Follow Me Follow


Winter on Dartmoor can easily evoke images of a barren and soggy country-side.  Walking across what best matches a lunar landscape this time of year is to lean into the gusty winds that shoot up the valleys.  The sheep, cattle and ponies all know the sheltered bits of terrain, and if you look through the gorse and rushes, it’s easy to spot the drier paths as the grazing livestock have laced their way across the land.   On many winter days, fogs as thick as cotton can descend without warning.  It’s easy to get lost and every year, some walkers do.

But I don’t mind the weather here.  I like how changeable it is.  Nothing beats coming in from a long walk, to cosy up next to the wood burner and contemplate my next move.  Somehow, this year it has been different.  The weather hasn’t been changeable.  It has been grey, rainy, and windy without relief.  The damp, moist atmosphere has been endless and so too has the mud.

For weeks the clouds have continued to gather, promising rain, rain, rain with seemingly no end in sight.  I don’t know if this has been the wettest winter on Dartmoor, but it certainly has felt like it.  For most of 2018, weather reports predicted more rain, mist, or fog, but nothing to indicate cold, dry or frosty.  Meanwhile, the potholes on the track grew deeper, wider and more plentiful.  Our newly planted hedgerow often looked as if it could be washed away any moment.  And, my mud caked boots felt slightly damp when I put them on to set out for another soggy walk with Millie.  As this wet winter raged on, I felt I had reached my saturation point.

Squelch.  Splatter.  Slip.  Slide.  Mud, mud, mud.

What’s happened?  As a child, I was drawn to the stuff.  Some of my fondest childhood memories saw me covered head to toe in mud.   I was busy making mud pies, jumping in puddles, or digging in the local creek to find “clay” to make some naïve pottery.   Playing in mud was just good, dirty fun.  I was indifferent to this grubby, gooey and sticky substance.  All grown up, I don’t mind getting dirty when Roger and I are building, digging, gardening, or most recently, filling potholes.  There is something satisfying to working hard and having the filth to prove it.

But after weeks and weeks of relentless mud and wet, it’s safe to say I’m fed up.  I don’t want to go slip sliding away.   One recent morning, as the coffee was brewing, I headed outside to let the chickens out for the day.  Still in my pyjamas, I carefully made my way down the hill to the chicken coop when both feet slipped out from underneath me, and I landed on the ground sliding a few feet further.   Covered in mud, this was not the way to start my day.

Squelch.  Splatter.  Slip.  Slide.  Mud, mud, mud.

As I righted myself from this soggy patch of ground, I considered the many places in the world devastated by mud, so who am I to complain?    However, days and days of wind and rain, without relief, were making me feel curMUDgeonly.  Struggling to find the glass half full approach, I reflect that there are spas where people pay good money for a mud bath and I’ve just taken one for free in my own back yard.   Mud-runs are all the rage, too.  With a bounty of websites extolling the curative effects of bathing, eating, standing, and sleeping in glorious mud, perhaps I should be more open minded.  As they say, there’s nothing quite like it for cooling the blood.  Hmmmm.

Squelch.  Splatter.  Slip.  Slide.  Mud, mud, mud.  Enough!

Mercifully, we’re now having a few consecutive days of dry and cold weather and with it blazing sunshine and a hard ground underfoot.  These few crisp and cold winter days are welcome by all.  With a break from the relentless rain and wet, the snowdrops and daffodils are all bursting from the ground showing signs of spring to come.  The chickens are happily scratching all about the yard hunting bugs and worms before settling down to spread their wings in the warming rays of the sun.

Walks are becoming less treacherous and the river has returned to a fordable body of water.   At night, the moon glow casts a silvery light across the landscape.  One of the fabulous things about living in the country-side is there is almost no light pollution.  On a foggy, overcast night, it can be pitch black outside.  But when the moon peaks out, or the stars are in full splendour, it is eerie how far the eye can see.   I imagine if all the rain we’ve had were instead a blanket of snow, the moon glow would provide dramatic scene lighting on the stage set of our surroundings.

Our wet winter has left our track in horrible condition.  Roger and I have spent the past few days working to fill the potholes which have grown large in the past months.  Our bodies ache, but we feel satisfied with our progress.  As the day draws to a close, there’s not a cloud above and the sun set is casting a rosy glow in the western sky.  While I am watching the light change, Roger is mixing us gin and tonics to put a close to a hard day’s work.   “Here’s mud in your eye!”



