Crossing Dartmoor – the Pedlar and the Soldier (Days 158-159) September 2nd – 3rd
By Steph Bradley 6th September 2010
It’s All About The Feet (Chagford- Bellever)
What an unbelievably lovely day it has been. Georgiana and I set out from Clare’s, her having insisted on pressing a £20 pound note into my hand as we leave, and after last minute errands meet up at Yuli’s studio where Georgiana sits having her feet dressed in Leiceister blue face wool.
I watch fascinated as first Georgiana’s feet receive layer and layer of soft layers of white wool soaked in water and gently moulded to her feet with olive soap, and then are encased in plastic bags and slipped back into her boots. She’ll need to walk for a couple of hours and then wash her felted feet in a stream before removing the felted slippers made by the walking, a permanent memento of this walk across Dartmoor and into Cornwall which she will make.
We set out along the little lane that leads out of the small town with a big village feel, and off up high skirting Meldon common, pausing to strip off layers as the sun comes out to bless our day. Me in short skirt and she in shorts we walk, shoulders bared to the warm sun and stride out, or perhaps, more accurately, saunter along, one in flip flops and the other in wet felt plastic bag lined boots.
When we have walked a couple of hours we reach the main road and find a stream for Georgiana to complete the next stage of the felted feet process. It is exciting to see the delicate white felt slippers emerge and stand alone, apart from Georgiana’s feet, their model. They are fastened to the back of Georgiana’s pack, along with her very wet walking boots and for the next couple of miles she walks barefoot along the grassy verge.
We stop and look at birch tor, speculating if once that rock crowned hill was once a birch wood, and spot the hut circle at its foot. We skirt around the car park wondering if there is time for a detour to go see when an old man walks by, sees Georgiana, ruck sack on her back, bare foot and says
“Now that’s the way to travel”
And she agrees; it certainly is.
We look at Bennett’s Cross, standing close to the road side car park and agree that it most definitely is the figure of a woman and only later must it have been rechristened cross. It is lythe and sinuous and makes so much more sense in this ancient landscape as a representation of woman than some much later symbology of a much later religion.
From the cross, or the Birch Tor Goddess, looking out to the tor, and the remains of ancient settlement below, I spot a path leading directly to it and we follow it, it is several minutes walk, and passes through the most idyllic valley full of bright purple heather, hawthorn trees, standing exquisitely as trees and not bent as enclosure hedges, and, best of all, unbelievably and serendipitously, bilberry bushes! I have had in my heart a yearning to pick wimberries (my native Lancashire name for our native blueberries) for many a year and had thought I had missed the season yet again so it is a gift to find them here. We eat from the bushes and sit awhile at the settlement edge in the warm sun shine and I pick and eat several more berries. They are not as sweet as I remember them from the childhood forays with my mother to pick them on Holcombe Hill every summer, but they are the last few of the season, and I have at last found a place in my adopted homeland where they grow in profusion and I know where I will be spending next summer!
We walk on and pretty soon arrive at the Warren House Inn where Georgiana can leave her sodden boots stuffed with newspaper next to the fire that has been kept burning continuously since 1850. The party of young women sitting beside it are talking in disbelief that this is possible and I am struck by how soon the idea of keeping a fire alight has become a thing to marvel at rather than something quite normal if you wanted to keep the heat in.
We eat a delicious lunch, and toast Clare for providing this treat for us with her parting gift, and read the map and decide to head off on bridle paths across the moor to the youth hostel. I have reservations but it turns to be exactly the thing to do. Georgiana has her socks and boots back on now and the felted slippers fly gaily from her backpack like tiny flags and we have wrapped up warmly against the wind that has picked up.
We walk along well marked and paved tracks and through open common with gorse, heather and cattle. I am nervous around the cows though I have the sense that they will be far more generous about right of way out here where they have all the space they need to wander and it is so. They are shaggy and chocolate dark and have coverings almost like that of sheeps’ wool over their bodies. I finally feel moved to get close to a young one as we reach some behind a fence once back on a tiny lane and the little creature runs from me in fright and I am struck by the irony that the first cow I have approached since learning to fear them was afraid of me!
Through the open common, possibly partially to help me with walking through all these cattle, Georgiana tells me a story. It is a lovely story and beautifully told. It is the tale of John Chapman, the pedlar of Swatham, in Norfolk. The tale is one that reminds us of how important it is that we follow the things our dreams tell us to do. I can of course vouch for the good sense in this! The story of John Chapman is one of a good hearted pedlar , who loves in a tiny house with an apple tree outside, and who is so kind hearted he gives away wares till he is penniless and then a dream tells him to go to London to hear news that will matter to him. He ignore the dream which repeats until the third time he listens and walks to London where he meet s a man who feeds him and tells him not to listen to dreams for he has had a dream; to go to a place called Swatham and dig under an apple tree till he finds a chest full of gold, and what nonsense is that! John walks off home and digs under his apple tree and finds the gold. He spends the gold on a slightly bigger house to live in and on good works around the village and there is a statue there to this day to celebrate their benefactor which Georgana has seen with her very own eyes.
