On a Hot Tin Roof

Just over ten years ago, Roger and I tied the knot, performed our nuptials, embraced matrimony.  In other words, we married.  The tenth wedding anniversary is special, and appears to be celebrated with a gift of tin.  Why tin?  Tunafish comes in tin.  I absolutely do not want to receive, nor give, a can of tuna as a gift.  Are we certain it is tin and not gin?   But, keeping with tradition — and we are nothing if not adherents of certain traditions — we are embracing this tin thing.

We elected to celebrate our anniversary by booking a weekend in Cornwall with the dogs.  Cornwall has a rich history of tin mines dating back to the Bronze Age, so it seemed an appropriate choice for our get-away weekend.  Explorations of new villages and towns, walks along the coast with the dogs, and some yummy food awaited us.   Pack the car and let’s go!

Whoa!  Hold it right there.  Nope, rewind.  Can we really leave?  Wasn’t the generator recently playing up?  And if it doesn’t charge the batteries, all manner of disaster might befall us in the form of the boiler or water pumps not functioning.   For the dedicated reader of this blog, the answer is an easy “yes”.  Roger managed to get it mostly fixed, but we were still having problems with consistent voltage and the support team of batteries charging properly.  What this meant was that Roger continued to manually hand crank start the generator each day to charge the storage batteries.  This is no way to live and so we did have to call in our generator expert, Paul.  As it transpired, there was a problem with the AC diode…..blah, blah, blah…. I stopped paying attention and went to town to run a few errands.   While I was out, I received this text from Roger:


Our weekend away was back on track and our generator was functioning as it hadn’t in years.  Happy Anniversary to us!  And now, a confession:  our hard working, thirty-plus-year old Lister lives in conditions which would raise alarm bells in the Geneva Convention for Generators.   The tin roof above is rusted and leaks.  The entire building needs some TLC as the stone walls need repair and reinforcing.  There are no supports for the rusty roof either, so it is a matter of time before the entire thing comes crashing down.   Standing within this falling down shed sits a temporary structure which Roger built during our first month of being at Crockern, bravely protecting the generator from the elements and the failing roof above.  It works, but it is most certainly not a forever solution.

When we arrived to Crockern, the generator was being rained upon and we could have repaired the roof then.  But the roof to the house was leaking, we had water running down a wall in what is now our bedroom, the boiler was either on or off, a fuse box lived below a copper water tank, and we had no insulation, so we had other fish to fry.  Faced with all this, our emergency, short term fix was Roger’s sturdy, moveable cover for the generator.  That was five years ago.

When I walk past this outbuilding, I can’t help but think of that famous line from the B-52s “Love Shack” a place where people of all shapes and sizes, stripes and colours head for a groovy good time. It’s Kookie’s Mad Pad filled with multifarious crowds of hipsters.  It’s state of mind.  But not at Crockern.  Our shack is just that, a shack.  Home to muck and mess, and a hard working generator.

With our bags packed and chicken care sorted, we were nearly ready to head out for our mini-vacay.   With the generator working splendidly we were departing with peace of mind.  I headed to town for my piano lesson.  Just as I was getting in the car to return home, I receive the following texts:

For about a year now, we’ve known we had to address this on-its-last-leg-water-pump.   We’ve been waiting as there is a larger project at hand regarding the water system in the house, and when the water tank got its bulge (Can’t remember?  See:  https://crockernfarm.wordpress.com/2016/12/11/old-stone-cottage-renovation/ ), we had to begin this project.  For the most part, the pump worked, but typically on a stormy night, just as we were brushing our teeth before heading to sleep, it would stop and we would have no water, whereby Roger, not I, would head outside into the wind and rain, making his way to the shed where the pump is located, giving  it a little tap, tap, tap.  Inconvenient, but in the triage of projects, not a high priority.  That is until the latest failure and death of the pump.  And Roger covered in shower gel and standing outside in his bathrobe.

As luck would have it, the plumber arrived within the hour and quickly replaced the pump.  As he left, he mentioned that we should consider a new shed for this set up.  Did we hear him correctly or was this our tin ear?  Another shed?  This is not part of the plans for the outbuildings.

We hadn’t yet set out and already this anniversary celebration was becoming an embarrassment of riches.  Tin roof riches.  We will be getting a tin roof for the shed.  Not just getting, but installing.  As quickly as the plumber left, we loaded the car and headed west to Cornwall where there was no tin in sight.  Instead, we settled into the B&B and ordered two glasses filled with gin & tonic.  Happy anniversary to us and don’t we know how to just do things in style.

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.


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


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.

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!

