Explore the beauty of North Devon and the South West with our Local Walker series.
by - Sue Hillier
The end of the road...
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
Having travelled hundreds of miles and telling of them in 180 articles over a 30-year span, our Local Walker has decided that the time has now come to hang up her boots and other walking gear.
I wonder how many miles have been walked and how many flora and fauna have been described? Churches and other interesting and special architectural buildings have been visited, encouraging us, the readers, to walk and go and see them for ourselves.
Over the years, Paul has enhanced the walks with his charming illustrations.
I am sure that, like me, readers will miss these delightful articles and I give a sincere huge thank you to both walker and artist for their incredible and generous support of the Newsletter.
Thank you both and with my very best wishes for the future.
Judie - Ed
A LOCAL WALK - 180
A Cliff Hanger: Now It Can be Told
Many years ago - in the mid 1980's - a summer Sunday afternoon when we decided to go for a leisurely stroll along the shore below Lester Point.
An uneventful afternoon. The only perceived hazard, the possibility of slipping on a bit of bladderwrack or getting our feet wet in a rock pool. All was calm and still; the air pleasantly warm, not too hot, when suddenly we witnessed a man hurtling through the air from the high cliff above. It was one of those situations when time appears to slow up unnaturally. His landing on the hard rocks below was inevitable and, in the meantime, we were completely helpless to do anything to prevent it.
We just stood and waited with a sense of dread. Eventually, the large man came to rest on the rocky platform at the base of the cliff. There was some moaning but he was conscious and not in obvious pain. We suggested he stay put in case anything was broken. One of us would go to seek help.
A young woman appeared. She said she was a doctor and had seen him earlier on the coast path. She told him he must not attempt to move in case any injuries were made worse. She continued on her way and my companion left to alert the emergency service.
The fallen man was very red faced and sweating profusely. He was irritable because his sunglasses and camera were missing. I searched around and finally retrieved both but the fallen man was exasperated because a bit of the camera was missing. I was sent off again to find the small component.
But I failed and meanwhile the tide was fast coming in and if we didn't move away, we should become cut off.
I propped him up as we made our way awkwardly to the sea front where, as we arrived, a helicopter was about to land and a little crowd of holiday makers had gathered to watch the spectacle. A wag pointed up to the helicopter and then the fallen man asking, "Is this for you?!" A tearful, anxious woman pressed forward greeting him with relief. He seemed reluctant to acknowledge her. We discreetly left.
But a mystery remained. Did he fall or did he jump . . . was he pushed? We'll never know.
WEST COUNTRY WALK - 179
A Head for Heights
At certain times, when travelling towards Marazion from the direction of Penzance, you may witness a strange sight - a procession of people appearing to walk across the sea to St. Michael's Mount. As you get nearer you will realise this has been an illusion for at low tide it is possible to reach the island by crossing a stone causeway. At high tide small boats are on hand to ferry visitors across.
We walked over the large smooth slabs of stone, arranged randomly, to the harbour and row of cottages below the castle. In 1044 a Benedictine monastery was founded there by the monks of Mont St. Michel, Brittany. [The two mounts resemble each other.] From the 12th century its potential as a fortress was recognised and eventually in 1425 the Crown annexed it and the monks were ejected. In 1657 the St. Aubyn family bought it and still have a connection with the castle though since 1954 the island has been owned by the National Trust.
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
We climbed up the winding paths, through the sub-tropical gardens; a vertiginous walk but we enjoyed taking in the wide sweep of Mount's Bay. Many of the people we passed were treading very gingerly, watching their feet. A few years ago, the advert for a new head gardener on St. Michael's Mount stated that as well as horticultural expertise, he or she should have a good head for heights and preferably an ability - or willingness - to abseil.
The lower slopes were sprinkled with sky blue spring squill. The tide still being out, we returned via the causeway stopping at intervals to scan the sea. To the east we observed the stately silhouette of a great northern diver [the loon in North America]. To the west along Marazion beach several whimbrel rested on their spring passage Similar to but smaller than curlews with a slightly shorter bill, the whimbrel can best be distinguished by the dark stripes on its crown.
It is always fun to visit one of the islands off our coast, no matter how small, but there is evidence that St. Michael's Mount was once joined to the mainland as tree stumps have been discovered in the sea around it.
WEST COUNTRY WALK - 178
Black Swans and Trains
It can only be Dawlish where the railway line runs between the town and the sea; trains rattling and roaring by at frequent intervals and the beach can only be reached by passing under or over the line.
In early November I found the sea front underpass was barricaded shut as repair work was still in progress. In recent years, the railway line at Dawlish has suffered considerable storm and sea damage with dramatic news footage drawing national attention to the small resort.
So I continued along to Coryton's Cove, crossing the footbridge and down the steps to the little cove while a good train thundered past and disappeared into Coryton tunnel, both the tunnel and the cove named after Jane Coryton, a local landowner. I had hoped to find turnstones among the shingle but there were just five cormorants gathered together on a little rocky island, one with a white front.
I gazed up at the high, red sandstone cliffs and felt tempted to explore the coast path winding there, but I had come to Dawlish on the Ilfracombe Community mini-bus so could not risk venturing too far and then missing the bus home. I had looked forward to seeing the black swans, the natives of Australia, which have become a proud symbol of the town.
A special feature of Dawlish is the linear park which runs through the middle of the town, perpendicular to the sea and either side of the Dawlish Water. And here in the middle of Dawlish Water was a black swan on her nest delicately rearranging bits of straw. A glamorous creature with a crimson bill and frilly white plumage revealed below like snowy underwear.
Further on, five cygnets were being ferried by their attentive parents, along the length of the 'lawn' as the grassy areas of the park are known locally. The cob walked ahead, stopping at intervals to allow the cygnets to catch up, the pen at the rear. Eventually they settled on the grass under a tree, like a family picnic party; the protective parents keeping the young ones safely between them. The gardens also contain a collection of wild fowl including mandarin and Caroline ducks, pintails, pochards and whistling tree ducks.
Leaving the park, I continued along the streamside path, with views of back yards and gardens until I reached the parish church. Then, retracing my steps to the seaside and more trains. A pleasant day's walking on Devon's south coast with dry, reasonably mild weather. Lucky timing, because the very next day we had hail and thunder!
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALK - 177
Holdstone: "Holy Mountain"?! - Strange Encounters
At 1143 feet, it is the highest coastal hill in the South West. That's quite an impressive claim to fame but to some it is a holy mountain.
When we ascended Holdstone Down in mid-September, our mission was threefold. We were hoping to see wheatears before they embarked on their autumn migration.
Secondly, I anticipated catching a glimpse of the dull but scarce grayling butterfly which is only on the wing for a few weeks in late summer until September. It is the largest member of the brown family of butterflies but as it always settled with fawn and grey marbled wings closed, it is very inconspicuous.
And thirdly, we wished to find the heather still in full colour. Happily, that day the moor presented a tapestry of magenta bell heather and mauve ling with golden yellow patches on the Western gorse.
An encampment had established itself in the normally quiet car park and I threaded my way between kettles and cooking utensils in order to reach the start of the path.
Half way up the hill I observed a pair of wheatears moving a little ahead of me, pausing very upright at intervals, flitting their tails. They flew off when a runner sped past but I caught up with them on one of the other paths radiating out from the summit.
Beside the cairn at the top I discovered a group of people praying. So, now a word about the Aetherius Society and Holdstone's reputation as a sacred site.
About sixty years ago George King, the founder of the Aetherius Society, claimed to have met Jesus there, having seen a bright blue light over the Bristol Channel which heralded the arrival of a being from Venus - Jesus, who instructed him to pray for world peace and enlightenment.
Followers of George King meet at Holdstone to chant mantras and access spiritual and psychic energy from the site, which they store in a strange contraption called a Spiritual Energy Battery, to be released in the event of disaster.
The very first time we climbed Holdstone Down, long before we had heard about these strange and bizarre beliefs, we met a man running down from the summit in a state of excitement. "Is it true?! he asked. "Is it really true that you can recharge your batteries up there?"
We reassured him this was not to be taken literally, that it was simply metaphorical. Last autumn as we descended, we noticed an elderly couple had emerged from their camper van and were staring intently at a small patch of heather clad ground.
They gave a friendly greeting as we passed and continued minutely to examine the clump of heather. Curiosity got the better of me. Had they discovered some rare insect or wild flower, I wondered. I retraced my steps to enquire. It turned out they were engaged in the popular pastime of geocaching.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
Walk 177 - Holdstone Down
LOCAL WALK - 176
An afternoon with John Ridd, Lorna, Tom Faggus, Jeremy Stickles & All
The hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of 'Lorna Doone' was celebrated in August with a dramatisation at the Valley of the Rocks by the Pleasure Dome Theatre Company. This dramatic setting with the natural sounds of the sea and birds in the background was ideal. It was an appropriate location as well because it was in the Valley of the Rocks that John Ridd came to seek the advice of wise woman Mother Meldrum, when he witnessed a fight between a sheep and a wild goat on Castle Rock.
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
Although R.D. Blackmore published Lorna Doone in 1869, the story is set in the latter part of the seventeenth century, a time of political and religious upheaval with the restoration of the monarchy, the Monmouth Rebellion and the notorious Judge Jeffreys.
I did not get around to reading Lorna Doone until last year. I had been daunted by the 640 pages of close type.But I found it much more than the romance between Lorna and John.I enjoyed the historical detail and had not expected the radical views expressed, presumably reflecting Blackmore's own.He had little time for lawyers, the clergy or those in authority, regarding them as unscrupulous and corrupt! It is a pleasure, too, for those of us living in North Devon to read his descriptions of places familiar to us on and around Exmoor.
For example, visiting Tiverton it is still possible to enter the courtyard of the original Blundell's School, beside the bridge over the River Lowman, where in 1673 the twelve-year old John Ridd was a pupil when given the news that his father, travelling home from Porlock, had been murdered by the Doones.
At Dulverton we can image John Ridd's great uncle Reuben Huckaback, the 'richest man in town', who had the 'very best shop' there. The first time I walked in the Doone Valley I was a teenager, staying at Barbrook on a hiking holiday.In those days there was a charge to enter the valley.At Malmsmead an elderly farmer stood at the gate collecting the money.
The first part of the walk is through meadows; the buildings of Cloud Farm within sight, is gentle and benign; the route along the river and through oak woods is beautiful but then the atmosphere changes.It's wilder, lonelier, rather sinister, but in an exciting way, as you reach the remote territory of the ruthless Carver Doone and his clan. From Malmsmead it's a short stroll along the lane to Oare Church, scene of Lorna Doon's and John Ridd's wedding.
The National Park has produced a new publication, 'The Lorne Doone Trail', helping walkers to tread in the footsteps of the characters.
LOCAL WALK - 175
'Running across a meadow, pickin' up lots of forget-me-nots'
So goes the song [You make me feel so young] but in this case the forget-me-nots were not in the meadow but growing along the roadside verge - lots of them, with bush vetch and ox-eye daisies. And no wild flowers were actually picked during the course of this walk!
We used often to take the field path from Barton Lane to Newberry Hill but had not used it since the main road was realigned in the 1990's. But now a sudden curiosity drew me towards it. In late May passage through the first field was pleasant and easy. Encouraged by the sight of two newish looking metal gates with a concrete platform between, I proceeded to the second field.
However, it was so overgrown I almost turned back but plunged through, seeking the hidden exit and enjoying the butterflies including a small copper landing on a ribwort plantain. A little gem.
Near the corner of the field I thought I was on terra firma, only realising I was at the edge of a bank when I slid down a couple of feet. Brambled had encased the stile which led to the shady track behind where Windyridge once stood. The bungalow was demolished at the time of the road building. It was necessary to duck below the boughs of trees that had come down before the track dips down to the road. I returned to the footpath on the day of the solstice and - what a difference a month makes!
At Barton Lane I was forced to use the stile as the gate now sported a shiny new chain and padlock. But a transformation awaited me. The second field had been mown, the path clearly defined and waymarked.
The stile had been cleared of brambles and the fallen trees removed from the track and cut into logs at the side. So this is a local walk I would now happily recommend.
I crossed the road to Newberry Close and a welcome sight was greater knapweed and an abundance of tutsan, a wild hypericum most common in the west. Its flowers have long yellow stamens and give rise to yellow berries which turn red and finally black. At the bottom of the flight of wooden steps from Newberry Close, a flurry of young dunnocks. Near the footbridge I met a song thrush as I paused to take in the view of Little Hangman and the Welsh coast. Then on to the little cove at Sandaway which has been renamed Mermaid's Cove. Eighty steps down but worth the effort.
I reluctantly decided against crossing the large blue boulders to the narrow cave. It's tempting but once inside what if there were a rock fall and no one within earshot to stage a rescue? It is a very quiet and hidden cove despite being next to a camp site.
On leaving I caught a glimpse of Stealth House on the former cliff-top site of Rope's End. It looked interesting. The architect, Guy Greenfield, was a Stirling Prize finalist and won a RIBA award for his design 'Nautilus' at Westward Ho!
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALK - 174
"What's in a name? That which we call a rose.
By any other name would smell as sweet."
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
In recent months it has been pleasant to have available a short alternative detour, to a stroll along the Sterridge Valley, between the two Restricted Byway signs. The first section I had not been to since Olive Kent left Woodlands Cottage. You may recall her dog Panda, later succeeded by the more boisterous but fiercely loyal Pickles.
The lane was longer and much steeper than I remembered it but then I'm a quarter of a century older. The climb was worth it though for the profusion of wild flowers, especially one of my favourites, the delicate wood sorrel. As the afternoon progressed its petals and bright green shamrock leaves would close up. I heard above my head a loud and witty trill I could not identify. I looked up. Perching on a branch was a male blackcap. I am more familiar with its 'clat, clat' alarm call.
The second stage of the detour - a turn to the left down a deep green lane with high stony banks and floored with a thick mulch of oak leaves; a tree house overhanging the start and further down, the sound of running water coming from a well with a caged front. It's a hidden and rather mysterious track and I'd been unaware of its existence previously [although there is some indication of it on the Ordnance Survey map].
At the bottom of the track the third and final stage of the detour opens out with a stream, carpets of yellow archangel, comfrey and some hens. Here, passing between houses does feel a bit like invading someone's 'defensible space'. Hence, I suppose, the use of the word 'restricted' on the byway signs and the presence of cctv cameras.
I just managed to squeeze past the large vehicle, blocking the exit of the byway, in order to reach the 'highway'. Then on to Ruggaton Lane where the high bank soaks up the heat, providing each year an early display of spring flowers and butterflies. I watched orange tip butterflies landing on Jack-by-the-hedge and this caused me to remember Olive Kent again - a debate we'd had years ago triggered by a butterfly fluttering past and my commenting that it was the first orange tip I had seen that year.
"Huh," said Olive, "It's just a cabbage white." She felt it was not necessary to identify a butterfly, bird or wild flower. It is just the same bird or flower, etc., and just as lovely whether or not you know its correct name. I could see her point. After all, it was Juliet who said, "What's in a name . . . " But some of the names are appealing and can tell us a lot about the characteristics, uses or folk lore attached to the plant - like Jack-by-the-hedge for example and the alternative name garlic mustard.
Footnote: If you haven't discovered it already, may I draw your attention to Sue Jerrard's regular nature observations, From a Bittadon Garden, in the Coast and Combe Church Magazine.
LOCAL WALK - 173
James Ravilious: "showing North Devon people to themselves"
You may have seen the work of photographer James Ravilious featured on television on Countryfile recently.
In 1972 John Lane, the founder of Beaford Arts, had commissioned James Ravilious to "show north Devon people to themselves" and eventually this resulted in an archive of seventy thousand photographs depicting farming and rural life, landscape and weather taken throughout the 1970's and '80's.
Seven years ago, the Devon Wildlife Trust and Beaford Arts devised a walking trail around Halsdon Nature Reserve near Dolton [south of Torrington] to explore some of the countryside photographed by Ravilious.
The circular route of about five and a half miles passes through woodland and meadows, alongside a section of the River Torridge and includes the specific locations of some of his photographs.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
A booklet, Dolton as seen by James Ravilious, produced by Beaford Arts, has a map showing the route and incorporated several of the photographs. The walk can be accessed at the north entrance to the nature reserve at Ashwell where there is parking or at Quarry Car Park at the south entrance.
James was the son of Eric Ravilious most famous for his delicate and rather mysterious water colour landscapes. James also started as a painter and taught art in London, later turning to photography when he felt his own paintings were beginning to look too much like his father's!
James Ravilious died in 1999 and from the vast archive [which is housed in the Devon Records Office] he considered seventeen hundred to be his best. However, at Bideford's Burton Gallery there is to be an exhibition of many previously unseen Ravilious photographs, displayed for the first time.
The exhibition entitled "Here: Uncovering North Devon", runs from the 4th May until the 23rd June. Meanwhile, we can explore a sample of the countryside he celebrated with a walk around Halsdon Reserve.
Walk 173 - Halsdon Nature Reserve
LOCAL WALK - 172
'The Echoing Green' - William Blake
I was glad when a neighbour suggested a trip to Selworthy as I'd never been there. I'd seen pictures of course, of the idyllic village, on calendars and in guide books but in real life it proved to be more picturesque.
Thatched cottages with round chimneys and latticed windows are arranged informally around a little sloping green beside a brook.
They were built in the early nineteenth century for Sir Thomas Acland's retired estate workers. He did not employ an architect but used a pattern book, Rural Architecture published in 1823.
Selworthy Green was designed to be an interesting feature in the landscape and to enhance this notion the residents were issued with scarlet cloaks! So it was even a visitor attraction two centuries ago.
Today one of the cottages provides a welcoming cafe and another is a craft shop.
Noting the fifteenth century tythe barn in passing, we reached the church. I had often seen it from miles away and been curious about its white appearance which makes it stand out. Apparently it is periodically coated with a lime mixture to protect the stone from the weather.
All Saints' church has a sixteenth century pulpit with sounding board to help project the preacher's voice; a much admired wagon roof with angels and bosses; a Georgian West Gallery supporting the organ and above the porch an unusual Squire's Pew in the form of a Gothic pavilion which once included a fireplace.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
From Selworthy Green a maze of paths plunges into the extensive woodland. To celebrate the birth of each of his children, Sir Thomas Acland had planted a block of trees - larch, beech, birch and oak.
We sat on a bench to enjoy the autumn colour and the view overlooking Dunkery Beacon and below, Allerford and Holnicote House and then a succession of jays flew past. To see one jay is always a pleasure, but six . . . !
In the eighteenth century, the Aland's Holnicote Estate was so large that it was aid they could cross from the Bristol Channel to the English Channel without leaving their own property.
In 1944 Sir Richard Acland gave the estate to the National Trust. He wrote, "Would it not be rather wonderful to get away from 'this is mine', 'this is yours', 'this is the other fellows' and look out on everything we saw and say 'this is all ours'.
Walk 172 - Selworthy
- Multiple routes possible
- Distance: 7.25km (4.5 miles)
- Approx Duration: 3 hours
- Location: From National Trust Car Park, Selworthy
- Co-ords: 51.210029, -3.546466
- what3words: harder.tested.crackles
- Profile: Mix of woods and moors
- Drop/Rise: ▲▼ 355m (1165 ft)
LOCAL WALK - 171
Our walk takes us to the churchyard of Holy Trinity in Ilfracombe and an unusual event that took place there in September. You may have read an article in the church magazine, by Rev. John Roles, about Anna Parnell or seen the report in the local paper about the gathering around her grave to commemorate her life and work.
In his speech that day, the Irish Ambassador to London, Adrian O'Neill said that although Anna Parnell had been a major figure in Irish history, campaigning for land reform at a time of great poverty and injustice, like other women her contribution had until recently been overlooked.
He said, "It's wonderful to see here in Ilfracombe that she is still being remembered and honoured 107 years after her death."
In the 1880's in Ireland, she had organised the Ladies' Land League to assist the tenants in rural areas who were being turned off the land and left homeless and destitute.
So successful were the women in the practical help they gave, that her more famous brother, Charles Stewart Parnell wanted the league to be disbanded and for the men to take over.
This led to a disagreement between brother and sister; Anna moved to England and eventually settled at Avenue Road in Ilfracombe, using the name Cerisa Palmer.
Anna was a keen swimmer, and on the 20th September,1911 she went to bathe at the Tunnels Beaches. She had been warned that conditions that day were not ideal and unfortunately. she drowned. There was a rescue and attempts to save her life but these failed and she was buried at Holy Trinity.
Mary McAleese, a former President of Ireland, has called Anna Parnell 'Ireland's first woman politician and in 1881 Anna herself said, 'Perhaps when we are dead and gone and another generation grown up ... they will point to us as having set a noble example to all the women of Ireland.'
As you walk about the churchyard, and make your way to Anna's grave in a far corner, you may notice the variety of herbs and wild flowers growing informally. A group of dedicated volunteers takes care of the churchyard and their work was commended by the visitors from Ireland.
A visit would not be complete without entering the church to admire what is considered one of the finest wagon roofs in the west country, dating from the 15th century. Take time to sit in a pew and gaze up at the richly carved bosses, corbels, gargoyles and figures of angels. There's a lot to see. But the last word goes to Anna Parnell who said, 'The best part of independence - the independence of the mind.'
Ilustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALK - 170
Sylvia and Cynthia at Baggy Point but no sign of Scilla
There was a thin but persistent drizzle as I walked out to Baggy Point in mid-July and more joggers than walkers. Til then there had been a long dry spell and the steep slopes above and below the coast path were parched tawny brown.
A harsh, scratchy call drew my attention to three whitethroats, perched on brambles and thorns. Some Latin names are easier to remember than others. The whitethroat is Sylvia communis. A throaty kronk was heard as a raven passed low overhead; in from the sea. 'Kronk' was Henry Williamson's name for this magnificent corvid.
Turning the corner at the end of the headland I paused to take in one of the best views in North Devon; ahead the sweep of Woolacombe Bay and Morte Point and in the other direction Croyde Bay and Saunton Sands.
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
It had stopped raining and the sun had come out and as I turned back I was surprised to find sixty black sheep, with huge horns, had arrived and were basking near the cliff edge below the coastguards' climbing pole. Not a single bleat came from this solemn assembly, just a cool stare. A cargo vessel of the Swedish/Norwegian shipping line, Wallenius Wilhelmsen, had appeared on the horizon past Lundy.
An easy downhill stroll along the track where tangles of thin red threads of the parasitic plant dodder draped over the gorse bushes with here and there clusters of little pale pink flowers. The sun was now blazing and painted lady butterflies - Cynthia cardui - were on the wing. I was delighted when a hummingbird hawkmoth flew by. Smaller and less showy than a lot of the hawkmoths, it nevertheless has its own charm, making an audible hum as it hovers in front of flowers to feed.
Macroglossum stellatarum has brown and yellow wings and a mouse-like face. Later I was able to observe another hummingbird hawkmoth opposite Baggy House. What a treat.
Once on the cliff top at the end of the headland, I found a single example of the pale blue flower, Spring squill [Scilla Verna]. I have looked out for it whenever I have returned to Baggy Point, between March and May, but I have never discovered it there again and have not seen it anywhere else in North Devon either. Yet Scilla Verna is very common on the cliffs of West and North Cornwall, in similar habitats to North Devon. Autumn squill [Scilla Autumnalis] is similar but has straight leaves and no bracts, whereas Spring squill has bluish bracts and curly leaves.
Walk 170 - Baggy Point
- Multiple routes possible
- Distance: 6.7km (4.2 miles)
- Approx Duration: 2 hours
- Location: National Trust Car Park for Baggy Point
- Co-ords: 51.134942, -4.242208
- what3words: afternoon.stumpy.tadpoles
- Profile: SW Coast Path, mainly
- Drop/Rise: ▲▼ 200m (656 ft)
LOCAL WALK - 169
'Singing the Blues'
A giant hogweed towered above me. A yellow Labrador was enjoying a paddle in the harbour. But, as I walked along The Warren on a sunny summer's day, I was wondering, "Where have all the butterflies gone?" A couple of velvety dark ringlet butterflies with their subtle pattern of tiny cream circles appeared in the shadier sections of the path, but so far this year sightings of blue butterflies have been sparse.
Hope Bourne, the writer and artist who lived at Great Ferny Ball, Exmoor, wrote in A Moorland Year:
". . . a host of blue butterflies flutter and shimmer in the strong sunshine . . . like fragments of sky descended to earth. I watch them entranced as they fly about my feet and amongst the flowers, transported back to childhood when such a flight of butterflies was more frequently to be seen than nowadays."
Vladimir Nabokov, more famous for Lolita and other novels, was also a professional lepidopterist, specialising in the study of blue butterflies and writing several books on the subject.
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
I reached the Martello tower and a gorgeous view of the sea; an intense blue with, closer to the shore, clear turquoise green water creating a rippling pattern over the rocks below. I witnessed a fly past of cormorants and gannets. A clump of tiny mauve storkbill clung to the base of the tower. As I continued, a neat brown silhouette flew by - a kestrel - a brief hover and she dropped from sight. I retraced my steps to see where she might have landed. Instead I heard a cheerful trill but it took some time to locate the goldfinches balanced on the thistles. Then a female stonechat landed beside them.
On a walk it pays just to stop and listen, tracing any small sounds and movements. At the end of the path, opposite the island called Sexton's Burrow, a scurrying in the undergrowth and a glimpse of small rodents. A wild rockery of centaury, sheep's-bit scabious and lime-green flowered wood sage. [Unlike the similar devil's-bit scabious, sheep's-bit is not a true scabious but a member of the campanulaceae family.]
Returning to the tower I found the peace had been broken by the arrival of speed boats. Helmeted intrepids were hurling themselves off rocks and into the sea. Although the weather was wonderful and the boat cafe was doing a good trade, I had the entire route along the narrow promontory to myself. Perhaps the slightly hidden, dark and overgrown entrance to The Warren appears uninviting. But it does make a lovely local walk.
LOCAL WALK - 168
A Tour of the Torrs
There are many points of access to the Torrs, but the most spectacular and arduous is the steep zigzagging cliff path above White Pebbles Beach. But you are rewarded by wonderful sea views and there are strategically placed benches to break the upward trek into manageable chunks and to allow you to survey the passing sea birds. Beside the path in spring and early summer is an abundance of wild flowers: bluebells, thrift and the graceful sea campion with its mauve veined bladders behind white petals.
Finally, you emerge among blackthorn bushes. A few steps lead to a view point and there's a glorious sense of space as you descend to the coast path. The scene was further enhanced for us by the Oldenburg coming into view.
Two shallow streams cross the path. A party of linnets came down to drink; the males with their pink breast plumage just beginning to show. Wheatears and stonechats may be seen on the nearby stone walls and tops of bushes.
A short climb up from here, a slight detour from the route, leads to a hidden sheltered hollow [where I once found a fairy ring of toadstools] and a rocky platform, where you can sit and look down upon a cliff which is a favourite perch for peregrine falcons. But it had started to rain - a late April shower on the first of May - so we kept going. As the path narrows and swings round the corner, it is worth pausing to scan the little cove far below. We have sometimes seen a seal swimming between the fingers of rock there. It was too soon to see one of my favourite butterflies, the green hairstreak. It is small; the upper sides of its wings are a dull brown but the undersides are a bright apple green. It is only on the wing for a short time so if we reach the end of June without having spotted one, I know I shall have to wait another year at least.
Illustrations: Paul Swailes
One summer we were returning from a walk on the Torrs, having failed to come across a greenhairstreak, when we stopped to chat to a dog walker who was stooping to photograph some flowers. She mentioned she had earlier found a butterfly and wondered what it was. Did we know? She showed us a picture she had taken of it on her mobile 'phone. It was the elusive green hairstreak!
We continued our circular route along Langleigh Lane. Jack-by-the-hedge or garlic mustard grew about the high banks. A flock of jackdaws took off suddenly from an adjacent field. The surface of the lane had become eroded and watery in places and as we completed our walk it stopped raining. There used to be an admission charge for walking on the Torrs, which despite complaints, was not abolished until 1959. In 1856 George Eliot stayed at Ilfracombe for seven weeks to pursue an interest in natural history.
Walk 168 - Torrs, The
LOCAL WALK - 167
"Goodbye to all that": The demise of Horsey Island
So it's a sad farewell to Horsey Island, its wildlife and the walks it provided: the level circular stroll around Horsey itself or as a route towards the delights of Crow Point, the sand dunes and the beach. There was a breach in the outer bank of Horsey Island before Christmas. Attempts to plug the breach using local marine clay failed when this was swept away by the rising tides.
Severe flooding during the January storms caused Horsey Island to disappear under water. The historic Great Sluice was damaged and there were concerns about the inner bank holding and a threat of flooding extending to further parts of Braunton Marsh. Because of high tides anticipated for February, the toll road was closed, in the interest of public safety, as there was the possibility of water coming over the top of Horsey's inner bank and flooding the road.
Illustrated by: Peter Rothwell
Funding has been promised by the Environment Agency and the Marsh Inspectors' Board but this will be confined to repairs to the sluice and the bank around it. The outer bank, however, is the responsibility of the landowner. So the future of Horsey Island - if it has a future - is far from certain.
Braunton Marsh and Horsey Island were once one large continuous salt marsh regularly inundated by tidal waters. The first stage of reclamation was completed in 1815 and in 1854 when the land, which became Horsey Island, was considered sufficiently fertile, the Great Sea Bank was constructed from the White House to Braunton Pill.
Over many years it has been one of our favourite walks. It was from the embankment path that we first saw little owls lining up on the exposed rafters of a barn roof and watched kingfishers diving from boats.
There were two grey seals we used to see so often we gave them names, Solomon Seal and Grace Seal. This was a completely fanciful bit of whimsey as we had no idea whether they were male or female, but we could distinguish them by their patterns of blotched and spotted markings. They would hang around men fishing from the shoreline or sun themselves on sandbanks. Happy days!
Owl and Seal illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALK - 166
We don't hear so much about the Beast of Exmoor these days. There used to be regular reports of sightings in the Journal and Gazette. A few weeks ago, I heard a natural history programme on the subject in which it was claimed that a big cat [or cats - there may well be more than one] is still often seen by people who live and work on the moor. But they keep quiet about these sightings because they have adjusted to their presence and do not want the cats interfered with. People have not only learnt to tolerate them but are fascinated, even enchanted by them and the slight frisson of risk.
Some years ago, near the entrance to Titchcombe, between Goat Hill Bridge and Simonsbath, we witnessed crossing the road a large panther like animal.It had a long stride - steady, not running - strong muscular shoulders and the top of its head and back made a continuous straight line.It was about four feet in length.
Time seemed to stand still as we watched and afterwards my companion and I compared notes in case we had deluded ourselves.We thought about all the animals, wild or domestic, that could be on the moor, but what we had seen did not resemble any of these.
Illustrated by : Paul Swailes
Not long afterwards, we were walking along the River Taw at Yelland and got talking to a man who was viewing wintering wild fowl through a telescope at the edge of Isley Marsh.After a while he lowered his voice, looked a bit sheepish and said, "You won't believe this, but . . ."
He went on to say that as he had arranged to lead a group of ramblers for a hike on the moor near Simonsbath, he'd decided to walk the area beforehand to check out the route and had been astonished to encounter the exmoor Beast. His description fitted exactly to what we had seen.I have since learnt that what we thought was a black panther or puma is most likely to have been a melanistic leopard.
Apparently in some lights [and if you can get close enough!], the outlines of the spotted markings may be seen beneath the short black fur. The leopard is regarded as 'the ultimate cat'.There is a Cult of the Leopard and pound for pound it is one of the most powerful of animals. It is naturally solitary, cautious, shy and secretive;stealthy and intelligent;ideal characteristics for surviving so long on Exmoor. We feel fortunate to have observed this handsome and impressive but elusive animal.
LOCAL WALK - 165
More often heard than seen
I've never seen a nightjar. This elusive summer visitor spends the day crouched motionless on the ground or along a branch. Cleverly camouflaged;its grey-brown plumage resembled a piece of bark making it difficult to spot. But at dawn or dusk it takes to the wing to hawk for insects, mainly moths. It appears long-winged and narrow tailed, its flight agile and buoyant.
Heath and moorland and clearings where conifers have been felled are its typical habitat. It arrives from Africa late April 'til May and departs from mid-August 'til September. Each summer North Devon bird enthusiasts meet at Welsford or Bursdon Moor near Hartland, for an evening field trip, hoping to see a nightjar or at least to hear its distinctive 'churring' call.
But it is possible that nightjars occur closer to Berrynarbor. Last year an attractive and informative book, The Birds of Exmoor and the Quantocks, was published and one of its authors, David Balance, told me nightjars had been recorded on Trentishoe Down in the past but there had been no records recently because he did not think anyone had gone in search of them. [The last record was in 2012.]
So, he suggested I might like to go there just after sunset or just before dawn. Tempting! But although we frequently walk over Trentishoe Down, we confine our visits to daylight hours. It would be nice though to know whether Trentishoe Down does still host the nightjar. A challenge for next summer perhaps?
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
A historical note:The Reverend Gilbert White was intrigued by the usually cryptic bird and in his 'The Natural History of Selbourne' published in 1787 described an encounter with a nightjar [which he also called a churn-owl].
Up a steeply wooded hill he had made a zig-zag path leading to a place for holding summer picnics. He wrote: "An uninvited guest one evening was a nightjar. As my neighbours were assembled in a hermitage on the side of a steep hill where we drank tea, one of these Churn-owls came and settled on that edifice and began to chatter and continued his note for many minutes. "We were all struck with wonder to find that the vocal organs of that little animal, when put in motion, gave a sensible vibration to the whole building."
LOCAL WALK - 164
In Search of Little Green Men
We had gone to Kings Nympton to look for little green men. Not visitors from outer space but the faces carved on the oak ceiling bosses at the church there.
We were inspired by Roger Deakin's book, Wildwood A Journey Through Trees. In the chapter The Sacred Groves of Devon, he describes going to Kings Nympton where he had an 'appointment with the Green Man' at St. James church, then lying on his back along a pew, peering up into the half light of the nave roof at the 'gingham' of beams, each joint finished with a decorative boss about a foot square.
He commented, 'with the Green Man concealment is everything, hiding high in the church roof . . .adjusting to the dimness I began to make out the leaf masked face of the Green Man looking back in half a dozen shapes.'
'He is a reticent figure,' wrote Roger Deakin, 'always half hidden in the woodwork or carved stone like a wren in a hedge.'
This description so intrigued me I felt I wanted to see for myself. We took a torch but it was not needed as sunshine flooded through the windows that day. Binoculars though enabled us to see the detail and variety of the Green Men.
With its copper spire; 18th century box pews and reredos;fine 15th century rood screen [here, also, faces may be found among the leaf carvings];Jacobean panelling and chancel ceiling oddly painted in the early 19th century with sky and clouds, St. James is an interesting church well worth a visit. In keeping with the plant theme, the hinges on the doors of the box pews are in the form of acorns.
From the large car park beside the Parish Hall at the edge of Kings Nympton, we had a pleasant walk through the attractive village, entering the churchyard near The Grove Inn.
Several villages in the area have Nympton or Nymet in their names, derived from Nemet, a Celtic word meaning a sacred grove.
We entered the South Porch, with its staggering total of thirty-six roof bosses, and crossed the granite threshold, which was originally part of a Celtic cross and looking up soon found the Green Men staring down.
The face may be surrounded by or entirely made up of leaves. Or branches or vines may sprout from eyes, nose and mouth The former type is called a foliate head;the latter a disgorging head.
The origins are mysterious but pre-date Roman times and examples have been found in many cultures around the world.
The Green Man may symbolise a close interdependence between man and nature. The Celts had a veneration for sacred trees and believed the head was the repository of the soul.
In time, the Green Man provided a bridge between Christianity and a pagan past, but the heyday of the Green Man occurred between the 12th and 15th centuries which coincided with the building of a lot of churches. Eventually he became more of a decorative motif than a symbolic one.
Closer to home two small examples may be found in Combe Martin's St. Peter ad Vincula - one carved on the rood screen and more unusually, a Green Woman in Mediaeval headdress at the top of one of the stone pillars. Although I know they are there, it always takes me a while to find them. Roger Deakin was right when he said the Green Man tends to be hidden 'like a wren in a hedge'.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALK - 163
Warbling Free: Woolacombe Warren to Putsborough Sands
Warblers - chiffchaffs and blackcaps - were vocal but elusive on Woolacombe Warren apart from the whitethroat. Their harsh chatter alerted us to their presence as they perched on top of bushes puffing out their throats.
Recently I heard some surprising research findings concerning blackcaps. Like most warblers they used only to be summer visitors to Britain, but since some have overwintered here it appears that their wings have become shorter and beaks have become longer so that the overwintering birds could become recognised as a sub species.
The theory is that these altered characteristics are an adaptation to using garden bird feeders. I did not realise evolutionary changes could happen that quickly and visibly.
I first saw blackcaps in the wintertime in December 1991 in a garden in South Somerset. The following winter they appeared in Berrynarbor, feasting on berry bearing shrubs, after which they became a regular sight.
But back to the Warren: a lovely place to wander in June or July where we were in pursuit of flowers, especially the exquisitely fragranced burnet rose. The small creamy white flowers with little crinkly leaves and round purple-black hips form widespread patches over the dunes.
In The Flowering of Britain, Richard Mabey recalls "..watching the burnet rose flowers opening in the sun as their pure soft scent blew over us in the breeze."
A plant we were not expecting to see in such massive quantities was black bryony. Usually one stem, resembling a length of flex, may be found twining up through a hedge but on the Warren black bryony had climbed up and over banks and bushes taking them over. The only British member of the yam family it has large shiny heart-shaped leaves and no tendrils.
A battalion of tall mulleins marched along the floor of an old quarry and on the steep path above, scarce yellow wort rose up from a bed of hop trefoil and milkwort. We disturbed a pair of bull finches, their white rumps flashing as they flew ahead.
We continued along the track and across the field to Vention. At the site of a derelict vegetable plat and abandoned green house, we were pleased to observe a spotted flycatcher in a rowan, at North Cleave, near Trentishoe, presenting its fledgling with a gatekeeper. The young bird struggled to ingest the butterfly.
Pale mauve gladdons [also called stinking iris] lined the lane leading to Putsborough Sands. We walked along the beach to view the art deco houses and the Grey House overlooking the sea where American journalist, Negley Farson, entertained Henry Williamson, Kenneth Allsop and various literary luminaries.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALK - 162
"Blooms Berry":Wild Orchids in the Parish
At the top of the hairpin bends near Smythen Farm, beside the old barn called Bountree, was a little bluebell glade and among the sea of blue were many magenta spikes of early purple orchids. An exquisite sight. I do hope this colony of orchids has survived but since the Keep Out notices and gates appeared there a few years ago, it has not been possible to view them. A few still appear each spring on the roadside verge opposite and last May I walked up there to take a look. There were just ten orchids.
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
Along the short track leading off the road, about half way up the hill I discovered another dozen;the purple contrasting nicely with patches of yellow pimpernels, a diminutive and creeping member of the primrose family. There were a couple more orchids down the steep wooded slope opposite.
The following month when walking into Combe Martin I was delighted to find a colony of common spotted orchids on the high roadside bank between the bus shelter [opposite the end of Barton Lane] and Newberry Close. I counted thirty-seven of these pink orchids which form a more triangular spike than the looser arrangement of florets of the early purples. With field scabious and wild strawberry flowers nature had created a very pleasing garden. A few yards back blue meadow cranesbills had naturalised along a field boundary with ox-eye daisies.
Suddenly a female sparrow-hawk had shot out from the dark lane leading to the Sandy Cove;landed briefly in a tree before flying across the road to the alarm of a flurry of small birds.
- PRUNELLA MODULARIS is the dunnock
- PRUNELLA VULGARIS is self-heal
- PRUNELLA SCALES played Sybil Fawlty
- St. James - Ashreigney - 1 boss
- St. Thomas Becket Bideford - 1 boss
- St. John the Baptist - Broadclyst - 9 bosses
- St. Michael the Archangel - Chagford - 2 bosses
- St. Mary's - Cheriton Bishop - 1 boss
- St. James - Iddesleigh - 1 boss
- St. Michael's - Ilsington - 1 boss
- St; Mary's - Kelly - 2 bosses
- St. Julitta & St. Cyr - Newton St. Cyres - 1 boss
- St. John the Baptist - North Bovey - 1 boss
- St. John the Baptist - Paignton - 1 boss
- St. Andrew's - Sampford Courtenay - 2 bosses
- St. Andrew's - South Tawton - 1 boss
- St. Michael's - Spreyton - 2 bosses
- St. Eustachius - Tavistock - 1 boss
- St. Mary the Virgin - Throwleigh - 1 boss
- St.Pancras - Widecombe in the Moor - 1 boss
Last December The Devonshire Association published its magnum opus, A New Flora of Devon. A mighty tome literally - the book weighs half a stone and is a comprehensive and beautifully presented guide to Devon's wild flowers and their habitats.
LOCAL WALK - 161
Twelve swans a-swimming
Last year a new riverside walkway was constructed at Barnstaple linking the Long Bridge to the Tarka Trail. Access to it is between the end of the bridge and the former Shapland and Petter building.
In the newspaper photograph, just before it officially opened, it looked rather bleak and stark but when we walked there a short time afterwards, patches of biting stonecrop had already pushed up between the concrete and tarmac and there were even the broad fleshy leaves of a sea kale plant. It is intended that the outer wall of this new six hundred and seventy-five-metre long promenade will act as a flood defence. It certainly affords a good view of the river. As we arrived an elegant line-up of a dozen swans passed by.
The new track ends at the area of rough ground with its original informal path leading to the Tarka Trail below Anchor Wood. Turn right for Penhill and beyond or left for a short circular walk back to the town.
On a previous Walk in the Newsletter, I had been very disparaging about the dull section near the underpass but in June what a transformation. It had burst forth with blossom. There were wild roses and two types of wild viburnum bushes; foamy cream clusters of the wayfaring tree [viburnum lantana] and flat white umbels of guilder rose [viburnum oppulus]; the arrangement of true flowers at the centre with the false flowers around the edge resembling a lace-cap hydrangea.
We returned in March. Weeds had been kept at bay along the new track where we encountered just one cyclist, one walker and one dog. Redshanks stood at regular intervals along the water's edge. As the river broadened out there was the odd curlew and great black-backed gull.
Blackthorn and broom were in bud on the more established stretch of the trail. Tortoiseshell and ginger cats perched on walls and banks frowning in the early morning sunshine.
A word about the old industrial buildings which dominate the new walkway. Controversy has raged in recent times concerning their future. They have suffered neglect and become an eyesore but they were hurriedly given listed building status to prevent their demolition.
Illustrations by : Paul Swailes
However, in their heyday high quality furniture, in the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau style, was made there which found a global market. J.H. Rudd, the designer at Shapland and Petter was a friend of Barnstaple born William Lethaby, the famous architect and designer. An influential advocate of the Arts and Crafts principles, Lethaby founded an important school of design in London.
If you end your walk by crossing the Long Bridge and entering the Museum, you will find at the top of the stairs, on the first floor, a small display of examples of Shapland and Petter's furniture. It is worth taking a look.
LOCAL WALK -160
"If you go down to the marsh , , , "
. . . you may have a big surprise. Braunton Marsh is one of North Devon's greatest assets for walkers and nature watchers and last October the Gazette ran the headline, 'Rare pelican is spotted on marsh.' An exotic creature indeed. The word 'spotted' in this context may have been the headline writer's witty pun for it was a Dalmatian pelican, more usually found between Greece and Mongolia but now reported in the vicinity of the White House. So, we headed for Horsey Island. En route .. had they seen the pelican? No, but it had been spied by the fishermen's huts, near where the River Caen meets the Taw. A passing jogger wondered, "Did the Dalmatian pelican have spots like the dog?" No! But with its eleven-foot wing span and distinctive bill, the big white bird would be difficult to miss.
It was a lovely, balmy day to be on the marsh, more like summer than mid-autumn. Some wintering waders and ducks had arrived - we counted forty lapwings - but a few painted ladies and dragonflies were also still on the wing.
The dyke known as Boundary Drain and the adjacent pond had joined forces forming a more extensive lake with clumps of rushes. We watched a kingfisher diving repeatedly from a twiggy bush; another landed on a post. Two little grebe bobbed up in their winter plumage.
Further off among more than a dozen little egrets we were surprised to see a tall slender bird, with a long
downward curved bill, stalking slowly through the shallow water, between the rushes, sweeping its bill from side to side. It was dark with a purplish bronze sheen. It was a glossy ibis. Its official Devon status - 'very rate vagrant'. Our quest to find the pelican was unsuccessful but unexpectedly coming across the ibis was a great delight.
Three weeks later we returned and found that part of the path around Horsey Island had been closed due to a landslip. A man wielding a telescope told us the pelican was still around and had been seen the previous day.
It was a quiet day; not many people or birds about. As we walked along the causeway we noticed a small brown bird jabbing the grass with its bill, searching for ants. We had a wonderful view of it as it seemed quite unconcerned about our presence even flying a little closer to where we stood. With its grey and brown mottled pattern, streaked with black; fawn v-shaped markings and dark eye stripe, it resembled a piece of bark. A clever camouflage.
It was a wryneck, an uncommon passage migrant. Our field guide says it is an elusive bird more often heard than seen, so we considered ourselves very fortunate to have chanced upon it. It has a rather attractive Latin name - Jynx torquilla. Yet again we did not find the pelican and in November when four cranes appeared on the Braunton Great Field near Marstage Farm [opposite Velator Quay], we failed to see those too! But what a fine sight those elegant, grey, four feet tall visitors must have been.
All illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALK - 159
The heart of Exmoor: A village and its hill
With its thatched cottages and inn; ancient packhorse bridge and attractive green at its centre, Winsford is considered one of the prettiest of Exmoor's villages.
There is a total of seven bridges as the Winn Brook as well as the River Exe flows through the village. From under one of these bridges darted the lemon-yellow flash of a grey wagtail.
Nearby stands the solid, four-square house which was the birth place .in 1881 of Ernest Bevin who was Foreign Secretary from 1945 until 1951 in the post-war Labour government when he was instrumental in the formation of NATO.
Earlier in his career he had been a farm worker, founder of the Transport and General Workers' Union and was the Minister of Labour during the Second World War.
Beyond the ford over the Winn and occupying an elevated position is the church of St. Mary Magdalene with its tall ninety-foot tower, Norman font and Jacobean pulpit.
We were fortunate that our visit coincided with a lady tending the flowers who pointed out a small remnant of fourteenth century stained glass depicting the Madonna and Child and showed us a book which had been compiled with pictures and biographical details of all the parishioners who had had an involvement in the two World Wars.
She told us about one former Winsford resident, a psychologist called Doctor Meyer who, at the time of the First World War, had identified and named the condition 'shell shock' [which we now know as post-traumatic stress syndrome]. In this way he sought to save the lives of soldiers.
We left the village to climb Winsford Hill via Spire Cross where we watched a female redstart flitting among stunted hawthorns; a small, brown, inconspicuous bird until you notice its brick red tail - the start - which it moves up and down on perching.
Nearby is the Caractucus Stone, amid mauve flowered ling, tormentil and bilberry. Accounts of its age and origin vary [as does the spelling]. Some guides suggest it was erected by a local Celtic chieftain during the time when Roman power in Britain was in decline. The leaflet available in the church considers the stone to be an early monument to British Christians pushed westward by Saxon invaders in the fifth century.
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
Winsford Hill is about a mile south-west of the village; 1,399 feet above sea level it provides a 360 degree viewpoint. On its northern flanks is a deep hollow known as The Punchbowl. By the trig. point at its summit are three Bronze Age Barrows, burial chambers called Wambarrows. Cotton grass and eyebright grew round about.A group of ten Exmoor ponies with two foals came over the brow of the hill, frisky and lively, their manes and forelocks lifting in the breeze.
WEST COUNTRY WALK - 158
A Walk Through History
I'd never been to Tolpuddle so when I saw, in the local paper, that a coach was going from Barnstaple, it seemed an ideal opportunity. The village, six miles east of Dorchester, is of course famous for the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the six agricultural workers who in 1834 were sentenced to seven years' transportation to Australia. In 1830, the farm workers' wage had been nine shillings a week. This was reduced to eight shillings and then in 1833 to seven.
When in 1834 the men were threatened with a further reduction to six shillings a week, they tried to negotiate with their employers, under the leadership of George Loveless and with the vicar acting as an intermediary. Promises were made but not kept so the men formed a Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers to further their cause.
A local magistrate sought guidance from the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, and the six men were arrested and imprisoned at Dorchester. At the Assizes they were tried under the Mutiny Act of 1797, charged with administering an illegal oath. But their real offence was uniting to defend their livelihoods. The jury was made up of local farmers and the sentence of seven years in the penal colonies of Australia provoked a great outcry. There were protests and demonstrations in their support and a petition with a quarter of a million signatures. Eventually, the Tolpuddle Martyrs won free pardons and returned home after serving less than half of their sentences.
I started my walk at the western end of the village where in 1934, a hundred years after the notorious trial, a row of six cottages was built in memory of the Martyrs. It is a long, attractive building in the Arts and Crafts style with a series of gables along the front and between them deep roofs with a dozen dormer windows. It is set back from the main road by a green swath and incorporates a museum.
Next I headed for St. John's church where in the churchyard studded with self-heal and ladies' bedstraw, can be found James Hammett's grave. He was the only one of the six Martyrs to settle in Tolpuddle on his return from transportation. In 1934 a headstone carved by Eric Gill was added to the grave. In the centre of the village is a three-hundred-year old sycamore known at The Martyrs' Tree, under which the men gathered for some of their meetings.
Illustatrated by: Paul Swailes
Further along on the opposite side of the road is Thomas Stanfield's cottage where the friendly society met - a neat white cottage typical of the village. His son John was also one of the six Martyrs. George Loveless and his brother James [another Martyr] were both Methodist lay preachers and at the eastern end of the village is the Methodist Chapel with its elaborate memorial arch. But before that, lies a much more recent addition to the village. About ten years ago, after an acre of land had been set aside for use as public open space, a group of villagers under the acronym TOSCA [Tolpuddle Open Space] created a picnic area, adventure playground, orchard and wild flower meadows.
Gatekeepers and small skipper butterflies homed in on the field scabious, meadow cranesbills, knapweed and ox-eye daisies. There are gnarled old apple trees, red current and spindle bushes. The restored village pump stands under a huge bay tree.
In 1630 sluices and weirs had been constructed to manage water from the chalk springs and River Piddle and to produce there these water meadows. And now in the twenty-first century thanks to TOSCA's thoughtful landscaping they provide a delightful feature.
Should you ever find yourself in this part of Dorset, I would recommend a walk through this interesting village.
LOCAL WALK - 157
A Swift Walk to Saltpill Duck Pond
We were pleased to see the swifts flying over the pond as each year we notice fewer and fewer of these summer visitors. Green-veined white butterflies and a solitary speckled yellow moth flitted about pale blue flax flowers, growing among patches of bird's-foot trefoil and bush vetch. There were mussel shells and fragments of tiny crabs underfoot.
Saltpill Duck Pond is now part of the Gaia Nature Reserve, following the philosophy of scientist and environmentalist, James Lovelock who originated the Gaia concept.
