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Several centuries ago, in my former incarnation as a tv scriptwriter, I spent four days trapped in a car on the highways and byways of Devon with a crumpled map and a crazy producer. We were embarked upon a research trip for a Sunday night series about alternative lifestyles, living off the land and, most importantly, the idea of new starts.

In magic, there is a situation… alright let’s not dither about here… what I mean is that there is a spell, there’s a spell that can be cast whereby someone is ‘mazed’, that is, they can’t find their way to where they are going. Wrong turns and turnabouts, dead ends and backtracking.

That happened to us for the entire four days. Devon is like that, it crackles with the Old Magic, the one spelt with a ‘k’.

Firstly we had to find our accommodation. This was in the days before SatNav and so we had a map. Except that the map seemed to shift and alter, side roads and backlanes snaked around us, looped and turned us.

“It is here. It must be. Look, the station is right here.” we pulled into the empty and wildflower blown car park by the remote and deserted platform. From our correspondence with the family run B&B, The Barton, as it was called, was in the village, reached by turning up left past the station and proceeding half a mile up the hill. This is where our first problem was created, the village was not really a village. It was a derelict seeming pub and a station.

“This is the village.” my producer colleague decided. “Look.” She pointed to the sign ‘Welcome to Chagton Quagford’ Yes. This was the place and yes, the station sign confirmed this telling us very clearly that this was indeed ‘Chagton Quagford’. The sign slightly above us beside the track read ‘Do Not Alight Here’ and was rather more unsettling.  Glancing up from the map I thought I saw Bernard Cribbins waving red bloomers in warning but the illusion vanished to reveal a red carrier bag caught in a nearby hedge.

We set off once more, my finger pinned to the place on the map marked ‘Barton Barn Farm’. We needed to take the next turning on the left. Not there? It must be further along then, the next perhaps? The next then. Maybe. Possibly. Suddenly along a road we had travelled three times already, the lane to The Barton B&B cut in.

It was a beautiful base, a remote and only partly renovated farmhouse complex complete with nesting swallows and latched doors. In the morning there was homemade marmalade for breakfast and the owner, a glamorous middle aged woman in blue coveralls, told of the ghost that was rattled by the renovations.

“It’s mostly just footsteps in the long corridor outside your rooms. And sometimes it knocks on the doors, but just don’t answer it. Just slide the bolt shut and it will be fine. Oh, would you like trout for tea?”

With the hair on the backs of our necks prickling and our evening meal sorted we piled back into the car for another day of Devon. The producer had arranged all manner of meetings with people who were living an alternative lifestyle, something which nowadays has gained eco-credentials, a life termed ‘off grid’ and quite trendy. When I visited the Devon smallholders and hobby farmers, there was nothing trendy about them.

The first farm was on the edge of Dartmoor and so, almost at once, the mazing began. The map was swizzled upside and down, we turned and turned about, we drove widdershins, we tried  turning down the opposite lanes to those shown on the map. Once again, as if by magic, the track to Dunster Farm sliced off from the road. There is no ‘as if’, there is only magic.

This farm track was very long and very bumpy and the hawthorn hedge curled over so that it was like a deep tunnel. At the end of the track was a farm of ancient lineage with a flagged yard and mossed stone steps rising to mullioned doors and leaded windows beneath a stone tiled roof. A fox sat by the barn door and watched my colleague try and park between the collection of rusting vintage tractors and the stone horse trough.

“Should we get out?” she asked. The farmhouse door stood open but there was no sign of life, no one to greet us. It looked as if it had just been abandoned, as if the occupiers had, in a recent moment, fled.

“I think so. They’re expecting us.”

“No. I meant because of the fox. They’re a wild animal aren’t they?” she glanced in the wing mirror, the fox had vanished and in his place was a weatherbeaten gentleman in a wax jacket and tweed hat. He paid us no attention either, trudging off in wellington boots into a muddied field.

We crossed the yard and my producer knocked on the open and venerable oak door studded with iron giving onto a long hallway crowded with boots of every description. There were boots enough for a small battalion of infantry.

“Hello?” she sang out, there was no immediate response “Hellooooo?” she tried again, taking three steps into the hallway. There was a scuffling at the end of the room and a pack of five dogs snarling, barking and drooling came barrelling towards us. Just as we were about to run for it a commanding voice boomed out.

