The Vegan Hot Dog Van

In every town I’ve lived, there have been the regulars.   In cities, there were the old men who daily smoked outside the front door of their apartment building.  Or, the group of teenagers hanging about the corner for hours. Regular dog walkers.  Early morning joggers.  Solo folks saddled up to the bar having a bite to eat before heading home.  All our lives connected through something bigger than any of us.

Living rurally, we may not have the corner shop or the local bar, but we do have a cast of characters. The tall man with the curvy walking stick who leads visitors to places on the moors always stops to greet Millie and Brock.  The local couple who are busy tracking and recording migratory birds to the area, dressed in camouflage and draped with more than a few pairs of binoculars routinely stop by to say hello.  There are our regular egg buyers, dog walkers, bird watchers, or trail runners who are all part of our lives, even if we don’t always know their names.

There is one, who remains a mystery to me.  I’ve never met him.  And up until recently I had never seen him.  To catch a glimpse of him is akin to spotting the mythical Sasquatch or The Loch Ness monster.   If there were Dartmoor Trading Cards, he may be perhaps the most valuable of them all.  A vintage Babe Ruth.  Michael Jordon’s 1986-1987 Rookie Card.  The 1954 Ted Williams.  Or, a mint condition Wayne Gretzky.

It all began when we noticed a maroon and green van with a sky-blue top sheltered in various lay-bys on Dartmoor. We’d spot it any time of the day, but most often it was parked very early in the morning, or towards evening as the sun would begin to bruise the sky with a sunset.  There are probably similar vans and campers moving about on Dartmoor, but this one is unique.  In addition to its earth and sky colour theme, the side of the van shows a painting of a golden sun with radiant beams.   In large letters across the top is written, “Vegan Hotdog”.

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I ask around, “Have you ever seen that van?”  “Do you know anything about him?”  “Does he sell vegan hotdogs?”  “Does he live in the van?”  “Is he nice?” “Is he an activist?”  Almost everyone I ask looks puzzled, save a few who have also seen the van and entertained similar questions.  One friend mused, “I wonder if he does a good trade selling vegan hotdogs on the moors?”

I search the Internet and find little more than a story about a vegan hotdog receiving a 95% approval rating.  There is also a moderately interesting story about a woman who ordered a vegan hotdog at a big international store, only to discover it had meat in it.  Like any Internet search, there is a rabbit hole of articles.  And yet I uncover no information, not even a photo, to shed light on my local mystery.

This past year, Roger and I began reporting our various sightings of the van, sharing with one another where we saw it parked and looking abandoned.  Occasionally one of us would see the van on the move.  In the distance, just over the crest of a hill, the bright blue roof would appear.  We slow our car in order to catch a glimpse of the driver, this Vegan Hotdog Man.

He has a big white beard, but so does our friend Steve and I’m certain this is not a separate identity for him.  The Vegan Hotdog Man seems to be driving alone in the van.  I have never seen a dog or another person riding shotgun.

Who is he?  What’s his story?  Since we don’t have Dartmoor Trading Cards, there are no stats to glean from this hard to come by collectable.

With the new year upon us, I’ve turned my attention to making positive steps.  I’ve upped my exercise, not as a new year’s resolution, but just to get it back to what it was before my Dad got ill last year. I’ve carved out more space for relaxing with a good book or listening – actually listening not just as background – to music.  Brock and Millie are back into my school of obedience training, a casual but necessary school. And, as I do at every start of the year, I’m working on a clear out.  Clothing that has holes.  Paperwork which is no longer needed.  Books long since read, which someone else might enjoy.  And the growing pile of things to take to the local tip.

With Roger’s help, we packed the car with recyclables and I drove to the tip.  As I rounded the corner to find a strategic parking place for easy off-loading — metals in the metal bin, plastics in the plastic bin, glass in the glass bin — I spy the bright blue roof of the Vegan Hot Dog Van.

Can it be?  Is he here at the tip?  Should I introduce myself?  How do you start a conversation with a mystery?

I’ve had this overwhelming sensation before.  Being in an unusual place, spotting a celebrity – greater points awarded if they are a B-list celebrity – and not knowing my next move.  Do I interrupt their privacy with a  friendly “Hi?  Don’t I know you?”  I’ve done this:  A still yet unknown Benedict Cumberbatch at the National Portrait Gallery; Laurie Anderson in the women’s restroom at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; and Colm Meaney at a hidden lake in Connemara, Ireland.  Colm and I spoke about the beauty of the landscape and drank the water from the lake, but I chickened out at saying “I love you as Miles O’Brien on Star Trek:  The Next Generation!”  That felt too needy.

