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.
I'm pleased to announce (in a screamy sort of way) that the web page for my new collection of poetry, Map Reading For Beginners, is up and running on the Indigo Dreams website, and the book itself is available for pre-order at £9.50 including postage ... oh, and the champagne's in the fridge. My fervent thanks to Ronnie and Dawn at Indigo Dreams, and to the gracious Penelope Shuttle for her testimonial.
Saturn was in transit yesterday, from first house in Bristol with mother cat and owner Emma to second house in Leeds with Daughter Number 1. At Tamworth services there was some surprisingly loud mewing from the back of the car and when we peered into the cat carrier, we were met by a pair of accusatory sea-green eyes. I tried mewing back, pretty certain I was speaking cat but not entirely sure what I was saying. It could only have been in part reassuring as the racket continued sporadically for the rest of the journey.
There was some concern about how little kittle would cope once out in the world and in contact with hard-bitten Northern moggies. Would they sneer and call her a Soft Southern Jessie - pick a fight, even? But we decided her likely riposte - 'I am Saturn, I eat babies' - would probably keep them at bay.
Our return transit was via Holmfirth and Holme, where we had a pub lunch, the journey blessed with interesting skies, shadow and sun. Above is the view from the A6204, looking back to Holmfirth and the whole of Yorkshire (almost).
Below, Derbyshire and the Peak District.
Then home down the M6 and M5 to the beautiful South West. How lovely. How lucky!
And so for a last trip out, this time to Slapton, which has the most beautiful colours and vast skies.
It also has a massive, dog-friendly beach for Ted to run on.
This is Slapton Ley, the largest natural freshwater lake in the south-west and an extremely fragile habitat. It is separated from the sea by a shingle ridge formed from sediment and therefore non-replaceable. This means it's under constant threat of coastal erosion and one day will be lost.
Slapton is also the scene of Operation Tiger, a rehearsal for the D-Day landings in which 946 US servicemen died when an Allied convoy was attacked by E-boats of the German Navy.
A few miles down the coast is the ruined village of Hallsands. This was once a thriving community of fishermen, but in the late 19th century,
the bank of shingle lying off-shore, known as The Skerries, was dredged to
build the quays at Devonport. It was assumed that the pebbles would replace themselves naturally, but they didn’t and as a result, the level of the beach dropped 20 feet.
Suddenly the tide was lapping at the rocky
platform upon which the cottages were built.After several storms that inflicted some damage to property, the
hastily-built sea defences were finally breached one dramatic winter night in
1917 and the village was overwhelmed.
Altogether 29 homes were taken over a period of 24 hours, along with the
livelihoods and belongings of everyone who lived there.
There has been further visible damage since I was last here.
Up on the cliffs, with no buttress of shingle, houses continue to fall.
The Yorkshireman was unimpressed. Why was there a Ted Hughes Poetry Trail just off Dartmoor at Stover Country Park? 'Well,' I hazarded, 'it's Ted Hughes Country, isn't it?' 'Naw!' he riposted. 'Naw, it's not!'
And he's right, Stover is not Ted Hughes country (though his memorial on the moor would indicate that he's an adopted son of Devon). In fact, the poet never visited this corner of the county, but this was the site earmarked for the trail, and the council, along with Hughes' widow, Carol, and celebrated author and illustrator Raymond Briggs, made the most of its modest charms.
A nature reserve is the perfect place to display some of the poems of that great nature poet, and whilst this visit I missed the synchronicity of seeing a cormorant across the lake as I read the poem 'A Cormorant', there were sand martins swooping over the water instead and they were great.
Even the Yorkshireman came round in the end.
My favourite bit of the trail is the nondescript valley, within earshot of the busy A38, through which a series of enormous pylons fizzle and spit. Even poetry can't rescue this place, I grumped, the first time I visited. But then you get to the middle of the valley and read this: 'The Iron Man came to the top of the cliff. How far had he walked? Nobody knows. Where had he come from? Nobody knows. How was he made? Nobody knows. Taller than a house, the Iron Man stood at the top of the cliff, on the very brink, in the darkness.
The wind sang through his iron fingers. His great iron head, shaped like a dustbin but as big as a bedroom, slowly turned to the right, slowly turned to the left. His iron ears turned, this way, that way. He was hearing the sea. His eyes, like headlamps, glowed white, then red, then infa-red, searching the sea. Never before had the Iron Man seen the sea.'
Genius. After that, how can mossy tree stumps not be the vertebrae of a monster surfacing through earth?
Or the forest not harbour a trail of breadcrumbs?