Selfie with Millie as we take a break during a rare dry-day walk.


Teaching Millie to Swim

We don’t get many hot days on Dartmoor, but recently we had one.  Twenty-four degrees, no clouds and little to no breeze.  Sitting in the shade and reading a good book would be an ideal activity; but equally, it is a terrific day for doing some outside projects.  Unless wisely chosen, I risk melting in the heat.  Fortunately, we have a long list of possible projects:  filling potholes, jet-washing loose paint from the outside of the house, gardening, washing windows, mowing the lawn, or pointing the shed.  But a bonfire at high noon with no breeze was my choice.

The pile of rotten and useless old posts, left a few months ago from when Roger finished re-fencing the south side of the property, was calling to me.

I lathered on my sunscreen and covered most of my skin in bug spray.  Millie and I headed out to the lower field and commenced to building a fire.   Sam elected to exercise his old boy rights and snooze on the kitchen floor for the better part of the morning.  Meanwhile, Roger was tending to a leak in one of the pipes under the stairs.  This was not on the day’s to-do list, but when he went to grab a screw driver from his tool bag, it was swimming in water.  Yes, a slow and steady drip from the pipe above had filled the canvas bag below.  Roger’s plans were changed.

But not mine.  In our spot for bonfires, I piled some wood and cardboard and set it alight.  Those old fence posts – rotten and soggy from exposure – went up in flames as if they had been saturated in accelerant.  On went a few more post, and then a few more.  As the fire raged, I sacrificed the picnic table which was beyond repair.  After a few hot and sweaty hours, the pile of wood was nothing more than a circle of hot coals.  And my ankles, where I missed patches with the bug spray, were aflame with bug bites.  The itching was agonizing.  As the heat was growing both with the sun and the bonfire, I could feel the sweat trickle down my back.  Looking around, I found Millie near the stile which leads to our river access.   It was time to cool off and get refreshed.


West Dart River, Dartmoor

With complete joy, Millie jumps from rock to rock.  She stoops low to the river and bites at the water as it passes.   She wants to jump in, but swimming is not her thing, preferring to paddle no deeper than her belly.  It’s not that she is afraid of the water, it’s more, she’s not comfortable with having her feet lose contact with the bottom.  That slimy, slippery, rocky, river bottom.  More than once, I have stepped too quickly and found a boot full of water.  But, Mille is sure footed and will happily skitter up and down the river on rocks.

While Millie is darting about, biting at the water and gathering her ball as it floats past on the current, I have carefully clambered out to the middle of the river.  The water is cool and refreshing.  Dragon flies skitter past.  They too manage to play in the water, but not swim.

Millie drops her beloved ball, and with a focused look, tells me to throw it.  I give it a high Federa-esc lob and it lands up river stalling in deep water where there is little current.  Millie waits and watches.  If it were bobbing down river, she would surely station herself atop a rock and wait for it to float nearby.  But this is something altogether different.  She must be thinking, What am I to do?  How do I get that ball? It’s not moving.  Surely, it should be moving.  There is no way I’m going to SWIM to it!

I issue encouraging words, but no amount of coaxing seems to get her to release the contact her paws have with these stones.  So, I slip off the rock where I’ve been sitting and begin to dog-paddle toward the ball, “C’mon Millie, you can do it.  This is how we swim.”   She barks with excitement.  Running up and down the reedy shore line, trying to get that ball before I do.  My hands and knees are sliding across the mossy rocks below as the water isn’t that deep.  “See Millie, this is called dog-paddling.  You can do it.”  She barks in response, sizing up her options.  Moved by her competitive nature, Millie takes a tentative step off her underwater perch and takes her first splashy strokes.  Catching the ball in her mouth, she quickly makes it to the other side of the river.  It’s true, dogs know how to swim.  Some, however, swim with grace.  It is safe to say, Millie does not.

On terra firma, Millie shakes the water from her coat and clutches the ball in her mouth. She is not giving it up anytime soon.  And, despite the heat of the day, this is enough wild swimming for this little collie.   The bonfire is burned down.  The leaky pipe is repaired.  Dinner awaits.  Millie has learned how to swim and Sam is taking an early evening stroll about the garden.  Roger is heating up the hot tub, and me, well, I’m sitting on the new bench on Gin and Tonic Hill.  Bliss.

