Just How Green Was my Valley?

What a summer we’ve had so far. Sunny, warm days filled with unobstructed light stretching late into the evening. Soft breezes rustling the trees, leaving enough insects in the air for birds and bats to swiftly buzz past as they take their in-flight meals. It has been fantastic. It has also been green.

In 1961, Johnny Cash wrote the song, Forty Shades of Green about his memories of Ireland. I wonder had he visited Crockern at that time whether he would have written a different song, because I know I am seeing across the meadows and moors, at least fifty shades of green.

The walk is just beginning, and already so many shades of green.

The walk is just beginning, and already so many shades of green.

On a recent afternoon walk with Sam, I pause to look up the vast hillside along the river heading north. I can’t help but notice how the luminous and green earth tones seem to recede into the background helping make the smaller patches of brown and black cows or white sheep appear so clearly. They pop out of the green, as do the yellow gorse flowers and pinkish-purple fox glove flowers. Even so, the dominant colour is green, a variegated patchwork of it!

With so much of one colour, the landscape could almost appear flat and yet it is deeply textured with the acid-neon greens of the grasses closely grazed by sheep laying snuggly next to the jade green of the gorse bushes. At their very base, the clumps of reeds and tall grasses resemble British Racing Green before they transition to the harlequin of the seed heads. Upon closer inspection, the lawn green colour of the grasses under my feet is laced with reds and browns.

A short distance ahead is Witstman’s Woods. Despite its legendary haunted tales, it sits like a fuzzy mirage in the distance. The sun is shining brightly revealing the Hunter, Shamrock, Apple, Spring and Leaf greens of the individual trees as might be captured in a botanical painting by William Hooker. But as the sun slips briefly behind a cloud, this montage of colours morphs into one cool aquamarine and the canopy of trees melts away into the hillside.

We're into the woods.

We’re into the woods.

Sam and I make our way over the stile and toward this jungle-like wood of ancient dwarf oak trees. There is something otherworldly about this grove of trees as if stepping into a stage set for Lord of The Rings. The trees grow from between huge granite boulders that are covered with such a variety of mosses and lichens and the whole place is vibrant with bird and insect life. Each of the trees has an arthritic look with gnarled, stunted branches reaching in all directions; they too are dripping with mosses and lichen. Deeper within the wood, all manner of bramble, wild honeysuckle, bilberry, grasses, ivies, and ferns grow untouched by walkers or grazing animals, making the huge boulders invisible.

We leave the woods and continue north towards the weir. As we scramble over sturdy stones and walk along ancient dry stone walls, my eyes are drawn to the grey-green, green, silver green, and yellow-green on every possible granite and wood surface. These slow growing lichens and mosses, punctuated with the emerald fronds of ferns and the viridian of stinging nettles, remind me of the camouflage uniforms of some military fatigues.

Mosses and Lichens display the continuum of green.

Mosses and Lichens display the continuum of green.

Sam and I looking down the river valley.

Sam and I looking down the river valley.

The return leg of our journey takes us along the leat with glorious views of the river valley. Ahead is a forest of pine trees. The air grows considerably cooler and you can almost smell the green – an equal mix of calming and uplifting — as we enter this stand of tall, straight fir trees planted by the Forestry Commission. Their boughs give shelter to fuzzy mosses and bright green and bottle-green ferns. It is from these woods at night we hear a Tawny Owl and, during the day, a raucous party of squawks from a colony of Herons. The other day, one flew from its nest, circling around our house looking rather prehistoric as it attempted to land in the ash tree, with its Kelly green leaves and bouncy branches. Too heavy to gain purchase in this tree the Heron returned to the forest.

Down by the river, I came across three people dressed in olive-drab waders. They were with the Environmental Agency and conducting a survey. Happily, the fish life in the river is doing well. After just a few hours of counting, these scientists had identified, along with a few eels, over two dozen salmon and over two dozen trout, including one which was 10-inches long!   While standing and chatting, I spot some wild mint growing and marvel at the elegant jerky flight of a dozen dragonflies, their iridescent green and blue wings sparkling in the sun.

Moss, bramble, lichen, and green grass.

Moss, bramble, lichen, and green grass.

