Sing a Song of Sixpence

Four years ago, when we elected to give up a comfortable and familiar life and take on a lengthy renovation project in the middle of a high moorland wilderness, our only question was “Will we regret it if we don’t do it?”  Knowing our answer, we sold up and moved, confronting adventures and mishaps along the way.  We did not know what was in store for us, but somehow, we knew the journey was going to be worth it.

And it has been.  Each time we return to Crockern, we both have a strong sense of coming home.  This old house, complete with its three-page Excel spreadsheet of projects left to do, hugs us when we cross the threshold, like a fine host who offers a comfy chair and a warming drink.  On a windy, wet evening — of which we’ve had more than our share this winter — we feel snug and dry.  And nothing beats a warm summer’s day, when we can bask in the beauty of the landscape.

It hasn’t all been Bordeaux and vistas though, and we’ve faced some steep learning curves:   Maintaining Generators; Replacing Oil Tanks; Building Concrete Plinths; Repointing; Addressing Damp; Refilling Potholes; Dry Stone Walling; Keeping Chickens; Keeping out Badgers, Foxes and Sheep; Death; Predation; Smashed Fingers and Scratched Corneas; Determined sheep; Leaks; Floods; Rats; and, Rabbits, to name but a few.  We’ve also put to use some of our known skills like mixing cement, hanging ceilings, refinishing floors, basic plumbing and electrical work, and gardening.

Blackbird by Thomas Bewick. Image found on the Internet.

Blackbird by Thomas Bewick. Image found on the Internet.

At the same time, I have been observing and learning more about our local birds.  I’m not a twitcher, nor do I proclaim to know much beyond identifying the birds at our feeders, but my desire to uncover a few ornithological abilities has taken on a new dimension:  To locate where the blackbirds are nesting and to observe their broods.

We have friends who have a nice little nest at eye height in the hedge along the edge of their garden.  My search will not be so easy.   To focus, I need to look for the Blackbird’s nest in the kind of real estate these birds prefer:  Deciduous trees with dense undergrowth.  Hmm.  We have a number of trees around the property, but the undergrowth isn’t exactly what I would call dense.  Muddy and pocked with mole hills perhaps, but not dense.  Blackbirds tend to favour evergreen or thorny bushes such as holly, hawthorn or honeysuckle.  We’ve planted these, but the hedge plants have a few years to go before they offer up any real protection for nesting birds.  And sometimes, they might build nests in sheds or outbuildings, making use of a ledge or cavity.  Oh, and back in the day, you might find four and twenty of them inside pies.

Sing a Song of Six Pence vintage image found on the Internet.

Sing a Song of Six Pence vintage image found on the Internet.

My skill of spying nests is not great, so I intend instead to stalk these birds to see where they come and go.  And like any good birder, I must do this with a bit of stealth.  Something else I seem to lack.  Walking outside usually means I send birds flying.  Sam jumps and barks in anticipation of a walk, while the chickens come running up in hopes of a bit of apple or some corn.  The grazing sheep and cows all stop what they’re doing to assess me.  In short, I am easily observed.  Following a bird, with its rapid and evasive flight pattern to its nest will be no easy matter.

To get started, I thought I’d read up on Blackbirds.  I already know how to identify the male Blackbirds with their slick, black plumage and a splash of saffron ringing their eyes and covering the bill.   It’s the kind of look that says, “I know how to go out on the town, and yet am not at all stuffy.”  Sophisticated and yet, whimsical.  The female birds are “dressed” more to my style; nothing particularly impressive and that’s okay.   Fortunately I also can comfortably recognise the lovely songs of Blackbirds among our community bird choir.  This may help me locate them when my visuals fail.

What I hadn’t realised is the lunar symbolism attached to these pretty birds.  There are plenty of people who see Blackbirds as dark and mysterious creatures, keeping their secrets safe.  Well now, that upped the ante on finding their nests!

While I’m hopeful, I’m not what you’d call driven.  I’d like to find the nests and observe the breeding cycle.  A few years ago we found a nest of Pied Wagtails in the wall of one of our sheds.  Their hidden home had a front and rear exit and I must have walked past it for weeks before I ever noticed it.  What drew my attention was the attack flight of a protective parent when I moved too close and paused near their homestead.  This well concealed residence was home to seven babies who soon learned to fly.

Last year, we had nearly twenty-five nests for Swallows and House Martins, which isn’t our highest number.  I can see the Great Tits bomb into the stone walls tending to their hidden homes.  There are probably wrens and Robins nesting in these walls, too.  Since moving here, I’ve hoped to find the Blackbirds setting up camp nearby.  I’ve spotted two males and one female.  One of these males likes to sit outside the window where I work.  Could any of them be living within a short distance to our front door? Or, are they just stopping by for the afternoon to observe the chickens and resident Jackdaws and sing us a happy tune?

Crockern captivates and enchants, providing a deep sense of place and belonging along with a peace and quiet that befalls one upon arrival.  I can think of no reason why at least one pair of Blackbirds wouldn’t make their home here.

Returning from putting the bird feeders away and the chickens to bed, Roger said,  “You’ll never believe what I saw in the shed.”  As it turns out, there was a pair of Blackbirds flying about where we store the bird and chicken feed.  Perhaps their nest is in there?  I go into this shed a half dozen times a day and haven’t thought to search here.  Instead, I’ve been preoccupied looking around the yard and area gorse bushes.  Have I missed the obvious while I singularly search for one thing?   And then it hits me, like so many answers to unasked questions which stare us right in the face:  Despite  all my efforts, I may or may not locate the Blackbird’s home anytime soon, and it doesn’t matter as we found ours.