“Stop that, Naughties. Stop it at once.” and a weatherbeaten middle aged woman with tweed hair stepped out of a small side room with a half eaten hardboiled egg in her hand. The dogs mobbed her, tails wagging. “Get back…get away…” She looked at my producer who was stepping back across the threshold. “Not you, not you…I was talking to the dogs.” and she snaffled down the remainder of the egg.

In the antique kitchen there were two vast Victorian pine scrubbed tables but no chairs and so we stood and chatted as our hostess put the kettle on the range.

“There’s cake if you’d like some…” She reached into a bottom oven and a small white cat stepped out. “Oh, Smudge…get out get out.” The cake had provided a warm cushion.

We ate cat cake and drank strong tea and in the middle of the conversation about the difficulties of a smallholders life in a National Park, a peacock flew in at the window and came to sit on the table in front of us. Our hostess appeared not to notice as its tail swept at the cake crumbs and draggled in my tea. Myself and my producer said absolutely nothing.  The peacock ate the cat cake. I took notes, of everything, the mould on the walls, the myriad collection of antique china, the threadbare woollens and dirt patinaed moleskin trousers, the idea of a life lived hand to mouth, never mind a halcyon ideal of garden fork to dinner fork.

We said our farewells. The cat got back into the oven and we got back into our car.

The mazing continued. We were turned hereabout and thereabout. Each smallholding we visited was wilder and more desperate than the last.  My producer was what I call a ‘fluffy bunny’ sort of animal lover. It was a skewed mix. She thought the calves were ‘cute’ where the smallholder saw them as possible lunch or the means to buy his kids new shoes. There was no distance between these farmers and the reality. These people, quite sensibly, viewed a piglet as a prospective bacon sandwich.

“You should have been here last week when there was the big storm…we had to butcher the pig on this table…” one lady told us with gusto as we ate eggy pastries that she had recently foraged from her kitchen bin.  “It was a bugger getting it in through the door.”  I could imagine, the farmhouse we were in was a medieval building, narrow and low slung and crossed with beams.  I longed to have been there, to have had that intense and visceral experience. It might sound cruel but, above all, these people had a relationship with their animals. They were essential, lifegiving in fact and they were respected. That pig, however odd the kitchen carnage might have seemed to us urbanites, had a proper death. This woman knew and valued the pig, knew how to deal with its carcass and cure its hams.

These people lived on an edge, not just the edge of the moor. There was a bartering system in full swing, smallholders swapping eggs and cheeses, handmade and extremely locally sourced, for tomatoes and onions. If you want my lamb then your husband can come and fix our gate. They had all taken a conscious decision to live a different life and the visits I paid to those farmhouses are something I look back on often, they were odd and weird and above all wonderful, in the oldest sense of the word. That four days was full of wonders.

The most wonder was at a small bungalow at another edge of Dartmoor. You would think that modern construction, well modernish, it might have been built in the 1920s, would preclude it from the general ancient magick and ‘mazing’. You would be wrong. This bungalow played hide and seek with us for almost an hour, emerging at last from behind a vast and thorny hedge via a small green gate; green from mould and rot and a distant memory of paint.

The old lady lived there with her grown up daughter. The daughter was tomboyish and patinaed with earth and greenery. She was a sprite, no question. Their relationship was conducted with barks and growls and it was clear that the daughter was happiest outside the building where she could be with the elements and her animals. She had a collection and was something of a gamekeeper. She had knowledge and was known to help and heal some of the animals she found. We learnt this from her mother, the daughter herself wary and sullen.

“Show them your animals, darling…” her mother struggled up from the armchair and shepherded us out with her stick “Out , that way…in the garden.”

The garden was a wild grotto and Nature was in charge. In probably a few hours the brambles and old man’s beard would overtake the house, standing there you could hear the plants growing. A small space was cleared in the dirt for hutches and there were chickens and ducks.

“Oh…ducks…” my producer cooed. I had learnt by this point that you coo at pets, not at prospective foodstuffs.

“Hate ‘em. They’re bitches. Nasty.” our tomboy informed us “Want to know how to kill ‘em?”

My producer quailed a little but I was game, if you are going to eat a duck then you have to know how to dispatch it and I thought it would prove useful for the writing. A broom handle is involved. That’s all I will say. Killing chickens is a knack too. You don’t want to chop off their heads, there is, instead a way of breaking their necks, that is like prestidigitation. It’s a skill, a humane one and I know, this is not a blog for the vegetarians. With a duck and a chicken thus sacrificed to the Gods of Root and River we were shown the prize.

