About Me

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Bristol , United Kingdom
I am co-director of the Leaping Word Poetry Consultancy, which provides advice for poets on writing, editing and publishing, as well as qualified counselling support for those exploring personal issues in their work - https://theleapingword.com. My fifth poetry collection, Learning Finity, is now available from Indigo Dreams or directly from me.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Testing Times on Dratmore

It was clear from the fast-flowing, peat-stained waters barging under Harford Bridge that the River Erme was running very high, and this was bad because Ted and I would have to ford it several miles upstream.  But faint heart never got wet feet, so we continued on our way, up onto the moor via the gate at Hall Plantation.
Our first stop was the Tristis Rock.  I've long wondered why it's called that, wondering if the name has its etymology in the Latin tristis, which means 'sad' or 'foul-smelling' - like, say, star-crossed lovers met there and fell into a bog - or if it's connected to a person, for example, a garlic sausage-gobbling Norman invader who seized the land, simultaneously spilling his Listerine.  Whatever, I haven't turned up a story yet.

Normally the first thing I do when I get to a tor is climb it, but Tristis looked like quite a challenge with one very dodgy looking foothold in particular so I gave it a miss, deciding that if I did fall and sprain my sprained ankle, it would be quite tristis for me out there on my own, Ted's Lassie skills leaving rather a lot to be desired.  There were great views from the base of the rocks, anyhow, up the Erme valley to Sharp Tor.

The main reason why I wanted to do this walk was to get a closer look at one of three extreme oaklands on the moor.  Like bumble bees, which, the laws of physics assure us, cannot fly, Piles Copse, Black-a-Tor Copse and Wistmans Wood do not exist because oak trees cannot grow at such a high altitude and in such exposed conditions.  Except that they do.  And there, up ahead on the right hand bank of the Erme, was Piles Copse, the only one of the three I had yet to visit.

First though, the locating of a rather whimsical path through boggy scrub, through a gap in a wall and another gate, followed by a slantwise trek up hill before joining a good track leading up the valley from the Water Treatment Works through a well preserved bronze age settlement containing hut circles in an enclosure.

When walking through such sites, I always wonder about the people who were born, worked and died here so long ago, what their lives were like, what hopes and dreams they had.

The path headed on up the valley alongside the copse. It was easy walking, albeit pretty wet in places.  

There were lots of sheep and ponies about, so Ted went back on the lead.

We were now opposite the copse.  A handful of oaks and one or two rowans had even seeded themselves on our side of the river, which, incidentally, was still looking pretty fierce.  I wondered about the crossing.  I s
omehow doubted we would get over but kept on going, not least because the walking instructions said to turn right at the lone hawthorn and make one's way down to the bank, which pleased my inner Blytonesque adventurer no end.

And there it was, the lone hawthorn, its berries reddening ...

... and there the river was, nigh on impassable.

  At this point I had three options.  1. Risk it.  2. Carry on upstream for another two and a half miles where there was a second crossing point.  3. Admit defeat.

Number 1 option was a non starter.  
Dartmoor rivers are notorious for sweeping people away and not just in folk tales, either.  I couldn't risk Ted's safety, nor mine for that matter. 

Number 2 option also lacked appeal.  It was already mid afternoon and the weather was closing in.  What's more, there was no guarantee the ford upstream would be any less dangerous and I risked adding an extra five miles to my journey and still having to resort the dreaded option 3 ...
Every particle of my body hates, loathes and detests turning around and retracing my steps, and it never gets any more palatable.  But Dartmoor is my teacher and its lessons are always challenging, this one just more so.

It's never as easy finding the path on the way back.  And I'd forgotten how bloody boggy the Erme valley is, I'm sure it's wetter than all the others.   Ted seemed quite happy, though.  And before I'd got back to the car, I was already working out a different route for next time.  

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Angels and a Castle in Cloud

Son the Elder wanted to visit a friend of his who lives in Salisbury yesterday, so we were off bright and early, he armed with a bunch of pink roses (it was that sort of friend) and I with camera and walking book.  

