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Published: July 10th 2014
'I've got some rheas out back. Raised 'em from eggs I did. They're awful friendly.' In his heavy Devon accent, the elderly bewhiskered man at the gate of his lonely Dartmoor cottage attempted to detain me a little longer with irrelevant chat. It seemed that not many tourists from Hertfordshire, or indeed from anywhere, stop at this remote spot in response to his 'Fresh Eggs' sign propped up by a rock near the tall hedge. 'It's eggs you're wantin' ain't it?' 'I've only got hens' eggs. That alright?' He disappeared, leaving his two scruffy dogs seeking attention and barking madly. A few minutes later, he returned holding a grey cardboard carton containing six brown eggs with bits of straw and feathers attached. A label on the carton proclaimed: 'Laid by the girls living on Dartmoor'.
They proved to be the freshest eggs we've ever eaten - just one of many pleasurable experiences on our recent visit to this green and peaceful part of the country.
We’ve been to Devon before, of course – many times, as children, as adults. Pat, my wife, was born in the county, as was her father, and
A typical Devon lane
The high banks are full of wild flowers, here just cow parsley but elsewhere, pink foxgloves, red campion, white and red valerian...
we have good friends who live not far from Exeter, Devon’s capital city. We can always find an excuse to revisit familiar places and it’s a big county, so there are always plenty of new things to discover, new food to try, fresh eggs to buy, new experiences to, well... experience.
So it was that a Saturday morning in June saw us braving the motorways and driving four hours south-west to the pretty town of Topsham. We were here two years ago – see Topsham is tops!
for pictures and stuff. Not a lot’s changed in this sleepy little town since then. Despite flooding during last winter’s storms, our old friends Maureen and Peter are still living their lives to the full on the banks of the River Exe and still raising funds for the end-of-life charity Hospiscare (all donations welcome)
. After off-loading a couple of hundred plants I’d grown for them to sell from their doorstep and at open-garden events, we enjoyed a drink in their sunny riverside garden and a lovely summertime lunch before wending our way an hour further west to the wilds of Dartmoor
Dartmoor's a truly rural area with big skies, fast-flowing streams, chocolate-box villages
Sheep grazing on Dartmoor
With a dry-stone wall behind them and Haytor on the right in the background.
and narrow winding roads with high hedges and dry-stone walls. Much of it's shown on our map as Dartmoor Forest. But don’t forests have loads of trees? Dartmoor does have some, but really they’re only enough to qualify it as a Wood!
It’s mostly rolling hills covered in grass, bracken and thorny scrub. Apparently, like many similar areas of heathland around Britain, it became a ‘forest’ by royal decree sometime around the 11th century, primarily to protect the wild deer and boar hunted by kings. Villages and fields within it were subjected to ‘forest law’, restricting its inhabitants to what they could do with their land. Fortunately, in the mid-17th century, this law died out – by which time ownership of most of the land had been handed over to royalty and rented out!
Today, around 60% of the whole moor is private land. The ‘Forest’ makes up most of this and is owned by the Duke of Cornwall - HRH Charles, our future King - but I don't think there are many wild deer and boar for him to hunt here any more. The Ministry of Defence, water authorities, the National Trust and Dartmoor’s national park authority
Ponies grazing on Dartmoor
A familiar sight alongside the moor's winding roads.
own a lot of the rest. An Act of Parliament though has ensured that walkers have the right to roam, even on private land. Some of this private countryside is also classified as ‘common land’, which gives local people traditional rights to graze their livestock and to collect firewood. Ponies, cattle and sheep wandering at will over many parts of the moor, in its towns and on its roads are familiar sights.
Our home for the next week was to be a very comfortable cottage close to Haytor, on the eastern side of the moor. We rented it through a local company, Helpful Holidays
, based in the small town of Chagford nearby. Apart from being in a quiet and attractive location ideal for visiting the whole region, with a farm close by and views over green countryside towards the coast, our 'holiday cottage', one of two converted from a barn, was eminently well-equipped with everything a family of four would need if they were to live here permanently - two double bedrooms, bathroom, a huge lounge with TV, WiFi, iPod player, board games and books, a large kitchen/dining room with masses of worktops and fitted cupboards, fridge, freezer, dishwasher, microwave
and a huge range-style cooker - five induction rings, three ovens... you know the sort of thing. It was an 'upside-down' place - living areas upstairs to make best use of the views and bedrooms and bathroom downstairs. The water hereabouts is very 'soft', contributing to a slippery shower and one morning, despite a rubberised mat, my rapid exit backwards to a naked Judo fall on the very hard, tiled floor. Fortunately, only my dignity was dented! However, as usual, I digress...