The pond can be reached easily via the Tarka Trail from Fremington Quay in the direction of Isley Marsh and Yelland. Three new stiles have been erected between the Trail and the path. With the estuary on one side and the pond on the other, this provides a short walk with two distinct habitats to enjoy at once;the cry of the curlew from the Taw side;the sound of stonechats and chiffchaffs in the bushes around the pond.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
The old iron railway viaduct over Fremington Pill was undergoing major renovation work and had, according to the information boards, been 'encapsulated' by scaffolding covered by some sort of tarpaulin. Walkers and cyclists were still allowed to cross the bridge and the effect was that of passing through a tunnel.
As we had approached Fremington Quay the viaduct's unexpected transformation had been striking. It resembled one of the covered bridges of Madison County, Iowa, as featured in the novel by Robert James Waller and filmed starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood.
LOCAL WALK - 156
A Devon Belle
A few years ago we were walking along the coast below Trentishoe Down when we spotted a tiny pale blue flower at the edge of the path. Just the one plant in the vicinity of North Cleave.
I did not know what it was but when we returned home I identified it, with the help of my trusty field guides, as the Ivy-leafed Bellflower. [Some of the smallest flowers have the longest names.]
The Ivy-leafed Bellflower - Wahlenbergia Hederqacea - is a scarce plant of damp moors, heaths and peat bogs. Flowering in July and August, it is a modest cousin of the Harebell but nevertheless described as 'a little gem'.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
I have a rather charming book [a jumble sale find] published in 1946, Flowers of Marsh and Stream, in which its author Iolo A. Williams considers it one of the 'most exquisite small bog plants, a miniature beauty'.
"This is one of those flowers which takes some spotting, even when you know it is there, and you may often not find it till you have knelt down on very wet turf to search for it at short range "But once found it reveals a slender grace that is entirely captivating. Among British bog plants I would rank this small blue campanula as one of the very choicest things ..."
In subsequent summers when walking that way, we always look out for Wahlenbergia Hederacea but have never found it there again.This stretch of coast path has suffered a lot of erosion and we assume that has caused the loss of this uncommon flower.
However, some years later we were walking up the hill from Landacre Bridge, heading for the area beside the River Barle between Sherdon Hatch and Ferny Ball, where Bog Asphodels grow, when we were surprised to find patches of delicate Ivy-leafed Bellflowers creeping about the roadside bank.
The Bog Asphodels we were expecting "sole reason for visit" as Oscar Wilde said when he arrived in America and was asked by a customs official if while in the US he intended to incite insurrection and overthrow the state], but the Bellflowers were a complete surprise.
Ferny Ball was the home of author and artist, Hope Bourne who lived frugally in a caravan there, writing books on self-sufficiency and the natural history of Exmoor. Regular Newsletter readers will recall PP of DC featured Hope Bourne in her Movers and Shakers series in August 2011.
N.B. If you visit the churches at nearby Withypool or Hawkridge, you will find Hope Bourne's sketches on the covers of the church leaflets.
LOCAL WALK - 155
A Spoonbill marched with long strides along the water's edge. We had been watching it feed, sweeping its huge black, yellow tipped bill in curving movements through the water. We were close enough to see that its legs had been ringed with yellow, red and green rings. The ringing could have been done in Holland, Spain or Portugal.
On the opposite bank of the river, on the Pottington side, stood another Spoonbill resting alongside Godwits and Lapwings. Once a scarce passage migrant, since the late 1980's Spoonbills have been regular visitors to the Taw between August and April. Although also present on the Exe, a greater number usually appears on North Devon's estuary than elsewhere In the county.
Some of the spoonbills occurring in Devon have been sighted as far afield as Morocco and Mauritius.
The route along the river from Barnstaple via Anchorbank and Penhill Marsh towards Fremington Quay used to provide a quick and easy walk when visiting the town. However, since improvements to the Tarka Trail, following the opening of the new bridge, access to the river has become more arduous and involves a dull stretch of path and rather hostile underpasses, garishly painted, before a view of the river is gained.
Nevertheless, once you reach Penhill Marsh you never know what you might see. In 2002 among Brent Geese and Shelduck, gathered on the saltmarsh we saw a similarly sized goose with a distinctive pattern of bold red-brown and black patches outlined in white.
It was a Red-breasted Goose, a species which breeds in Siberia and winters mainly on the Black Sea coasts of Romania and Bulgaria. Although it would have been nice to think it was a truly wild bird that had travelled far, this gorgeous looking goose on the banks of the Taw was more likely to have been an escapee from a private collection. But it was lovely to encounter it in a natural setting in the company of other wild fowl.
Once we witnessed a memorable and macabre event on Penhill Marsh. It involved a Peregrine Falcon and a Little Egret, neither bird at all unusual there of course, but what happened was unexpected.
There was a very strong wind that day. A Little Egret flew past and fluttered down into a gully. Soon a Peregrine flying low and slow landed in the same gully.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
After a few minutes the falcon emerged on the edge of the gully, dragging out the Little Egret. Anchoring the dead body with its Feet, the Peregrine then plucked and at the Egret, looking warily from side to side and finally leaving the feet, wings and head. This happened to coincide with a spring half term so there were families of cyclists on the Tarka Trail who took in the scene.
Ed Drewitt, a west country naturalist and broadcaster, has made a special study of Peregrine Falcons over many years, identifying their prey items. It is a long list but at that date it did not include the Little Egret. It could be that this particular Egret was a weak bird, struggling with the strong wind and therefore more vulnerable.
All this within sight of human habitation and industry.
LOCAL WALK - 154
The hare seems a popular subject for paintings and sculpture judging by those currently displayed in shop windows and galleries.
Yet it is an elusive creature. Here in North Devon we are more likely to see a badger or red deer - even a grey seal - than a brown hare.
Hares may be seen occasionally in the fields between Smythen Farm and Smythen Cross, or may be spotted running along the road between Whitefield Hill and Honeywell.
Should you ever find yourself in the church at Iddesleigh or Ashreigney, look up and you will discover one of the roof bosses is carved with a pattern of three hares running in a circle, with their ears joined at the centre forming a triangle and giving the illusion that they each have two ears, when they only have a total of three ears between them.
This ancient, mythical symbol of the three hares has been found in Russia, Nepal, Iran, Germany and France; the earliest dating back to 581AD in caves in China.
In Britain it is found mainly in medieval churches with Devon having the most examples - seventeen churches in mid-Devon and around Dartmoor with twenty-nine roof bosses, carved with the hare pattern, between them. Broadclyst near Exeter has nine.
The significance is uncertain but the hare has been seen as a magical creature and in Christianity the three hares were associated with the Holy Trinity - but why hares?
We visited Ashreigney, a hilltop village between the Taw and Torridge valleys. Its economy was once based on wool; the present village inn having been the premises of master wool-combers. A Roman road is thought to have passed through Ashreigney from Exeter towards Bideford.
We crossed the village green to the church. The large porch has a cradle roof and an oak door with Tudor linen-fold pattern panels.
The pulpit also has linen-fold panelling salvaged from the rood screen. When the church was restored in 1889, much ancient oak was thrown out or sold. The thirteenth century font is square with an octagonal base. On the wall above the south door are the Royal Arms of Queen Anne.
The cradle roof is considered the finest feature of the church and there at the intersections of the moulded ribs of oak are the bosses. Apart from the one with the three hares, the other roof bosses are decorated with leaves, fruit and human faces.
Ashreigney Church today and C1932 from: The Tom Bartlett Postcard Collection
On leaving the churchyard, three dogs loose on the green gave chase and it was necessary to jump down a bank to get away from them.
The Three Hares Trail leaflet lists all the Devon churches containing this ancient symbol. It has attractive illustrations by the artist Eleanor Ludgate and is available from 20 The Square, Chagford, TQ13 8AB.
Solution to the Only Connect Question:
In the last Newsletter I asked what is the connection between the dunnock and self-heal. The name of the actress who played the wife of Basil Fawlty was a clue.
The Three Hares Trail takes in the following 17 churches:
LOCAL WALK - 153
Mystery of the White Rabbit
I have three questions. The first concerns a white rabbit; the second, a bull - real or mythical.
The season of 'mellow fruitfulness' and nutfulness had drawn me back to the Cockhill fields. At the edge of one of these fields, beside a little spinney, I was surprised to see a white rabbit. It appeared to be grazing quite happily. No other rabbits were in the field.
I was curious as to whether it was a wild albino rabbit or an escaped or abandoned pet but I was not able to get near enough to find out the colour of its eyes. It occurred to me that Berrynarborites who regularly walk their dogs along that route may also have seen the white rabbit and know if it is wild or not.
It was late September and I was pleased to spot a Silver Y moth on a bramble leaf as I had seen so few this year. The grey moth is a late spring/summer visitor and flies by day or night.
Wild clematis sprawled over the hedges. With its greenish-cream flowers in the summer it is known as Traveller's Joy but when the conspicuous feathery grey fruits appear in the autumn it is more commonly called Old Man's Beard.
Patches of purple-blue self-heal grew among the grass. The loud 'yaffle' cry of a green woodpecker could be heard but there were surprisingly few birds despite all the wild berries and seeds available to them.
On crossing the footbridge one is greeted by an unwelcome sign warning that there is a bull in the next field. It is an old looking sign so maybe no-one got around to taking it down when the bull was moved out or perhaps it has been deliberately left there to deter walkers.
So my second question is - is there really a bull in that field? I'm reluctant to risk entering to find out.
Thirdly, I have an Only Connect question: What connects the DUNNOCK [formerly but inaccurately known as a hedge sparrow] and the flower called SELF-HEAL? Here's a clue: the name of the actress who played the wife of Basil Fawlty.
P.S. Look out for the little spindle tree near the entrance to Claude's Garden, which is covered in pink parcel-shaped capsules which split open to reveal shiny orange coated seeds.
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
WEST COUNTRY WALK - 152
"When I set out for Lyonesse"
Castle Boterel, St. Juliot and 'A Pair of Blue Eyes'
see between the retreating mouldings of hills and
woody slopes on a sunny September morning. A
misty and shady blue, that had no beginning or
surface and was looked into rather than at."
These lines are from Thomas Hardy's novel 'A Pair of Blue Eyes' which is set in and around Boscastle and St. Juliot church at Hennett a few miles inland.
In 1870 while working for a firm of Dorset architects, Thomas Hardy had visited St. Juliot to make preparations for the restoration of the church which had become very dilapidated. There were cracks in the 14th century tower; the carved bench ends had rotted and ivy hung from the roof timbers where birds and bats had taken up residence. It was a visit which changed Hardy's life. As the rector was ill with gout it was his sister-in-law, Emma Gifford, who greeted Hardy and showed him around the church. Four years later they married and Emma persuaded him to give up architecture to be a full time author.
From blustery and busy Boscastle I took the path inland along the River Valency towards St. Juliot church. It was a very pleasant walk through little water meadows of yellow hay rattle and southern march orchids; banks of bugle and ox-eye daisies, flag irises at the water's edge.
Then on through woodland, a little boggy underfoot after a morning of heavy rain but now the sun had come out and with it a great abundance of butterflies; common blues, wall browns, orange tips and speckled woods.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
On Hardy's visits to supervise the work on the church, he and Emma would often stroll down this path to the sea, Emma described the route:
"Often we walked to Boscastle harbour down the beautiful Valency Valley where we had to jump over a low wall by rough steps . . . to come out on great wide spaces suddenly ... "
In 'A Pair of Blue Eyes', Boscastle is given the name Castle Boterel much as in Hardy's Wessex Dorchester becomes Casterbridge and Barnstaple is Downstaple. St. Juliot is in an attractive, secluded setting. The church contains a memorial to Emma, which Thomas Hardy designed, on the wall of the north aisle and in 1928 a tablet was installed recording Hardy's association with the church and the neighbourhood.
More recently a three panelled engraved window, commissioned by the Hardy Society, was placed there. It includes a line from his poem 'When I set out for Lyonesse'.
Unfortunately, the ancient chancel screen is not there. Hardy had left instructions for the screen to be retained and its damaged tracery to be renovated but was shocked to find that due to the misplaced generosity of the builder it had been replaced by a new and "highly varnished travesty". "I'll give 'em a new screen instead of that patched up old thing", the builder said.
Emma wrote: "scarcely any author and his wife could have had a more romantic meeting, with its unusual circumstances in bringing them together . . . at this very remote spot, with the wild Atlantic Ocean rolling in with its magnificent waves and spray, its white gulls and black choughs and puffins, its cliffs and rocks and gorgeous sunsettings in a track widening from horizon to the shore."
WEST COUNTRY WALKS - 151
"Some of the ponies have been known to bite"
Illustration by: Paul Swailes
Warned the Captain of the Oldenburg as we were about to disembark on Lundy Island - together with other safety instructions like "Don't go too near the edge of the cliffs" and "If you're not back at the landing stage by five-thirty the boat goes without you."
On arrival I followed the track along the eastern side of the island as far as the ruins of Quarry Cottages near the Quarter Wall. There was a strong cold wind that day and I'd passed a group of pigs huddled together to keep warm, half buried in a pile of straw and looking quit cosy.
As the Quarter Wall point I crossed the island heading for Jenny's Cove on the western side where I hoped to see puffins.
Perched on a boulder, finishing her picnic lunch, a helpful lady from Okehampton patiently pointed out where three puffins stood on a cliff ledge among the more numerous guillemots.
"See that gull standing by itself? Well, below that, to the left of that clump of sea pinks and to the right of the rock covered with yellow lichen."
I looked and looked but could find no puffins. She explained again. Eventually I located them: their red legs making them stand out from the other auks. I had 'til then been looking at the wrong gull and the wrong lump of rock and sea pinks!
Mission accomplished I continued southwards enjoying the sight of the Soay sheep, pretty and primitive, with their lambs trotting about the grassy cliff slopes.
As visibility was good I decided to treat myself to the view from the top of the old lighthouse. On our last visit to Lundy the rain and low cloud had been so dense that we could not see the lighthouse until we were actually touching its granite walls so there had been no point climbing the hundred and forty-seven steps.
It is a magnificent building ninety-six feet high constructed in 1819 at a cost of thirty-six pounds. Now used to accommodate visitors - Anthony Gormley stayed there recently when his sculpture, commemorating fifty years of the Landmark Trust [which administers the island] was installed.
Lundy Illustrations by: Peter Rothwell
Anxious not to miss the boat I started the descent to the Landing Bay. A forest of telescopes blocked the path below Melcombe House.
"What've you spotted - a yellow-browed warbler?" I asked facetiously. [It's usually a yellow-browed warbler!]
"No! Better than that," they all chorused, "A golden oriole." I heard its call three times among the trees but I did not catch sight of it though I was assured it had actually been seen and the cry was not just someone doing a cunning impersonation of the rare bird.
While waiting to board the boat for the return journey to Ilfracombe I watched a gannet diving in the bay and a grey seal's head appearing and disappearing close to the shore.
A ship of the Grimaldi Line was on the horizon and I pondered how it was fine to go to sea for a few hours once in a while but how grim and hard a life it must be working on a merchant vessel for months on end, a long way from home, covering vast distances of ocean.
LOCAL WALK - 150
Going Nuts in May
I had read about the old clay pits at Bickington which had provided the raw material for Brannam Pottery. The most recent extractions of clay had been in the 1990's but now some of the disused quarries had filled with water I located Claypit Coverts on the Ordnance Survey map. This showed a patch of woodland dotted with little ponds. Pockets of water among trees suggested a promising location for nature watching. We decided to access the woods from Combrew Lane from where a track leads across a field and then through the length of Claypit Coverts.
We started from the layby, near the entrance to Fremington Pill, beside a neatly organised allotment site. Across the main road is Combrew Lane. May blossom was breaking out on the hawthorn hedges and there were glimpses of small plots with hens and bee hives. A bucolic scene.
We reached the gateway to the track and could see Claypit Coverts up ahead but there was barbed wire and a barking dog, so we decided to enter the woods via Tews Lane instead and continued along Combrew Lane. From a high bank of periwinkles one flower appeared to take flight. It was a holly blue butterfly, a male as it lacked the grey border of the female. The holly blue is on the wing earlier than the common blue and is largely restricted to Southern England and Wales.
We walked into Bickington and soon found the public footpath. A sturdy footbridge took us over a stream where we saw a grey wagtail in his summer plumage of black chin and throat. The route continued through a series of meadows where beside a ditch gnarled trees revealed their twisted roots above the ground. Some had hollow trunks. Orange tip butterflies landed on lady's smocks [or cuckoo flowers] showing the pretty mottled green pattern on their underwings. They favour plants in the crucifer family such as garlic mustard/Jack-by-the-hedge.
Eventually we came to a gate and an area where the lorries must once have loaded the clay. Claypit Coverts was now close by but the gate was swathed in barbed wire which looked as if it had been placed there recently and there was a No Entry sign which we could not ignore. Some handsome sheep near the edge of the wood were staring at us. They were dark brown with black ears and a striking broad white band down the centre of their faces. I wonder what they were. They were quite large.
We admitted defeat and continued to the end of the path [which comes out on the old Bideford Road] before retracing our steps. We had failed in our 'quarry' to visit the quarries but it had been a pleasant walk over the meadows. Combrew Lane alone, forming a loop adjacent to the main Barnstaple to Bideford road, provides an alternative short walk to the popular Fremington Quay opposite.
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALK - 149
SWIMBRIDGE STREAMSIDE GARDEN
'Quiet Waters by'
Four years ago a derelict piece of ground in the middle of Swimbridge was transformed to create a streamside garden. It occupies a part of the churchyard of St. James' church, which had never been used for burials as it was too close to the stream.
Behind locked gates it had become overgrown with brambles. Villagers who were children in the 1940's and '50's remember squeezing through the railings to pick blackberries there. Forty years ago during the national 'Plant a Tree in '73' campaign, the parish council had planted trees and shrubs on the land. [You may recall the subsequent slogans 'Plant some more in '74' and 'Keep them alive in '75'.]
Unfortunately, by 2006 many of the Plant a Tree Year trees had died. The railings had rusted and the gates were still locked when the church and parish council decided to turn it into a public open space for everyone to enjoy, and thus Swimbridge Streamside Garden was born.
Work finally began in 2011. Designed by landscape architect, Peter Leaver with advice from the Devon Wildlife Trust, the garden incorporates plants which provide flowers to attract butterflies and bees or bear berries for birds. The hedges include native species such as hawthorn, spindle, holly, guilder rose and field maple. Mazzard trees have been planted - the wild cherry peculiar to North Devon.
An old granite roller from a local farm creates an unusual seat. Sculptor and mason, Gabriel Hummerstone has carved on it words from
Psalm 23: ' In pastures green he leadeth me, the quiet waters by.' Sturdy benches have been made from a beech tree, blown down in a gale at Chittlehampton - called spalted beech referring to a pattern of dark markings caused by a fungus. A poem by pupils of Swimbridge Primary School has been carved into stepping stones along the path.
The stream itself is the Landkey Stream, also known as the Venn Stream. It rises on high ground to the north of the village, near Gunn, and flows via Riverton along the valley to Swimbridge and on to Landkey; then by Venn Quarry to join the River Taw at Bishops Tawton. It once powered several mills and a tannery.
When we walked along the stream last April a dipper sped past, with whirring wings, alerting us with its 'tsitt tsitt' call. Its flight is fast and direct, just above the water. It landed on a large stone with its characteristic bobbing motion, flicking its short tail.
A dipper [cinclus cinclus] can appear black and white when only glimpsed fleetingly but viewed at close quarters the head is dark brown shading to a grey-brown back and wings. Underneath it is bright chestnut brown. The most conspicuous feature is the large white bib across its throat and chest.
We watched it plunge into the water. It has the ability to swim under water using its wings. It can walk along the bottom of a river foraging for invertebrates. Its diet includes aquatic insects and their larvae, small crustaceans, molluscs and worms.
Swimbridge's streamside walk provides a gentle, level stroll at the centre of one of North Devon's most attractive villages. The last line of the children's poem carved on the stepping stones: 'mythical paradise, lush and green.'
Illustrations - Dippers by: Paul Swailes
Henbane: "A Strange but beautiful plant."
Illustration by: Peter Rothwell
Throughout the three mile stretch of Braunton Burrows there is only one specimen of henbane, a plant which has become quite rare.
We usually access the Burrows via the toll road or Sandy Lane but this time we had come to the Saunton car park because it was near there that henbane was discovered growing about ten years ago and we hoped to find it, only having seen photographs of the plant.
Henbane [Hyoscyamus niger] has creamy white flowers almost an inch across, purple at the base with a network of purple veins. The plant can be up to four feet high, has toothed leaves and sticky white hairs. It occurs mainly near the sea in sandy waste places.
Illustration by: Paul Swailes
It is a member of the Solanaceae family which includes deadly nightshade and it is very poisonous. However, originally a Mediterranean plant, it was cultivated by medieval monks in their herb gardens and regarded as an important medicinal plant, a 'hypnotic'. All parts of the plant contain a narcotic drug called hyoscine.
We skirted the area known as Chalet Valley, a scattering of various little wooded dwellings randomly placed among the dunes, half hidden.
We battled with the brambles as we crossed Strawberry Ridge. The paths are less defined this end of the Burrows, more overgrown. Still no sign of the elusive henbane.
The books I'd looked up described henbane as evil looking and evil smelling yet in her comprehensive guide to the wild flowers of the Braunton Burrows, Mary Breeds dubbed it, 'a strange but beautiful plant'. I was intrigued.
In the area of Hollow Hill we trudged up dunes only to find on reaching the summit, a long and steep drop on the other side. We slithered down, our shoes filling with sand.
It was a relief to enter Wintergreen Slack, a huge natural amphitheatre, enclosed by high dunes where the flat area was covered in water mint, fleabane and red clover; a carpet of fragrant mauve, yellow and pink and no-one but us to sit and enjoy it because everyone else had gravitated to the beach.
There were Michaelmas daisies and a lot of the furry, pinkish haresfoot clover. There was also an active flock of small heaths; modest little ginger-brown butterflies.
Eventually we admitted defeat and as we reluctantly returned to the car park we witnessed a helicopter coming to land next to the Saunton Sands Hotel. We had failed in our quest to find the henbane, but the highlight of the walk had been being surrounded by the gorgeous blend of colours of Wintergreen Slack combined with the scent of mint and wild thyme.
Recommended reading: Wild Flowers of Braunton Burrows by Mary Breeds.
LOCAL WALK - 147
Foraging: a ramble with brambles
A warm September morning in the big steeply sloping field which carries part of the footpath linking the Sterridge Valley to Slew Hill.
Hazel bushes at the top of the field. Around its lower border, a tangle of brambles. This year there was an abundance of berries and nuts so I had chosen to walk there with the dual purpose of gathering hazel nuts and blackberries while enjoying this open, airy viewpoint.
There were sufficient low branches to make the nuts easy to reach and not too many stinging nettles. The clusters of shiny ovoid nuts looked attractive encased in their light green deeply lobed husks.
Also called cobnuts, filberts [22nd August is St. Philibert's Day], hales or baskets, they are available from late August until October. When pale green and soft they are edible but with less flavour than when ripe with brown shells and if not eaten soon after picking, they can wither in picking, they can wither in their shells.
Richard Mabey of 'Food for Free' fame recommends late September for picking hazel nuts. That's if the squirrels and jays have left any by then.
There had been plenty of sunshine to draw out the full flavour of the blackberries. Their sweetness had also attracted red admirals, a comma butterfly and speckled woods.
A straggle of walkers on footpath above waved a greeting. A jay screeched. Its harsh cry has been likened to the sound of a piece of silk being torn apart. I heard a light tapping coming from the little spinney beside the stream and witnessed a nuthatch wedging an acorn into a crevice in the bark of a tree.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
In his poem 'Blackberry Picking' Seamus Heaney describes how as children they had picked large quantities of blackberries, hoarding the fruit in a bath in the barn and the disappointment when returning to find 'a fur, a rat-grey fungus glutting on our cache.' He felt like crying at the sight of the rotten, fermented fruit. The poem ends: 'Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.' Food for free but too good to waste.
This year I had noticed more people than usual out blackberrying. Richard Mabey thinks the attraction is that blackberry picking 'carries with it a sense of season and abundance and just enough discomfort to quicken the senses.' I just think the appeal lies in anticipating the jam or bramble jelly and the rich variety of puddings and desserts.
Finally, homeward bound with a supply of nuts and berries; purple stained fingers peppered with prickles, pausing to buy tasty, home grown tomatoes, sold in aid of the hospice, from the roadside stall at Higher Rows.
LOCAL WALK - 146
"Pleasantly the old town stands fanned day and night
by the fresh ocean breeze."
CHARLES KINGSLEY 1819 - 1875
Charles Kingsley, clergyman, poet, novelist and radical, wrote part of Westward Ho! while staying at what is now the Royal Hotel, East-the-Water, Bideford, and in 1944 the Chiefs of Staff of the armed forces met there to plan the Normandy landings.
They probably held their meeting in the conference room on the first floor, famed for its ceiling which made architectural historian, Nikolaus Pevsner swoon, the hotel's current facade being something of an enigma. It was built around an earlier house dated 1688 and parts of the original seventeenth century building survive including that ceiling.
Pevsner claimed it is "one of the most gorgeous plaster ceilings in Devon with a wreath of flowers in the most daring relief so that whole fruits and flowers are completely detached from the wall and also with cherubs and birds." It really is very remarkable.
A few years ago the North Devon Journal published, side by side, a photograph of the buildings along The Quay, viewed from this end of the old Bideford Bridge, with a photograph of Curacao off the coast of Venezuela in the Caribbean. The two places, so far apart, bore an uncanny resemblance to each other.
Whereas Barnstaple largely turns its back on its river, Bideford embraces its River Torridge with gusto. The Quay is a bustling place. People promenade along it; sit outside cafes and chat or watch the fleets of lorries unloading Peters Marland clay into the large foreign vessels moored there. Bideford's Newsletter, the "Buzz", includes a page of Shipping News with details of ships, cargoes, crews and registered flag owners at Bideford and Yelland as well as details of ships observed in the Bristol Channel.
At the end of The Quay we find Charles Kingsley himself; an imposing statue and just around the corner, one of North Devon's greatest assets - the Burton Gallery, a pretty Art Deco building at the entrance to Victoria Park. As well as housing the town's museum and permanent art collection it hosts a changing series of exhibitions, some of national and international importance. It is an attractive and welcoming place and even includes a popular French cafe - Cafe du Parc. Look out for Robert Paterson's beautiful stained glass window at the end of the craft gallery. Another example of his work is in Combe Martin's St. Peter ad Vincula Church.
Originally marshland which was drained, Victoria Park is a lively place enjoyed by all ages. As well as all the usual features of a park it incorporates a Sure Start Children's Centre and in the former municipal greenhouses, a Jig Saw horticultural project.
From the park there is a riverside walk which leads to council offices whose design must have been inspired by the architect Sir Basil Spence. It is a pleasing example of 1960' architecture, light and airy and featuring an elegant stairway. Opposite the gallery and park, off Kingsley Road, is The Strand with an interesting variety of buildings. At one end a house with an unusual elevation is the subject of a painting in the gallery's local collection. At the opposite end the former Northdown House was once the home of Charles Kingsley. In more recent times it was the Stella Maris Convent. Nearby, Bridgeland Street has a fine collection of late seventeenth century houses built for wealthy merchants at the height of the tobacco trade with Virginia.
A winter visit could include Kenwith Lakes to observe the wildfowl or a walk along the saltmarsh southwards from the town. Bideford, so much to see, so much to do. Whenever we have spent a morning or afternoon there we feel as if we have been on a brief holiday.
P.S. Have you discovered yet the White Moose Gallery, hidden away in the old Moose Hall in Trinity Street, near Barnstaple's square and bus station? It is a pleasant modern space and from the 7th November until the 3rd January, it will be showing the photography of Chris Chapman. You may have seen his television films about Exmoor's landscape and people. Open Monday to Saturday, 10.00 a.m. until 5.00 p.m.
LOCAL WALK - 145
Not a bored walk on the boardwalk
We were heading for the boardwalk from Broadsands Car Park but first made a favourite detour through a little damp meadow flanked by a spinney. Since parking was restricted to one end of the former car park area, several small clearings and the tracks leading from them have become very overgrown. We pushed through the brambles and nettles and were rewarded by a flurry of common blue butterflies with bright orange-brown small heaths among them.
There was an array of ragged robins, southern marsh orchids and yellow flag irises. Several of the female common blue butterflies were of the brown form which resemble the brown argus with orange dots around the margin of the upper side, but with a shading of blue close to the body.
As we cross the boardwalk we always look out for lizards basking on the wooden slats, the least vibration and they disappear. There are the less common and declining sand lizards on the Burrows but we have yet to see them. When a common lizard seems greener than usual, I hope it might be a sand lizard but it's only wishful thinking. There was yellow hay rattle in flower, eyebright and a few seaside pansies. Linnets perched on bushes along the way and I spotted a lone painted lady. This summer migrant is always a welcome sight.
At the end of the boardwalk at the edge of the sands were sea stocks; woolly grey stems and leaves and mauve flowers but no sign of the rare sea rocket.
We sat on a lump of concrete at the site of the old lighthouse and looked across to Irsha Street and Kipling Tors and a distant, hazy blue Hartland Point; a flotilla of sailing boats.
Driftwood, bleached silver and forming beautiful shapes and textures lay on the sand. Informal sculptures.
At Crow Point we were shocked to see the extent of erosion of the sand dunes but it was around the corner on the edge of Broadsands that we eventually found one sea rocket plant, a healthy looking specimen, its leaves a similar shape to ragwort but shiny and fleshy.
Further along we looked in vain for the yellow horned poppy, the only example of it in the whole area of the Burrows. It may have been lost to erosion. A notice by the White House warned that the path around Horsey Island had been 'compromised' due to erosion. There were some deep holes and dips which were not there before and by the end of the summer through lack of use the nettles and brambles will have effectively closed it.
But in early June, fragrant Rosa Rugosa with ox-eye daisies flanked the path.
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
WEST COUNTRY WALK - 144
'In ancient times . . .'
Hidden in countryside between Penzance and St. Ives are the remains of Iron Age settlements. One of these, Carn Euny, was built more than 400 years BC and was still occupied during the fourth century AD.
We visited Chysauster [seven miles east of Pendeen], a village last inhabited at the time of Roman Britain.
From a quiet lane in the parish of Gulval we climbed up to the path across the fields to reach this fascinating relic of 'ancient times'.
Both Carn Euny and Chusauster consisted of cluster of round stone walled rooms grouped around a central courtyard, with an outer wall forming a circle around each homestead.
This pattern of dwelling is peculiar to West Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.
At Chysauster there are the remains of nine of these courtyard houses and we were free to spend an absorbing morning roaming among the carefully excavated dwellings; wandering in and out of the circles of low stone walls; the round rooms which would have been roofed with turf or thatch.
During the course of our visit there was a light drizzle. A kestrel hovered above and underfoot was a dazzling array of wild flowers. Bluebells with wood anemones and wood sorrel, but also lousewort, milkwort and tormentil.
In North Devon I should not expect to see all of these species occurring together in the same place - bluebells in woodland and on cliffs. Sorrel and wood anemone also in woods but the latter alongside rivers too; whereas pink lousewort, milkwort [blue, mauve or pink] and yellow tormentil would be largely confined to the moor. Perhaps it is the presence of the granite which gives rise to such a rich and varied flora.
At Chysauster the houses were alighted in pairs along a grass fairway or 'street'. With minor variations, the usual pattern consists of a main entrance facing away from the prevailing south west winds.
A paved passageway leads through the thick outer walls to an open space, the courtyard, about twenty-five to thirty feet wide. To the left a lean-to bay was used as a shelter for livestock.
Opposite the entrance is a large Round Room; on the right is the narrow Long Room and in some dwellings there is a Small Round Room. In the Round Rooms a stone with a hollow in it would have held the upright timber which supported the apex of the roof.
In some rooms there remains a stone hearth and stone querns had been found which were used for grinding grains. Water channels, lined and covered with stone slabs, connected to a sump for the storage of rainwater.
Once forested with oak and hazel, by Roman times these granite uplands had been cleared of trees.
The excavation of Chysauster took place at various times from the 1870's until the 1930's. It is understood that in the early 1800's, Chysauster was used as a venue for Methodist preaching and known local as the Chapels.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALK - 143
here's to you my rambling boy
May all your rambles bring you joy."
by Tom Paxton
... and sung and made famous by the legendary Pete Seeger 1919-2014 who died earlier this year.
At great expense and after weeks of traffic delays, heavy plant manoeuvres and hard labour in all weathers, we have a new footpath. No longer will we be dependent on the tides for determining the route between Watermouth and Widmouth Head.
On the first of March, a rare dry day, we decided to try out the new path. The condition of the existing fenced in path, alongside the road opposite Watermouth Castle, has been poor for some years so it is advisable to walk along the road to the harbour and emerge on to the main road via the gate between the sailing club and the harbour master's office.
This brings you directly to the pristine new tarmac path running beside the road for a short distance before a new flight of steps leads down to the original coast path. A little further on the previous entrance to the path has been cordoned off and a notice states that further improvements are planned.
The path was quite muddy and had been churned up by cyclists. Not a suitable route for bicycles. There are pleasant views of the harbour through the trees; of The Warren and Sexton's Burrow. Owners were working on their boats. Men were fishing from the cliff below the Martello tower.
On a tree trunk lying along the edge of the path, I found a colony of scarlet elf-cups [Peziza Sarcoscyphs coccinea] - a very attractive fungus. The inner surface of the round cups is bright red with a smooth, shiny texture. The outer surface is whitish with a chalky texture. The cups can be between two and six centimetres in diameter and appear from January until April.
Arranged in clusters, there were more than I have ever seen in one place. My field guide says they are 'widespread though seldom numerous' and are thought to be declining. They are most frequent in the west of England.
They grow on fallen and decaying wood, attached by a very short stem. They can appear to be growing from the ground but investigation will show that they are actually on a branch or twig which has become partially buried.
There were banks of dog's mercury. Although the green flowers are small and insignificant I am always pleased to see it because it coincides with the beginning of spring.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
The lambs in the field below Widmouth Farm looked strong and sturdy. Nearby, the path became a sticky quagmire beside the stile, above where the coast path crosses the track leading to the private beach in its own tiny cove.
There were plenty of ivy berries but no blackbirds feasting on them - in fact an absence of birds altogether. In January 2010 when there was widespread snow in North Devon, except on the coastal fringe, we had walked out to Watermouth and found the camping fields full of redwings. This last winter I have looked out for the winter thrushes but have not seen a single redwing or fieldfare.
On the way back I glanced wistfully at the 'forbidden land' on the outer edge of The Warren where we are not allowed to roam and remembered the abundance of wild flowers on the cliffs there in springtime. The decision favouring the landowner following the public enquiry four years ago was a surprise and disappointment.
Perhaps we villagers should have descended en masse, in an act of civil disobedience, like the ramblers walking in protest on Kinder Scout in the Pennines before the war.
I'm sure Pete Seeger would have approved!
WEST COUNTRY WALK - 142
'And all things draw toward St. Enodoc. Come on! Come on!'
It was a sunny Sunday one September when we walked from Polzeath along the Camel Estuary to Trebetherick, to visit St. Enodoc church, half hidden amid the dunes.
The coast path took us along The Greenaway where former poet laureate Sir John Betjeman spent his childhood holidays. In 'Summoned by Bells', the blank verse autobiography of his early years, he describes gales slamming the bungalows and rattling the doors when 'enormous waves house-high rolled thunderous on Greenaway, flinging up spume and shingle to the cliffs.'
He recalled his fear of falling when climbing these steep, smooth cliffs, with only a narrow ledge to rest his feet and clutching a clump of sea pinks. The cliffs which had appeared so tremendous as a child but to the adult Betjeman seemed small.
From The Greenaway there are views across the estuary to Stepper Point and below, the beach where before breakfast he had 'run alone, monarch of miles of sand . . . and walked, where only gulls and oystercatchers had stepped before, to the water's edge.'
Here still were the shells, lumps of driftwood and heaps of bladderwrack like those observed by an Edwardian childhood more than a century ago.
We rounded Trebetherick Point to reach Daymer Bay, a popular beach sheltered by Brea Hill to the south and then on to the lane in 'whose ferny ramparts' were pennywort, toadflax, fennel and periwinkles. In his poem Betjeman referred to the honeysuckle hedge; mint around the spring; the coconut smell of gorse and the thyme scented links.
The lane ended abruptly and we followed a path for about a quarter of a mile to reach St. Enodoc surrounded by tamarisk and rabbits - and strangely, by golfers for the little church is on a golf course and it is necessary to keep a lookout for flying golf balls.
It was once known locally as 'sinkinny church', the sinking church after it had become buried in the sand, which had drifted against the walls and when the roof gave way the sand found its way inside too, so that entry could only be made through the roof.
Eventually the church was restored in 1864 when all the sand was removed and the Norman font recovered. There is a holy water stoop near the door and the remains of a fifteenth century carved screen between the chancel and the nave. Flanking the path to the church door are some medieval stone mortars once used for grinding corn.
St. Enodoc has a short thirteenth century tower bearing a leaning spire. It has a bell taken from an Italian ship wrecked off The Greenaway in 1875. It was the site of many burials of unknown sailors whose ships were wrecked on the Doom Bar while seeking shelter in the Camel Estuary.
Between the church and the sea are the remains of a village which had to be abandoned in a hurry when it was overwhelmed by a sand storm.
It was hard to imagine the turmoil of ship wrecks and sand storms during our visit to St. Enodoc. All was peaceful and calm and we could appreciate why John Betjeman had such happy memories of the place and wished to be buried there. His grave is in the churchyard, near the lych gate.
[Quotations taken from 'Summoned by Bells' and the poem, 'Sunday Afternoon Service in St. Enodoc Church, Cornwall' by John Betjeman 1906-1984.]
Illustration by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALK -141
Bats in the Chancel
Described by the nineteenth century clergyman and historian, Sabine Baring-Gould as 'picturesquely seated in a nook', the small and remote church of St. Peter at Trentishoe is about half a mile inland from the rugged Exmoor coast.
In early autumn we walked to it along Trentishoe Lane, a level and straight road for most of the way until it does a sudden right-angled turn and dips down to reveal the narrow tower beside a farm with a trickle of cottages and barns further down the hill.
At a field gate along the lane, with no human habitation nearby, trays of eggs had been placed for sale. Very trusting but can there be much passing trade here we wondered?
I remembered that when I had visited the church last summer swallows had been nesting in the porch. There was evidence that they had been back this summer too; a little mound of bird lime on the threshold. We turned round to see above the doorway three empty nests.
Inside the little church a large cloth had been spread on the floor before the altar and on it was a scattering of droppings. We looked up and saw, in a neat row, equal distances apart, twelve pipistrelle bats roosting on the chancel ceiling.
The church contains a compact organ in the form of a wooden rectangular box, which was salvaged from the Mauritania. Strange that this artefact from an ocean liner should find its way to this lonely spot on Exmoor.
A special feature of Trentishoe church is its eighteenth century musicians' gallery, a narrow wooden structure at the back of the church reached by some stairs. A hole has been cut in the parapet to accommodate the bow of the double base. It is unusual to see one of these galleries preserved because so many were removed during Victorian restorations when organs replaced the bands of village musicians.
Hardy's original title for the books was The Mellstock Quire and in 1896 he wrote of his regret for the passing of the 'orchestral bodies' of up to a dozen players who provided the music in churches. He believed the result of their displacement by an organist or harmonium had been to reduce the direct involvement of the parishioners in the life of the church.
He pointed out that, 'the zest of these bygone instrumentalists must have been keen to take them on foot every Sunday, after a toilsome week, through all weathers to the church, which often lay at a distance from their homes.'
The gratuities they received barely covered the cost of fiddle strings, repairs and manuscript paper for them to copy out their music. Seeing a rare gallery like the one at Trentishoe is a poignant reminder of their dedication.
As it had started to rain and become darker in the church I'd switched on the light so that my friends could see to sign the visitors' book. Soon there was a barely perceptible, faint rustle. Foolishly, I had unwittingly disturbed the bats. I quickly switched off the light; the bats settled again and we went out into the drizzly churchyard to leave the creatures in peace.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALK - 140
The Artists' Cabin at Bucks Mills
Perched above the beach at Bucks Mills is a tiny one-up one-down stone cottage called The Cabin. For many years, from the 1920's to the 1970's, it was the studio and summer home of the artists Judith Ackland and Mary Stella Edwards.
Examples of their work can be seen at the Burton Gallery's permanent exhibition. They specialised in landscapes and dioramas and devised a method of model making called Jacaranda; intricate figures made from cotton wool and then painted.
Painting on the beach, 1933
Judith Ackland 1898-1971
Now owned by the National Trust, The Cabin's annual Open Day was held on the first of June when many admirers flocked to see inside the tiny furnished rooms with crockery and cooking utensils still arranged on the shelves.
To reach Bucks Mills you can either walk, about a mile and half, down the wooded road from Bucks Cross on the A39 near Clovelly, or start from the car park on the edge of the village.
From there it is a pleasant walk to the sea past pretty cottages and gardens. Welsh poppies and lily of the valley flowered by the stream beside the road.
On the slipway to the beach is a collection of old fishermen's huts with heaps of lobster pots and there are magnificent Elizabethan lime kilns, one castellated and resembling a castle. In 1811 J.M.W. Turner came to Bucks Mills and sketched a scene around the smaller kiln with Clovelly in the background.
At a short distance along the beach to the east is a waterfall. We stood on the beach to enjoy the view across Bideford Bay and to watch the fulmars flying past. To the west we were surprised to see, silhouetted against the horizon, the dark pyramid formation called Blackchurch Rock.
In the sixteenth century Richard Cole of Woolfardisworthy built a harbour at Bucks Mills. The remains of the old quay, a pile of massive boulders, are visible at low tide. Richard Cole is believed to be the original Old King Cole.
The following poem was written by Stella Mary Edwards and included in a volume of verse called 'Summer Tide' published in 1965.
A Truce with TimeTo watch that sea creep slowly in, draw gently out
To see the gulls above it swoop and call.
The cliff-edge flowers softly blown about
Both whiter than the foam each gleaming presence
Distinct and separate yet one in essence
With me as with the light embracing all
Lulls time itself to sleep.
Mary Stella Edwards
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
WEST COUNTRY WALK - 139
Edwin and Gertrude's Idyll
It was a happy collaboration between architect Edwin Lutyens and gardener Gertrude Jekyll which created the unique garden of national importance at Hestercombe, near Taunton. In 1909 they were invited to design a garden on a sloping ground below Hestercombe House, a mansion that has been described as a Victorian monstrosity. Lutyens was responsible for the formal structure, a series of terraces around a sunken plat and rills bounded by a long pergola. Gertrude Jekyll devised a planting scheme which softened the edges of walls and paths and incorporated typical cottage garden flowers.
We entered the garden via a flight of Lutyens' trademark circular steps, to the Rose Garden which was intended as an outdoor room for enjoying afternoon tea under the shade of an arbor with the scent of old fashioned China tea roses and the sound of rippling water.
I headed for the Grey Walk; the first area to be restored in 1974 after the garden had been neglected since the war when American troops had occupied the house. [In the 1970's Gertrude Jekyll's planting plans were rediscovered in a potting shed.] I sat on a bench to enjoy the views to the south over the Vale of Taunton to the Blackdown Hills beyond and must have become invisible because, to my delight, I was surrounded by small birds.
It felt as if a spell had been cast by the serenity of the garden; the mellow old stones giving their stored warmth and shelter. A blackbird sang. Goldfinches landed on the santolina beside me. Pied wagtails flitted at my feet and martins dipped to the water below.
Here Gertrude Jekyll had wanted plants which provided scent and texture so there was lavender and catmint cascading over the walls; rosemary and pinks and for touch, furry grey lambs-ears, one of her favourites. Consideration of these senses was important to Gertrude who had only transferred her attention to garden design when her sight began to fail.
Previously she had been a painter and produced intricate craft work in several different media. Friendship with John Ruskin and Burne-Jones had led her to the belief that 'painting was not enough' and encouraged by William Morris no less, she had taken up metal work, embroidery and wood carving. A long rill with raised terraces runs down each side of the garden. The West Rill is mainly planted with shrubs and roses; the East Rill dominated by herbaceous plants such as irises, poppies and red hot pokers with sedums and euphorbia. Jekyll used citrus fragranced choisya a lot, the masses of white blossom 'lighting up' corners.
The water features are beautiful. A recessed wall forming a semi-globe with a pool forming the bottom half of the sphere. Water flows along narrow channels - the rills - planted with arrowhead, water plantain and forget-me-not. Ribbon like loops of stone act as little weirs to control the water levels and form planting holes for deeper rooted plants.
Throughout the garden the rough grey stone quarried from behind the house, is used extensively for walls with balustrading and dressed stone for ornamentation carved from golden ham stone, from the quarries on Ham Hill near Stoke sub Hamdon. The West and East rills are linked by the 230 feet long pergola; honeysuckle and clematis clambering up the alternating round and square pillars; greenfinches and coal tits enlivening the scene. The idea of the central Great Plat was to take the eye away from the ugly facade of the house! The paths follow a geometric pattern around a sun dial.
This contrasts with the small enclosed space called the Rotunda. Lots of interesting stonework and a circular mirror pool in the centre designed to reflect the sky. Here the colours were blue, white and grey but nearby is the Victorian Terrace, which pre-dates the Lutyens/Jekyll garden, still laid out with regimented rows of bedding plants in clashing oranges, reds and pinks, so different from Jekyll's anarchic drifts of subtle shades. The Rotunda leads to the Orangery, a neo-classical building designed by Lutyens, now used for weddings. The young architect first met Gertrude Jekyll when he was twenty. She was forty-six. They went on to design many wonderful gardens together. He called her Aunt Bumps.
In the 1990's a much earlier landscape garden was restored; originally created between 1750 and 1786 in a combe to the north of the house with forty acres of woodland, lakes and temples, an octagonal summerhouse, mausoleum, Chinese Bridge and magnificent waterfall called the Great Cascade. A walk around the full circuit of this garden takes about two hours. Hestercombe is two miles north of Taunton just outside the village of Cheddon Fitzpaine.
Acknowledgements and thanks to Sue Neale and her Ilfracombe Floral Art Club for arranging the visit to Hestercombe and for throwing the outing open to non-members - and for publicising this in the Berrynarbor Newsletter.
LOCAL WALK - 138
Herner and Hall
Herner and Hall. It sounds like a double act and in a way it is. The Ordnance Survey map showed a large house on a hill with woodland around it and nearby a weir and a church close to water meadows beside the River Taw. It looked like an interesting place to explore.
The mansion is simply called Hall and the church is at Herner, barely a hamlet, two and a half miles south east of Bishop's Tawton. But we decided to start our walk at Chapelton railway station which faces Herner church from the opposite side of the Taw.
Leaving the little station car park we crossed the railway line and soon reached a foot bridge over the Taw. The river is quite wide at this point and the bridge is imposing, borne on a series of broad stone piers. There is a lozenge-shaped island where a pair of grey wagtails bobbed about the gravelly shore. A fisherman stood in the middle of the river casting his line.
The right of way over the fields takes
the form of a firm and level track and after about half a mile it brought us to
the lane leading to Herner where
a disused chapel still retains a large bell above its roof bearing the date
1817. Opposite, a barn of cob with circular pillars to the front,
has its earlier thatch roof still showing beneath the corrugated iron and just
around the corner is the church with its fifteenth century tower embattled with
The nave and chancel were rebuilt in 1888. The church is set above the road in a little garden, rather
than the usual churchyard. We climbed
the slate steps and walked past hedges mahonia
japonica and shrubs bursting with white and pink cameliasl.
Opposite, a barn of cob with circular pillars to the front, has its earlier thatch roof still showing beneath the corrugated iron and just around the corner is the church with its fifteenth century tower embattled with crocketed pinnacles. The nave and chancel were rebuilt in 1888.
The church is set above the road in a little garden, rather than the usual churchyard. We climbed the slate steps and walked past hedges mahonia japonica and shrubs bursting with white and pink cameliasl.
A bicycle was propped against the porch. This church is classified as a 'chapel of ease' and appropriately an elderly cyclist had sought sanctuary in the porch to enjoy a cigarette, his newspaper and flask. As I tried the door, I said, "I suppose it's locked." He confirmed it was and added, "You haven't missed much!
One of the guide books I'd consulted beforehand agreed with him stating, 'The church has little to offer the visitor' and other guides had ignored it altogether. However, if we'd been able to enter we should have found wagon-roofs throughout and a carved Jacobean pulpit. Worth a visit I should have thought.
Another disappointed would-be visitor had posted on the wall of the porch a notice of complaint about being excluded from unwelcoming locked churches. In response, the key holder had put beside it an indignant riposte accusing the author of 'boorishness'. Oh dear!
On leaving, harmony was restored by the variety and quantity of wild flowers along the roadside. Among wood sorrel and stitchwort, archangel and alkanet, a single early purpose orchid.
Now the mansion could be seen up on its hill, with sheep and lambs grazing before it. We passed a high curved wall with a gothic arched doorway set in it but the public right of way to Hall is past Herner Bridge with its little weir, via a steep driveway through a bluebell wood where peacock butterflies flitted.
We rounded a bend and found ourselves at the side of the mansion and a walled garden. Of the original building only a large barn with buttresses survives. The present house was rebuilt circa 1850 in the Neo-Tudor style with a baronial hall at right angles designed by
Philip Hardwick in collaboration with Gould of Barnstaple. Along the front are bell-shaped gables and wide mullion windows. It is Grade 2 Listed.
The site has been occupied by the same family - descendants of the Chichesters - for the past seven hundred years. On a gate post is a figure of a heron - symbol of the Chichesters - like those at Arlington Court.
The route continues through a fascinating collection of barns and outbuildings in a mixture of cob, stone and brick, some with gothic windows and carved doors or sporting a fox weather vane or ornamental cupola.
In the middle of the yard is a quaint old granary, raised off the ground by cylindrical supports, Some pretty red-legged partridges appeared in a field behind the barns. A hare raised its head above a dip in the field and a green woodpecker landed close by; the only sign of human activity, a post van rumbling down the stony drive.
Chapelton to Hall via Herner is a walk I should recommend highly to anyone who enjoys old buildings, wild flowers and quiet, gentle landscape.
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALK - 137
"Butting through the Channel in the mad March days"
Downend is a headland of low cliffs at the southern end of Croyde Bay. On the road from Saunton, just beyond the third layby, a narrow opening beside a derelict lookout station, gives access to the coast path. The castellated lookout station is a bizarre building with wooden outshots supported by brackets and stilts. This is the only steep section of an otherwise level walk.
Illustration by: Paul Swailes
Below is a wave-cut platform of rock, formed in the Ice Age and known as a 'raised beach'. Although the rocks are grey and black the patches of sand between them are pinkish cream and in one area of beach, almost pure white.
From here in the winter sea going ducks may be observed. I was told that in mid-December a large flock [more than a hundred] of common scoter was seen off Downend and just two eider duck.
But as we scanned the shore in early March all we found were 'the usual suspects' - cormorants diving, a curlew flying past, a few active rock pipits, great black backed gulls and most plentiful of all, oyster catchers noisily announcing their arrival as they landed to join those already on the rocks.
This was the location of the wreck of the Ceres; a ketch built at Salcombe in 1811 to take supplies to Spain where the Duke of Wellington's troops were fighting in the Peninsular War. In 1852 it was bought and enlarged by a Bude ship owner. But in 1937 the Ceres foundered off Croyde and its crew was rescued by the Appledore lifeboat.
