Feel The Burn

I was in town when Roger called me to tell me about the fire raging across the hill on the other side of the river.  His voice sounded concerned as he described hearing fire engines in the distance while watching how the strong winds were rapidly spreading the fire.  Alarmingly, there appeared to be nobody bearing fire shovels in sight to control this burn.  The fire was moving swiftly down the valley toward our fields, but if the wind had shifted, it was entirely possible embers from the fires could easily jump across the river and burn Wistman’s Woods.

Roger is not one to exaggerate so I quickly finished what I was doing and high tailed it back home.  It seemed better to have both of us home in case we had to do anything to keep the fire from coming too close.

Driving back to Crockern, I kept a sharp eye out for smoke filling the sky and saw none.  But when I rounded the corner to make my way up our track, there were four fire engines parked.  The closer I got to home, the more I could smell the charred remains of burnt gorse and grass and see the smoke drifting up from the scorched earth.  What had been green and golden when I left in the morning was now black and smouldering.  Several acres were burned, but by the time I arrived, the fire had been contained.

Controlled Burn.  Prescribed Burn.  Hazard Reduction Burning.  Backfire.  Anglo Saxons called it Swælan.   Locally, it’s known as Swaling and has been carried out for centuries.  Swaling is the annual burning of gorse and scrub in order to clear the ground of dead and overgrown vegetation, allowing new growth to flourish.  Those green shoots which grazing livestock love to eat, not the ones economists like to talk about on the news.

On open moorland, overgrown vegetation can restrict some public access and in dryer, warmer months can present significant risk for wild fires.  The farmers who graze on the common land are allowed to conduct controlled burning of moorland vegetation, in other words swale, to clear the ground encouraging new growth.

Between 1 November and 31 March it is permissible for the Commoners to do controlled burns and all signs pointed to this being a planned burn.  But we suspect it might not have been.  The local farmer for that patch of land said he was not swaling that day.  Honestly, no one in their right mind would have set out to swale because it was such a windy day.  Could it have been a casually tossed cigarette?  We see enough litter lying about that it wouldn’t have surprise us.  A few years ago, a fire damaged over 600 acres of moorland when strong winds fanned the flames.  The cause of that fire was unknown and took more than 100 firefighters to bring it under control.

As the sun was getting low on the horizon, the firefighters returned to their engines after a job well done.  The sheep in the fields carried on nibbling grass and the horses and chickens seemed unfazed.  The songbirds at the feeders were out in full force, possibly discussing just what the hell happened.  Roger and I sat down to do the same.  The fires were out, but all of us at Crockern were left with the view of a blackened hillside and air heavy with the smell of charred vegetation.

Before we had a chance to recover, we received a phone call from the farmer who grazes livestock on our side of the river and he was planning to swale up our side of the valley the next day.  I know it is a technique to manage the landscape and is legally done this time of the year, but looking upon the burned remains on the other side of the river, I couldn’t help but feel a bit sad.

Around two in the afternoon, we saw the haze of smoke cloaking our usual view down the track.   We scanned the hillside to see the group of swalers assembled to oversee the burn.  After about ten minutes, the flames were licking over the tops of the yellow-flowering gorse bushes, marching forward across the hillside toward Crockern.  This is the very gorse which I had scratched my cornea on last year, and spent a good amount of time this winter cutting back to clear trenches.  Not certain I would have bothered with that miserable task if I knew this burn was going to happen.  Still, I was sorry to see the prickly gorse so easily go up in smoke.

With the air calm and a seasoned crew of swalers, Roger and I weren’t concerned about this fire, even as it made quick pace toward our house.  I took pictures and watched from the window, comfortable in the knowledge that this fire was under control.  Given the day before’s experience, I don’t wish to be too close to a fire outside of our trusty woodburner any time soon.

A January Snow

After weeks of rain, we awoke one morning to a covering of snow. By my mid-Western standards, it wasn’t a significant amount, but those three inches did a wonderful job of covering up the mud and layering the land with a fluffy white blanket.

