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 ….

On Discovering Those Wacky Cultural Traditions

Boris Johnson on zip wire

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

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

shin kicking

Shin Kicking — ouch!

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

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

Morris Dancers at Widecombe Fair

Morris Dancers taking a break

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

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

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

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

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

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

Widecombe Fair Dartmoor

Win at Widecombe Fair

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

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

Cerne Abbas Giant

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

bale tossing2

Hopefully that will be me next year!

Chug-a-Lug, Mr. Slug

Many of our indoor projects are on hold until the roofers appear to do repairs.  It’s been a wet summer here, so their schedule has been delayed.  The weather, however, hasn’t dampened our ardour; indeed we’ve been busy outside.   The potholes on the track are filled; we’ve taken down broken bits of the shed, replaced two gates, and done our best to secure the chicken coop against unwelcome guests.  We’ve also constructed two compost bins; one is full of decomposing matter and will be ready to place on the garden in the early spring.  The other is half full and just beginning to breakdown.  For now, it is the current dumping ground for all of the cuttings, clippings, biodegradable kitchen waste, and remments of the weekly chicken coop cleaning.

We’ve also finished building and preparing our raised vegetable beds and are ready to plant out our autumn garden.

Raised Beds

Raised beds now ready for planting

In planning our vegetable patch, we’ve read all the advice for success, which is clear:  consider the location of the beds, the quality of the soil and monitor for pests.  Full sun and protection from wind are critical.  We have the full sun (when it isn’t cloudy or raining), but not much protection from the wind.  Dartmoor soil tends to be slightly acidic, so we ordered a pH test kit.  Roger and Thomas, our young assistant who was visiting with his Mom, went about the task of testing our soil.   The results are that it is about 6.  Not ideal, but we aren’t in bad shape as most vegetables like a pH of 6.5.

Soil Ph Testing

Roger and Thomas in the laboratory

Our last step toward garden success is to put our attentions to controlling one of the sneakiest and most determined of all threats:  Slugs.  The slugs we have been seeing this summer are not featherweight chumps.  They are about 5 inches long and the size of mice.  Our plants are at risk from these beastly gastropod molluscs, and we haven’t even started.

Slugs

I once asked an expert at a Royal Horticultural Society information booth, “So, what’s the best way to control slugs?”  Answer:  “I admire slugs and think they are amazing creatures.”  Notably, this response did not answer my question, but did provide me enough information to know that I was not going to get anything beyond, “learn to live with them.”

Sunday found us outside working in the garden planting rhubarb, raspberries and a blueberry bush, when a group of men happened past carrying a keg of beer.  Odd we thought as we live a half-mile up a track with nothing but wilderness beyond.  Odder still, they were soon followed by another group of men, then a group of women, then one man with a keg on his back, and yet another group, all carrying kegs of beer.  We asked one group what was going on and they told us it was a challenge walk.  Interesting challenge!

Drink, drink, drink, drink.

Drank, drank, drank, drank.

Drunk last night.

Drunk the night before.

Gonna get drunk tonight like I’ve never been drunk before.

My Dad taught me, along with a few of my friends, this drinking song.  It is an unusual composition to teach ten year olds, but it is a catchy tune with fun lyrics.  But I digress.

Slugs are slimy, supposedly inedible, and destroy gardens.  Evidently, they are good at consuming dead vegetable matter, but they don’t stop there. They enthusiastically eat through anything that is leafy, flowering, or beginning to grow in a vegetable garden.  And, I’m not alone in the hatred of the slug.  Read any gardening website and it’s filled with comments from people at their wits end as they battle against the slug.  They are also filled with endless tips of how to stop them in their slimy tracks.

I won’t deny that I do like the slug pellet.  There is nothing politically correct or organic about them, but they work.  Sadly, they are poisonous and can cause problems for pets, wildlife, birds and beetles.  Our chickens like to scratch in the garden bed, and we’re concerned that they might enjoy a pellet or two as their last supper.

We’ve tried copper rings, ground up eggshells and gone out on the nighttime slug hunts.  This is when, at dusk, the keen gardener is expected to lift leaves, pick up the slugs, and put them into a sealed container to feed to the birds and chickens the next morning.  The one and only time I tried this, I picked off over 25 slugs and still haven’t recovered from the experience.

One thing I won’t try is to eat them.

I am a fan of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, but draw the line at trying any of his slug recipes offered in one episode of River Cottage.  You can stuff them with herbs and spices, batter them and even add chili and garlic, Hugh, but a slug is still what you’ve got.

I wonder, is Hugh onto something, perhaps?  There is a story on Dartmoor about the ruins of a farmhouse from the 1700s known locally as Snaily House.  The story has it that the last inhabitants regularly enjoyed a tasty snack of bottled, salted slugs along with a few garden vegetables as their main sustenance.  The local farmers believed the plump inhabitants of this farm could only be surviving by stealing their sheep.  Imagine the community surprise upon discovering the true culinary delights within that home.

No, I still say we aren’t meant to eat slugs.  Case and point:  recently a young man in Sydney dared to do so and spent time in an Intensive Care Unit.   Maybe it was because the slug was raw or because it was just a slug.  But is it a coincidence that Slugulus Eructo is the charm in Harry Potter that causes someone to belch out slugs and their associated slime for about ten minutes?  I think not.

Cuz when I’m drunk, I’m as happy as can be.

Cuz I am a member of the Soused family.

Now the Soused family is the best family, that every came over from Old Germany.

With that childhood drinking song in my head and visions of hikers carrying kegs of beer, I reveal here our primary slug control approach:  the slug pub.  It’s simple: slugs love beer.  Like Homer Simpson, they are attracted by the smell of most yeasty liquids.   By placing a partly beer-filled jam jar into the ground, it is like turning on the neon open sign at the local pub.  Slugs can’t help themselves.  With luck they go for a pre-dinner drink and drown before setting out to munch on the garden.  The marinated slugs can make a nice breakfast for chickens and birds the next morning.  Let them eat the rascals.

“Giving up alcohol is cruel,” Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, once said. “One of the cruelest and most deceitful things you can do to your body. I’ve taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me. It’s a great gift of the gods.”

Singing Glorious!

Glorious!

One keg of beer for the four of us.

And glory be to god that there are no more of us,

Cuz one of us could drink it all alone!

 

As we move ahead, we’re hoping to win the battle against the slugs.  We will continue to encourage birds, frogs and toads and hope that they will feast on any and all slugs they find.  And, we’re hoping that the Bo-Jo’s of our garden come out to party, singing all the way!

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

I’m Waiting for Mandy Patinkin

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.