Along the Lane and Over

With a lull in the weather and a pretty clear day ahead, a wander somewhere off the beaten track seemed to be the order of the day. So, with lunch and a small flask already packed up and stowed away, we set off across the fields above Dulverton. Being lucky enough to have the freedom of the surrounding fields, we’ve found innumerable places to rest, watch and ponder. Today, our feet have taken us along the damp, shiny tarmac to a gateway that creaks desperately when it’s opened. It’s always made such a noise and it seemed an intrusion into the quiet of the countryside as we closed it behind us.

Through the gateway and across a rutted track with beech hedgerows lining each side, we take a glance to the left and right. If we’re quick, we’re usually able to see around 10 or so rabbits grazing close to the hedgerow.  If they’ve hopped off before we set eyes on them, the tell tale movement of the longer grasses let us know they’d been there. Over the muddy track we come to yet another gate. Now this gate has been here forever; it is wooden, misshapen, and has been repaired on more than one occasion. It functions well though and does the job it is there to do, namely keeping the lambing sheep from wandering the lanes. In the summer months this particular field is full of wild flowers and grasses, being free of sheep. Swallows will dive and dart low above the growth during this time; they are amazing to watch as they make their high pitched call to one another. They are nigh on impossible to photograph with our limited equipment. Today, though, the grass is being grazed by the ewes and their offspring.

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We skirted the field alongside a line of tall beech trees accompanied by one or two rabbits, which were brave enough to venture out during the late morning hours. They scampered and hopped away as we approached, waiting until their patch was no longer being trampled on by strangers. Through the beech trees to our right, there sits another field, adjoined to its neighbour at the top and bottom. It is a haven for bird life and we’ve sat for many hours in a top corner, waiting and watching the many birds as they go about their daily feeding rituals. A favourite to spot is the little olive brown chiffchaff. We can always hear it with its unmistakable ‘chiffchaff’ call, but it’s never quite that easy to see as it flits from branch to branch. Today there was the continuous, warbling, trill of the skylark to be heard high above us as we wandered. Skylarks will always evoke childhood memories for me, as I remember walking carefully across fields with my brother, eyes on the ground, looking to avoid the closely concealed nests with my little feet. Alternately, my head would be thrown back, gazing into a cloudless sky, trying with all my might to spot the soaring little brown bird, as it reached us with its song.

Coming to the bottom of the field, we climbed a secured gate, overgrown with brambles and ivy. Deciding to take a path to the left, we walked diagonally through a scrubby, patchy field using tracks which criss-crossed through thistles and tussocks of grass.  The muddy, narrow tracks made by the many wandering sheep over the years, made our crossing easy.  However, today, this patch of land was sheep-free and empty. We weren’t harming anything by using the track and it saw us making our way downhill towards a gap in yet another line of beech trees, atop an ancient hedgerow. This has to be one of our favourite places to stand and take in the view before us before we moved off again. Wide open rolling fields and pasture land, woodland, combes, far-reaching farmsteads and the wildlife. We were looking towards Dulverton and a main thoroughfare in the distance and there is always so much to look at. Over the years we’ve seen the same view change with the seasons – taking on a life of its own as it blends spring into summer, summer into autumn, autumn into winter and winter back to spring. It’s a view that we never tire of whether we’ve stopped for a quick rest leaning on a gate or have settled down for our al fresco lunch. To see and to feel the openness of the ever changing countryside before you, the wide open skies, whether blue or grey, above you, is a feeling that is so good to experience. Up here, the smallest sound is amplified and it does your soul good to sit and listen for a short while. To listen to the tiniest sound of the wildlife inhabitants around you, the song of a wren, the mew of a buzzard soaring high above, but to also listen to the silence that punctuates the noises of the countryside.