We were both awake early and took the opportunity for a walk before the crowds of snow-crazed people arrive to go sledding, build snowmen, and generally leave behind a mess from their enjoyment. For us, the chance to be out first, looking for tracks of foxes, badgers and rabbits is exciting.

We found plenty of rabbit tracks surround the house and garden confirming the need for diligence as we plan our summer vegetable planting. Thankfully, there were no paw-prints from foxes anywhere near our chickens. No signs of badgers either. It seems our electric fencing is working to protect our hens.

Oblivious to any predatory risk, the chickens head out to greet their first snow of the season, clucking a mixture of confusion and delight: “This stuff is pretty and makes my feathers look so fetching but where is the mud and how am I to find worms here?” Or, something like that.

It’s still early and the morning sky emits shades of light suggesting more snow to come. We make our way up the path toward the woods and tors, knowing we are the first to lay our boot-tracks in this snow. Roger has a buoyant gate as if he is expecting something exciting to cross his path. Aromas buried beneath the white, flaky ground cover enchant Sam. And I’m taking a few photos to hold onto this moment where it feels as if Dartmoor is revealing her secrets to us only.

 

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How’s it Growing?

 

Last year there were three growing in this spot, now look at them!

Last year there were three growing in this spot, now look at them!

 

For some, gardening is a science, backed up with generations of wisdom and bookshelves filled with horticultural tomes. For those serious gardeners, there is a secret stash of seeds and an encyclopedic knowledge of tried-and-tested-grown-in-proven-ways approaches to their planting. My skills and knowledge are nothing of this order and I am often intimidated when the serious gardener casually uses Latin names for plants.   For me, gardening is hard work and a complete mystery. Not the miraculous, awe-inspiring, divine-wonder type of mystery, more the, “What on earth did I do this year and why is this growing (or not) now?”

When it comes to our garden, Roger and I are experimental. Sure, we keep a little black book of when and what we’ve planted, largely because we can never remember year to year. We even do that thing called crop rotation, although I need to confirm the plant category in order to know which bed to position everything for the growing season. Despite our shortcomings, we enjoy the work, the worry and the payout of a fresh salad at dinner, strawberries for breakfast and most recently globe artichokes dipped in melted butter.

 

These potatoes grew overnight!

These potatoes grew overnight!

 

The onions and rocket suffered several attacks from wildlife.  Struggling a bit, but seem to be rallying.

The onions and rocket suffered several attacks from wildlife. Struggling a bit, but seem to be rallying.

 

To protect the lettuces, we had to construct this crazy barrier.  Happy to report the rabbits have moved elsewhere for their greens.

To protect the lettuces, we had to construct this crazy barrier. Happy to report the rabbits have moved elsewhere for their greens.

 

To watch us, one could be forgiven for thinking we possess wisdom and skill. I faithfully tend my compost piles, producing bags and bags of our rich, loamy product for our raised beds. We weed. We harvest. We enjoy the produce we grow. We smile with joy when something we planted grows and briefly frown when it doesn’t. We listen to Gardener’s Question Time on Radio 4 in hopes of inspiration and insight, but alas, they never address growing vegetables, flowers or anything in the middle of Dartmoor. Undaunted, we keep at it.

We have learned a good deal as we head into our fourth summer of gardening here at Crockern.   I may still dream of one day successfully growing sweet corn, but know we don’t stand the proverbial snow ball’s chance in hell of success, so we’ve move onto something else: aubergines (eggplants) in the greenhouse!

We began our gardening adventure by clearing areas and building raised beds for the vegetables. We repaired and created infrastructure along the stonewalls, fencing and gates.   We’ve learned a thing or two about keeping slugs, chickens and rabbits out of the beds, even if it does look like a fortress in places. We’ve built a greenhouse and have a bounty of strawberries and soon, tomatoes. And this year, by moving fallen stones and layering in tons of our homemade compost, we completed two flowerbeds and up-cycled an old bathtub.

 

The up-cycled bathtub.  We built the stone wall around it, filled it with drainage stones and then compost before planting it with these perennials.

The up-cycled bathtub. We built the stone wall around it, filled it with drainage stones and then compost before planting it with these perennials.