In several places the edge of the coast path had been severely eroded but is still passable. The neat yellow flowers of coltsfoot sparkled along the cliff top. The dandelion-like blooms appear before the large leaves. The stems bear overlapping fleshy, purplish scales.
These stems were boiled with brown sugar to produce a cough syrup. The plant was also used as a herbal tobacco. Coltsfoot's Latin name is Tussilago farfara, tussis being Latin for a cough.
We descended to the beach where the sand was firm underfoot and resembled a colourful mosaic with the fragments of blue mussel shells mixed with tiny orange and red pebbles. The bulky white shape of a cargo vessel of the Grimaldi Lines loomed on the horizon; an Italian shipping company based in Genoa.
At the stream which dissects the beach we found, in the company of pied wagtails and a male stonechat, a small plump wader, a sanderling - Calibris alba. Alba because in winter plumage it is the whitest of the smaller waders having a white head and underparts, pale grey back, straight black bill and black legs. Darting back and forth along the water's edge it feeds on molluscs, insects and crustaceans and travels to breed in Greenland and Siberia. We scrambled up over the sandhills, following the coast path route, to reach the track leading to the village.
WALK NO. 136
A "sleepy" little village?
Returning from the sawmill at Pennymoor and seeking a short cut back to the main South Molton road we chanced upon Puddington. There's a journalistic tendency to attach the adjectives "sleepy little" to any village being reported on, regardless of size and often when the village community is far from sleepy with a variety of lively activities, events and clubs being organised.
However, as I walked around Puddington I saw no sign of human life; no traffic, no dogs being walked, not even a cat on a window sill. It felt like a deserted village.
Although it was only the third week of August there was already an autumnal air with a lowering grey sky and the swallows gathering on the telegraph wires; Dartmoor on the distant horizon looked dark and forbidding.
Puddington's church, dedicated to St. Thomas a Becket, was rebuilt in 1838 by W. Bowden. The churchyard appeared neglected; paint peeled on the door but the church held some surprises - some of them macabre. There is an octagonal font in the perpendicular style and some late 15th/early 16th century bench ends
More unusually, there is a 'memento mori' memorial plaque, with skull and crossbones, which had been saved from a fire at Honiton's church in 1911.
Two bells on display at the back of the church were removed there when the tower was declared unsafe. According to the information board, in 1935 the sexton hanged himself on a bell rope.
Recommended read: 'Wild' by Cheryl Strayed
A young American's account of her solo 1,100 mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail; California to Oregon through the Mojave Dessert, forest and mountainous terrain with heavy backpack, lack of water and inadequate boots. Born in 1968, Cheryl made the hike in 1995 at the age of 26.
LOCAL WALK - 135
Fauna among the Flora at Marwood Hill Gardens
Our esteemed editor had kindly given ma a voucher for entry to Marwood Hill and as most of our previous visits had been in Spring or Summer, we decided to delay our visit this time until the Autumn. I was curious to see what colour might remain in late September - especially after the soggy Summer - and before the russet and golden tones of Autumn leaves had got underway.
On arrival we headed for the quarry garden and soon discovered on a path, beside the ericaceous border, a dead mole. It is unusual to see these industrious and beautiful creatures above ground alive so although regrettable to find poor Moldy Warp like this, it did provide a rare opportunity to observe the special features which adapt it for a life underground, excavating its system of tunnels; the large muscular 'hands' with shovel-like palms and strong claws, the long flexible snout, club shaped tail and coat of dark velvety fur.
Moldy Warp. the creation
of Alison Uttley in her Little Grey Rabbit books
We went down to the middle lake where a secluded seat enabled us to pause to enjoy the view of the little island with its fine sculpture of a mother and two young children by John Robinson.
When we first visited Marwood Hill in the 1980's there were mandarins on the lake; the neat little ducks which looks as if they have been carved out of wood and painted in bright colours. They are no longer there and now there are mallards with moorhens and a few Canada geese. Grey wagtails flitted to and fro across the lake.
The rabbits we encountered among the eucalyptus trees were not at all timid. At the top of the hill is a spiral seat inside a circle of six silver birches.
In late September there were still a lot of flowers blooming in the bog garden; alpines flowering in the scree beds and in the Summer Garden, beyond the folly, the herbaceous plants were attracting red admirals and small tortoiseshells.
But the greatest number of butterflies were around a large shrub near the walled garden. The shrub was unfamiliar to me so I asked one of the gardeners what it was. She told me it was a clerodendron, also known as clerodendrum or glory tree. The fragrant flowers in August and September are followed by turquoise blue berries.
It was here I found the only painted lady butterfly I have seen all year. I like its Latin name Cynthia cardui. It is a migratory butterfly which cannot survive the British winter. I imagine the painted lady in a love triangle with the small and dull grizzled skipper jealous of his much larger and more colourful rival, the red admiral.
A curious plant caught my eye. I was surprised to learn it was a member of the pink family. Dianthus superbus. With its shaggy pink, deeply fringed petals it resembled a ragged robin.
A small rodent shot out from under the dianthus, crossed the path and disappeared among shrubs. It was a bank vole; its back being a rich reddish brown. A field vole would have been greying brown. This is the easiest way to distinguish between the two if you only have a glimpse.
Other differences are the length of tail. The bank vole's tail is about fifty per cent of the length of its head and body, whereas that of the field vole - alternatively named short-tailed vole - is only 30 per cent of the length of the head and body and all one colour. The bank vole's tail is bicoloured, dark on top and pale below. Both voles have very small ears but the field vole's ears are less visible than those of the bank vole.
Our autumnal walk of discovery around the gardens demonstrated that there's more to be enjoyed there than trees and flowers.
Footnote: A big thank you from the staff and volunteers at the Garden for the support received for their Macmillan Fund Raising Event which raised over £1700 for this worthy cause! £491 was raised on the day but a fantastic amount of £1,244 came from Sage, the Eurasian Eagle Owl's collecting box throughout the season.
The Gardens are now closed for the winter but will welcome you all again from Friday,1st March 2013.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALK - 134
We Saw Meshaw
In a hollow where six roads converge, lies the small village of Meshaw, seven miles south-east of South Molton; a cluster of thatched cottages and pretty gardens packed with traditional cottage garden flowers.
This is reflected in the choice of house names. I saw at least three with the word 'rose' in the title. Apart from the main road to Witheridge, the other roads rise steeply out of the village giving the impression of a compact and sheltered little settlement.
Lavender and pale yellow rock roses grew near the church gate and tight rubbery clumps of stonecrop hugged the ground; the yellow flowers so luminous that an old country name for the plant was 'Welcome Home Husband Be Ye Ever So Late'.
The steep path through the churchyard was bordered by ox-eye daisies, cat's ears and orange hawkweed - the latter a naturalised garden escape. I like its alternative name Fox and Cubs referring to the bright flowers grouped closely together, several to a stem.
The church of St. John the Baptist was rebuilt in 1838. The architect was R.D. Gould of Barnstaple who was also responsible for Butchers' Row, Bideford Town Hall and the rebuilding of Arlington church. The tower, however, is much older, dating from 1691, castellated but without pinnacles. The outer door of the porch was closed which often indicates yet another locked church. There is always a brief moment of suspense as you turn the handle but this time
the heavy door yielded. It is a simple, modest church; an all-in-one nave and chancel with no side aisles. Some nice stained glass windows in the chancel but no elaborately carved bench ends or other ancient features. Even the guide books have little to say about Meshaw church. However, there were two features which impressed me, both unusual in their different ways and which said a lot about the village, suggesting a generosity of spirit. The door of the bell tower was ajar and bore a notice ; 'Welcome to Meshaw Book Exchange' with an invitation to swap or buy books. The small space had been fitted out with book cases crammed with a good selection of contemporary fiction such as A.S. Byatt and William Boyd whilst classics available included Marcel Proust!
There was seating, a square of carpet, even a kettle. I bought a copy of The Pilgrim's Guide to Devon's Churches with details and illustrations of all 618 Anglican churches in Devon. Now there's a challenge - to visit all of that lot! A useful reference book, well presented and modestly priced.
In a prominent position in the nave, next to a copy of the famous painting of Jesus saying, 'Suffer the little children to come unto me'. was a large picture frame entitled 'Meshaw Evacuees 1939-45' containing photographs of the children with names, ages, dates of arrival to the village; a record of outings and activities, a sketch of the village and a Prayer of Thanks.
One hears accounts of the callous, even cruel treatment of evacuee children by their 'hosts' but here they seemed to have happily enjoyed the presence of the evacuees among them, drawing them into the life of the village and continuing to remember them.
When travelling less frequented routes in North Devon it is interesting to stop off at unfamiliar villages along the way, to have a wander and visit the church. There are always discoveries to be made.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALK - 133
Three heads better than one
Three giant wicker heads had been suspended from trees along the Tarka Trail between Torrington and Weare Giffard as part of a national 'Giants in the Forest' project to encourage people to visit the Biosphere Reserves in North Devon, Dumfries and Galloway and the Dyfi Valley in Wales, and to help raise awareness of the Biospheres' Nature Improvement Area work.
So, having read reports about the wicker heads in the Journal and the Gazette, naturally we were curious and set off from the Puffing Billy near Torrington to track down the 'giants'.
Tangles of mauve bush vetch and yellow wood avens grew alongside the track. A grey heron waited motionless beside the weir and then, just beyond the third of the old railway bridges which cross the River Torridge, we discovered the first of the wicker heads. We almost missed it. Though enormous we had not noticed it as we walked past because it was located high in a tree and by chance we just happened to look up at the right moment. It was impressive; simultaneously comic and sinister.
The wicker heads were placed along the Trail in May and will stay until November. As they have been seeded with grass they will grow and chance with the seasons and the organisers hope people will photograph the heads over the summer and autumn to create a record of these changes.
The Canal Bridge c. 1830
We continued along the Tarka Trail scanning the trees for the other two heads. A few more benches had been added since our last visit, some quite sculptural like the sturdy three-breasted bench opposite a gap in the trees which gave a view of Weare Giffard Hall and church tower. Up a flight of steps a large shelter had been constructed from old railway sleepers. Near Annery, in the narrow strip of land between the track and the road, there was a smallholding with ducks, hens and rabbits and an old fruit cage. A viewing platform overlooked the river and a family of swans with cygnets.
But we still had not found the remaining heads. Disappointed we retraced our steps. We had asked cyclists and other walkers we met en route if they had spotted the heads None of them had known about them either. The cyclists remarked that if they craned their necks to look for them up in the trees as they cycled they would have toppled off their bikes.
We paused to admire the view of the Beam Aqueduct also known as the Canal Bridge. It no longer carries water but was part of the Rolle Canal opened in 1827 to carry agricultural produce and imported coal and limestone until 1871 when it was superseded by a branch of the South Western railway which used part of the canal's route for its track bed.
In their book 'West Country Waterway Heritage : Discovering Inland Waterways in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset', Jean Hall and Joy Yeates claim that the Beam Aqueduct is 'one of the finest and most impressive canal features in the South West.' It is in a very beautiful setting spanning the River Torridge.
The canal had been the idea of Denys Rolle of Torrington and it was engineered by James Green, the Surveyor of Bridges for the County of Devon. It was intended to form part of a network of canals in North Devon and to link up with the Bude canal, but the six mile stretch to Bideford was all that materialised. James Green pioneered a system of raising and lowering boats by means of inclined planes and lifts in hilly country, instead of using locks, thus saving time and water.
by courtesy of: Matt Edworthy
of the North Devon Biosphere Service
Suddenly, not far from where we had started our walk, two giant heads stared down at us, with more prominent noses than the first head; the wicker entwined with ivy, moss and polypody ferns. They were rather gorgeous. We greeted them with surprise. According to the Biosphere organisers the heads were supposed by 'combining art, technology and the natural environment to inspire people to think about their surroundings and how they are changing' and 'to reflect on their relationship with the environment and the seasons.'
Well, I don't know about that. Those lofty aims certainly had not been realised by all the people who had walked or cycled pasT the giant heads without even realising they were there. However, they are fun and I would recommend hotfooting along to the Tarka Trail at the Puffing Billy sometime between now and November to see them while they are still there.
LOCAL WALKS - 132
'It's a shore thing.'
Illustration by: Peter Rothwell
When walking North Devon's wonderful variety of coast paths I often try to work out the attraction of being within sight of the sea; whether gazing out over the vast expanse of water from the high cliff tops of Exmoor or standing at a sandy shoreline.
Crossing the Burrows on a calm and sunny day, the first view of the sea is always a revelation as if seen for the first time. The smooth pale sand and the sheer beauty of blue sea meeting blue sky; the intensity of the colour blue. On days like that the sight of the sea is simultaneously soothing and exhilarating.
Adding to the strangely surreal atmosphere, a young boy sits at the edge of the dunes playing a pipe and surrounded by goats! Happily, Sixty-six years after this memorable scene was shot, that spectacular stretch of shore remains unspoilt.
Even on days when the sea is rough and pewter grey it still exerts its magnetic pull. At Windy Corner on Ilfracombe's sea front it can be difficult to remain upright as the wind tries to force you back inland.
It was from there one late Sunday afternoon in April, as the boats 'Osprey', 'Kingfisher' and 'Jay Jay' were doing a brisk trade in fishing trips, that we noticed a large number of herring gulls circling over the sea - but not around the fishing boats. Their attention was concentrated on something round in the water close to the shore; the head of a grey seal. We watched it diving, catching and eating fish.
Illustration by: Paul Swailes
In his fascinating book, 'Land's Edge : A Coastal Memoir', the Australian author and environmentalist, Tim Winton, muses on his liking to be near the sea; to see it each day if possible, despite not feeling any great restless need to travel on it. He concludes, 'The sea is as disturbing as it is reassuring'.
Winton has a theory that west coasts tend to be lonely, wild and remote; that they are often the final frontiers whereas east coasts tend to be civilised, sociable and sensible. This he considers applies to the western and eastern coasts of Australia but he believes this contrast can also be seen in west and east coasts elsewhere. So glory be to our wild and remote coastline - our 'final frontier'.
WEST COUNTRY WALK 131
Far From the Madding Crowd at Maiden Castle
Last year in early May we were passing through Dorchester when I was surprised to see from the map how close Maiden Castle was.Only a couple of miles from the town it was worth a detour. We walked along the track leading to the ancient monument.It loomed impressively ahead, much bigger than I had expected.
Illustration by: Paul Swailes
The guide book claimed not only is it the best example of a prehistoric fortress in Britain, with enormous earthworks, but Maiden Castle is also one of the finest Iron Age hill forts in Europe.
The short turf was studded with cowslips and the air was full of linnets and skylarks.Several stonechats perched on bushes at the side of the track.I turned my head in the direction of a harsh churring sound and caught sight of the mistle thrush responsible for it.
As we reached the hill fort a bright orange butterfly; a small heath, fluttered past slowly and low to the ground.There was a view, somewhat incongruously of Prince Charles Poundbury development, looking rather like a Toytown version of how a housing estate should be.Well, at least the inhabitants of Poundbury are able to enjoy a wonderful view of Maiden Castle.
It is about three-quarters of a mile long.The Romans built a temple at the eastern end.From a distance it had appeared to be a smooth and solid mound but we found ourselves in a complex system of earthworks folding and circling about us like hills within a hill.What a feat of engineering those Ancient Britons achieved.
My companion had gone a little way ahead and was soon out of sight.When I saw him on top of an escarpment, which dropped steeply only to rear up just as steeply on the opposite side, I felt a sense of deja vu although I had never been there before.
I recognised it as the location for the scene in the film version of Thomas Hardys Far From the Madding Crowd, in which Sergeant Troy [played by Terence Stamp] impresses Bathsheba Everdene [played by Julie Christie] with his swordsmanship.
Having assured her first that the sword is blunt Troy, brilliant in brass and scarlet, shows off his prowess, charging up and down the slopes, brandishing his sword ever closer to the watching Bathsheba until finally he uses it to cut off a lock of her hair. But you said that it was blunt and couldnt cut me!" she protested. That was to get you to stand still, and so make sure of your safety.The risk of injuring you through your moving was too great not to force me to tell you a fib."Troy explained. Bathsheba shuddered, I have been within an inch of my life and didnt known it!"
These were the images that popped unexpectedly into my head as we wandered about the strange landscape of Maiden Castle. Although Bathsheba marries Sergeant Troy, the marriage is a disaster and she finally settles with the dependable shepherd Gabriel Oak.He tells her, Whenever I look up there you shall be and whenever you look up there shall I be." I wondered what Bathsheba and Gabriel would have made of Poundbury or what their creator Thomas Hardy an architect before he found fame as a writer would have thought of it.A carbuncle on the face of his beloved Casterbridge?
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALKS - 130
in the air Mrs. Jones?"
"No! Why should I?"
As I write on the third day of the new year, there are reports of winds gusting to 84 mph in parts of the west country whilst Edinburgh has experienced winds exceeding 100 mph.
But it is mild, whereas I see from my old diary that last year on the third of January we had snow. On the same day there was an earth tremor in North Yorkshire, registering 3.6 on the Richter Scale, which could be felt in Lincolnshire and Cumbria. The following day there was a partial eclipse of the sun. So, a lot of drama!
Having seen primroses in mid-November and the first celandine in December, I decided to extend my trip to the village shop by going up Castle Hill and down Ridge Hill looking for signs of spring.
On top of a grassy bank the while bells of snow flake, which usually follows its relative the snowdrop, had been putting on a fine display for a few weeks. With them a lone grape hyacinth which would normally flower in April.
At the bottom of Rectory Hill the wall valerian was blooming and the yellow sowthistle. I surprised a weasel crossing the footpath over the field. It soon vanished in the undergrowth carrying a rabbit bulkier than itself. Growing with holly by the gate is Butcher's Broom, a strange shrub with bottle green branches. The tips of the oval leaves are deceptively sharp because despite their appearance, they are not true leaves but modified and flattened stems.
At the top of the path were clumps of wild chives which have a more garlicky flavour than the garden variety. They are useful as a stopgap and by the time the garden chives are ready for cutting the wild ones will have become too coarse to be palatable.
Halfway up Castle Hill the yellow-green umbels of Alexanders had opened out and the neat round leaves of wall pennywort or navelwort were showing with a few furled leaves of cuckoo pint.
A flock of starlings took off from a field opposite Croft Lee to perform an aerial ballet.
Near the top of Ridge Hill the springy four-sided twigs of spindle [euonymus] still bore pink, lobed capsules opening to reveal orange coated seeds. Further down the hill, where it was more sheltered, were several lesser celandines, Wordsworth's favourite flower.
Another unseasonal flower I was surprised to find in December was triangular garlic [or three-cornered leek] at Torrs Park, Ilfracombe. A spike of white bells, it would usually flower in April or May. I have been picking purple sprouting broccoli since the end of September although this year I had tried a late variety, which should be cropping in April and May, instead of the usual Early Purple Sprouting ready from February or March. This is very curious.
So far the wood pigeons are leaving it alone. A line up of pigeons, one atop each plant, can look very comical but they have a devastating effect on the tender shoots. This year pheasants have been coming into the garden and they also head straight for the purple sprouting plot but no sign of damage yet.
The awful pun I've used as a heading is one of the seasonal quips with which the Welsh father of Andrew Davies [adapter of many classic novels for television] used to annoy his family and customers. The other being: "Winter draws on Mrs. Jones?" "None of your business!"
Illustrated by Paul Swailes
WALK - 129
C.F.A. VOYSEY IN NORTH DEVON
This month I am abandoning the moor and the marsh; the coast path and the river bank and going instead for a walk around a building! A very special building by one of the greatest architects of the Arts and Crafts movement, Charles Francis Annesley Voysey 1857-1941.
A Lady's Nobel Gift
The former Winsford Cottage Hospital at Halwill Junction near Beaworthy [a few miles south-east of Holsworthy] is a rare example of Voysey's work in Devon.
Built in 1899, in memory of her husband George, it was the inspiration of Maria Webb-Medley whose country estate was in the neighbourhood. She was the daughter of a Victorian artist and illustrator of children's books, Henry Selous, celebrated in his day but now largely forgotten.
In 1900 in a report about the new hospital, the Western Morning News dubbed it 'A Lady's Noble Gift'. A hundred years later the hospital closed and in 1999 the Winsford Trust was set up to secure ownership of the building, recognising its architectural importance - it is Grade 2 Listed - the Trust's stated mission was 'to ensure that this distinctive building is fully restored; remains in public ownership and provides a base for activities that will enrich the local people and a wider audience.'
When this year a series of open days was held to allow the public to view the former cottage hospital, we jumped at the opportunity having wandered around the outside of the empty and abandoned building about twelve years ago, soon after it had ceased to be a hospital.
The one-storey building fronts a quiet, rural road and bears many of Voysey's hallmark features; deep roofs, gables, five broad chimneys and one tall and tapering one, long windows tucked under the eaves, a generous and welcoming porch - all typical characteristics of the domestic architecture with which he is most associated.
In fact Winsford was the only hospital he ever designed and not surprisingly the Western Morning News remarked on its 'cosy and homelike air'.
To the rear of the building two wings project - these housed the four wards - and between them a verandah, where convalescing patients could sit overlooking a south facing garden with pleasant and open views of fields and woodland with Dartmoor in the distance.
A small orchard was even provided at one end of the lawn. The fruit trees are still there today and on our first visit, when the site was not being used, we found the secluded garden had become a haven for birds; a great spotted woodpecker, a flock of gold finches and a spotted flycatcher making forays from an apple tree.
Illustrated from original drawings by: Paul Swailes
Voysey had wanted the building to be in harmony with its surroundings, to give a sense of protection 'quietness in a storm', he said. He held the conviction that no detail was too small to deserve the attention of the architect and at the Winsford Cottage Hospital this can be seen in the beauty and simplicity of his window fittings, door hinges and handles, all of which have survived very well.
A principle of Arts and Crafts designers was that form should follow function - hence the asymmetry of some of the elevations rather than forcing rooms into the rigid proportions of formal Georgian or neo-classical facades.
Voysey also designed furniture, textiles and wallpaper. Coincidentally, he was born the same year as Barnstaple born architect William Lethaby, that other great luminary of the Arts and Crafts movement and promoter of its ideals.
When we visited again in September this year, we were greeted by Perry Evans who gave us a fascinating tour of the building. The bright entrance hall has an art nouveau fireplace with glazed tiles and the floor is paved with small yellow mosaic tiles.
The operating theatre, kitchen, laundry and nurses' rooms were along the front of the building. Here there were smaller fireplaces with Voyseys' signature heart motif. We were shown the decorative air vents which incorporated animal and plant patterns. Such attention to detail. The place was light and airy and from the wards the patients looked onto the garden and farmland beyond.
Should you have the chance to visit and walk around this architectural gem in the heart of the Devon countryside, I would highly recommend it.
[Acknowledgement and grateful thanks to Perry Evans, Development Officer at the Winsford Trust, for showing us around and for additional information.]
LOCAL WALK - 128
'Somewhere beyond the sea : The north-west extremity of Devon
"If an unfortunate vessel is driven by a north-west or a south-west gale within the horns of Hartland and Padstow points, God help her hapless crew for she is doomed to certain destruction!" wrote William Hurton in 1852. "Along the coast there is no harbour or refuge, nothing but iron rocks. Here the roar of the ocean is incessant and mighty waves fling themselves against the giant cliffs."
In more recent times, in his attractive book 'Along the Shore', Mike Towns the former warden of Northam Burrows Country Park commented: "Struggling to remain on your feet in the teeth of a gale at Hartland Point brings home just why the Romans called this wind blasted spot 'the Promontory of Hercules'."
By contrast it was a lovely day when we walked out to Hartland Point; mild and sunny with a gentle breeze. Four grey seals were surfing the waves in Barley Bay on the eastern side of the point while out at sea gannets were converging. Eventually there must have been about thirty of them. We watched as they started to dive; wings drawn back, then the plunge from a great height followed by a big splash. Magnificent birds.
The narrow road beyond the lighthouse gate is now out of bounds to the public and when we saw the huge chunks of rock which had fallen from the cliff on to the track we could see why.
So instead we walked past the emergency water catchment area and up to the coast guard lookout, 325 feet above sea level, where there is a good view of the lighthouse on its small plateau 200 feet lower down.
Built in 1874 it took three years to construct. First the inaccessible site had to be surveyed from the sea before the road was blasted out of the side of the cliff and the site levelled.
When completed, Bishop Temple of Exeter, later Archbishop of Canterbury, officiated at its blessing. From Blagdon Cliff, to the west of the coast guard lookout, can be seen the rusty remains of a wrecked ship on the beach below.
On the 31st December 1982 the Johanna, a 978 ton Panamanian registered coaster, ran ashore just south of the lighthouse.
Hartland Point is a good place for sea watching and we saw flying past fulmars, great black-backed gulls, a few razorbills and further out towards Lundy - which is only twelve miles from the point - a line of manx shearwaters. They are present between April and September as they breed on Lundy.
Ninety per cent of the world population of manx shearwaters breed in colonies around the coasts of Britain and Ireland. In the autumn the shearwaters from Lundy cross the Atlantic to the shores of South America, a journey which can take a month.
A team from Oxford University has been monitoring their movements and has found that the shearwaters tend to fly down the western coast of North Africa so that they can make the shortest possible crossing of the Atlantic to the coast of Brazil; from there along the coasts of Uruguay and Argentina, finally reaching Patagonia.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
As we headed for the Radar Station on North Cliff we found clumps of wood vetch drifting down the cliffs; its tendrils allowing it to sprawl over other vegetation. Its white flowers are delicately veined with purple and nationally it is rather a scarce plant, though less so on sea cliffs between Minehead and Hartland.
It is occasionally found on the edges of woods and I have seen it growing on a section of the old railway line near the Slade Reservoirs. The Radar Station is the strange structure; a large white sphere on top of a tall 'stalk' which can sometimes be spotted from our own shores, especially Baggy or Morte Points.
LOCAL WALK - 127
Good Day at Blackchurch Rock
I'd had a distant glimpse of Blackchurch Rock from out at sea on board a heaving and rolling Balmoral. I'd seen photographs of it in books and was intrigued by this strange and unusual rock formation. It is a dark pyramid at the eastern end of remote Mouthmill Beach, west of Clovelly, punctuated by two large pointed holes which resemble Gothic windows.
Illustration by: Paul Swailes
In a recent article in the North Devon Journal, in which people were asked what were their favourite places along the North Devon coast, Dave Edgecombe, Project Officer for the Area of outstanding Natural Beauty, chose Mouthmill Beach which he described as 'a real hidden gem ... far from the madding crowd.' His family had spent '... many a happy hour whiling away the day there.'
We started our walk from the National Trust car park at Brownsham, a small hamlet reached by a maze of lanes from the Hartland road.
A broad track through a wooded combe leads eventually to the beach. The Sitka Spruce and Douglas Fir make this a rather gloomy trek but the monotony was relieved by the wild flowers; Enchanter's Nightshade and Yellow Pimpernel with, in the damper areas, Brooklime and Hemlock Water Dropwort. The needles of Douglas Fir have the scent of oranges when crushed.
Suddenly the prospect opened out and there was the beach composed of rocks, pebbles and boulders. Mouthmill is a lonely atmospheric cove with its disused quay and large lime kiln with the remains of two derelict cottages behind it.
There is a view of Lundy and across Bideford Bay to Baggy and Morte Points. We picked our way carefully over the rocky shore to reach Blackchurch Rock. It did not disappoint. It loomed above us suitably sombre and mysterious.
The poet and radical Charles Kingsley, author of The Water Babies and Westward Ho! lived nearby when he was a boy. His father was the Rector of Clovelly.
In 1849 Kingsley described Mouthmill: 'A deep crack in wooded hills; an old mill half buried in rocks and flowers over which wild boys and bare-footed girls were driving their ponies with panniers full of sand and as they rattled back to the beach for a fresh load, standing upright on the back of their steeds, with one foot in each pannier, at full trot over rocks and stones where a landsman would find it difficult to walk.' [The particles of shell in the sand being used to neutralise acid soils.]
Hard nowadays to picture this quiet place the scene of such activity.
Images: Blackchurch Rock from the Tom Bartlett Postcard Collection - c1911
LOCAL WALK - 126
The Colour Blue
In recent years there has been a controversy involving Britain, Spain and a small chestnut coloured duck with white cheeks and a bright blue bill.
A native of North America, the Ruddy Duck was introduced into captive collection in the UK in the 1930's. Two escaped from the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Slimbridge in the early '50's. Five years later, twenty more escaped until eventually the pretty duck had successfully established itself outside Britain - including Spain, where through hybridisation it threatened the existence of the closely related and highly endangered White-Headed Duck.
In view of this, the European Commission funded a cull of Ruddy Ducks to eradicate the alien species from Europe and aid the conservation of the White-Headed Duck. Not everyone was happy with this!
A similar situation, though in reverse, has concerned the native bluebell Endymion [or Hyacinthus] non-scriptus and the Spanish bluebell Endymion [or Hyacinthus] hispanicus. So many of our typical spring flowers, like the snowdrop, have their origins in the Eastern Mediterranean but Hyacinthus non-scriptus is a true native and special to Britain.
Unfortunately, garden escapes of the larger, paler Spanish bluebell naturalise and interbreed with our wild bluebells possibly jeopardising their numbers in future.
Chapel Wood - Illustrated by: Peter Rothwell
To experience the shimmering colour and fragrance of a bluebell wood in May, we went to the RSPB reserve, Chapel Wood at Spreacombe.
There, between the trees, the racemes of flowers, arranged on one side of the stem and drooping at the tip, ebbed and flowed with the breeze.
The Spanish variety is more erect and does not have the flowers confined to one side of the spike. Another distinguishing feature - our Hyacinthus non-scriptus has cream anthers whereas Hyacinthushispanicus has blue anthers.
As we reached the top of the hill the blue became more intense with the flowers more closely packed together and less greenery and stitchwort between to dilute the colour. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called the patches of bluebells 'falls of sky colour'.
On the western side of the wood we were pleased to find that the steep path had been much improved, making the descent feel a lot safer. The work had been carried out by Western Power apprentices as a community project. Halfway down, a sturdy bench provided a good place to stop and watch woodpeckers, nuthatches and assorted warblers. Near the site of the ancient chapel some children were absorbed in woodcraft related activities, laid on by the RSPB for the Bank Holiday.
Once we had arrived at Chapel Wood as a couple of visitors from California were leaving. Although the bluebells were just past their best, the Americans were enthralled. They had not seen anything like it.
The nature writer, Richard Mabey, describes bluebell woods as 'a uniquely British spectacle'.
A walk along the River Taw in late spring, from Seven Brethren Bank to Elmpark Copse opposite Bishops Tawton. Once the retail park was left behind, there was blossom along the path: elderflowers and the creamy white flower-heads of guilder rose [Viburnum opulus], The outer row of flowers are three times the size of the flowers at the centre, but they are sterile. It is the small florets which secrete nectar. The guilder rose is an attractive shrub with leaves divided into three lobes.
path passed under the old disused railway bridge; now a footbridge from
Soon we came to the third bridge - the railway bridge carrying the Tarka Line. A train rumbled over it as we approached. The ground was covered with the mauve flowers of bush vetch. There were also the deeper purple flowers of common vetch. A male stonechat perched on some brambles sounding its eponymous alarm.
We climbed the steep path which led to Elmpark Copse, full of the blue spikes of bugle and brown and cream speckled wood butterflies. But we did not manage to get far because the little wood was overgrown and we had to turn back. And this turned out to be serendipitous because as we returned along the riverside path, between the copse and the railway bridge, we heard an unfamiliar sound - couldn't recognise it at all - a noisy chattering, a loud rattling coming from some twiggy bushes.
located the strange noise. It was being
produced by what appeared at first glance to be two whitethroats. They certainly had white throats but were
slightly smaller and greyer with shorter tails and darker faces. The
tiny birds were actually lesser whitethroats [Sylvia currucua]. They are summer visitors and passage
migrants and the south-west of
The unintentionally funny description of a lesser whitethroat, in one of my field guides is: 'a relatively short-tailed warbler with retiring habits'!
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
"It's only just
out of reach,
round the block, on the beach,
under a tree . . . "
We were standing on Grey Sand Hill at the edge of Northam Burrows watching groups of Brent Geese flying along the estuary to assemble on the Skern.
It was New Year's Day and a brutal wind was blowing; penetrating the wool of our gloves and making our fingers numb but these handsome geese are always a joy to observe whether on the water or on land. But in flight they make a fine spectacle.
The seaweed on the shoreline was moving. Closer inspection revealed several Turnstones flipping over the strands of seaweed searching for invertebrates. These small industrious waders, with tortoiseshell patterned plumage, are capable of tipping over quite large pebbles.
We followed around the edge of the Skern where there were a lot of Shelduck, a few Curlews and Widgeon. As we crossed the little bridge over the Pill, a flock of gold finches took off from the corner of a small paddock and below them something moved by the hedge. It was a Snipe, just a fleeting glimpse before it disappeared.
From the lane we heard a hoarse rasping cry so crept back to look in the field again. There were Redwings and Lapwings and then between the horses, two stripy heads and long necks appeared above the tussocks of grass.
As they emerged, the cream stripes on their backs could be seen clearly. We watched them jabbing their long bills into the ground for worms. Snipe are shy birds, often staying hidden but they tend to be more conspicuous in cold weather. The collective noun is a 'wisp' of Snipe.
A man had arrived with a telescope so we pointed out the Snipe to him. He told us he had only recently started watching birds having been active in a group which studied moths. A fellow member of the group had encouraged him to extend his interest in natural history to include birds.
When out walking and there's a sudden movement on a beach, up a tree, in a field, under a hedge - it's always worth a second look. It could be something special. Who knows?!
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALK - 123
November. No entry. We negotiated the maze of closed and barricaded paths to reach Newberry Beach, then past cottages and up the steep lane to Sandaway. Old Man's Beard sprawled over the hedges; the fluffy seed heads of Traveller's Joy, the wild clematis. Along the way naturalised fuchsias and hebes were still in flower.
At the top of the lane, a short walk along the roadside verge and then down a half-hidden but sign posted path. When we had last gone that way in June it had been very overgrown. We fought out way through the brambles and nettles to emerge in the corner of the caravan site's car park.
Holiday makers looked startled to see two geriatrics, dishevelled and daubed with 'cuckoo spit' [insect larvae deposited on plants] appear where no path had been evident.
But now in November, it was much easier; crunchy beech and sycamore leaves underfoot and just the odd low branch, festooned in ivy, to duck under. Ivy is so useful to birds for food and shelter. On the path ahead, blackbirds were turning over dead leaves. A discreet yellow way marker arrow indicated the way to the beach, down seventy plus steps.
The bronze peak of Little Hangman came into view looking deceptively close. The quiet little cove at the eastern end of Sandy Bay has boulders and pavements of rock; silver grey with white stripes and smoothed by the action of the sea. Large outcrops are tufted with holly and gorse. Bladder wrack popped beneath our tread.
A wren could be heard chirring in the bushes; another further up was singing loudly. Appropriate that the wren's Latin name is troglodytes troglodytes, cave dweller, for we were heading for a cave.
It has a narrow entrance, a passage way open to the sky approximately thirty feet long and then the cave itself about the same length, around sixty feet in height and seven feet wide. The 'walls' are dark wine red, embossed with limpets and at the far end is a smooth ledge of shiny pewter coloured stone.
In June when we visited the cove, as we stepped out of the cave we found the Balmoral sailing past, looking very serene and completing the seascape.
Illustration: Paul Swailes
It was a glorious day in late August but as we crossed the Burrows we'd only encountered a small party of cyclists.
On reaching the beach we found a sparse scattering of sunbathers along the edge of the dunes. However, about a mile away, at the popular end of the beach, through the heat haze, the crowds of holiday makers appeared like an abstract pattern of flickering colours, more shimmering mosaic than human.
A dog bounding along the water's edge disturbed a group of small pale waders. They landed again a short distance away and ran about the shoreline. They were Sanderlings, a scarce winter visitor and passage migrant.
However, they occur on
the Exe Estuary and the Taw/Torridge Estuary, together with Saunton Sands more
than at any other sites in
Some way off we noticed a few Common Gulls resting on the beach looking very docile. They, too, are classed as winter visitors or passage migrants but in the last Devon Bird Report, twenty-one were recorded in the area of the Taw/Torridge Estuary in August, whilst there were few August records elsewhere in the country and in single figures only.
The damp sand was firm underfoot which made the walk along the beach a pleasure - none of that sinking feeling that can slow up a walk on sand. As we came closer to the gulls we found that the two birds at the edge of the group and facing the sea were Sandwich Terns [a similar size]. They were already in autumn plumage with a white patch of forehead showing between the black cap and the long black bill with its yellow tip. The wispy crest at the back of the crown was clearly visible. We heard their rasping 'kirrik' call as they flew out to sea to join another half dozen Sandwich Terns which were diving frequently.
It is fascinating to watch these graceful, agile birds. When they have completed the dive they come
up again quickly without the need to rest briefly before taking to the sky, as
the considerably larger gannet does. It
is the commonest tern in
August and September
are the months to look out for Sandwich Terns on the coast of
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
When we had last descended Trentishoe Down to reach the hidden path called Ladies Mile, the steep slopes had been blackened by recent fire, making it bleak and forbidding. But now it was transformed. The fresh green 'croziers' of the new bracken were pushing through the peaty soil and between them, a mixture of milkwort, tormentil and bedstraw, around which flitted small heath butterflies. Among the small heaths were a few green hairstreaks. I had come to this rough terrain in mid-June especially in the hopes of finding these small butterflies. When landing on a flower, it perches with closed wings and it's the hind wings which are the attractive part of this butterfly. They appear to have been shaded in by a soft green chalk.
Green hairstreaks are on the wing for a relatively short time and if I have not seen one by the end of June, I know I am likely to have to wait 'til the following year. Last year I went over the Torrs where one or two green hairstreaks can usually be found in June but I searched in vain. Some way off we had noticed a lady walking her dog, stoop to take a photograph. Later, as we completed our circuit she caught us up and told us that she liked taking photographs of insects. It was a new hobby We mentioned we'd been looking out for green hairstreaks. She showed us the photograph she had taken of a butterfly that afternoon and asked us what it was. It was - of course - a green hairstreak!
As we approached Ladies Mile the hill became steeper and it was easier to go down backwards on all fours as one slid on the gravelly stones underfoot. In this sort of situation I start to wonder why it is possible to walk up a steep path with confidence but going down there is a fear of slipping and falling. Yet it is the same hill. There is probably a logical explanation or maybe it is psychological after all - irrational trepidation.
Reaching the path through the narrow strip of woodland, we were rewarded by brief glimpses of a pair of grizzled skippers, difficult to see as they darted among the leaves in the dappled light and shade, with their chequered pattern of black and white. The caterpillars feed on the leaves of wild strawberry and various members of the rose family.
In a little sunny clearing, by a glowing copper beech, we found a small flock of the scarce pearl-bordered fritillaries, a butterfly we had never seen before. They were attracted to a patch of slender thistles. With their bright orange colouring, they have the pattern of black spots and veins on the upper wings typical of the fritillary family.
On the hind wings,
however, there is a row of pearl-like patches.
The pearl-bordered fritillary is a butterfly of woodland and scrubby
coastal grassland where gorse is regularly burnt back [swaling]. The eggs are laid on violets. The butterfly has declined severely since
the 1950's. It is found more in
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
'Bring forth May flowers.'
The anonymous rhyme, 'March winds and April showers. Bringeth vo'th May flowers' was collected by
Frederick Thomas Elworthy in his 'West
Somerset Word-Book' 1886. This spring the April showers had been strangely absent but
the grassy slopes above the Hoaroak Water at
Illustration by: Paul Swailes
We followed the path to Lynmouth. It was not long before we spotted the two stars of these fast flowing, boulder strewn rivers - the dipper and the grey wagtail.
We took the short detour to the waterfall. It was more impressive than I remembered it
to be but it gets less attention than the waterfall further along at
Watersmeet. Nearby were patches of wood anemone and the rare Irish spurge
[Euphorbia Hyberna], a handsome plant with yellow-green flowers. This is the only place in
Between Watersmeet and Lynmouth, 'Myrtleberry' had always been a focus of cosy domesticity amid the grandeur of the deep gorge. But the hens and beehives had disappeared from the tiny meadow across the river and the house and garden were completely hidden behind high 'fortifications'.
However, a little further on, the stoneware ginger beer bottle was still set into the rock, marking the site where the Lynrock Water factory had been before it was swept away in the flood of 1952.
Along this stretch of the
Beyond the bridge the floral mixture changed - stitchwort, yellow archangel and mauve bush vetch. Green-veined white butterflies fluttered among the alkanet and triangular-stalked garlic, growing at the gravelly edges of the river.
Green-veined white butterflies resemble the small white in flight. But when they land the grey-green vein pattern can be seen on the hind wings. In the females of the summer brood, the veins are paler and less distinct. As we reached Lynmouth the numbers of grey wagtails increased. The males showed the black throat patch of their summer plumage; perched on rocks, flicking their long tails; their bills crammed with flies.
In pursuit of an April rarity: Romulea columnae
It was April and we were heading for the Dawlish Warren National Nature Reserve at the mouth of the Exe Estuary. There is a flower that grows at Dawlish Warren and at no other location on the British mainland - so, a true rarity. It is the Sand Crocus [aka the Warren Crocus] and April is the month when it comes into bloom.
We wondered whether we were likely to find an example during our visit. A voluntary warden, working beside a pond, indicated the little dune meadow where the crocus grows. We searched thoroughly but found no crocuses. We were told that as the sun had gone in, the flowers would have closed their petals and were likely to remain closed, and thus invisible, for the remainder of the day.
We returned the following morning. It was bright and sunny - a good sign. But we searched again and found nothing. Feeling rather sheepish, we continued our walk, enjoying the coastal scenery, birds and butterflies.
When we came across the warden, we mentioned our lack of success. He explained that although the sun was out it had not yet been out sufficient hours to coax open the shy crocus petals.
We left the reserve via the railway bridge, which carries the mainline trains at frequent intervals. We paused along the road to admire an acacia tree, with its knobbly yellow mimosa flowers. The tree's owner soon popped out of her house to tell us about its history. She was proud of her splendid tree but had been asked to have it cut down when it was threatening nearby power lines. However, a compromise had been reached. A few offending boughs had been removed and the tree saved. She was keen to show us around her garden but when she suggested giving us a guided tour of her neighbours as well, we declined! We said we'd hoped to see the Sand Crocus but had failed totally. Were we so unobservant or had it all been anelaborate hoax? "You'll need a magnifying glass," she laughed, "It is very, very tiny."
That afternoon, at our third attempt, when we walked back to
Illustration by: Paul Swailes
To appreciate fully the subtleties of colour and markings a magnifying glass proved a useful aid. The narrow pointed petals are pale lilac mauve with purple veins; yellow at the base with bright yellow anthers and a delicate apple green on the outside. The Sand Crocus plant is one to two inches high and the flowers, half an inch across when fully open. The thin grass-like leaves are curly and wiry.
Later, when we saw from the coast path a man walking slowly over the crocus meadow, staring earnestly down at the ground, we asked if he was looking for the Sand Crocus. He was, and suddenly we had become experts! We crouched down and found several open crocus flowers spangling the turf. We handed him the magnifying glass and on cue, as he photographed one of the flowers, a Small Copper butterfly landed on it. Normally mauve and bright orange clash but in this case the colour combination looked perfect.
The man had been travelling around the country seeking and
photographing rare plants. He had
received his training at
W.A.W. - the 'Walkers are Welcome' Accreditation
Last autumn, at the time the future access to our local coast
path, on the headland at Watermouth, was being reviewed, Wiveliscombe
'Tired we are of summer . . .
Fill the marsh with snipe.'
In the autumn and winter, the circular walk from Yelland, alongside Isley Marsh and the River Taw to Instow and back via the Tarka Trail, yields plenty of sightings of waders and wild-fowl - many of them winter visitors.
However, when we took this route last November it provided some surprises, two birds we had not previously seen at that location - a Little Owl and a Green Woodpecker.
The Green Woodpecker flew into a hawthorn bush, near the entrance to the RSPB Reserve, where it was half hidden amongst the foliage. But when it came down to a patch of grass, startling a rabbit, we were able to watch it feeding warily until it crept behind a clump of Stinking Iris berries.
There were six Spoonbills on the marsh that day, standing close together at rest with their long bills tucked under their wings. Berrynarbor residents, Tim Davis and Tim Jones, have made a detailed and interesting study of the history of these spectacular birds becoming a regular feature on the Taw estuary since the late 1980's.
Sea Buckthorn, with its silver leaves and orange berries, grew around the site of the former power station. On the pond beyond the jetty a pair of Little Grebes disappeared beneath the surface. There was a lot of Bristly Ox-tongue still in flower beside the path; small yellow daisy-like flowers and leaves covered in vicious prickles.
Then as we approached the lane leading to Instow cricket ground, we saw the Little Owl perched on a low post between gorse and Tamarisk. Its yellow eyes stared intently. It had the appearance of a fawn egg streaked with brown. It remained static for a long time, apart
from turning its head. But after it had flown off we were lucky enough to spot it several more times from the cycle track.
In the winter of 2008, the arrival of a Long Eared Owl beside the Tarka Trail on the opposite bank of the Taw created a lot of interest.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes.
According to Trevor Beer the ancient Greeks believed the Long Eared Owl to be so stupid that if you walked around it a couple of times it would turn its head and keep turning its head until it had strangled itself!
praise of Leycesteria
The Leycesteria Formosa is not the most elegant of shrubs. Its persistence in throwing up clusters of green cane-like suckers can be rather a nuisance. But how the birds love its purple berries, held within dark red bracts and arranged in pendulous 'lanterns'. The berries are especially popular with Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, Blackcaps and Bull Finches. For several weeks this winter we have had up to five Bull Finches feeding regularly on our Leycesteria
Our Local LOCAL
Two peregrines were perched companionably on their favourite
We had stopped at Widmouth Head to watch gannets diving when we spotted a pod of about half a dozen porpoises beyond Sexton's Burrow. Their backs were arching above the surface of the water in a smooth, unhurried movement as they swam; their triangular dorsal fins prominent.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
There were still a few tents and caravans at Watermouth but the path around the headland itself was deserted. Had it been possible to walk there, a wonderful view of the porpoises could have been enjoyed. The combination of fresh air, exercise and beautiful scenery is restorative; so effective that walking is becoming more and more recognised as a form of therapy.
The poet and composer Ivor Gurney [1890-1937]
spent the final fifteen years of his life as an inmate of a mental hospital in
the City of
I remember when as a school girl I was given my first one
inch to the mile Ordnance Survey map of
This week we came a sizeable step closer to being able to
walk around the entire coast of
Larks ascending over Dunkery
Illustration by: Paul Swailes
As we walked to the Beacon, skylarks rose up from the heather, soaring higher and higher. A female kestrel hovered, fanning out her tail. In the direction of Horner a troop of horses, round the escarpment, broke into a canter. I picked a few bilberries but in this dull damp summer they had not had enough sun to draw out their flavour and sweetness.
was a small yellow and white flower I could not identify. It looked like cow-wheat but I was curious,
never having seen a bicolour form of this plant; only the all-yellow cow-wheat common and
plentiful in the sessile oakwoods of
is also the food plant of the caterpillar of the heath fritillary, which is
found only in two places in the
A recent edition of Radio 4's 'Living World' featured the heath fritillary when Lionel Kellaway visited Hallscombe near Dunkery in pursuit of the butterfly. These 'radio nature trails' are a hidden gem, being broadcast at the unsocial hour of half-past six on a Sunday morning. The orange and brown butterfly had faced extinction when grazing was reduced, allowing invasive plants, such as bracken, to increase and crowd out its food plant.
were returning from
'Let there be cuckoos, a lark and a dove . . . ' [song - Nat King Cole]
in May 2005 I heard the cuckoo call from woods in the
Last year I heard it in the valley only once, briefly and distant. This year I did not hear it at all in the village. In fact I did not hear it anywhere else either and I miss it; those strange evocative notes that mark the passage from Spring into Summer.
decade earlier while walking along the River Barle
from Simonsbath in May, we had witnessed six cuckoos between Wheal Eliza and
I now think it unlikely that we shall ever see anything like that again. It's hard to like the cuckoo with its ruthless behaviour; laying its eggs in the nest of a meadow pipit or dunnock then leaving the host bird with all the work of rearing and feeding. The baby cuckoo shoving out of the nest the surrogate bird's own eggs or newly hatched young.
the prospect of its absence from our countryside in the future is to be
regretted. The cause of the cuckoo's
decline may lie in its Winter quarters in
But whatever happens, I shall always
associate the path along the River Barle and the
grandeur of its scenery with our close encounters with Cuculus
Yet on one occasion the highlight of the day took place right at the beginning of our walk as we were leaving the elevated National Trust car park at Simonsbath. Slowly and unobtrusively down the steep bank at the edge of the tarmac came a fawn bird with stripey markings on face and head, about half the size of a partridge. It matched the colour of the dead beech leaves covering the bank.
We stood intrigued as it continued towards us and then crept round the edge of the car park. From its shape and general appearance it was obviously a game bird of some kind, but what exactly?
a while we relocated the bird, which had climbed to the track above, and the
Ranger confirmed that it was a quail [Coturnix
coturnix] a rare Summer visitor to
The quail is the smallest European gamebird. We did not hear it utter a sound but its trisyllabic call is supposed to resemble the phrase 'wet my feet'. It usually remains hidden so we were fortunate to see it out in the open and this will probably turn out for us to be yet another 'one-off' wild life experience.
Soon afterwards I happened to be given an old poetry anthology in which I found a poem called 'Quail's Nest' by John Clare. In it the poet describes coming across a quail and her nest and wondering what it could be. His curiosity is satisfied when he meets a shepherd and tells him what he has seen. The shepherd, 'knew and said it was a quail's'.
The poem seemed to closely echo our own unexpected meeting with the quail and our inability to identify it without the expert knowledge the quail and our inability to identify it without the expert knowledge supplied by the park ranger 'standing in' for John Clare's shepherd.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
[NOT SO] LOCAL
heart of the seaside resort of
A rare duck called a Hooded Merganser had over wintered there. When it first arrived, it had not yet acquired its fully mature plumage but now it was gorgeously attired - a white fan-shaped crest outlined in black; a white breast with two black bars and brown flanks.
It had the spike-like bill common to sawbills and with crest raised, as it swam under the footbridge, its baffle-shaped head looked huge in proportion to the rest of its body.
native to North America, it was thought unlikely that this one had crossed the
We left the RSPB's lakeside Centre - manned by helpful people keen to share their knowledge and enthusiasm - for a very enjoyable stroll around the reserve. We were in for a surprise.
Our field guide had pointed out that a visitor to Radipole Lake in springtime would be unlucky not to hear the loud, explosive song of a Cetti's Warbler - seeing one is a different matter, however, as the shy, wetland warbler sings from dense vegetation and rarely emerges. At intervals along the path we heard the distinctive and ear-blasting series of notes but the birds were hidden from view.