Filling our lungs with Exmoor air, we wandered further down having crossed through the gap and into another lush field. At the bottom we reached an ancient banked hedgerow where the gnarled, twisted trees were covered with emerald green moss.  Along this bank is an extremely handy stretch, free of trees and hedging. We’d really been strolling along taking our time and this was our lunchtime viewing point, with hot tea from the flask and our ham and mustard rolls making an appearance. As we sat, with the best view in the house stretching out as far as we could see, we chatted about how we always return to the same spots and how fortunate we were to be able to do so. Away from the  lanes, and away from the usual walking routes.

With an apple to see us on our way, we followed the edge of the field and walked for half a mile or so dipping downwards on a muddy track. We have horses above us, rugged up against the weather and curious sheep to the right. Following a small brook through yellow gorse covered land we eventually crossed the tumbling water and turned right. In the very near distance we spied a stunning looking fox that didn’t look that perturbed to see us. It was perched on a mossy, cushion of grass, looking this way and that but fixed his eyes on us as we approached him. Without a trace of hurry about him, he left his position, his magnificent brush with its white tip following on behind. Making his way down the sloping field towards cover, he was gone. We, on the other hand, had begun a tricky traverse through a spattering of trees before reaching a gradual, sloping field. This saw us trudging upwards towards the road, boots now heavy with mud. From here, we could look back from whence we came. The undulating ground that took us to the heights for our lunch, then down and back up again for the homeward bound journey

Turning left and making our way back towards the lane, we could see that spring was well on its way, as new growth was making a bid for life in the hedgerows. Daffodils with their sunny, yellow heads waved in the breeze, having been planted randomly, but thoughtfully, along the road side to bring a smile to the face of anyone passing by.  Spring was definitely poking its head out for all to see and we were pleased to see that the recent snow hadn’t put paid to the tentative beginnings of spring. But, surely, the flora of Exmoor is tougher than that? We can only hope so.

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Despite the trudge uphill in muddy conditions, we were now on the lane. As a celebration of any of our wanders, we always treat ourselves to a stick of chocolate fudge on our return journey. So, as we made our way up the slow incline to the road home, I produced said sweets from my pocket with a flourish, giving the rambling stroll a cherry-on-top feeling.

Given the choice – the walk or the celebratory stick of fudge? Hmmm, no contest really – the walk every time but, sometimes, you just can’t have one without the other. 🙂