 

One of the newly planted flower beds.

One of the newly planted flower beds.

 

When I went to the garden centre for a few pretty plants for these new beds, I had to consider our weather conditions: wet, windy, cloudy, cooler and vulnerable to rabbits, chickens, slugs, badgers and moles. Hmmm. Embracing my “give it a go” approach, I made my selection and planted the new flowerbeds.   So far, so good with a single rabbit attack, necessitating a barrier for the time being. The honeysuckle we positioned into one of the flowerbeds last year has flourished. And so it should, you can find these growing wild in and among the oaks at Wistman’s Wood.

 

The honeysuckle is well established.

The honeysuckle is well established.

 

Having rebuilt the walls, this will be next year's project.

Having rebuilt the walls, this will be next year’s project.

 

Nature is our guide. Outside our garden, seeming to grow without any effort, are the wild foxgloves, full of grace and elegance. Despite looking like pink periscopes coming out of the field to observe us, these bold architectural spires, with bell shaped flowers hanging from one side of the tall stem, mingle in and among the soft tufts of grass and reeds in the meadow.   They seem to grow anywhere that might be awkward: In the wet patch of bog or next to the dry rocks of a stonewall.   They are casual and informal, and also perfect.

What is it about this summer that has nearly ten times as many growing? Last year, my friend Jenny was visiting and commented that she loved seeing the foxgloves, unable to successfully grow them in her own garden. I must quickly point out, Jenny has a serious green thumb and is one of those gardeners who knows what she’s doing. Last year’s small show has become this year’s blockbuster bloom! It’s a Broadway and West End smash hit!

 

Wild foxgloves

 

When I look out to the foxgloves, I realize that our gardening technique of trial, error and humour might be a little haphazard, casual, and sometimes thwarted by mistakes and oversights, but it actually works. Our onions are struggling a bit and there was a giant rabbit hole in our asparagus bed back in March. The rabbits chewed through netting to feast on lettuce until we put chicken wire around the bed. But, if I don’t get too hung up on the why’s and how’s of what we are growing, and instead roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty, I soon notice the tomatoes are in full flower, the potatoes have doubled in size over night, and we are soon to have a large number of blueberries, having wisely netted them before the birds could get to them. Maybe the thing about gardening, particularly our garden, is similar in concept to the surprise showing of this year’s foxgloves: we aren’t supposed to know what to expect and instead enjoy what we get.

 

It is still hard for me to believe that these are growing so well here on Dartmoor.

It is still hard for me to believe that these are growing so well here on Dartmoor.

Just How Green Was my Valley?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We're into the woods.

We’re into the woods.

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

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

Mosses and Lichens display the continuum of green.

Mosses and Lichens display the continuum of green.

Sam and I looking down the river valley.

Sam and I looking down the river valley.

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

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

Moss, bramble, lichen, and green grass.

Moss, bramble, lichen, and green grass.

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

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

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

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

Part of our vegetable garden.

Part of our vegetable garden.

The greenhouse.

The greenhouse.

Even our blueberries are green!

Even our blueberries are green!

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

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

Goodness Gracious Snakes Alive!

Whether it is a shady, treacherous and conniving human or an “ectothermic, amniote vertebrate covered in overlapping scales,” I don’t like coming across snakes in the grass. With the former, they are emotional work but I feel adequately equipped to identify. The latter is trickier. I lack confidence in comfortably telling apart those which are poisonous and those which are not.

I’ve been thinking about snakes lately. Not only is it the time of the year when they are most likely to be spotted, but our electrician friend, who has just finished wiring in the room we are currently renovating, once famously referred to the electrics in our house as “a snake’s wedding.” Without ever hearing this phrase before, I knew at once it was electrician-code-terminology representing a tangled mess. Slowly, we are sorting it out and this next project has enabled us to run wiring in safer ways, dedicate an outlet exclusively for the boiler, add a few outlets rather than running extension cords throughout the room and hide all the wires which previously snaked visibly hither and yon across beams. I like to think we’ve become wedding crashers.