Treasure Island. A Different Tale.

On some level, all of us love stories of buried treasure and tales of lost fortunes.  Whether the riches are inherited or pirated, they lay hidden in locations known only to those now long dead.  Let’s be perfectly clear, buried treasure is not the same stuff found by archaeologists and metal detector users the world over.  No, buried treasure is just that, it’s treasure, and in my mind the singular domain of pirates or criminals who for whatever reason left their booty behind, well hidden in a remote place, to retrieve later with the aid of a map.

There are many accounts of lost and found treasures and the idea of uncovering unimaginable wealth is seductive.  Many of these supposed fortunes are likely to be myths, or, have been slowly and discretely spent.  Take, for example, the German gold that went missing at the end of WWII.  It is possible that this gold was smuggled to South America and introduced into the market?  Or could it still remain locked in private bank vaults where it is impossible to claim.  Is it not likely that the gold reserves of the last Tsars of Russia are now in the hands of new governments?  And the Titanic?  I’m thinking those treasures never existed in the first place – even though they did recently auction Wallace Hartley’s violin.

Still, you can’t help but dream.  Imagine stumbling upon those Lost Faberge Eggs!  Or uncovering the Treasure of the Knights Templar, especially given the hype from Indiana Jones movies and The Di Vinci Code?   Sure, Long John Silver, Blackbeard, and even Captain Kidd may all come to mind when one imagines looted treasure being buried for later retrieval.  What we do know is that any map worth its treasure, whether tattered or tattooed, has an “X” to mark the spot to locate those hidden gems.

More commonly in fiction than in reality, these maps are often hand drawn and contain arcane clues to aid the user in finding the loot.  One of the earliest suspected instances of a treasure map is the copper scroll, which contains a list of over 60 locations with detailed directions pointing to hidden stores of gold and silver.  It was written between 500 and 100 AD.  But is it real?

I can’t help wonder how do you get your hands on one of these maps?  Who among us hasn’t longed for a crinkled map to fall out of the back of an old dresser or Grandmother’s photo album?  And, what about the crazy luck of the Scooby-Doo Gang finding a treasure map in their pizza box?

I have a standard for what I consider to be treasure, and I suspect I’m not alone.  For example, most, and I solidly place myself in this camp, would NOT consider a bottle of Gallo Rose to be a treasure.  Gold bullions?  Absolutely!  And yet, recently, a treasure hunt has presented itself to us involving a ghost, a pirate and some buried stash!

Here’s the back-story:  Many years ago, a cheap bottle of Rose wine appeared in our house, left behind after being re-gifted by a party attendee.  Hey! Party-attendee! Thanks for that!  When friends called one night to invite us over for a drink, we could hardly show up empty handed so we did the only thing available at the moment and showed up with a half empty bottle of a lovely wine we had started earlier and the re-gifted bottle of plonk, the now infamous Rose.  Not a particularly high-class move on our part, but it was at least an honest gesture.

Since that evening, this bottle has made the rounds between our houses.  Like a bad penny, it keeps turning up unexpectedly:  one time standing proudly in a refrigerator; another time mixed into a case of wine; another, left on a front door step.  When we moved, our friends smuggled it into our house on their first visit, leaving it behind in the shower only for us to discover it as they drove off down the track.   However, Dartmoor magic prevailed and this same bottle made its way to their front door, over 200 miles away, just a few days later.  Back and forth, back and forth, the now speckled-with-paint-from-a-house-decorating-project bottle of Rose joined our friends on a ski trip in France, but failed to make it across the Atlantic to join us in Montana for a birthday celebration weekend with friends.  The cunning deception, detailed planning and execution of this bottle traveling between our two households continues and escalates.

The Bottle itself.  Notice the paint splatters.

The Bottle itself. Notice the paint splatters.

Until recently, I thought the idea of coming across a treasure map was the stuff of legends.  But the other day an email arrived in my inbox entitled ghostofcrockernpast@gmail.com and attached within — a treasure map!

In addition to landmark clues, the treasure map we received contained a helpful message, Treasure buried under large rock. Good luck treasure hunters. Wooooo oooo ooo.”  Honestly, look for yourself:

Not a precise map as there are now two horses in the field and nine chickens in the yard.  But, aren't these maps supposed to have cryptic clues?

Not a precise map as there are now two horses in the field and nine chickens in the yard. But, aren’t these maps supposed to have cryptic clues?

Feeling a little like Nancy Drew, I suggested to Roger we head out in the dark in search of this missing treasure.  We donned our wellies and fleeces, grabbed flashlights and invited our faithful hound, Sam, to join in the hunt.  We committed the map to memory and headed out into the dark.  No self-respecting treasure hunt would be complete without ample atmosphere and we had it in spades.  The clouds obscuring the moon made for an eerie glow and the surrounding mist mostly ate the light from our flashlights.  We took each step with care across the rocky and boggy path indicated on our map.  To add to this atmosphere, a Tawny Owl hooted in the distance as if cueing a spectral ghost, or more to the buried treasure plot, an evildoer hell-bent on stealing our map and thus the buried treasure, to appear and lead us to our doom.