This creature was in a cramped triangular hutch, the only wrong note in the whole weekend, and a loud and singing wrong note. This creature was taller than I had imagined, long graceful legs filled with a coiled energy, keen to escape the confines of the chicken wire and wood. Long ears, bright eyes, an elegant head. This creature, was a brown hare.

Brown does not describe it. I have seen a few hares since but none had the colouring of this one. The fur was sleek and polished and the deepest ambered bronze colour I have ever seen. This hare took my breath away with the silhouette it made, the curve of its back, the angles of ear and head, of legs, powerful yet slim. It was a thing of great beauty, shimmering with life.

I still dream about that hare. I dream that I unhook the latch and let it run wild.

 

big top by helen slavinIt is not very often these days that you get the chance to say “The circus has come to town!” so you can imagine my delight when I spotted the Big Top in our local park. This has never happened before, usually the circus arrives and is distinctly out of town, huddled at the roadside on the edge of the industrial estate. The trouble is that the edge of the industrial estate is now being built upon, new homes and apartments are squatting by the shipping containers and car dealerships instead.

The fair comes into town of course and the big rides and diesel generators turn the grass yellow and the children’s faces green. We are also home to several WWII skirmishes and Civil War re-enactments, sometimes both on the same day, Nazi versus Cavalier, with bazooka and black powder.  Sometimes in summer there is a vast fake beach stretched out in front of the bandstand. There’s a carnival in October with fireworks. Never a circus.

I love a circus but I understand I might be alone in this. I don’t know what the appeal is, sparkles, danger, music? It’s theatre but of a more drifting and visual kind, a visceral rather than an intellectual experience. It is muscular, the spangly tights and leotards blind you to the sinews and blisters. There is the cathedral capacity of the Big Top.

As a child I was taken to Blackpool Circus (yes, in the 70s!) when it still had elephants and big cats. Nothing now appals me more than the idea of a lion in a circus. There is something intrinsically wrong about a large animal, an essentially wild creature, constrained and contained and considered entertainment. Back then there was still that sense of wrongness but it was allowed to feed into the fear of the wild. There would be an aerial act beforehand, meant to distract us with high-octane, high tempo skills. If you took your eyes from the acrobats in their spinning silver rocket and glanced down there were technicians erecting what looked, to my child eyes, like a slightly taller version of the fireguard we had at home. It ran in a spindly double layer around the ring and as the aerialistas took their bow, gates would slide open on the narrow wire tunnels. With a roar enter the lions.

Proximity. That’s the spark, the fear inside at being this close, too close, to a predator. The fear is twisted with the idea of beauty, a lion and indeed a tiger, are very beautiful. They were not happy, roaring and batting at the trainer, a man working too hard at performance because the lions, quite rightly, were not entertainers. They sat on classic circus plinths and eyed him up. A few leaps and bounds were all they would put up with, more than once giving the impression that rather than entertaining the audience, the lions were pursuing their trainer as he backed into the safety fencing armed only with a flimsy whip and a spindly golden chair.

In Wexford once, when the kids were very small, we encountered an Italian circus. There were, I’m sorry to report, giraffes and a rhinoceros, but the best act involved a girl spinning a hoop or two, or five, or seven and maybe nine and she did so with an effortless grace. The girl exuded a casual, almost mocking arrogance, easy to understand as you watched and she appeared capable of making the hoops defy the laws of both gravity and physics. All nine were spinning and whooping and rolling in different directions and some sort of snake charmer seemed to provide the music, the sinuous clarinet and the syncopated beat of a drum or two winding its way deep into your soul. Just when you thought it was finished she set the hoops alight and became a coil of heat and fire, the whole spectacle hypnotic.

Balance. Agility. Strength. Friesian horses, black as soot, heads carved in beauty, mythical as Gods. The rhythm of hooves, of the concentration of the power of haunch and flank coursing that roundel of space. Dare and Command.

Trapeze. I have no physical prowess and I am afraid to stand on a chair so I used to get a crick in my neck staring upwards at these daredevils. Power. Flight. Costumes prickled with crystals so that the lights turned trapeze artists into shooting stars. The cloud of french chalk, the curl of bicep.