Just Put One Foot in Front of The Other

Walking may be the most natural way of getting from A to B, but there must be more to it than that.  Are the dandy, the drifter, the dog walker, the peripatetic artist, tourists and their guide, barefoot pilgrims and sign carrying protest marchers all on the same footing?  Tomes have been written and TV shows produced about why we walk, who loves to walk, and where to find enjoyable walks.  A few famous and keen walkers are Wordsworth, Martin Luther King, Jr., Elizabeth Bennet, Nietzsche, Bob Dylan, and, of course, me.

But why do we do it?  What is behind this temptation to get out and put one foot in front of the other?  Nietzsche wrote, “It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.”  That certainly bodes well for this blog, as I thought a lot about it while walking.

In mid-May, I began a two-week stay in East Sussex.  Several years ago, a colleague from Rutgers University and I developed a summer class for students.  A simple concept with so many possibilities:  We would spend two weeks walking the South Downs and letting the rhythm and landscape, the people and events, provide a springboard for creative writing.  An opportunity for these students to develop a sense of place and express it through poetry and prose.

As I walk through a meadow smothered in wildflowers near Kipling’s home in Burwash, my heart expands seeing the abundance of daisies, buttercups, cow parsley, poppies, and soft brush tops of a variety of grasses.  A herd of cows eye me as I approach, all the while, slowly chewing, chewing, chewing, chewing the spring grass and clover.  During this brief staring contest with the cows, my mind drifts to home and the field outside our kitchen window where pointy reed bushes provide a backdrop to the wild foxgloves poking through for summer.  Together, both create a camouflage for the hidden-ankle-spraining granite boulders and rabbit holes that make walking through this field a challenge for all but the livestock.  An outcropping of gorse, heather and a slow-growing, but determined Rowan tree are reminders of the nutrient weak soil.


Sussex!  Oh, lovely Sussex!  With its soft and forgiving walks, easily navigated with an OS map and a bit of intuition.  Even a downpour of rain results in nothing more than getting wet and muddy.  It’s rare to have a descending fog, relentless gale force winds and the cold weather that can spell curtains for a rambler gone astray on Dartmoor.  I confess, it is wonderful to have a few weeks of walks offering forgiveness under my feet and the freedom of simultaneously walking and looking out at the horizon.  While I strut along the South Downs Way, I watch birds soar above and the green undulation of the downs reaching out toward the sea.  I let my mind drift.  And drift it does.

In stark contrast is the country-side of our beloved Dartmoor, significant for its wild, untamed and elusive landscape.  Its jagged outcropping of tors, torrential rivers and hidden bogs require a constant vigilance to prevent a misstep or an ankle twist.   Remaining ever mindful to avoid stepping onto an unstable rock or into a boggy patch, drowning my boot and socks.  As Roger and I cultivate a quieter life, we find ourselves in a more demanding location.  In Sussex, I spy lovely cottage gardens – hollyhocks, gladiolas, forget-me-nots – and know none of this could ever survive our acidic soil, battering of rain and wind, cooler and cloudier days where nettle, moss, gorse, and lichen take their time to establish a tenacious existence.  The hills and moors of Dartmoor fold over themselves deep into the distance.  When one falls from sight, another appears.  The only limit upon them is the horizon.  Is loving this rugged and untamable landscape like lusting after a strong and silent cowboy?  Despite all effort, it may never reciprocate my affections.

On a recent walk with Roger and Millie — Sam electing to remain napping on the cool kitchen floor — we set out with a soft sun and puffy clouds above and a strong breeze from behind.  About an hour into the walk, a coolness descended and the light turned grey.  As we paused to note this, the wind kicked up and we were soon being pelted by hail.  The weather swirled around, causing us all to struggle with our steps as if we had been drugged.  Racing up the hill, we took brief shelter behind a tor and bemoaned the limitations of a weather app in this microclimate.  The wind eventually pulled back and the hail stopped, but not before we were wet, exfoliated and somewhat chilled.  Soon, the sun poked out between layers of grey and white clouds as if nothing had happened.

We walked home where Roger fixed us a medium-enormous gin and tonic and we moved into the living room and sank into the sofa.  Soon we would begin to prepare our dinner, discuss the news or our next project, watch the birds at the feeder, play endless games of fetch with Millie and massage Sam’s old and aging back legs.

