North Devon diary

The Southwest of England is quiet, but it boasts an active cultural life.

Gnomes reading, Gnome Reserve

Gnomes reading, Gnome Reserve

One of the many enjoyable things about living in England is that, no matter where you are, if you drive for an hour you’ll likely end up in a completely different microclimate. So driving from London to North Devon, in the southwest of England bordering on the Irish Sea, can be discombobulating this time of year. Spring in this part of the country is a good two to three weeks behind London. Or London Spring is two to three weeks ahead of where it should be—it depends on your perspective. But being out here for nine days, with nothing to do except for walking and reading, lets me experience early spring for a second time, and it’s just as good the second time around.

Of course, out here they had a very wet and stormy winter—London was relatively peaceful by comparison. Not as bad as further south, but still pretty bad. So the coming of Spring here—daffodils everywhere, still, not to mention primroses galore—has been welcomed. It’s mostly farmland here, as it has been for at least a millennium or two, or more. People have lived around here for a couple of thousand years, actually. And the roads are full of tractors moving to and fro. And the fields are full, too, mainly with sheep and new spring lambs. Britain, like much of Europe, retains as much local agriculture as it can in the face of globalization, and it shows everywhere. These are not necessarily large farms, although there are fewer farmers than there used to be. But the fields look much the same as they have for centuries—stone walls tend to be permanent.

The paths here are ancient, as they are in much of Britain, and the memories, if not quite as ancient, still echo with the voices of generations long past. It’s common to drive on narrow roads where the trees and hedgerows tower over the road—not from the growth of the hedgerows, since they’re trimmed regularly, but from the gradual sinking of the roads over the centuries. Sometimes we’ll be on a winding back road where the roots of the hedgerows are higher than the roof of the car. It can get dark—but then we’re out in the open again. Which doesn’t necessarily mean sun, since we’re on the coast, and the mist from the low clouds often defines the day.

It’s quiet, too. Out on Exmoor, you can be in spots where there is no noise whatsoever—it’s open moors, so there is no rustling of trees from the wind, since there are no trees. It’s often a barren landscape, with the gorse bushes covering most of the ground—definitely giving the landscape a post-apocalyptic feel. No airplanes, no cars, no vehicles of any kind, just the quiet. As a change from London, it’s both shocking and welcome. No wifi in most of the area, either, which is why I’m posting this from London and not from the wilds of North Devon.

It’s got a sturdy maritime tradition, too, although, as with much of the country, this has been lost with the passing of the fishing and local maritime shipping industries, and the empire. Around here, it’s the former and not the latter that matters. There were local wooden ships hauling stuff around the coast here up until the 1970s, you would learn from the excellent little North Devon Maritime Museum in Appledore. Mostly lime and coal at that point, and it was a hard life, no doubt. But it was life that entailed a certain set of skills and knowledge that will soon be lost, to be replaced by, well, who knows. The boatbuilding business and the shipyards that maintained everything are being lost too, which just increases the problems associated with job creation around here. There aren’t much in the way of factories, and while there seem to be a fair number of car dealers in Barnstaple and some of the other larger towns, it’s not clear what people do here. There is certainly a local service economy, and no one goes hungry any more. But unemployment remains high here, as it does out here in the Southwest—it’s considerably worse in Cornwall, which remains the poorest part of England, as it has been for decades. But it’s hard to see where the jobs are going to come from in the future here—there will always be farming, but aside from that, it’s difficult to envision the economy changing much in the future here. Which means it will remain hard to find jobs, and the young will leave, and the old, like us, on pensions, will move in. This doesn’t suggest a solid foundation for a truly civic culture.

There are delights, of course, in spite of this. We’ve eaten really well in our little rented cottage where we cook every night. Well, Mrs W cooks, and I do the cleaning up, which seems like a fair deal to me. The scallops we had the other night were the best we’ve ever had. I keep telling people we live here because of the food, and no one ever believes me, but it’s true. Even the pub food, which as recently as 20 years ago was still a national embarrassment, has now achieved gourmet status, if you know where to go. The pub food revolution was emerging around the time we moved here, and it’s been a savior for any number of pubs—at a time when pubs continue to close regularly around the country. We’re more than happy to oblige.

And it’s England, so it’s hard to find an area devoid of an active cultural life. There’s an excellent local museum/gallery in Bideford, the Burton Art Gallery, with an excellent crafts gallery of local craftspeople and artists, so of course we spent some money picking up more excellent stuff we don’t really need. Local artists abound here, and it’s easy to see why—the countryside vistas, with the ocean in the background, reminds me of Maine quite often. There are real beaches here as well—this turns out to be the surfing capital of Britain, for good reason. The vistas as we drive along the road, or walk along portions of the coastal path, are just stunning. The beaches have an interesting history as well—it turns out that they resemble the beaches of Normandy so much that they were used for experimental research for landing craft by the military during the war. And then there’s the Gnome Reserve in West Putford, which is exactly what it says it is. Gnomes everywhere.

And the rocks—well, it’s easy to see why England invented geology, or its modern version, anyway. The shifting of the coastal landscape here is a given—there have been pieces of coastline falling into the ocean as far back as living memory. But the rock underneath is sterner stuff, and what pokes up into the air provides for some stunning scenery, and for some modest reflection on time, and who a crappy job we do of capturing it. Our lives are brief indeed. Lapid longa, vita brevis.

Baggy Point

Baggy Point

But then there are the churches to visit to give one some perspective on time, so many of them, many of them with lovely details that have been preserved over the centuries. The Reformation was as brutal to English churches as it was elsewhere, but still, details remain, especially the lovingly carved capitals, or the random heads or animals on ceilings, well out of reach of the iconoclasts. One church we visited—St. Nectan, in Hartland—is built over the abbey founded by St. Gytha, who was Harald’s mother, in 1055. Harald as in the battle of Hastings Harald. We have spent the past 15 years dutifully following Simon Jenkins’ England’s 1,000 Best Churches around, and, combined with a couple of pub guides, it’s a fantastic way to see England. Well, maybe not so dutifully—after 15 years, we’ve done about 350, which means, if my arithmetic is correct, another 30 years to go. So I’ll still be using this book as worn out as it will be by then, when I’m in my late 90s. But there are always more churches to see, and always more England.

I always look for a Green Man, and they pop up in more churches than one would think. The conversion to Christianity in England, as it was in much of Europe, was more of a process than an event, and for centuries there seemed to be an amiable compatibility between the Christian faith and a variety of rural beliefs. There is a certain irony here—the Green Man is seen as a gentle pagan figure, embodying the gods of nature, and Christianity certainly has a lot of pagan myths embedded in it. But the Green Man is not a gentle figure—you ran into him at your peril. But he abounds in churches throughout England, and Northern Europe, for that matter.

Green Man and bosses, St. Peter ad Vincula Church, Coombe Martin

Green Man and bosses, St. Peter ad Vincula Church, Coombe Martin

So now I’m back in London, surrounded by the usual electronica, getting plugged back in, trawling through the mail and email I’ve been oblivious to over the past week. And I’m getting ready to catch up on the two episodes of DaVinci’s Demons that I missed. But we’re already planning the next excursion. Life is good.