Michael Macauley on Dartmoor
‘How nice to meet you. Could you hold this piglet for me? Oh, would you?, how kind. It’s a bit weakly but I think we can save it. I’ve got the sow farrowing in the stable by the house so that I can keep an eye on her, and I’m afraid this little chap might get crushed. We’d made it all very cosy as usual, with the straw bales placed in the best possible way, but she has re-arranged her furniture, you know how independent pigs are – dogs look up to you, cats look down, but pigs tolerate us as equals… I must just get these bales sorted out –How many farrowed? Well, she’s had nine so far – but look, here comes another one…’
Such was our first meeting with that remarkable, indomitable, and fascinating lady, Diana Wynne, chatelaine of her fourteenth century farm, the highest on Dartmoor.
So very warm and welcoming, this thatched thick stone walled longhouse, which has grown comfortably over the ages and was once a prosperous and rowdy tin miner’s inn, nestles, hobbit-snug and hunched against the hillside, at the head of the West Webburn valley, with the infant river running through the farm yard, and surrounded by six hundred acres of high Moorland rich with the evidence of over four thousand years of history.
Stone and Bronze age and medieval mounds, cairns, hut circles, and remnants of settlements are spread across the land, together with the most extensive and spectacular tin mine workings in Devon, with ancient traces still present amongst the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century shafts, adits, gulleys, leats, smelting and blowing houses, and wheel pits of the Vitifer, East and West Birch Tor, and Golden Dagger mines, all now softened by nature and open for careful exploration.
Diana showed us exquisite little glens in the deeply cleft hillsides, the picnic pool for rubber rings and rafts in summer (which is later visited by salmon), the bat cave on Challacombe Down, the Warreners’ vermin trap, and the newly discovered foundations of another even older longhouse beside the miners track leading up to the Warren House Inn (where the main Bar fire has been continuously alight for over one hundred and fifty years.) She took us to the top of Birch and Hookney Tors, and to Postbridge and Princetown, and close by to the Neolithic Long Stone, high on the moor, which dominates a rare ritual Triple Stone Row leading from then farm.
On several of our visits Diana brought out her ancient croquet set to play with us what she called the ‘Country Version’ of the game. This was so called because the almost flat only appropriate area available required preliminary removal of pony droppings and bits of stone that had been washed down on to it, and had certain hazards of the terrain not usually found in the formal rules, since in mid game, understandably without prior notice, the Air Ambulance helicopter might arrive for the removal of the occasional fractured hiker.
When staying with Diana, what a joy it was to rise as late as you liked from your deep and downy bed, replete with last night’s supper of home grown pork or lamb, to let insistent dogs out to wander whilst you pottered about the farmyard in dressing gown and wellies, idly letting the welcoming morning spill over you, almost ready for whatever delights the day might offer.
One could just sit in the shade, sharing the scene with the farm cats, Demon and Tom, who could be dozing with one eye half open, fur-warm in the sun, spread on the top of the ancient lichen encrusted wall that shelters the farm garden. You might lazily watch the friendly dogs about the farm, and Diana often with a posse of happily helping visiting children having the time of their lives.
Oh, what peace there was, with nothing happening whatsoever. Well, nothing apart from swallows, wheatears, chaffinches, bullfinches, ring ouzels, and sundry other species flitting about their fascinating affairs around and in front of us, and another mole hill popping up before our very eyes, and then one of the herons, coming flap… flap… flapping, low up the valley like a latter day pterodactyl, before perching on the edge of the farm pond, to peer hopefully at the waterfall flowing in and the other waterfall flowing out, and wondering about the tiny ducklings, until the cats streak down and see him off.
And then there were the bantams and their chicks, the goats and their kids, that sow and her offspring, the parent ducks and, of course, the guardian geese to whom the dogs showed considerable respect. In the paddock the horses would be grazing, and nearby amongst the sheep and lambs amongst the heather the Moorland mares would be proudly nuzzling their foals who could be suckling now after kicking up and playing tag.
And then there were the local buzzards, a familiar pair with their finger tipped wings, circling to the south over Challacombe and its mediaeval village, then closer in the thermals over the Long Stone on the crest of the hill, before passing over us to quarter Hockney Tor and Grimspound just beyond the Widecombe road boundary of the farm.
On a clear night there are other wonders – more stars than one had ever dreamed of sparkling interweaved with the Milky Way, the sharp cry of a vixen down the valley, eerie calls of night birds, and the tiny trout and salmon parr flitting to and fro in the Webburn, bemused perhaps by the bright light of a torch.
Before Diana died we came here often a year for several years, and a glance at the old visitor’s book would show that many like us, from all over the world, returned again and again to shed the foulness of these modern times for this wonderful refuge where one was greeted with the warmest possible welcome.
Approaching over the Moorland road our dogs would rise in the car and bark as we drew near; the children might call out ‘Look, look, we can see the tops of the trees; look – the goats are up near the bee hives; look – there are twin foals near the sheep fields…’, and we could feel our hearts lift again as the car curved up the farm track, and we came ‘home’ once more to this magical and mystic place.
Yes, it is a wonderful place, but this was not just a rose-tinted rural idyll, with naught but long summer days, gambolling lambs, pony foals, children stream-damming, eggs to be collected, and the farmhouse cats, dozing on the warm garden wall. This often was a harsh world, with frequent heavy weather, the trials of difficult lambing seasons, the devastating effect of low prices at market, rising costs of feed, bumbling and procrastinating bureaucracy, and the natural and man-made threats that could so often encroach upon the holding. The travails of a Duchy of Cornwall Tenancy enfolded in these harsh and humbling hills are not apparent to the outsider, but are hugely significant in the full picture of life as for the farmer and custodian of this precious spot. We were blessed with coming to know it intimately, and can never forget how wonderful it was, just a few short years ago.
I have been glad to share this memory with you. Next week we return to the world of the Dangerous Chimes…