So why do we stride out? In an ever auto-dependent world, it’s nice to see the country-side, get some exercise, take photos, learn about birds and plant life, catch up with friends, and even stimulate some creative juices unleashing a story or a song.  But, it’s more than that.  Whether in the company of others or not, there comes a time in every walk where we are alone with only our thoughts and observations, falling neatly to the rhythm of our pace and our breath.   And in that solitude, there emerges a sense of self and grounding.  Whether it is a familiar path walked daily, or a new trail yet to be discovered.   It may just be that no one can provide a sense of place for someone else.  We have no choice but to find it for ourselves and it is in doing that — taking it in our own strides, shuffles, struts, or lopes — that we cease to be alone.


Spring Tidings

The past few months have been consumed with a lot of travel.  These work demands on my time have taken me away from Crockern and its rhythms.  Meanwhile, Roger, Sam and Millie have held the fort.

Being away does give me a chance to recover from some of our projects.  Pot holes, roof repairs, fencing, ceilings, gardening, etc. all leave me feeling some aches and pains.  A few days away and my sore muscles recover; and I return to see anew the beauty of Crockern.  What may take a week or two to unfold seems to happen overnight.  After a recent two-week trip to the States, I returned to find spring in full force at our little homestead.


Driving back from the train station, the woodlands, lanes, verges and hedgerows are bursting with wildflowers.  British flora may be modest by international standards, but it is full of pleasure.  Wild garlic, gorse, buttercups, bramble, nettle, red campion, cow parsley, poppy, primrose, daffodils, cornflowers and soon to come, speedwell, teasel and foxgloves.

As we cross the cattle grate and climb up onto the moors, a chequered scene appears with green fields, scrubby land, river valleys and patches of woodland.  Newly born lambs, cows and horses chase after their mothers.  Across the hillside, gorse flashes its golden yellow flowers and fills the air with a heady scent of coconut.  These low shrubs are still prickly and I worry about my eyes when I get too close, but they make such a spectacular accent to the landscape.

Spring at Crockern comes later than other parts of the country, even those parts just 5 miles away.  Still, and despite the colder temperatures, things are in bloom.  Bleeding hearts, hostas, geraniums and comfrey are all erupting in growth and flowers.  The bees are starting to buzz about reminding us all this planting is worth it.  So too, the rabbits are making their tunnels in the flower beds making me shake my fist like Elmer Fudd.  Blasted little buggers!

The other day, Roger flew out the front door only to return with dirt all over his hands.  “I saw a rabbit in the spinach bed; I’ve had to block its tunnel.”  Despite last year’s efforts to protect the vegetable beds, this one needs increased attention.  These rabbits never rest, nor do they seem to stop having sex.  Once again, we are spotting several generations dining on grass in the yard.  Of course, our chickens seem more than happy to share space with them under the rose bush.  If only my camera were to hand to document three chickens having a dust bath while two rabbits are curled up napping just inches away.  I suppose if you’re a rabbit, you can let your guard down when clucky chickens are busy preening nearby.

And the birds are back in town!  While walking Sam and Millie, I hear the call of our cuckoo.  Yes ours.  Each spring I anxiously await the return of the cuckoo, worried that its migratory flight may have met with disaster.  But when I hear its melodic mating song across our valley, I feel a peace descend.  So too, the swallows are making their return.  We have only a few so far, but the rest of the crew should soon be here busily making their nests and raising their young.

Of the many bulbs I planted two years ago, the daffodils and snowdrops made their showing earlier.  I noticed, a few of the bluebells were bravely poking through the ground.  With luck, in a few more years, they will spread and form a visual treat under the trees.  To celebrate spring, Roger and I joined our friends on a circular walk taking in acres of woodland carpeted in native Bluebells.  Oh, how I hope ours will one day look like this!  British bluebells are somewhat endangered from cross-fertilization by the hardy Spanish bluebells which were introduced in many gardens.  But I don’t care.   As I pause to inhale the unique sent of spring growth on the breeze, I wonder if the bluebell issue will come up in Brexit negotiations?

