And, I’m Still Waiting for Mandy Patinkin!

Recently, Roger cleared a plot of land where our soakaway flows.  It was overgrown and to breathe new life into it, he spent days cutting, hauling and digging.  He uncovered over 40 stones, each weighing about 150 pounds or more.

We’ve been repairing a significant old wall near the generator, trying to prepare the area for the new roof we must build.  The wall here will not be load bearing, but it still needs to be sturdy.  Those 40 stones are coming in handy, but they aren’t next to this project.

And so, we’re back to moving rocks.  As such, I’m reposting a piece I wrote during our first summer at Crockern.

***********

 

In the 1993 movie, The Music of Chance (based on the Paul Auster book of the same title), Jim Nashe (Mandy Patinkin) is an ex-fireman who sets off with a sizeable inheritance to explore the US in his new red BMW.  He is free of debt and responsibilities.  On route, he meets Jack Pozzi (James Spader), a feckless down on his luck gambler.  Pozzi cunningly manipulates Nashe to enter a high stakes poker game against two eccentric and wealthy bachelors.

Unfortunately, the poker prowess of Nashe and Pozzi is not up to snuff and after running out of money and using his car as collateral, Nashe risks everything on a last blind turn of a card.  As luck would have it, he loses and the two become indebted to the cunning bachelors.  To pay off the debt, they are indentured into building a “wailing wall” in the meadow behind the bachelors’ mansion, a wall that nobody will ever see.  This wall is to be made of stones from the ruins of a fifteenth-century Irish castle, each weighing more than sixty pounds.  There are ten thousand stones.

Wall Building in The Music of Chance

Things to know about granite:

  1. It is widely distributed in the Earth’s crust.
  2. It is igneous, slowly solidifying from magma.
  3. It can contain minerals, like feldspar and quartz, so it is the Superman of stones and is stronger than steel.
  4. Granite is everywhere in Dartmoor, including our property walls and most of our house.

One thing that Dartmoor is not short of is dry stonewalls and there are hundreds of miles of walls across the moor.  Early farmers enclosed their land by building these sturdy walls.  In the 1700’s, a right of any ancient tenement holder (farm) was that upon succession of the farm, the son could enclose a further 8 acres of land.  These areas were called “newtakes”.   Someone had to build these enclosures and building a wall by piling stones 4 or 5 feet tall without mortar was an invaluable skill.

I will attest, it still is.

When we met Jim, a local stonewaller, he was repairing the wall along our track for the local farmer.  He and his apprentice took the section that had fallen during a storm last year, and in a days work in the pouring rain, recreated a beautiful wall.  We asked Jim to take a look at some of our walls that needed repair in order to keep the sheep out.  This talented man, who earns a living building stonewalls, suggested installing stock proof fencing.  The major breaches are in soggy bits of field, and to bring a “digger” to lift the heavy stones into place might result in the digger sinking into the ground.  Alternatively, he suggested we keep stacking the stones up as best we can.

Stone wall along track to Crockern Farm

Jim’s repaired wall

We aren’t that interested in posts and barbed wire, preferring the stonewalls, so we pushed Jim a little harder about how to build back these walls.  He said, “Each stone has a face….find the face and have them all looking out in the same direction.”

Okay, find the face.

Bloody hard when we are lifting a 400 pound stone!  Marital discord aside, Roger and I have been unable to locate a face.

Crockern Farm wall

An example of our handiwork

Stones for building walls are everywhere and if the sheep or erosion have knocked them off, they are often buried nearby the remaining wall.  Historically, a wall builder wouldn’t break or shape stones, and instead would build the walls with the materials nearby.  If needed, some stones would be carried across a distance by sleds or ponies.

In later years, many wall builders started using only the large stones and roughly squared them.  We have some examples of these in our walls.   We also have some stones that have fallen and are sitting nearby, mocking us.  Some are impossibly large and heavy and it is difficult to imagine how they were ever lifted into place.  Consider The Great Wall in China, Hadrian’s Wall on the Scottish Border, the Irishman’s Wall in Dartmoor, and the walls to our house and fields and the mind begins to boggle.

Crockern Farm Wall

Thankfully, this wall isn’t in need of repair. Look at the size of these stones.