All Quiet on the Western Front

Simple pleasures – the cottage has been full of them this last week as I’ve had my seven month old grandson to stay with me. After a week of hilarity, hoots of laughter and tears, the cottage walls are settling back into place. The solid bricks finding their place in the foundations that hold the cottage strong. It’s all quiet on the western front. I wouldn’t swap the time that I spend with my grandson – to gaze deeply into his stunningly bright and smiling blue eyes reduces me to tears. To see into the very soul of his being conjures up a bond so powerful, it will remain for life and beyond. Two hearts – that of a nana and her grandchild. A very simple pleasure. I miss him – he has returned home now. The cottage has regained its equilibrium of peace and calm after being baby central for seven days. It’s bitter-sweet, this peacefulness. I’m torn between two pleasures: the pleasure of being alone, free to do as I please, when I please or to be in the company of my grandson, passing on knowledge (as young as he is) and rejoicing in his being with me, here on Exmoor. I know I’m allowed a mixture of both and that suits me fine. I suppose it’s the light and shade of life and we need both to survive – to make life interesting. Waving them off down the lane early on Sunday morning, I stood there in my fleecy pyjamas, which were tucked down into my boots to prevent them becoming soggy. The day had dawned wet and breezy and there was a white mist hovering above the road, shifting as the slight wind took it on its way across the fields. There and then I decided to take myself off across the moor to Fyldon Common, Kinsford Gate and Simonsbath to see what treasures I could find on this dismal day. Packed up, camera at the ready and with my charity shop Bear Grylls fleece keeping some of the drizzly rain at bay, I was good to go and go I did. Mist on Exmoor is intermittent – pea soup in places and then, magically, gone! This morning was no different and I travelled down the lanes and across the moor driving in and out of the blanket and lace curtain swirls. image Reaching my destination it was abundantly clear that there was to be no sightings of anything that morning. I was high up on the moor with, usually, excellent views to the left of me… but not today. There was just the rousing call of a pheasant coming eerily out of the dense mist. Executive decision time found me making my way towards Lynton and Lynmouth on the North Devon coast. The Valley of the Rocks was somewhere I hadn’t been for some years. I thought it would be a welcome change to go shout at the sea and throw my troubles into the wind on this dramatic coastline. Carefully, I made my way through the mists and out the other side.  Reaching the road to Lynton was like coming out from under a blanket after a weird dream, with all becoming  clear once again and I felt myself waking as I headed towards the brighter skies, a coffee and a homemade cookie. The lanes here are lined with beech trees, new with citrus green leaves that dappled the shiny road ahead of me, as the sunshine broke through them. My view changed as the undulating roads took me past lush, emerald-green fields, ancient woodlands and sparse, wheat-coloured moorland. Here, rich fields butted up against the dry-looking moor and it made me think about our wonderfully diverse countryside. Red deer grazed on the moor, camouflaged by their brown-grey coats but with their whitish rump  giving them away.  I pulled in to watch them awhile as they were quite a large herd – their heads raised at my presence but not unduly spooked by my observation. I left them to their breakfast and followed the curving roads once again. Climbing the hills to the Valley of the Rocks is quite hairy if you’re not used to the roads. They are dotted with hairpin bends that come at you, out of the blue and I’ve been in cars where passengers have gasped out loud, clinging onto their seat, as the bends and hills are encountered, captured and triumphed! As the rocky outcrops came into sight I wondered if I’d catch a glimpse of the wild goats that roam the cliffs here but, car park in sight, my first priority was sustenance by way of a welcome coffee and something to eat. A text message from my daughter informed me that she had stopped for breakfast herself, so I thought I’d share the time with her, even though I was absent from her company. Being apart from your offspring doesn’t mean they are out of mind, does it? It would give me time to ponder awhile on the week that had just passed and at how fortunate I was to have such riches in my life. When  faced with the vast ocean in front of me, I always like to release something into the wind, a secret or trouble that I need to share. Parting with it and giving it to the rolling sea, a beautiful blue today, releases my shoulders and frees me in a way I cannot explain. I could have waited until I reached Hollerday Hill (quite apt considering the task in hand) but, no, it had to done there and then. So, secrets and troubles dealt with, I am on my way along the coast path towards Lynton and perhaps a mouth-watering, delicious crab sandwich on thick, crusty granary bread. DSC01952 Gorse bushes are dotted about on these rock-strewn cliffs, each like a shining sun themselves, brightening up the grey rocks. Small purple flowers, violets I think but am not sure, cling to the vertical grassy areas and contrast well with the bright yellow blooms of the gorse. Down below me, the sea was as calm as it can be on an early May morning. It glistened in the sunlight, tiny jewels, twinkling on the surface, hundreds of them, and I know they’d fascinate my small grandson. DSC01948A wooden bench, engraved with the initials of another walker who, loved this area too, begged me to sit and take in the view. Who was I to refuse its request? The coastline to the left was now clearly in view for me to see and the colours were astounding! Green, grey, purple, brown, yellow, blue, white – they seemed to go on forever and I felt my heart at peace and my body relax even more so. Ahead of me I could see the path stretching onwards so I’m off again, but first I spotted several dots bobbing up and down, black and white, in the ocean below.  At first they looked like penguins and I smiled to myself at my thoughts. Binoculars up to my eyes, I could now see that they were not penguins (as much as I’d like them to be) but perhaps guillemots? Whatever their identity is, they gave me huge pleasure just by watching them, taking in the gentle swell of the sea on a Sunday morning. As I travel the pathway, I meet other walkers who pass the time of day and share their sightings with me. I was pointed towards two goats who were perched on a flat slab of rock overhanging the sea. How they’d  managed to pick their way down to where they sat, I’ll never know. The drop was practically vertical but there they lounged, enjoying the sun and it was great to see. With their shaggy coats in brown and white, gnarled and curved horns, they were obviously safe in the knowledge that they were inaccessible to passers-by, I took my photo and left them there, relaxing. DSC01962 Birdsong kept me company as I wandered along and a wren dipped in and out of the gorse bushes aside me. It was a very reddy-brown, tail high in the air and so tiny that I couldn’t keep track of it as it flit about. Using the bushes like a maze, darting in and out, it stopped  in its tracks to treat us all to its shrill song. Grey wagtails ran across the terrain using the rocks as stepping-stones, their tails moved in a rhythmic pattern as they searched for their lunch. I don’t seem to be able to walk anywhere without a robin finding me…and he found me today, his velvet notes vying for attention against the little wren. The robin found it easy to trust me and selected several dried gorse branches to belt out its tune, sending me on my way. It’s not far to Lynton from here and there are several viewing points along the way where you can take time to stop and gaze. What is a walk if you cannot stop to enjoy your surroundings? I take pleasure in looking out along the coast, watching the change in the surface of the sea, the  blues changing from dark to light as the sun moves from cloud to cloud, and the gulls as they wheel about the cliffs – their white, black and mottled-brown hues stark against the sky. I imagine witches and wizards, twisting their magical wands, uttering incantations and spells as they talk to the sea as I have done. DSC02003 Musings finished, Lynton called and it was bustling with tourists and locals alike looking for somewhere to quench their thirst, enjoy an ice cream or to indulge in a spot of lunch. I joined them in their quest and calmed my appetite with a local crab sandwich as I’d anticipated. I could have taken the scary but fascinating cliff railway down into Lynmouth but decided to make my way back. I wanted to make the most of the glorious weather and try to visit Watersmeet whilst over this way. I’ve heard there are dippers nesting there and sometimes you can find yourself quite close to a heron whilst wandering the pathway along the waterside. The tumbling rivers, with their mini waterfalls are a pull to those seeking a cream tea from the excellent National Trust tea rooms there, where chaffinch and various members of the tit family come to visit you at your table expecting a crumb or two. Who knows, I may just have worked up my appetite again and indulged in an afternoon cream tea myself – clotted cream, oozing strawberry jam and warm scone. My daughter and grandson were safely home, so why not? Simple pleasures – my life is full of them.