Autumn is Knocking

The light on the horizon has changed significantly this past week, casting long, broad shadows across the hills.  The sky is filled with an eclectic mixture of brooding, grey clouds adorned with cotton-candy-like puffs of white accentuated with splashes of blue.  Crisp leaves are beginning to carpet the ground and collect in corners of the garden and in all our drains.  An annual autumn project of clearing leaves has now appeared on our to-do list.  The most notable announcement of the season’s change is the formation of the bright flame-red berries dangling from the Rowan trees.


Where did the summer go?  It seems just yesterday we were filling the long days with visitors and projects.  We were busy tending to the vegetable garden and our on-going repair of stone walls.  Daily we pulled weeds, maintained the garden, and filled potholes.  We spent hours gathering and consuming the abundance of our vegetable beds, building a new fence — which resulted in an unfortunate concussion for Roger — juggling family demands and embracing the arrival of the thoroughly modern Millie!

In the summer months, we carry on with all our activities until our bones and muscles ache, taking breaks to walk Sam and Millie or have a cup of coffee. By the end of the day, covered with dirt, we put away our tools, clean ourselves up, and prepare dinner. Afterwards, we take a glass of wine and make our way back outside to soak in the hot tub.  We make plans for the next day while the night shift of wildlife clocks-in. On a clear night, one by one, the stars appear in the sky and the bats flash past to feeding on new insect life. Foxes and badgers make their plans for the evening’s hunt and forage, and the tawny owl in the stand of pines across the valley sings a musical riff.

Now, as I walk the dogs in the early morning, I feel a chill in the air and can see our breath in the dawn air.   This first walk of the day is one of two stories:  Sam sniffing all the news of the day to come and slowly awaking his achy bones as he lumbers down the track; while Millie darts from one moment to the next, chasing her toy and racing past me and Sam to exercise her job as the Ambassador of Joy!  I certainly have my pre-coffee challenge with the two dogs moving at different speeds and entertaining their different interests, but our pack of three sync up with the pleasure of the crisp morning air.

As we turn the corner on our walk, down in the valley the fog hangs along the river as if a dragon flew past in the night and left a breath trail.  Exposed by the morning dew are the webs of the thousands of spiders who make their homes in the gorse bushes.  With the arrival of cooler temperatures, many of these spiders now seem to be making their homes inside our house and not a day goes by when I don’t discover yet another large arachnid awaiting rescue from the kitchen sink.

It’s not just spiders who have made their way into the house, we’ve had a few bats too.  Recently, I was spending the afternoon stacking our winter wood supply in the barn when I noticed something flapping about in jerky flight.  Too late to be a swallow or a house martin, they’ve left for warmer climates and won’t be back again until the spring.   When I stopped to investigate, I spied a bat hanging upside down in the rafters.  I’ve not seen it there before or since, so I suspect this is simply a temporary rest stop as it was too early to be out and about hunting insects.  Sure enough, later that day Roger and I spent the better part of the evening trying to isolate the Horseshoe bat, which had found its way from the barn into the house.

The greater horseshoe bat is one of the larger British bats with a wingspan of about 35-39 cm, and also one of the rarest.  We are in one of the few areas in the country where these bats are still breeding, so it is a treat to see one.  After Roger photographed and confirmed its identification, we managed to get it into a room where we could close the doors, turn out the lights, and open the windows so it would head out into the night to commence its hunting before returning to its roost in parts unknown to us.


As the plants die back to conserve their energy for a spring bloom, so too, Roger and I have turned our attentions to readying for winter.  But we aren’t there yet. Soon, we will spend more of our time inside by the fire and less outside. As the nights draw in and our wood burner provides daily comfort, we will turn our attentions to projects inside.  We have a water tank which needs replacing, pipes which need relocating, and we’re making some changes to the hot water system as a result.  Roll on Autumn….

Finding my Way

Recently I attended a navigation workshop for women offered by Two Blondes, a fabulous business run by two women dedicated to getting everyone outside exploring (check them out:  The idea of other like-minded women, interested in the outdoors and Dartmoor appealed to me.  But learning to properly use a compass, well that was the cherry on top!

How had I gotten to my fifties and not learned this skill?  Three of my four brothers were Eagle Scouts and my Dad was a Scout Master with the Boy Scouts.  As a family, we frequently went camping.  And yet, no one taught me this basic skill.

Is it possible I’ve never learned because I never needed to do so?  Years ago, friends and colleagues gave Roger a silver cup engraved with “The Navigator”.   When it comes to using a compass in the wild, I’ve obviously relied on Roger.  It’s easy to let him figure out our route, while I mind the dogs, look at the landscape and enjoy myself.  And given that engraved mug, who wouldn’t cede responsibility?