Having visited the Cathedral just last year with the lovely Jan and Helen, I decided to use some of my free time exploring the town instead.  First stop, the Church of St Thomas and St Edmund, which provided a 'Blimey!' moment as soon as I walked through the door. 

I wonder how many tourists come to Salisbury and miss this amazing mediaeval Doom painting on the chancel arch?  It's easily done when a parish church stands in the shadow of a Cathedral.

There was also what was confusingly called a Somerset Angel Roof (given that Salisbury is sited well within Wiltshire), although it was very reminiscent of those I'd seen over the border in Martock and Long Sutton.  There was also some fine mediaeval paintings of Mary in the Lady Chapel and the tomb of Jane Eyre.  Really!  (No, not that one. A real one, who lived locally.)
Then it was off around town for a bit of a wander.  I loved this Arts and Crafts shop frontage I passed.

After traversing the very charming Water Lane, my route took me along the banks of the River Avon.  (That's the Wiltshire/Hampshire Avon, not the Wiltshire/Somerset/Bristol Avon.)  There were lovely views over the water meadows, some venerable willow trees and even a trout jumping for flies in the green waters.  It was all very idyllic.

Then the usual Salisbury stuff, that people quite rightly travel to see - mediaeval quirk which I love, and stately Georgian blah which isn't my cup of tea but I can why people admire it.  As I have a National Trust card this year, I decided to ditch my prejudices and visit 18th century Mompesson House in the Cathedral Close.  When I arrived it looked rather less elegant than usual, as it was in the process of being painted.

The scaffolding also marred the fabled view of the Cathedral from inside the house but it didn't really matter because there was a rather nice exhibition of small watercolours by a Miss Barbara Townsend who lived in the house from 1842 to 1939 and who painted it endlessly, sometimes covered in rather more picturesque wooden scaffolding.  The collection had recently been discovered by descendants in a suitcase.  She was quite an interesting person, was Miss T.  She never married and never worked for a living, but spent her days painting pictures and pottery and travelling about a bit.

I was glad of the exhibition because there was little else in the house that interested me.  I feel like such a philistine when it comes to the 18th century but its aesthetics don't please me and unless the subject-matter includes grimy skulduggery in rat-infested back lanes, I'd sooner pass, thanks.

Off I set again, past the stately Georgian blah of Arundells, where former Prime Minister Edward Heath lived - I did smile to see a balled up pair of dirty socks tucked next to the railings - and the town museum which I didn't have time to visit before my car parking ticket ran out (three hours max, how silly).  I did, however, get my stunning view of the Cathedral, after all.  

There was a striking sculpture by Dame Elisabeth Frink in the Cathedral grounds called the Walking Madonna, which I loved because she came across as such an Everywoman figure.  

She contrasted sharply with a rather dull memorial in a nearby street to three Protestant martyrs who were burned at the stake in the city in 1556.  On the same thoroughfare, there was a blue plaque on the wall of Bishop Wordsworth's Church in memory of William Golding, who wrote 'Lord of the Flies' whilst teaching there.   Hah, I bet the governors loved that!

My time in the car park up, I drove up to Old Sarum to the north of the city.  This is the site of the old city of Salisbury, with its ruined Norman Castle and the remains of the original Cathedral on the site of an Iron Age hill fort - although as early as 3,000BC, the hill was used for ceremonial purposes and there were settled communities all around it.  And more recently, in 1794,  it was one end of the very accurate baseline used by Ordnance Survey to check the mapping of Southern England started in the 1780s. Five thousands years of history all told, then, and as you might expect, the place had a really special feel about it.  

I started my exploration by walking the inner ring of the outer ramparts. The chalk was typically Wiltshirian - no wonder this is the county of White Horses - and very  different from my ancestral lands of Devon and Cornwall to the west.  The views were beautiful, the fields being big enough to stage an ever-shifting dance of sunlight and cloud.  