As I walk past the Vegan Hotdog Man, I clutch my bags of recycling and slow my pace.  He’s slender and tall, his white beard is thick and bushy. Beyond this, there’s nothing notable. Either that, or I’m a bad witness or easily distracted.  Almost as soon as I see him,  I turn my attention to the van, taking a casual passing glance inside the open door.   But he’s doing what I’m doing and off-loading things at the tip.  There’s no more information to be had about him than anyone else at the tip with our vehicles full of things to drop off in the  appropriate bins.

Perhaps one day, I’ll have an opportunity to introduce myself.  Maybe we’ll meet at a party.  Or, his van will be slightly blocking my car and I’ll need to politely ask him to move, sparking a casual series of questions.

Who are you?

Or maybe, some ingenious person will produce a series of Dartmoor Trading Cards.  The elusive Vegan Hotdog Man among the many collectables. Having just recycled several things, I don’t really want a collectable trading card, I just want to meet this man in the flesh.

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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.

 

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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.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz……

There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep. — Homer

I’m coming out of the closet and telling the truth.  I’ve just emerged from a little afternoon nap, and it was great.  This noble siesta, more commonly known as a snooze, kip or slumber, is wonderful, and yet no matter how good I may feel, in the back of my mind there is a nagging voice calling me a lazy-lay-about.  I must silence this internal dialogue as it is interrupting one of the most effortless ways for me to maintain my health and well-being.

I long to be a guilt-free, habitual nap-taker, but I’m not, at least not yet.  I love naps, but often feel the weight of an historic work ethic, which has for decades scoffed at napping as a sign of laziness.   Lately, though, there is some support emerging for the benefits of a midday snooze.  In other words, napping boosts our alertness, creativity, mood and productivity in the later hours of the day.  Hey, where’s my blanket?!  According to a Harvard study, I’d know if I had only taken that 45-minute nap, because doing so improves memory.

When did napping become the exclusive pastime for children or the elderly?  When did we culturally find ourselves on such a straight and narrow path?  I mean, honestly, isn’t real butter tastier than margarine?    I want to embrace the good life, complete with its leisures and pleasures and throw up a giant “NO” sign to the world of control and deprivation offered up by self-help disciplinarians.  Give me frivolity or give me death!

Imagine my relief to learn that there are a number of famous and powerful people who proudly announce themselves as nap-takers.   Consider this:  Leonardo da Vinci took multiple naps a day and slept less at night and I think it is fair to say he wasn’t exactly lazy.  That French Emperor, Napoleon, is also known to have indulged in the daily nap.  To boost her energy, Eleanor Roosevelt snoozed before speaking engagements and John F. Kennedy ate his lunch in bed and settled in for a nap every day.  Winston Churchill’s afternoon nap was a non-negotiable and he maintained that it helped him get twice as much done each day.  Brahms napped at the piano  — perhaps soothed to sleep by his famous lullaby.   Many famous writers have napping sofas in their writing rooms.  Bill Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, Einstein and surely there are many, many more.  Are any of these folks lazy slackers?  I think not.  With these success stories as my guide, I am ready to embrace finding a way to nap daily, shedding the guilt as I nod off.

There is a car park along the B3357 road into Tavistock and Roger and I like to stop here for an ice cream and a walk with Sam.  Regardless of weather, there are always walkers, ice-cream enthusiasts and tourist taking photos of the wild ponies.  Also, there are always people dozing in their cars.  I call this car park the “nap zone” because there is not a single time I’ve stopped when I haven’t spotted someone asleep at the wheel.  Given that napping reduces stress and lowers the risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes and excessive weight gain, I would happily turn into this car park and declare “Yes!” to the offer of a 99 Flake and a twenty-minute kip!

Our culture is set up to go on and on and so we do, but are we designed to keep going without rest?    The National Sleep Foundation recommends a short nap of 20-30 minutes for improved alertness.  Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the Roman’s regularly took naps to reduce their own empire-building burnout.   In fact, they saw napping as a physical necessity.  I’ve found that the very task of researching the subject of napping is proving helpful in my own creativity by relaxing my mind and resting my body.  The very idea of embracing a nap was born from waking up from one and feeling, well, great!