Dulverton – Putting the Past to Rest

Imagine, if you can, accidentally discovering, whilst surfing on the internet one evening, that your dad had passed over two months previously. A dad that you’d lost contact with for nearly 20 years, but whom you’d always loved. This is what happened to my partner some years ago and to say he was distraught at finding this information out, is an understatement. Apart from listening and just being there for him, I didn’t know what else to do but knew I had to do something to help him through his grief and his thoughts of all those lost years. So, with a determined effort, and his blessing, I began to carry out a little research. His dad was a very special man; he had a heart of gold and I got on exceptionally well with him, so it was something I needed to do.

You see, we’ve always felt a pull towards Exmoor and walked the lonely moors, the rugged woodlands and tumbling rivers whenever time was kind to us. There was an extra pull towards Dulverton for one reason only; we knew my partner’s grandmother had been evacuated there from London, during the war and also knew that’s where his father had been born – in the parish of Dulverton. What we didn’t know was where, exactly, but the pull towards Exmoor and Dulverton was even stronger now that he was no longer with us.

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Gathering as much information as I could and eventually purchasing his birth certificate, I found that he was born in a large, sprawling farmhouse, on the edge of Dulverton. I won’t give out the name of the farm, because it still stands and is still known by the same name. I’d further learned that his grandmother, who was pregnant at the time, had been housed at the farm along with several other girls. They were expected to work both in the house and on the land with the animals. Now, at least, we knew where his father had been born.