This is not CGI. This is heart in your mouth. This is circus.

 

My husband and I like to walk. Everywhere. When we’re not on our bikes that is. Our favourite way into the city of Bath, our local metropolis, is via the towpath at the Kennet and Avon Canal. Usually we park up at The George and then walk the mile or so into town coming in at the small white gate in Sydney Gardens or sometimes walking further still down to Widcombe Lock in the hope that the tea shed is open.

Recently we’ve been discovering some excellent local walks via Nigel Vile’s pieces for the Chronicle. We started with a Saltford one and we’ve been to By Brook at Box a couple of times now for a pub lunch and a picnic. There are a lot of snickelways and side lanes to be discovered in our neck of the woods. I am never without my trusty binoculars ready to gawp at any passing buzzard, woodpecker or wading heron.

On Saturday we thought we’d extend a Lacock walk we did a few weeks ago. We strolled out from Lacock and headed up to discover the Wiltshire and Berkshire canal which is being renovated after many years of disuse. We are crazy for canals it must be said, so this particular day we thought we’d extend the previous walk by heading up towards Chippenham to pick up the far end of the canal and walk back.

The day was slightly overcast so we weren’t baking in the heat although it was rather muggy, still, there were a few breezes from the river as we walked up towards Reybridge. We could hear gunshot and we were wondering if it was claypigeon shooting since we both thought it was not shooting season. The gunshots were more regular and louder as we cut up through a path towards the local Agricultural College and was accompanied by a strange bird calling noise.

It cut through the air, repeating and repeating like one of those old-fashioned mechanical dolls and quite as sinister.
We climbed over a stile into the field and the gunshot stopped even though the terrible calling didn’t. We couldn’t quite work out where it had been coming from, this is an agricultural landscape so there are fields and trees and hedges. We began to cross the field on the public footpath and at once noticed a crowd of jackdaws half a field ahead of us. They seemed at odds, strange and stiff and so I peered through my binoculars. They were an otherworldly sight, oddly flapping mechanical decoys amongst a field of zombie and dummy corvids, crows, jackdaws and rooks alike. They were staked out at intervals on wooden peg legs. I commented to my husband how odd this was, and we thought they might be a decoy to deter crows, hence the horrid mechanical bird cries.

Which was when I almost trod on the first body. My husband reached for my arm to tug me back.

“Watch out…” he said in a low voice and we both looked down. At my feet, a jackdaw, beak down in the grass, a bright ruby bead of blood at his chest. Another just beyond, crumpled against a half opened wing. Another, a folded tail, feathers fanned and skewed. Another. Another. Another. Strewn.

A voice called out “We’ve stopped shooting for you. You’re ok to continue.” We looked around. Where had the voice come from? There seemed no one there, then two men stepped forward, the movement revealing, like a macabre magic trick, the brown camouflaged hide at the fields’ edge. They had, they assured us, been called in by the agricultural college because, in the college’s view, “Corvids are a problem.” In my view, a long distance one, binocular and with the clarity of sky and tree behind it, corvids are not a problem. Corvids are, as I have said before, creatures of intelligence and beauty. But hey-ho. I was about to impart this opinion but the man had a gun and a determined look.

“They spread diseases, these birds. Terrible problem.”

I was not crying at this point. My face was heating, fury and sorrow were battling it out but I was not about to show this to these men. Clad in printed camouflage they were smiling and slightly grubbied from their day in the hedge hide. My husband held my hand and we took our farewells. Head down I moved across the field with Stephen.

“You alright?” he asked, squeezing my hand, knowing that I was not, that tears were falling on the small black corpses, the black stars knocked out of the sky.

At the edge of the field we climbed over an awkward stile and walked away up the track through the woods. Hogweed, cow parsley and stinging nettles rose up around us and cloaked the day, brought it back to us. The men were invisible to us in their makeshift hide. They were not invisible to the crows. Crows are intelligent and studies have shown that they can collect and share information and take group decisions. They have the ability, rare amongst animals, to recognise faces.

Those shooting gents can pack up their guns and fold up their hide but they will never walk away from the memory of crows. Next time they are crossing a field and they hear the rustle of feathers they might be wise to recall that the collective noun for crows, is a Murder.

 

(image from Kate Dolamore)

 
 

‘a highly original talent’ – Beryl Bainbridge

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