I love wandering and I love writing, and I often find that the first activity shapes the second. I’ve frequently returned from jaunts with my collie, Ted, the notion of a poem inspired by something I’ve seen germinating in my head. Days, sometimes weeks or months pass before the seedling breaks the surface; then more walking is required to find the poem’s rhythm and tease it out to a conclusion.
This would seem to be a common tendency. Coleridge and Wordsworth famously walked their poems on the Quantocks and in the Wye Valley and the Lakes, while the poet and travel writer, Edward Thomas, tramped the south of England obsessively. Alice Oswald traced the length of the river Dart to divine her marvellous eponymous poem, and another of my favourite books - my totem, in fact - is Alan Garner’s collection of essays entitled ‘The Voice that Thunders’, in which he writes brilliantly about the eternal nature of landscape.
I’m coming to the end of my annual summer holiday in my caravan in Devon, during which I’ve managed several walks worthy of the name. By chance, I’ve stumbled - not literally, thankfully - across several literary connections while out and about. In Sidmouth I saw a plaque commemorating the playwright and author, R F Delderfield. I’m ashamed to say that although I’ve heard of him, I’ve never read or seen performances of any of his works, even though they have such familiar and resonant titles as ‘God is an Englishman’, ‘A Horseman Riding By’, and ‘To Serve Them All My Days’. (I must have been busy gelling my hair and going to punk gigs when the latter two were televised.) A couple of days later, I walked past a thatched cottage in an isolated combe on Dartmoor in which the author Mary Wesley lived, and spotted a stained glass window dedicated to the writer, priest and social reformer, Charles Kingsley, in Holne Parish Church. He was born in the village when his father was curate there. And on Wednesday I picnicked with one of my sons and my dog at Coleridge Cross, high on the hills above Slapton Ley.
Rather more deliberately, on Sunday last I drove up to Okehampton Camp on the northern edge of Dartmoor. Ever since its whereabouts was revealed in 2003, I’ve wanted to hike out to the head of the river Taw on a pilgrimage to the memorial stone of one of my favourite poets, Ted Hughes. (Yes, my dog is named after him.) I’ve walked on Dartmoor a lot but only around its edges. This would be the first time I’d be penetrating almost to its bleak and boggy heart, a round trip of about ten miles. For this reason, and because I had my autistic son with me, I decided to play it safe and walk out on one of the military roads, rather than chance our way over marsh and clitter.
Our outward route wound down through the valley of the East Okement, past the familiar outlines of Cosdon Hill and Belstone, Oke and Steeperton Tors, and others I’d never seen before, such as the ethereally lovely Wild Tor.
Eventually we reached the Army Observation Post that marked our departure from the metalled road onto a far rougher, stonier path. As this track turned east, we left it to squelch down towards the Taw Head through scrub and feral grass, squinting at every likely looking lump of granite. After about quarter of an hour of sploshing about, we spotted it on top of a spoil heap on the opposite bank of the infant river, below the bulk of Hangingstone Hill. Stepping across carefully (although it’s narrow, even here the Taw has surprisingly deep pools), we scrambled up the tump to our goal.
The resemblance of this promontory to a bronze-age cairn wasn’t lost on me. What a fitting place to remember a true chief of our tribe, our national poet, close to one of the sources of his inspiration.
Instead of returning via the same route, we continued along the military road in the same direction as before, following it as it curved back up through the parallel valley of Black-a-ven Brook, passing High Willhays and Yes Tor (the two highest points on the moor), as well as East and West Mill Tors, before depositing us back at our car.
I returned to the Biscuit Tin By The Sea temporarily lulled, but with an idea for a poem taking shape that would require some serious walking - and soon …