With all the information in hand, I booked us into the welcoming Exmoor Forest Inn, in Simonsbath, for a couple of nights. Not too close to Dulverton, but not too far away. It’s a place we stayed in regularly and I knew that it would do us both good to have a bit of peace and quiet. Morning came and having had a delicious and hearty breakfast we made our way over to Dulverton, across a misty moor to visit All Saints’ church in the vibrant, pretty town we loved so much. Having discovered where his father had been born but not knowing if he’d been baptized or not, we decided that the church there may have been a close enough bet. We intentionally took a rather circular route before reaching the town, wending our way down back lanes that gave far-reaching views out over Exmoor and the Somerset countryside. Our route took us past the farm where his dad had begun his days and we logged the location in our memories for all time.

Having reached the church, what greeted us as we entered the grounds was incredible. Before us was a carpet of crocuses in purples, yellows and white. It was stunningly beautiful and it seemed as if the sun had come out and shone down on us, despite the chill of the day. It made us smile and neither of us felt any sadness in any way. As we entered the church, we were greeted and warmly welcomed by an elderly lady with a beautiful smile. We explained why we were there and she listened intently, shedding extra light on the information that we already had. She was extremely helpful and knowledgeable and offered us a candle or two to light in memory of his dad. Then she left us to ponder quietly. This we did and then sat for a while in the stillness of the church. After giving us the email address of the vicar there, and telling us to visit the Copper Kettle in town, for a warming cup of tea, she bid us goodbye with a kindly nod of her head. The lady thought the vicar may have been able to access parish records to see if any baptism had taken place. Sadly, the information was not forthcoming as there were no records, so we’ll never know. But the church had fulfilled its job for us and I know that some sort of peaceful closure had happened that day.

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Within months of that visit, we’d put our house on the market and moved to a cottage, above Dulverton. The pull that we’d always felt, was too strong and the decision had been made.

The tale doesn’t end there though, however. Coming along the main road to Dulverton late one afternoon, we passed a track on the left hand side. I’m always on the lookout for wildlife and my eyes are everywhere as we travel, so it was with some interest that I spotted a russet cow making her way along the lane towards the main road. I mentioned that it didn’t seem altogether right that she should be there, alone and loose. So, quickly we stopped and reversed but she’d beaten us to it and came out onto the road, took a right turn, and ambled down the tarmac, udders swinging merrily. Thinking on our feet, we decided to pull across the road at an angle to prevent any further traffic passing us and causing a potential accident. Driving towards us and the cow, from the direction we’d come, was another car, which had seen us waving our arms frantically. He’d, thankfully, stopped and had also pulled across the road. Now the cow was sort of boxed in but it looked as if she was on a mission so we didn’t think we had long to solve the problem. We now also had two cars at our end of the road, both stopped and both waiting patiently. They could see quite clearly what the predicament was. There was no open gateway to herd her into – it was all a quite a mystery. When we explained that we would drive down the track to the farm to see if anyone was about to throw some light on the situation, one of the drivers said that he would hold the traffic. The sign for the farm was at the opening of the track and, as she’d come out of the entrance, we thought this was our best bet. So, off we went, bumping down a muddy track towards the farm and outbuildings. However, after knocking on the front door several times, on the back door and calling around the outbuildings, it was obvious there was no-one at home. There was a phone number of the farm sign, which we’d taken note of. This we duly called but still no answer. The occupants were definitely out.

We returned to the road where the cow was standing quite still, in between the two blocking cars about 150 yards apart. We’d now been joined by a quad bike and trailer carrying a collie. It was being driven by a wizened elderly man, wearing a cloth cap. With his dog barking excitedly, he’d pulled over and blocked a lane on the left hand side of the road, around midway. We all looked as if we were under control but we were still none the wiser as to who the cow belonged to. At least she was safe for the time being. The road was blocked and any danger from vehicles was being averted.