But it is not sustainable to take the back seat and rely on others to explore new areas.  The times I’ve gone out to explore on my own, map in hand, I’ve managed to get somewhat lost on Dartmoor.  Not so much lost, really, but haunted by an overriding awareness that I could get lost at any moment.  Then what?

Dartmoor is a tricky challenge, which is why the military train and orienteering activities like the Ten Tors or Duke of Edinburgh are held here.  The usual landmarks found in other national parks are often absent.  Forests change due to cutting.  Walls on the map aren’t always there as they may be historic and grassed over.  Pillow mounds and hut circles, easily identified by archaeologists or skilful navigators, often look like a pile of rocks to me.  Add to that, the weather can be like the ocean with shifting tides from clear, calm waters to rip tides putting an innocent swimmer in peril.  Knowing what you’re doing on Dartmoor is a good idea to say the least.

Thirteen of us gathered for our workshop by Two Blondes.  Armed with our OS maps, compasses, and enthusiasm, we chatted about why we were there:   “I want to get my skills and sense of direction back.”  “My partner always reads the map….what if he drops dead?”  “I just want to do something for myself and sometimes that means walking by myself.”  I was in good company.  All these women, ranging in ages and skills, backgrounds and interests, were crooning just like Annie Lenox and Aretha Franklin, we were doin’ it for ourselves.

Soon, the workshop begins and we open our maps to locate towns, pubs, buildings, footpaths, woods, and rivers and streams.  We calculate distances, times and read the contours of elevations.  All of this was familiar from the hours I’ve spent pouring over OS maps.  I love them for their detail and history.  These beautifully scaled representations of the land are the key to exploring, complete with the easy to use 4 or 6 figure grid reference system.  This part of the workshop was interesting, but when we were going to get to the compass?  That little magnetic mystery that somehow holds the key?  Every skilled navigator will say, “trust your compass.”   But mine, with its needle, orienting lines, directional arrow, declination line, magnifying round and compass scale sat there teasing me.  Then suddenly, one of the Two Blondes announced, “Okay, everyone pull out your compass.”   At last!  And within minutes, what had always seemed difficult and elusive, was made easy.

Roger has explained how to use a compass before, but often he assumes I know what he’s talking about.  Because it is familiar to him, he enthusiastically shows me all the cool things, without ever setting up the basics.  He tells me about true north, magnetic north, and how the map shifts out of north by 1 degree, 29 minutes every year.  My mind drifts.  Is this how Robert Scott and his men missed their South Pole destination only to die tragically close?   It is fair to say, Roger is operating from the notion that I surely must have some basic concepts about this simple, yet revolutionary, circular instrument.  But the Two Blondes knew that we few, we happy few, we band of sisters didn’t know and thus provided a simple, encouraging, and educational approach to using our compasses.   And it is so easy and fun!  I now see why Roger would make the assumption I had a basic understanding.



After mastering our compasses inside, we set out on a walk.   Navigating is not just about the compass, it is also about timing and distance, so we learned our pacing.  We set a bearing and headed off to find a pool on the moor.  Why would anyone ever want to go off a path and find a pool/bog marked on the map?  Well, because it’s on the map and with a compass and a little know how you can.  And what a find!  This bog area was covered in all manner of wildflowers and dwarf shrubs of heather and billbery, along with sedges, cotton-grass, deer grass and purple moor grass, the likes of which I hadn’t noticed along the path.  And because of the boggy nature of the area, all the grazing animals stayed clear, so there was indeed a different wildness to the flora and fauna.  The path we left was still busy with other walkers, families, bike riders and the like.  But up by this pool, away from the path, we could only see the Dartmoor wilderness — that vast landscape rich with varied ecosystems.   We noticed small blue flowers, heard bird song, and spotted sundew, a small carnivorous plant with red spiked leaves to enable it to catch insects to supplement its diet due to the poor nutrient levels of the blanket bogs.  What we couldn’t see was the footpath, or anyone on it, and we were a mere 250 meters away.