Eventually, some movement in the bushes and our first sighting was of the bird's reflection in the water. We froze. The little bird was soon revealed, climbing a vertical thorn branch, splaying its broad, round-ended tail and extending its white throat at it sang. Its back and tail were reddish brown, its face and breast grey. We were close enough to see the pale eye stripe.
ago I'd been sent postcards of two Radipole churches,
the thirteenth century
Not far from the northern boundary of the reserve we found St. Aldhelm's, a fairly modern church. Sunlight flooded through the huge window above the altar. It was impressively beautiful. Mainly bright blue with seven stars and 'seven lamps of gold', the window illustrates a passage in Revelation Chapter 1. The red alpha and omega were a reference to Jesus saying, "Fear not, I am the first and the last . . ."
We walked to the outskirts of town where in a rural
setting, close by a large Tudor manor house, we found
We started back towards town through a community woodland where oak, ash, crab apple, field maple, holly and hazel had been planted.
Rare birds, churches with unexpected works of art, Radipole is full of visual delights.
LOCAL WALKS - 113
footsteps of Elinor
Sunday at Hartland Abbey drew the crowds.
Blackpool Mill Cottage was used as a location in the recent BBC production of 'Sense and Sensibility', and this has added to the popularity of the Snowdrop Sundays when the Abbey opens its grounds to the public. Elinor and Marianne, the heroines of Jane Austen's novel, move to the modest cottage with their widowed mother and younger sister following the death of their father; their former home and its large estate having been inherited by their half brother. Elinor represents the cautious good 'sense' of the title and her sensitive and more impetuous sister Marianne - the 'sensibility'.
Since watching the television dramatisation I had been curious to see the cottage and its rocky cove. As we set off, a green woodpecker passed in front of the Abbey with rapid undulating flight and a blur of yellow and olive green.
A few wild daffodils were scattered about the banks; there were patches of strongly scented winter heliotrope and growing on a half buried twig, two perfectly round Scarlet Elf Cups - white on the outside and with a smooth, deep red lining. The fungus makes its appearance between January and May.
Illustration by: Paul Swailes
a mile and a quarter, we reached Blackpool Mill and it was in a lovely and
romantic setting with a rugged coastal hill rising behind it and the wild
the book Jane Austen transports the family to the less remote Barton Cottage
["small, comfortable and compact"], four miles north of
A whole cast of characters awaited us. The head of a Grey Seal emerged for air. A Peregrine Falcon sped past. A flotilla of Lesser Black Backed Gulls bobbed about among the rocks and further out could be seen the stately form of a Great Northern Diver.
climbed the steep cliff path to obtain a view of the twin waterfalls spilling
On the way back we made a detour to the pretty gazebo on its elevated viewpoint; saw the camellias in the bog garden and visited the walled garden, with its globe artichoke plans and potting sheds and conservatory with limed growing abundantly in it. The sheltered garden was lively with feeding birds.
is remarkable that even with so many visitors that day, the gardens and woods
and the beach at Blackpool Mill all maintained an atmosphere of peace in this
far north-western corner of
LOCAL WALKS - 112
Recently, the centenary of the birth of the French composer Olivier Messiaen was commemorated. He had a lifelong fascination with birdsong and this was an important influence on his work. An anecdote from his childhood claims that while out in his pram one day, he had asked his mother, a poet, to stop talking so that he could hear the birds! Later he was to transcribe birdsong into musical notation.
That so many of us share an interest in observing the behaviour of birds and derive such please from their beauty and colours and movement intrigues me. I suppose we envy and admire their ability to fly. But it's an interest which can all too easily tip over into eccentricity and obsession. For some enthusiasts, pagers alert them to the latest unusual sighting and the internet keeps them constantly updated. For others there are no electronic prompts but simply a case of going for a walk and finding the unexpected. Or a passing stranger might say, "Have you seen the . . . ?" or "Did you know there's a . . . ?"
We belong to this latter category and over the last year we have been fortunate in coming across by chance some very special birds while out on our usual stamping grounds. In October we were walking around Capstone Hill and going up the path from Windy Corner on the seaward side, my companion said, "There's a little bird here and I'm afraid there must be something wrong with it because it's not flying away. I almost trod on it." Luckily there was nothing wrong after all. It just wasn't very shy and was soon pecking about the grassy slopes beside the path.
was a Snow Bunting, a native of
same day we continued on to Ilfracombe harbour. From a distance there appeared to be a
cormorant out on the water. Nothing
unusual there but as we approached the harbour wall we saw it was a Great
Northern Diver. A stunningly glamorous
bird, still in its summer plumage; a
black back with a white chequer pattern which created a sparkling effect like
spangles; a glossy black head and neck
with a band of black and white stripes around the throat. It
had ruby red eyes and a large dagger-like bill. It was diving frequently. We watched it catch a fish and a crab. In
Illustration by: Paul Swailes
March we were walking along the river between Braunton and
far from the lime kiln near
If you have ever come face to face with a Barn Owl or Tawny Owl, you will have noticed that their eyes are wholly black. In contrast, the eyes of the Long-eared Owl are golden orange with a black pupil which gives it a feline expression.
spring I mentioned the King Eider which had appeared in the Taw Torridge
estuary; the first ever seen in
And finally, it is good to know that as a result of government proposals the coastline should be open to walkers, we Berrynarborites will again be at liberty to walk our local stretch of coast between Big Meadow and The Warren. Alleluia!
LOCAL WALKS - 111
"Welcome! wild rock and lonely shore,
Where round my days dark seas shall roar;
And they gray fane*, Morwenna, stand
The beacon of the Eternal land."
Reverend Robert Stephen Hawker
*fane - archaic word for church.
had only seen
months later, on an autumn Sunday that was more like high summer than any day
in August had been, we crossed the border to visit the
Morwenstow is in
the trees at the top of the churchyard are the graves of many sailors including
those from the brig, the Caledonia of Arbroath which sank in 1842, on her
homeward journey from
Above the church porch is a
sundial with the inscription "Life is like a shadow". The church is large for such a sparsely
populated parish and has many unusual features. The Saxon font is an irregular oval shape,
with a cable moulding, like a twisted rope around its middle. One of the
a visitor commented on the 'zig-zags' on the capitals
of some of the pillars, the Reverend Hawker explained that the chevron pattern
represented the waves on the
Robert Stephen Hawker
The Vicarage, Morwenstow
Saint John the Baptist
Next to the church is the vicarage, designed by Hawker in 1837, with chimneys made to resemble in miniature the towers of churches with which he had been associated. In its garden is a holy well, the water from it used for baptisms.
We walked across the glebeland fields and along the coast path to Hawker's Hut, a tiny hut with a turf roof, set into the side of the four hundred foot cliff, which the Reverend Hawker had built himself out of driftwood. It has been preserved by the National Trust and is the smallest property in its care. It was here that the Reverend Hawker came seeking inspiration for his sermons and poetry and it was here, too, that he was visited in 1848 by the Poet Laureate, Alfred Lord Tennyson. The following year Charles Kingsley came to see the clergyman in his hut. We clambered down to it, opened the stable door and sat inside watching the waves crashing far below and the ravens flying past with their 'cronking' cry and it was strange to think of the Reverend Hawker sitting in the same spot a hundred and sixty years ago, composing his sermons and being visited by those famous authors, with the sea pinks and yellow toadflax and wild scabious growing all around.
Continuing south we descended the steep drop to Tidna Water, with patches of water mint and betony and a pair of wheatears getting ready for their long autumn journey; then up to Higher Sharpnose Point with its wartime lookout, now serving as a useful shelter. The promontory is so high and narrow that it has been described as 'almost an arete' - like a mountain crest. But it makes a good viewpoint, overlooking sixty miles of coastline and Lundy seen from a different angle to the one we are used to.
neighbouring Lower Sharpnose Point is a collection of
large white dish aerials used for surveillance. [When we had turned off the
We returned our steps to Morwenstow and its church, forever linked with the memory of its former vicar, the humane Robert Hawker, whose normal garb combined the clerical collar with a fisherman's jersey and boots; who originated and made popular the celebration of the harvest festival and wrote 'The Song of the Western Men' [otherwise known as 'Trelawny'] which became an unofficial National Anthem for Cornwall.
He placed a stone over the doorway of the vicarage with this verse inscribed:
house, a glebe, a pound a day,
A pleasant place to watch and pray!
Be true to church, be kind to poor,
O minister for evermore.'
LOCAL WALKS - 110
'Westleigh nestling among
the trees ... with Instow close to the
water's edge, will make the artist long to fix the scene on canvas.'
from a 1934
Between squally showers we ascended the hill to St. Peter's Church past rows of cottages, many of them thatched; rosemary bushes around the war memorial on a bank planted with potentilla, Rose of Sharon and deep pink cistus. The centre of Westleigh is a tangled knot of little streets and the village is pleasantly situated within view of the River Torridge.
We entered the churchyard through a deep archway, forming the centre of a fine old building with mullion windows; part lych gate, part long church house. Lych gates provided shelter for coffins on arrival at the church, lych being the Saxon word for corpse.
Westleigh church dates back to the early years of the fourteenth century, with a north aisle added two hundred years later. It is noted for the medieval Barnstaple tiles on the floors of the nave and aisle, and for a painting called 'Rizpah' by the celebrated Victorian artist, Frederic Leighton, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1893.
However, disappointingly we were not to see any of this as the church was locked and there was no information about a key holder, so we paused to admire the elaborately carved, decorative bosses on the ceiling of the porch before walking around the outside of the church. The tower, which dominates the village, is Early English with stout buttresses at its corners.
The lack of pinnacles emphasises its sturdy appearance. Red admirals were visiting the ox-eye daisies and knapweed flowering among the headstones. Although it has been such a poor year for butterflies a lot of red admirals emerged in late August in bright newly-minted condition,
their wings unfaded and unbuttered by encounters with spiders' webs or being buffeted against brambles and thorns. Seventeen red admirals on one small buddleia was a splendid sight.
. It was a short walk down the lane from the village and across the main road to the river where there are views across the estuary to Northam and Appledore. There were a lot of black headed gulls on the beach, still in their summer plumage, and oyster catchers, and at the water's edge a solitary bar-tailed godwit. Appledore was lit up by sunshine but soon, as we walked along the track towards Instow, a grey gloom settled over Crow Point and it was raining again. The bonus when it stopped - a rainbow spanning the junction of the 'Two Rivers'.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALKS -109
"Swallows and Amazons"
A lot has happened at Wistlandpound Reservoir in recent months. A bird hide, boardwalk and viewing platforms have been constructed. There is a new shelter; a choice of two way-marked trails and a lively programme of events and activities has been planned throughout the summer.
An enthusiastic new site manager was
appointed last august. Employed jointly
by the Calvert Trust, the Forestry Commission and
We set off on the 'Discovery Trail', appreciating the improved surface and routing of the path around the circumference of the lake. There used to be several points at which you could get quite 'bogged down', following spells of wet weather. It might have been this improved access which had brought so many more people to Wistlandpound than we had seen there before.
A string of ducklings ventured out from the shore. A cormorant had perched on a boat, spreading its wings to dry, and a small flotilla of Canada Geese were tolerating a Greylag in their midst. It appeared to be behaving rather aggressively towards them.
At the new bird hide an ingenious display board charts the long journeys which would have been travelled by some of the wildfowl that can arrive at Wistlandpound in the winter months. In one of the 'arms' of the reservoir, we found Amphibious Bistort; a mass of floating leaves with compact spikes of pink flowers.
Growing in several damp areas was Brooklime with its small, deep blue flowers and sprawling fleshy leaves. Another member of the Veronica family was pale flowered Thyme-leaved Speedwell, a low plant with tiny oval leaves. Cut-leaved Cranesbill, one of our native Geraniums, with its pretty leaves and purple-red flowers, was also present.
Mabey in his book 'The Flowering of Britain' wrote,
"Many of the most persistent and decorative garden escapes are also from
at one corner of the reservoir were tall plants which on a previous visit I had
mistaken for a while flowered form of Honesty. However, this year not only had it spread,
making a fine display, but because it was at a more advanced stage [although it
had similar leaves to Honesty and its flowers also had four petals], I could
see that its long cylindrical seed pods were more typical of a crucifer. The flowers are fragrant. I
was told it was Dame's Violet.
Apparently the name derives not from dames but from
We left the 'Discovery Trail' for the 'Challenge Trail' higher above the reservoir and through the trees. Here we came across a few tall spikes of Purple Toadflax, another garden escape. The flowers are snapdragon shaped. There were patches of Yellow Pimpernel, a neat flowered member of the Primrose family which likes damp, shady woods.
There had been several cream and brown Speckled Wood butterflies but as we reached a clearing, a yellow Brimstone fluttered past. The Brimstone has a shape unlike any other butterfly and when it perches with wings closed it resembles a leaf.
A Great Spotted Woodpecker flew across the track and attached itself to a nearby tree trunk. It was a female, lacking the red nape of the male. We were pleased to see a young Green Woodpecker in the garden recently - a less common sight these days, although we occasionally hear their distinctive "yaffle".
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALKS - 108
'On the Road to Marazion'
From a distance, the string of figures making their way across the causeway to St. Michel's Mount appeared to be walking on water. This is only possible when tides allow. At other times the island can be reached by ferry boat.
As well as the magnificent former Benedictine Priory, with its perilously steep sub-tropical gardens, there are cottages, a church and small harbour. Returning to Marazion over the old stones, shaped and weathered by the action of the waves, we saw a few Guillemots dotted about the water, still in their winter plumage.
Further away, and diving frequently, was a larger bird - about the size of a goose - mostly black with a white breast. We suspected what it might be but for confirmation, when we'd reached the 'mainland', we continued along the coast to a jetty which brought us closer to the bird - a Great Northern Diver; an oceanic bird and scarce passage and winter visitor, also known known as a loon!
went back through the town and along the coast road to Marazion
Marsh, an RSPB Reserve, enjoying as we walked the view of
On the beach stood a small flock of whimbrels, like curlews but smaller with stripes on the crown and their downwardly curved bills shorter. They are most usually seen in spring and late summer.
It was late April and a good time possibly to see birds of passage stopping off at the wetland on their spring migration. As we arrived at the nature reserve we were told about two interesting and attractive birds which had been observed there that week.
One was a male Blue-Headed Wagtail, Motacilla flava flava, a sub-species of the Yellow Wagtail, Motacilla flava flavissima [flava meaning yellow, so flavissima being most yellow].
did not think there was much chance of seeing the small bird but scanned the
Pied Wagtails and Wheatears on the grass alongside the
We crossed the bridge over the railway line to Longrock Pool and there, among a flock of Sand Martins was the other bird to which we'd been alerted, a Black Tern - about twice the size of the martins. It put on quite a show, exhilarating to watch, its buoyant aerobatic flight a few feet above the water, then suddenly dipping to skim the surface of the pool. The Black Tern frequents freshwater habitats such as ponds, lakes and swamps and unlike the various sea going terns, it does not plunge into the water when it hunts for food. It was a very striking bird with a black head, neck and breast and slate-grey forked tail, back and paler grey wings. The forked tails of terns led to their country nickname, 'sea swallows', or Morwenna in Cornish.
Marazion Marsh is the largest freshwater reed bed wetland
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALKS - 107
A First for
If the church had not been locked, we should not have seen the rare bird. We had planned to visit Landcross church, which is situated within a loop of the River Torridge and then try to gain access, through a narrow strip of woodland, to the river itself, though no official path was shown on the map.
The hedge banks along the lane leading to the little church were full of spring flowers. One of the cottages next to the churchyard was being re-thatched. A red admiral [normally a migrant butterfly but increasingly to be found over-wintering here] fluttered over a wall and an unusually pale buzzard circled above.
Promisingly, the heavy door moved forward, but only by a couple of inches. The church was locked after all and so joined a long list of village churches on Torridgeside which we have been unable to enter. Nor could we find any public rights of way nearby, so it was on impulse, as we returned to Bideford, that we decided to have a wander over Northam Burrows instead.
Arriving at the Skern, we stood to watch a large flock of Golden Plovers, swirling and twisting in a billowing mass, appearing black then bronze. They landed densely packed together.
local man told us that a King Eider had been seen in the area that week, though
he had no observed it himself, and that it was the
very first time one had been discovered in
As we set off across the grass, some walker passing by said that if we were interested, the King Eider had been resting on the sand bank in line with Airy Point. We crossed the blue cobbles of the Pebble Ridge and trudged over a carpet of bladder wrack, which made a satisfying crackle as the seaweed's blisters burst.
A group of Brent Geese floated past serenely in a line close to the shore. We scanned Pulley Ridge, in the middle of the estuary, but could see nothing unusual among the gulls and waders there.
Then, in the distance, we saw a solitary figure with a telescope near the water's edge. We noted the direction he was looking and then saw it! The duck was swimming all by itself in the section of the estuary called 'The Crumbles'. It was mainly black with a light front and a white patch on the side of the stern.
The King Eider dived a couple of times and surfaced with a crab dangling from its bill. It was lovely to watch this rare visitor from the Arctic looking so at home, catching its food in our North Devonian waters.
The man with the telescope kindly invited us to view the King Eider through his scope, enabling us to appreciate the bird's most distinctive feature. Above the short red bill is a large orange 'shield' which is not present in the Common Eider [which also has a white back instead of a black one].
King Eider is a large duck, 55 to 62 cms, about the size of a shelduck. It is a
vagrant to the British Isles in winter; sometimes among flocks of Common
Eiders off the north and eastern coasts of
When there are interesting and unusual creatures about, there is a great camaraderie and exchange of information among people out and about enjoying the countryside.
It was the end of February; a mild, still day with good visibility. The weather reports claimed it had been the sunniest February on record and the warmest for a hundred years.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALKS - 106
the swell born somewhere in the Atlantic
rising and falling, rising and falling
wave on wave on the long shore ... "
It was my sixty-first birthday so we had gone to Woolacombe for lunch; kleftican of lamb - shoulder cooked very slowly in red wine with coriander seeds and oregano, served on a bed of couscous with a Greek salad.
Illustration by: Peter Rothwell
The chance of a walk afterwards did not seem likely as the weather forecast had not been good; a possibility of severe gales with winds gusting up to seventy miles an hour along the North Devon coast. [Later it was reported that Donegal had achieved winds of an incredible 107 mph.]
However, it is rare that we don't have a pair of binoculars and warm hats stashed away in the car 'just in case', so as the rain had not yet arrived we set off at a brisk pace along the sea front to Mortehoe. Baggy showed clearly and beyond it Harland Point but Lundy was only an indistinct blur on the horizon. The big waves thundered in, crashing over the grey rocks at Barricane Beach.
It was not until we turned back that the wind had strengthened and was roaring in our ears. We were sheltered by the high walls composed of thin slivers of silvery slate, arranged in a neat herring-bone pattern, which are such an attractive feature of Woolacombe. The broad slate gate posts splay outwards like buttresses.
The builders of the Edwardian villas adopted a variety of architectural styles and interesting features, many of which survive today. All along the esplanade the hebes were still in abundant flower although it was early January. A large unseasonal bumble bee was 'working' the purple blooms.
Illustration by: Paul Swailes
Recently, Woolacombe received some good publicity from an unusual source when two young characters in 'The Archers', who had just fallen in love, selected Woolacombe Bay for a romantic winter break. The resort was described in glowing terms.
A little way up the hill leading out of Woolacombe, the Church of St. Sabinus is well worth a visit. Sturdy red sandstone on the outside with its stocky tower; light and airy inside with a saddleback roof. Built in 1911, the church is dedicated to an Irish saint who was shipwrecked at Woolacombe.
Most years the bushes and shrubs of the Sterridge Valley play host to a rather special little bird and this winter was no exception; a firecrest making an appearance in the Valley several times in late November and December.
Europe's smallest bird [measuring three and a half inches] and related to the more common goldcrest, the official status of the firecrest in Devon is that of a scarce [mainly autumn] passage migrant and winter visitor. It is more often observed on the south coast and on Lundy than in North Devon.
Like its cousin the goldcrest, the female has a yellow crest and the male has an orange one bordered by a black stripe on each side. But the addition of a broad white supercilium and below black eye stripe, gives the tiny firecrest a vibrant and unmistakable appearance. Its shoulders glow with a golden bronze iridescence which the goldcrest lacks, and it is constantly active in search of insects and spiders.
A little egret has also been frequenting the valley this winter, dabbling its yellow feet in the stream beside Ruggaton Lane and landing several times in the River Sterridge.
LOCAL WALK - 105
A Memorable Day at Raparee Cove
It was on the Today programme that I first heard about it; how the day had been dubbed 'Emancipation Day' and that afternoon, Friday the first of August 1997, there was to be a ceremony at Ilfracombe's Rapparee Cove to commemorate the St. Lucians who lost their lives when the ship they were travelling on, 'The London', had been wrecked on the rocks there, on the night of the ninth of October 1796. As well as a detailed report in the programme, the Bishop giving his 'Thought for the Day' had chosen the event as the topic for his talk.
Earlier in the year, February 1997,
severe weather had caused erosion in the cove and this had led to the discovery
of human skeletal remains and iron shackles. At the time of the shipwreck, two
hundred years ago, the bodies of the sixty or more men, women and children from
There has been some uncertainty as to whether they had been slaves or prisoners of war. It was the time of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.
On 'Emancipation Day' in 1997, I walked from Larkstone down to Rapparee Cove. Families of Rastafarians were walking slowly about the beach and down to the water's edge, solemnly selecting pieces of seaweed, pebbles or shells. Although it was the height of summer, it was a grey day and soon a grizzly drizzle started which lasted throughout the rest of the afternoon.
Illustration by: Paul Swailes
Dignitaries in African robes of gorgeous fabrics and colours; some with swathes of cloth around their heads like turbans, others with round embroidered caps, appeared at the top of the cliff and wound their way down the path.
I held back, trying to look
inconspicuous, but some kind ladies took me under their wing and drew me
forward. They had never been to
A minute's silence was held and when we looked up again the scene was transformed by a sea of white as men and women dressed in white from head to foot had arrived and were assembling on the little platform at the back of the cove. They were members of a choir.
We were addressed by a king who was robed in emerald green. Reporters and camera crews from the BBC and ITV were recording the event and Bonnie Greer [a regular on Newsnight Review] wrote a radio play about it, starring Tony Armatrading.
In the intervening years, Rapparee Cove has looked rather neglected. Recently we walked up from
It was a mild, sunny autumn day but the beach was deserted apart from a grey wagtail flitting about the stones near where the waves were breaking and a pair of ravens 'kronking' overhead. There was a lone cormorant swimming and diving at the mouth of the Cove as there had been on that afternoon ten years ago but it was difficult to believe that this tiny cove could have held such a large gathering of people.
We walked up to where a memorial stone
has been placed and stood to watch the great bulk of a ship, of the Grimaldi Line of
LOCAL WALKS - 104
A Scent of Honey and the Ascent of Peter Rock
There was a heady scent of honey wafting up from the bell heather and ling as we made our way along the coast path to Peter Rock, high above Heddon's Mouth.
was early September. The sea was blue
and unruffled. As we started our walk
with Trentishoe Down's bleak, dark presence looming above us, we were cheered
by the sight of the Balmoral passing by.
She looks at her most serene when viewed from these lofty
were a few unseasonal foxgloves and sea campions still in bloom. We
stopped to watch as the waves washed over a grey seal lying on a rock in
At beautiful East Cleave, where the path divides, we turned left for Peter Rock. This is raven country and it is also one of the most vertiginous and rugged sections of our local coast path. Someone who does not enjoy heights would probably feel very uncomfortable here. Otherwise, this wild terrain is quite exciting.
As we turned a steep corner we saw a female Dartford Warbler perched on a gorse bush, flicking her long tail - her colours a little duller than the male. Several times she disappeared in the clumps of heather soon to re-emerge long enough for us to observe the jewel-like ruby eye with its distinct red eye-ring.
exclusively a bird of lowland heaths, the Dartford Warbler has settled on
inland and sat among shiny golden moss, with blueberry and scarlet rowan on either side, overlooking this spectacular view. A Small Copper butterfly landed on a scabious flower. There were isolated spikes of golden rod. We were surprised to see near the horizon, the steam of a train at the restored Woody Bay Station.
On returning, when we reached the dramatic North Cleave Gut, we took the
footpath across the field to
A fluffy, spotted pheasant chick tottered down the bank joining its two siblings and their anxious mother squeaking and chirping in the dry ditch. I suppose she was a pheasant but with a warm russet colouring to her neck and shoulders and a red patch on her face near the eye, she did not look like a typical hen pheasant and the markings on her back were also more streaked.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALKS - 103
Small blue is beautiful!
Traipsing over the vast expanse of the Braunton Burrows in mid-summer, it was wildlife on a small scale which most caught my eye.
Near Flagpole Dune a crowd of common blue butterflies fluttered over carpets of bird's-foot trefoil. Nicknamed 'eggs and bacon' because of the yellow flowers streaked with red, this is an important plant for the common blue which feeds on the nectar and lays its eggs on the leaves.
Blue butterflies have been likened to tiny scraps of sky, fallen to earth and on the move. Stopping to watch the common blue butterflies, we were delighted to find among them a few small [or little] blue butterflies with the pretty Latin name Cupido minimus.
is a scarce species and Braunton Burrows has the only colony of small blue
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
Underfoot were short, tiny-flowered plants; patches of storksbill, eyebright and scarlet pimpernel. There was cantaury, our commonest native gentian; neat pink flowers with yellow centres.
Along the Northern Boundary Track I have never before seen so many poplar leaf beetles. The handsome shiny red beetles were clinging to the willow scrub, several to a twig. They are about three times the size of a ladybird but minus the spots.
Here also were large numbers of dark green fritillaries. Contrary to their name, these powerful fliers are actually bright golden butterflies with dark markings. The green refers only to the greenish tints on the underside of the wings. They, too, are classified as a 'scarce' species.
We reached the narrow pond on Soay Plain, a haven for dragonflies. There was a libellula with its broad pale blue abdomen, a type of darter dragonfly.
Then came into view several emperor dragonflies; large hawkers with rapid flight. The males have a long blue abdomen. The females are green. They are capable of hovering and flying backwards and can move each pair of wings alternatively, lending greater flying power. It will prey on other dragonflies.
The dunes are high and imposing. There is a wonderful sense of space and freedom but there is also a concentration of small delights in the variety of insects which live there.
LOCAL WALKS - 102
William Boot and "the Smith of Smiths"
Illustration by Sidney Smiths
Florey lies in a small valley between the
am extremely pleased with Combe Florey and pronounce it to be a very pretty
place in a very beautiful county", he wrote to a friend a few months after
arriving there. But
the famous and much admired reformer and wit was a late convert to country
he quickly took to Combe Florey and the residents of Combe Florey took to their
eccentric but humane and cheerful priest.
He continued to live there after becoming Canon of St. Paul's Cathedral. His
philosophy of life was "Do good and be
happy". He was dubbed "the
Smith of Smiths" and Macauley claimed he was "the greatest master of
made my way to the
Stitchwort and Jack-by-the-hedge were growing along the way, and opposite the church, ancient steps lead to a steep mount known as the 'Monk's Garden' The gnarled yew in the churchyard is believed to be fifteen hundred years old and has been awarded a certificate in recognition of its longevity! A nuthatch appeared at its base. A song thrush could be heard, repeating each phrase of its inventive melody and in the bushes, a blackcap 'clatted' metallically.
The church has some 15th century carved bench ends but the rood screen is a 19th century replacement. On the other side of a little door at the back of the pulpit I found a flight of steps, very steep and narrow, rather claustrophobic being blocked up at the top. They had once led to the rood loft above the screen.
Illustration by: Paul Swailes
On the floor lie 14th century stone effigies of a knight and his two wives; stone images of their five dogs at their feet, an indication of how such people regarded their canine companions so long ago.
Behind the church I entered a meadow of speedwell and lady's smock and the buzzing of bees. Here is a small plot containing the graves of Evelyn Waugh and his wife Laura. The famous novelist lived at Combe Florey until his death in 1966.
his novel "Scoop",
a satire on journalists and the newspaper trade the unworldly
William Boot is sent - in a case of mistaken identity - to report on a civil
war in the fictitious country of Ishmaelia.
Propelled from his uneventful life of badger watching in a small village
Until then, William Boot has been responsible for writing the natural history column for a national newspaper - "' Lush places' edited by William Boot, Countryman".
Examples of his oeuvre: 'Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole . . ." and "the wagons lumber in the lane under their golden glory of harvested sheaves; maternal rodents pilot their furry broad through the stubble ..." These parodies are often quoted as just how unstintingly funny such pieces can be. At one point, "William resolved to give rodents a miss . . . and write instead of wild flowers and birdsong.! Oh dear! I little imagined when I first read "Scoop" and laughed at these pastiches, that I should be writing nature notes for a village newsletter over thirty years later.
It is remarkable that such a small west country village should have been home to two famous men, very different in character and temperament and separated by more than a century but both noted for their mocking wit and sense of the ridiculous.
LOCAL WALK - 101
A Lundy Sunday
the final day of April last year, we landed on
house was built by the Heaven family who bought the island in 1834, giving rise
to the nickname, "the
The Quay and Lighthouse
we had not been to Lundy before, we first headed south to the thirteenth
the cliff tops at the south west of the island, we came across a flock of
and around some boulders, a black redstart;
the sooty grey bird flicking its red tail. This winter there has been a female black
redstart among the rooks at
We arrived at the Old Light, a disused lighthouse also built of granite in 1819. Pevsner described it as a 'beautifully proportioned structure ninety feet high and at 567 feet above sea level, the highest in Britain'. We could not resist climbing up it. By the end of the century, it had been replaced by two new lighthouses at the north and south ends of the island.
fields nearby were hoards of rabbits, many of them black. There are plenty of interesting creatures
living on Lundy, including wild goats grazing the cliff sides and Soay sheep, which look goat-like - an ancient breed, natives of the
St. Helena's Church
As Lundy is only three miles long and half a mile wide, we had soon crossed the plateau to the eastern side, where we witnessed a small group of sika deer emerging cautiously from the cover of the rhododendrons.
They still had their grey-brown
winter coats but in summer would be chestnut red to yellow-brown, with white
spots, rather like a fallow deer but smaller.
They were introduced into Europe from
was a grey, drizzly day but peaceful and it is this quality that is emphasised
nowadays when attracting visitors to the island. But it was not always so. Occupying
its strategic position at the junction of the Bristol Channel and the
The trip to Lundy was organised by the Devon Bird Watching and Preservation Society, a splendid body formed nearly eighty years ago with the object of furthering the study of birds and assisting in their conservation.
Society manages about a dozen reserves throughout the county; undertakes surveys and maintains
detailed records of bird species in
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALK - 100
folk are these here, gatherers of shellfish and laver and
merciless to wrecked vessels."
Charles Kingsley 1849
Kingsley wrote about the 'wild folk' who lived in the vicinity of
kestrels hunting over Potter's Hill on the breezy January morning, lived up to
their poetic name - windhover. The
round hill at the end of the
Illustration by: Paul Swailes
Warren, which stretches for two miles between the splendid beach and Woolacombe
Down, was once a golf course. The
fragrant Burnet Rose grows abundantly there.
It has neat cream flowers and small crinkly leaves. As late as November last year we had found
Burnet Roses still in bloom on the
Curiously, the plant only occurs in one small area of the more extensive Braunton Burrows. There were a few new shoots of cleavers and fumitory and the small quarries along the way were ablaze with gorse. Always, at whatever time of year, somewhere there is gorse in flower. Hence the saying, "Kissing goes out of fashion when the gorse stops blooming".
At Vention we took the lane down to Putsborough Sand where there is a large outcrop of red sandstone called Black Rock.
Just above the edge of the beach, among the row of white, flat roofed Art Deco houses, is the Grey House; its stone walls and slate hipped roof half hidden between cedars and palms.
the Atlantic rollers, this was once home to the parents of the writer and
broadcaster Daniel Farson. His mother,
Eve, was a niece of Bram Stoker, the author of 'Dracula' and his American
father, Negley, was a journalist who had reported the rise of Hitler for the
Chicago Daily News. Henry Williamson wrote of him, "Dear
Negley Farson, whose smile is like the sea and sands
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALK - 99
"The river running by"
It was Friday the thirteenth, late afternoon when we stopped, on the way home, to walk along the Taw near Pottington. A few straggly blooms of tansy and St. John's wort remained.
Illustration by: Paul Swailes
Three black-tailed godwits stood at the water's edge. Their legs are longer and their bills straighter than their cousin the bar-tailed godwit [which has the pretty Latin name Limosa lapponica].
Waders present along the river were mainly curlew, lapwing, redshank, dunlin and the ubiquitous oystercatchers but a single whimbrel had been observed on the estuary; most often seen as a passage migrant in spring and autumn.
Among the redshank was one which looked rather different, taller and more slender. It was a spotted redshank though in its pale ash grey winter plumage it did not look particularly spotted.
Autumn is a good time to find interesting arrivals on the river but most unexpected and spectacular was the appearance of twelve spoonbills flying in single file up river, with long necks extended, swan-like; slow and silent without the 'singing' sound made by swans' wings in flight. All twelve were mature spoonbills with greyish-pink bills. The adults have black bills with a yellow tip.
On landing, the spoonbills waded through the shallow water sweeping their bills from side to side to feed. Passing cyclists and walkers had climbed onto the low wall at the side of the track to gain a better view of these impressive birds. Something special for Friday the thirteenth!
LOCAL WALK - 98
"Writes to Roam"
There was a light drizzle as we made our
way along the finger of land, called the
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
Illustrated by: Peter Rothwell
is pleasant to see the small boats gently bobbing on the water. Many of the boats which
frequent Watermouth and Ilfracombe harbours have birds' names - wigeon, osprey, sea swallow. We
were watching gannets diving, some of the majestic ocean-going birds flying
close to the shore, when the sun came out and with it the holiday makers. It was late August. Some of the visitors had only arrived the
day before and not yet got their bearings.
We continued over Big Meadow where Himalayan Balsam growing along the river, burst its seed capsules at the least touch and the sloes in the hedges had a blue bloom on them like plums.
here we had a good view down to Small Mouth where a pod of porpoises circled
close to a party of fishermen perched precariously on the rocks. This
stretch of the
Illustration by: Paul Swailes
one small boy hauled himself up the steep field, he announced self-importantly,
"That's the trouble with
We had a couple of sightings of a clouded yellow butterfly; bright yellow with a silver figure of eight pattern on the hind wings and prominent green eyes. 2006 seems to have been quite a good year for the clouded yellow.
is a migrant butterfly [breeding around the
In 'Along the
In 1905 after a newly arrived land-owner had blocked a coast path and obstructed access to a Cornish cove, used 'from time immemorial' by the local fishermen an editorial in the Western Morning News, responding to the ensuring court case, suggested:
"... centuries of use have consecrated these paths in the eyes of the public, and it would indeed, be a disastrous policy on the part of the land-owners were they to attempt to oust all public rights over them, and to asset to the uttermost their private rights of ownership . . . the rights of property can only be maintained when they are in accordance with the natural feelings of justice entertained by the people."
Fair comment from over a century ago. The opinions expressed by a columnist in The Cornishman newspaper at the same time, were less restrained. Angry and passionate on the rights to roam, with warnings of revolution and riot, it is stirring stuff and I am tempted to quote the article here but even a hundred years on it is still controversial!
LOCAL WALK - 97
'The hedges full of bloom'
At Willingcott Cross, half a mile south of the old Mortehoe Railway Station, a small car park has recently been created to serve the extension of the cycle track which follows the course of the former railway line. The car park is bordered by banks of wild flowers - mugwort, spear thistle, yarrow and woundwort - which, when we arrived there in mid-July, were noisy with warblers.
A whitethroat balanced on top of a tall hogweed. There were blackcaps and a garden warbler, all three glorying in the beautiful Latin name - Sylvia.
A board in the car park carries interesting information about the history of the railway line to Ilfracombe and some splendid photographs taken in the 1960's showing the magnificent engines bound for Ilfracombe from Taunton, Wolverhampton and Waterloo.
With gradients of one in forty and one in thirty-six, the sections of the line known as Mortehoe Bank and Slade Bank were among the steepest inclines for steam trains anywhere in the country. At Mortehoe Station additional pilot and banker engines were attached to the heavier trains to enable them to cope with these steep inclines.
Illustration by: Paul Swailes
Along the track several large and small skippers fluttered about the willow herb, tufted vetch and meadowsweet and reminded me of the popular Edward Thomas poem 'Adlestrop' about an express train drawing up at a lonely station on the Oxfordshire-Gloucestershire border in late June. In the poem Edward Thomas lists some of the very same flowers growing beside the platform.
The scent of Rosa rugosa wafted over the bank for on the other side were extensive hedges of this lovely deep pink rose. Bristly ox-tongue and goat's beard, those taller and shaggier cousins of the dandelion, added a dash of yellow. Rabbits shared their field with vehicles belonging to a Dare Devin Stunt show, the animals apparently indifferent to the big lorries.
The track continues on the other side of the main road. When this section of the cycle route to Lee Bridge was 'improved' about five years ago, the rich variety of vetches and clumps of some of our finest wild flowers, field scabious and greater knapweed, were lost. In their place grow docks and the weeds which soon colonise disturbed land.
There are some pleasant views across the fields to Borough Wood and beyond it, the sea at Lee Bay. Along this stretch of track bloomed green flowered wood sage with yellow melilot and purple self-heal. A flock of swallows flew close to the ground. A tangle of bedstraw was visited by ringlets and meadow browns, both dark butterflies which are on the wing on dull days as well as sunny ones.
After Lee Bridge, the track passes through a high-sided cutting. There was a lot of birdsong amongst the dense vegetation; the sweet and penetrating notes of a wren and the virtuosity of a song thrush running through its repertoire of tunes.
As we left the cutting I was pleased to find patches of wood vetch as this graceful mauve flower is classified as 'scarce'. Soon we reached the Higher Slade Reservoir. During the last couple of years work has been completed to provide access to it from the cycle track. The sun had come out and I was looking forward to some butterfly spotting. In previous summers the big grassy slope falling sharply away from the reservoir, had been like a wild flower meadow attracting a wide range of butterflies.
However, this year the area has been tidied up. The grass has been mown very short. The whole floral display had gone and there were no butterflies.
As a consolation, there were several of the big emperor dragonflies whizzing about and the greatest quantity of bright blue damselflies, common coenagrion [agrion puella] that I have ever seen. They formed little rafts of shimmering colour just above the surface of the lake whose clear, still waters were ruffled only by the presence of two dogs enjoying a bath on a summer's day.
LOCAL WALK - 96
"When the budding scarf of April
Ravelled on the Devon Hill."
from 'Keats at Teignmouth' by Charles Causley
When Cornish poet Charles Causley was a little boy, his mother took him on a trip to Teignmouth. As she told him how John Keats had once lived there, she cannot have imagined that her own son would grow up to become a famous poet too.
Those lines, ". . . the budding
scarf of April ravelled on the Devon hill", always conjure up an image for
me of the drifts of snowy blackthorn blossom lightening the
On a breezy, sunny morning in late April, we were on Little Haldon, high ground a couple of miles to the north of Teignmouth with viewpoints over the Teign estuary; the peak of Haytor on Dartmoor on the horizon and the string of pits along the river valley and the old Stover canal where a special sort of ball clay, a derivative of granite, has been extracted.
heather clad plateau, dotted with a few Scots Pines, appears quite barren but
is an example of the rather scarce type
of habitat called lowland heath,
characteristic of parts of Dorset and
We trudged along the network of overgrown and prickly tracks, reaching a wide ride where a lizard wove in and out of the dried grass.
We met a man who recalled his experience of Little Haldon Hill during the War when, as a teenager in the Home Guard, he had taken part in training manoeuvres there.
Scanning the surrounding farmland where there were a few red Devon cattle [always a pleasure to see], we noticed in a little field flanked by woods on two sides, a small herd of fallow deer, some grazing, others lying down, still in their dull brown winter coats.
Haldon loomed nearby. Also known as
LOCAL WALK - 95
On the trail of wild animals
"The Tarka Trail is still open" called out the fisherman, wheeling his bicycle to the bottom of Sticklepath Hill. Since the construction work had started on the new bridge across the Taw, we had avoided the area but now we followed the detour through side streets and factory sites to reach the riverside.
Just below the newly created causeway I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a bright shape start up from the rough grass and quickly disappear again. I turned and watched a fox pounce repeatedly, springing high in the air, this, despite the earth moving machinery and constant procession of trucks nearby. After a while the vixen sauntered off towards the causeway and so, even closer to the heavy plant activity and noise.
Like a puzzle picture where you have to spot the odd one out, we scanned the huge gathering of Canada geese, grazing the water meadows below Anchor Wood, to find among the pattern of black and fawn and white, a bar-headed goose, two greylags and a white-fronted goose.
As we headed towards Fremington Quay we were pleased to see, on Penhill salt marsh, about a hundred Brent geese, elegant in their black plumage with the narrow band of white on the neck.
Recalling the fox, active in the middle of the day, so close to Barnstaple town centre and major road works, made me think about the wide range of larger wild mammals which can be observed, during the hours of daylight, within the parish of Berrynarbor.
A routine car journey out of the village can be enlivened by the possibility of seeing red deer or brown hares.
Recently, as we travelled along the Sterridge Valley, we noticed in the sloping field opposite the forestry, thirty deer lying in the sun, grouped around an island of gorse and brambles. On our return a few hours later they had moved to the corner of the field to graze.
More elusive in North Devon than the red deer is the hare so it has been especially thrilling during the last year to observe them [again from the car, which serves as an effective hide] in fields near Smythen Cross. We watched four hares there at the week-end. They are beautiful creatures with their large golden eyes, black and white markings on ears and tail and tawny brown coat shading to darker, greyer brown.
That same evening, as early as half-past six, I had a clear view from my kitchen window as a black and white head pushed through the hedge. The badger mooched about some shrubs; standing on its hind legs it put its paws up on the bird table, trotted around the apple tree and completing its circuit of the lawn, it went back through the hedge.
Red deer, badger, hares - all this within the first two weeks of March. The badgers tend to start appearing in the garden in March or April just before darkness falls, with nightly visits concentrated throughout May and June, gradually becoming less frequent; with the odd appearance; in the autumn up to about November.
Last April we saw for the first time, otters in the river at the bottom of the garden, between eight and nine in the evening. A persistent 'fluty' whistling sound drew us towards the bend of the river. Near the bank, a section of the surface of the water appeared to rise up and then turn itself into a sleek grey-brown head and back. It swam slowly across the river. On another occasion, while we had a brief view of the otter in the water, the one responsible for the whistling was hidden apart from movement in the vegetation.
At the other end of the parish, marine mammals are regularly sighted near the entrance to Watermouth Cove, off Widmouth Head and Samson's Bay - pods of porpoises and the odd grey seal.
The village of Berrynarbor is certainly rich in its variety of wild life and is home to several species of the larger mammals.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALK - 94
Green landscape; a wealth of ancient country churches and the Ordnance Survey range of maps - just a few quintessentially English delights. In his autobiography, 'Long Life', Nigel Nicholson includes a eulogy to Ordnance Survey maps; their usefulness and the pleasure derived from them.
He writes, "The OS has made us a nation of map lovers and in consequence a nation of walkers." He comments that in homes in the US it is rare to find an example of their equivalent series of maps yet "in England every stationery shop sells the OS maps. Why the difference? Because, an American has suggested to me, they think big, we think small. A more likely explanation is that we walk, they don't."
I'd spread out the Bude and Clovelly OS map in order to work out a route for a car journey when something right at the edge of the map intrigued me - a church beside a little lake, surrounded by parkland and beyond, patches of woodland in all directions.
It seemed worth making a slight detour and fitting in an exploratory walk of Buckland Filleigh, two miles to the east of Shebbear. We parked near a large, old walled garden, the only sound the harsh churring of a mistle thrush flying past and landing in a tree top. We walked along the lane. It was very cold but bright, the pale blue sky marbled with mauve. Snowdrops were in bud in the hedge banks and there was a sparkling of periwinkles. A rippling grey cloud of starlings took off from a field of stubble. As we watched them come down again, we saw a flock of redwings was moving e sloping field, flanked on three sides by mixed woodland.
As we turned a curve in the road we received a tremendous surprise. Next to the church was a mansion in the formal neo-classical style. We were not expecting to find such a grand building in this quiet corner of Devon. Pevsner describes "the church and house exceptionally beautifully placed between undulating hills, luxuriantly wooded and with views towards Dartmoor."
The original Buckland House was damaged by fire in 1798 and in 1810 it was transformed by James Green who became County Surveyor for Devon and who was, "an accomplished and innovative practitioner of the Neo-Classical style." He added pedimented gables, a Doric portico with four giant granite columns and a central domed lantern.
The plan of the building is F-shaped and in contrast to the classical severity of the north and east sides, something of the older house is visible on the south side with its asymmetrically placed two-storey porch.
The Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould tells the story of how the house was besieged during the Civil War, when the family silver was buried in the grounds by the butler, who was killed on his way back to the house. The silver has never been recovered!
Close to the house is the church of St. Mary's and Holy Trinity, with castellated walls and Norman doorway and a pulpit incorporating some early Renaissance panels.
We headed for the lake, hidden behind the church,and found a small triangle of water populated by ducks. The lake dates from the mid-eighteenth century and was part of some landscaping under-taken for William Fortescue who was Master of the Rolls.
Across the field from the lake was a way marker sign for one of the recently devised Ruby Country Trails, part of the attempt to promote 'Ruby country' as a tourist venue; that area of western and mid Devon which isn't coastal and isn't part of Exmoor or Dartmoor. Taking its name from the ruby red Devon cattle, it seeks to stamp a distinctive identity on this rural hinterland.
We climbed to the top of the field to obtain a better view of the other side of the mansion [from where it looked even bigger] and its lake and church and woods. A beautiful setting, well worthy of a detour.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
WALK - 93
A Cornish Rhapsody
"Trust me to have a dog that's mad!" A dog's head had appeared suddenly above the hedge bank at the side of the lane. It quickly vanished and after a while popped up again a few yards further along. This sequence was repeated several times.
The dog's owner explained that this was a game of surprise the dog liked to play on his daily walk. The witty animal kept us amused and the walk to the lighthouse passed quickly.We had arrived at Lizard Point, the most southerly point on the United Kingdom mainland. It is said that spring reaches the Lizard Peninsular earlier than the rest of the country.
Before continuing along the coast to Kynance Cove, we paused to watch some seals swimming among the rocks below the lighthouse.
There are rock stacks and islets at Kynance Cove and the distinctive serpentine rock can be seen in the cliffs; streaked and mottled red, purple and dark green, resembling the skin of a serpent. It is a magnesium silicate, capable of being highly polished and turned into decorative objects.
It was mid autumn but several bathers were enjoying the shelter of the secluded cove. We made the steep descent to the beach and then started the climb to the cliff top opposite, where a herd of highland cattle was silhouetted dramatically against the sky.
At the summit an English Nature information board explained how the grassland was being managed for the benefit of conservation and the part played in this by the magnificent beasts. With their long horns and shaggy ginger hair, there were about thirty of them and a few calves.An easy elevated walk over Kynance Cliff took us to the curiously named Pigeon Ogo and a wonderful sweeping view across Mount's Bay to Penzance and Marazion.
It was a few miles to the north, along the Lizard coast, at Poldhu Cove, that Marconi had sent his first commercial two-way radio transmission between England and the USA, just over a hundred years ago.
Rain threatened as we retraced our steps. We heard a strange sound, like a spluttering, wheezy sneeze coming from beyond a low stone wall. The cattle had moved and were now lying down. Rather than disturb them, we decided to make a small detour. It was then that we saw what was making the noise. Two birds with cherry red legs and glossy black plumage were spiking their crimson bills into the short turf.
These were choughs. Once a popular symbol of Cornwall, the chough became extinct in England several years ago [though still found on the west coast of Wales and on a few Hebridean islands]. Four years ago a pair of choughs arrived quite 'out of the blue' on the Lizard and in 2002 the first wild choughs, for half a century, were hatched.
A rare member of the crow family, the chough feeds on a range of invertebrates, including worms and ants and favours coastal grassland; nesting in caves and on cliff ledges and cavities.
We watched the choughs feeding, probing the ground with their downwardly curved bills. They did not seem nervous although we were quite close. Three helicopters had been circling the neighbourhood and it was not until one of these flew directly overhead that the two birds took off, flying over the cliffs and
along the coast towards Lizard Point. We too headed off in the same direction.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALK - 92
A sunny Sunday afternoon in late August, a cobalt blue sky, the waters of Wistlandpound sparkling, a few boats anchored there - enough to make the scene even more pleasing. Several fishermen were stationed about the shore. There were a couple of groups of picnickers. A father pointed out dragonflies to his toddler son.
On the gravelly edge of the reservoir a grey wagtail flickered delicately. We took the track up through the woods. Water mint grew beside the dampest sections with a strong menthol fragrance compared to garden varieties of mint.
As we emerged from the trees we saw patches of white in the short turf at the water's edge. These were the tiny flowers of eyebright, one of the many plants whose names are derived from an ancient medicinal use.
Despite the combination of the time of year, the sunshine and the flowers, there was a lack of butterflies. However, there were a lot of green lestes sponsa damsel-flies and a few brick red common sympetrums [a type of darter dragonfly] to lend some fast moving flashes of colour.
A small group of tufted ducks floated past placidly, the males still 'in eclipse', the normally bright white underparts now dingy and much of the tufted crest missing. At the end of the breeding season, ducks moult, shedding their primary feathers and appearing duller as a result. This process is called going into eclipse.
We paused to watch two little grebes [or dabchicks] diving. They were keeping further out from the shore but the sun glinting on their wet heads and necks showed off their bright chestnut brown summer plumage. Leaning over a bridge at the northern end of the reservoir we were pleased to witness a kingfisher appear from some bushes where there was a hidden stream. It perched on some waterside vegetation, in all its orange and turquoise-blue glory, before speeding away under the bridge.
On the western slopes, where little clearings had received the full impact of the sun, a slow-worm stretched out on the warm ground. These are delightful creatures, silver bronze and agile. They can burrow into the earth and disappear very fast. Looking like slender snakes, slow-worms are actually legless lizards. This one was a female slow-worm with thick dark lines down the centre of her back and on her sides. The small grey slugs, which are such a nuisance on green vegetable crops, are the favourite food of slow-worms.
And talking of food, during the course of our walk we gathered sufficient blackberries for a summer pudding: a basin lined with bread and filled with the fruit [heated beforehand with sugar to release the juice]. Another slice of bread for the lid and then a saucer on top, weighted down and left overnight so that the juice seeps through the bread giving it a mousse-like texture. The next day the heavy weights and saucer are removed and the basin inverted onto a plate. Result - a luscious purple dome of seasonal fruit, a traditional delicacy.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALK - 91
"They fear not men in the woods
Because they see so few."
Rudyard Kipling 'The Way Through the Woods'
It was mid-June and the car park was almost full but in the woods, along the river and around the lake - where were the people? Perhaps the grey skies and recent storms had made the visitors feel it was safer to stay close to the mansion and coach house. We were in the extensive grounds of Arlington Court where miles of tracks and paths offer endless variations of walks through parkland and woodland. We have enjoyed wandering about these tracks at all times of the year but never before had we found them deserted.
Perhaps because of the absence of human beings that day we were fortunate to meet two different species of deer native to Britain. At the swampy end of the lake a red deer hind stood still; watching, ears pricked before trotting away into the undergrowth.