At the end of the trail, we located the large rock, moved it aside and unearthed a cylindrical container swathed in plastic.  Inside was the bottle of Rose.  What is one person’s hidden treasure is another person’s discovered poison.  Now, we await the return of those who entombed their valued goods, securing the memory of its location with a well-drawn map.  We are prepared to happily return this Rose to its rightful owners.

The pirate who will return to collect her buried loot.

The pirate who will return to collect her buried loot.

Dear Santa

December, 2012

Santa Claus (AKA, Kris Kringle, Papa Noel, and Father Christmas), Santa’s Grotto, near Reindeerland, North Pole, Somewhere in the Middle of the Arctic

Dear Santa Claus,

When Roger and I met, as the arctic crow flies, we really weren’t that far from you.    Perhaps you think it rude we didn’t stop by for a cup of iced coffee and introduce ourselves, but honestly, it was early September, and that has got to be a busy time for you.  Do you really want uninvited visitors dropping by?

I know you get loads of letters this time of the year, but it has been nearly 40 years since I’ve written with any requests, so I’m hopeful that your administrative elf-team push this letter to the top of your in-box, giving you time to consider it.   Before I present “the list”, I want you to know we’ve been really good this year and, with aplomb, weathered lots of changes from the move.  Since arriving at Crockern, we’ve rescued sheep and hens, put in some vegetable beds and worked hard to make improvements on an old house in need of some TLC.   Secondly, we appreciate and admire all that you and Mrs. Claus accomplish year in and out to help make children happy.  If you think Roger and I merit, maybe you and the elves might work your Christmas magic to assist with some of our requests here at Crockern:

  1. Help the roofers finish.  They’ve been with us since September and frankly speaking, enough already.
  2. To help us make a decision on the heating system so that our 2013/14 winter will be warmer and cozier than this year.  I’m certain you have insight when it comes to “best practice”.
  3. Protection for our chickens from foxes, badgers, and inexplicable ill health so that they can keep providing those yummy eggs.  I know you have a busy holiday schedule, but if you have the time, perhaps you’ll join us for breakfast?  Roger makes a lovely poached egg.
  4. To encourage those sheep to stay off our stonewalls and out of our yard.  Can’t you send that Mandy Patankin guy along to help fix the walls?
  5. To remain on friendly terms with Old Crockern, God of Dartmoor.  We think we’re doing okay on this front, but it wouldn’t hurt for you to put in a few extra good words.
  6. How about some dog biscuits to give to his Wisht Hounds?  I’ve noticed Sam loves our postman who always has treats to give.
  7. A paten for my slug-prevention-soup.  It works as well as cheep beer in keeping the slugs away, and costs far less!
  8. A rock pick made of carbide steel.
  9. Despite what you might hear from older siblings and practical joking friends, we don’t want any rats, gnomes, lumps of coal, or Morris Dancers thank you very much.
  10. But, a Royal visit would be nice.  Of course, you and Mrs. Clause are always welcome and I think we would all have a good time should Their Royal Highnesses The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall fit a visit here into their schedules.
  11. An answer to a burning question about flying reindeer:  Do they rut and does that really sound like my friend Joann’s new door bell?

If you do decide to stop by, could you please land your sleigh on the new patch of roof?  It is now sturdy and I am a little concerned about the barn roof might be unsafe since we haven’t yet tackled that project.  If you elect to come down the chimney, please take care as we have the wood burner now, and the flue is smaller.  No offense, but the front door might be easier.

You might recall from your visits to Winding Trail in the 1960’s that there will be a snack waiting for you and your team of reindeer.  I think Oreos and beer are an odd combination, but my Dad always told me to leave the beer rather than milk.   We will leave some carrots and apples out for you to provide to the reindeer.

Safe travels Santa.  It can be wet and windy here in Dartmoor, so don’t forget to wear your waterproofs as you wouldn’t want that handsome red suit of yours to get damaged from precipitation.

With love and warm wishes for a healthy and happy holiday season to you, Mrs. Claus, all the elves and reindeer,

Catherine, Crockern Farm, Pretty much in the Middle of Dartmoor, UK

p.s.  If you’re inclined, you can follow my blog by pressing the “follow” button.  I think it would be swell if you did!

Santa 1965

Here we are Santa in 1965!

Bring Out Your Dead and Halloween Candy

I took an early morning walk with Sam, a few weeks ago, and found myself marveling at the dew covered spider webs hanging from the gorse bushes that cover our part of the moor.  If there is mist – and there is almost always some morning mist in Dartmoor – and if the sun is just so in the sky, the bushes on the hillside glisten and sparkle like an Elton John cape from the ‘70’s.  But now that the end of October is near and we officially enter the winter months, making staying indoors much more tempting, I’ve noticed that many of these spiders have moved inside with us.  They are huge, hairy and probably slightly terrifying to many, and most likely none other than Tegenaria domestica and Tegenaria gigantea.  That’s house spiders to you and me and they are here in time for Halloween.

House spiders

House spiders

Shortly after setting up camp inside the house, these spiders are seen busily scuttling across the room, climbing walls, and weaving some seriously impressive webs in the corners.  Naturally, before friends or family come to visit, we make an effort to neaten the house and remove the webs, but now that Halloween is upon us, I’ve been letting the spiders carry on with their silken decorations to create a spookier feel to the place.  Besides, they work hard to build their intricate traps and, given the number of projects we are facing, I can appreciate that need to enjoy a sense of accomplishment.