Oh, I’m hooked alright.  I love the compass and the idea of being able to learn to orienteer with greater skill.  I love how ordinary it looks, but that it powerfully denotes direction.  I also prefer my little compass to the modern geospatial app on my phone, which is useful but not foolproof.  When I got home, I told Roger all about my day.  He shared my excitement and showed me another type of compass, a sighting compass.  I had no idea we had this little treasure.  He attempted to explain to me how it worked, and nearly failed until I explained how the Two Blondes taught us to use a compass at which point, he wound back his enthusiastic description so that I could see its potential.  Practice and patience will improve my skills as it isn’t exactly rocket science.  In the coming days, I plan to set out and make a few discoveries on my own so that all of us can safely get lost together.

Feel The Burn

I was in town when Roger called me to tell me about the fire raging across the hill on the other side of the river.  His voice sounded concerned as he described hearing fire engines in the distance while watching how the strong winds were rapidly spreading the fire.  Alarmingly, there appeared to be nobody bearing fire shovels in sight to control this burn.  The fire was moving swiftly down the valley toward our fields, but if the wind had shifted, it was entirely possible embers from the fires could easily jump across the river and burn Wistman’s Woods.

Roger is not one to exaggerate so I quickly finished what I was doing and high tailed it back home.  It seemed better to have both of us home in case we had to do anything to keep the fire from coming too close.

Driving back to Crockern, I kept a sharp eye out for smoke filling the sky and saw none.  But when I rounded the corner to make my way up our track, there were four fire engines parked.  The closer I got to home, the more I could smell the charred remains of burnt gorse and grass and see the smoke drifting up from the scorched earth.  What had been green and golden when I left in the morning was now black and smouldering.  Several acres were burned, but by the time I arrived, the fire had been contained.

Controlled Burn.  Prescribed Burn.  Hazard Reduction Burning.  Backfire.  Anglo Saxons called it Swælan.   Locally, it’s known as Swaling and has been carried out for centuries.  Swaling is the annual burning of gorse and scrub in order to clear the ground of dead and overgrown vegetation, allowing new growth to flourish.  Those green shoots which grazing livestock love to eat, not the ones economists like to talk about on the news.

On open moorland, overgrown vegetation can restrict some public access and in dryer, warmer months can present significant risk for wild fires.  The farmers who graze on the common land are allowed to conduct controlled burning of moorland vegetation, in other words swale, to clear the ground encouraging new growth.

Between 1 November and 31 March it is permissible for the Commoners to do controlled burns and all signs pointed to this being a planned burn.  But we suspect it might not have been.  The local farmer for that patch of land said he was not swaling that day.  Honestly, no one in their right mind would have set out to swale because it was such a windy day.  Could it have been a casually tossed cigarette?  We see enough litter lying about that it wouldn’t have surprise us.  A few years ago, a fire damaged over 600 acres of moorland when strong winds fanned the flames.  The cause of that fire was unknown and took more than 100 firefighters to bring it under control.

As the sun was getting low on the horizon, the firefighters returned to their engines after a job well done.  The sheep in the fields carried on nibbling grass and the horses and chickens seemed unfazed.  The songbirds at the feeders were out in full force, possibly discussing just what the hell happened.  Roger and I sat down to do the same.  The fires were out, but all of us at Crockern were left with the view of a blackened hillside and air heavy with the smell of charred vegetation.

Before we had a chance to recover, we received a phone call from the farmer who grazes livestock on our side of the river and he was planning to swale up our side of the valley the next day.  I know it is a technique to manage the landscape and is legally done this time of the year, but looking upon the burned remains on the other side of the river, I couldn’t help but feel a bit sad.

Around two in the afternoon, we saw the haze of smoke cloaking our usual view down the track.   We scanned the hillside to see the group of swalers assembled to oversee the burn.  After about ten minutes, the flames were licking over the tops of the yellow-flowering gorse bushes, marching forward across the hillside toward Crockern.  This is the very gorse which I had scratched my cornea on last year, and spent a good amount of time this winter cutting back to clear trenches.  Not certain I would have bothered with that miserable task if I knew this burn was going to happen.  Still, I was sorry to see the prickly gorse so easily go up in smoke.

With the air calm and a seasoned crew of swalers, Roger and I weren’t concerned about this fire, even as it made quick pace toward our house.  I took pictures and watched from the window, comfortable in the knowledge that this fire was under control.  Given the day before’s experience, I don’t wish to be too close to a fire outside of our trusty woodburner any time soon.