The urn by the Lake containing Rosalie Chichester's ashes
and the Victorian Garden by: Paul Swailes
About an hour later, a brown shape in the corner of a small field at the edge of Hammett's Wood turned out to be a deer grazing. As it raised its long neck, the dark muzzle and short, forked antlers showed it to be a roe buck in its third year. In the buck's second year the antlers are unbranched prongs. The smallest of our native species of deer [twenty-six inches high and four feet from nose to tail], the timid roe deer is less
sociable than the red or fallow deer and is often found alone. However, its tendency to keep to the dense cover of woods during the day, feeding mainly at dusk and dawn, lessens the chances of seeing it. The graceful creature had not observed us so we turned back along the track. There was a sudden rasping noise like the sound of tearing silk and a jay flew past. Patches of ragged robins formed a pink haze in the little water meadow beside the river.
Near Tucker's Bridge was the glorious and unlikely sight of the copious yellow racemes of a laburnum tree, among the dark green of the coniferous plantation.
Our crossing Smallacombe Bridge coincided with the arrival of a flock of goldfinches to feast on the thistle heads. They are sometimes called 'the seven colour finch' but beyond red, yellow, fawn, black and white, I do not know what the other two colours can be.
Near the top of the steep field is a magnificent lime tree. After the climb uphill it is a welcome provider of shade on a sunny day or of shelter from the rain. Before leaving we intended visiting another favourite tree, a ginkgo in the Victorian Garden. The first time we noticed it we had been attracted to its unusual two-lobed, fan-shaped leaves. We were curious about it and an informative member of the Arlington staff told us about the tree's interesting history.
The Ginkgo is a deciduous conifer [although it does not look like a typical conifer] the sole survivor of a family of trees which flourished two hundred million years ago. So it is an exotic dinosaur of a tree as are the many monkey puzzle trees, which are such a feature of Arlington, lining the driveways.
A stroll around this haven of a garden with its Gertrude Jekyll inspired borders, shrubs and weathered stone always makes a pleasant finale to a hike in the grounds of Arlington Court. Adjoining it is a walled vegetable garden with herbs and fruit trees - locked on this occasion, but we have that to look forward to next time.
LOCAL WALK - 90
'From point to point'
A square headland jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, looking on the map like a bear's head with Navax Point and Godrevy Point forming the two 'ears'.
When travelling further west along our coastline to the neighbouring county of Cornwall, it is interesting to observe the similarities and more particularly, the differences in landscape and flora and fauna between North Cornwall and North Devon. We started our walk at Hell's Mouth, a narrow cove where there is a colony of shags on a tall pyramidal stack of rock. They were perched in pairs on narrow ledges or walking up the steep rock face. The bottle green sheen on their black plumage was clearly visible.
There were patches of spring Squill [Scilla verna] on the short turf of the cliff tops - clusters of pale blue star-shaped flowers with narrow curly leaves close to the ground. The naturalist, Richard Mabey, considers: 'The massed drifts of thrift, sea campion, spring squill, bluebell and primrose on the granite cliffs of south west Britain in May are one of the most glorious sights our flora has to offer.'
I have only once found Spring Squill growing on the North Devon coast so it was a delight to come across it unexpectedly. Another wild flower I have seen in North Cornwall but not in North Devon is the summer blooming Golden Samphire. The white bells of the three-cornered leek or triangular garlic are quite common in the woods and shady hedgerows of North Devon, but they were covering long stretches of the Cornish roadside verges and banks, like drifts of snow.
We paused to watch gannets flying past close to the shore, circling and diving frequently; wings drawn back, plunging like arrows with great speed and force, each dive ending in a large and audible splash.
I looked down and noticed on the blades of grass at the cliff's edge several two-spot ladybirds. We came to an area of heathland called The Knavocks, managed by the National Trust and grazed by a troupe of five Shetland ponies. There were warning notices that some visitors found the attention of the ponies disturbing. The blonde, short-legged creatures looked innocent enough but once they'd seen us they headed in our direction at a gallop.
Illustration by: Paul Swailes
At the trig. point on Navax Point the wind whipping around the headland was so powerful that it was difficult to stand, so we hastened around to Mutton Cove where a treat awaited us.
It was late afternoon and Atlantic grey seals were swimming towards the secluded cove and hauling themselves out of the sea. There were already more than sixty seals lying on the beach, rolling, stretching and scratching, nudging, patting and embracing each other. They were assorted sizes and colours. Although called grey seals, some were almost black; others were different shades of brown and fawn or grey with mottled or stippled markings. The youngest were yellowish white. Seals can live to the age of forty or more.
It was a short distance from Godrevy Point, overlooking Godrevy Lighthouse, which stands on its own small island. It is a very handsome lighthouse, tall, white and hexagonal. It was the inspiration for Virginia Woolf's novel 'To the Lighthouse'. She spent childhood holidays in the area. Margaret Drabble wrote, 'Godrevy Lighthouse, enigmatic and ageless . . . sends out its incomprehensible appeal, a link between the present and the past.'
From Godrevy Point we looked west across the broad sweep of the bay to the three miles of sandy beach beyond Red River and behind the sands; the extensive system of dunes, known as 'towans' in Cornwall. This must be one of the best views in the South West.
Virginia Woolf describes it in 'To the Lighthouse': 'the whole bay spread before them and Mrs. Ramsay could not help exclaiming, "Oh, how beautiful!" For the great plateful of blue water was before her; the Lighthouse, distant, austere, in the midst and on the right, as far as the eye could see, fading and falling, in soft low pleats, the green sand dunes with the wild flowing grasses on them.'
LOCAL WALK - 89
A Bend in the River
The lane passed between Straypark Wood and a great angular loop of the River Taw. Among dog's mercury and goose grass there was a bank of white violets; a variety of Viola odorata, the fragrant sweet violet. These white violets are more common in the South West than the rest of the country.
We crossed New Bridge, a mile and a half south of Bishop's Tawton. Beside the roadside at a gateway on the far side of the bridge we were sad to find a dead redwing. I picked it up. It was still warm. I tucked the poor bird into a hollow behind a log. The handsome thrush had arrived four or five months earlier, probably from Scandinavia. It had survived the winter and now on a sunny March day, when it would have been preparing for its return journey, it had been killed.
For a couple of weeks during a prolonged cold spell with flurries of snow, three redwings had been rummaging about in the ivy clad trees bordering our garden - very welcome visitors. But today, in contrast, there had been continuous sunshine and the wide river was looking very beautiful, its clear waters reflecting a cloudless blue sky. There were a few wild daffodils in the fields and starry patches of lesser celandines.
In a water meadow beside the Tarka Line, thirty swans had congregated. The mute swans were packed sociably together but slightly apart from them two whooper swans were grazing. Winter visitors from Iceland and the Arctic tundra, the whooper swans are the same size as mute swans but have a more rounded shape and hold their long necks straighter. The most obvious difference, however, is that instead of orange bills, the whooper swans have bright yellow bills with a black tip. The yellow colouring tapers to a point so that it resembles a wedge of Cheddar cheese. This gives the whooper swans a more benign appearance than the haughty mute swans with whom they often associate when over-wintering here.
The whoopers are truly wild swans and rather shy. Something had made this timid pair wary. They had stopped grazing and lifted their heads stiffly. Gradually they edged nearer to the other swans until they were in their midst and then, satisfied that there is safety in numbers, they had resumed their grazing.
Two more mute swans were flying over the river, their wing beats making the characteristic 'singing' noise. This sound is absent when the whoopers are in flight. Neither do they arch their wings aggressively when disturbed.
Before following the course of the meandering river, we took one last glance at the whooper swans. They are special creatures. The sunshine highlighted the yellow of their bills, making them appear glossy and freshly painted.
Illustration by : Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALK - 88
"Tis Spring; come out to ramble the hilly brakes around...
"... a huge rock almost precipitous on the north or sea side, dizzily sheer on the west, but with a steep grassy slope on the town side". This was how llfracombe's Capstone Hill was described in a 1934 guide book.
At last, after being closed to the public for three and a half years because of the danger of falling rocks, all the paths on "the Capstone" have recently reopened.
The Victorian author and historian, the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, wrote of the fine promenade "scarped out" of the hill. The Capstone Parade was cut in 1842 and the winding paths have been popular ever since, providing a brisk stroll with spectacular sea views.
In 1877 in order to guard against its being built upon and so that it might remain a place of public recreation, the owner of Capstone Hill, Sir Bourchier Palk Wrey, sold it to the local Board of Health.
On the Sunday of the official reopening we had been watching a purple sandpiper moving about the little pools on the extensive platforms of rocks below Capstone Hill. It was close enough to appreciate the purplish sheen over its grey-brown plumage, which is not always so apparent when the bird is viewed from a distance.
As we turned the corner we noticed a round head bobbing among the large outcrops near Cheyne Beach. We spent a pleasant few minutes observing the grey seal swimming and diving; its back and tail arching out of the water, the front of its neck white with dark spots, the embodiment of grace and strength.
Walkers stopped to watch the seal and the seal, swimming steadily towards the shore, looked back at the people; the animal appearing curious to find these paths populated with human beings once more.
Despite its being the middle of winter, a neat clump of sea campions in full flower sprung from the cliff face. The 'garden escape', cineraria maritime has naturalised successfully and is common here on the cliffs its velvety grey, wavy-edged leaves.
We returned a couple of weeks later when snow was visibie on the Welsh mountains. Lundy stood out clearly on the horizon; its lighthouse winking at the southern tip of the island. There was a sharp wind but people were stoically huddled on the beach eating fish and chips. The rock pipits are hardy creatures too and will always be seen along this part of the coast in the bleakest conditions, rummaging about the seaweed and rocks for small molluscs and insect larvae.
But on this occasion we could see that one of them was different. It did not have the olive brown colouring of its fellows or the streaked markings on its chest.
Instead it had a grey head and grey nape of the neck. Its underparts were unmarked and there was a pretty pale pink blush on the breast. It certainly looked like a water pipit but this couldn't be right. It was in its summer plumage and it was in the wrong place!
Whereas its close cousin, the rock pipit, is an all-year-round resident of rocky coasts, the water pipit [which looks very similar in its winter plumage] spends its summers in the alpine meadows of mountain ranges in central and southern Europe, moving westward and northward to winter on mudflats and inland marshes. It is associated with freshwater habitats. So what was it doing here? If it had been the autumn it could have been passing through en route to somewhere more suitable, but it was now the new year.
When I got home and looked up water pipits in the reference book, one said, "summer adult sometimes seen in late winter".
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALK - 87
"My spirit flew in feathers then."
I had never seen so many tree lupins. We were surrounded by their spikes of lemon yellow flowers. They were everywhere. We were exploring the Dawlish Warren Nature Reserve - that narrow finger of land which reaches out across the end of the Exe estuary.
There was also hound's tongue, a hairy member of the borage family with its small maroon flowers, one of the few native British flowers which is red.We were headed for the hook-shaped tip of the warren where waders gather. It was early May and an interesting variety of species included three grey plovers in their summer plumage - mottled silver - grey backs and black faces and 'aprons'; sanderlings zig-zagging busily along the shoreline - the whitest of waders and a small group of whimbrels - like smaller versions of curlews, with a striped crown. We walked along the beach, turning the corner opposite Exmouth and and discovered a strange, large, round, whitish object in the sand. It was a moon jellyfish. [There were also a lot of jellyfish off Watermouth this summer.]
More than thirty turnstones had assembled about a breakwater; some jumping from post to post, others turning over pieces of seaweed.
Out at sea was a flotilla of eider ducks; two males still in their light winter plumage. We had a better view of a solitary female eider swimming much closer to the shore.
From Langstone Rock, we took the coast path to the town of Dawlish. The main railway line passes between Langstone Rock and the red sandstone cliffs, plastered with 'day-glow' pink and yellow mesembryanthemums. The coast path runs alongside the railway track, waves on one side, trains on the other. A river called Dawlish Water flows through the middle of the town; the central feature of a linear park, where various wildfowl live. A barnacle goose sat on a nest on a small island in the river with moorhens clambering over it. There were ruddy ducks with pretty blue bills and black swans with their cygnets.
The resort is proud of its black swans which have achieved iconic status in Dawlish. Originally natives of Australia, the black swans have a special glamour. The black plumage has a ruched appearance and the bill is crimson. Although introduced to this country in the 18th Century, the black swan has never become really established in the wild. One is sometimes to be seen on the Torridge at Bideford.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALK - 86
" . . . a world in a grain of sand
and a heaven in a wild flower"
On a Sunday afternoon towards the end of August, we meandered across the Burrows from Sandy Lane to Saunton Sands, keeping roughly parallel with the Northern Boundary Track.
'Meandering' is an especially pleasurable method of crossing the dunes, enabling one to make detours to explore anything that looks unusual - and there is always something interesting to be discovered on the Braunton Burrows; our beautiful Biosphere.
Illustration by: Paul Swailes
As we emerged from the Sandy Lane Copses, a pale butterfly-like moth fluttered past. We watched to see where it landed and walked over to some willow scrub to confirm what it was a - magpie moth; very pretty and distinctive with its yellow ochre stripes and rows of black spots on a white background. In a broad plain between 'fixed' dunes, we noticed clumps of tiny yellow flowers, arranged in short spikes with linear leaves, not very spectacular to look at by any means but worthy of a second look for their sheer rarity value. The French or sand toadflax is not found wild anywhere else in the country except at Braunton Burrows.
At one of the damp dune slacks behind Flagpole Dune we came across a few delicately scented flowers of round-leaved wintergreen [subspecies Maritima] which looks rather like lily-of-the-valley. This, too, is quite a rare plant first discovered on the Burrows in 1958. I remember when I was a small child wintergreen ointment was available in dark blue glass jars. I think it was used as a salve in the treatment of wounds.
A handsome blue emperor dragonfly was charging about. A strong and fast flyer, we could actually hear a thwacking noise each time it hit vegetation. It was a male. The female emperor dragonfly has a long green abdomen.
We crossed carpets of short-cropped water mint which was being grazed by plump rabbits. The scent wafted up pleasingly from our tread to be followed soon afterwards by the even more fragrant wild thyme. True aromatherapy. How flavoursome those bunnies must be with their diet of herbs. We left them in peace.
When we reached the beach it was almost deserted despite its being the height of the season and close to the bank holiday. The complex rippling patterns left by the sea were uninterrupted by footprints. There was an absence even of sea shells or seaweed. The sea was a long way out. We saw the graceful silhouettes of three sandwich terns flying over the sea, not far from the shore. They get their name from the town of Sandwich in Kent, not from their eating habits.
A group of common gulls stood quietly together on the beach, near the water's edge. Despite being called common, they are not nearly as common as their larger cousins, the herring gulls. Unlike the herring gull, the common gull has no red spot on its bill and its legs are greenish-yellow instead of pink. It has dark eyes and a rounder head somehow giving it a more gentle expression.
As we walked towards Airy Point we found that a log of mainly wooden debris had been washed up; shelves, broken cupboards and with them part of the front section of a car with the name 'Wadebridge' on the number plate. A little further off a litter bin with one side missing and the words, 'North Cornwall District Council' embossed on it, was wedged in the sand. This was not long after the devastating storms of August the sixteenth.
We made our way back over the dunes, meeting some bewildered holiday makers who said they regretted not bringing a compass. A large eagle-like bird flew low over the dunes just ahead of us. It was very white underneath and as it turned we saw that its back was dark brown and its face was white with a black stripe through the eye.
We had never seen an osprey before. There were a couple of buzzards in the vicinity, so we were able to get a size comparison but its snowy white plumage and unusual head markings made it unmistakable. It is a bird of prey which feeds on fish and the sides of its feet resemble coarse emery paper. This helps it grasp the slippery fish.
The magnificent bird made a stunning and unexpected appearance that day but a very welcome one.
LOCAL WALK - 85
"Up the airy mountain
Down the rushy glen.
A midsummer day on Exmoor. We set off across Brendon Common with the joyful sound of larks all about us. A group of Exmoor ponies grazed on the ridge opposite. There were a lot of small heath butterflies. These little light golden-brown butterflies are plentiful throughout the summer on moorland, downs, dunes and grassy meadows, but elsewhere they tend to be seen in ones and twos. Their flight is rapid and they close their wings on landing.
We passed an unusual cairn - the heap of stones being surmounted by a large metal star on a post, which provided a good landmark. A deep rut by the track had filled with water and formed a little pool. This had attracted a large "darter" type of dragonfly. The insect had stormed past us and come to rest at the water's edge, showing off its very broad sky-blue abdomen. The long wings had brown patches at the base. Such a gorgeous creature seemed worthy of a more interesting name than the Broad-bodied Libellula or Libellula Depressa.
The blue colour is present only in the mature male and is not metallic [unlike the colouring in a lot of the hawker dragonflies and in damselflies]. The Libellula Depressa frequents small ponds and slow-moving streams. When resting it holds its wings horizontal in cooler weather and lowers them to shade its thorax in warm weather. There was a clear view of the Welsh mountains that day, layer upon layer of them, but the sea in between was hidden from view, so this gave a strange and unusual perspective. We dropped down towards Lankcombe Ford, a pleasant and peaceful place.
We crossed by means of stepping stones and climbed up Withcombe Ridge, where we sat and watched a dozen ponies canter past on their way to drink at the ford. There were three foals with them. After a short interval, two more ponies arrived, appearing very protective towards a small foal which they kept close between them.
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
Looking like scatterings of snow, there were a lot of patches of fluffy white cotton grass round about. As we headed back towards Dry Bridge [on the Simonsbath to Lynmouth road], a little hollow seemed an ideal place to shelter from the wind while eating an apple or consulting the map, but there right in the middle was a knotted plastic bag left by a dog walker. I cannot see the logic of depositing these bags about the countryside. Encased in plastic, their contents are not going to biodegrade. In recent years this habit has been on the increase along paths and lanes, with 'dog bags' slung into hedges or even carefully tied onto branches, ready to drip on to some unsuspecting cyclist or walker below.
Beside the unfenced road at Dry Bridge were cows of every colour with their calves. Just one of the cows was a 'Beltie' with a wide cummerbund of curly, creamy-white fur; a very good looking animal. From Dry Bridge we walked up Shilstone Hill to the triangulation point) 1328 feet above sea level, where there was a fine prospect towards Foreland Point and the Bristol Channel and of miles of moorland in every other direction.
On our return, we found that several of the calves had left their own mothers to cross the road and congregate around the Beltie. What made her so popular I don't know, unless they too were impressed by her pretty markings. At the car park someone had left the tracking sign for "l have gone home" - a circle of stones with one stone in the middle, representing a man standing inside his tepee.
LOCAL WALK - 84
'Along the cliffs
under the furze-hills, crossing combe after gorsy combe'
We were walking in the footsteps of Rudyard Kipling, taking the coast path west of Westward Ho! and starting appropriately at Kipling Tors. From 1878 until 1882, Kipling was at school in Westward Ho! at the United Services' College and he drew on his time there for his school story 'Stalky & Co.'
The first section of the path is broad and level because it follows the route of the old Westward Ho! to Bideford railway line. This did not operate for long; opened in 1908, it had closed less than ten years later. We passed through the remains of cuttings and embankments to Cornborough Cliff where the former railway line branched inland. From here the coast path began to rise and fall more typically.
Kipling wrote, "Stalky led them at a smart trot west away long the cliffs under the furze-hills, crossing combe after gorsy combe. They took no heed to flying rabbits or fluttering fritillaries... 'Are we going to Clovelly?' he puffed at last and they flung themselves down on the short, springy turf between the drone of the sea below and the light summer wind among the inland trees."
A narrow strip of pebble beach stretches below Abbotsham Cliff and Green Cliff. The pebbles are large and grey. When the tide is out, extensive flat rock platforms are revealed. In the early 19th century, the two lime kilns on Abbotsham beach were fired by anthracite from a seam on the face of Green Cliff.
Illustrated by:Paul Swailes
In 'Stalky & Co.', Kipling described "the young jackdaws squawking on the ledge; the hiss and jabber of a nest of hawks... The heavy scented acres of bloom alive with low-nesting birds." A century and a quarter later the blackthorn and the coconut and pineapple scented gorse in full bloom were lively with linnets and gold finches. Larks rose from the short grass and swallows swept past while a kestrel hovered.
We crossed a stream and the path began to climb more steeply at Westacott Cliff and Higher Rowden. A pair of red-legged partridges rattled out of the undergrowth. As we reached a high point we found that the fields below were peppered with countless partridges busily foraging. These had been bred for a nearby shoot.
We encountered an elegant dalmatian. She was very beautiful and sleek. Her owner gave us a lot of useful information about the area. We mentioned that we had read that the rock platforms east of Peppercombe are the place to search for the purple sandpiper, an uncommon winter visitor to the North Devon coast. We thought it was probably the wrong time of year though. It was mid-April. The dalmatian's helpful owner phoned an ornithologist friend who told him that he had seen a purple sandpiper on rocks at the western end of Westward Ho! that week.
So, on our return, we scanned the rocks and there near the water's edge was the dark wader with its leaden grey plumage and short yellow legs and yellow-based bill. It is very much a bird of rocky coasts and gets its name from the purplish sheen in winter. It breeds on the northern tundra, usually leaving our shores in May, but birds occasionally stay in Britain through the summer.
As a lovely bonus to the conclusion of our walk, the purple sandpiper was sharing the rock platform with a small group of turnstones. These were gorgeous in their summer plumage; the late afternoon sun illuminating the russet, black and chestnut of their tortoiseshell patterned backs; their undersides gleaming white. Their heads were white with black stripes. A broad black breast band and short orange legs completed the colourful ensemble.
Their short bills are adapted for use as a shovel, overturning pebbles and seaweed in search of molluscs, crustaceans, insects and worms. Both species of wader tend to be rather tame and these birds were ignoring the presence of people fishing nearby. Eventually the turnstones flew off together to land on a rocky outcrop.
Although not a lot has changed in terms of landscape and wild life on the cliff tops west of Westward Ho! since Kipling's day, there was one difference, satirized in a passage from 'Stalky & Co.' which made us thankful for the free and easy access all around the peninsular, made possible by the South West Coast Path.
The boys reached an area of open grass which, "fairly bristled with notice-boards. Fee - rocious old cove this', said Stalky, reading the nearest. "Prosecuted with the utmost rigour of the law. G.M. Dabney, Colonel, J.P." an' all the rest of it. Don't seem to me that any chap in his senses would trespass here does it?"'
Fortunately, one does not need to trespass these days to enjoy this walk!
LOCAL WALKS - 83
"It's a fine land, the west land . . ." John Masefield
We felt as if we might have strayed into Thomas Hardy country instead of the land west of Bideford. We had started our walk at Melbury Reservoir on the edge of Melbury Forest. Could Grace Melbury, timber merchant's daughter and heroine of 'The Woodlanders', have strolled here with Giles Winterborne, cider maker and part-time forester? Hardy said of Winterborne that he had, "a marvellous power of making trees grow there was a sort of sympathy between himself and the fir, oak or beech that he was operating on." There was certainly plenty of evidence of forestry activity taking place round about us.
But no! This might be Melbury Hill and Melbury Wood, but we were nowhere near the charmingly named Dorset villages of Melbury Osmond and Melbury Bubb. We were firmly rooted in North Devon between the villages of Buckland Brewer and Woolsery.
Illustration by: Paul Swailes
We looked across the reservoir, a small isosceles triangle of still, bright water. There was some movement at the centre. Could that be a great crested grebe that had just dived? We asked an angler who had arrived on the bank. He confirmed that it was and that a pair had bred successfully at Melbury Reservoir the previous year.
The reservoir is stocked with carp. Writing three hundred and fifty years ago, the much admired angler and lover of nature, Izaak Walton, called the carp, the queen of rivers; a stately, a good and a very subtle fish'.
We followed the path around the perimeter of the water, watching the grebe swimming and diving. It was 'wearing' its special display plumage. From midwinter both sexes grow a velvety, chestnut brown and black tippet on each side of the head, which frames the white face. When we were about a third of the way round we realised there was a second great crested grebe beside some rushes opposite. The first had disappeared but now there was a chortling sound and it had surfaced near the second bird. [They swim much more quickly under water than on the surface.]
Then we witnessed something we had only seen before on television the first phase of the elaborate courtship ritual, known quaintly as 'the head shaking ceremony'. Calling, the two birds swam towards each other and face to face, with long necks stretched upright; the double crests on the crown of the head raised; tippets spread out to form a circular ruff and their bills open, they both started to waggle their heads rapidly. After a while, they stopped calling and swayed their heads slowly from side to side. This was the second phase! Eventually they drifted apart.
They are fascinating and beautiful birds, spending most of their time on or under the water, flying very little. In late summer or early autumn, they shed all their wing feathers simultaneously, risking being flightless for four or more weeks while the new feathers grow.
The glossy white feathers on the breast are very dense and were known as 'grebe fur' and used for decorating fashion garments in the nineteenth century.
A few weeks before, I had picked up a copy of the 'Buzz', Bideford's Newsletter, at the library. In it was an article recommending winter walks in the plantations at Melbury and nearby Powler's Piece where the public is allowed access to the forest trails unless there are notices warning of tree felling, et cetera.
Locating these forests on the Bude and Clovelly ordnance survey map I found that only three miles to the south, as the crow flies, was a church I had long fancied visiting, since I first heard it was one of the few in the country to have escaped being 'improved' by zealous Victorians.
So off we proceeded to the small village of West Putford. Saint Stephen's church occupies an elevated position at the edge of the village. It was built at about 1300 to an early medieval cruciform plan; its West tower unbuttressed with 'stunted' pinnacles.
In the churchyard there were wild daffodils and banks of snowdrops, many of them double. A raven surveyed the surrounding countryside from the top of a yew tree.
We entered the church by its wonderful old south door, dated 1620. The Norman tub font has a ring of cable moulding between the circular bowl and the base. The pulpit and altar rails are eighteenth century, both with twisted wooden balusters. On the uneven walls the damp plaster was flaking and crumbling. The last entry in the Visitors' Book had been more than four months before; travellers from America seeking their family roots.
The Lych Gate and War
Memorial at Putford Church,
from: the Tom Bartlett Postcard Collection
An interesting survival is the chancel floor which is almost entirely paved with medieval Barnstaple tiles. These are brown with a variety of patterns on them, including roses and fleur-de-lis.
As the church had not been subjected to restoration in the nineteenth century, I had thought there might be simple rustic benches or high box pews like those at Molland and Parracombe, but the church had been given a special grant in the 1930's to refurnish with modern pews. There were just a couple of canted bench ends remaining in the south transept.
We crossed a little field linking the churchyard to the road. Below the church is Churston Manor [aka Churchton House], an Elizabethan manor house built by the Prideaux family some time between 1576 and 1611. We turned a corner, passed the school, a field of thrushes and a few thatched cottages and were soon at the outskirts of the village where a little bridge crosses the infant Torridge.
From here the river has a long way south to go before it can loop northwards to seek its estuary. There were some patches of ice on the meadow beside the river. A moorhen swam past and was soon hidden.
We had intended to sample some of the forest walks but there was a flurry of snow so we decided to save that for another day when we would also explore the adjacent culm grasslands of Common Moor and Wrangworthy Cross and the eight Bronze Age barrows there, some of which could be seen from the road. And we should also want to revisit the reservoir some time, to see whether any chicks had resulted from that stately courtship.
My grateful acknowledgement to Dawn Frost, at the Bideford Buzz, for pointing us in this direction.
LOCAL WALKS - 82
"Down by the Riverside"
At first glance there did not seem to be a lot happening on the river. But there, not far from the Civic Centre, a little grebe surfaced not for long though. It soon dived. We counted up to thirty slowly and it reappeared some distance away. It is a proficient underwater swimmer and can stay submerged for up to half a minute. Perhaps its alternative name, dabchick, best suits this blunt-tailed little bird, grey-brown in its winter plumage.
A little further on a pair of red-breasted mergansers were also showing off their diving skills. These graceful ducks, with their long slender red bills, are a variety of 'sawbill'.
It was the beginning of a new year and although it was a dull and chilly day, plenty of people were out on the path strolling or cycling, some trying out new bikes or binoculars.
A flotilla of widgeon passed by; at the water's edge a mixed group of ringed plovers and dunlin. The dunlin are the commonest of the small waders to be found on the shore. They are noted for their aerobatics, forming dense flocks, twisting and turning together with great precision. It is a fine spectacle witnessing the billowing shapes created by these birds, now silver white, then dark grey against a winter sky.
On a little beach, just beyond Pottington, stood about thirty black-tailed godwits. They are tall waders with a very long straight bill, grey-brown above with a white rump and wing stripe and a broad black tail band. Suddenly they all took off, flying low over the path, heading for the meadow which is crossed by the Bradiford Water. This elegant visitor has a rather mellifluous Latin name - Limosa limosa.
A few brave flowers lingered, sow thistle, dandelions, groundsel - all members of the compositae family. Then the heady fragrance of winter heliotrope Lan ugly pinkish flower with heart-shaped leaves] followed by something more pungent. At Higher Strand a dead seal lay on the bank; headless and looking like a large sandbag.
After that discovery, we were cheered by a mixed flock of thrushes in a paddock and adjacent field, which included redwings and fieldfares. It is always heartening to see these winter visitors which have travelled so far to reach here and they are very handsome birds too, often roaming the countryside together.
The redwing has a cream coloured stripe above the eye; red on the flanks and under the wings and the markings o the breast are short streaks rather than spots.
The fieldfare has a slate grey head and light grey [giving it the old country nickname of 'pigeon felt'], chestnut brown back and darker tail and wings. The buff coloured breast has heavy black spots. Some of these are chevron shaped. The shading on the face gives the fieldfare an angry expression. Some were perched on a hedge seeking haws and other berries. When their normal sources of food are scarce, they may be found attacking apple fallings.
Of the MIO resident thrushes and the two winter visitors, the redwing is the smallest thrush, followed by the song thrush, then the fieldfare and the largest is the mistle thrush.
The Taw was wider now and its surface was still and glassy, mirroring the cloud formations. Soon the sun was sinking. There was a reddish tint to the sky a glow on the horizon, reflected in the waters of the river.
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALKS - 81
'Lo! I am come to
autumn, When all the
leaves are gold...'
All the leaves are gold? Not this year, when a combination of weather conditions, the leaves remaining longer on the trees and the sugars stored in the dying leaves has extended the spectrum of colours, adding salmon pinks, cherry red and vermillion to the more usual yellows, copper and bronze.
On a mild November day we had arrived at Swimbridge [four and a half miles south east of Barnstaple] to revisit its fine church and explore the village. The setting conforms to the ideal of how a village should be St. James church at the centre of the community, its spire very much the focal point, with cottages clustered about it and more dwellings climbing up the hills which surround and shelter the village. The name is derived from the Anglo Saxon Saewin Birige. Saewin founded a chapel there about four decades before the Norman Conquest.
A river borders the churchyard and adjacent to the churchyard are extensive vegetable allotments. We were impressed by a double row of parsley which must has been seventy feet long. Cotoneaster, dense with red berries, spread over the iow walls. A few late roses lingered.
We crossed the little medieval packhorse bridge. The twisted, lead covered spire is of a similar type to those at Barnstaple and Braunton. The Reverend John Russell, the original breeder of the Jack Russell terrier, was the rector at Swimbridge for forty-eight years from 1833, and is buried in the churchyard.
We would look inside the church later, but first we passed the quaint old schoolroom built of cob and stone, and along Church Lane, with its sixteenth century cottages, also known as Ching Chang from the Old English for muddy way. We were in pursuit of Bestridge Pond, a disused lime pit.
Illustration by: Paul Swailes
We found some lime kilns, cloaked with ivy and were looking about for the pond when a black cat advanced down the track, its walking-stick tail held aloft. [Yet another example of the Village Cat Phenomenon - how often standing in a strange village getting one's bearings, one will be approached by a friendly cat, appearing out of the blue!]
The human inhabitants of Swimbridge were friendly and helpful too, showing us around and pointing out things of interest. A mother and daughter explained that Bestridge Pond had always been strictly 'out of bounds' when they were children because it was ninety feet deep with hazardously steep sides.
The Roman Road was recommended as a good place from which to view the village and surrounding countryside. Now a rough track, known locally as Devil's Lane, it runs high above the village. We reached it by going up Dennington Hill to Hannaton Cross, and enjoyed the panorama spread before use, looking down at the valley and across to Exmoor. At the western end of Swimbridge is a strange pudding basin of a hill called Hoods, meaning escarpment.
Blackbirds were turning over leaves. Among them were a couple of winter visitors, continental blackbirds lacking the light circle around the eye and bright yellow bill of our native male blackbirds.
One Swimbridge resident had suggested a theory that some of the irregular features of the landscape could have been the result of spoil heaps which had eventually grassed over. The presence of limestone was unusual for North Devon.
And now to the church which Nikolaus Pevsner described as 'of considerable interest' especially in its furnishings which are 'uncommonly lavish'. The rood screen, 'one of the most glorious' in Devon, extends forty-four feet across the entire width of the nave and aisles. It has delicate tracery and is richly carved with leaf motifs.
The font Pevsner called, 'a most extraordinary contraption'. It consists of a lead bowl inside an octagonal cupboard of early Renaissance panelling with folding doors. There is a lot of detail in the carving with suns, angels and strange faces. The wooden cover of the font is shaped ribbed and decorated with leaves and stars.
The sun came out and the church was suddenly flooded with light.
Finally, we strolled up Station Hill. Here were more neat plots of vegetables and the tradition maintained of growing dahlias and chrysanthemum alongside the rows of brassicas, leeks, parsnips and beetroot. A few pheasants were foraging among the curly kale plants.
Behind the row of cottages opposite was an old limestone quarry and there were hens in the back gardens. Across the meadows a winding line of trees marked the course of the river.
LOCAL WALKS - 80
An Exmoor Lido
An unobtrusive track leaves the road between Lanacre and Withypool Cross. We walked down it to Sherdon Hutch where the Sherdon Water joins the River Barle and forms a deep pool. The junction of the two waterways is a popular inland bathing resort surrounded by wild moorland.
It was early September and children were paddling and using small inflatable boats. Many had nets and buckets and were engrossed in pond-dipping.
All this activity did not deter a heron from flying low down river and landing in the clear bright water. A few sand martins, brown and white, flew to and fro across the Barle.
Along the river bank spread a brilliant orange blaze where montbretia [crocosmia] had colonized extensively. This common but striking 'garden escape' was first hybridized from two South African plant species by a French nurseryman in the 1870's. Although montbretia has naturalised and taken to the sea cliffs and country lanes of the South West in a big way, in its native land it has chosen to remain firmly rooted in the garden.
There was the fresh scent of water mint growing with pink valerian on long wiry stalks. Valerian was also known as 'all heal'. A medicinal herb, the drug extracted from its roots was used as a sedative.
A gorgeous gold-ringed dragonfly whizzed past a large 'hawker' with bold bands of yellow and black along its body, with broad wings and large eyes meeting on top of its head. It flies strongly and fast along streams, especially in upland areas and is on the wing until the end of September.
We climbed up from the river on to some boggy ground and it was here that we found a bog asphodel. From a little distance the orange spikes gave the impression that the plant was still flowering. But on closer study, we found that the yellow star-shaped flowers with scarlet anthers hard turned into the deep orange fruits of autumn.
A member of the lily family, the bog asphodel grows in acid soils and on damp heaths. Its Latin name, ossifragum, means 'bone breaking l because it was once believed that the bones of cattle grazing on it became brittle.
We followed the course of Sherdon Water below Ferny Bail. It soon felt increasingly isolated and remote. But here was company of a colorful sort a flock of goldfinches on the thistle seeds, many of them young birds lacking the red face but with yellow markings on their wings.
Then, linnets poured out of the wind sculpted bushes and mingled with their fellow finches. A mistle thrush flew into a mountain ash tree joining two more thrushes already there, feasting on the abundant, orange-red berries.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALK - 79
'A Far Cry from Dartford'
It was a lovely June day, sunny but with a soft sea breeze and we were climbing up the steep slope from Highveer Point, to reach the broad track above, when we heard an unfamiliar scolding noise - metallic and rattling. We traced the sound to some gorse bushes where a small bird was bobbing in and out. It had a slate grey head with crown slightly raised; a dark grey-brown back and dull purplish red front. It cocked its long tail at a jaunty angle and its eyes appeared very large and prominent, this impression being created by a red ring around the eye.
We were delighted! A Dartford Warbler is not a common sight. Its stronghold is the heathland of Dorset. Several of the people we met along the way had set themselves the task of walking ambitious portions of the South West Coast Path. At Highveer Point an Australian backpacker asked us to take his photograph, with Lee Abbey as a backdrop and Foreland Point beyond. He had walked from Porlock and was very impressed by the beauty of Woody Bay and Lynmouth. Highveer Point falls away almost vertically to the far below and remarkably, a few sheep were grazing among the rocky outcrops.
Earlier a lizard had crossed the narrow path above Wringpeak. A few heath spotted were growing near the waterfall; white flowers with small crimson dots and spotted leaves. They like a damp, acid situation and are closely related to the common spotted orchid but far less frequent in the South West. In places the covering of heather and gorse gives way to scree slopes consisting of angular fragments of stone. The depth and instability of the scree prevents soil accumulating so that plants cannot become established.
As we reached the higher path we could look down on the sea birds wheeling out from cliff ledges hidden from view. Rafts of guillemots and razorbills were on the water. This is North Devon's most significant sea bird colony. The birds have been helped by the geology of the area.
Where the rock strata are nearly vertical and there are frequent rock falls, there is a lack of secure ledges for nesting. But around Woody Bay the layers of rock dip gently backwards and weather readily into a series of ledges, providing ideal nesting sites. The fulmars first arrived at Woody Bay in 1955 and kittiwake began to breed there in 1970.
There were a lot of Painted Lady butterflies -a black and white chequered pattern on a pale orange or salmon pink background. Even their Latin name is pretty, Cynthia cardui. They are migratory butterflies which spend the winter in North Africa. They have a powerful flight and are seen especially along the coasts and on heaths. The numbers arriving here each year vary but 1996 was an exceptional year for the Painted Lady when large flocks of them invaded gardens.
The return stretch of our circular walk took us around the Hollow Brook gorge; lush and verdant, full of flowers and shrubs -a great contrast to those arid scree slopes but both full of drama in their different ways.
This higher path is wide as coast paths go, because it was originally the old coach road between Woody Bay and Hunter's Inn. What a hair raising journey that must have been!
LOCAL WALK - 78
Serendipity and Pastures New
Apart from the favourite 'honey pots' of Exmoor and the beauty spots around the coast, North Devon is full of small, less frequented places which have their own distinctive characters and special atmospheres.
They may be open and airy, like Codden Hill with its larks and buntings and spectacular views, or enclosed and hidden away like Chapel Wood with its bluebell slopes and ancient sites.
There will always be new woodlands and stretches of riverbank to discover and explore and the chance of unexpected encounters with birds, animals or insects is ever present. Earlier this year we were returning to Croyde from a walk to Baggy Point when at a road junction we noticed something large and white up in a tree - probably a plastic carrier bag caught up in the branches or some paper fluttering in the breeze. But no, this was flapping its wings and pulling leaves and lichen from the tree with its bulky grey bill. A snowy cockatoo was certainly a surprising sight in such a location, but the handsome antipodean seemed quite relaxed.
Because in Berrynarbor we have a range of different habitats on our doorstep, a serendipity moment is always a possibility. This spring a dipper has frequently been seen in the River Sterridge, bobbing up and down on lumps of stone and tearing off pieces of moss. It is normally a bird of fast flowing, upland waterways.
There is nothing unusual about seeing badgers in Berrynarbor gardens, especially where these are near woods, but several times this month I have found that Brock has not waited for darkness to fall before putting in an appearance. At quarter to eight one evening I was in the garden and heard a rustling in the shrubs behind me. I looked around to see two badgers trotting past, crossing the lawn and disappearing among the raspberry canes. Sometimes a badger is to be seen on his hind legs with his paws resting on the bird table, steadily rotating around the table until everything has been eaten.
I picked up a withered leaf from outside the kitchen window. There was at once a tickling sensation on the palm of my hand. Looking down I found that the 'leaf' was an eyed hawkmoth and as it had been disturbed, the mottled brown wings had opened wide to reveal two beautiful 'eyes' designed to frighten off predators. The shading of light and dark blue was very realistic and to add to the illusion of a hidden face peering up at me, the shading around the eyes was of a delicate flesh pink. Guiltily I returned it to its resting place and there it stayed all day and evening but the deep blue eyes remained hidden.
This week we sampled a new place to walk, strongly recommended to us by some residents of Fremington we had got talking to along the estuary. Grigg's Field is a pleasant 'Meadow bordered by woodland on two sides. There has recently been a lot of new planting there and the field is treasured by the local people. While visitors storm up and down the Tarka Trail on their bikes, the inhabitants of Fremington retreat to Grigg's Field to stroll or sit in the sun while their children play.
From there we walked through Brake Plantation to Knightacott Cross. A shady stream runs below the broad track through the woods. There was a rich variety of woodland flowers; sanicle, wood avens and bugle with purple columbine and patches of yellow pimpernel. Especially prolific along the track's edge were the graceful pendulous sedge and yellow green wood spurge.
We could hear black caps, wrens and a song thrush but these were mostly unseen in the thickening leaf cover. We returned via a steeper, rougher path where there were colonies of early purple orchids and came across tadpoles swimming in a deep rut which had filled with water.
On reaching Grigg's field we paused to enjoy the view of Ashford and Heanton Punchardon across the Taw. Mingled sounds came wafting laughter, a dog's bark, distant traffic and then, faint but welcome nevertheless, 'cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo'.
One dictionary says that the Land of Serendip; where happy and unexpected discoveries were made by accident, was in Persia, another dictionary gave Ceylon. But wherever the original Serendip of the folk tale was set, North Devon is still, truly a land of serendipity.
Illustrated by: Peter Rothwell
LOCAL WALK - 77
It was a sunny day in March, with a pleasant breeze and a lively sea as we the cliffs above Whiting Cove at Morthoe.
A couple of years ago, an extensive area of gorse became burnt leaving the sort of sinister, monochrome landscape which could have been the scene of a science fiction fantasy. Now we found that the charcoal black remains of the gorse, stark against the pale and jagged rocks, had been transformed by a coating of velvety and almost luminous, lime green moss. The overall effect was so strange that a holiday maker was filming it.
A pair of ravens landed on top of the highest outcrop of rock, announcing their arrival with a 'kronk! Knronk!' As we stopped to scan the sea we noticed a round shape bobbing above the waves. As the grey seal turned its we saw its face, the spotted markings on its neck and white below its chin, A man walking his dogs told us there had been a family of four seals a little further along the coast. His elderly mother had been taken by National Trust tractor to watch them.
Skylarks rose up from the springy turf. A peregrine shot past suddenly; low, fast and direct. Kittiwakes were wheeling above Bennett's Mouth.
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
We came across a few wild daffodils in a sheltered niche near the top of the cliff. There were many more growing under the hazel and ash trees, beside the stream.
Lent had begun and we were reminded that n old name for the wild daffodil was Lent Lily. It is small and delicate with pale yellow petals pointing forwards around the deeper yellow trumpet.
When we returned to the village later in the afternoon, as the weather was still so good, we decided to walk out to Morte Point. We were glad we did! A seal was swimming towards the shore with a massive fish and exciting the hectoring attention of herring gulls.
The seal was engulfed by huge waves at frequent intervals. Then it hurled the conger around its head like a great scarf and there was a loud 'thwack' as the eel hit the surface of the water. The seal began to rip off strips of flesh from the fish, as it swam.
The gulls started to lose interest but we did not. It was a fascinating spectacle and a dramatic finale to our walk.
A hiking couple waited minutes for the seal to resurface and were so delighted when it did, because although they had walked that route many times before, this was the first time they had ever seen a seal. We continued in the direction of the lighthouse. A shag stood on an island of rock. We descended the grassy slope for a better view of the bird with its greenish black plumage and jaunty crest.
LOCAL WALKS 76
"Ring, happy bells, across the snow."
Snow still lingered on the fields at Taddiport. It was a cold Sunday in mid -January and we had just walked along the River Torridge from Rothern Bridge, with the intention of exploring two very different buildings - one, an Art Deco monster; the other, a tiny and poignant relic of the Middle Ages.
The track led straight into the dairy site and the right of way takes one between the most interesting buildings of the old creamery, which are now derelict and unfortunately becoming dilapidated.
There are many features typical of the Art Deco style; long windows with decorative brick surrounds; fluted panels and the use of smooth curves and geometric shapes. We passed beneath a covered bridge, with portholes and a central clock, linking the buildings at first floor level. At one corner is a curved tower faced with glass bricks.
Despite decay, the scale of the building is still imposing and some of the glamour of its early 20thC bold modernist style remains.
In sharp contrast are the thatched Torridge Inn opposite and, beside the 17thC bridge, the pretty stone Toll House - narrow fronted with a parapet.
Artwork by: Paul Swailes from a postcard, c1921 - Tom Bartlett Collection
The name Taddiport may be derived from the Old English for Toad Pitt. We crossed Taddiport Bridge to reach the little church. Nearby were two traditional, painted caravans. The church was originally the chantry chape! of the leper hospital of Saint Mary Magdalene, founded in 1344.
It has a very small tower and the nave is only thirty feet long. A stained glass window depicts lepers being blessed whilst working in the fields, with the castle walls of Torrington shown above. It bears the injunction, 'Remember the lepers who lived and worshipped here and all who befriended them'.
On the walls are painted the ten commandments and biblical texts including one from Micah which alludes to coveting fields and taking them by violence. There had been a problem concerning the misappropriation of some of the leper colony's land.
There is a small reredos of carved wood incorporating a painting of the nativity. Glass shades remain from the calor gas lighting system installed in 1948. The church is well worth a visit although Pevsner claims there are no t noteworthy features' apart from the three-light Perpendicular window of oak above a blocked doorway. It does have a simple beauty and the blocked doorway creates an alcove in which a little wooden settle has been wedged.
Going back over the bridge we were able to enjoy the view of Torrington high above. We walked up Mill Street which links Taddiport with Torrington. A long, winding and very steep road of assorted terraced cottages with a broad raised pavement, reminiscent of the famous hill at Shaftesbury, featured in Hovis adverts.
From Castle Hill we looked down at the river far below and across to the two remaining leper fields on the other side. They are long and very narrow. Until quite recently there were several more but hedges were being removed to create bigger fields so the last two were bought by public subscription to serve as a memorial to Taddiport's leper settlement.
The escarpment drops away dramatically. Leading down the almost sheer slope to the River Torridge is a network of paths. Despite the weather, a lot of people were out and about. Clusters of walkers, huddled in warm hats and thick layers of clothes against the cold, trudged down the zig-zagging paths, looking like figures in one of Bruegel's winter landscapes.
LOCAL WALKS 75
"Listen to the ocean,
Echoes of a million sea shells..."
Standing on the edge of Northam Burrows and looking out to sea where a flock of birds trail behind a fishing boat, like a plume of smoke. Here is a three hundred and sixty degree viewpoint stretching from Hartland to Baggy Point; with the meeting of the Taw and Torridge; Westward Ho!, Saunton and Appledore.
Overlooking the Burrows, the tall tower of Northam Church was used as a landmark for shipping.
In his novel, Westward Ho!, Charles Kingsley described the scene: ... look around at the wide bay to the westward, with its southern wall of purple cliffs; then at the dim Isle of Lundy far away at sea; then at the downs of Morte and Braunton ... at the vast yellow sheet of rolling sandhill and green alluvial plain dotted with red cattle ... through which the silver estuary winds onwards towards the sea.'
Northam Burrows Country Park comprises six hundred and fifty acres of common land where ponies graze. The area of salt marsh, sand dunes and pasture is protected from being swamped by the sea by the Pebble Ridge, a barrier of smooth grey boulders more than a rnile and a half long, up to sixty feet wide and over twenty feet high in places.
Although traditionally the local "potwallopers" [who have exercised the right to graze their stock on the Burrows since feudal times] have repaired and maintained the Pebble Ridge, it is a natural formation.
Pieces of rock are torn from the cliffs at Hartland Point by the action of the waves and are rounded and smoothed as they are rolled and swept along the coast, eventually reaching the Pebble Ridge. It differs from other spits in the west of England, being composed of cobbles instead of shingle or sand. The Reverend
Sabine Baring Gould wrote, "The glory of the Northam Burrows is the Pebble Ridge on the north west front that protects the land from the fury of the sea."
At the Skern, a large square area of mud stretching between Northam Burrows and Appledore, Brent geese had gathered to feed. This is a popular place for wintering wild fowl and waders.
On the nearby dunes there were a lot of tiny, pinkish-rnauve storksbill flowers, a compact plant with short stems and small leaflets divided into narrow segments. Also growing out of the sand were rubbery stems and leaves of sea spurge and the handsome sea holly; its bluish grey-green prickly leaves having white edges and veins. Such seaside plants have their special defences for dealing with the harsh conditions and salt spray. They rnay be fleshy or spiny or covered with fine hairs.
A particularly savage plant growing in dense tussocks on the Burrows is the aptly named sharp rush; each stem tipped with a tough and dangerous point - the sharpest leafed plant in Britain.
Although it was mid-October, there were still wheatears about. We found a clump of large rough grey-green leaves and big bright yellow flowers emerging from the shingle. This was the yellow horned poppy. It flowers for five months, from June to October, and its curved seedpods, which can be up to twelve inches, are the longest of any European plant.
It had been a day of intense colour and bright light with a sparkling sea, but now the sky turned the colour of galvanised rnetal and it was time to head inland.
Artwork by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALKS 74
"Once upon a time in the West"
"Here are trees and bright green grass and orchards full of contentment." John Ridd describes the sheltered setting of his home and compares it to the surrounding countryside. "How pleasant and soft the fall of the land is round about Plover's Barrows Farm. All above it is strong dark mountain, spread with heath and desolate."
Plover's Barrows Farm is a fictitious place but it is thought that R.D. Blackmore, the author of Lorna Doone, may have based it on Oareford, near Robber's Bridge. His grandfather was vicar of Oare from 1809 until 1842, and while spending boyhood holidays there, R.D. Blackmore was introduced to stories about characters like the Doones, reputed to have lived in the area during the seventeenth century. [Legends relating to savage gangs of robbers had been circulating throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.]
R.D. Blackmore was impressed also by the dramatic landscape and continues to visit as an adult, eventually writing his famous and popular novel in 1869. Some accounts suggest that he wrote much of it at the rectory in the village of Charles, near Brayford, others that it was written while staying at the Royal Oak Inn, Withypool.
Starting out from Malmsmead to walk along the course of the Badgworthy Water and the valley forever associated with the Doones, the countryside is at first gentle and friendly. In a field by the river opposite Cloud Farm, there is even a chamomile lawn, soft and springy, the aromatic leaves spreading to form a carpet which exudes a pleasant scent when walked over. The herbalist Culpeper said that the use of chamomile 'takes away weariness, eases pains, comforts the sinews and mollifies all swellings.' It is still widely used as a calming and soothing tea and to brighten fair hair. Further along the large damselflies, known as beautiful demoiselles, flitted over the water; the females iridescent green, the males a metallic blue.
Small, but colourful, treats were to be a feature of the walk that day. As we left Badgworthy Wood, with its twisted and contorted oak trees, quick movements among some thorn bushes turned out to be a pair of redstarts, bobbing up and down, constantly quivering their rusty red tails. The male stunning with his black throat and cheeks, pink breast and blue-grey crown and back - a handsome summer visitor, always a delight to see.