At the edge of the moor where we reach the lane there is a stone Clapper Bridge where we cannot resist but sit at its edge on the sheep cropped green grass and lie on our bellies to sup crystal clear water from the brook. It is a glimpse of paradise and I am irresistibly drawn to dipping my feet into the water though I know it will be cold, for it is exquisitely beautiful to see such clean clear water not far from its source and I feel uncertain whether to grieve for all those rivers I have walked beside that no longer look so clean and pure as this, or whether to rejoice that at least this brook is still just the way river are supposed to be. I give thanks for the privilege of living so close to this wonder, and feel pain for those who do not have enough water to drink, and I again remind myself that I live here, in this area, and feel happy that I have saved this most wonderful palace to the end of my journey and that of all the places I have fallen in love with I do live in the very best place of all!
As we sit, enjoying this idyll, a filmshow unrolls before our very eyes. A farmer’s vehicle pulls up at the other side of the bridge followed by a herd of running cattle. As this spectacle comes closer we realise it is all completely orchestrated; the three sheep dogs leap from the back of the landrover and herd the cows, who try to stop and paddle and drink from the stream, I feel sorry for them, for they are herded on to the patch of common where the farmer needs them to go. He calls back the dogs and they come and then he jumps into the back of his jeep and shoos out 4 terrified sheep, who race out and are off over the moor, herded slightly by the dogs, who head them off so that they go in the right direction. The farmer calls his dogs back and they come and then they do a bit more cattle herding and finally they are called to jump in the back of the jeep which they do, and they are off.
We have watched a real life piece of Dartmoor farming, and it works in perfect symmetry. Quite magical.
We walk on and soon arrive in Bellever where a white van comes to a halt and a bearded man reaches out to take my hand.
“Totnes folk!” he says in delight!
It takes a while to register, but it is the Christian Bakers (…) that come to Totnes market, from their community far off over the moor, every Friday, to bring us hand baked spelt bread. It is lovely to see them and when they hear we have walked and I have been away walking the country the man says we must be ready for a cup of tea, and invites us to stay with them. A car comes up behind them and they have to move off but not before our bearded friend has handed Georgiana a leaflet about their community and we check the address, but it is Honiton, and too far in the east for us now.
Two minutes later we are at the Bellever youth hostel and checking in. It is a lovely clean friendly hostel with good simple food. There is no mobile phone signal and no customer internet access and we still have no place to stay in Tavistock, our next stop, and I ask the hostel folk to check a website for me and get a phone number. In no time at all they have found Westden, a very special local community group and Max’s number. I call him up and tell him what I am doing and he immediately invites me to stay with him. He did a two month walk himself last year along the SW coastal path raising awareness about water use and walking without money. He is delighted to be able to have the opportunity to share stories and so am I!
What a perfect ending to a perfect day! I sit in the hostel lounge and write my blog and meet a Dutch lady who tells me she is away from home resting and recovering from a recent legal battle with her next door neighbour who wanted her to chop down her trees because leaves were falling in his swimming pool! Fortunately she won; there is a law in the Netherlands that trees over 20 years old cannot be touched. She tells me she met Taffy Thomas, storyteller, many years ago, before he was famous, then read an article about him, and it inspired her to look out other storytellers and discovered a group in the very next village. She is trying to get one going in her village too. I smile, it is lovely to hear how much people love stories, wonderful that we begin to acknowledge the old way of sharing information, and how much more memorable and meaningful it is than facts and figures ever can be.
Of Losing the Way and Finding the Way (Bellever- Tavistock)
The morning starts off with me feeling quite cross at breakfast; sitting in the echoey dining room kitchen of the hostel and having to listen to the loud voice of an exceptionally opinionated woman who loves the sound of her own voice and cannot bear a second of silence. She engages everyone in the hostel, (but us, for I lower my eyes and make it clear I will not waste my energy with this) in her desperate conversations designed to give her a sense of self, and their voices rise too to match hers. In this cacophony of empty vessel speaking such thoughts are exchanged as the place to stay is a youth hostel because they are cheap, from a woman clearly from a moneyed background and I think of all those inner city kids for whom the £30 each we have paid would be totally out of reach. How is it that we allow people who could pay more to pay rates designed to meet the pockets of those with less, and consequently raising the prices of things beyond the rate that many could manage at all.