More things to know about Granite:

  1. It can range in colour and its texture is determined by the rate of cooling.
  2. It makes a beautiful countertop.
  3. Curling stones have been made of granite since 1750 and weigh between 38 and 44 pounds.
  4. Granite is heavy.  A cubic foot of granite weighs 168 pounds, compared to the same volume of water, which weighs only 62 pounds.
  5. The lintel above the door to the entrance of the house is up 6 feet and is 4’9” x 2’ x 10” (yes, those are imperial standard measurements).  I now have a rough idea that this stone could weigh at least 1,330 pounds .
  6. People have worked with granite for thousands of years.

There was one noted wall builder in Dartmoor, John Bishop (1821-1892), who was one of the first to use the shaped and squared building method in his walls.  He tightly fitted large blocks of granite in such a way that very little daylight could be seen through the wall.  Controversial, I know, but the walls Roger and I have repaired allow for lots of daylight.  When asked how he lifted such heavy stones, John Bishop is alleged to have replied, “Aw, ‘tis surprisin’ what ee can do with a laiver or two.”

We’ve used crowbars, gravity, fulcrums, the “one, two, three, lift,” swearing, “third time is a charm,” determination, perseverance, smaller stones, the end-of-the-day-cocktail-motivator, and still our walls are just okay.  No faces in the final formation.  Nor are there any larger-than-life-squared-off-boulders-not-to-be-moved-for-another-1,000-years back in their place.  Yet, we remain undeterred.

In constructing the Wailing Wall, Pozzi begins to view the work as an infringement of human rights and nothing short of being a slave.  Taking a more philosophical approach, Nashe tries to see it as fifty days of exercise.

While hefting our stones into place, I’ve had this exercise thought.  Singing Bob Dylan in my head: “They’ll stone you when you’re trying to make a buck.  They’ll stone you and then they’ll say good luck.  But I would not feel so all alone, Everybody must get stoned.” and still unable to locate a rock’s face, I will let my mind drift to those fabled biceps and shoulders of Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2.   Those arms could be mine if I just lifted five more stones before calling it quits.

Granite on Dartmoor is not just about walls and houses.  The earliest surviving granite structures are the ritualistic and ceremonial monuments from over 4,000 years ago.  These include Neolithic stone rows, stone circles, burial chambered tombs and standing stones.   Some standing stones may have been simple boundary markers, but when aligned in rows, they may have ceremonial or astronomical purposes.  Today’s modern standing stone is most often the memorial to fallen veterans.  Both Nelson’s Column and the New London Bridge incorporate Dartmoor granite.

Drizzlecombe Complex Standing Stone, Dartmoor

Drizzlecombe Complex consists of megalithic stone rows, longstones, over 20 cairns and hut circles.

More than a few Dartmoor stories have been inspired by certain natural rock formations, often involving witches.  These are not from the Glenda the Good Witch category, as Dartmoor enchantresses are not to be crossed.  There is one such story about a coven of witches who sought revenge on a hunter.  Bowerman was out with his dogs hunting rabbits when he chased a hare through a gathering of witches practicing magic.  Incensed by the interruption, one witch transformed herself into a rare white hare and led Bowerman on another chase across the moors.  He continued to pursue the white hare until he collapsed from exhaustion before the other witches.  With their collective powers, they gave him a granite coat for warmth while he rested.  It is said that the hunter remains entombed in the stone formation known as “Bowerman’s Nose”.  Notably, these rocks have a face.

Bowerman’s Nose

The Music of Chance takes a darker turn before it concludes, but eventually Nashe completes enough work on the wall to pay off his debt.  When I’m not deluding myself about the merits of heavy lifting exercises, I find myself hoping he’ll drive up our bumpy track in that red BMW and lend a hand.

Advertisements

A Small Gathering

Sometimes, you just need a holiday.  It’s not necessary that it be a great distance, an exotic location, or even an extended period.  A few nights away, visiting friends is enough to help relax and restore.  And that is just what we did.

With our chickens secured for the weekend, Roger and I packed our overnight bags, Sam and Millie’s belongings, and a few gifts of flowers, wine and snacks into the car and headed out for a two-night stay with friends.   Road Trip!