Autumn, with its cooler air and changing colours, always fills me with memories of apple bobbing, pumpkin carving and, of course, Halloween adventures.  Halloween is a once a year opportunity to dress up in scary clothing, hang up paper bats and skeleton decorations on the walls and ceilings, cover the front door with fake spider webs, carve pumpkins and eat vast quantities of mini-chocolate bars.  Who doesn’t enjoy that?

Just because we live in a national park, whose history is riddled with numerous stories of ghosts roaming the moors, and what with Wistmans Woods – supposedly the most haunted place in Dartmoor – just a short walk away, and potential prisoner escapes from the jail just around the corner, doesn’t mean we are guaranteed Halloween success.   I recall, as a child, that spine-tingling sensation as my friends and I gathered the courage to make our way up a long drive to a dimly lit house with the sounds of ghouls blasting from the stereo speakers.   Dressed in our Superman, Princess Leia, Ghost, Hobo, Clown or Frankenstein outfits, we would steel ourselves, pillowcases in hand (selected to hold more candy) our hearts racing waiting for the door to creak open before we screamed, “Trick or Treat!”  But here in Dartmoor, we are some distance up a track and every kid knows you can’t maximize candy collection when houses are far apart.

So if Halloween won’t come to us, maybe we need to go to it.  In looking for the local Halloween events – certainly, there must be a haunted house to visit or a 5K Zombie Run For Your Life – I stumbled upon what may be the scariest of all events on the National Park Authority web site:  Ranger Ralph is leading a Ghosties, Goblins and Ghoulies walk for the whole family with “spooky stories and traditional Halloween fun.”  Among the numerous downsides to this event is that “fancy dress” (that’s costume for the non-UK reader) is optional.  Honestly, where’s the fun in that?

Every October marked the beginning of my costume planning.  We had a box in the attic full of dress up costumes and previous years Halloween outfits, but I always wanted something new.   I would beg and beg until my parents took me to the shops to see the latest selection of Halloween gear.  I longed for the magical outfit designed to help me bag a big cache of treats from the neighbourhood suppliers.  I carefully considered the season’s latest in plastic masks and polyester capes with glee while my mother carefully examined my costume choice for quality, pouring over its cheap snaps and weak seams and reviewing the small print label assurances that the material was indeed flame retardant.  As Halloween approached and the weather turned colder, my mother would insist that I wear a winter coat OVER my outfit.   As every child knows, it is not possible to ward off evil spirits and ghouls when that specially chosen costume’s super powers is covered with a coat, nor is it easy to paw through the candy selection while wearing mittens. My mother and I could never see eye to eye on this.

Halloween Clown

My friend clowning around. We were about 16 at the time of this photo.

It is disappointing to accept, but I don’t think we are going to get any trick or treaters this year.  All the same, I’ve purchased candy, as I will not be caught short-handed should the bell ring.  And imagine if our doorbell did ring!   How would any brave soul  — or undead being — feel if we didn’t have a bowl full of mini chocolate bars to offer as treats?  Halloween is not just about trick or treaters, it is the very night when those lost souls without a pulse haunt the land and magic is at its strongest!  Imagine how chuffed a passing coven of witches might feel upon trick or treating for a bite size Baby Ruth Bar before heading off to celebrate the night of the dead at one of the ancient moorland stone circles.  When we were kids, soap on the windows or toilet paper in the trees were the sorts of shenanigans inflicted on those pretending not to be home because they didn’t have any treats to distribute.   But this sort of mischief is nothing compared to the collective powers of witches who can turn someone into a toad or standing stone should they feel the urge.  Without a treat to offer, I’m certain we don’t have a chance at deflecting their hatched spells.

Halloween Dads

My Dad (on right) and two of his friends one Halloween circa 1975.

Luckily, Ranger Ralph is not the only game in town.  Each year a group of paranormal enthusiasts gather to exorcise the two hundred year old ghost of Kitty Jay who, as a young barmaid at a local pub, was seduced and left pregnant by a young farmers son, who subsequently disowned her.  In her anguish, she committed suicide therefore preventing her body from being buried in consecrated ground.  Instead, as was custom then, she was buried at a crossroads with a stake through her heart.  This last act was done to stop the Devil taking her soul and also to confuse her spirit so that it could not find its way back to haunt the living.   It is believed that her soul still wanders restlessly on Dartmoor.  Really, who needs paper bats and skeletons when this sort of stuff is on offer?

This part of the world is filled with places that just cry out to go and visit to celebrate All Souls Night.  I’m oddly drawn to some of the spookier places with names like Bleak House, Bloody Pool, Coffin Wood, or best of all, Scary Tor.  There are lots of places with Devil or Pixie in their names that could keep us busy for some time were we to visit them all.  I want to get into the spirit, as it were, of this holiday, so we may just set out on a walk along the Lych Way, also known as the Way of the Dead.  It was along this track that the corpses were carried for burial at Lydford and as luck would have it, it is just a short walk north of our house.

More than likely, we’ll stay home and carve our pumpkin, open a bottle of wine, don our masks and wait for that knock at the door.  Anticipation is often the scariest part.  I wonder who’ll come to your door?