So snakes are a bit on the brain.

Adder image found on Internet

Adder image found on Internet

Growing up in Ohio, I had to be on the look out for Copperheads and Water Moccasins (also known as Cottonmouths), which are the only poisonous water snakes in North America. Both of these share the distinction of being venomous pit vipers, just like a rattlesnake, which means they can detect heat in some pitted place on their faces, located between their little beady snake eyes, enabling them to strike with accuracy the source of the heat, usually their prey.   These snakes were around where I grew up and this sort of knowledge leaves an impression on a young mind and certainly informed my way in the world. When younger I would routinely make loud and deliberate sounds whenever approaching a woodpile or riverbank.   Sunny rocks, dark cool corners around trees in the woods, and piles of leaves all held a potential nest of lethal slithering agents of doom as far as I was concerned. I have not shaken the memory of being thrown into a lake with my friend Betty only to discover hanging above us in the tree branches were hundreds of newly hatched snakes. Never before have two women flown out of water faster!

So, imagine my joy and new lease on life when moving to England. These green and pleasant lands are a place where we have just one native poisonous snake, the Adder. Yes, it is poisonous, but it hardly packs the same punch as a Black Mamba. Roger and I saw one of these while in South Africa and I remained convinced it would find its way into our car even though we had driven off in the opposite direction. Fear and a vivid imagination can be powerful forces.

Inexplicably, I am determined to spot an Adder on Dartmoor. With the sun shining and too many projects beckoning, I decide to set out in search of an Adder. For some, this might be a favourite spring pastime, akin to noting the opening of tree leaves as a seasonal marker. For me, it feels more like a test of courage. Confronting childhood fears of snakes.

Knowledge is power and so bearing in mind a few essential facts hopefully will help off-set my low grade dread about this adventure. Firstly, while Adders are the only venomous snake native to Britain, they are not aggressive. They typically use their venom only as a defense if they are caught (I won’t be doing that) or stepped upon (I really hope to not be doing that!). Adders are also notoriously difficult to find, being quick to hide when they become aware of something new (me) in their environment. Most importantly, no one has died from an Adder bite in Britain for over twenty years! The worst affects are nausea and drowsiness, not dissimilar from being over-served some red wine during an evening out with friends.

Armed with these simple facts and wearing sturdy boots, I make my way to Wistman’s Wood, just a short hike away from our home.   Legend has it that Wistman’s Wood is home to a great many spooky and scary things, including nests of Adders who are said to slither in and among the mossy rocks. There could be truth to this bit of lore as Dartmoor is a popular place for Adders. They tend to like areas of rough, open countryside with a little bit of woodland, making this an ideal destination.

No matter how much I’d like to see an Adder, I must first learn to suppress the montage of scary-snake-movie images (Snakes on a Plane; Indiana Jones; or Anaconda to name a few) and instead try to imagine myself an early traveler to these Woods, taking a break on a stone to feel the sunshine upon my face while listening to a cuckoo calling in the distance. I must remind myself, if I were such a person, I would feel thrilled to see an Adder basking in the sun. On this walk, I will take my time to pause, enjoying the play of light, the sounds of the birds, the breeze upon my skin, and the smell of an impending afternoon rain shower, wondering whether I will discover something new. Is this outing really about seeing an Adder? Perhaps. Then again, it simply may be about staying open to new possibilities. Walking this familiar path reminds me the real snake in the grass is fear, which roots all of us in familiar places, preventing the unanticipated discovery of something new.

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I’m Likin’ the Lichen

Autumnal day on Dartmoor with view toward Wistman's Wood.

Autumnal day on Dartmoor with view toward Wistman’s Wood.

The season has announced its arrival; autumn is here, with winter’s cold and damp nipping at its heels.  Gone are the House Martins and Swallows, but returning to the birdfeeders are the Yellowhammers and Nuthatches.  Colour and sound have been shifting, slowly and gradually, with the long grasses, ferns and reeds in the fields surrendering to buff, brown, and reddish tones, which now dominate the landscape.  However, when you pause and examine closely, surprise stains of colour are found in small locations upon trees, walls, and stones in endless varieties of lichen.

