plenty of disasters along the way but what we remember most is the laughter and fun that we had.

Friday, 12 June 2015

We visit Two Bridges and Princetown

The geese at Two Bridges Hotel dozing in the sunshine.

Marcia and I crossed the moor on Tuesday to meet a friend at Two Bridges near Princetown. This is where the infamous Dartmoor was built in the early 1800's to house not criminals but French prisoners of war. To add insult to injury, it was built BY the French prisoners of war.

Until recently there was an embargo on taking photographs of the prison without prior permission. I am not sure how rigidly this was enforced but on a couple of occasions I did see two prison officers arrive in one of their vans to accost people taking pictures and on one of those one of them removed the film from the camera before handing it back and driving off.

Getting permission was not difficult but rather complex and you had to specify make and number of your vehicle, time and date of your proposed visit and the reason why you wanted to take the photographs. Anyway, I applied and received a letter giving me permission and telling me to report to the prison gatehouse before I took any pictures. The guy to whom I reported seemed totally disinterested and so we set off.

This was the only person at all interested in what I was doing.
The weather on the moor changes rapidly and, as it happened, visibility on that day at that time was terrible. I still have the photos but they really are useless. I understand that these regulations have been relaxed (probably because in those days prisoners worked outside the prison on the prison farm which no longer happens). Anyway, after we left the hotel we drove anti-clockwise around the prison and Princetown so that I could take photos as we drove along. Quite pleased with the results, as you can see, and now I have what I wanted to put up on TP Country on the Companion. Won't go up until I revisit that page which won't happen until I have the basics up on all the other pages.

Dartmoor Prison (just 'The Moor' if you are an inmate).

Meanwhile, back in the days when we had the cottage up on Exmoor, after we had carried out whatever trips we needed to make (some for Marcia to brood and listen – some for me to take photographs) we would return back to the cottage where Marcia needed no equipment as she would be jotting things down in one of her notebooks but never writing. I am not sure why that was but throughout that period she was never tempted to write while we up there. I suspect it was because she did not have around her the various references – books and photographs – that she had in her study.

I, on the other hand, hate leaving something I am writing for more than a single night. So I installed an HP Lenova Thinkpad in the cottage and would put whatever I was working on onto a memory stick and take that with me. Judging by the state of the keys on that laptop now I did quite a lot of work up there – the ones that are most used are highly polished.

Anyway, under the present circumstances, as I am sure you will understand, Marcia and I tend to spend as much time as we can together while leaving each the space we both need. So it is that I decided I would rather write the Companion on a laptop in the sitting room (which is open plan to Marcia's study) than up in my study and, by the same token, sort through my photo 'files as required for the Companion's 'Country' pages. So, for the first time since selling the cottage I dug the old laptop out of store and booted it up.

There is something wrong with the poor old thing and I have no idea what but it wouldn't do what I wanted it to. Then I learned that a tiny computer outfit, Leaf-Tech Ltd, in South Brent had something that sounded really good. So it was that on the way back, having exchanged emails with him while we were in the Two Bridges, we called in and met the delightful Jake Hardy who owns the firm and bought a new one. Writing this blog on that now and very pleased with it.

Basically the firm buys computers from leasing companies, refurbishes them and then sells them at incredibly competitive prices. We all know that big companies tend to lease equipment for eighteen months and then change everything for new even though much of it has seen hardly any use. Firms such as Jake's buy them and recycle them. This is so much better than just throwing them away that those of us who do not need the latest should do all they can to support them. Incidentally, you do not have to live in South Devon to benefit from what is on offer – Leaf-Tech sells over the internet and to customers world wide. Clickhere for their web site. Why the plug? Well, I didn't want to see the Lenova thrown on the scrap heap and Jake offered to do what he could to make it work and then to donate it to the South Brent Community Centre where, as you may remember, Marcia opened the Community Library a couple of years ago. I felt such a gesture called for a thank you.

After we arrived back home, we had a visitor. He's rather nice and lives just up the road from us.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Companionship and the Companion

The time has come to think about Marcia's position at the moment. We are coping because we are working as a team. We have discussed in detail how we should move forward and we have found there is little disagreement on the basics. I have signed – in front of my doctor who was responsible for witnessing that I am me and that I was in sound mind at the time – a form on which, amongst other matters, I state that I do not wish to be admitted into a hospital when my condition deteriorates. This form is most important. Without it Marcia could be deemed to have acted without due care and attention if something happened that would normally result in a quick call to the emergency services. Were that to be the case, she would then face a criminal prosecution. Now she is covered because she would be carrying out my wishes and both she and my doctor can stand witness to that.

The garden is full of adult birds feeding their young.

Anyway, it still doesn't quite let poor old Marcia off the hook. She feels she has a duty to look after me properly and I know there are days when she gets quite worried (I call these my off days). I try not to show how I am feeling but you can't live alongside someone for nearly forty years without being able to see through any acts they may be putting on. On one count she is absolutely right: I am hopeless at remembering to take medication when I should but she, bless her, keeps track and makes sure I do.

And not just the garden. These two canada geese seem to be very proud of their young, don't they?

To my great delight I am really enjoying putting material up on 'The Companion' My aim is to add a book a day hopefully both to the main pages and to the 'country' pages. Having said that I know that this is pretty ambitious even though it is based on fairly minimal 'country' pages all of which will need to be revisited – and most time and time again. 

Then there are the speciality subjects. By that I mean things like the history of tin mining in the area, how it was copper that provided the Dukes of Bedford with the wealth to virtually rebuild Tavistock, rabbit warrens on the Moors together and some historical oddities such as the mineral railway up on Exmoor. Have any of these a place in 'The Companion'? Well, it will be some time before I need to address that question and meanwhile there is lots to be done.

Meanwhile, the garden is full of baby birds – mainly blue and great tits, blackbirds, sparrows and rather surprisingly, nuthatches. All the places where we have lived there have been nuthatches but only here have I watched a youngster being fed on the ground on crumbs and such like picked up from the ground by the parent and thrust down the offspring's throat. I find myself wondering how good this is for that fledgling. Has the parent discovered a new and valuable food source or is it plain dumb and doing all sorts of damage to its child?

Horribly out of focus but it proves the point. Still, I was brought up to believe that the man who never made a mistake never made anything. It has proved to be a very useful motto behind which to shelter after getting it wrong.

I then wrote: Actually I can't remember seeing a nuthatch feeding on the ground before this – on trees and feeders, yes – but not on the ground. Then I had a look at my photos of nuthatches and realised this was nonsense. Above is another one doing just that some six years ago. Glad I checked.

However, this is much more how one expects to see these birds: om a feeder or, of course, a tree but always upside down.

The fact that a sparrow hawk is now dropping in for lunch most days means we have created a very healthy bird population in this garden which is. of course, part of the plan.

Just look at those claws! The red on the head indicates that this is an immature greater spotted woodpecker. These are territorial birds always happy to fight off any intruders and once this chap loses those red feathers (in the autumn) he will have to watch out but for now no adult will attack him.
Quick addendum: our first baby Great Spotted Woodpecker this year with mother arrived outside the kitchen. Offspring sat on the trellis while mum popped in and out of the nut feeder doing what mother woodpeckers do the world over. They are very nervous and any move to pick up a camera scares them off so no picture of these two but . . .