Halloween Souls

Wandering souls in search of ….

Prose and Cons

On a clear night here, we can see millions, perhaps billions, of stars in the sky and moon shadows far across the land, because we live free of light pollution. Well, almost! High up on the moors, some three miles away, is the town of Princetown, home of legendary Dartmoor Prison.  This lonely, bleak, forbidding structure of grey stonewalls sits highly illuminated in the heart of Dartmoor National Park.

I’ve seen the inside of many prisons in my life, and, I must add, not because I was doing time.   My first encounter was the Greene County Jail.  In elementary school we took a field trip to said local establishment and I’m certain it was our teacher’s effort at crime prevention, ala Scared Straight.  In that 1978 documentary a group of juvenile delinquents spend three hours in Rahway State Penitentiary, New Jersey, being berated and lectured at length by a group of “lifers”.   During our visit, each child got to stand in a cell for a few seconds.  It must have worked because I’ve never broken the speed limit, let alone committed a crime.

Dartmoor Prison

That said, it hasn’t stopped this Little-Miss-Goody-Two-Shoes from trying to get inside gaol.  I’ve crossed the rough and dangerous waters of the San Francisco Bay to visit the now disused Alcatraz prison and ferried over the treacherous shark infested Ocean to land upon Robben Island, which infamously held Nelson Mandela.  Any number of castle dungeons and cells, including The Tower of London, have all made my tourist list.

With their formidably high walls, battlements of razor wire, and very high security, prisons fascinate:  Which notorious characters served time there?  How did some of them escape?  What is prison life really like?   Luckily for me, the Dartmoor Prison is the only prison in the UK with a museum, handily located directly opposite and in very close proximity!  With the endless hammering from the roofers currently at our house driving me to flee, my curiosity about this prison ultimately got the better of me and I headed off to the Darmoor Prison museum.

Dartmoor Prison

I was prepared for a curatorial overview of statistics and history and a sense of what the cells are like.  After all, as previously mentioned, I’ve been in prison before and I know this is often the typical presentation.  What I wasn’t prepared for was the avenue of garden gnomes lining the path leading up to the museum entrance.  These pint-sized figurines, with their pointy hats, that inhabit so many gardens around the world, first got their start in 19th century Germany.  Apparently, 1847 first saw the arrival of these troll like statuaries in the UK and they have since come to be regarded, by many, as an essential accessory item to the domestic garden.  Not ours, I hasten to point out.

As innocent as gnomes themselves may be, they too are sometimes involved in crime.  Many have been stolen, kidnapped even, and smuggled via suitcase or backpack to be photographed and showcased in exotic locations throughout the globe.  Such “gnoming pranks” form the basis of the storyline in the 2001 movie Amelie. The pastime has grown more popular with Travelocity, which sponsors a “Roaming Gnome Game”.  One 53-year old French man was recently arrested for stealing as many as 170 gnomes.  Standing at the entrance of the museum, I wondered, was it this middle-aged man from Brittany who placed these gnomes here and is he serving time across the road?

Woody in a gnoming prank in London found on internet

Pranks aside, the real crime as I see it is that making gnomes for the museum gift shop is a form of job skill development and rehabilitation for the inmates.  I’m not alone in this assessment, either.  In the February 2006 “Report on an Unannounced Short Follow-up Inspection of HMP Dartmoor”, the HMP Chief Inspector writes:

“Work opportunities within the prison had improved beyond recognition since our 2001 inspection, when little else was available other than a workshop painting garden gnomes.  Prisoners now had access to a range of work-related courses, including plumbing, carpentry and brickwork; and allocation to activities was well-managed and responsive to assessed needs.  At the time of the inspection, there were still too many prisoners, around one in six, engaged in largely unproductive activities on residential wings, and there were too few qualifications on offer.”

So now, in addition to the gnomes, this small gift shop also flogs keepsakes such as little garden signs reading, “Keep off the grass” or “Beware of the dog”, and a collection of wooden plant labels for the vegetable plot.  There is larger merchandise such as doors, bird feeders, and wooden planters.  I was tempted to purchase the bag of kindling, as 50p for the large size seemed a good price.

We have a piece of prison furniture in our home.  My great grandfather was the prison warden in Marquette, Michigan in the early 1900s.  In the prison woodshop, the prisoners made a silver chest with internal mechanisms that must be manipulated in such a way in order for the drawers to open.  It was a wedding gift to my grandparents and then my grandmother gave it to my parents when they wed.  It is a beautiful little piece and I like its story and how it came into my life.

Dartmoor Prison museum is housed in the old prison dairy with exhibits organized historically from 1805 this being the date the prison was first built for French and American Prisoners of War.  Once the true criminals started to arrive, they were made to work and the meaning of hard labour was well and truly experienced:  quarrying, cultivating and draining the moor, clearing fields and building walls and paths.  What Roger and I wouldn’t do to have a work release program come out and assist, but the days of prisoners working with area stone seem to have come and gone.  Stop making gnomes lads and help us make some repairs!

Today the prison is a category C, which means those inside are unlikely to make determined escape attempts due to lack of desire, resources or skills.  This comes as a relief living but a stones throw away.  Back in the day, the prison was a category B establishment and held men who were a high escape risk.  The buildings are grade II listed and come under the purview of English Heritage.  Permission for alterations to improve security was denied and Dartmoor prison was downgraded to category C in 2001.