Around the ramparts there was a grove of yew trees and also beeches, the shallow and sprawling roots of both making interesting patterns on the ground.

Where some trees have been felled and sheep introduced for nibbling purposes, chalk grassland flowers have re-colonised the site.
On my way around the ramparts, I stopped to inspect the ruins of the Cathedral, which lie within the bailey where there was also a Bishop's Palace as well as housing.  However, being a proverbial series of small walls, it wasn't until I saw it from the Castle ruins on the motte (in the background of this photo) that I could really appreciate them.  

And so on around the edge of the hill, this fairy tale stretch of path through thick bushes giving on to a beautiful view of Salisbury, a few miles away.   

One of my very favourite things when I'm out walking somewhere high and imposing is looking out and noticing that it's raining somewhere else but not on me, and South Wiltshire did not disappoint.

Then it started to rain so I delayed exploring the castle till it went off and and read a book I'd picked up on ley lines instead, in the process discovering why churches built on hills (St Michael's Mount, Brent Tor, Glastonbury, Burrow Mump, et al) are dedicated to St Michael.  Utterly fascinating!  

The motte is accessed via a modern bridge over a very impressive moat.  (You really do get a sense here of how well defended the fort, and later the Castle was.)

Most of the surface area was taken up with a courtyard, which contained a very deep well, the bakehouse, the lower Chapel, privies and, dominating it all, the Great Tower, which would have originally housed the Royal Family's apartments.  

Later, however, a Courtyard Palace was built with steps leading from it directly to the Tower, the most fortified part of the stronghold, for use during attacks.    

King John had a new hall built in the bailey in the first decade of the thirteenth century, but it was only used for a short time before it began to fall into disrepair, the roof finally falling in in 1330.

From the tower it was much easier to get a photo showing the traditional cruciform lay-out of the 11th Century Sarum Cathedral.  The pair of footballers to the far right are playing in what was the Cloisters.
View over to Salisbury Cathedral with a shower of rain behind it.  

Then it was time to retrieve Son the Elder, who'd had such a good day, I have hopes of a few more returns to South Wiltshire before too long.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Ghost Month

The black spots which tell you which ring is which on my stove have worn away (probably from too much scrubbing, ha ha!)  So last night instead of stewing fruit for my breakfast today, I set fire to the bread board.

When our Chinese Takeaway arrived, the delivery man asked if I'd been burning incense.  I said no, although I did like to burn oil from time to time, and he said to make sure I did it for the next four weeks as that very day heralded the start of Ghost Month in the traditional Chinese calendar, when the Gates of Hell are sprung open to allow ghosts access to the world of the living. Apparently these spirits spend the month visiting their families, feasting and and seeking victims.

'It's the most dangerous time of the year,' he continued. 'Evil spirits are on the look-out for souls to capture.  The best way to get rid of them is to burn incense and light candles.  I've started doing it in the back of my shop, and already I can see black shapes streaming past from the corner of my eye.'

Yes, I know.  But I have had several encounters that defy reason, and I don't believe in turning down advice from the Universe in the form of our lovely delivery man who gives us a bamboo calendar at the start of every non Chinese New Year.   Plus, exercising my own demons has not worked.  Miles over Dartmoor and they nap in the footwell of the passenger seat on the way home, jumping out fully restored at the end of our journey while I collapse on the bench in the biscuit tin by the sea, good for nothing.  Maybe it's time for exorcism instead. Pass the matchbox, please.  

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Graves, Bogs and a Load of Old Bull

For some reason I've been drawn to the western flank of Dartmoor lately and have given in to the urge even though it means a fair drive from the biscuit tin by the sea. This latest walk took me, Son the Younger and Ted out to the delightfully named Cocks Hill and back via Cudlipptown Down.

Above is the start of our route, a track leading from the idyllic village of Peter Tavy to Langstone Moor, and below the view in the opposite direction, looking out over West Devon.  The eagle-eyed might just be able to spot Brent Tor, topped by its church, on the far left.