Minutes later, a red pick-up and trailer appeared from down the track that we’d followed. It turned out onto the road, passing us with a thumbs-up sign. It pulled alongside and explained that the cow belonged to them but had we seen a calf with her, as they thought she’d escaped her field having gone to look for her ‘lost’ calf. We had to say no, we hadn’t seen one. It was just the one cow but that we’d keep an eye out for it in the adjoining fields on the journey home. All traffic was held as the cow was loaded with no fuss and taken back to the farm. Then, everyone went their separate ways as if nothing had happened. Danger averted.

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It was on the way home that we looked at each other and smiled. The reason being that we both knew we’d just been knocking on the doors of the farmhouse, where my partner’s dad had been born, all those years ago, during the war. It meant the absolute world to both of us that we’d been stood there, with amazing views out toward Somerset and Devon on that late afternoon. Nobody knew our secret.

But that’s not all. From our bedroom window at the front of the cottage we now lived in, we could look directly in front of us, across the fields where a herd of some 80 deer would graze in the early morning sun. Across the fields, as the crow flies, around a mile away in the distance, we knew that in our eye-line, down in a dip, sat the farmhouse where the dad that he loved, had been born.

Who’d have thought it? Certainly not us, and we still often wonder just who was pulling whom to Exmoor all those years ago.

Our Flexible Friends

Let it never be said that Exmoor is dull.  Whether you’re indoors or out, life can be challenging here and being flexible and patient is a virtue.

Here, on the moor, you  have to look after each other and help where you can – you never know when you’re going to need a helping hand or, indeed, what skill sets you’re going to require. However, I always find that it’s healthy to have a good attitude and a smile ready when the going gets tough – sometimes I think they’re the only skill sets I possess but they’ve worked for me so far.

The call had come out that my happy disposition was required next door in the fields. It seemed that some heavy metal gates and pens had to be moved. The tractor was out already, chugging away and the wind was blowing a hooley making it quite chilly in the top field. Well, I couldn’t stop laughing at the antics that followed and was quite sure I was being more of a hindrance than a help. Whilst the tractor lifted the wide, barred gates, we had to steady them and walk with the tractor to their destination. The wind was fierce!  We couldn’t stand up to begin with, and were stood clinging onto the gate with every bit of strength we could muster, shouting our words into the wind for the trees to hear. Following that, we were trying to balance ourselves at a 45 degree angle, whilst contending with the contraptions we were moving, which was great fun. It was a sight for sore eyes and if anybody had clocked us in our task then I think we’d have made their day. The tractor driver was amazing – it was us on the ground that was the problem. Job done though, we were absolutely exhausted having fought with the wind and prevailing rain. With ruddy cheeks we traipsed off to the homestead for a well-earned cuppa.

I was once told that if the wind, rain, hail, snow could be seen blowing from right to left across the cottage’s front window, then, with a few deep breaths, all would settle down soon. However, if it came blowing in the opposite direction, then we were headed for trouble – heavy snow, floods or severe wind damage. It was a weather forecast that served us well. Today it was blowing from the right direction but it was still extremely strong. My neighbours had further chores to do and I was off to take advantage of collecting some starters and lighters for the wood burner. Every cloud has a silver lining and the wind that day had  certainly brought us that. Twigs and branches aplenty to be picked up and barrowed back to the log store while the pickings were good. It was always a welcome outing the day after a huge wind, to go out picking up sticks amongst the fallen leaves. Something for nothing – you can’t go wrong, and it makes the warmth you feel from them all the more comforting.

Anyway, good neighbour that I am, I suggested that I cook for my two friends that evening. With the responsibility of caring for their animals, it was on very rare occasion that they were able to venture out. Their work is never finished and I thought they’d enjoy a change of scenery and being able to sit down to a hot meal with us. To be honest we took it in turns to share a meal whenever we could, so this wasn’t something out of the ordinary.