Despite this change in escape threat, the museum displays samples of lots of escape equipment that has been confiscated from inmates over the years.  In addition to some clever homemade door keys, one newer item to the museum was a grappling hook fashioned from a bent metal chair leg with knotted sheets wrapped around it. Over the 150 years of prison history, there have been hundreds of successful escapes the most recent being in 2003 when three prisoners managed to break out.   I guess if you are brave enough to attempt this, then you are up to wandering about Dartmoor in the cold and wet without an OS map.

Funnily enough, there is a story of one inmate who wanted to stay in the prison.   David Davis was a trusted convict and became the shepherd for the prison farm service.  He spent 55 of his 80 years behind bars and in that time tended to the sheep.  He served several terms and, upon each release, would commit further crime in order to be sent back to Dartmoor prison.  Long since dead, it is said that his ghostly shepherd image can be seen wandering the moors alongside a flock of sheep.  I haven’t seen him yet, but can’t he keep those darn sheep out of our yard?

The museum also houses the usual items of interest:  the flogging frame, medical table, confiscated weapons and drug paraphernalia, and innovative tattoo equipment.   What is unique, and unlikely sanctioned by the curators because it represents an act of vandalism, is my favourite prank.  Someone has dared to bring into the museum a black marker pen and work their graffiti magic on two manikins, one, which portrays a prisoner in his convict garb, is now sporting a black eye while the other, dressed in a guard’s uniform, has a silly mustache.

Moving past the gift shop tat and through the museum, one is reminded that this prison is in the middle of Dartmoor National Park.  Placed here not because it is an extraordinarily beautiful location, but because it is synomomous with harsh conditions.  The prison has a long history and reputation as a punishment prison for intractable repeat offenders, coupled with various riots, murders, spectacular escapes and notorious inmates giving it the reputation as one of the hardest places a British convict could serve time.  And maybe making garden gnomes remains the harshest of punishments.

German Garden Gnome

On Discovering Those Wacky Cultural Traditions

Boris Johnson on zip wire

The summer of 2012 saw Team GB give its all in the London Olympics.  It was exciting and surprisingly addictive.   But despite my regularly tuning in to watch, I found myself feeling a little short changed.  Sure, we got to see Boris Johnson get stuck on a zip wire, but where in these Olympic competitions were the truly traditional and defining events of Britain?  Things like Shin Kicking (known as The British Martial Art), Nettle Eating, Cheese Rolling, Swan Upping and Wellie Wanging were all missing from the line up.

The British are accomplished at the weird and wacky.   With its long and varied past, any number of traditions and festivals, some more eccentric than others, have evolved over the centuries in the UK.   Fortunately, I have the ultimate guidebook:  Discovering English Customs and Traditions.  This little known gem of a resource was a gift from friends when I first arrived in England.   Not only does it list the traditions, but it also provides their origin.  Arguably, it is difficult to be certain of how most of these customs and ceremonies got their start, but does it matter?  The way I see it, the underlying point is to have a good time.

shin kicking

Shin Kicking — ouch!

Since moving to England, I’ve managed to witness, and even participate, in a few of these customs.  I have no desire to have my shins kicked, nor have I pole danced, but I have watched Maypole Dancing.  This pagan tradition, originally celebrating fertility and later romance and courtship, has performers dance circles around a tall pole that is decorated with garlands and ribbons.  The steps of the dance lead to the ribbons becoming intertwined.  Then more steps somehow result in the ribbons becoming untwined.

A slightly more curious group of characters are the Morris Dancers.  This may be one of the easiest traditional customs to observe because these folk dancers show up at just about any organized UK gathering.  Some say Morris Dancing is pagan in origin; others (specifically, the Morris Dancing website) refute this claim.   According to my little book, the fertility and pagan connections may be oversimplifications of the true Morris Dancing history, which were probably fifteenth-century European courtly dances.   It appears wherever you happen upon a group of men and women dressed in folksy costumes with cloth strips hanging from their outfits, wearing hats and stepping about rhythmically, you’ve got yourself some Morris Dancers.  Not all dancers are alike, though, as many carry an array of interesting props ranging from sticks and handkerchiefs to more sinister swords while performing.

Morris Dancers at Widecombe Fair

Morris Dancers taking a break

When we lived in East Sussex, the big Event was Lewes Bonfire Night, which is more akin to a semi-controlled wildfire.  Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Night, is the English national holiday to celebrate the day in 1605 when the British parliament wasn’t blown up and the subsequent death of a Catholic terrorist (Guy Fawkes) for planning the dastardly deed.  In Lewes, the air is filled with choking smoke and deafening noise and the overall vibe is nothing short of rowdy.  If in doubt, the message from the organizers says it all:  “All persons should carefully note that attendance at Lewes Bonfire Night will constitue volenti non fit injuria, that is to say you will be deemed to have accepted any risk of injury or damage whatsoever, and no claim in respect thereof will lie against the organiser.”  So, you’ve been warned is the long and short of that!