There are over 30,000 species of lichen worldwide, and in a recent woodland survey in East Dartmoor, 115 were identified.  They grow on rocks, trees or soil sometimes in a nearly imperceptible crust-like layer.  Alternatively, they can be bushy and trailing like ZZ-Top beards, hanging from trees.    I especially like the bright orange seen on rooftops across the British countryside, a reminder of the health of our environment since they are sensitive to air pollution.  A general rule of thumb is the smaller the variety of lichens in an area, the more polluted it is.

Lichen growing on a rock in a stone fence.

Lichen growing on a rock in a stone wall.

Some lichen has found a home on this old wood post.

Some lichen has found a home on this old wood post.

In the past few weeks, autumn showed itself confidently providing cooler mornings with misty, low hanging clouds before the sun burns its way through.  Small clusters of mushrooms dotted about, and the tell tale mushroom hunters on the hill, walking slowly, bags hanging off the shoulder and eyes looking downward, provide additional evidence of the seasonal change.  I lack fungal expertise, so prudently take a pass at this bit of foraging.  Instead, I enjoy observing those out and about, as there seems to be a lot of twirling, spinning, and dancing on the landscape.  I suspect some of the found fungi might be hallucinogenic.

We’ve made seasonal shifts, too.  I’ve pulled out all my fleeces and can see my breath in the dawn light when I walk Sam.  My morning chores now include bringing wood in from the barn and building a fire in the wood burner.  I watch the birds at the feeders knowing that they have short lives and must make it through the winter if they are to hatch their broods in the spring.  This time of year brings about an awareness of the impermanence of life, as often on a walk, Sam and I will come across the skeletal remains of a dead sheep or fox.   Again, lichens come to mind as they remind us of a greater permanence, growing so slowly that they have been used to confirm ancient woodlands after an historic clearance.

Because these grey, green, silver green, mustard yellow, ochre, or rust growth on every possible stone and wood surface live at a different time scale to the brief one of our resident birds, or indeed, us, I sometimes wonder if the lichen I’m looking at were here 100 years ago and bore witness to previous residents at Crockern.

More varieties of lichen on a rock in the stone wall.

More varieties of lichen on a rock in the stone wall.

All sorts going on here on this footpath sign.

All sorts going on here on this footpath sign.

Found this on a walk just this week.

Found this on a walk just this week.

Since we first set eyes upon Crockern, Roger and I have been very curious about the history of our house.  When was it built?  Who lived here?  Were they cold?  Almost daily we receive a “fact” from someone walking past:  “I heard a witch once lived here.”  “In the 1970’s it was a hippy commune.”  “Oh, I used to go to parties there.”  “My mother grew up at Crockern and bathed in the river.”  “It was originally built by the man who managed the rabbit warrens.”   Witches.  Farmers.  Children.  Wood Workers.  A Potter.  On and on goes the list of past residents based on, from what we can surmise, mostly hearsay.  If only the lichen could speak!

Not knowing where the truth lies, we decided to begin our slow search to uncover some history by looking at the local records one afternoon.   We weren’t certain what we’d find, but hoping to perhaps learn when the house was originally constructed.  No such luck on that front.  But, we did uncover the arc of a life of one very distinct past resident:  Mr. Mortimer.

On 2 November 1885, J. Stanley Mortimer bid at auction on Lot #2, Crockern Farm, which was comprised of the house, outbuildings and 228 acres.   In the early 40’s, the war department requisitioned 115 acres of his farm.  He died in the mid 1940’s.  But not before he contributed to a fat folder of correspondence.

These file notes indicated that Mr. Mortimer owed money and frequently had to retrieve his livestock, which had wandered off to pastures beyond his land.  In particular, he did not enjoy his track being used as a footpath toward Wistman’s Wood.  During Mr. Mortimer’s time at Crockern, there was no footpath designation along the track up to the house, so he considered all those walking along it as trespassers.  After his death, the distinction was made and now appears as such on Ordnance Survey Maps.