I’m one of those hearty cooks – a true meat and two veg or ‘chuck it all in one pot’ cook. Wood burner casserole is my absolute favourite and I’d often have a pot of something simmering on the wood burner all day. The smell would play with your head, making your mouth water and would drive visitors to despair. Coupled with the smell of wood smoke, it was a heady combination. Plus, there’s nothing like coming home to the smell of a good meal ready and waiting to be served, meat falling off the bone, vegetables and juice waiting to be mopped up with crusty, wholemeal bread.

So, with little time, I decided to prepare a shepherd’s pie with veg picked from the garden and maybe throw together a rhubarb and ginger crumble…and that’s exactly what I did. Listening to the growing wind outside hurtling through the tall beeches at the side of the cottage, I crossed my fingers that the power would stay on and running. It’s one of those little foibles living on Exmoor, that you never know when the power is going down, leaving you with the wood burner, candles and not a lot else. Don’t for one minute think that I’m complaining though, for when this did occur, there was nothing that could match the atmosphere in the cottage. You’d feel cosseted and wrapped in love and warmth as you sat listening to music with no tv and no other technical gadgets to confuse the brain. You became quite inventive with meals too, with only the wood burner to cook on, but having toasted marshmallows for pudding was always a favourite. Although they were more melted than toasted with the heat that the burner threw out!img_2395

So, there  I was, all set and hoping against hope that my other half made it home in time for us all to sit down together. The wind was still raging and the lanes can be quite a challenge with debris falling from the trees. I like to do things properly with a well set table, homely and welcoming, with candles lighting the cottage. It’s just what I do.  In my small but very functional kitchen, the shepherd’s pie was half way cooked, the crumble was on the top shelf doing its thing and the veg was in the steamer and coming to the boil. Then… the lights flickered… the power went off and I held my breath. It came back on again and I felt a sigh of relief leaving my body as I really wanted to cook a meal for my neighbours that evening. In my heart of hearts, though, I think it’s a tall order knowing what I know about Exmoor and the winds. I stood in the kitchen and waited. It wasn’t long before the lights flickered once more and the power was gone – this time it’s for good.

I couldn’t call my neighbours because the phone line had gone down too and there was no signal on my mobile. All I know is I had  to rescue the dinner somehow. Quickly, I leapt about the cottage (well as much as I could leap in the dark – thank goodness for the candles), collected together some large tote bags and cardboard pieces that I could line the bottom of the bags with. Out of the oven came the pie and the crumble and into the bag they went covered with tea towels, closely followed by the steamer containing the veg. I threw in the custard mix, the gravy (already prepared from chicken stock) and turned on our large lantern torch. I had  no idea how I was going to get this meal to my neighbours but I knew if I could get it round to their kitchen and fired-up Rayburn, then all would be saved.

As I blew out the candles, it looked like a scene from Miss Havisham’s house in ‘Great Expectations’ but with not so many cobwebs and just then I heard a loud banging on the back door. The door flung open and a welcome ‘Cooooeeee!’ came through the darkness, a chill draught filling the cottage. My lovely neighbour had turned up with his wheelbarrow because ‘there’s no way I’m missing out on your dinner’ he said. Leaving a quickly scrawled note  as to my whereabouts, we’re off, balancing the bags on the barrow, some hanging from the handles, As we headed off together amidst falling twigs, careering leaves and beech nuts, I am sending up a silent prayer that my other half is safe on the road.

Out through the gate we tried to converse but out voices are taken away on the wind as our heads twist and turn in our hats, which were blowing up like balloons around our heads from the onslaught of wind. Struggling to see where we were going with just a head torch and a small wind-up version, having left the lantern for my other half at the cottage, we wend our way up the lane in what is practically pitch black darkness. The wind was roaring through the trees, the creaking was quite frightening and my neighbour is protecting ‘his dinner’ like he was wheeling the crown jewels up the lane. It made me smile so much.