This track leads to several landmarks.  First up, at some remove from human habitation, is this monument marking Stephens' Grave.  Having been jilted by his sweetheart, George (or possibly John) Stephens poisoned himself, and this being some 250 years ago, was buried outside of the village at the meeting of the ways so that his restless spirit wouldn't find its way back to haunt those who had done him wrong.  Strangely, this story, which is so vague and fragmentary, insists on one detail.  At the very time he was being lowered into his grave, some linen that was hanging out to bleach at Higher Godsworthy blew up into the sky and disappeared.

Like the more famous Kitty Jay, wanderers bring gifts for George - usually coins, stones, wild flowers, little crosses of rowan wood tied with red thread, etc.  This time I had a white pebble and a story for him.

Already, heart-stopping views were opening up to the south in the form of Roos and Great Staple Tor, where we'd walked a few days earlier, now spattered with sunlight and cloud, and up ahead louring Great Mis Tor.  It was sublime.

Unfortunately a ubiquity of sheep meant that Ted had to stay on the lead again.

Son the Younger asked me why some were sheared and not others, and I had no idea.  They appeared to be from the same flock, although like walked with like.  

Passing White Tor to the north, we headed for the eponymous Langstone, a menhir situated at the end of a now almost invisible stone row, and not far from the stone circle where we'd rested on our previous walk.  There were three soldiers lounging there who wanted to know what the stone was for.  Well, wouldn't we all?  Though US forces found a use for it during the war, as testified by bullet holes.

We were now striking pretty deep into this part of the moor, with the Walkham valley to our right and Tavy Cleave, which we'd explored at the beginning of June, coming into view to our left.  There is something about this sort of bleak landscape that fills me with joy, even as my companions stride out further and further ahead ... 

... that is, until a Highland bull decided that we were way too close to his harem.  I suggested to Will and Ted that we might want to detour a little, so we did - quite hastily - and eventually our outraged friend lumbered off to shout to another group of walkers.   

This is the view over to Standon Down, with distinctive Great Links Tor in the distance.  As you can see, the going was quite soft in places.

It was now time for a rest, and handily we'd reached White Barrow on the slopes of Cocks Hill, one of the boundary points of the Perambulation of 1240.  

Up ahead we could see the Lych Way leading to Beardown Tors and the unmistakeable cone of Longaford.  This is the route along which mediaeval tenants would carry the coffins of their dead, from the settlements in the middle of the moor to the Church of St Petroc at Lydford.  It is famously described as being 12 miles in fair weather and 18 in foul.

We just had ourselves to carry; even so, our route was testing.  The first thing we had to do after our rest and recuperation was to find a way across a nearby stream, which wouldn't have been at all difficult were it not for the boggy land around it.  Son the Younger tipped a boulder into this stretch and it disappeared without trace.

Fortunately, we managed to find a dry crossing point without having to walk too far out of our way, and headed north-west towards Bagga Tor.  

Here we exited the moor and walked down the lane to the hamlet of Wapsworthy, which seemed to consist mostly of ruins from various eras.  Another little rest and we rejoined the moor for a stiff climb over Cudlipptown Down, with the compensation of wonderful views north to Tavy Cleave and beyond ... 

... and, once we had struggled to the top, back over to Brent Tor and Gibbet Hill.

If you're still with me and wondering why someone's taken the trouble to quilt vast tracks of moorland, well, apparently it's down to weathering affecting the fine silty loam of this area during the Ice Age.  Whatever, it makes for pretty tricky going, particularly when you're beginning to tire.  (Looks good, though.)  

And so we were almost back to the car.  Just time to collect another skull for our collection, this one a long-dead and belichened sheep.  Then it was back to the biscuit tin, with me ignoring the quick but dull route of the A30 in favour of the more picturesque road across the moor.  Which can, at times, be very slow indeed ...