Back at the house, I can see the celadon seedpods hanging in the Sycamore and Laburnum trees. The farmer on the other side of the valley has been cutting his hay meadow. Today there are rows of dark green grass waiting to be bailed, exposing the lighter rows of cut grass: a striped tee-shirt look to the field.

Before calling it a day, I make my tour of the garden and to see how green is my thumb. We have seven types of lettuces growing some tinged with reds, others looking like a granny-smith apple. Cabbages, onions, potatoes, spinach and chard all provide their various shades and tones, and the outer leaves of the artichokes have a lovely patina. The stems of the rainbow chard vary from a cool iceberg lettuce towards a purplish-green. The beet leaves are tinted with magenta. Our greenhouse is filled with herbs, strawberries, green tomatoes waiting to ripen, and cucumbers, which make me feel cooler on a hot day by just looking at them.

My green (and blurry) thumb by some of the herbs.

My green (and blurry) thumb by some of the herbs.

Part of our vegetable garden.

Part of our vegetable garden.

The greenhouse.

The greenhouse.

Even our blueberries are green!

Even our blueberries are green!

As the day winds to a close, I’m giving the green light to cocktails. Roger squeezes limes into our G&Ts; I set out a bowl of Gordal Olives and put an Al Greene disc into the player. My mind is filled with the colour green and its equal associations with renewal and growth or the lack of experience and need for growth. The Green Party, Going Green, Green thumb or Green fingers, waiting in the Green room, the Greenback, Green-Eyed Monsters, Greener pastures, Green with envy, Greenhorn, Green around the gills, and more mundanely, should I paint a room green?

Then, as quickly as it started, I stop this internal list making. Roger and I sit back and relax to watch all manner of birds at the feeders, including of course the Greenfinches.

My Left Shoe

How does somebody lose a shoe and not notice?  The sensational difference between the padded or bare foot is hard to miss.  I understand blistered feet preferring to be free from the offending shoes and one accidentally dropped on route.  But wouldn’t it make a kerplunk sound prompting a pick up?  Or, maybe in a fit of frustration, the shoe is flung off, never to return with its partner discarded some 6 blocks away, puzzling another person passing by.

On more than one occasion when walking down a city street, I’ve spotted a single shoe leaving me to wonder, Where’s the other one?  Perhaps the shoe owner is too drunk to notice a missing item of footwear?

In cities, I’ve seen pairs of sneakers laced together and thrown over telephone and electric wires creating an odd decorative effect known as “Shoefetti” and it is not unique to cities as trees in the countryside might play host to the tossed shoes.  But, why?  There is the criminal element theory that dangling shoes maybe highlighting drug dens or gang-related murders.  Conversely (unavoidable pun) the knotted and flung footwear might signify the end of school, the death of a loved-one, an upcoming marriage, or to ward off ghosts!  It’s easy to imagine a bully or practical joker taking someone’s shoes, tying together the laces and giving them a good fling out of reach over a cable crossing the street.  In the end, only the person who knotted the laces together and threw the pair to hang on a wire really knows the reason.

And now, I have another wonder to report:  We recently found a single shoe, a hiking boot to be precise, balanced on the stone where lost and found items such as dog collars, glasses, keys, and water bottles are placed.  On this occasion, we both thought: “Who loses a shoe out here and doesn’t notice?”  Footwear in Dartmoor is essential for the land in some places is hard and unforgiving, or overly forgiving with soggy bogs.  I’m certain that if there ever were a prison break from Dartmoor Prison, the escapees would not get far in their prison issued sneakers!

Like the growing list of birds we’ve spotted, we can add this boot to the many things we’ve found since moving here:  A Union Flag and old Camp Coffee glass containers.  Ropes and strings are everywhere and recently the chickens were pecking at a belt buckle buried in the ground.  Daily there are new bits of glass, shards of pottery, and broken slate working their way out from their burial ground like a splinter from under the skin.  When we were putting the vegetable beds in, we found an assortment of plastic objects, including a Storm Trooper helmet and a Palm Tree from some unknown tropical island.  In an afternoon of clearing out one small outbuilding, I uncovered nearly a dozen horseshoes.  A ceramic figurine and a single dice were nestled next to one another in the field.