Haytor (sometimes written as Hay Tor), at a height of 457 metres (1,499 ft),
is a well-known landmark for visitors to Dartmoor. This 'tor', a large outcrop of rock rising abruptly from a rounded hill summit, is one of several here on Dartmoor. Haytor's outcrop is made up of an unusually fine granite that's weathered to a very distinctive shape. It's a magnet for walkers and climbers, who can be seen from miles away around it and on it. There used to be a quarry on the surrounding hillsides too. The stone from there was used to build columns in front of the British Museum in London. Friends across the pond might be interested to know that
there's also a bit of Haytor in Arizona; granite from the quarry was used to rebuild London Bridge, which opened in 1831 and was moved to Lake Havasu City in 1970.
We chose to stay on this eastern side of the moor because it would be so easy to visit and revisit towns and National Trust properties that had been on our long list for some time. At the top of the list was the wonderful Castle Drogo
, a stately pile like no other. It's a fanciful 'castle', designed by renowned architect Sir Edward Lutyens to provide the highly successful founder of the Home and Colonial Stores, Julius Drewe, with the ancestral home he'd always dreamt of, while including all the modern comforts of the early-20th century. We'd been here before (see Wild Dartmoor
) but the Castle Drogo we saw then bears no resemblance to what it is today - and what it will continue to be for the next four to five years.
From a distance, this 'last castle to be built in England', usually seen as a great granite stronghold rising up from craggy rocks above the Teign Gorge, is now merely a vast white tent. For Drogo,
which had major structural problems from the day it was built, had suffered serious water penetration throughout the building and was now undergoing much-needed conservation. The problems stem from its flat roof sections and to repair and seal them involves removing almost 2,500 granite blocks weighing around 700 tonnes and 900 great windows. To make sure they put them all back in the correct places, the National Trust's contractors are carefully numbering every bit and storing them in a huge compound nearby.
Visitors are still welcomed while the work is in progress, although the inside is a shadow of its former self, with its many treasures removed, under wraps or theatrically displayed in the few rooms that remain untouched. Externally, there's little to be seen of the castle's walls but, like me, you can don a hard hat and climb a scaffolding tower for a remarkable birds-eye view inside the covers. It's quite breathtaking - as will be the £1 Million bill for the scaffolding work alone!
Outside, the grounds are lovingly maintained and, while Pat drank tea and wrote some postcards, I joined a small group for a walk around the colourful, tranquil gardens. Our guide, a
former volunteer and now one of four knowledgeable full-time gardeners, took us first to a summer house built for the Drewe family to enjoy afternoon tea - complete with pictures of them at the windows. Close by a theatre group from Okehampton had erected a World War I Memorial made up of red poppy-like windmills, each bearing the name of a Drogo estate worker who put down his tools, went to fight for his country, and never returned. One of those was Adrian Drewe, the eldest son of Julius, who died with a hundred of his platoon after inhaling mustard gas at the Ypres front line in 1917. The sombre mood lifted to joy when we reached the gorgeous mixed herbaceous borders with their colourful displays, the rose garden, the well-kept lawns and the patios shaded by pleached Ironwood trees. My photos further down the page really don't do justice to these garden jewels.
Our week's stay saw us visiting picturesque towns and villages, more lovely gardens, rural markets, characterful churches and historic homes - more blogs follow!
The panorama at the top of the page is part of a slideshow. Scroll down for
more pictures and double-click on them to enlarge.
P.S. In case you're wondering: 'rheas', mentioned in the first line of this blog, are three-toed, flightless birds with grey-brown plumage, long legs and long necks, similar to a small ostrich. The elderly gent had two of them. 'They'm both boys', he told me. Which, of course, is why he could only offer us hens' eggs!
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