Roger and I are working hard to restore Crockern.  Our progress is slow, and the labour is at times demanding.  We also have responsibilities.  Chickens who like to get out and about with the sun.  An energetic collie who wakes with the dawn chorus and lets me know it is time to rouse myself, regardless of how much sleep I’ve had.   But what I’ve noticed is that Sam and the chickens, without any guilt or “by your leave”; take indulgent naps when they have the chance in the middle of the day.  In fact, all the other mammals in our midst seem to steal sleep for short periods.

Regardless of my obligations, I feel duty bound to get sufficient sleep.  There are no treadmills, yoga classes or tonics that will maintain my youth, reduce stress and maintain my sanity as will a nap.   What a gift to humanity is napping.  Just lie down, drift off into dreamland and reap the benefits.  Could it get any easier?  When something so pleasurable, packed with health benefits, is on offer, I’m thinking bring it on!

Who knows, dear reader, if you’ve gotten to this point, you may wish to find a comfy spot and do the same.

Napping

Napping Queen, feel the sleep on the trampoline….oh yeah……

A NoTORious Challenge

It’s mid-may and we have lit a fire just to take some of the chill out of the air.  As I sit inside warm, dry and questioning the logic of this season called spring, I can’t help but wonder how those teenagers managed the Ten Tors Challenge which brought many of them walking past our house this past weekend, some hiking over 55 miles in two days.

Every May, 2,400 teenagers, in teams of 6 people, aged between 14 and 20, take part in an annual two-day event across the forbidding terrain of Dartmoor following one of 26 different routes.   Without adult supervision, the groups set out to face the challenges of navigation, bivouacking and field cooking all the while, attempting to visit the checkpoints of Ten Tors that are staffed by volunteers in order to get their route cards stamped.   These kids have to be self sufficient while on the moor and so each team member carries his or her own tent and provisions, such as food, clothing, stoves, fuel, navigation equipment, maps, emergency rations and first aid kits.

The event is organized by the British Army and is about more than just physical endurance and hardship; it’s about teamwork!  And it would have to be as there is no satellite navigation, just an Ordnance Survey map, compass and good sense.  Even on a clear day, navigation is difficult on Dartmoor, let alone the challenges faced in low cloud or at night.

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Sam heading towards a tor on Dartmoor

Dartmoor is one of the last wildernesses in England and this national park occupies 368 square miles of hills, many of which are topped by spectacular granite outcrops called ‘tors’.  At its lowest point Dartmoor touches 325 feet and 2,018 feet at its highest. The valleys between the hills carry streams and rivers that can rise swiftly following rain.  The land is peppered with bogs that can trick the unaware walker into danger.

In addition to the challenging terrain, the potential of the extreme weather conditions Dartmoor has on offer is significant.  While the sun may help navigation, it drains energy and burns exposed body parts.  The mist hides landmarks, easily disorientating the less capable navigator.  Gentle rain can be refreshing, but, when it becomes heavy, it can swell rivers so that they cease to be fordable and, when accompanied by dense mist and gale force wind, can even become life threatening.  During the 1996 Ten Tors Challenge, a snowstorm and sleet showers resulted in poor visibility and freezing temperatures, necessitating a mass emergency evacuation of the teams.  In contrast, in 1998 the temperatures rose above 26ºC and many of the teams suffered from dehydration.  While I sit inside with the wind and rain hammering our newly planted vegetable garden, I am mindful of the group of seven boys from Wiltshire who were airlifted off the moor after becoming disoriented and lost in low cloud and worsening conditions in April this year during a practice trek for this challenge.

Dartmoor

Fog Rolling in on Dartmoor

This past autumn, I set out with Sam to do a long hike in an area I hadn’t yet explored.  This was not going to be anything like the Ten Tors experience mind you, but still a small challenge, as I prefer to explore with Roger who is an excellent map reader!  The weather prediction was “cloudy with sun” and not too cold.  Given that the previous few days had seen heavy rain, the promise of a dry day held out hopes for a good walk.  With a positive forecast, I packed provisions, including the OS map, and headed a short distance away by car to begin my walk.

I’ve never been fabulous with directions, but I do okay.  My straightforward plan was to head north for about 4 miles along a bridle path and then circle round a valley back to where I parked.  Generally bridal paths in Dartmoor are friendly under foot, clearly marked and often have groups of all ages walking along them, many of whom have no intention of consulting a map.  About 30 minutes into the walk, I noticed that what should have been a clear path seemed faint to the point of being non-existent.  I stopped to consult the map.  What I discovered is that somehow, I had lost the path and Sam and I were on the wrong side of the river.  Oops.  Heading down a steep and rocky hill, I elected to not retrace my steps and instead, cross the river.