We came across several green hairstreak butterflies. They like the outskirts of woods, boggy heaths, gorse filled valleys, bilberry moors and warm hillsides, so Exmoor provides plenty of suitable habitats for them. The undersides of their wings are bright green and they are often to be seen perched on leaves with their wings folded so that the green underside is shown and blends with the colour of the leaves. They fly swiftly in short flights, frequently returning to the same perch.
Badgworthy Water, strews with boulders and home to dippers, wagtails and herons, traces the border between Devon and Somerset. The valley becomes progressively wilder and lonelier, certainly atmospheric as R.D. Blackmore demonstrated in his vivid descriptions. A little sinister when there are no fellow walkers about but extraordinarily beautiful so that you are always conscious of being somewhere very special and distinctive. John Ridd explained the circumstances which led him, aged fourteen, to explore the Badgworthy Water. His mother had been in poor health and he hoped to revive her loss of appetite by presenting her with some of her favourite fish. He remembered bringing from Tiverton a jar of pickled loaches, caught in the River Lowman and baked with vinegar, bay leaves and peppercorns.
So he hoped to find loaches in Badgworthy Water. However, on that occasion he was,"affrighted often by the deep dark places and feeling that every step I took might never be taken backward. Then says I to myself, 'John Ridd, these trees and pools and lonesome rocks and setting of the sunlight are making a gruesome coward of thee.'"
Shortly after John Ridd's father had been killed by the Doones as he rode home from Porlock market, John's mother bravely went to confront the Doones. She was led blindfold to their stronghold. When her eyes were uncovered, she saw that, "she stood at the head of a deep green valley, carved out from the mountains in a perfect oval, with a fence of sheer rock standing round it, eighty feet or a hundred high, from whose brink wooded hills swept up to the skyline. By her side a little river glided out from underground with a soft dark babble."
The combe called Hoccombe, branching off to the west of the main valley is thought to most closely match the glen occupied by the Doones. At the entrance to Hoccombe, mounds covered with bracken and grass are the remains of a medieval village. It is possible that a farm and cottages on the site were inhabited until the time of the Black Death.
On a waterlogged stretch of the path, we found a patch of the downy white heads of cotton grass. This fluffy grass is common on the boggy parts of Exmoor. As we turned a corner, we were surprised to see three motorcycles roaring towards us. This coincided with a steep and narrow section of the route, so we had to scramble up the bank fast.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
In 1865, R.D. Blackmore went on holiday to Lynmouth for a month, "to have some beautiful trout fishing and magnificent scenery". While there, the idea for Lorna Doone began to take shape. For three years after it was published, the book did not sell well, then suddenly it took off and for the next forty years it was one of the most read English novels [although the author once rather testily complained, "l have an especial dislike of the practice called interviewing"]. Thomas Hardy wrote congratulating him on the book. It also had the effect of increasing the popularity of Lynmouth, Porlock and Minehead and of bringing additional visitors to the moor itself.
LOCAL WALKS - 73
"What a seawall they are, those Exmoor Hills! Sheer upward from the sea a thousand feet. "
At 1143 feet above sea level, Holdstone Down is the highest coastal hill in the South West. We had arrived there late one afternoon when a resident of one of the nearby houses crossed the road to ask us, "Are you starting your walk now or have you just finished?"
He had seen a group of deer in a little spinney behind his house and thought we might be interested as it was the first time he had come across any there. We set off along the track and soon noticed movement among the trees. For half an hour we watched as the deer slowly emerged and trotted through the gorse; stopping at frequent intervals to graze and survey their surroundings.
Eventually they disappeared over the ridge of Trentishoe Down and we continued on the track which became narrower and steeper.
Finally the way became a precipitous scramble between thorn bushes blackened by fire. It was a relief to reach the level path, called Ladies Mile, which passes through a strip of mixed woodland with the cooling sound of a stream below.
The rowan trees were covered in foamy, cream umbels of blossom. The mountain ash, or rowan, is capable of growing at higher altitudes than other deciduous trees. Its bright orange red berries can be used to make the relish, rowan jelly.
A grizzled skipper butterfly basked on a warm bank, showing off the black and white chequered pattern on its wings. It likes hillsides and forest clearings but it isn't very common in the South West. [It is extinct in Scotland and very rare in Wales.]
Next, a gradual climb accompanied by the harsh, scolding, scratchy sound produced by whitethroats. The restless warblers darted in and out of the undergrowth. A male with ash grey head and peachy breast perched on a twig; his crest raised and snowy white throat swelling in song.
Leaving the trees behind we were again on open moorland. A pair of wheaters stood very upright and alert on a rock. One of the earliest of the summer visitors, when they arrive at the end of March the male wheaters look freshly painted. The breeding plumage includes a grey crown and back; cream underside with pinkish breast and a smart black eye mask. But by the time they leave in the autumn, they are duller and browner.
Amidst all this glorious scenery, a dumped fridge came as a surprise, but a sign of the times I suppose. It must have involved some effort to get it to such a remote place!
We crossed the Hunter's Inn road and followed Trentishoe Lane for a few yards to reach the coast path above Elwill Bay. This tract of coastal heath appears uniform and bleak from a distance but actually has patches of colour from squat, close growing plants such as pink lousewort and the tiny deep blue flowers of milkwort, [This can also be white or mauve.] And above this, the undulating flight of linnets; the males in summer plumage of crimson breast and forehead with grey neck and chestnut back; the females brown with streaked markings. The linnet is considered to be the best songster of the finch family.
Small, pale yellow dew moths flitted about the clump of flowers, their neat shape making them look more like little butterflies than typical moths. They are mainly found in coastal and montane areas and the male dew moth is often active by day.
We passed a site of ancient hut circles whilst above, on the summit of Trentishoe Down, are Bronze Age barrows. By now it was early evening as we skirted around Holdstone Down, not yet knowing that there was to be a very special finale to this exhilarating circular walk.
As we returned along the road, a brown hare crossed just ahead of us and paused for a moment inside a gateway before running across the field. It crouched briefly with only the black tips of its long ears showing, then looked up and continued to the far side of the field.
The hare is the largest British rodent, capable of running thirty miles per hour when necessary and a good swimmer. It is tawny brown with uneven, darker tints due to the peculiar nature of its fur, which curls and twists in different directions causing the shadings of colour.
Its ears are nearly five inches long and the large prominent eyes are positioned so that although the hare has a good view to the sides and behind it, it can only see straight ahead indistinctly. This explains why once when we were walking along the edge of a wood, a hare came running along the path towards us and only at the last moment did it realise we were there and change its course.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALKS - 72
Rugged Rocks and Rascals
It is said that Martinhoe church was once used to store smuggled spirits. It presents an innocent enough picture nowadays, in its secluded setting high above the Bristol Channel, but an entry in the parish register tells of Dick Jones 'the last of the smugglers' who died the age of one hundred and three.
We took the steep track, just beyond the village, which leads down towards Woody Bay. There was a cold east wind but it was sunny with a clear blue sky. Over the stony bank we noticed a red deer hind standing perfectly still in the middle of a small field, her back glowing orange brown in the sun; her long neck stretched and her ears turning to catch every sound. We left her to graze in peace.
The large amount of red bell-like flowers on the bilberry bushes along the path promised a good crop of berries later, they are lovely combined with raspberries in a traditional summer pudding, and contain a high concentration of vitamin C.
We had intended walking to Highveer Point but when we passed Hollow Brook waterfall and the scree slopes to reach the first exposed point the wind was so forceful that we had difficult keeping upright. In view of the almost sheer drop below, we thought it sensible to retrace our steps and head for the shelter of Woody Bay itself.
The row of white cottages near the beach was once the homes of the lime burners. Limestone and coal were brought to Woody Bay from South Wales. As we sat above the restored lime kiln enjoying the view over the turquoise sea, a pair of slate grey falcons swept towards us.
The peregrines put on a wonderful aerial display above Crock Point - so called because during the eighteenth century clay dug from the crock pits, at the cliff top, was sent to Holland where it was prized by Dutch craftsmen.
In 1895 an entrepreneur called Benjamin Green Lake decided to develop Wood Bay for tourism. He started to build a pier with the idea of attracting pleasure steamers from Bristol and Wales. He obtained money fraudulently for the venture and was sentenced to twelve years in prison.
The pier was badly damaged during storms in 1900 and was demolished two years later. So it remains a quiet, natural place; a rocky boulder-strewn bay with a glorious coastal waterfall at its center, which rushes down the eight hundred foot high cliffs and onto the beach.
We returned via Inkerman Bridge, through oak woodlands. My old 1930's Ward Lock guide book calls Woody Bay 'a charming glen with a rushing torrent'!
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALKS 71
"Blossom by blossom the spring begins." Swinburne
We visited the village of 'the dwellers in the hollow' to see its church, highly esteemed for its tower, claimed to be the finest in the whole of Devon.
Chittlehampton is a large village occupying high ground above the valleys of the Taw, Bray and Mole, between Umberleigh and South Molton.
It was a pleasant walk around the village, with its great variety of building styles, including a lot of thatched cottages and secluded corners. It was in one of these - the site of the old pound where stray animals would once have been rounded up - that a set of stocks had been placed.
At the centre of Chittlehampton is a huge, sloping square, with buildings on three sides and at the top, St. Hieritha's Church. Hieritha [or Urith] was martyred by a gang of Chittlehamptonians armed with scythes, possibly at the instigation of her jealous step-mother, or because she was held responsible for a drought.
According to legend, 'where the holy maiden fell a spring of water gushed forth and flowers blossomed'. From the time of her death in the 8th Century until the Reformation, Chittlehampton was a place of pilgrimage and the offerings donated by visitors to Saint Hieritha's shrine largely financed the building of the church.
After the suppression of these pilgrimages in 1539, church revenue plummeted due to the 'takyn away of the imagys of St. Urithe and cessyng of offerynges used to be made there by pulgremes'. Little was known about St. Hieritha/Urith until 1901 when a 15th Century manuscript was rediscovered at Cambridge, which included the Hymn to St. Urith in Latin. The hymn commanded:
'O let Chittlehampton
With all Devon, songs of praise
That the saint hath won such fame.'
The path leading to the south porch is lined by rows of pollarded lime trees. The twiggy branches have knitted together to form an intricate archway or tunnel. The effect is unusual. The impressive porch and medieval door escaped drastic restoration. Nearby a small turret contains the stairway which led to the rood loft.
Inside, among the various monuments to the Rolles and Giffards, the most intriguing is the recumbent figure of Grace Giffard who died in 1667 from pricking herself with a fern. Her effigy holds a large and vicious looking frond.
The stone pulpit incorporates a carving of St. Hieritha bearing the palm branch of martyrdom. There are gilded angels in the chancel roof, a mosaic reredos and a parish chest, a hundred years older than the church itself.
Then back outside to admire the highly praised tower. The Reverend Sabine Baring Gould said it was 'without rival in Devon'. Pevsner called it 'spectacular'. Another guide said it is 'unsurpassed in gracefulness and strength'. It is in the Perpendicular style and resembles the church towers of Somerset.
It has six buttresses and a great number of pinnacles arranged in groups - even the buttresses have pinnacles and this all gives the tower a gradually tapering outline. There are friezes of quatrefoils at the base and at each of the four stages of the tower. The battlements, too, are decorated with openwork quatrefoils. There is a niche containing an image on the south side and eight openwork pinnacles provide the crowning feature. [The church has between eighty and ninety pinnacles altogether.]
Behind the church a pleasantly curving millennial stone wall has been added recently as an extension to the churchyard. A pale ginger and cream cat strode across the grass and settled itself under one of the yew trees. A quiet place for contemplation.
On returning to the village square, my curiosity was aroused by the representation of a dodo on the recycling pavilion, when I suddenly felt something forcefully jammed against the back of my knee. What could it be? I looked around to find a lone Jack Russell with a big rubber ball in its mouth!
The village had been given the Dodo Award by South Molton Recycle in recognition of the high tonnage of recyclable rubbish it had managed to collect.
Along the lanes the first buds of the blackthorn blossom were, as always, a welcome sight, an early indication of the coming of spring.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALKS - 70
'Strangers on the Shore'
You don't have to be interested in wild life to enjoy the spectacle created by the movement of flocks of birds on the estuary.
The changing patterns of colour and form were lit by the intense winter sunshine. It was a cold enough day for a covering of snow on the Welsh mountains and distant hills, but the sky was bright blue and reflected in the waters of the Taw, with a glittering of silver, it provided a perfect foil for the display taking place.
A large flock was storming towards Isley Marsh. At first the birds looked totally black and grey but as they came closer a white chevron could be seen at the rear and on landing the white line on the sides of the neck became clear. These Brent geese are the smallest, darkest and most maritime of the European geese.
Standing now among the largely white shelduck, the Brent geese looked very handsome. Being a similar size [about two feet] the Brent geese and the shelduck looked well together; the dark green heads, red bills and chestnut brown 'belts' of the latter providing some additional flickering colour.
A flock of lapwings billowed, while on the water were teal and the slightly larger wigeon; the pearl-grey drakes having a brown, rounded head, pinkish breast and the most distinctive feature - a blond, slightly bulging forehead and crown. These are dabbling ducks feeding on the surface and grazing on aquatic plants. The summer is spent on the northern tundra [their range stretching from Iceland to the Pacific coast].
Standing on the shore, conspicuous for its bulk and all-white plumage, was a spoonbill - long black legs and a very long black spatula-shaped bill with a yellow tip. We first saw a spoonbill about five years ago. We were on Horsey Island causeway when we became aware of something very large flying low over our heads. Looking up we were amazed to see a heron-sized white bird, neck outstretched with the unmistakable spoon-shaped bill. We did not know that these remarkable looking birds are regular winter visitors to North Devon.
As we continued our walk along the coast from Isley Marsh, we came across another spoonbill standing in a gully and surrounded by redshank and ringed plovers. It was a juvenile bird with a pale greyish-pink bill. As it waded through the shallow water, it swept its bill from side to side, describing an arc, equivalent to a quarter of a circle. Spoonbills feed on crustaceans, molluscs, aquatic plants and insects and, less frequently, fish and small frogs.
Spoonbills may clatter their bills when agitated but this one seemed to ignore the people and dogs walking past. As the tide came in it flew off to join the other spoonbill. When we returned, we found that three more adults had arrived, so that five were now assembled on the marsh.
Unlike the little egret, which is graceful and on the move most of the time, the spoonbills seem content to stand still for long periods of time on one leg, often tucking their bills under their wings to reduce heat loss by decreasing the surface area of their bodies. They do not breed in this country, mainly nesting in South Eastern Europe, South and Central Asia and East Africa, with isolated breeding colonies in Spain, Holland and Hungary.
There is a romance in seeing the Brent geese and other migrants and in considering the long and arduous journeys they have taken, the difficult conditions they have endured and the bleak lands to which some will be returning.
P.S. The egret has landed on the River Sterridge! For some years now little egrets have been a common sight on the estuary and the marsh. Several at a time may often be seen at Barnstaple. However, until the beginning of this year I was not aware of little egrets visiting the River Sterridge.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
For three days in succession, one was standing in the river between Mill Park and the junction with the main road. As the river is close at this point, the egret could be seen from a passing car. It has also been seen on a bank near the lake; flying across the road; perching in trees near the Old Sawmill and in the river at Big Meadow. So keep a look out for the snowy white bird with feet.
LOCAL WALKS NO. 69
"When the clouds are on the hill-tops." R.D. Blackmore
A frieze of cows stretched along the horizon. On the grey stone of an ivy-clad table tomb, a red admiral spread out its wings. As it was now mid November, this was likely to be the last we should see until next year.
The yellow flowers of the winter jasmine contrasted brightly against the autumn sky.
Neat clumps of cyclamen grew beneath the sycamores outside the churchyard; an intricate tracery on their heart-shaped leaves.
We should be visiting the church later but first we descended the narrow lane in search of a footpath which we had not taken before. A black cat stood watching a pair of tweedy dunnocks in the hedge bank; turned its attention to us and marched along beside us down the lane; its jaunty, bushy tail held high like a flag.
The helpful animal led us to the waymarker arrows, which were rather hidden away and there across a muddy yard was the footpath sign. Once out on the high field, sloping down to a meandering stream with woodland extending along the other side of the valley and several more small mixed woods ahead, the scenery was wonderful lovely rolling countryside.
Behind us there was a fine view of the village of Marwood, with its church tower rising above a varied roofscape of hip roofs and dormers, a late Georgian house, a thatched summerhouse and part of the famous Marwood Hill Gardens.
Pied wagtails and larks were flitting about the field. A jay emerged from the woods with a raucous screech and a solitary grey wagtail stood by the stream. Suddenly we heard distinctive liquid notes approaching; a call evocative of estuaries and there, flying over the next field, were three curlews.
At the far end of the field, a sheep was struggling desperately to free herself. She had gone under an electric fence, then under some barbed wire and finally pushed her head through the square mesh of a wire netting fence. This in turn was against a hedge of spiky blackthorn. The poor creature appeared to have been there for some time - a lot of wool was deposited on the wire and the grass had been entirely worn away around the sheep, exposing a large patch of shiny, slippery earth.
By now a light mist had turned to drizzle. My walking companion managed to free the sheep's head without spiking himself or the sheep on the thorns, although he did receive a couple of mild shocks from the electric fence. [It was also necessary to duck under this electric wire in order to reach the stile and footpath beyond.]
On being set free, the sheep gave a sort of somersault baaaed once and went off to rejoin the rest of the flock below.
We crossed the stream at a footbridge, climbed up the hill on the other side and reached a quiet lane with an old mill nearby. After a short distance, another footpath took us back over the fields to the village.
Both the Reverend Sabine Baring Gould in his 1907 Guide to Devon and the architectural historian, Nikolaus Pevsner praised Marwood Church and its attractive settings. It is noted especially for its sixteenth century screen and carved bench ends.
Unfortunately, only the part of finely carved Renaissance screen, which stands in the north aisle, has been preserved. The section above the nave and the chancel was destroyed in 1852 under the instruction of a clergyman carrying out 'restoration' work. Outside on the South Porch, is a stone sundial made in 1762 by John Berry and similar to one he made for Tawstock church. Its unusual feature is that it indicates the time in Paris, Madrid, Vienna, Berlin, Jerusalem, Tenerife and Quebec.
It is interesting that a still small and secluded village had such global aspirations two and a half centuries ago.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALKS - 68
"By full tilt river and switchback sea where the cormorants scud" Dylan Thomas
Fremington Quay has undergone a face-lift in recent times. A new cafe and visitor centre have been built there, masquerading as a station building complete with signal box, but it is good to see the once neglected area being enjoyed by more people.
There is a secluded picnic area adjacent to the Tarka Trail but most of the cyclists sailing past probably do not realise it is there. Certainly the little clearing is used more by wildlife than humans. We made it the starting point of a pleasant figure-of-eight-shaped route.
We strolled along the shingle beach at Fremington Reach and watched seven little egrets standing together, their snowy white plumage glowing in the sun. A cormorant dived and caught a flounder. The flat fish put up a tremendous fight. Eventually, after a very long struggle with the fish, the cormorant managed to gulp it down. It seemed a very wide fish for such a long, slender neck.
We climbed up the rough track from the beach to the quiet lane which runs along the centre of Penhill. After the shortage of butterflies this year, it was a welcome sight to find a dozen species about the brambles and nettles there.
The lane continues over a bridge but we clambered down the steep steps at the side of the bridge and onto the old railway track. At the side of the path, crawling towards a clump of sneezewort [a dingy sort of daisy flower with a greyish centre where one would expect to see bright yellow], we encountered a large, greenish bronze caterpillar.
It was the Iarva of the elephant hawkmoth - a striking creature with four large, black 'eye-spots' behind the head, with a light crescent shape in the centre of each. The head has a tree-like snout. As it became aware of our presence, the caterpillar retracted its snout and the eye-spot section swelled out, while the whole of the front end rose up and swayed menacingly from side to side.
It really did look intimidating throughout this performance! The enlarged eye-spots and rearing up are, of course, intended to scare off predators. There was an abundance of its food plants - willowherb and bedstraws. There was also a lot of field scabious, tansy and purple loosestrife.
We continued along the track on the other side of the quay until we reached the sign for the 'permissive path' across some of the fields - two of barley with a damp meadow in between. This was full of sedges and reedmace and water mint. Mixed woodland stretched along the far side of the fields; the willows turning inside out in the sea breeze, now sage green, now grey-white.
A sparrowhawk emerged from the woods, flew straight down the field's edge, made a couple of rapid wing beats, then a short glide. She landed on a post looking down intently, fanning out her stripy tail and shaking it vigorously; the light stripe above and behind the eye giving her a rather fierce expression.
As she maintained this pose we had a clear view of the sparrowhawk's grey brown plumage with white underparts, closely barred with dark grey. So different in size and colour are the male and female sparrowhawks that they appear to be different species altogether. The female is kestrel size, whereas the male is only the size of a mistle thrush and has a slate grey back and is rusty red brown underneath.
These birds hawks, or accipiters, have short, rounded wings and long tails enabling them to fly between the trees in coniferous plantations. The number of sparrowhawks had declined considerably due to pesticides and the action of gamekeepers. In some counties in eastern and southern Britain and the midlands, they had entirely disappeared. They are now making a recovery.
The sparrowhawk we were observing suddenly took off, flying low across the track in front of us, heading for a hawthorn hedge. There was a great flurry and commotion from the little birds hidden in the bushes.
Classic sparrowhawk surprise tactics were being enacted here; sweeping over hedges, ambushing a feeding flock. Its diet consists mostly of birds, up to the size of a wood pigeon or partridge.
The permissive path ends at Chillpark, Fremington. We returned to the Quay past the church and along the wooded path bordering Fremington Camp. An easy, leisurely walk with plenty of variety estuary, woodland and open countryside.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALKS - 67
'On the Waterfront'
A Sunday afternoon in mid-summer - a cool breeze and not too much sun - ideal weather for walking. Our route was the Tarka Trail between Braunton and Barnstaple and we were heading for one of North Devon's newest and most attractive landmarks, which was officially opened in February.
Following part of the former llfracombe to Barnstaple railway line, it's an easy, level walk along the Taw estuary.
Between Velator and Wrafton, a pond can be glimpsed through the bushes, home to a variety of wild fowl during the winter months. In the field opposite, the shallow patches of water had disappeared where in May we had watched ducklings and moorhen chicks being supervised by attentive parent birds.
At Chivenor the trail passed beneath a stone bridge, the underside of its arch faced with bricks. A whole field of broad bean plants made an unusual spectacle with their black and white flowers. Speckled young robins moved about the oak branches, their breast plumage just beginning to show red.
A ringlet butterfly flew past the teazles and purple betony; a dark butterfly which does not wait for the sun to shine in order to be active.
On the beach near Heanton Court, a black cat wandered among the boats moored there. From here there is a good view across the estuary to Freminghton Quay.
A sturdy, stone built hide has been provided opposite Penhill Point. The tide was out and the birds had arranged themselves into distinct groups - twenty cormorants on Bassett's Ridge, a couple of dozen shelduck beyond, six herons stood in the water. Curlews busied themselves on the shore. Clumps of rubbery rock samphire pushed out from the concreted bank. On the beach were small patches of march samphire [glasswort] and sea lavender.
The Ashford lime kiln is a handsome, multi-chambered structure, carefully restored about fifteen years ago. The seat beside it makes another convenient place to stop and observe life on the estuary. Nearby there were several swans and oystercatchers and the Canada geese swimming past 'en bloc' formed a neat pattern of light and dark.
Near Barnstaple we came across four common sandpipers in a narrow inlet of water; the light brown and white summer visitors bobbing their heads as they climbed onto the bank.
Soon that new landmark [I mentioned at the beginning] could be seen; the Yeo Bridge, spanning the River Yeo at the point where it meets the River Taw, providing cyclists and walkers with a direct link from the Tarka Trail to the town centre. This is also part of the National Cycle Network.
A swing bridge was the solution chosen in order to allow the passage of boats between the Taw and the River Yeo Quay. The bridge is opened using sophisticated mechanical and electrical equipment. It is operated remotely from a control room, involving CCTV cameras and phone links.
Three metres wide, the bridge spans just over eighteen metres between abutments of reinforced concrete and steel piles driven into the underlying bedrock.
The County Council engineer and the architect responsible for the design work are Nick Jennings and Nick Johnson. In view of its scale and intended use, the aim was for the bridge to have 'a jewel like quality' whilst 'being in harmony with its immediate surroundings' and achieving a visually exciting experience for users.
There was also a historic precedent for the choice of a swing bridge. The Barnstaple to Ilfracombe railway line had crossed the river by means of a heavy wrought iron swing bridge, the Pottington Swing Bridge [known locally as Pill Bridge]. After the closure of the railway line, this bridge was eventually dismantled.
The Rivers Taw and Yeo had been busy waterways and when open the original bridge had given shipping access to Rolle Quay and Pilton Wharf. It required considerable time and effort to open it. Four men were needed to swing the bridge manually by means of a turnstile operating a rack and pinion gear. The swing gear resembled a turntable, revolving through 180 degrees.
The new swing bridge is a great asset to the area. Apart from its practical function of getting walkers and cyclists across the River Yeo safely, its gently curving construction of timber and steel is beautiful to look at and it sits well in the landscape [and townscape].
With its boat-like form, use of materials and unique operational features, it is a happy blend of technology with an organic appearance; aesthetically welcoming. The elliptical lights on tall poles, which lean towards the bridge at each end, are graceful and elegant.
This new construction makes a bold and confident statement, rather than harking back to a previous age or mimicking some false notion of 'heritage' and so far, it appears to be proving popular with locals and visitors alike.
I am very grateful to Mr. David Netherway of Devon County Council's Environment Directorate, for providing me with the historical and technical data on the project.
Illustration by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALKS - 66
"The sheets of bluebells were still in all their splendour and the pink rhododendrons were just beginning to show their blossoms,"
Rev. Francis Kilvert's Diary, May 1874
A 1930's edition of the Ward Lock guide book called it 'a popular resort' ... much of the ground covered with Austrian pines and Scottish firs;" walks bordered with rhododendrons and laurels giving 'access to the summit and to secluded nooks. The climb to the top is stiff, but rewards the energetic with splendid views in all directions.'
Earlier in the century, the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould in his Little Guide to Devon, called it 'a public pleasure ground, consisting mainly of rough hilly land, covered with furze, the highest point being . . . three times as high as the Capstone.'
Nowadays, The Cairn at Ilfracombe is a woodland nature reserve, leased from the District Council and managed by Devon Wildlife Trust, consisting of 19 acres of mixed coniferous and deciduous trees.
We took the winding paths up to the grassy summit, 480 feet above sea level, past rocky outcrops, spread with wall pennywort and butterflies basking on the warm stones.
There is a network of paths and flights of steps cut into the slate with such names as Hartstongue Path, Pedlar's Rise, West Zigzag and the Heide [Old English for a slope].
Tangled clumps of bramble are left to provide a refuge for wrens, tits and warblers. The main tree species growing there are oak, ash, beech, hazel, sycamore, sweet and horse chestnut, Scots and Austrian pine with Norway maple on the eastern side and an old lime tree in a quarry.
Cairn Top is maintained as open grassland bordered by gorse and blackthorn and screened by trees on the seaward side. We stood to survey the view - of the Slade Valley below and the surrounding hills. A corner of one of the Slade reservoirs was visible, glinting in the sun. A fox crossed a field high above the valley and swifts flew overhead.
Swifts are among the later migrants, arriving at the end of April. The height at which they fly depends on the level of insect flight and this is partly determined by the weather; thundery conditions often causing higher flying.
It was warbler heaven. We watched a pair of blackcaps in a sycamore and willow warblers were constantly on the move. In 'A Charm of Small Birds', J. Wentworth Day described the willow warbler's song: 'It begins round and full. Then it runs down the scale and dies on the air in a gentle murmur. In between snatches of song, the bird flits about catching insects.' He commented, 'The gardener can bless it for it eats an astonishing number of insects.'
We took a gentler descent via Bluebell Rise [suitably named] and then along Orchid Path where, indeed, there were deep magenta, early purple orchids, standing like sentinels along the path.
Over two hundred different flowering plants have been recorded at the reserve and beside Orchid Path we found the white bell flowers of three cornered leek, yellow Welsh poppies and low clusters of wood sorrel; its lime green leaves folded at first, then opening flat - the heart-shaped leaves joined in groups of three to form 'shamrocks'.
Country names for wood sorrel included, God Almighty's bread and cheese, cuckoo's meat, hallelujah, good luck, green sauce, wild shamrock and Whitsun flower. It was cultivated as a salad vegetable in fifteenth century gardens and pulped as a sharpening ingredient for sauces. The leaves contain citric acid. We tried one and it tasted very tangy and lemony.
The Cairn is currently open to the public although most of the adjacent Old Railway cycle track and footpath is closed due to foot and mouth restrictions. For those who like walking and wild flowers, one of the high points of the natural history calendar to look forward to each year, is entering a bluebell wood and seeing the colour which mimics the sky and the sea spreading in all directions, the hyacinth scent being picked up on the breeze.
So, in the present unhappy circumstances, we are fortunate that at The Cairn reserve there is a bluebell walk to lift our spirits.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALKS - 65
'And April's in the West wind and daffodils' - John Masefield
Illustration by: Paul Swailes
Last November the mesembryanthemums were still in bloom; carpeting the cliffs at Croyde with rubbery, succulent, three-sided stems and leaves. The flowers were lemon yellow and large with fringed petals - stunning against the grey slate on a wintry day.
Naturalised also on the rocks at Woolacombe, the hottentot fig, as it is also known, is a native of South Africa. The bright pink variety is more common in gardens.
We noticed two big brown and fawn birds on rocky outcrops some way off. What could they be? We retraced our steps and walked down towards the shore. Mystery solved - they were immature cormorants. Still, in their light brown plumage they look quite strange and exotic.
When we reached Baggy Point, we paused to watch a kestrel going through her hunting manouevres. No wonder the old country name for the kestrel was the 'windhover'.
We climbed up towards the lookout point, where a holiday maker, sitting on a bench, told us that moments earlier a fox had emerged from the gorse and walked straight past him. He was surprised and pleased to have had this unexpected treat as he sat to enjoy the sea views.
While we were talking, the animal made a reappearance. Its forequarters were bright orange and fluffy, but the fur on the hindquarters was darker and less luxuriant.
It was not bothered by our presence. It was too intent on its hunting, so we stood and watched while it mooched about; nosing and rummaging in the clumps of grass.
When it slipped over the dry stone wall, we continued down the wide track and soon, there was Reynard again - on the track, just ahead of us - but because the fox kept stopping to listen and pounce on to the vegetation bordering the path, we soon caught up with it.
It was nice to find ourselves accompanying a fox on our walk from Baggy! At the National Trust car park, a male kestrel landed on a wire, swaying delicately, peering down.
The birds of prey and the fox - all creatures busily going about the task of staying alive and not at all interested in we humans.
LOCAL WALKS - 64
Eider down on the Taw
Between the jetty and the weir, a group of twenty-two eider duck stood at the water's edge, bulky and blackish brown; the largest of the European diving ducks.
When we had first seen them there in late spring, the drakes were still in their glamorous winter plumage - gleaming white back and breast; deep black underparts and a white head with a black crown and pale green patches on the nape. Now, 'in eclipse' with mottled black plumage, they were more like the females - brown, closely barred with black.
A little over two feet long with an elongated profile, the head and bill forming a wedge shape, the eider is a native of Scotland, Iceland and Scandinavia. If attacked by gulls or skuas, they defend themselves by splashing water over the attackers or by means of synchronised diving. They eat mussels, crabs and star fish, swallowing the mussels whole and then crushing them in their muscular gizzards. Each bird consumes between 150 and 250 mussels a day in this way.
Somateria mollissima mollissima - the eider's beautiful Latin name, suggests the very softest of softness. How apt for a bird whose down has long been sought for filling the lightest and warmest of quilts and duvets. The duck plucks down from herself and places a large amount of it in her nest. Once she is sitting on her eggs, she is very reluctant to move if a human being approaches, even allowing herself to be stroked. This is how the precious down is collected. One eiderdown requires the down plundered from dozens of nests.
It was lovely that some of these interesting birds had chosen to spend time on the Taw at Yelland. We watched them take to the water, swimming in single file. It was also at Yelland, where the sea buckthorn grows near the first jetty and when a bitterly cold wind was gusting mercilessly, although it was only the beginning of October, that we saw something we had never seen before and will probably never see again.
We had been enjoying the sparkling effect of a 'charm' of gold finches rising from the stony shore and into the bushes, then dropping and scattering about the beach again. The sea buckthorn, a prickly shrub with orange berries and narrow grey leaves, covered with silvery scales, became enlivened by a large tawny-orange butterfly, with black veins and black wing margins with white spots, gliding and flapping alongside the path for several yards and always keeping a little ahead of us. The wings were a unique shape and it was larger than any of the British butterflies - twice the size of a peacock butterfly.
It was a monarch; inhabitant of the Canaries and North America and a rare visitor to Europe, though in recent years there have been regular sitings of them in the Scillies, Cornwall, Devon and Dorset - a large number making an appearance in 1981. It was first observed in this country in 1876.
Canary Island monarchs are sometimes blown off course to Britain and that particular week there had been reports of gale force winds of seventy miles an hour. The monarch is also known as the milkweed butterfly because that is the plant the caterpillars feed on.
It is famed for its spectacular annual migrations from Mexico to Canada, when the monarchs form massive flocks, resting at dusk on tree trunks, packed very closely together and looking like exotic flowers. This marvellous phenomenon has been shown in one of David Attenborough's programmes.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALKS - 63
A lull between storms; some winter visitors and a bird of passage
It had stopped raining. The ground was waterlogged and paths would be slippery. The winding tarmac track, which serves the lighthouse at Bull Point, should provide a firm foundation for a walk.
It was surprisingly mild and the birds were using the brief change in the weather to ransack the bushes for seeds and berries.
Greenfinches were busily turning the rose hips inside out; peeling back the vermilion flesh to extract the seeds. Several goldfinches teetered on a burdock plant and dunnocks and wrens were skulking in the broad hedgerows.
There was a sudden grating sound. It came from a mistle thrush, balancing on a telephone wire. In the field below were more thrushes - among them a redwing stood to attention, its flanks smeared red. A little smaller than a song thrush and with a creamy stripe over the eye, the redwing is a thrush which arrives in October from Scandinavia to spend the winter here. When it took off, the red undersides of the wings showed up vividly.
High above the valley leading to Bennett's Mouth, a few wispy pink flowers remained on the tamarisk bushes. In the grassy rides were clusters of glossy, luridly coloured waxcap fungi, sulphur yellow and cherry red.
When we reached the lighthouse, a little bird attracted our attention by its constantly flickering tail; a dull bird with sooty black cheeks, throat and breast and ash-grey crown and back, but with a distinctive scarlet tail - unmistakably a black redstart.
It flew from the lighthouse to the roofs of the surrounding buildings, going from ridge to eaves, from chimney pot to gable ends. This was characteristic behaviour because it is a bird of rocky coasts which also likes perching on buildings. It is a 'scarce' passage migrant here in the autumn when moving to its winter quarters around the Mediterranean. It is even less commonly seen making its return journey in the spring. Its cousin, the redstart, is a summer visitor. [The black redstart we encountered at Bull Point was a male with a whitish wing patch.]
When we returned to the village, we went up the lane past the church to view the last rays of wintry sun falling on the horizon; the light of Hartland point lighthouse away to the west and the church tower on Lundy silhouetted against the late afternoon sky. As we turned back, the first drops of rain started to descend and with them, the darkness.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALKS - 62
Langleigh Lane was buzzing with bees in late summer. There was an abundance of yellow toadflax, the aromatic grey flowers of mugwort and the yellow-green blossom of wood sage.
At the top of the lane we came out onto the dizzying heights and airiness of the Torrs, taking a slight detour from the main path to sit on a cliff top which is a favourite hunting ground for falcons.
We did not have to wait long. Soon a kestrel was going through her paces, hovering, dropping suddenly, a short flight, then repeating the process. Another kestrel was silhouetted against the sky, perched on a rocky outcrop.
An anchor-shaped peregrine made a sudden appearance but it was quickly out of sight again, being capable of flying faster than any other bird.
Further on where sheep graze and shelter under gorse bushes, we saw a family of pheasants emerge, one by one, from the seclusion of one of these prickly dens and make a wary and slow processing along a low stone bank.
Another stop, this time to search the sky for white cruciform-shaped birds with long black wing tips.
After a few minutes of staring out to sea, we saw two gannets flying very direct down the Bristol Channel. A third passed by in the opposite direction. Then it wheeled round in a great sweeping curve and plunged into the sea. It can see a fish from a height of fifty feet and plunge at a speed of sixty miles an hour. Its head is specially designed with 'air bags' and subcutaneous fat to deal with the impact of this 'power dive'. And yet, for all this sophistication, the gannet resembled an ancient dinosaur bird, in shape and size.
Any walk, anywhere, has the possibility of the unexpected. There are things you look out for according to the time of year, terrain, et cetera, but the serendipity factor - that is one of the charms of walking.
We had reached Flat Point [above Lee] where there are little streams with watercress growing in them. Suddenly, what appeared to be an exceptionally large buzzard, brown but with a light coloured head, was flying in from the sea, heading towards. Jesses dangled from one leg.
It landed nearby in a little gap between rocks and bracken. A sheep walked up to it and nudged it gently and then the vulture and the sheep stood together almost shoulder to shoulder for about half an hour. The vulture had dark brown wings [with a four foot span]. The head, which appears bald in photographs, is actually covered in white down and the face is pink. A long neck and hooked beak completed the ensemble.
Her pose reminded me of those church lecterns in the form of eagles. Seeing vultures on television, I had always found them sinister but this hooded vulture, a native of southern Africa, appeared very serene and dignified - well, endearing.
While someone went to inform Combe Martin Wildlife Park of the current whereabouts of their famous escapee, I was left to keep an eye on her! Visitors walking the coast path were all intrigued to see the vulture there, high above the sea in this beautiful but unusual setting. One couple wondered whether the cheese sandwiches in their rucksack could be used to entice her, so that we could catch her ourselves!
She briefly took off but after a short flight, returned. She seemed to be in good condition and enjoying her freedom. Later that week she was seen in a tree at Woolacombe and eventually moved to Wales, where she has been touring ever since.
Earlier this year we witnessed a paraglider landing at the edge of the golf course. When we had completed our walk, we met the 'bird man' in the car park near the coastguard cottages. We were surprised to hear that he had flown all the way from Dunkeswell on the Blackdown Hills and was waiting for someone to collect him. He had not expected to cover such a distance and was in a state of slightly stunned elation!
We wondered what sort of reaction he got from buzzards flying past. He said they did seem rather curious but not threatening. However, when paragliding in the mountains of northern Spain, he had attracted the attention of griffon vultures and that was rather disturbing. You never know what you might meet!
LOCAL WALKS - 61
On Line from the 'Little White Town'
Sitting on a wall enjoying a Hockings ice-cream near the statue of Charles Kingsley; the scent from a huge display of lavender bushes behind us, the light sparkling on the water of the River Torridge, a gentle breeze. Something for all the senses. The whirr of a helicopter and a JCB. Ah, well!
Then across the famous old bridge to the former railway station at East-the-Water; the starting point of our walk along the Tarka Trail, following the course of the old railway line between Bideford and Torrington.
Here there is a 1950's railway carriage and restored signal box housing a small railway museum. The line was closed to passengers in 1965, but still carried freight - mainly Marland clay - until 1982. The trail passes alongside acres of salt marsh and the broad tidal river to the Iron Bridge - a long curving, railway viaduct. We paused on it to admire the large lime kiln opposite. Two herons flapped in unison over its castellated top. The stone building has two tall gothic arched alcoves flanking a round-arched entrance.
In contrast to this elevated position we soon found ourselves entering Landcross Tunnel; a hundred-yard walk in the dim glow of overhead lights. Quite atmospheric, though in such circumstances it is reassuring to be able to see a small circle of daylight at the far end of the tunnel!
The Lime Kiln at Bideford c1930
Landcross Church [drawing] c1949
It was at Landcross Church that Henry Williamson married Loetitia Hibbert in 1925. A 'guard of honour' of Girl Guides lined the aisle.
The winged stems and branched tendrils of the pink flowered everlasting pea scrambled up the banks at the side of the track. A velvety brown-black ringlet butterfly came to rest on a leaf, its closed wings revealing the series of small cream and black circles with white centres.
Through the dense foliage of high summer, glimpses of Weare Giffard Hall and church could be obtained from the trail. The otter hunting scenes for the film 'Tarka the Otter' were shot there.
Interior of Landcross Church c 1963
Weare Giffard Church and Hall c1890
The old railway track has become 'nature's herb garden'. Some of the plant names are self-explanatory: knit-bone [or comfrey], self-heal and feverfew; the latter undergoing a revival in recent years in the treatment of migraine. Even the sixteenth century herbalist, Gerard, claimed, "It is very good for them that are giddie in the head."
Feverfew was considered good luck when planted near houses, purifying the air and keeping the inmates free from disease. It contains camphor which soothes mosquito bites and repels moths.
There was St. John's wort/hipericum growing abundantly, now heralded as alternative to prozac. In America, tortilla chips laced with hypericum are sold as 'happy chips'!
Tansy is one of the most handsome wild plants at this time of year with umbels of yellow rayless daisies and ferny leaves. It has been proposed as a flea treatment for cats and dogs. Cats seem to appreciate the plant's pungent chrysanthemum scent. Traditionally it was used for dispelling worms.
The next section of the trail to the outskirts of Torrington is the most beautiful. The track crosses the River Torridge three times and from the bridges there are lovely views of water meadows, woodland, Beam Weir and the stately Canal Bridge aqueduct.
We left the railway track at the Puffing Billy and walked up to the centre of Torrington across the common, eventually returning to Bideford by bus - the only passengers on board for the entire journey.
Charles Kingsley gave a flattering description of Bideford, the 'little white town' in his book 'Westward Ho!' in 1855. It is still an accurate portrait of the town a hundred and fifty years later:
All who have travelled through the delicious scenery of North Devon must needs know the little white town of Bideford, which slopes upwards from its broad tide-river paved with yellow sands, and many-arched old bridge where salmon wait for autumn floods, toward the pleasant upland on the west. Above the town the hills close in, cushioned with deep oak woods, through which juts here and there a crag of fern-fringed slate; below they lower, and open more and more in softly-rounded knolls and fertile squares of red and green, till they sink into the wide expanse of hazy flats, rich salt marshes, and rolling sand-hills, where Torridge joins her sister Taw, and both together flow quietly toward the broad surges of the bar, and the everlasting thunder of the long Atlantic swell. Pleasantly the old town stands there, beneath its soft Italian sky, fanned day and night by the fresh ocean breeze.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
Postcards from the Tom Bartlett Postcard Collection:
P.S. Don't say anything, but, whilst working on this issue, the weather seems to have changed for the better. A bit of summer again at last!
LOCAL WALKS - 60
"The woods are lovely, dark and deep"
A walk along the River Yeo where it passes through the extensive woodlands of the Arlington estate. A quest for 'the red' and 'the green' - both shy creatures and an encounter with either transforms any walk into a special occasion.
As we walked down the field towards the river, a green woodpecker landed on a post near the bridge. Soon it went with undulating flight across the river and landed high in a tree. It spiralled up the trunk before bounding off [its bright yellow rump particularly eye-catching] and finally it disappeared into the dense cover of Woolley Wood.
It was a female green woodpecker as she lacked the red centre in the black moustachial stripe, characteristic of the male. The female's 'moustache' is wholly black. Both have the distinctive olive green plumage and black eye mask. The crown of the head and nape are bright red - certainly a very handsome bird and the deciduous woods and open parkland of Arlington provide the ideal habitat for it.
In his book, 'Birds of the Wild Places', J. Wentworth Day wrote, "He is a dweller in old parks where deer lie above the bracken tops; ancient woodland." He flies "in from the green park, laced with watercress brooks, from stag-headed oak trees . . . dipping and falling in coloured flight."
The juvenile green woodpecker has pale grey green underparts with speckled and barred markings.
The woodpecker removes insects from crevices in the bark and when there is an insufficient supply of grubs and beetles, it will eat nuts and berries. It is especially fond of ants and will seek out their nests, excavating large holes in lawns with its strong, dagger-like bill.
Often its presence is betrayed by the famous 'yaffle' - the loud series of 'laughing' notes, which can echo across a valley. Yaffle is one of the old country names for the bird, along with awl bird, referring to its bill, and rainbird.
We tend to assume that a century ago, birds which are not very frequently seen today, would have been a common sight for country dwellers. However, in his account of 'Birds in a Village', the naturalist W.H. Hudson observed: "In all those fruit and shade trees that covered the village with a cloud of verdure and in the neighbouring woods, not once did I catch a glimpse of the green woodpecker, a beautiful, conspicuous bird."
A flash of blue was all we saw of a kingfisher, heading up river towards Tucker's Bridge. At the pretty stone bridge, we crossed the Yeo and climbed up through Deerpark Wood.
Here it was silent and still; no rustle or movement of any living creatures but beneath the oak trees, bugle, yellow pimpernel and sanicle grew among the haze of bluebells. Below the wood, in a tributary of the Yeo, were clumps of marsh marigolds [or kingcups] and lady's smock flowered in the damp grass alongside.
Then, as we decided to make our way back towards the car park, we noticed a group of animals a few fields away, rich brown in colour - no, not cows - they were red deer. Twelve of them were grazing in the corner of a sloping field, bordered on two sides by a wood.
The stag was wary, looking about him at regular intervals. The hinds very gradually moved in the direction of the wood; but bending their long, graceful necks to the grass as they went, their prominent ears alert and listening.
LOCAL WALK - 59
"Stepping Out ..."
It was a charming scene. Two young tabby cats were curled up on a sunny bank, surrounded by hens. There were peacocks and guinea fowl strutting about too. We were walking down the lane to Tarr Steps, invariably described as one of the showpieces or 'honey pots' of the moor.
It was only mid-February but plenty more people had been drawn to the famous clapper bridge across the River Barle, considered the finest of its kind in the country.
Nuthatches were flitting from tree to tree in the car park, ignoring people entirely - one of our prettiest small birds and always a joy to see.
The precise age of Tarr Steps is uncertain. It is generally believed to be medieval but there are claims that it is much older [Bronze Age even]. The stone causeway is 180 feet long, comprised of massive slabs which average seven feet in length and three and a half feet in width.
It was destroyed in the flood of August 1952 but the stones were recovered and the bridge rebuilt. Recently it had suffered major storm damage but has already been restored. Upstream we passed the debris trap, a contraption which had been placed across the river to help protect the ancient monument.
We walked along the Barle through Knaplock Wood; the path coinciding with a section of the Two Moors' Way, a long distance walk from Ivybridge in the south to Lynton via Dartmoor and Exmoor. The route was devised in 1976 as a celebration of the 2,700 miles of rural footpaths in the county of Devon and as a reminder of the mariners, Celtic saints, itinerant traders and farm workers who had used these rights of way in the past.
There was a flash of lemon yellow as two grey wagtails darted down the river. We reached a long section where flat weathered stones formed a natural pavement.
On the way back we clambered up through Liscombe Wood where there was a lot of movement and birdsong. Stopping quietly beside an oak tree we watched a wren popping in and out of a heap of rotting, fallen wood; a tree creeper making its way steadily up a trunk, its toes splayed out like stars; a pair of dunnocks, great tits, several blackbirds and a host of long tailed tits and chaffinches.
In a steep field high above Tarr Steps, we were pleased to encounter two thrushes; one a song thrush and the other a mistle thrush. As they were only a few yards apart and standing quite still, it was a useful opportunity to compare the two.
The mistle thrush [the largest member of the thrush family] is about two and a half inches longer than the song thrush, with a greyer back and more boldly spotted breast. The under surfaces of its wings are white [noticeable in flight] whereas the song thrush's are sandy coloured. It is alert and wary with a distinctive, upright stance. Its old country name was the storm cock because of its habit of perching high up in the tree tops on rainy, windy days and singing loudly.
The mistletoe berries, which give the bird its name and form part of its diet [along with insects and worms, slugs, snails and grubs] are very glutinous. The thrush's bill becomes sticky, so it wipes it against some tree bark and in this way the parasite mistletoe plant is able to implant its seeds in a new host tree. Unfortunately, since there are fewer orchards, there has also been less mistletoe, which is especially associated with apple trees.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALKS - 58
"I come from haunts of coot and hern" - Tennyson
The route which had been devised for a special 'Millennium Walk' included a path along the banks of the Rive Isle. From Beacon Hill we crossed a field to Winterhay and passed a court of substantial cottages called Chinatown. It was at Winterhay in 1685 that Monmouth and his followers had encamped at the time of the Rebellion. There were later reports of 'lively mobbings' and bread riots, when a red flag was hoisted on the green.
By a series of quiet lanes and farm tracks, we reached the meadows beside the river. A startled sandpiper rose abruptly from a secluded bend of the river - a graceful and elegant wader. A female kestrel hovered above, fanning out her tail feathers.
It was mid-autumn and among the tangle of blackthorn, brambles and briars there were still plenty of berries. The blend of colours and shapes - the blue of the sloes, the shiny blackberries and scarlet rose hips - made an attractive display.
The river was broad, slow moving and overhung with branches but later when the path took us close to the weir and river hatches, it was more dramatic with a roar and rush of water. "Where the river runs swiftly and the fields are rich and the hills beyond most pleasant" - a description of the area written a hundred years ago.
Soon we reached Eame's Mill, once the home of flax spinning, cloth weaving and sail-cloth making - "the soil congenial for the growth of flax; water from the Ile abundant." In 1900, corn grinding replaced cloth making. The miller, a Mr. Mullet, was aptly named.
In 'With Walking Stick and Note Book', the Reverend James Street in 1904 wrote: "All is picturesque hereabouts. The artist loves it; the student of bird life too, may find here in air, water and marsh, rare chances for study."
He described in touching terms how a little auk had dropped there, suffering from exhaustion on its long flight from Greenland to the South of France, and the efforts to revive it. "... through the wintry Sunday its little life was wooed on a rug before the Fire. As though to acknowledge the stranger's hospitable care, it hopped about and shewed life but . . . the morning found it dead." The auk was preserved by the miller "in its rarity and some of its beauty". It is still a good place to observe birds.
In a field near the mill was a flock of lapwings and we were able to watch simultaneously a heron fly past and a circling buzzard. Seeing these two big bird favourites together made me recall Hamlet's remark:
I am but mad
When the wind is southerly,
I know a hawk from a handsaw.
An odd claim until you realise that 'handsaw' was an old nickname for the heron, derived from 'heron-shaw'.
We made our way up the muddy track to higher ground. Here there were skylarks and a group of red legged partridges moved about the furrows. The field had recently been harvested and as well as unearthing potatoes, hundreds of ammonites had come to the surface - some small and intact, other fragments of larger fossils.
The field was the site of an old quarry and a dismantled lime kiln. Now in it's place is a mobile phone mast. In a prominent position three miles away, a mobile pylon mast had recently been disguised as a traditional windmill. Brick built and complete with sails, when seen against the sky it looks surprisingly authentic. The phone company had wanted to disguise it as a tree but planning permission for this was refused!