We enjoy the walkers who come past, and delight in their explorations around the area.  Not so with Mr. Mortimer.  Each walker was just another intrusion and a cause of his troubles:  Gates left open, livestock disturbed by walkers, and his privacy routinely invaded.   While we enjoy the walkers, we do feel frustration when someone drives up the track in hopes of getting closer to the Woods, comes calling to offer us religious salvation, or when we pick up the litter left behind by recent visitors to the park.  (https://crockernfarm.wordpress.com/2012/12/11/dartmoor-walking/)

Mr. Mortimer lived in Crockern for over 50 years, during which time he came to be characterized as one of the most eccentric individuals in Dartmoor.  His farming methods were considered “hopeless.”   In 1905, he was reported to have obstructed visitors’ access to Wistman’s Wood and went so far as to charge tolls.  Laughable and yet, inspired!  If we had a pound coin for every foot walking past, we’d be millionaires, seeing a far better return than the sale of our chicken eggs.  J. Stanley Mortimer truly ruffled feathers and in one official letter a complainant wrote, “He threatened Mrs. Dwyer with stoning, has used bad language and is extorting money under threats!”

Surely, trying to eek out a farm living on Dartmoor was hard enough; did he need to suffer the slings and arrows of his neighbours?  Then again, they had to suffer him throwing stones at them.

As we move through this change of season, hunkering down earlier in the evening and following frost reports to protect our winter veg garden.  We’ve raked the leaves and the last of the grass for the compost, and the wood store is impressive and ready to heat the house and the hot tub.  We watch as the vegetation retreats, revealing different wildlife, and with that, we let the chickens out later in the morning and put them away earlier at night.  The birds change.  The days grow shorter.  But the lichen slowly carries on, noting our contributions to Crockern.

This rust and tumeric coloured lichen is growing on the side of our house.

This rust and tumeric coloured lichen is growing on the side of our house.

Rosie’s Big Adventure

Whether or not we’re ready, summer is beginning to ease into autumn.  Crisp morning air, earlier arriving sunsets and a bumper crop of late summer vegetables are just some of the signs.   We all know it too:  the swallows are organizing in preparation for their imminent departure south and our chickens are heading to bed before we encourage them to do so.  Just the other day, there was a discussion on the radio about when one should turn on one’s central heating.  Our own recent discussion on this point, is when will the plumber arrive to install our new boiler?

This turn in season is marked also by the drop in visitors, both to our house and along the footpath toward Wistman’s Woods.  Over the summer, we were abuzz with visits from friends and family.  There was a range of ages, and every one’s kid helped with walking Sam, feeding the chickens, putting out bird feeders and even working in the garden.  Our youngest visitor was Rosie.

When Roger and I met in the Canadian Arctic, we met several other fine people, including Greg.  He, his wife Anita, and their daughter Rosie returned again this summer for what is now an annual visit to Crockern.

Rosie, aged 2.5 years, spent a full day exploring Crockern and its surrounds.  After a stiff walk up on the Moors, she got stuck in with some gardening and animal husbandry.  She helped walk Sam, fed the chickens, and looked for eggs before turning her attentions to the garden.  Like anyone at that age, she is tireless and I’m not certain there were enough potatoes to keep her busy as it took four adults just to keep up!

Thanks to Greg, the following blog is a photo essay of Rosie’s big day out at Crockern.  As soon as she learns how to plaster and swing a hammer, we may have a few more projects requiring her assistance.  Then again, she’s very handy in the garden, so we might just leave her to that!

Meet Rosie and how she takes a walk on the moors.  She rides on her Dad's shoulders.

Meet Rosie and how she takes a walk on the moors. She rides on her Dad’s shoulders.

Taking care of Sam and showing him the river.

Taking care of Sam and showing him the river.

Feeding the chickens before looking for eggs.

Feeding the chickens before looking for eggs.

Finding Eggs!

Finding Eggs!

Learning how to find potatoes.

Learning how to find potatoes.

Rosie perfecting her digging technique.

Rosie perfecting her digging technique.

Taking inventory on the newly dug potatoes.