Ian and Carol have a wonderful set up, living and working on twelve acres in a lovely house.  We arrived in time for drinks, dinner and an evening of catching up and sharing laughs.  The following morning was cool and sunny so we set out with the dogs and walked along the old Roman wall of Silchester, which is near their home.  Often on walks in England, I will think of who travelled along that route before.  Was it Jane Austen in Bath imagining bumping into Mr. Darcy?  Or perhaps, was it an Edwardian farmer gathering gorse on the moors to feed to her horses?  In this instance, I found myself considering the Roman Centurion who protected the homes along these walls.

According to English Heritage, Silchester is considered one of the best preserved Roman towns in Britain.  Growing up in Ohio, we didn’t have such things, suffice it to say, I’m excited.  These ancient ruins were the centre of an Iron Age kingdom from the late 1st century BC where once there would have been a significant town with houses, public buildings and public baths.  There is an old Roman amphitheatre, too.  The wall we are walking along would have been part of the ancient town’s defences.  But now, along parts of the path are hedges bursting with blackberries, sloes, and rosehips.

blackberry

Last year on our visit, we gathered bags of wind fallen apples and plums, returning home to make jam.  This year, we filled our bags with perfectly ripe blackberries and barely ripe sloes.  There is something appealing about foraging.  The idea of gathering food from the hedges, while the dogs run up and down the path, helps to accelerate the relaxing effects of a get-away weekend.   It slows us down, it connects us with the abundance of food on offer for free.  And, being out and about, soaking up vitamin D and eating several juicy blackberries lifts our spirits.  Glancing up at Roger, who is tall and can pick the higher berries, I laugh to myself with the image of him in a Roman outfit and helmet.  “Now, conjugate the verb ‘to go’.”

life-of-brian_323092-1200x520

As the day unfolds, Roger and Ian head over to a local farm to see the recently hatched turkey chicks, soon to grow to size for Christmas tables across the region.  Meanwhile, Carol and I take to pruning some of the garden.  It is a massive garden, and our few hours of cutting back the shrubs and deadheading the roses worked wonders, but maintaining this garden will require several days a week.  Sensibly, we call it quits and head to the pub.

English pubs remain one of my favourite places.  They are filled with people sharing a drink, perhaps a bite of food, and conversation.  No loud music or multiple TV screens showing sports.  Dogs are welcome.  And if the weather suits, sitting outside in a garden nursing a drink.  Honestly, it doesn’t get better than this.

Before leaving, Carol and I pick beans (we cannot successfully grow them where we are as it is too windy) and then head to the chicken coop to select a cockerel.  Roger and I have never had a cockerel as they can sometimes be mean.  Besides, hens can organize themselves just fine.  But Carol and Ian have three cockerels, and that is too many.  We select a Bantam who appears confident and friendly.  He’s beautifully coloured with head feathers about the ears making him look like he’s wearing headphones.  I’ve named him Tommy.

It’s a three-hour drive home, if we don’t hit traffic.  Our bags and bounty are packed in the car:  beans, berries, sloes and Tommy are all in the car with Sam, Millie and the two of us.  We make our way back to Crockern and strategize just exactly how we are going to introduce this small cockerel to our rather large hens.  He was fine at Carol and Ian’s, where they have a crazy collection of large hens, Bantams, geese and something that looked to me like a cross between a chicken and a pheasant.  We are hoping Tommy respectfully asserts himself in his new setting in Dartmoor.  Meanwhile, we can get on with making a crumble, some sloe gin, and putting some beans on the table to go with the rest of our dinner.

Now well rested, tomorrow we’ll get back to work.

 

Livin’ on the Veg

It isn’t easy gardening in winter, let alone on Dartmoor.  The UK, with its distinct seasons, offers a challenge to keeping a year round vegetable supply.  By late autumn, it feels as if there is nothing left to harvest after the near glut in summer.  Even in spring, as plants are beginning to grow, there are too few things ready to harvest.  We’ve had to learn about what to grow and when, protecting our vegetables, and making use of different vegetable varieties to fill empty spaces in the garden.