Found Items

Found Items

Found Items

Found Items

Found Items

Found Items

Found Items

Found Items

Found Items

When the roofers started removing the old slates at the beginning of their epic job, they found a horse-whip and a ring in the rafters.   What riches for rumination!  I’ve spent many an hour since on walks with Sam trying to determine exactly why these two items were consecrated into our roof.

Found Items

Found Items

Sadly, it is routine to pick up the found garbage left behind by visitors to the Park.  The biggest offender is the poo-bag, hung onto the stock proof fences (Poofetti?).  Livestock are roaming all over the place, pooping as they go, so dogs don’t cause a noticeable problem.  Just kick that poo off the footpath and let nature’s elements facilitate its decomposition.  Why pick it up, put it in a bag, and then leave it on the fence for someone else (Roger or me it seems) to remove?  Another good reason to be wearing shoes in Dartmoor:  There’s no end to the stuff that you can step on!

In December, while I was slowly chipping away at the old plaster rendering on the walls in the porch, someone knocked on the door.  With my safety glasses firmly on my face, my hair and clothing covered with dust and paint/plaster/concrete dust, I answered the door.  Standing outside in the light rain was a young man who announced that his father had just fallen and may have broken his leg.  So, I grabbed a blanket and a thermos of sweet tea, Roger called emergency services, and off we headed to help this man’s father.

The ground was very wet and not easily negotiated that day, even with the best of hiking boots.  When the ambulance team arrived, it was clear that it was not safe to carry the man to our track.  An hour later, with the darkness and heavy rains moving in, a helicopter landed to airlift the man to Exeter.

A week ago, I received this note confirming that all lost items do have stories:

I am the chap who broke his leg on Dartmoor and whose two sons came to your cottage to call the emergency services. And you are the person who so kindly came to see me with a pristine clean blanket and then came back again with a fleece and a thermos of warm sweet tea. The blanket, fleece and especially the tea were marvellous as I was beginning to feel VERY cold lying on that wet cold ground, and they did wonders for me.

I was taken to the Exeter hospital and they operated the next day….and fitted a steel ‘nail’ or pin from the knee to the ankle which is secured each end by two bolts….For the first couple of weeks after I came home, even with a cocktail of four different painkillers including liquid morphine, the pain was extreme and trying to find a position to sleep in was very difficult. However, I seem to be on the mend and now walk around the house, or half hobble around the house without my crutches…

So, a broken leg eh! I have been an outdoor man for many years and have done some amazing wilderness treks in Alaska…Colorado and also in S. E. Asia, but this is the first time I have ever had to be rescued by any emergency services. In a way it is quite humbling, but those guys who turned up were all superb as were the helicopter crew with a good dash of humour thrown in which helped also.

So, Catherine, thank you so very much for everything – I owe you a cleaning bill for the blanket and fleece which were no doubt draped in Dartmoor mud. When I get really mobile again I will drop by your place one day and settle up with you for that.

All best wishes and regards for a Happy and Healthy New Year for you and your husband.

I wrote back:

…  What a nasty injury you sustained.  Now, you’ll be able to set off metal detectors at all of the airports when you go off on your travels.  Both Roger and I are happy and relieved to hear that you are on the mend.

Please don’t worry about the blanket or the fleece.  Both are machine washable, have been machine washed, and show no evidence of ever helping you in your temporary immobile state of that day.  You must, however, stop by when you are out this way and recovered again as we have….wait for it…..your boot!  ….

My note was next followed up with:

You know, I have a superb pair of hiking boots in our garage and the old ones I wore that day were almost certainly a contributory factor for my having slipped. Those old worn out boots were in the back of the car just in case I ended up somewhere, which was wet and muddy, and I needed to change out of good shoes – in fact I was on the point of throwing them out as their soles were worn through. That day, we did not intend to go off any good paths on Dartmoor but when we went to Princetown to visit the information centre, we decided to try to get a look at Whistman’s Wood and I changed into those old worn boots at the quarry car park there- the rest as they say, is history.

Please throw it away, that is what I asked the hospital to do with the other one….

And before the other shoe dropped, I quickly wrote the only, albeit it obvious, response available:

It is hard to resist, and so I shall not:  We’ve given your footwear the boot!

Cheers, Catherine

The discovered shoe.

The discovered shoe.


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 ….

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