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

Sam, The Great Houndini

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote The Hound of The Baskervilles, set in Dartmoor.  Old Crockern keeps his Whist Hounds in Wistman’s Woods and there is a landmark in Dartmoor known as Hound Tor.  There are many tales of hounds in this part of the world, but one little known story is that of Sam, The Great Houndini.

I mention our dog Sam a lot, so it seems fitting to introduce him.  He is smart, handsome, and manipulative and if he had the desire, a leader in the dog uprising to rid the world of the cat.  He is unlikely to have success as a leader in The K-9 Spring, as he possesses a level of shyness, worry, and anxiety.

Sam is a Border collie mix.  He’s got long black fur, except for his little white tuxedo chest.  His eyes are a golden brown and can will you to open the treat jar.  Two and a half years ago, we rescued Sam when he was about the age of 4.  We don’t know his full history, but we were told a few inaccuracies, including that he does well with dog savvy cats.  Turns out, he HATES all cats with singular intensity.

Sam first came to the collie rescue centre when one of their volunteers found him in a dog pound scheduled to be put to sleep.  When we brought him home a month later, he was anxious and distracted but responded to a number of commands, especially when treats were on offer.  He has a 7-inch scar on his side, the cause of which is unknown, so early on we forgave him any of his worries.  He was, and continues to be, on constant cat alert.


Sam (on left) with his best friend Jess

To meet him now is to notice that he is a pretty good dog.  He’s well behaved, polite to strangers, loyal beyond belief and an all around amazing athlete who is able to jump a five-foot fence rather than being lifted over it and negotiate rocks, water, and other tricky terrain with ease.   He wisely ignores the sheep and likes hanging out with the chickens.  He loves his walks and because he doesn’t play with toys (his choice), he must be walked.  He goes out a minimum of 3 hours a day.

When we were buying Crockern Farm, we spent a morning with the building surveyor.  Because another dog and a cat lived in the house, we kept Sam in the car.   After we had concluded our business (see the first blog about the chickens and new roof!), we went for a walk for a couple of hours.  On our return, the woman selling the house invited us in for some lunch before we headed back to our home.

Much to our surprise, Sam met her dog without any incident.  Her dog is an unneutered male Labrador.  Pick a combination that can put Sam ill at ease, and this is it.  But a quick assessing sniff between the two and all was fine.  We entered the house, Sam still on lead, when he spotted the cat.

All the times looking at Crockern, I never once saw this cat.  I knew it was here, but it kept hidden as cats often do.  Bring a new dog into the house and that cat came slinking down the stairs like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Then who the hell else are you talkin’ to? You talkin’ to me? Well I’m the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?” The line was drawn in the sand, the red mist descended and Sam lunged.

Architectural details are important.  There are two doors to this kitchen.  One is a lovely pine door that leads to the rest of the house.  The other is a green door, with a cat flap, which leads to a boot room with another door and cat flap leading to the outside.  The woman took her hissing-puffed-up-tail-feline-fighter and put it outside.  Two doors, two cat flaps.  Cat outside.  Sam inside. We all sat down to lunch.

Slow, slinky, and all too aware of being a troublemaker, that she-wolf came back into the kitchen from the outside.   The next several moments were helter-skelter as we chased Sam who was chasing the cat.  Chairs upturned and a good deal of confusion all in the space of about 3 seconds.

To restore order, the woman put the cat into the house, closing the door without the cat flap.  Roger put Sam in the car.  We ate and talked, feeling excited about this becoming our home.

In the early 1900’s Houdini successfully performed in the US with escapes from jails, handcuffs, chains, and straitjackets, among other things.  He had to up the ante as imitators took on his act.   In 1912, Houdini introduced one of his most famous acts, The Chinese Water Torture Cell.  In this stunt, Houdini was suspended upside-down in a locked steel and glass cabinet full of water from which he had to escape.  He had to hold his breath for more than three minutes in this act.  The man had some magical talent and a few physical techniques (like dislocating his shoulder to get out of straight jackets), but may have met his match with Sam.

In the style of a Vaudeville performance, Sam inexplicably managed to get out of the car.  We only noticed this when his little black nose was poking through the cat flap from the boot room into the kitchen.  There are three possibilities:  a walker passing by let him out (unlikely); he opened the door with his paw and closed the door with an artful kick of his back legs once he was out of the car (more unlikely); he squeezed his body through the car window which was open a mere 4 inches (ouch!).  After making his way free from the car, he squeezed through the outside cat flap, and was planning to enter the kitchen.

Sam is a mid-size dog, weighing in at 15 kilos.  Bigger than a cat flap and 4 inches of car window!  He is loyal, but may also have some separation issues.  He is devoted to his humans and needed to protect us from THAT CAT.

From 1917 until his death in 1926, Houdini was the President of the Society of American Magicians (S.A.M.).  In 2012, our Sam started laying the plans to become a legend in his own time.