Rivers in Dartmoor are bipolar when it comes to rain.  One day a river is a beautiful babbling bit of water, spilling over boulders, accompanying the birdsong in the air.  On another, that same body of water becomes a raging torrent of deep, cold, fast moving power.  Crossing the river seemed a sensible decision at the time.  After all, it would save me time and get me quickly back on the right path.  As Sam and I cautiously made our way through the deep water, I slipped on a moss covered stone and got soaking wet.  What had seemed such a good idea quickly became a misery and we were forced to abandon our walk and head back to the car.  By Ten Tors standards, this was not an auspicious start.

The great thing about the Ten Tors Challenge is that it is a walking activity.  But, it is also a team event that demands strong leadership, spirited companionship, fitness, skillful navigation, focused determination, and a dose of luck.  Every year teams of teenagers join the Ten Tors challenge and it is an impressive accomplishment, I think, to decide to participate, let alone complete it.   When we moved to Dartmoor and took on the projects at Crockern, we knew we were moving to a wild and rugged landscape that would provide challenges.  The team approach is key and I don’t think Roger or I could pull this off without the other.   For me, when Roger is around I know if I get soaked from a misstep in the river, he’ll listen to me moan and then prepare me a nice hot beverage while I dry my socks.

After a fall in the river

When Roger fell in the river in Scotland, I took this picture!

There’s No Business Like Snow Business

Just when I thought that spring was around the corner, the cold moved in and decided to make itself comfortable.  We received a beautiful covering of snow three days ago.  Our first.  This storm caused the roads through Dartmoor to be closed, cutting us off for 24 hours.  Not a single person came up the track.  The clouds were low that day and visibility almost nil, so our venturing out was somewhat limited.  The whole scene had a sepia tone to it.

That was Friday.  On Saturday and Sunday, crowds of people from surrounding lower-lying areas that had received rain rather than snow arrived to go sledding, and give us headaches with their litter, noise and shocking inability to read signs (more than a few people blocked us in as they parked directly in front of our gate with its posted “no parking” message).

We have the place to ourselves again, so set out for a hike behind our house.  Drifts of snow abut tufts of ice-covered grass and rocks, dramatic skies and the climbs up to the tors combined to make one of the most beautiful winter scenes.   This week’s blog is a photo essay of our first snow at Crockern.  We are awaiting more of the fluffy white stuff tomorrow.

Crockern Farm

First snow in the morning toward the back gate.

Snow covered footpath sign to Wistman's Woods just behind our house.

Snow covered footpath sign to Wistman’s Woods just behind our house.

Looking south towards Crockern Farm.

Looking south towards Crockern Farm.

Chickens in the snow

One of the chickens having a go at her first snow.

Littaford  and Longaford Tors, Dartmoor

Roger on the way to Littaford and Longaford Tors.

Littaford Tor, Dartmoor

Littaford Tor

Icy Grass on top of the ridge looking toward Bellever, Dartmoor

Icy Grass on top of the ridge looking toward Bellever.

Littaford Tor in the snow and ice grass.

Littaford Tor in the snow and ice grass.

Littaford Tor, Dartmoor

More Littaford Tor

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Rocks, snow, what more do you need?

Dartmoor winter

Snow and clouds moving toward the vanishing point.

Sky, stone wall, snowy ground.

Sky, stone wall, snowy ground.

Roger and Sam on top of the ridge.

Roger and Sam on top of the ridge.

Longaford Tor with view (about 1.5 miles away) back to our house.

Higher White Tor with view (about 1.5 miles away) back to our house.

A silhouette of Sam, me and the top of Higher White Tor.

A silhouette of Sam, me and the top of Higher White Tor.

A lone tree just before Wistman's Woods.

A lone tree just before Wistman’s Woods.

Sheep in the snow.

Sheep in the snow.

Prose and Cons

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

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

Dartmoor Prison

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

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

Dartmoor Prison

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

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

Woody in a gnoming prank in London found on internet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

German Garden Gnome

On Discovering Those Wacky Cultural Traditions

Boris Johnson on zip wire

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

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

shin kicking

Shin Kicking — ouch!

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

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

Morris Dancers at Widecombe Fair

Morris Dancers taking a break

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

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

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

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

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

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

Widecombe Fair Dartmoor

Win at Widecombe Fair

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

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

Cerne Abbas Giant

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

bale tossing2

Hopefully that will be me next year!