So far, the new and improved raised beds, which Roger built this past spring, complete with their chicken wire surround to keep out pesky critters, are working a treat.  We have been feasting the past few months on kale, beets, spinach, winter purslane, radishes, and land cress.  The rainbow chard is beginning to look pickable and our spring cabbages are blossoming out to a respectable size.  Our progress comes as a huge satisfaction.

Growing for winter is truly a year-round job.  It begins in the summer when we must resist being seduced by the bounty of veg we gather at that time, staying focused on the leaner months of autumn and winter to follow.  By October, light levels are low, affecting the speed of germination.  Add in a healthy dose of wind, rain and cold, which begin to dominate the weather forecast, and it is tempting to throw in the trowel.  As is our style, we ignore all the obvious discouraging signs and charge ahead.

p1030688

A typical frost covering the plant life on the hillside.

We’ve never had much luck with leeks, and so didn’t bother this year.  But now, I’m regretting having not given leeks, garlic and more onions a spot in our winter beds.  In reading up on these edible alliums, I discover that garlic actually needs a period of cold and so wants, nay begs, to be in the ground and growing well before the arrival of winter.  I will need to make a note for next year in my little black book.

We have a forecast of snow for later today, so Roger has just put on his waterproofs and headed out to cover the beds with horticultural fleece.  Most days this autumn and winter have been easy for us to tend to the garden.  But this week it feels like wind, rain, freezing temperatures, rabbits, slugs, and a host of other challenges are joining hands to welcome us each time we go out to pick some lettuce.  I have half a mind to forego our Five-A-Day.

Roger outside in the rain and sleet protecting the veg beds.

Roger outside in the rain and sleet protecting the veg beds.

Despite all the challenges, lettuce does well through the winter as does spinach, which actually is easier to grow in winter than in summer because it doesn’t go to seed so quickly.  We are always thinking about what to grow and whether or not to bother.  I don’t have any interest in growing peas and beans, they aren’t suited to our location.    Nor, do I have any interest in Brussel Sprouts.   Despite how much I love them, they take up too much space in the garden.

Winter gardening also involves planning for the spring.  While sitting by the fire with the snow coming down, thoughts drift to:  What will we repeat?  What will we try new?  What will we completely abandon?  Two years of aubergines and we aren’t going to bother again.  They grow, they flower, and then nothing.  It’s best to learn from mistakes and build on our successes.  With that in mind, Roger has purchased several fruit bushes which do well in acidic soil.  Where to plant these is yet to be decided, but we will need to get them in the ground soon.  Of course, my make shift bird netting for the blueberry bushes will no longer do, so we are discussing how to go about building a fruit cage which will be easy to access and yet not blow over in some of the strong winds we get in our moorland valley.  Despite this new challenge, which we brought on ourselves, we are both looking forward to growing more fruit.

While the rain hammered down this morning, I was dry inside the greenhouse giving it some attention by tipping out pots with finished plants from the summer, pulling weeds which are making their home inside the greenhouse, watering the strawberry plants, and giving it a good sweep.  In the early spring, we’ll take everything out and clean the glass and give the floor a scrub to rid it of moss and mould, but there’s no point doing this in winter.

With our winter garden, it’s vegementary, really.   It’s all down to the planning.  Typically, we have big gaps form March through May and in the past, November onwards.  Not this year!  We gave some thought to how we were going to rotate our crops in the raised beds and when we needed to plant things out for winter.  Because there are any number of things that can go wrong:  Some leafy crops are prone to bolting; caterpillars seek out and find cabbages; there’s club root, flea beetles, birds, slugs, snails, whitefly, and heavy rains, and strong winds.  It’s apocalyptic!  But the stuff that survives, thrives and provides, delights us.  Really, we just try a few things, see what works and then repeat.

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.

img_1792

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.

p1030650

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….

Oh, The Lengths We’ll Go!

Roger’s capacity for detail and care often moves me.  He possesses a patience and ability to dig deep, learning what is needed for nearly any challenge.  Where I might be a planner and excel at fitting a number of things into small spaces; Roger can manage details, intricacies and care in ways I simply can’t imagine.

We had been away in April for a week and enjoying a long overdue holiday.  When we returned, we saw one of our chickens sporting a very messy bottom.  Our neighbour who takes care of our chickens when we are away, indicated she had observed the chicken’s messy bottom and thought it might be a prolapse.