From the top of the 'fossil field' there is a view of Sedgemoor and the Mendip Hills, which the Reverend Street suggested is a "view which should be seen in an autumn dumpsy, when the red glow lingers and the light smoke goes up..." Dumpsy - now there's an old but evocative word that could be ripe for revival.
Coming across the word DUMPSY reminded me that it was in common use when I was a child. It made me wonder whether older readers, in particular, would like to share words and expressions they remember from the past, which seem to have fallen into disuse or are rarely heard nowadays, for example from the '50's - dainty, natty [as in that's a natty hat], vexed and flabbergasted.
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
How about it folks? Can you think of words you used to use or even local colloquialisms? Jot them down and share them with us. The word I miss being able to use is gay, such an expressive adjective mirthful, light-hearted, bright-coloured - but today it sadly has another connotation.
LOCAL WALKS - 57
No, not the one in South London - this Herne Hill is in South Somerset. I had assumed the hill, crowned with trees and a landmark for miles around, was named after the legendary Herne the Hunter, but in this case Herne is derived from Heron Hill.
We began the walk where a small section of the old canal has been refilled with water, providing a home for moorhens. A delicate tinkling sound, coming from the overhanging trees, indicated a flock of long-tailed tits. There was some excitement among the occupants of the bench overlooking this tranquil scene, a kingfisher had been sighted!
We crossed a couple of fields in the company of some friendly Guernsey cows and found ourselves in Cold Harbour Lane. Here was a collection of very attractive cottages and farm buildings combining slate, thatched and tiled roofs with stone and brick. One house had walls of small red and black bricks creating a chequered pattern - more typical of the counties of the south and south-east.
There was a large court of fine barns about to undergo conversion to residential units. These included a former cider shed and an ancient granary, raised off the ground on straddle stones. Kingstone Black was the apple variety favoured locally for its cider making qualities. The 1958 Ordnance Survey map I was using still showed several orchards along the way, but they are not there now.
At nearby Rose Mills there was once a lace factory and although the walk passed through a rural landscape of fields and woods, there was plenty of evidence of the upheaval of the nineteenth century industrial revolution, with the former canal and the railway which soon superseded it, also long disused. Close to what had once been a lonely halt, a bridge took us over the railway line, where it had passed through a deep cutting and we now started the ascent of Herne Hill.
Before the Roman occupation, Herne Hill was a fortress. A hoard of flint tools was found there by Victorian archaeologists. In 1840 Henry Alford, who became Dean of Canterbury, described it as:
"a quiet and moory hill, retaining from its ancient tenants the name of Heron Hill" [it is thought, however, that it may have been named after a Tudor landowner called John Heron, rather than the bird itself] "the underlying town with its rose belt of blooming orchards and venerable fretted tower; the misty woods stretching away into faint distance, the uplands and green flats and the far off blue of the everlasting hills." That is the Blackdown and Quantocks.
Today there is a wide variety of tree species on top of the hill, deciduous and coniferous and pleasant grassing rides radiating out from the summit. There were poplars and plane trees, rowan and spindle among the sycamores and beech. A Turkey Oak rose up tall and majestic. It is more pyramidal in shape than our native oaks and its distinctive leaves are longer, narrower, darker green and their edges much more deeply lobed.
At the edge of a clearing, a couple earnestly gathered horse chestnuts, selecting them with some care. Were they collecting conkers on behalf of grandchildren or, I wondered, could they be intended for their own use? I didn't like to ask!
Illustration by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALKS - 56
Widmouth Head Revisited
The walk along the cliffs, from the coastguard cottages to Watermouth, is so beautiful at all times of the year. How fortunate we are that Berrynarbor's stretch of the South West Peninsular Coast Path offers such stunning sea-scapes -- now enclosed with glimpses of tiny, hidden coves, then turn a corner and it's the wide open spaces with views of Holdstone Down and Foreland Point lighthouse beyond. Recently, three sturdy wooden benches have been placed along the way in the most ideal locations for stopping to observe the rich natural history of our coastline.
The first of these is above Rillage Point. In late summer it has a carpet of scabious, in early summer orchids bloom there. On our last visit the tide was out, revealing a lot of rocky outcrops, each occupied by oyster catchers, cormorants or great black-backed gulls. A peregrine falcon flew towards Hagginton Beach.
Past the little quarry, brambles and rose hips; through a shady section with giant hogweed plants and the second bench is reached, overlooking Samson's Bay. Fulmars come and go; fit snugly into their cliff ledges. Small copper butterflies land on blue sheep's bit flowers. The colour combination is just right.
Now around the other side of Samson's Bay for the steep ascent of Widmouth Head and the best bench of all! Below the old lookout building, a couple of steps have been cut out and a little patch of ground levelled to make way for the seat, thus providing access to a part of the Head which had previously blocked the view of the open sea. These improvements have made it possible to see far out over the Channel. This is a good place for scanning the sea and sky for gannets. Some distance away there was a disturbance in the water. We could just make out dark triangles, with a concave curve to one edge - dorsal fins! This was exciting.
They came closer, turning eastwards. Their rounded grey-black backs, with white below, shining in the sunlight, could be seen now as they came to the surface of the water to breathe - a small school of porpoises, half a dozen of them, graceful and streamlined. We watched them rise and fall in a smooth rolling action. Eventually they disappeared from sight in the direction of Lynmouth. Although they are shaped like huge fish, they are actually mammals. Like whales and dolphins, the common [or harbour] porpoise belongs to the order of marine animals called cetaceans.
They are most likely to be sighted off western shores in late summer, especially August and September. The Romans called them porcus piscus - pig fish. They are four and a half to six feet in length and usually live about sixteen years, although twenty-three is the maximum age recorded. Porpoises eat mackerel, whiting, herring, shrimps and squid, needing 91bs to I I lbs of fish a day. They are rather timid, being wary of swimmers and boats, but when they meet porpoises from other groups, they apparently swim rapidly in circles as a form of greeting ceremony!
There are even cases of porpoises supporting an ill or injured member of the group, raising it to the surface to enable it to breathe. It is pleasant to think of these charming creatures out there in the Channel near Watermouth and to look out for those triangles breaking the surface of the water and the rolling movement of grey and white.
Lewis Carol brought the notion of the porpoise to the attention of Victorian children with his lines in Alice in Wonderland:
"Will you walk a little faster?" said a whiting to
"There's a porpoise close behind us, and he's treading on my tail."
Our Walker is wondering who provided the benches that have been so cleverly sited and make a big difference to this walk - the National Trust, Parish Council, landowner or perhaps the Heritage Coast Authority? Can anyone help?
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALKS - 55
Underneath the Arches
"Do not miss the triumphal arch at the end of an avenue, on a hill." The guidebook's recommendation sounded intriguing so we went to Filleigh to follow the woodland walks, recently opened there to the public, which feature the Palladian arch, on its hill overlooking the mansion.
From the car park at the new village hall, we crossed fields and went along a wide track through a wood. Suddenly, there was an opening where a broad avenue of beech trees flanked the stone edifice; a high arch in the middle, with a smaller one to each side.
Facing it, a mile away across the valley was Castle Hill, a yellow ochre mansion built in the Palladian style; long and low, with its central cupola and set in a park landscaped by William Kent. [Some of the 18th century landscape was recreated after a storm in 1990 destroyed many trees.] The vista was further enhanced by a castellated, artificial ruin on high ground beyond the mansion. Much of the central part of the house burnt down in 1934 but was restored to its original 18th century proportions. Nikolaus Pevsner calls it, 'one of the stateliest mansions in Devon'. The triumphal arch, built in 1730, was also ill-fated as it was blown down in 1951 and rebuilt ten years later.
As we left the wood, we came across a grey partridge in the corner of a field. This is the native partridge, now decreasing in numbers. It had the characteristic dark chestnut, horseshoe mark on its chest.
We returned to the village by Meadow Park. Across the road was St. Paul's Church, in a pretty setting and with honeysuckle around the gate. Despite the verdict of the Reverend Sabine Baring Gould, we went to have a 100k The Victorian, Devonshire clergyman, historian and writer of hymns, in his guide book, published in 1907, wrote, "The church is absolutely devoid of interest"!
The church underwent remodelling in the 18th and 19th centuries, to achieve a neo-Norman style building. Inside it is very highly decorated. The chancel is panelled with leaf patterns of multi-coloured stone mosaic. The wagon roof is also brightly painted with leaf motifs. As one enters, the effect of all this sumptuous colour and pattern is startling.
We walked along the road to Hoyle's wood, where a second way-marked route has been created, up through the trees - a quagmire in places - and then forming a loop to go alongside the River Bray; a river which lacks the fame and glamorous image of the Exe, Torridge or Taw, but which is also very beautiful. As we approached the bridge, a sparrowhawk suddenly swept low and rapidly out of the wood, doubtless to ambush some small bird.
Near the Filleigh sawmills, a spotted flycatcher was perched on the end of a branch, its upright, watching stance typical of this acrobatic summer visitor. Its plumage is usually described as inconspicuous - grey-brown back, lightly streaked, whitish front, with spotted crown - but it is a very interesting bird to watch as it darts from a post or branch in pursuit of passing insects, twisting and turning in the air; hovering; flicking its wings and tail. It likes the edges of deciduous woods and clearings, orchards and parks. The sound it makes is also distinctive - just like a wheelbarrow with a squeaky wheel. We observed it return to its perch again and again, so active and so agile. It was quite a performance.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALKS - 54
'A Watery Folly'
Mystery surrounds Pinkworthy Pond. Who created it and how it was constructed - these facts are known - but why? What was its purpose? There are at least four different answers to that question and no one is absolutely sure which is correct.
In books about Pinkworthy and its surrounding moorland, the same two words crop up frequently -- eerie and bleak. When there is a likelihood of mist or severe weather conditions, the area is best avoided, but when the weather is good it makes a pleasant walk, starting from Goat Hill Bridge near Challacombe.
As we approached Short Combe Rocks we heard a sound which caused us to expect to see a stonechat, but perched on a massive pyramidal outcrop of stone was one of its summer visiting cousins, a wheatear. One of the earliest migrants to arrive in the spring, its plumage is greyer and pinker than in the autumn, when buff and fawn tints predominate. As we went further along the track we saw more wheatears than we have ever seen in one place before. However, they are not as numerous as they used to be. In 1989, a survey discovered sixty-six pairs on Exmoor. The Barle Valley, the ancient Forest and the coastal area were found to have most nests. Previous breeding areas - Badgworthy Water, Dunkery and Wimbleball - had been deserted since 1978. Wheatears nest in stone walls, ruined buildings and cavities among rocks, so this was certainly suitable territory.
The path follows the course of the 'infant' River Barle. Thomas Westcote in "A View of Devonshire" in 1630 called it the River Exe's 'fair sister'. He wrote, "the Barle yields nothing to the Exe in quantity and seems as if she would strive for superiority, as having the first bridge of stone."
As one climbs up towards The Chains, the ground is saturated. There are little pools of water, where water crowfoot grows, with tadpoles swimming among its stems. This white flowered plant, common in still waters and slow running streams, has two sorts of leaves. The floating leaves are lobed and flat, shaped rather like ivy. The submerged leaves are fine and hair-like. Narrow leaves offer less resistance to the current, so there is no danger that when the water flows more quickly, the plant will be torn up by the roots. We watched delicate insects, called pond skaters and water measurers, walk and slide over the surface of the water, with the occasional long jump.
Soon we reached Pinkworthy - pronounced Pinkery - Pond, really a manmade lake or reservoir, formed by damming the headwaters of the River Barle. The waters which form the source of the river, seep from the slopes of The Chains and Wood Barrow into Pinkworthy Pond. The river then issues from the pond, flowing through a tunnel cut by miners. On emerging, it tumbles down a long cascade to the true valley floor. This waterfall is one of the highlights of the walk.
Pinkworthy was one of the projects of John Knight, the prosperous Worcester iron-master who bought much of the Royal Forest of Exmoor and who was intent on 'taming' the moor. It is possible that there was already a natural tarn at the site and the lake was an enlargement of this. The earthen dam was constructed by two hundred Irish labourers in the 1820's. Perhaps it was created to provide water for irrigation. Some say it was made in connection with mining operations in the area; that it was built to feed a canal which was to have run to a point above Simonsbath. One theory is that John Knight intended to build a railway from Porlock to Simonsbath to transport lime to improve the acid soil of the peat moors. Water would have been needed to power an incline railway to raise trucks up the steep slope out of Simonsbath. The pond would have provided the water for the canal, which in turn would have fed the mechanism for the railway.
The pond is believed to be haunted by the ghost of a young farmer who drowned there in 1880. An old custom was to float a candle on a loaf of bread which would, it was thought, come to rest over the dead body. This was tried but failed, so divers arrived from Wales but they, too, could not find the young farmer. Eventually the pond was drained and the body discovered.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
As an alternative to Pinkworthy's projected use in agricultural, transport or industrial schemes, it has been suggested that it was put there to be enjoyed. Certainly that has become its role today, although the Laurence Meynell commented that Pinkery now stands 'desolate, forbidding and useless, an odd monument to the man who devised it and to the work of the two hundred Irish labourers who were especially brought over to build it. '
LOCAL WALKS - 53
"On a clear day . . . "
You can see forever from the top of Saunton Down away to the north, Baggy Point and Croyde with Woolacombe and Morte Point beyond. Turning south east and dropping down a few yards, one is presented with an impressive sub-aerial view of Braunton, the Burrows, estuary and Saunton Sands.
Hoards of starlings had arranged themselves on the telegraph wires like notes on a stave. The path crossed a field of swedes. Sheep were among the swedes and gulls were among the sheep. There was suddenly a sound like the swish of taffeta skirts. I looked back. The starlings taken to the sky, swirling, forming their intricate patterns.
The top of the Saunton Sands Hotel came into view, some distance below. It was built in 1937 and designed by Alwyn Underdown. The architectural historian, Nikolaus Pevsner, somewhat haughtily says of it, "Modernistic, not genuinely modern, but even that a rarity amongst larger English hotels". It is more Art Deco than Modern Movement but it has stood the test of time more successfully than most of the buildings created in that style.
It must have made a tremendous impact when it first appeared on that prominent bit of landscape. I wonder what the local reaction to it was. Did most people find it appealing or appalling?
The track passes close by a derelict cottage, the walls partly built of cob, crumbling before our eyes with the bits of straw in the mud mixture fully exposed. Hang gliders had arrived and were preparing for lift-off. The cold air filled the blue and green sails. Another chunk of cob slipped to the ground.
Soon the roofs of Saunton Court could be seen. The late medieval manor house was partly rebuilt and extended in 1932 by one of the most renowned English architects of this century - Sir Edwin Lutyens. With its cross-wings, two-storeyed porch and tall windows, it is a substantial building but nevertheless informal. The whole effect is very beautiful and serene. The terraced gardens bear a lot of Lutyens hallmarks; stone walls, flights of convex and concave steps, rills filled with water flowing from a semi-circular grotto with a goat's head gargoyle, a round pool beyond. Overlooking the lane, an outbuilding has been converted to a gazebo with clock.
A little further along the lane is Saint Anne's Chapel in its quiet garden. It was built in 1896 to replace a chapel buried several centuries before in a violent sandstorm. It is small, only nineteen feet by twenty-five feet, as it was originally intended to form the chancel of a larger church. St. Anne is the patron saint of sailors and the theme of the sea is depicted in the stained glass windows. The east window above the altar shows St. Anne holding a model of a sailing ship. She stands on the sand hills with doves and viper's bugloss about her. Below is a picture of the original chapel against a background of fishing boats and the sea. To the left is St. Agnes in a meadow amongst tulips, fritillaries and columbines and to the right is St. John with a vision of the Holy City in the distance. The dominant colours are purple and blue. The window was designed by Mary Lowndes, the first woman artist in stained glass. Her work is also in Salisbury Cathedral.
There are smaller, more recent windows too, portraying sea birds and wild flowers, an otter, a rabbit, beehive, dragonfly and blue butterflies.
Saunton - St. Anne's Town - is worth exploring for its buildings as well as its more famous sands.
- Saunton Sands - Peter Rothwell
- 'Notes on a Stave' - Paul Swailes
"You may say what you will of Devonshire: the truth is, it is a splashy, rainy, misty, snowy, foggy, haily, floody, muddy, slipshod county. The hills are very beautiful when you get a sight of 'em; the primroses are out, but you are in; the cliffs are of a fine deep colour, but then the clouds are continually vieing with them. The flowers here wait as naturally for the rain twice a day as mussels do for the tide. This Devonshire is like Lydia Languish, very entertaining when it smiles, but cursedly subject to sympathetic moisture."
John Keats 1818
LOCAL WALKS - 52
"Where a black
quagmire quakes beneath the tread, The fieldfares chatter in the whistling
At the turn of the century, a country parson and local historian, the Reverend James Street, described our walk thus:
"Pleasant amongst walks is that by Whitelackington, through Dillington Park to Ashwell. Quite charming is the view over rich undulating country; flocks gathered into large hillside fields ... the deep hollow and its withy bed; old world farm buildings and over the border, the most picturesque of ancient smithies. "
Here we turned off the Whitelackington road, by this former smithy its mullion windows and ornate porches, where only a generation ago Mr. Spinks, the blacksmith and farrier, still tended the horses' hooves of the district and fashioned wrought iron gates.
Next to it, the entrance to Dillington Park, "delightful with its grassy slopes and knaps and stately trees", the Reverend Street's description again and still applicable almost a century later.
The long drive passes through mature parkland with many huge oak trees, some hollow. Near the trunk of one we found a dead partridge, the red-legged variety, introduced to this country from 1790 [not our native grey partridge with its quieter plumage].
We reached the arboretum, known as The Wilderness, where there are yew trees believed to be more than five hundred years old. Ranged about the terraced, steep north-facing bank are a variety of trees, mostly planted in the middle of the nineteenth century, including blue cedar, Monterey pine, tulip tree and snowdrop tree, lime, laburnum, Wellingtonia and snake bark maple. The tallest is a grand fir, 128 feet high. During this century, a further three hundred trees and shrubs have been added.
The wiry branches of a wych elm interwove to form a netlike structure, curving down towards the ground, so that the overall effect was of a dome-shaped hut that one could step inside. Goldcrests were busy among the yews and variegated hollies.
When I was a child, this woodland was 'out of bounds' and guarded by a game-keeper. The challenge was to stalk across the fields to it without being seen and enjoy the drifts of snowdrops there. We ranged freely in the more extensive and unkempt woods towards Ashwell, where we climbed trees, tracked and built dens. Nowadays, visitors are encouraged and a helpful diagram of the arboretum is provided.
Sheltered below is the handsome Elizabethan mansion, many gabled with an embattled porch and tall windows, built in the form of a letter 'E'. The neoclassical stable block houses a small theatre and the mansion is a centre for adult education, but once it was the home of Lord North, who bears the dubious distinction of being Prime Minister when we 'lost our American colonies'!
Lord North moved to Dillington in 1756 when he married Anne Speke, who had inherited it. She was an ancestor of the nineteenth century explorer of the source of the Nile, John Hanning Speke.
Lord North was at the opera one evening when he was asked, "Who is that plain looking lady in the box opposite?" "That is my wife." "Oh, sorry" said the enquirer, attempting to put right his blunder, "I did not mean that lady, but the one beside her." "The other one, sir, is my daughter. I may tell you that we are considered to be three of the ugliest people in London."
A half-mile avenue of fir trees leads to a pair of quaint entrance lodges [their odd shapes reminiscent of threepenny bits], but we left the drive to trudge through a field of stubble, to a place where in the distance one can just catch sight of faraway Glastonbury Tor. We reached the slightly elevated position, lined up a couple of trees - a flock of lapwings billowed overhead - and there, away on the horizon, a shape like an upturned pudding basin, the mound with the winter sun briefly illuminating the tower on the top.
Artwork by: Paul Swailes
I shall look to Westward and think of golden days
Away down in the West Country, where I would like to be,
On the rolling hills of Exmoor, high above the Severn Sea.
Sir Francis Carruthers Gould
LOCAL WALKS - 51
diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less travelled by. "
Heading for Long Ponds - a childhood haunt not visited for over thirty years - we walked from Townsend and Knott Oak up Wake Hill, the tower of St. John and All Saints visible on the horizon.
Clusters of snow berries were in the hedgerow - waxy and white and appropriately dubbed 'doll's soap' by country children of my mother's generation. A short cut across a field and we emerged behind a large tythe barn, then through the churchyard, past a splendid row of ham stone cottages, down a narrow path and into open countryside, with extensive views across abroad valley and the Blackdown Hills prominent beyond.
After walking down a couple of fields, we entered Long Ponds, a three-quarter mile stretch of woodland. The 'ponds' were long dried-up and choked with weeds when I was a child, but recently one pond has been restored and a little footbridge provided. Despite these efforts to enhance the area for the public's benefit, the reaction of the birds to our approach suggested not many people venture there. The coots vanished rapidly to the edges of the pond, although we were some distance away and there was a noisy take-off as eight mallards abandoned their swim. How different from typical North Devonian mallard ducks which are more likely to gather around humans in the hope of some reward!
Long ponds remains a secret and somewhat sinister place. But then something unforeseen happened in striking contrast to the behaviour of these other creatures. Hoards of pheasants thronged the drives and clearings and wooded slopes -- croaking and nervous rustling sounds everywhere. Then one detached itself from the others and walked calmly and steadily up the little path through the undergrowth towards us.
This was no ordinary pheasant. Our first impression was of a black and white striped head moving about among the foliage - a broad black stripe through a red eye; a white stripe below; the top of the head white and a black band around the nape of the neck.
When it arrived alongside us and drew to a halt for us to admire it at leisure, we saw a stunningly gold bird; the plumage on its back looking like row upon row of over-lapping bronze coins, neatly stacked, each feather edged with black. The chest was chocolate brown and the undertail coverts black.
It stood still, cooing gently all the time - two notes, 'hel-lo, hel-lo'! When we set off, it set off too, accompanying us as far as the woodmen's log cabins, now derelict. It waited awhile, then walked with dignity back up the track to the other pheasants.
Soon we came to the end of the wood. Across the road was a sign 'Bady Ant' indicating a group of dwellings in a hollow - the peculiar name being old English for 'by the stream'. Opposite, three ponies stretched their necks out over the fence to be fed handfuls of grass from the verge, clearly believers in the old adage, 'the grass is greener on the other side of the fence'!
Postscript: I looked up several books in the library before I managed to identify the exotic pheasant. Eventually I came across a book with a section on 'Introduced and Escaped birds'. It turned out not to be the Golden Pheasant but a REEVES pheasant, 'a spectacularly beautiful bird with an amazingly long tail.' [It can grow to 83 inches in length, of which 63 inches are the tail.] A native of China, the Reeves's Pheasant was introduced from the end of the 19th century onwards, 'but so far has failed to establish a viable feral population, though it must be considered likely to do so.'
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALKS - 50
"To throw wide arms of rock around a tide
That yielded with an ebb, with a soft crash."
Illustration by: Peter Rothwell
The lane past Mortehoe church leads eventually to a little cemetery placed high above the sea, bound by a fine stone wall with buttresses and surrounded by open ground. Nearby, an ornate gate marks the entry to Morte Point Memorial Park. Here there is a Latin inscription announcing that in 1909 the Chichesters of Arlington dedicated this piece of land to public use. 'Hic ager in usum civium dedicatus . . . est . . . '
The name of this prominent corner of the Devon coastline serves as a reminder of how its dangerous rocks and the treacherous weather conditions which prevail there, have often combined with disastrous effect for seafarers. But, on this particular day, on the cusp of summer and autumn, it was a place where kestrels hovered and cormorants and shags swam out at sea. There is a great web of tracks criss-crossing over the short turf and linking up with the windy exposed coast path around the headland.
Some of the clumps of gorse appeared to have had tangled masses of bright reddish pink threads like thin string -- strewn over them, in places so dense that the gorse itself was almost hidden from view. These tendril-like stems, resembling spaghetti more than a typical plant, are a curious and unusual parasitic annual called dodder. It lacks green pigment, drawing its nourishment through sucker-like roots which are firmly attached to the stem of the host plant. It twines around heather, clover or gorse and can be so vigorous in its growth that the host plant is obscured and killed. Apparently the name dodder is believed to have travelled with the plant from Germany centuries ago.
Another non-green plant was present in large colonies in the grassy areas and was being gathered by wild mushroom enthusiasts. Described in the field guides as edible and excellent - a very distinctive fungus - the creamy white and brown parasol mushroom can grow to the size of a dinner plate.
However, by then it is thick and woolly and though impressive looking, it would be like eating a felt hat! For culinary use, the texture is right when the cap is small and closed.
I suppose at this point there should be the usual health warning, If in ANY doubt about identification, leave well alone!
We have eaten parasols as a sauce for pasta and in a Spanish type omelette, but whilst one fungus expert claims that, 'apart from the field mushroom, this is one of our most highly prized fungi', I would describe it as interesting to look at rather than delicious to eat.
LOCAL WALKS - 49
"Now the light
falls across the open field,
leaving the deep lane shuttered with branches,
dark in the afternoon ..."
T.S. Eliot [from 'East Coker']
Down a shady lane, the sound of the wind filtering through sycamore and beech; the wiry burrs of herb Bennet among dove's-foot cranesbill; past the small grey and white school with its Gothic window; up a steep lane, its banks packed with ferns; opposite the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffalo's hall - a glimpse of Heddon Hall across the fields; then over a bridge above the course of the old Lynton to Barnstaple railway, we turn onto a rough track with St. Petrock's church ahead.
This is Churchtown at the eastern edge of Parracombe and the church, which is of national importance, is alleged to be one of the most visited in the country. Nikolaus Pevsner in "The Buildings of North Devon" wrote: 'the exceptional charm' of the interior of the church is that it has been unaltered for two hundred years, "a rare example of the usual furnishings of a modest village church" in the late eighteenth century, "poor perhaps, but seemly."
There are uneven stone flags. The seating is a mixture of plain oak [probably of the sixteenth century] and high box pews which are eighteenth century. At the west end of the nave, where the band of musicians sat, the box pews are arranged in tiers, rising theatrically [literally]. One pew has a section cut out to allow room for the bow of the bass viol. St. Petrock's is believed to have been the last church in Devon in which the singing was accompanied by a band of musicians - as with the Mellstock Quire in Thomas Hardy's 'Under the Greenwood Tree'. "The zest of these bygone instrumentalists must have been keen and staying", wrote Hardy in 1896 "to take them on foot every Sunday after a toilsome week through all weathers to the church, which often lay at a distance from their homes ... their efforts were really a labour of love."
The pulpit, complete with sounding board, is of the 'three-decker' type with the minister's reading desk and clerk's seat attached. Above the unusual screen between chancel and nave [of the same early sort as at Molland] is a solid tympanum filling the chancel arch, on which are painted the Royal Arms, the Ten Commandments, the Apostles' Creed and the Lord's Prayer. Such tympana were in favour after the Reformation, but few survive.
In the Department of the Environment's list of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest, St. Petrock's is described as, "the most interesting of all the churches in this part of Devon with a completely unspoiled Georgian interior". So how did it escape the usual attentions of the Victorian 'restorers'? In 1878 it was feared that St. Petrock's had become unstable. It was proposed that it should be demolished and a new church built in its place. The suggestion caused a wave of protests throughout the country and John Ruskin offered ten pounds towards the cost of building a new church, if such 'an act of vandalism' was not carried out. So, St. Petrock's was left standing and a new church, Christ Church, was built in the centre of the village.
Outside the church and built partly in the churchyard are two old cottages, formerly the church ale house, where beer was brewed for the refreshment of the worshippers. We crossed the main road nearby and followed the broad 'green lane' past Lady's Well towards Parracombe Common. Legions of foxgloves marched across the fifteen foot wide verge, up the hedge bank and down the other side. Our walk alternated between rushy meadows and narrow stoney tracks - the route taking the form of a loop through idyllic countryside before we crossed the main road again and reached pleasantly sloping fields on the other side. At the lowest edge of the second field, bordering a wood, sat two young foxes. They kept a casual eye on us but had not yet learnt to be nervous.
We crossed little brooks in which - appropriately - brooklime grew; a blue flowered veronica which loves wet places. The path is clearly waymarked and we soon found ourselves back in Parracombe, this time near the 'new' nineteenth century church, its tower emerging from behind yews and rhododendrons. By the gate was a bank of wild strawberries and in the churchyard, an unusual epitaph on the grave of a Mr. Mutton - ''A man you could warm your hands upon." From the churchyard there is a fine view to the south of Holwell Castle, a mediaeval motte and bailey castle; its mound and circular earthworks still clearly visible.
LOCAL WALKS - 48
"Rough winds do
shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date."
Blossom and birdsong. These were the main features of a stroll through Anchor Wood - a modest strip of woodland on sloping ground between Sticklepath and the River Taw.
As we approached the wood via the old railway line, willow warblers and chiffchaffs were active among the pussy willows, growing in the damp fringes of the track.
Both are summer visitors and almost identical, so it is difficult to tell them apart. The chiffchaff is more dingy and the willow warbler less dumpy. The chiffchaff is also said to be less lively, but both birds are great acrobats and hardly seem to stay still for a second.
Willow warblers [their old name was willow wren] usually have pale legs and chiffchaffs have dark ones - but on the other hand, sometimes it's the other way round! The best way to identify them is through their song; the distinctive 'chiff chaff chiff chiff chaff of the chiffchaff and the willow warbler's musical descending cascade of notes.
In an alcove near the entrance to the wood is the Dripping Well. Its calcareous water was once believed to have medicinal properties, including the power to restore sight.
My old 1934 Barnstaple Guide Book, in recommending the 'popular riverside walk to Anchor Wood' goes on to say, 'though the wood exists in name only, the trees having been cut down.' Seeing it today, a mere sixty years later, it is strange to imagine it without trees.
It was April and the ground beneath the trees was spangled with the white stars of wood anemones and stitchwort and the lemon yellow stars of celandines. Here and there were several examples of the pale lilac coloured wood anemones - something of a Devon speciality.
Greenfinches were twittering from tree tops, showing off their bright summer plumage. The loud and melodious song of blackbirds was everywhere.
As we ascended the hill, the blend of flowers altered. Now yellow archangel, with the silver chevrons on the leaves, and the white bells of triangular stalked garlic [or three-cornered leek] were plentiful - the latter, a much prettier plant than its name would suggest.
The bluebells were still at that stage when they look like spears of asparagus. At a time when it was a common practice for entertainers to provide items of food for their theatrical landladies to prepare for them after the show, an actor handed over a lamb cutlet and a bunch of asparagus to his landlady, before leaving for the theatre. When he returned to his digs later that night, he found a note from the landlady: 'Your lamb chop is in the oven and I've put the bluebells in a vase of water. '
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALKS - 47
"A host of unexpected wanderers from half across the world."
The path was muddy and slippery. We struggled to maintain our balance. Trains rumbled past on one side and on the other side, red-breasted mergansers swam on the estuary, diving at frequent intervals. Overhead was a straggle of brent geese, dark silhouettes against a pale sky. The walk along the sea wall from Powderham to Turf Lock on the Exe estuary is good for observing waders and wildfowl from August to April.
The site is of international importance for the dark-bellied brent geese which travel from Siberia to overwinter there. [At the peak, between November and January 2,250 of the birds have been counted.]
A dozen brent geese stood in a field beside the railway track, very smart and stately, darker than any other goose, with their black necks, heads and breasts, greyer plumage beneath and narrow white strips on each side of the neck.
The resident mergansers are joined by others from Iceland and Scandinavia. They belong to the 'sawbill' group of ducks. The male has a glossy green black head and back, grey flanks and chestnut breast; wide white collar, wispy crest and very narrow red bill. The female is brownish grey with a more conspicuous 'ragged' crest.
"On a lucky dawn, once in a lifetime you may see an avocet, lovely as a dream" wrote J Wentworth Day in his book British Birds of the Wild Places. A winter flock of avocets now occurs annually on the Exe and Tamar estuaries but the birds have been absent from Britain for a century. The taking of avocets and their eggs for food led to their dying out in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century. This is the elegant black and white bird adopted by RSPB as its special logo. It has been described as 'the most distinctive of Britain's wading birds' and its reappearance as 'one of the greatest conservation success stories of the past half century'.
We had gone to the Exe estuary hoping to see avocets and as we approached Turf Lock, a row of them came into view, sweeping their neat heads from side to side as they fed. Further off, towards Topsham, more of them were swimming - occasionally 'up ending' like ducks. In flight the very long blue-grey legs projected beyond the tail. The plumage is mostly white with narrow black bands crossing the wings; a black crown and nape. The upwardly curved and tapering black bill is the unusual feature.
After their long absence, avocets were rediscovered in Suffolk in 1947 and it was thought that wartime upheaval had caused continental birds to relocate and seek breeding grounds this side of the North Sea. The flooding of grazing marsh at Minsmere to create wartime defences fulfilled the avocets' requirements for brackish ponds. At Havergate, a stray shell destroyed a sluice gate creating a similar habitat.
In the winter following their return to this country, a small number began wintering on the Tamar but it was not until the winter of 1973-4 that fifteen avocets arrived to winter on the Exe. Now there are 450 during the peak months December to February.
We walked back along the road between the estuary and Powderham Castle. [The parkland is easily viewed from this road.] The herd of fallow deer browsed beneath the trees of the park, while among the deer a large flock of lapwings flickered about the grass. Nearby, were herons, pheasants, shelduck, teal and a little egret. There before us was an idyll scene - a scene not only beautiful to look at but of apparent harmony between the many different creatures present - yet another high point of the day and a satisfying end to our walk.
LOCAL WALKS - 46
"Ancient winter ...
a little sun; a haloed glory" - Salvatore Quasimodo
Not 'local', this month's walk is located in South Somerset, near the village of Chaffacombe, a little over a mile and a half from the Devon border and three miles from the boundary. Chard Reservoir Nature Reserve - not a very glamorous sounding name, but despite its prosaic title this modest stretch of water has a romantic history and a pretty setting, as well as being a winter refuge for wildfowl.
The reservoir was built in 1842 to provide water for the Chard Canal, which was one of the last to be built in Britain. By 1868 the canal had closed, following the arrival of a railway link with Taunton and the reservoir had become redundant as far as its original use went. It was then absorbed into a sporting estate for fishing and game and duck shooting, when shrubberies of rhododendron and dogwood were planted to provide ground cover for the game birds.
During the Second World War the reservoir was used as a recreational facility for boating and swimming and the Chard Lido was opened there as a 'holiday at home' centre to dissuade local people from using the railways during troop mobilisation. Eventually it was acquired by the local authority in 1990 and became designated a nature reserve, managed as an important habitat for wildlife.
We crossed meadows which are traditionally managed to encourage wild flowers and insects and reached the reservoir via the woodland on its southern flanks. A 'tree trail' helpfully identifies the wide variety of native and exotic trees which were planted in the 19th century.
Carvings of great crested grebes decorated the information board; having been chosen as the reserve's special logo because the reservoir is recognised as a nesting site for this bird, described as 'perhaps the most elegant of all the water birds'.
A large hide, perched on stilts, extended out over the water. A watery winter sun lit up the glossy white fronts of two long, slender necked birds which were swimming towards the hide from the far side of the reservoir. [My bird book had pointed out, 'the shining white foreneck can be seen clearly across the water at all seasons'.] The great crested grebe almost became extinct in Britain because of the demand for its gleaming satin-like breast feathers.
These graceful, slim-headed, long billed birds were in their winter plumage; grey-brown upper-parts, light faced with a dark crown. In the spring the ruff and crest appear, with chestnut and black frills on the sides of the head. [Males and females are adorned alike.]
Then, the elaborate 'penguin dance' forms part of their courtship ritual, with the birds presenting each other with pieces of water weed. Although capable of swimming and diving themselves, the stripy chicks spend their early weeks travelling on their parents' backs, cradled between the raised wings, as their own heat regulation mechanism is not properly developed and they cannot tolerate being in the cold water for long.
A raised boardwalk had been constructed over the reedbeds and marshy areas and this led us to the quieter end of the reservoir where most of the grebes were situated.
Very much a 'now you see me, now you don't' sort of bird, the grebe dives frequently for small fish, insects and crustaceans, completely disappearing beneath the surface of the water for some time. The great crested is the largest of all the European grebes and is widely distributed on ponds, lakes and reservoirs, although less common in the west of England.
The walk is closed from the 1st March until 30th June each year to prevent disturbance of nesting birds.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALKS - 45
"of secret valleys "here the wild trees grow." Laurie Lee
Entrance to Chapel Wood R.S.P.B, Reserve, Spreacombe
by: Peter Rothwell
At Spreacombe [between Willingcott and Georgeham], Chapel Wood shelters the remains of a chapel dating from about 1250 AD. Low walls map out where the chantry stood and the two-roomed dwelling of the priest. A stream almost surrounds the ruin, widening at one point to form a pool with water cress growing in it and above it is the wooded hillside.
Today Spreacombe is a quiet, secluded place. In the Doomsday Survey of 1086, the hamlet is recorded as Esparecoma, a name derived from the Old English spraeg and cwm, meaning brushwood valley.
Beside the Ancient walls grow the angular leaves of Solomon's Seal, arranged like shelves along bowed stems, which earlier in the year would have obscured from view the long. white bell flowers suspended from the base of each leaf. The botanist Richard Mabey calls Solomon's Seal one of 'our scarcer woodland plants'. Culpeper suggested its use in the treatment of bruises.
Along the edge of the field, leading to Chapel Wood, we had passed an attractive collection of wild shrubs and native small trees. There was the spindle tree [a member of the Euonymus family], indigenous throughout the British Isles but not generally common, with its green, four-sided twigs and odd pinkish red fruit capsules, deeply lobed and marked with grooves giving the appearance of little parcels, pulled out of shape where the string has been drawn too tightly.
Some were in the process of splitting open along these grooves to reveal bright orange-coated seeds. Spindle wood was noted for its toughness and was used for making small items where this strength was required, hence its alternative names of 'skewerwood' and 'pegwood'. Its young shoots were turned into artists' charcoal.
Growing together were wayfaring trees and guelder roses, both varieties of viburnum and both with beautiful berries, but their leaves are very different. The wayfaring tree has broad oval leaves, wrinkled and finely toothed; the undersides covered with white hairs earning it the name 'cotton tree'. It was also known as lithewort and twistwood because the supple and elastic nature of the young branches led to their being used instead of withy in basket making.
The clusters of flattened oval fruits are at first red, then black when ripe. They have been described as bunches of glowing coral beads that in autumn become beads of jet. On the day in October when we visited the wood, they were at the transition stage of being a mixture of coral and jet.
There was also a fine display of guelder rose berries, round, clear, translucent red; also arranged in clusters. It is said that for anyone who likes the sight of red berries in their 'most jewel-like splendour', there is nothing in winter to compare with the guelder rose. The berries are eaten with honey in Scandinavia [though uncooked they are unpalatable] and in the Cotswolds it was called 'kings crown' because coronets of the scented, creamy white flowers were used to crown the king of the May. The maple-shaped leaves are divided into three or five deeply toothed lobes, turn crimson in the autumn.
We followed the track up through the woods. Under some of the trees were groups of beechwood sickeners, a poisonous fungus with bright red cap and white gills and stem. At the summit, 450 feet above sea level at the northern boundary of Chapel Wood, is an earthwork; the remains of an ancient British hill fort, probably dating from the early Iron Age.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALKS - 44
and azure air and blue butterflies were flecks of sky."
A low ridge of pebbles, between boats moored at Broad Sands, seemed to come to life suddenly. Some small speckled balls of fluff hurtled out from it and moved surprisingly fast across the sand. These were ringed plover chicks. Their parents hastily rounded them up and ferried them over to the dunes at Crow Point.
They are lively, pretty shore birds, their legs twinkling as they run, stopping abruptly to bob down and pick up a sandhopper; showing little concern about any humans passing by.
Described as 'waistcoated' waders, ringed plovers black bands across the forehead, through the eyes and around neck with a black gorget on the breast. The legs and bill are orange yellow; the back light brown and the rest of the plumage is white.
Squealing and growling sounds came from the dense reeds bordering the little pond beyond the White House - very unbirdlike. A triangle of white appeared first [the undertail coverts] then the whole bird emerged. A water rail! This is a bird more often heard than seen because it is so secretive and nervous. It is active mainly in the evening. With its long red bill, lavender grey neck and breast, black and white stripes on the pink legs, it is a handsome and distinctive bird. The back is chestnut brown, streaked with black. It is very slender and can quickly conceal itself. The one we observed was at no time far from the sanctuary of the reed bed.
Further along the estuary, a seal lay on a sand bank, frequently raising a flipper to propel flies away from its face. When a motor boat approached, the seal took to the water eventually reappearing on the opposite shore. Meanwhile, another seal was swimming along the water's edge close to where two men had started to fish. They moved their gear a few yards away, the seal followed.
There was a carpet of marsh samphire [also called glasswort because its ashes were once used in the production of glass], the succulent, jointed stems conserving water and helping to dilute the salt. The botanist, Richard Mabey, says it is not clear whether the characteristic plants of the sea shore are concentrated there because they have a particular need for salt or because they have evolved special defences against it.
Among the samphire were the mauve flowers of sea aster looking very like Michaelmas daisies - and sea lavender, an odd plant related to statice [everlasting flowers], where the coloured calyx remains after the petals have dropped. The blue flowers are very small and arranged closely together on branched stems giving the plant a flat, two-dimensional look.
The White House at the end of Horsey Island - Peter Rothwell
LOCAL WALKS - 43
"What spires, what farms are those?" - A.E. Housman
Meadowsweet foamed, the long blue flowers of tufted vetch cascaded down the banks, with yellow toadflax and red clover, beside the lanes which skirt Codden Hill, above Bishop's Tawton.
At the site of the disused quarry yellowhammers, beautiful in their bright plumage, drew our attention by their distinctive song, repeated over and over from nearby posts and branches.
We took the rough track, which leads to Codden Beacon. Soon it turned at a right angle and there, trotting up the track ahead of us, was a fox. They seem to be out and about during daylight hours a lot this summer.
At the summit is a fine monument designed by the Architect, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, who created the Italianate village of Portmeirion on the Welsh coast. The monument was dedicated in 1971 by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Crediton and is in memory of Caroline Thorpe "who lived close by ... and loved this hill"
The hard landscaping around the base of the monument forms a compass and indicates some of the many villages which can be seen, as well as Hartland Point, Saunton, Lundy, Dartmoor and Exmoor - even Bodmin Moor, for there are distant views around the whole 360 degrees.
Closer to, there are good views of Barnstaple Bridge and the terraces and bleak grey 'walls' of the massive Venn Quarries; a scattering of farms and more than a dozen churches. [It is an interesting exercise to search out their various towers and spires and to identify them.]
Codden Hill is an exposed place and although it was late June, there was a bitter and unrelenting wind blowing. A linnet with rosy chest and brow landed on the fence.
On one side of the monument was a field of barley, with scarlet pimpernel and forget-me-nots at the edge, and on the other side, sloping away out of sight, a field of flax.
Over it a flock of skylarks perpetually took off from and landed among the delicate sky-blue flowers of the flax, shimmering, forming and reforming patches of blue then green under the influence of the strong breeze.
We scrambled down the much steeper and narrower track, through bracken, on the other side of the hill, emerging at Codden Hill Cross on the outskirts of the village. We had often looked across to Codden Hill from round and about Barnstaple, but had never climbed up it until this year. We are glad to have 'discovered' this fascinating viewpoint.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALKS - 42
A stroll up West Challacombe Lane and back to Combe Martin via the cliff path is ideal for the enjoyment of wild flowers in spring and early summer. And half way along this walk there awaits an architectural and historic gem.
Beyond the last house and over the stream, the high banks of West Challacombe Lane were snowy with stitchwort and May blossom. Away to the right is a quiet valley where foxes feel free to venture out in daylight. Our steps were accompanied by much rustling and chirruping in the hedges
At the top of the lane is West Challacombe Farm, a collection of slate and pantiled roofs and rendered stone rubble and cob walls. This is an important building, currently being restored by the National Trust.
In the Department of the Environment listing it is described as, "a remarkably fine example of a small manor house, unspoilt since the nineteenth century"; fifteenth century in origin, extended in the seventeenth century and "containing earlier interior features of considerable interest."
The two-storey front entrance porch has mullion windows and a semi-circular arched doorway with a stone panel above it bearing a heraldic crest.
In "Out of the World and into Combe Martin" by Combe Martin Local History Group, it says, "There is certainly no other house like it in Combe Martin and medieval houses with fine timbered roofs of this quality and size are rare anywhere."
Last year, during the course of the renovation work, experts discovered that the oldest parts of the building had been constructed at least a hundred years earlier than previously thought.
At an abrupt angle to the left of the farm is a steep and rocky lane, running with water even after the long spell of dry weather. From this one emerges with the peak of Little Hangman towering above and Wild Pear Beach far below.
From here may be seen the most stunning views of Combe Martin Bay. In contrast with the uncompromising bleakness and barrenness of the Hangmen, the terrain along the cliff tops to Combe Martin via Lester Point is gentle with farmland bordering the path.
This difference is reflected in the profusion and variety of flowers: wood sorrel and violets in the shady parts, campions where it is more exposed and bluebells spilling over the cliffs.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALKS - 41
"With a one-inch map ... to far-off churches" J.B.
"Do not miss this most satisfying little building" the guidebook urged. "Here is a perfect rural Georgian interior." It was this enthusiastic description which first led us to Molland Church. Recently we made a return visit to the small village on a hillside, below the Southern slopes of Exmoor.
As one enters St. Mary's at Molland the unevenly plastered walls and high box pews reveal a church which escaped the zealous attentions of the Victorian 'restorers'. The north aisle is dominated by a three-decker pulpit with a canopy above. In the lowest deck sat the Parish Clerk. When I saw the height of the pews it occurred to me that it would be easy for an occupant of such a pew to drift off to sleep unnoticed during a tedious sermon. But apparently the parish clerk was provided with a staff, which had a wooden ball at one end and feathers at the other. He was on the look out for wandering attentions among the congregation and would awaken the men by applying the wooden ball to their heads whilst the women received the feathers in their faces.
The plain wooden furnishings [perhaps not Georgian after all but "typical of the Queen Anne period" according to the church's own historian] contrast with the sophistication of the screen dividing the nave from the chancel, with its inverted curved low central gate; the ornate series of 17th and 18th Century monuments and the royal coat of arms.
The pillars dividing the nave from the north aisle lean very noticeably and once caused such consternation in a church inspector that he made a hasty retreat to the churchyard to write his report. Look out for the little figure in a niche tucked away in one of the north arcade pillars. The pretty wrought iron standards which once carried oil lamps have been effectively adapted for modem lighting.
Sadly, Molland was among a number of churches across North Cornwall and Devon which, last autumn, experienced thefts of furniture and silver. It is always a joy to find these remote churches unlocked, but they are so vulnerable.
Each one is a small museum and art gallery as well as a place of worship. In his autobiographical poem, 'Summoned by Bells', John Betjeman speculated,
"Who knew what undiscovered glories hung
Waiting in locked-up churches..."
We wandered about the quiet lanes and woodland tracks on the outskirts of the village. It was a dull but fairly mild afternoon in late February. Near the imposing stone buildings of West Molland Barton, a haughty group of brown geese processed across the road.
The Meet at Molland, 1951 - from the Tom Bartlett Postcard Collection
West Molland was the home of the brothers, Henry and James Quartly, who were responsible for establishing the strain of Red Devon cattle by selective breeding.
In a field gateway was a covey of partridges; attractive birds with their orange-brown faces, pale grey underparts, short reddish tails and flanks barred with chestnut and streaked white. [The male has a dark horseshoe mark on its lower breast.] Some of them took off suddenly with a whirring of wing beats, low and rapidly, skimming over the hedge.
LOCAL WALKS - 40
"The Wild West"
Last year the Council for the Protection of Rural England suggested that only three 'tranquil areas' of England survive - parts of the country untouched by motorways, heavy industry and urban blight - and that these are the Marches of Shropshire and Herefordshire, the North Pennines and North Devon.
Our 'local walk' this time was a little further afield, but still in Devon -just - on the far western shores of North Devon; the wild and rugged coast south of Hartland Quay. First we visited Squire Orchard's Pleasure House, a cliff top tower originally built as a lookout for Barbary pirates and later converted to a folly and summer house. From it there is a view along the valley of the Abbey River to Hartland Abbey.
Then past the Old Rocket Apparatus House, where rescue gear was kept and on to the road leading down to Hartland Quay, where coal, lime and timber were once imported and corn and malt were exported. The quay was built in 1566 but eventually washed away after severe gales in the late 19th Century.
We took the coast path to the south, passing St. John's Well where water seeping from the rock was believed to have healing properties for eye ailments. On St. Catherine's Tor the route goes through a rare example of a geographical phenomenon called a 'sea dissected valley' or a valley 'captured by the sea'. It is a pleasant area of springy turf partly enclosed by stone walls, where in medieval times the monks of Hartland Abbey kept a swannery and a stream known as Margery Water flowed, running out to sea at Hartland Quay. Nowadays, the stream cascades to the beach as a waterfall beside the Tor.
Lundy Island is only eleven miles away - its lighthouses and church tower clearly visible - and there are also panoramic views of the Cornish coast. A special feature of the cliffs is the formation of the rock strata which twist from the horizontal to the vertical.
Next came the steep descent to Speke's Mill Mouth, a noted beauty spot where a waterfall drops 54 feet from 160 feet above sea level, then runs along a trough for 130 feet before finally tumbling to the sea in three separate falls.
After pausing to admire this spectacle, we turned inland along the valley track, turning left on to a road near Lymebridge and finally taking a green lane from Kernstone Cross to Stoke, where we visited St. Nectan's, the parish church of Hartland though not situated at Hartland itself.
from the Tom Bartlett Postcard Collection
This remote church has the tallest tower in North Devon [and the second highest in Devon as a whole]. At a 128 feet, the tower has served as a landmark for miles for seafarers. St. Nectan was a missionary from Wales, murdered in the 6th Century and a massive medieval statue of him stands in a niche on the east face of the tower, as seen on the postcard.
Still more superlatives attach themselves to this church, nicknamed 'the Cathedral of North Devon'. Its ornate 15th Century screen is the largest in Devon - 45 1/2 feet long and 12 1/2 feet high, with a 5 foot ten inch wide gallery on top.
There are steps leading to a priest's room, complete with fireplace, above the North porch, called Pope's Chamber [Pope being the name of the last Abbot of Hartland]. Used as a store for armour in Tudor and Stuart times, it is now a tiny museum. The Norman font is decorated with bold zigzags and arches and from its corners four carved heads, depicting those saved by baptism, look down on the upturned faces of the unbaptized below. Of more recent interest is a memorial tablet on the north wall to Sir Alan Lane, the founder of Penguin Books, who introduced the paperback book to this country.
Hartland is linked to Berrynarbor in the words of an old folk song, comparing the relative merits of their churches: 'Hartland for length, Berrynarbor for strength, Combe Martin for beauty. '
The Font, St. Nectan's, Hartland
from the Tom Bartlett Postcard Collection
LOCAL WALKS - 39
We'd reached the area of salt marsh near the mouth of the River Caen when over on Horsey Ridge we noticed a large dark grey object resembling a huge boulder. But as we stopped to look we realised that the 'boulder' had started to rock from side to side and that there appeared to be a head at one end.