Taking inventory on the newly dug potatoes.

Rosie and the Onion

Selecting the perfect onion.

And when it's all said and done, who doesn't love a nap?

And when it’s all said and done, who doesn’t love a nap?

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

Dartmoor

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.

Dear Santa

December, 2012

Santa Claus (AKA, Kris Kringle, Papa Noel, and Father Christmas), Santa’s Grotto, near Reindeerland, North Pole, Somewhere in the Middle of the Arctic

Dear Santa Claus,

When Roger and I met, as the arctic crow flies, we really weren’t that far from you.    Perhaps you think it rude we didn’t stop by for a cup of iced coffee and introduce ourselves, but honestly, it was early September, and that has got to be a busy time for you.  Do you really want uninvited visitors dropping by?

I know you get loads of letters this time of the year, but it has been nearly 40 years since I’ve written with any requests, so I’m hopeful that your administrative elf-team push this letter to the top of your in-box, giving you time to consider it.   Before I present “the list”, I want you to know we’ve been really good this year and, with aplomb, weathered lots of changes from the move.  Since arriving at Crockern, we’ve rescued sheep and hens, put in some vegetable beds and worked hard to make improvements on an old house in need of some TLC.   Secondly, we appreciate and admire all that you and Mrs. Claus accomplish year in and out to help make children happy.  If you think Roger and I merit, maybe you and the elves might work your Christmas magic to assist with some of our requests here at Crockern:

  1. Help the roofers finish.  They’ve been with us since September and frankly speaking, enough already.
  2. To help us make a decision on the heating system so that our 2013/14 winter will be warmer and cozier than this year.  I’m certain you have insight when it comes to “best practice”.
  3. Protection for our chickens from foxes, badgers, and inexplicable ill health so that they can keep providing those yummy eggs.  I know you have a busy holiday schedule, but if you have the time, perhaps you’ll join us for breakfast?  Roger makes a lovely poached egg.
  4. To encourage those sheep to stay off our stonewalls and out of our yard.  Can’t you send that Mandy Patankin guy along to help fix the walls?
  5. To remain on friendly terms with Old Crockern, God of Dartmoor.  We think we’re doing okay on this front, but it wouldn’t hurt for you to put in a few extra good words.
  6. How about some dog biscuits to give to his Wisht Hounds?  I’ve noticed Sam loves our postman who always has treats to give.
  7. A paten for my slug-prevention-soup.  It works as well as cheep beer in keeping the slugs away, and costs far less!
  8. A rock pick made of carbide steel.
  9. Despite what you might hear from older siblings and practical joking friends, we don’t want any rats, gnomes, lumps of coal, or Morris Dancers thank you very much.
  10. But, a Royal visit would be nice.  Of course, you and Mrs. Clause are always welcome and I think we would all have a good time should Their Royal Highnesses The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall fit a visit here into their schedules.
  11. An answer to a burning question about flying reindeer:  Do they rut and does that really sound like my friend Joann’s new door bell?

If you do decide to stop by, could you please land your sleigh on the new patch of roof?  It is now sturdy and I am a little concerned about the barn roof might be unsafe since we haven’t yet tackled that project.  If you elect to come down the chimney, please take care as we have the wood burner now, and the flue is smaller.  No offense, but the front door might be easier.

You might recall from your visits to Winding Trail in the 1960’s that there will be a snack waiting for you and your team of reindeer.  I think Oreos and beer are an odd combination, but my Dad always told me to leave the beer rather than milk.   We will leave some carrots and apples out for you to provide to the reindeer.

Safe travels Santa.  It can be wet and windy here in Dartmoor, so don’t forget to wear your waterproofs as you wouldn’t want that handsome red suit of yours to get damaged from precipitation.

With love and warm wishes for a healthy and happy holiday season to you, Mrs. Claus, all the elves and reindeer,

Catherine, Crockern Farm, Pretty much in the Middle of Dartmoor, UK

p.s.  If you’re inclined, you can follow my blog by pressing the “follow” button.  I think it would be swell if you did!

Santa 1965

Here we are Santa in 1965!