Well now, that’s a first for us.

Raising one’s own chickens is a thoroughly rewarding enterprise. Chickens are certainly the most easily managed of domestic animals — they are smaller than goats, and more practical than parakeets.  Our small flock of hens produces enough eggs for us to use during the week, plus extra to sell.  We keep them safe from predators, provide them shelter and food, and a good bit of free-ranging yard in which to explore, take dust baths, and catch worms.  Unlike Sam and Millie, our chickens don’t need to be trained or walked.  The very idea is preposterous!

Of course, when a chicken develops health concerns that is another kettle of fish, so to speak.  If Sam or Millie were sick, we would take them to the vet.  But, who takes chickens to the vet?  We enjoy our chickens, but we don’t over sentimentalise them.  We’re in the country-side and most people who keep chickens would likely make a nice soup when their hens stop laying.  That won’t be the fate of our girls, because we enjoy watching them in the garden.  Even so, they won’t get a ten mile car ride to the vet when they are feeling poorly.

P1030562

Thankfully, there are perhaps as many chicken forums on the Internet as there are chickens in the world.  If you need to know anything about feeding and raising chickens, breed selection, housing options, or recipes for eggs, just click onto one of these discussion groups and you’ll uncover a wide range of expertise, experience, photos and personal stories.  It was one such forum which Roger availed himself of the health and wellness section and quickly learned what to do in this slippery situation.

Treating a prolapse begins with a visit to the chicken day spa, also known as our kitchen sink.  Here the chicken will step into a warm saltwater bath and soak her bottom for about thirty minutes.  I adore soaking for hours in a bath with a good book and a glass of wine, so no doubt in the world of chickens, getting to sit in a bowl of warm water would be bliss!  I’m certain I’m right as our sickly chicken, one of our most evasive and difficult to catch, soon came to see Roger as her key to the spa and practically jumped into his arms when he came to get her for her warm bath.

In the beginning of her care regime, we were concerned about this flighty hen sitting for thirty minutes in a  warm water bath having her bottom cleaned, so I sang to her.  My repertoire bends towards camp songs and I can sing for a good twenty minutes or more about “When it comes to the end of a Brown Ledge day” or “On a wagon, bound for market…”  To more than a few, this skill is among my more irritating, right up there with singing the fifty States in alphabetically order.  But, to this hen, my dulcet tones seemed to do the trick.  Of course, it may have been the warm water bath because as care continued over time, Roger suggested my singing wasn’t necessary.

With the chicken relaxed and her bottom clean, Roger next sprays the hen’s bum with antibacterial spray.  Easy enough.  The prolapse must be pushed back and with the help of a  little haemorrhoid cream, Roger eases the hen’s uterus back into place.  Success!  Somewhat short term though, as about twenty minutes later, her inner organs slipped out again.

For over a week, this procedure of water bath, antibacterial spray and a haemorrhoid cream push-back was conducted twice daily.  The prolapse continued to prolapse.  Reading further, chicken information forums Roger learned about making little harnesses which attach around the chicken’s wings to hold everything up and in, a sort of uterine girdle.  There are endless discussions of the steps people have taken, ultimately ending with such disheartening messages like, “after a week of treatment, the chicken died.”  Like not driving to the vet, we decided to draw the line at making a uterine girdle.

While Roger carried on applying his chicken nursing skills, another chicken who was looking happy and healthy suddenly dropped dead by the feeder.  She was just over 5 years old when she died.  This unexpected death set us about preparing for the loss of another hen.  Her prolapse was not correcting itself and we didn’t want her getting an infection or suffering.

After ten days of treatment in Crockern Spa, our sickly hen, the one who loved Roger for the warm baths he provided, developed a limp.  Was this an infection?  Did she sprain it jumping onto a perch?  Or, was she feigning a new injury to extend visits to the spa?  We may never know because this beautiful hen with her silly slipping out uterus and awkward stride, made a full recovery.  Her warm baths have stopped and so too has her willingness to being caught.  She is back to her evasive manoeuvres, sporting a nice clean bottom and no limp.  She is her old self again.

IMG_0638

Happy and healthy and back in the gang (second from right).

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:  http://www.twoblondeswalking.com).  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.

 

IMG_1566

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.