Talking of which, let's follow this path of white flint to Lidwell Chapel, high on Haldon Moor behind the biscuit tin by the sea. The first time I ever visited it, on my own, I was so spooked that I vowed never to go there ever again. And of course, I have failed to stick to my resolution because as soon as you mention the place and your reaction to it, any self-respecting walking companion wants to go there.
Lidwell (or Lady's Well) was most likely a pagan place of worship long before the advent of Christianity, on account of its well.
The isolated chapel was built
in the 13th century and dedicated either to Our Lady or St Mary
Magdalene. There are records of mass
being held there in the 14th century and of it being a place of
pilgrimage. The legend of Lidwell
concerns a monk called Robert de Middlecote, who on 28th March
1328 was accused of 'mistreating' Agnes, the daughter of Roger the Miller, at
the small, private Chapel of La Wallen at Gidleigh on Dartmoor.
pregnant and the monk caused the death of her unborn child.
De Middlecote was to appear before Thomas de Chageforde, the King's Justice, but vanished before the trial took place.
He then turned up in Lidwell,
where he apparently spent his days listening to the confessions of pilgrims and nights in search of passing travellers whom he would entice to the
chapel with offers of food and shelter.
The weary and hungry travellers, seeing that he was
a monk, would gladly take up his offer, but the meal they were served had been
laced with a soporific, and once they were semi-conscious, de Middlecote would
stab them, rob them of their valuables, and throw their bodies into the Holy
Well just inside the chapel door.
In due course the monk met his match. A sailor accepted his hospitality and whilst in prayer, glimpsed Brother Robert preparing to pounce with his knife.
In the struggle, de Middlecote toppled into the well.
The sailor then ran to the nearby farm for help and with the farmer
hauled the murderer back out, along with a bucketful of decomposing remains.
If you think this sounds improbable, the Bishop of Exeter's register for the year 1329 contains an entry
relating to the execution of a hermit monk, one Robert de Middlecote, who had been convicted of
murder. You could argue that he is England's first
documented serial killer.
Both the footpath and the Chapel itself were far more overgrown than the last time I visited, some six years ago. Whatever the truth of the story, there's a decidedly disconcerting atmosphere to the place and I was glad to see this cross here, tucked in a niche in the arch which is just about all that still stands of the building. You should do what you can for unquiet spirits.
Time for a bit of moor walking. We started at Dartmeet and were soon far from the crowds, toiling up Dartmeet hill on Yartor Down, stopping on the way at the Coffin Stone.
Between the mid 13th
and the early 20th centuries, all dead bodies in the Hexworthy and
Dartmeet areas were carried to Widecombe for burial in the churchyard. On
leaving Dartmeet, the pall-bearers would have to ascend this hill, and the Coffin Stone was handily placed
to rest the coffin while they took a breather. Its distinctive appearance came about
when a particularly unpleasant local was being taken for burial. The minute his
box touched the stone, a bolt of lightening flew down from the heavens. The
moorfolk dived for cover as it struck the coffin and engulfed it in flames. As
the fire died down, they saw that not only had the coffin and corpse
been consumed but the stone itself had been split in two. The moormen decided
that this was a sign from the Almighty, who was clearly not going to permit
such an evil man to be buried in hallowed ground, and went home, thankful not
to have to carry their load any further.
Our initial waymark, Sharp Tor, all gleamy with blossoming gorse, soon came into view.
To reach it, we walked around the head of the valley, crossing the infant Rowbrook (rhymes with cow). The skies were huge.
We were now on the roof of the world, looking over to Haytor Rocks, Saddle Tor and Rippon Tor ...
... the double Dart Gorge ...
... Combestone Tor, sunlit in the middle distance ...
... and back the way we'd come, to Yar Tor.
It was good to reacquaint myself with one of my favourite trees, a thorn sprouting improbably from a crack between rocks.
On to Rowbrook Farm, to ask permission to cross their land to reach the River Dart, along which we would return to Dartmeet. I was excited as, like the Coffin Stone, the farm has folklore attached, namely The Cry of Dart.
Here the sound of the River Dart in the gorge can be heard plainly. Sometimes it sounds like a human voice. If you hear it, beware, for the Dart requires a human sacrifice every year and will call its next victim when the time falls due.
One lad, Jan Coo, who worked at the farm centuries ago, was convinced he heard the river calling his name. One stormy night he heeded the call and was never seen again.
Unfortunately our luck failed at this point as there was no one at home. We had to abandon our proposed route and instead crossed the brook further up the valley to contour around the hill, past the suds of this sheep.
Instead of walking alongside the Dart, we caught occasional glimpses of it in its gorge.
... rushes to mingle with its twin from the East, where we sat and paddled, undisturbed by all the tourists at the car park a couple of hundred yards upstream, who visit Dartmeet and yet never actually see it.