We climbed from the causeway and trudged across the sand and mud to confirm what we thought we had seen and spent the next half hour delighting in watching a grey seal basking in the autumn sunshine, swimming and fishing. The magnificent animal appeared very relaxed and unselfconscious as it yawned and stretched, slowly raising its head and rubbery looking tail, while resting its weight on its chest, making an inverted arch.
It must have been about eight feet in length; its eyes large and round and its coat dappled and blotched in darker and lighter tones of grey.
Although it was mid afternoon at the weekend, not many people were about - a few fishermen mostly. One of them came down to the water's edge to collect crabs. He barely gave the seal a second glance.
He had encountered it there several times before, or one like it, and regarded it as unwelcome competition. Grey seals hunt near the coast for salmon, herring, cod, flat fish and occasionally squid and crabs. Adult seals need about 11 lbs of food a day.
Typically animals of exposed rocky coasts, the grey seals have, however, been visiting estuaries and seeking out sand bars at low tide. Small groups are often found in sea caves on the North Cornish coast while large numbers are present on the Scilly Isles and Pembrokeshire coast, where they have been established longer.
Also known as the Atlantic Seal, they occur on both sides of the ocean, but in less significant numbers off the coasts of Canada and Newfoundland. There are colonies in Norway and Iceland but they are most numerous around the British Isles, where their population has been increasing.
The life span of the grey seal is between fifteen and thirty years but one was known to have lived for folly-one years.
As the seal on Horsey Ridge lollopped into the water after a fish it was transformed from the awkward, vulnerable creature on land Into a streamlined and graceful swimmer, diving and somersaulting, gliding effortlessly. Oxygen stored in its muscle cells as well as in the blood enables the seal to remain under water for a long time. Now it was glossy and dark, the markings no longer evident, the coat appearing metallic and hairless. Eventually it landed on a small sand bank, resting and waiting until the incoming tide lapped over the edges of the bank; peering about it as if to check the progress of the water, just as the tide swallowed up the little island, the seal rolled into the sea and shortly afterwards disappeared.
Sadly, the tranquillity and special character of the area have been put under pressure in recent weeks with two events which have hit the headlines - the industrial pollution of the River Caen resulting in the death of hundreds of trout and the savage attacks on a fox and swans, on the marsh and at Crow Point, by 'revellers'.
LOCAL WALKS - 38
sunshine, by the shady verge of woods,
by the sweet waters where the wild dove sips"
Exmoor did not impress Daniel Defoe. In his book, Journey through England, written in 1724, he describes travelling north from Taunton in order to 'take a view of the coast'. He complained that Exmoor 'lay in the way' and that, 'it gives, indeed, but a melancholy view, being a vast tract of barren and desolate lands...'
We were heading for some of this desolate landscape via Badgworthy Water. The valley changes character several times, gradually becoming wilder and lonelier. First we passed through gentle meadows between Malmsmead and Cloud Farm. Here a variety of deciduous trees lined the river. From Cloud Farm, the valley narrows and the sides are steeper and in early summer the banks of the river are dense with rhododendron blossom.
In 1969 a memorial stone to R.D. Blackmore was placed beside the path. Which of the isolated little combes branching off from Badgworthy was the actual Doone Valley, is open to dispute, but it is generally identified as either Hoccombe or Lank Combe.
Next we came to Badgworthy Wood, with its oddly contorted oak trees and carpeted with yellow cow wheat flowers. At the far end of the oak wood was a foot bridge and the tributary of Lank Combe. Along this stretch of the river there were many slender, bright blue damsel flies, hovering above the water to catch insects.
Illustrated by: Nigel Mason
At the junction with Hoccombe Combe, there are mounds covered with bracken and grass - the remains of a Medieval village. A little further on, two red deer appeared on the horizon, on the opposite side of the river. One stag walked down the hill towards us and then disappeared in Clannacombe conifer plantation. The other continued along the top of the ridge before eventually dipping out of sight.
Between Badgworthy Hill and Tom's Hill Barrows we crossed another foot bridge, and in doing so passed from Devon into Somerset, for Badgworthy Water forms the county boundary. As we started the climb up Great Tom's Hill, with its rocky outcrops, we looked back and saw movement and colour in one of the bushes. It was a male redstart - a stunning summer visitor. It has a slate blue-grey crown and back, rusty red tail and rump, orange breast, black cheeks and throat and a white forehead. Its bobbing habit and constantly flickering tail drew our attention to this handsome woodland bird. At the top of the hill we turned northwards over the open moor. On the rough grassland below South Common, we encountered ten red deer hinds and their calves lying in the sun. They stood up warily, started to move off, but soon began grazing. [A red deer hind has a single calf in early summer.]
We finally emerged in the lane beside Oare Church with its Georgian box pews [the squire's having seats on three sides], 12th Century font and 15th Century wagon type roof in the nave and inner chancel. There is a piscina in the shape of a head held by two hands [believed to be Saint Decumen]. R.D. Blackmore's grandfather was rector of Oare for 33 years from 1809. During the latter part of this time, Blackmore was a school boy at Blundell's and spent holidays in the area he was to help make so famous.
From the church it is a short walk back to Malmsmead along the lane above Oare Water.
LOCAL WALKS - 37
"Here the singing
The gliding kestrel and the
["Dandelion Days" by Henry Williamson]
Below the ridge on which we stood was Landacre Bridge. Two miles from the village of Withypool this handsome bridge, with its five arches and sturdy sandstone piers, was the scene of John Ridd's friend Jeremy Stickles' escape from an ambush set by the notorious Doones.
On the slopes of Great Ferny Ball, across the valley, were little groups of Exmoor ponies, with their distinctive oatmeal coloured muzzles. A foal sheltered beside its mother.
At intervals the river widens out to form clear green bathing pools. The path above the Barle coincides with a section of the Two Moors Way [linking Dartmoor and Exmoor and starting and ending at Ivybridge and Lynmouthl].
We watched a skylark as it soared and eventually hovered so high that we could barely see it, but singing all the time its liquid, loud and trilling notes. It can sustain its song in flight for up to fifteen minutes without a pause. No wonder the collective noun for skylarks is an 'exultation'.
However, this bird, the inspiration of Vaughan Williams' beautiful music, "The Lark Ascending", and Shelleys "Blithe Spirit", is now the cause of concern. In the last twenty-five years, skylark numbers on farmland have reduced by 50%, so this year the British Trust for Ornithology launched its "Save our Skylarks" campaign.
As it was mid-May, we were not surprised to hear cuckoos, but we had not expected to see any. The birds landing on low bushes, fanning out their tails and calling, attracted a lot of curious and fascinated attention from walkers out on the the moor that day.
Cuckoos are 13" long with blue-grey upper-parts and whitish under-parts, barred with dark grey. The tail is slate grey, spotted and tipped with white and legs are yellow. It is not often seen and when not actually uttering its famous call, can be mistaken for other birds. In colouring, it resembles a sparrow hawk, but its head is smaller and its wings longer. Its flight silhouette is falcon like.
LOCAL WALKS - 36
"Egrets there are a few"
Adjacent to the site of the former power station at Yelland is the Isley Marsh R.S.P.B. Reserve. This good bird-watching area may be reached via the cycle track which follows the course of the old Barnstaple to Bideford railway.
Brimstone butterflies, looking like airborne primroses, moved about the bushes. When at rest, this butterfly's clever camouflage can be fully appreciated. Perched with wings closed, it resembles a leaf. The undersides of the wings are pale greenish yellow with prominent veins; the wing tips are sharply pointed and the leaf illusion is completed by what appears to be a spot of brown mould in the centre of the wing. Brimstones hibernate in woods among evergreens such as holly and ivy. In May or June they lay their eggs in Buckthorn bushes.
Sand martins were in rapid and constant movement over a shallow pond. Shelducks had congregated along a weir. These handsome ducks are goose-like in shape and in flight. They have greenish black heads and necks, bright red beaks and pink legs. Their wings are black, green and white and their most distinctive feature is a broad chestnut brown 'belt' encircling the white body. Shelduck nests in burrows; sometimes excavating them itself but often taking over abandoned rabbit burrows and even foxes' dens. Braunton Burrows is an important breeding site for the birds, which usually arrive in March.
Near a jetty, reaching out to the estuary, stood an elegant snowy white bird on long delicate black legs. It had a long, slender black bill and yellow feet. This was a little egret. It looks like a small stork but it is related to the herons. In flight, it holds its legs out horizontally behind it and it is then that the contrasting black legs and yellow feet are most conspicuous. When in the vicinity of other white birds, such as gulls, the little egret's plumage is noticeably brighter.
Normally a bird of warm climates, inhabiting the marshy regions of Southern Europe, South East Asia, Australia and Africa, it has been changing its 'status' in this country in recent years. In 1951 the naturalist, James Fisher, called it 'an extreme rarity'. Until that time it had only been seen in Britain about 12 times. Since then it has been termed a 'vagrant' to the British Isles and later, 'a scarce visitor - increasing', but over the last five years the situation has changed.
Last year the R.S.P.B. announced that more than a hundred little egrets visit England each year and that 'it can only be a matter of time before they breed here'.
Certainly they have become a not uncommon sight on Horsey Island, Braunton Marsh, at Fremington and East Yelland Marsh where they appear quite at home!
LOCAL WALKS - 35
'Over the Rainbow'
Using Rothern Bridge, on the western fringe of Torrington, as our base, we chose a Sunday in late February to walk part of the Tarka Trail.
First we followed the course of the old railway line south to Watergate Bridge. [This line was built in 1887 to transport Marland clay.] We walked across the railway bridge and looked down upon water meadows, where moorhens hurried for cover.
Then the path went by way of embankments and cuttings through woodland, with a tributary of the Torridge beside it. Along the route the hazels were laden with catkins; the black buds were showing on the ash and there were silvery pink pussy willows and patches of bright red cup fungus. At Watergate Bridge it started to drizzle and we were greeted by a rainbow.
Back at Rothern Bridge we took a detour from the Tarka Trail in order to look at the ruins of Frithelstock Priory - the only monastic ruins in North Devon. The turning for Frithelstock is next to the Toll House on the main Bideford to Torrington road. The small village, with its church of St. Mary and St. Gregory, beside a little green, is three-quarters of a mile along this road.
Fourteen pollarded lime trees line the path from the lych gate to the church porch, representing the fourteen Stations of the Cross from Jerusalem to Calvary. A sudden hail storm drove us to take refuge in the church which has a Norman font, a Jacobean pulpit and delicately carved stone, canopied niches in the columns. There are also memorials to members of the family of John Gay, writer of "The Beggar's Opera".
The ruins of the Augustinian Priory, founded in 1220, are adjacent to the church but on private ground. However, they may be seen from the churchyard. We made our way through drifts of snowdrops and witnessed our second rainbow of the day, just emerging from the horizon and while we gazed at the ancient walls, the rainbow gradually arched right over the priory, making a beautiful frame for the already magnificent scene, and then as if on cue, some lambs appeared from around the far corner and played among the ruins.
The impressive West front of the Priory, with its three tall lancet windows, is best viewed from the lane behind the church.
Finally, we resumed the Tarka Trail north of the 15th Century Rothern Bridge to Beam Weir, a stretch where the wide River Torridge loops dramatically and the trail crosses it several times, via the old railway bridges. Long-tailed tits flitted in the bushes beside the former track, squirrels sprang from trees by the river.
This is beautiful, lush countryside and in such a setting, near Beam Weir, is the fine five arched stone aqueduct [known as Canal Bridge]. It was built to carry the Torrington Canal over the River Torridge. The canal was opened in 1827 but by 1871, part of its course was being used for the new railway line. These relics of the Industrial Revolution sit happily in this 'natural' landscape, today renowned as a stronghold for otters.
LOCAL WALKS - 34
Although it was a spasmodically drizzly Saturday in early January, there were a lot of people on the beach at Instow - flying kites, throwing sticks for dogs or simply promenading and enjoying the fine views of Appledore across the Torridge estuary.
It was not until the nineteenth century that the road along the estuary was constructed and the continental style villas built along it with their louvered shutters and long balconies. Among these is a square Modern Movement house discreetly set back from the road and reminiscent of the designs of Le Corbusier.
Opposite the Quay is the old railway signal box, preserved from demolition by popular local demand. Along some of the lanes, running at right angles from the beach, are rows of old cottages which pre-date the development of Instow as a resort.
'Instow, near Bideford' c1902 - from the Tom Bartlett Collection
At the furthest end from the Quay and beyond the sand dunes [a summertime Mecca for butterflies], is the cricket ground, facing Crow Point and the place where the Taw and Torridge estuaries meet, notable for its large, deeply thatched and buttressed cricket pavilion. Even the little hut, bearing the score board and built on to a war-time 'pill box', is thatched'.
We turned up Kiln Close Lane to Anstey Way where there is a Wesleyan Chapel built in 1838 and near it, the tiny church of All Saints, designed and donated in the 1930's by the architect B.N.H. Orphoot. It is positioned just below the main road in a peaceful little garden and its exterior gives it a Mediterranean appearance - plain white walls, semi-circular at one end with a simple bell tower and a cross, composed of layers of thin grey slates pressed into the wall. The windows are narrow and round-arched - the one above the door has a fish-scale pattern, with a laurel leaf motif beneath it.
Once inside there is a surprise because the interior has many Art Deco features - the light fittings and frosted glass shades; the fluted front of the altar, decorated above by a band of deep blue, red and gold mosaic. The walls are of cream painted brick and the church is furnished with rows of rush seated chairs. The exposed mahogany roof timbers were salvaged from a Victorian ship, HMS Revenge, which was broken up for scrap at Appledore. This modest little church fascinates us. It is so unexpected and has a distinctive atmosphere.
From there we crossed the Bideford-Barnstaple road and headed for Instow Old Town, which is about three quarters of a mile inland from Instow Quay and Sands. First we came to St. John's Church opposite an imposing farmhouse. Instow takes its name from the church, being a corruption of Johannestow or John's Place. The south wall is twelfth century and in 1547, at the time of the Reformation, a second aisle was added on the north side. Here there are windows with Tudor arches and a wagon-roof with carved bosses, producing a light effect and contrasting with the dark and heavy beams of the other aisle. The font is Norman.
Further up the hill is the village school and an attractive group of cottages, including the Old Schoolhouse and former blacksmith's and 'Knills', with its picturesque arrangement of walls and roofs. From here there are sweeping views over East Yelland and Instow Barton Marshes. The quaint circular stone building perched on a hill above the school is the ruin of a former windmill.
LOCAL WALKS - 33
"The sun looked over the hills, the moon was as a feather dropped by the owl flying home..." Henry Williamson
This year, the centenary of the birth of Henry Williamson has been commemorated, so we decided to explore the village of Georgeham, where he lived for many years.
Church & Skirr Cottage Georgeham
- Tom Bartlett Collection
Houses and cottages of a great variety of styles and ages - but many of them thatched and whitewashed - clustered about a stream and there, nestling below the church, was Skirr Cottage where Williamson went to live shortly after returning from the First World War. He shared the cob-built cottage with his dogs, cats, wild birds and an otter cub rescued after its mother had been shot. It was to be the inspiration for "Tarka the Otter".
During Henry Williamson's residence at Skirr Cottage, barn owls nested in the thatch. ['Skirr' depicts one of the calls of a barn owl.] He adopted the barn owl as his special symbol and one is carved on his gravestone in the churchyard behind the cottage.
After his marriage, Williamson moved to another cottage a few yards away and later had a house built at Oxford Cross, a mile out of the village. There he constructed an elm wood 'writing hut'. This is still standing.
Georgeham and Henry Williamson's life there during the years between the Wars were the subject of his book, "Life in a Devon Village". However, the locals were largely unimpressed by his growing literary reputation, one farmer informing him, "There be only one book I've read and that be the Bible".
The guide book I had looked up before our walk warned that the church had been 'unfortunately over-restored by the Victorians' so my expectations were low. But what a pleasant surprise! There were many notable things to be seen including a 13th Century stone carving of the Crucifixion in the north wall of the chancel, and tucked under an arch in the Pickwell Chapel, the effigy of Sir Mauger of St. Aubyn, a crusader and the "keeper of Lundy", who died in 1294. The knights legs are crossed below the knee and his feet are resting on a pair of dogs, with their gaze directed devotedly towards him.
Across the corner of the Chapel is an unusual 17th Century memorial to members of the Newcourt family; a series of small portraits each being set within a roundel. The paintings of St. Francis and St. George, the Archangel and the Virgin Mary, two on each side of the altar, were the work of a local artist, Margaret Kemp Welch, who lived in the parish in the 1920's and 30's.
A very elegant oak screen in the classical style divides the Chapel from the south aisle and was added in 1762. Its proportions and lines are lovely; the carving restrained. I would revisit St. George's church just to look at this.
After leaving the church, we strolled along the quiet lanes to Putsborough, a large and attractive hamlet with a thatched manor house overlooking a ford, and then on to nearby Vention, where a line of mainly white, flat-roofed Art Deco houses border the beach.
Here is another literary connection, as Putsborough was the final home of the American joumalist and novelist, Negley Farson [whose grave is also in the churchyard at Georgeham]. He was the father of writer and broadcaster, Daniel Farson, who lives at Appledore and who included a chapter about him in his book "Sacred Monsters" with among others, Orson Welles, Tennessee Williams and Noel Coward. Of Putsborough, Negley Farson said, "This is the perfect place for joumey's end."
LOCAL WALKS - 32
At Knap Down high above Combe Martin, a goat grazed placidly, tethered by the roadside. A black sow marched her five piglets across the road. Of these, two were large and chunky, three much smaller ones brought up the rear of the procession.
We took the track to Girt Down. Painted ladies and red admirals were on the creeping thistles; a few small coppers on hemp agrimony and gatekeepers on the fleabane and brambles. The painted ladies cannot survive the British winter. They originate in North Africa and come over here in great flocks. They especially like open downs, heaths and coastal areas.
The small coppers have a second brood in August and after warm summers a third brood may emerge with adults flying late into October. Their favourite habitats are ancient grazed grassland, heaths and cliffs.
Beyond the broad, walled track with sweeping views over Combe Martin Bay, the footpath actually passes through sheep pens. And then the vegetation changes completely from the variety of flowers, hedgerow trees and brambles to dense carpets of gorse and heather. The poet Edward Thomas, on a cycling tour of the Quantock Hills in 1913, wrote that the gorse blossom was "like flames sown by the sun".
Here there was deep magenta bell heather mixed thoroughly with ling - mauve and smaller flowers. The botanical name for ling is calluna vulgaris, calluna being derived from a Greek word meaning 'to brush', because the plants were once used to make brooms.
Great Hangman rose up to the West whilst on the other side the ground dropped down to Sherrycombe, where we could see walkers making hesitant and somewhat skidding progress down its steep sides. But we were continuing straight ahead to the viewpoint at Blackstone Point.
The cliff path comes to a dead end here but the terrain is wonderfully bleak and uncompromising and of course there are good views across the Channel. On this occasion it was becoming very gusty, so it seemed wiser in any case to be heading inland.
Once back at Knap Down, we turned down the lane opposite to look at what remains of the old silver mine. One is not allowed to go right up to the ruin, but you can get a good view of the picturesque chimney from the lane or from across the little, narrow field strips, dotted with horses.
C. Tom Bartlett Postcard Collection
Mining only ceased in the latter part of the last century but it went back a long way. It is intriguing to think that Phoenician traders came to Combe Martin to buy its silver and lead and it is claimed that Combe Martin silver financed the Battle of Agincourt.
LOCAL WALKS - 31
"The lonely sea and the sky"
One Sunday in mid-June, we headed for the coast path above Wringapeak to observe the sea birds which gather there. These high, steep cliffs near Woody Bay are a Site of Special Scientific Interest and an important breeding site for auks and gannets.
Guillemots were bustling to and fro, with their whirring flight and legs dangling when about to land. Flotillas of razorbills were on the water, diving for fish and using their half-open wings to swim under water.
Both birds are types of auk, looking rather like small penguins. They form large, mixed colonies on precipitous cliffs on the northern and western coasts of Britain, laying their eggs directly onto rock ledges, without making a nest. Their winters are spent at sea.
Guillemots are dark brown above and white beneath, with slender pointed bills, whereas a razorbill has a black back and head and short thick neck. The bill is very distinctive - broad and flat sided with vertical grooves and white markings across it.
In each case, a single egg is laid which is incubated for about thirty-six days. At three weeks old, the young guillemots and razorbills leave the ledge, though still unable to fly. They simply jump straight down into the water [sometimes receiving a bruising on the way down] where the parents continue to look after them.
After a while, we were able to distinguish three gannets flying low and direct over the sea, alternately flapping and gliding; magnificent birds with a wing span of nearly six feet - mostly white but with creamy yellow heads and necks and conspicuous long black tips to the narrow wings The powerful, long pointed beak is bluish tinged and the tail is long and wedge shaped. Although large, the gannet is lightly built and beautifully streamlined.
One started to wheel majestically, then plunged, arrow-shaped, headlong into the sea. [A gannet can descend more than a hundred feet after a fish]. A peculiar looking bird came into view, mottled black, grey and brown and speckled with white. This turned out to be an immature gannet in its second year.
The gannet nests in about thirty colonies, around the coasts of north western Europe and of these, the British and Irish birds form over seventy per cent of the total world gannet population.
A single egg is laid on a nest of seaweed, tufts of grass or thrift. At ten weeks of age, the young gannet weighs more than its parents. The excess fat is useful as the young bird is abandoned to fend for itself. While still unable to fly, it launches itself from the cliff and swims a great distance before rising into the air for the first time. In the autumn, the gannets disperse widely across the Atlantic and North Sea.
Witnessing the activities of these birds, on the water and in the air, was a fascinating experience. Our walk also included a view of the waterfall, formed by a stream arising near Martinhoe, which cascades over a high ridge, crosses the path and disappears to the beach below, between the boulders of a narrow gorge.
Drifts of Welsh poppies bloomed alongside the waterfall. Although called 'Welsh', these delicate, pale yellow flowers with deeply lobed and toothed leaves, are natives of the South West of England and Ireland as well as Wales. They favour damp, shady, rocky places and are the only species of meconopsis to be found growing wild in Western Europe.
"... that light blue eye a gannet clearly, a solan. *
In June, my solan should dive up, white, and stab the air. " - Robin Munro
* An old Scots word for gannet
LOCAL WALKS - 30
"Blue remembered hills"
May is bluebell time in the Heddon Valley! In the woods, drifts of them shimmered beneath the trees. More formed translucent patches of blue along the water meadows. The botanist, Richard Mabey, suggests "there is no sight in our whole island flora which can match bluebells en masse". They were also an inspiration to the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins who described their "falls of sky-colour washing" over the ground.
On a more prosaic note, the natural 'glue' derived from bluebell bulbs was used to stiffen Elizabethan ruffs.
As I looked up references to the Heddon Valley and to bluebells, I kept coming across superlatives for both and without a visit to this beautiful valley at this time of year, such claims could seem grossly exaggerated. A friend sent me a 1934 edition of a guide book to Barnstaple and North Devon, which she'd unearthed in an East Anglian second-hand shop. This is what it says about Hunter's Inn and Heddon's Mouth: "The scenery in this district is generally considered the most romantic in Devon and it is impossible to over-praise it."
The River Heddon ripples over boulders along its narrow valley, with water meadows alongside. Where it reaches the sea at Heddon's Mouth, the steep sombre grey scree slopes, rising to 700ft with a gradient of 7 in 10 in places, contrast with the wooded slopes near Hunter's Inn. Beside the path leading down through the oak woods a pretty mixture of late spring flowers bloomed; yellow archangel [it's country name 'weasel-snouts'], wood sorrel and shining cranesbill - the pink geranium lucidum.
But this changed as we approached the shore. There were a few clumps of thrift and sea campion but the slopes become so abrupt that vegetation is sparse.
Just above the little pebble beach is a restored lime kiln, a round structure in which limestone was once burnt with coal - both brought over in coasters from South Wales - for use on the land, to "sweeten" the acid soil. In return, the coasters took pit props back to Wales.
In Henry Williamson's "Tarka the Otter", Tarka spent a week at Heddon living in this disused lime kiln. While there he witnessed a stag and three staghounds crash down the scree onto the rocks, ravens and buzzards alighting to take advantage of the fresh carrion before the huntsmen arrived. Wisely, Tarka slipped quietly into the sea to avoid the onslaught of men and dogs and that night sat on a rock to eat conger before moving on to Great Hangman.
As we returned along the other side of the river, there were glimpses of dippers and a grey wagtail. Croziers of bracken were breaking through and the new ferns were unfurling; shiny green fronds of hart's tongue fern, used by the old herbalists as an astringent for burns.
We had noticed patches of flowers which from a distance appeared to be the white form of the bluebell. However, on closer inspection we found that the white bell-shaped flowers were arranged on three-sided stalks and instead of the scent of wild hyacinths, they possessed the tang of onions. This plant was the 'triangular garlic' .
It was a bank holiday weekend and the weather was warm and sunny and even the presence of all extra visitors, enjoying the walk, could not detract from the tranquility of the place.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
LOCAL WALKS - 29
"I dream'd that
as I wander'd by the way
Bare winter suddenly was changed to Spring ..."
On a bright but breezy Sunday morning in mid-March, we were glad that it was not snowing or hailing as we climbed up the hill to the church of All Saints at High Bray.
The high steep banks were ablaze with glossy celandines. Appropriately, the Dorset name for this flower is "spring messenger". The word celandine is traced back to the Greek "chelidon", meaning a swallow and it is known as swallow-wort in America. The lesser celandine was Wordsworth's favourite flower and it was therefore decided that it would be a suitable decoration for his tomb. But, unfortunately, the flower actually carved on his monument is the greater celandine - no relation to the 'lesser', but a member of the poppy family.
I was pleased to see so many of the true wild daffodils growing along the verges of the lane; a flower found especially in the South West and sometimes called the Lent Lily because of its time of flowering. The petals are pale lemon colour and point forward around the trumpet which is a slightly deeper yellow. The naturalist, Richard Mabey, says, "their essential quality is a lightness and freshness quite absent from the more opulent garden varieties."
The churchyard has dramatic views all around - of the Bray valley quarries, of Exmoor [the boundary of which is just a mile away] and of the village of Brayford itself. Pale mauve crocuses grew abundantly in the churchyard and there were some mellow grey stone buildings nearby.
There is a pleasant walk south from the church along Barton Lane and down through some woods to Newton Bridge. On a shady bank there were still a large number of snow drops in full bloom. And, already there were a few early stitchworts scattered about. A modest but attractive white star-like flower, it has some quaint alternative names, including adder's meat and thunder flower.
This plant is very weather sensitive. To protect the pollen, the flowers droop forwards at the onset of rain. A superstition made children afraid to pick them in case adders bit them.
The herbalist, Gerard, in 1597 explained how the stitchwort got its name - because it "cured the pain in the side, stitches and such like" if it were drunk in wine mixed with the powder of acorns.
We returned to Brayford, described by the 16th Century antiquary, John Leland as "a poore village caulid Brayforde". But this description is perhaps not surprising as at that time people tended not to like the more remote places surrounded by wild countryside.
We finished our exploration of Brayford with a very enjoyable walk beside the clear, sparkling waters of the River Bray, as it meanders through water meadows; then from the hamlet of Little Bray we took the track, through Wort Wood, which traces the course of the river from above.
LOCAL WALKS - 28
the glimmering landscape on sight
And all the air a solemn stillness holds ..."
Everything was very quiet and still - the sky lilac and pale blue with pink-tinted clouds and the hills, too, were coloured in soft pastel shades. It was a Sunday afternoon in early January and our vantage point, for enjoying this beautiful panorama, was the hill-top village of Atherington, seven miles south of Barnstaple.
From the village square, we trudged along muddy lanes whose high hedges were punctuated by views across the broad Taw Valley to Chittlehampton Church and beyond it, the southern slopes of Exmoor.
Atherington has a lot of thatched cottages, some tucked away in pretty clusters, and the whole village is dominated by its tall-towered church, St. Mary' a landmark for many miles around. It was founded by Athelstan, the grandson of King Alfred.
When in the 19th Century the church was restored under the supervision of the architect of Truro cathedral, J. L. Pearson, the cost of the restoration work [estimated at £3, 000] was met by Mrs. Bassett of Watermouth Castle. The organ was presented by the Bassett family in 1897, and was originally situated at Watermouth Castle.
Indeed there are many Bassett connections. The greatest attraction is the lofty and richly carved oak screen in the north aisle, with an enclosed rood loft above - the sole remaining one in Devon. A narrow, winding stone stairway leads up to it. The screen was the work of two carvers from Chittlehampton in 1535.
The screen and rood loft were previously in a chapel at Umberleigh, but when this was demolished in 1800, the Bassett family was responsible for installing it in Atherington Church and hence the north aisle became known as the "Bassett Aisle".
Evidence of earlier Bassetts is to be found in the monuments. In the north aisle of the chancel is a 16th Century altar tomb with inlaid brass figures representing Sir John Bassett and on either side, his wives Ann and Honor. At the feet of each wife are brasses depicting the children, packed closely together in groups of seven and five. There is also the effigy of a knight dating from approximately 1225.
Also in the north chancel aisle is a window containing medieval glass. The pews in the nave have ancient and elaborately crocketed bench ends, the edges shaped in a series of curled leaf patterns, a design more usually associated with the sides of pinnacles.
A very interesting church, a pleasant village and splendid extensive views - much to look at and admire.
LOCAL WALKS - 27
A forlorn little group of donkeys gathered at a gate. Oyster catchers strutted about the field jabbing at the ground with their long bills. We were heading for Baggy Point on a brisk November morning. A few flowers remained, tree mallow, yarrow, some violets, a clump of fumitory.
At the end of the lane we found there had been changes since our last visit. Baggy Point Hotel had disappeared and in its place a new house had recently been built - an interesting design with bold and original elevations.
Nearby a whale bone is on display, from a large bull whale washed ashore here in 1915.
Rock samphire was growing abundantly on the cliffs. Glossy and succulent with fleshy leaves, it is recommended as a vegetable and was the diarist, John Evelyn' s favourite. The collection of it from steep cliff faces was referred to in King Lear as, "a dreadful trade" . It used to be taken to London markets in barrels of brine. I cooked some once, but came to the conclusion that it is a very acquired taste!
Along the track were the seed heads of the stinking iris, conspicuous in the autumn. Also known as roast beef plant or gladdon [derived from the Old English and Latin words for a little sword], the plant has dingy mauve flowers, but much more attractive are the seed capsules which split in three parts to reveal six packed rows of bright orange-red seeds. The Hottentot fig from South Africa has become naturalised here.
Geologists are drawn to the area to see the 'raised beach', stretching southwards from the northern end of Baggy Point - said to be one of the finest known examples of its kind.
When we reached the Point itself, where the sandstone cliffs rise more than 300 feet, we paused to watch a group of thirty or so cormorants swimming towards the shore. Immediately below, a solitary shag was diving for fish. We counted how long it remained under the water - about thirty seconds, but this agile diver is capable of staying under water for three minutes.
Although similar when seen from a distance, shags are smaller than cormorants with a shorter neck and their black plumage has a greenish lustre instead of the bronze-black of the cormorant.
We made our way up to the Coastguard Lookout - a wooden post with footholds for climbing. Near it, the ground had dropped down a few feet in a neat semi-circle. Peering over the edge I was intrigued to find this had provided a sheltered dining room for sheep. A lot of them were huddled together around two mangers of hay.
Turning the corner, the path continues along Napps Cliff. Here there are wonderful views out to the great expanse of Woolacombe Bay and Morte Point in one direction, and in the other, Croyde Bay with Westward Ho! beyond.
LOCAL WALKS - 26
The churches of Tawstock & Bishop's Tawton face each other across the Taw valley. Viewed from above, on the road winding down to it, St. Peter's, Tawstock, sited on the slopes of a small wooded combe, creates one of North Devon's most picturesque settings.
Opposite, on the other side of the river, can be seen the church of St. John the Baptist at Bishop's Tawton, with its medieval stone spire [an unusual feature in Devon] and immediately to the south of the church, is a farmhouse with two small towers. This was one of the palaces of the Bishop of Exeter until the time of Henry Vlll. The present building has medieval origins, but the castellations were not added until the late 18th Century.
Tawstock church, built of the golden Ham stone, from the quarries near Montacute, Somerset, is largely 14th Century. Over the porch is a sundial made in 1757 by a Milltown craftsman, which is designed to show the time in various foreign locations, including a naval base in the West Indies and a trading station of the East India Company.
Bishop's Tawton Church c.1903
As we approached the porch we became aware of a noisy twittering coming from the top of a swallow's nest. The young nestlings did not seem at all disconcerted by our passing under their home in order to enter the church and it had been an unexpected pleasure for us briefly to have shared their company at such close quarters.
There is a lot to see in this church and although restored under the direction of the famous Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1867, its interior luckily has not been spoilt by over-zealous restoration. It is probably most noted for the number and rich variety of its tombs and monuments. In the North transept is a delicately carved and precarious looking wooden gallery leading to the belfry from a spiral stairway.
Here also are boards recording the gifts donated by benefactors to the poor and to the church, and a chained book whose author was Bishop Jewel of Bowden, Berrynarbor This book, a defence of the Protestant faith published in 1550, was so highly regarded by Queen Elizabeth I and the Archbishop of Canterbury, that it was arranged for copies to be kept chained in all parish churches.
Nearby is an unusual carved French Renaissance manorial pew. Tall and canopied, it has been mistaken for a four-poster bed or a confessional. The pretty decorations on the transept ceilings were the work of a 17th Century family of itinerant Italian plasterers.
A later addition, from the last century, is the carved stone reredos, modelled on Leonardo da Vinci's 'The Last Supper'.
We made our way up through the village which lies out of sight a quarter of a mile away from its church. All along the roadside were elder and blackberries glittering in the burst of sunshine that followed a recent shower. We passed the castellated Tudor Gatehouse, all that remains of the former Tawstock Court which burnt down in 1787 and was replaced by a mansion in the Strawberry Hill Gothic style - now St. Michael's School. Just outside the village and right in the opposite direction to the church, is the village school. Not an ideal village plan, with the two buildings which should provide from its focus, cast adrift from it centre, particularly when they are both especially fine examples.
When the last house in the village has been left behind, down a steep hill, around a bend and across a stream, one comes face to face with the village school. And what a surprise it is too when viewed for the first time! For not only is Tawstock a village of thatched cottages, but its school is thatched as well. It consists of a pair of one-storey buildings adjoining each other, with a row of bay windows and steeply pitched roofs of deep thatch. The whole effect is very pleasant and homely.
Next to the school gate is the Holy Well, believed to be two thousand years old, originally a site of Druid religious rites, later used for Christian baptism.
We returned to Barnstaple - 3 miles away - via the hamlet of Lake. After passing beneath a low bridge [a mere 6 '6" headroom], a blustery storm drove us down towards Shorleigh Bridge, tucked down in a hollow and then up to the strange towered building on the hill near Tallins. More castellations here. It is in the process of being renovated, but I wonder what its origins were - a folly perhaps?
Postcards from: Tom Bartlett Collection
LOCAL WALKS - 25
We are fortunate to have the largest system of sand dunes in the South West within a short distance of Berrynarbor. On the Braunton to Saunton road, we took the turning left [opposite the sign post for Lobb] to the Sandy Lane car park.
The Burrows have attracted botanists since the 17th Century and today almost 1500 acres [2/3 of the Burrows] form a National Nature Reserve. The continuing importance of the area to naturalists is recognised by UNESCO's designating it an International Biosphere Reserve.
With tall mauve flowered comfrey and wild fennel along the track, it was like walking through a herb garden. Once out on the open heath land behind the dunes, the tiny white flowers of eyebright were abundant underfoot. In damp areas we came across the marsh helleborine, a type of orchid.
Over 400 different species of flowering plants have been recorded. Of these the French toadflax, with small linear leaves and short spikes of tiny yellow snapdragon-like flowers, is found nowhere else in the British Isles.
We encountered the picturesque flock of brown Soay sheep, introduced as an experiment by English Nature, which administers the reserve. It is hoped that their grazing will compensate for the decline in the rabbit population, as without close cropping, the shrubby vegetation will spread at the expense of the huge variety of ground-hugging plants like thyme and storksbill.
Two striking red and black, day-flying moths, the burnet and the cinnabar, may be seen here, as both breed on the Burrows in large numbers.
The crests of some of the dunes reach 100' in height. Between the dune ridges are 'slacks' , many of which flood with fresh water in winter and dry out in the summer. A merlin took off from a stunted tree in one of these slacks. The smallest of our falcons, the male is slate-blue above with darker wing tips and yellowish brown underparts, streaked black. It has a broad black band at the tip of its tail.
The creeping willows were peppered with poplar leaf beetles. Shiny and deep red, they resemble very large ladybirds without their spots. When disturbed they give off an antiseptic smell to repel predators.
A grayling, the largest of the brown butterflies, had settled on the sand, looking very dull and inconspicuous. It is to be found especially on sand dunes, lowland heaths and coastal areas in general. More splendid to the eye was a great green bush cricket.
Eventually we reached the beach - three miles of it, stretching from Saunton to Airy Point. Some distance away, a group of seventeen cormorants had lined up along the edge of the sand. At our feet were patches of navy blue from the masses of mussel shells, empty razor shells and the curious decorative skeletons of the heart urchin, pale, hollow and brittle. Also called the sea potato, this creature burrows six inches down into the sand using its spoon shaped spines as trowels.
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"I heard a bell-note
floating to the sun;
It gave significance to lichened stone ..."
On a day in mid-April, when wintry weather was still being forecast for the rest of the country, it was unexpectedly sunny and dry in North Devon. Disenchanted with waterlogged footpaths and slipping over in the mud, we decided to opt for terra firma and explore the lanes around Ashford.
We headed first for the church, St. Peters. Its interior is an absolute delight. Although the church was rebuilt in 1854, it contains a fascinating collection of medieval woodwork, with a great variety of carved patterns. Bench ends have been 'recycled' and incorporated in the pulpit. There are box pews and some of the original oil lamps. The door frame with its double ogee is very unusual and attractive.
R.D. Blackmore, the author of "Lorna Doone", spent some of his childhood in the village as his father, the Rev. J. Blackmore, was the Rector at the time of the church rebuilding and his memorial, beside the altar, includes some rather plaintive wording. [Blackmore's novel, "Maid of Sker", is partly located at nearby Heanton Court, disguised as 'Narnton Court'.]
Ashford Church c 1916 Photograph - Tom Bartlett
There is another memorial to a Frances Drake - note the 'e' in Frances, for this is not the famous mariner! [Among the names in the churchyard there were also a lot of duplicates of those of famous people.]
The church is on a steep hillside and its churchyard looks southwards over the Taw Estuary. Here the bell tower is reached by exterior stone steps at the rear of the church. Two small tortoiseshell butterflies had been tempted out of hibernation by the sudden sunshine and flitted about a warm bank.
Jack-by-the-hedge, with its small white flowers and heart-shaped leaves, was growing among the bluebells in the churchyard. Its other name is garlic mustard as it possesses the flavour and aroma of garlic. It is also, with lady's smock, one of the main food plants of the caterpillar of the orange tip butterfly, which feeds on its pods in June.
But whereas the latter is very much a plant of damp meadows, Jack-by-the-hedge is associated with the dry bases of hedges.
On cue an orange tip butterfly appeared - a male, white with a large bright orange patch on the outer part of each forewing. [The female is white with grey-tipped wings. Both have a green mottled pattern on the underside of the wings, which looks like lichen.]
Reluctantly, we left this sunny haven. Along the roadside were a lot of alexanders and alkanet, bush vetch and, growing on the shaded hedge banks, cuckoo pint, the wild arum, with its arrow-shaped leaves and pale green pointed spathe wrapped around the purple spadix. Its roots contain a high concentration of starch, which used to be extracted and made into a food called Portland sago. [The toxins present in the plant were supposed to have been destroyed in the drying process.]
In Medieval times, the starch from the roots was used in laundering but the herbalist, Gerard, observed that this was "most hurtfull for the hands of the laundresse that have the handling of it, for it chappeth, blistereth and maketh the hands rough and rugged and withall smarting."
On a corner at the bottom of the hill was a quaint cob and weatherboarded barn. Along Strand Lane is Oxleigh House, a large house, the roof of which is surmounted by a bell, used originally to summon the estate workers. At the edge of the village is a house whose architect must have been influenced by Voysey, the great architect of the Arts and Crafts School, for its design bears many of Voysey's hallmarks - horizontal windows close under the eaves, with their exposed rafters, creamy white roughcast walls, broad chimneys and a generously proportioned entrance.
We returned via Adder Lane, stopping to look at the Victorian Gothic former schoolhouse, now the church hall.
LOCAL WALKS - 23
'Halcyon Days! '
There is always something interesting to see on the Braunton Marsh and our last two visits there this year have provided very pleasant surprises indeed.
Passing through Braunton on the way home, we decided to stop off on the marsh for some fresh air and exercise before it got dark. Soon after we arrived on the causeway, a white shape passed over our heads We watched its wavering, erratic flight until it landed on a post near one of the derelict barns beside the lane which separates the marsh from the Great Field. Two cyclists and a dog were approaching along the lane. Although quite close to the barn owl, because of a sharp bend in the road, the three of them were totally unaware of what was ahead. From the advantage of our elevated position on the embankment, we were able to watch the little drama unfolding. Once around the corner, even the dog stopped in its tracks. The owl remained on its perch for a couple of seconds before taking off.
We discovered it again on a post in a field near the Toll House. It was facing us and we could see the 'furry' completely white feathers covering its long legs and watch its heart-shaped face turning from side to side. The delicate grey markings and small white dots on the fawn back give the impression of the plumage being studded with tiny pearls. But on the wing the barn owl appears to be completely whiter especially when seen at dusk. No wonder it was considered ghostly.
Braunton Marsh is the result of reclamation work started in 1811. A bank cutting off the sea from the salt marshes was built during the 19th Century by local, Dutch, Irish and Cornish labour.
Last month we were strolling along the lane near Gallowell, watching the numerous swans dotted about the marsh and thinking about turning back when, as we came to Sir Arthur's Pill, we saw that unmistakeable flash of iridescent blue skimming the water. It is no exaggeration to say that on the wing a kingfisher looks like an arrow of dazzling, bright blue electric light. Its normal flight is low, direct and rapid. Henry Williamson described it as "drawing a blue line".
The kingfisher stayed quite still on a thin branch, extending from the bank and dipping into the water. The white patch on the side of the neck was showing clearly and the deep reddish orange of the under parts and ear coverts. It darted away suddenly and reappeared, hovering, a little further off. This time we had a good view of its turquoise crown and wings. The brilliant blue part, so eye catching in flight, is the bird's back. Kingfishers are especially vulnerable to hard winters, when they sometimes move to estuary or coastal habitats.
Halcyon was a legendary bird, identified with the kingfisher, which was supposed to have a peaceful, calming influence on the sea at the time of the winter solstice - hence the expression 'halcyon days' to denote a time of idyllic happiness and tranquility. The bird of the ancient fable was believed to have bred in a floating nest on the sea during the fourteen days of the solstice, when it charmed the wind and the waves to be still, for the safety of its eggs.
On our halcyon afternoon, after our encounter with the kingfisher, we continued on a little way to the junction with Sandy Lane and by the time we had returned to Sir Arthur's Pill the scene had completely changed. The calm and tranquility had gone - Landrovers and men with guns and dogs were gathering along the edge of the marsh and the swans now agitated, were taking off, flying in the direction of the estuary.
LOCAL WALKS - 22
Within a short distance of the centre of Bideford there are two small lakes which attract large numbers of ducks and gulls at this time of year; less common birds can often be seen there.
The Kenwith Valley lakes were developed as part of a flood prevention scheme and are being managed by the Devon Birdwatching and Preservation Society. More than forty species of birds have been recorded at the Kenwith Reserve, which may be reached via Northam Road [near the junction with Kingsley Road].
Whenever we have strolled around the first lake, we have found that the coots and moorhens are far less shy here than elsewhere, and are content to venture quite close to the path.
But, on our last visit, we noticed three birds which were not being gregarious at all and keeping always to the middle of the lake, well away from the edge. At frequent intervals they would disappear and eventually emerge some distance away. It was very much a case of 'now you see us - now you don't!
These secretive birds were dabchicks or little grebes; very dark brown with chestnut coloured cheeks and throats. The plumage is much lighter in winter, however, and the throat becomes white.
Public access is restricted to the second lake but beside a mass of teazles there is a hide, from which to view it. Swans can usually be seen on both lakes, but it is only by this quieter one that you may see a swan on its nest or a heron fishing at the water's edge.
One February we saw some gadwalls there. A little smaller than a mallard duck, the gadwall is a fairly uncommon winter visitor. The male is greyish brown with very fine black vermicular markings and a grey beak. The female resembles a female mallard but like the male, she can be identified by a white patch on the wing.
LOCAL WALKS - 21
There was a thick covering of sycamore, beech and oak leaves underfoot along the path which starts beside Fremington House and then skirts around Fremington Camp. A lot of blue tits, chaffinches and blackbirds flitted to and fro across the path and among them there a were a couple of marsh tits, with their glossy black caps.
As Fremington Pill came into view, we could hear agitated piping from a redshank and an oyster catcher, standing together at the water's edge. A close look revealed a large number of redshanks further out on the Pill, their brown streaked plumage blending with the mud. Only the movement of their long scarlet legs gave them away. A redshank is about half the size of a curlew with a straight bill, red at the base and dark at the tip.
Wavy edged polypody ferns grew around the bases of the trees and beside one there was a heap of beech nut husks, so it was no surprise when a squirrel spend down the trunk.
As the path descended to Fremington Quay itself, a cormorant, which was perched on top of a tall post, made an odd and conspicuous sight. Here on the beach was a curlew with more oyster catchers.
We turned left along the old railway track towards Isley Marsh and viewing across the Taw Estuary to Heanton and Chivenor.
At Saltpill Duck Pond we stopped to watch cootes popping in and out of the reeds. A heron crouched by some reedmace. It is a strangely shaped patch of water. Fingers of land project into the pond and on those and on an island in the middle, grew masses of tamarisk bushes .
Tamarisk can grow up to twelve feet in height and with its feathery branches and small evergreen leaves, it is able to withstand salt winds. It may flower from July until as late as November in mild districts and on this dull November's day, many clusters of pale pink flowers were still in evidence.
LOCAL WALKS - 20
It was a peaceful stroll through the woods between Brendon and Rockford. The pebbles sparkled through the clear bright waters of the East Lyn River, and we amused ourselves spotting the trout - which were plentiful - just below the surface.
Several silver-washed fritillaries, large and gold with a bold pattern of black spots and streaks, fluttered about a patch of brambles. A pleasure to come across at any time, but especially in a year when there has been such a shortage of butterflies. [Colonies of this species are commonest in the West.]
Yellow cow wheat was the most abundant plant flowering beside the path and there was betony, a purple flowered member of the deadnettle family, with strong rectangular stems.
From the Tom Bartlett Postcard Collection
Some tiny puffballs were clinging to a tree trunk - but not the edible variety unfortunatelly!
After crossing the river at Rockford and joining the road, we plodded up the steep hill to the isolated church of St. Brendan [with an 'a' - the village name is spelt with an 'o']. St. Brendon, often known as Brendan the Navigator, was born near Tralee in Ireland, whereas the village name of Brendon is supposed to have been derived from the Anglo-Saxon 'bryn' or 'brun' , meaning brown or bramble and 'dun', a hill. The churchyard commands a wide view and many surnames familiar to Berrynarbor are recorded on tomb stones there.
As there was a sudden improvement in the weather later in the afternoon, we stopped off at Countisbury Church before returning home, and walked out to Foreland Point [a fine viewpoint for Lynmouth and Porlock Bay]. The flowers of the heather and gorse were so densely packed and blended together that the slopes of Butter Hill looked unnaturally vivid.
A deep croaking alerted us to a pair of ravens and as a grand finale to our outing, we were able to watch a peregrine falcon 'stooping' after prey at great speed, like an arrow, with its long pointed wings folded back.
LOCAL WALKS - 19
'Out Along Lee'
We had taken the path which starts near the Upper Torrs car park and leads up past the old lime kiln. Foxgloves and sea campions were in full bloom around the old building, and a red admiral settled on its weathered grey stone.
The winding path above White Pebbles Beach had more scabious flowers along it than I have seen before. The soft blue blended well with the ox-eye daisies, thrift and tiny yellow tormentil. We paused to watch fulmars flying to and fro and pairs of gulls tucked into crannies and ledges in the sheer cliff face.
A rustling in the nearby bushes turned out to be a pair of wrens.
When the steep climb is over and you reach Flat Point, with its grazing sheep and wide, open views, the airiness and spaciousness are exhilarating. A flock of skylarks rose up suddenly from the springy turf. My foot disturbed an adder hidden among some stones and gorse. With a hiss it disappeared rapidly from sight - a beautiful creature, with its bold brown V-shaped markings on a sandy background.
The descent down the lane to Lee is easy and in early June was accompanied by the delicate scent from the sweet briars in the hedgerow.
One of our reasons for walking over to Lee had been a wish to revisit its church of Saint Matthew and Saint Wardrede [thought to have been a Celtic missionary, the name meaning on or near the beach]. This is a very small church and of relatively recent origin, but it nevertheless contains some surprising and interesting features.
It was built in 1833 as a 'chapel-of-ease' and did not become the Parish Church until 1869. Although the building itself only dates from the 19th Century, it has been furnished with a wealth of Jacobean woodwork, including carved dark oak panelling, choir gallery, pew ends and pulpit.
In the chancel is a small window of old Italian enamelled glass, depicting a Rogational scene of cattle being blessed. There is a lot of detail in the faces of the animals.
To the left of the door is the Richards memorial, which commemorates the first Parish Clerk, Martin Richards, but strangely, his father, Hannibal Richards, had been a notorious wrecker and smuggler, first in Cornwall and later at Lee.
One of the most conspicuous and unusual aspects of the church is the Victorian wall decoration in light blue and Burgundy red, illustrating Christian emblems, such as the crown of thorns, nails, anchor and chalice, St. Catherine's wheel, the grid iron of St. Laurence and three money bags for St. Matthew. These painted symbols combine to form an attractive overall pattern on the walls of the nave. In the chancel, the paintwork becomes richer in colour and more elaborate.
The whole effect is very beautiful and well worth walking over the cliff tops in order to view it.
LOCAL WALKS - 18
".. a lovely
winding path ... starred with wood anemones among trees and bushes thickening
Reverend Francis Kilvert 1870
Although it was a cold, dull April we walked along the Taw at Umberleigh [7 miles south of Barnstaple], we were encouraged by the sight of some summer visitors - swallows and martins.
This is a gentle landscape of water meadows and grazing animals with wooded slopes beyond the railway line. A common sandpiper [another summer visitor arriving in April] flew along the river, nodding its head when it landed on some stones, before flying rapidly downstream, piping shrilly.
There were large clumps of marsh marigolds [or kingcups] growing abundantly. Their bold yellow flowers looked stunning. Also plentiful were the wood anemones. Although not as immediately eye-catching as the marsh marigolds, their neat, white stars, with attractive, intricately divided leaves, made beautiful carpet beneath the trees on a little island in the river. One plant had flowers of a colour between lilac and rose, rather rare. [The botanist, Richard Mabey, in 'The Flowering of Britain' says that he has only obs