When we set out across the moor I am still reeling from the effects of the onslaught upon my senses; heart apounding. I have become accustomed to beginning my days in silence, in reflection, in a quiet taking in of the day to come, and to meet with this woman is quite the most unpleasant experience I can remember along the walk. The certainty in the voice of a woman such as this who cannot bear silence, making noises even into the brief pauses in conversation, is such a very dangerous thing for the others engaged, taking the appreciation of the gift we had been given to be nestled in this tiny place in the very heart of the moor away from them to the tales of this woman, who had come here by car, and thought she knew it all.
Gradually I settle into the day, though very less at one with my landscape than before, and even now as write, I notice how out of balance I feel even thinking about this creature. What would it take, I wonder, to settle her down to be really here on the earth and not off on a trip of her own making? Georgiana and I set off across moor to Wistmans Wood, the ancient oak woodland I love so much.
We walk along the Lych Way (way of the dead, where coffins used to be carried across the moor to the nearest consecrated ground) through herds of cows with horns and shaggy coats, and I begin to notice my fear is less, still wary, glad of Georgiana’s company, but less of the heart pounding terror. We find our way to Powder Mill, old gun powder factory, and get lost trying to walk on and have to turn back to the road. We get to Two Bridges and take the footpath from there and arrive at the woods, now leafy and acorn laden, very different from when I last saw them in the winter. It is lovely to see them so clad and yet I am sad; I cannot find my pair of trees; a special pair whom I feel closely connected to. The day’s events and constant chatter have put me in a very different space from how I usually approach this place, in fact how I have approached everyplace on this journey, and I miss the feeling deeply.
Georgiana and I have lunch in the Two Bridges hotel, a place I like very much for its old sofas and big fireplaces, and ancient walls covered in old photos and tools and utensils of bygone days; copper bed pans, and strange shaped shovels. The tomato soup is hot and peppery, and the other diners quiet; I perk up a little.
We leave Two Bridges and set off again across the moor. The first stage is just perfect, following the bed of the old railway line, which we share with several other walkers, and then we get lost, trying to get onto the bridle way which will take us down to the little lane that will carry us west to the edge of the moor whilst the railway wends its sinuous way southwards. We end up on boggy ground and I get frustrated and cross. Wishing we’d stuck to the road, and we go back to the railway track and have to look out for another opportunity to come down off the tor and eventually Georgiana spots a stone wall and we pick our way through the ferns to it and follow it down …and find the bridle path, and a neat little sign pointing back the way we have come, through the ferns; bridle path… though none is evident along the way we have come, just two stone makers half way up the slope, half buried in the ferns. We have found the way through, reached Criptor crossing, and are pretty soon on the little road we need to take us onwards to Tavistock.
The sun is out in force now, shining bright and warming us and we walk with pleasure the rest of the way. The views have been spectacular all the way but now that we cannot get lost I, at least, am happier and able to take in the scenery again. It is like a Lord of the Rings landscape but better for it is real!
Georgiana tells the tale of Bearskin, the soldier who made a pact with the devil to go unwashed for seven whole years and the beautiful young woman who falls in love with the truth in his eyes and waits for him, to while away the time and it works very well indeed. ‘Tis lovely to walk with a storyteller as a companion!
We get to Tavistock where my parents are waiting with maps of Cornwall for us.
We go to the Bedford Hotel for a drink and to look at the maps and Max, our host for the night, turns up and he and I delightedly exchange tales of our respective walks whilst my father and Georgians exchange tales of Norway and I remember that my dad was there in the 50s when he was in the Merchant Navy.
Then Max takes me and Georgiana off to his mum’s house were we meet Lucie, his partner, and Geri his mum, and we have supper and hear about Westden (West Devon Environmental Network http://westden.wordpress.com/). Max and Geri are running it now, though it started out some 15 years ago and has done many projects over the years including more recently starting off the transition group. Tomorrow there is to be a transition stall on the market and we volunteer to help out. We hear that Lucie is a sustainable maker, teaching recycled clothes making, (www.giselledesigns.co.uk ) and is about is about to go on a local natural dye making course. She is to teach Yuli’s daughter on a clothes making course starting soon. I discover that Geri was supposed to visit Bowden tomorrow for an action day but has got to stay and do the stall tomorrow instead as everyone else from transition is away at the moment.
We hear about Max’s amazing 2 month walk for water aid, he walked the SW coastal path without money and raised £3000 for Water Aid when he realised that every time we flush the loo we use 40 litres of water and that some folk only have 40 litres of water with which to do everything, wash, cook and eat and drink. He was inspired to do his walk last summer by Satish Kumar when he doing a Gandhian Philosophy course with him last year in India.
We have a lot of fun listening to Geri’s tales of backpacking across Africa last year, and Max recounting the walk he made for water…in the pouring rain, and I cannot help but think that Max and Geri Laithwaite would make a great comedy duo and really should be out there educating by entertaining folk!