Like any other region in the UK, Dartmoor has its own traditions and customs: Mangle Mumping, Riding to Water, Wassailing or the more familiar, “Beating the Bounds”.  Possibly medieval in origin, this ancient ritual involves parishioners walking the parish boundary, symbolically touching stones and markers with a rod to reaffirm the boundaries.  In the City of London, Beating the Bounds happens each year on Ascension Day All Hallows.    While this custom is not unique to Dartmoor, the boundary of Dartmoor Forest (our neck of the woods), which is about 50 miles in length, was first recorded as Beaten in 1240.  Since then, this custom has mostly died out.  Roger and I may start our own tradition of beating the bounds in places where we’ve repaired the walls, just to remind the sheep of the newly established no-go zone.

There are a few well-established traditions in Dartmoor and one is the annual Widecombe Fair.  With a history dating back to 1850, this fair started as an opportunity to showcase and sell livestock.   This year’s event coincided with a visit from Roger’s Mother, so we three (and Sam) went to the Widecombe Fair.  On the way there, Win started to sing,

Tom Pearce, Tom Pearce, lend me your grey mare.
All along, down along, out along lea.
For I want for to go to Widecombe Fair,
With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

This song, which immortalizes Widecombe Fair, turns out to be a popular folksong in England.  Win recalled learning it as a young girl.  The Devonshire Regiment is alleged to have sung this tune during the Boer Wars and more recently, it made its appearance as a theme song for the Exeter City football club.  That is, until they experienced a losing streak, and dumped the song in hopes of changing their luck.

Beyond the livestock competitions, none of us knew what to expect, so imagine our pleasure in witnessing a ferret race!  We also tasted some good local foods, checked out some vintage farm machinery, schmoozed with a few people we’ve met since arriving in Dartmoor, and watched a horse-riding competition.  We stopped by a dog agility competition and placed Sam at the front of the crowd of onlookers in the hopes that he would pick up a thing or two.   Parading around the fair, astride his grey mare, was Uncle Tom Cobley himself, or at least a local resident dressed up as Uncle Tom Cobley.  I had seen on a posted schedule that there was an open event called “Square Bail Tossing” and in my mind, no matter what else was on offer at the fair, this was an opportunity to see and participate in yet another wacky Brit tradition.

Widecombe Fair Dartmoor

Win at Widecombe Fair

Like all things, it is important to approach new experiences with some moderation.  I can’t possibly observe and absorb all of these traditions in my early years of being in the UK, so I have made a list of the customs and traditions from across the nation that I’m looking forward to seeing:

  1. Cheese Rolling at Cooper’s Hill in Glouchester.  This event was cancelled in 2010 due to safety concerns over the number of people attending.  And is it any surprise?  Competitors hurl themselves down a steep hill attempting to catch an eight-pound round of Double Gloucester, which is set rolling down the hill just seconds before competitors begin their chase.  To win, you must be the first to catch the cheese – without breaking your neck.
  2. Bog Snorkeling is an odd event where participants dive into a bog outfitted with goggles, flippers and a snorkel and then race across a trench filled with mud.
  3. Worm Charming is about attracting earthworms from the ground as a competitive sport.  While it may not be an Olympic sport yet, since 1980 the Annual Worm Charming World Championship has been held in Cheshire.  And like the worms themselves, give it time.
  4. Gurning has contestants put their heads through a horse collar before they are asked to turn their face into some sort of hideous Playdough creation.  The ugliest and grossest wins.  This is held each September at the Egremont Crab Fair.  I’m there!
  5. Dancing to the Cerne Abbas Giant.  In Cerne Abbas, anyone wanting to let their hair down gathers in this small village, in neighbouring Dorset, to dance in tribute to one of the most suggestive of landmarks.  This landmark has been described as: “A huge outline sculpted into the chalk hillside above the village of Cerne Abbas representing a naked, sexually aroused, club-wielding giant.”  Now, that could be a fun day out.

Cerne Abbas Giant

In the States, we have our own unusual traditions, such as Tailgating Parties, Presidential Turkey Pardons and of course, Punxsutawney Phil’s weather prediction on Groundhog’s Day.  None are really rooted in ancient history, nor are they as enticing as Scottish Fire Ball Whirling, The Pearly Kings and Queens, Ladies Day at The Royal Ascot, Summer Solstice at Stonehenge, Tar Barrel Rolling or Swan Upping.   Since moving to the UK I’ve seen a few of the classic celebrations, and in frustration, have even thrown my own Wellies when they sprang a leak (not the basis of the competition according to the World Wellie Wanging Association).   And now, I’ve been to Widecombe Fair.   Sadly, we left before the Square Bale Tossing competition.  But, there is always next year.

bale tossing2

Hopefully that will be me next year!

The Sounds of the Hunt

Living close to Wistman’s Wood, I occasionally find myself thinking about its beauty and its mythical folklore.  For centuries, this small woodland has been a draw for walkers, photographers, historians, archaeologists, spiritual-questers, ecologists and the occasional spinner of ghost stories.   What is it about this unique woodland that inspired the story of Old Crockern, the pagan God of Dartmoor, who is said to keep his Wisht Hounds here?

To see this grove of ancient dwarf oak trees is to know there is something otherworldly about them, like a Tolkienesque setting from Lord of The Rings.  The trees grow from between huge granite boulders that are covered with such a variety of mosses and lichens that any ecologist might jump for joy.  Yet, there is also tranquility amidst the vibrant bird and insect life, which live among the dripping moss and lichen.  Each of the trees has an arthritic look with gnarled, stunted branches reaching in all directions.   Serene and spooky both come to mind.

Wistman's Woods

Wistman’s Woods

For centuries these woods have appeared in poems, stories, scientific descriptions, words of praise for their beauty, and some words of contempt for the struggle of walking through them.  Deep within the wood, Natural England, has cordoned off a section and the plant growth has been untouched since 1965, a year after Wistman’s Wood was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest.  When bramble, wild honeysuckle, Bilberry, grasses, ivies, ferns, mosses and the like are left to grow without being walked over or grazed, the boulders become invisible.  It is easy to see why someone from centuries ago would view these woods with some fear and also as an ankle-breaking impasse.

One day, I encountered a professional landscape photographer who had spent hours up on the moor photographing Wistman’s Woods.  We started up a conversation and he asked me about living so close to the woods, “So you are either very brave or simply don’t believe any of the stories about Wistman’s Wood, which is it?”  Hmmmmmm…..Am I?  Do I?  What exactly are these stories?

Druids, apparitions, pixies, fairies, the Devil and a host of other supernatural creatures abound in the stories based in these trees.  I recently read that the woods were once described as being among the most haunted places in Dartmoor.  That notion is aided by the fact that near the northern edge of Wistman’s Wood is the Lych Way, an ancient track known also as “Way of the Dead.”  Historically, it was along this track that corpses were carried for burial in nearby Lydford.   Occasionally, a modern report will tell of seeing a ghostly procession of men dressed in white walking past the woods.  A bit like sighting Big Foot.

It is often said that amongst the boulders in Wistman’s Wood one will find nests of adders, larger and more dangerous than any other in Britain.  And of course, it is the home of the Wisht Hounds — that pack of fearful hellhounds who hunt down lost hikers across the moors at night upon their release from Old Crockern himself.

Headless Horseman image from internet

Throughout the world one can find tales of wild huntsmen, those strong, menacing riders who gallop across the land, hunting their prey without mercy.  I’m reminded of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow with its late night ride of the Headless Horseman.  Any of these stories, with the sounds of approaching hooves carrying a hunter accompanied by his pack of hounds, provoke a spine shiver and impulse that I should high-tail it if I hope to keep my life and very soul intact!

We are not superstitious types.  But early one morning, around 5:30 a.m., I awoke to the sound of horses’ hoofs thundering past the house.  Or so I thought.  In my sleepy state, I wasn’t certain that I hadn’t dreamt it.  As I continued to struggle between sleep and wakefulness, howling in the distance startled me, giving rise to a feeling that something evil was about to happen.

Beware the moon, lads and keep to the road,” is the warning given to two American college students backpacking across the Yorkshire moors by locals having a pint in The Slaughtered Lamb.  In this cult classic, American Werewolf in London, the two soon find themselves wandering off the road onto the moors when they hear a spine tingling howling.

Am I watching the movie bits in my dreams, or have I actually heard something?  In my early morning daze, this movie moment is no longer set in Yorkshire, but instead, right behind our farmhouse.   I’m still not fully awake, but my mind is racing, as the howling gets steadily closer:  Could these be the Wisht Hounds?  Is Old Crockern, astride his skeletal horse, hunting down some lost Duke of Edinburgh competitors?    Even early riser Sam is now reluctant to head out for a walk.

There are characters in any horror film who irreverently ignore advice and promptly pay the consequences.  Keeping with this tradition, I head out onto the moors  — dressed in my pajamas and wellies — to investigate.  Through the morning mist I see nothing, but continue to hear sounds of dogs howling, barking and from some distance, a lone voice calling, “Loooooooooooooo-in.”    It makes for a haunting atmosphere and my general sense of foreboding is growing.  In no time, my nerves have gotten the better of me, and I turn to head back towards the safety of our house whereupon I stumble into Roger and Sam who have come to help investigate.

“Yo hote, yo hote, yut, yut, yut.”  “Looooo-in.”   Eerily these sounds echo around the valley.   From behind the trees, there is an answer; “Taaaaaaa-Leo.”  As the three of us climb the hill back onto the moors, we see in the distance a rider on a horse.  What exactly is going on?  More howls of dogs, another call of “ta-leo”.   Surely, this can’t be the spectral figure of Old Crockern himself since the rider is wearing Tweeds and talking on his mobile phone.

Image of a Don Macauley Hunting in Dartmoor (available for use from Flicker Share)

Fox hunting goes back centuries and has an equal mix of supporters and critics.   Apparently, the organization of a hunt is not just a few horse enthusiasts getting together to dress up and chase foxes, but a highly organized and expensive operation with strict rules.  Numerous people, horses, and dozens of hounds are often involved.

Hunts are to follow rules of etiquette designed to respect crops, livestock, fences, and hedges.   Autumn hunting can start early in the morning, but I’m guessing there are no rules about disrupting our sleep.

“Looooooo-in!” calls the hunter with one of the many special calls used to communicate between hound and master.   The hounds continue to howl and bark.

As we make our way back to the house, we realize that there was nothing more to our morning panic than a traditional hunt.  Did our close proximity to an enigmatic place get the better of us?  Wistman’s Wood has survived in a hard landscape for centuries, despite agricultural clearances and grazing.  Many will continue to promote woodland spirits and mystical energies that protect the trees.  One thing is certain though, without the boulders scattered across the hillside these ancient trees would likely not have survived.  And, neither would the tales.

Wistman's Woods

Wistman’s Woods and its boulders