After much laughter, we made it to their wooden, five-bar gate and waiting to welcome us into a candlelit and very warm kitchen was his wife. We carried the bags from the barrow and placed the pots and pans onto the heat of the Rayburn to continue their cooking in peace. The arrival of my other half completes the foursome, swinging the lantern in the darkness of the night, to let us know he has arrived at the door safe and sound.

Together, we cooked and dished up our much travelled dinner, whilst drinking mulled wine left over from the Christmas celebrations. Together we sat, as friends and neighbours, together we shared our meal, together we laughed and together we said our thanks for flexible friends.

It was a comforting meal, not quite as I’d planned it to be but who knows what’s around the corner when you live in such a place as this. Flexible and ready for the simple pleasures in life – it works every time and memories were made that night, that’s for sure.

PS: Power was restored at 3am that morning and a tree came down in the front garden… giving us yet more wood for the wood burner. Every cloud eh?img_2394

 

A Wander from Simonsbath to Cow Castle

 

It’s Sunday and I’ve been proper rambling this morning… but not of the outdoor, walking, wandering type. No, I’ve been rambling on the telling bone for the last hour to my oldest and best friend of 52 years. We live miles apart and have done for many years but it’s never stopped us being there for each other. Spending an hour out of my day to laugh like a drain, chat about our small grandsons and reminisce is a small price to pay for starting out later than expected, on a morning ramble along the river.  We always  giggle like the teenagers we once were – it’s so good for the soul to share and laugh. We’ve shared many a wander too in our lives, both emotionally and on foot. Today, after saying goodbye, eventually, I am on my own.

However, I digress somewhat… and a-rambling I will go, after a bacon sarnie and a cup of Earl Grey. As I watch the birds at the feeders, from my kitchen window, I can see the vibrancy in their feathers now they are mating and nesting, especially the brave, little blue tits. It’s good to see a pair of goldfinch back for another year, as they nest in the rhododendrons at the front of the house. It’s peaceful out there in the lane for them, and I have the added bonus of being able to see them from the bedroom window whilst drinking my early morning cuppa.image

I’ve decided today to wander along the Barle river from Simonsbath. It’s quite a glorious day and I’m looking forward to seeing the sunlight reflecting on the river as I walk. So, donning my Bear Grylls charity shop fleece (don’t know how I ever managed without it!) I’m off and up the road. The moor looks as if it’s been bleached in the sunlight and it seems to shimmer as the grasses move in the gentle breeze. Exmoor ponies graze around the thorn trees, backs still to the breeze, but enjoying the welcome break from the recent wet days. Two of them cross the road in front of me and it’s always worthwhile stopping to admire them when out and about.

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At  Birchcleave Wood I join the newly laid path that follows the stunning river Barle. It’s a river that winds itself through the valley in a twisting, turning fashion. Full of character, wherever you choose to join it – always a firm favourite of mine. I try to remind myself that Simonsbath is situated at the centre of what once was the Royal Forest of Exmoor. That back as far as the 1500s Simonsbath was simply a criss-cross of tracks over this beautiful, wild and, sometimes bleak, moorland of ours. Walking this part of the moor, you can easily find yourself back in those days, with a little imagination. If only the moors could talk – I’m sure they’d have more than a few tales to tell about the residents back then. I’m headed for Cow Castle – it’s not a new haunt as I’ve been many times before but it holds a certain peaceful quality and the walk is never dull.

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Trees are plentiful at the beginning of the path, as I’m passing Birchcleave Wood on my left. It’s said to be the highest beech wood in the country and, whether it is or not, there are some wonderful shapes to behold. I love to witness the trees at this time of year, minus their foliage, as you can really see into the heart of the branches and wonder at their skeletal structure. It’s also an excellent opportunity to see the many birds that flit back and forth from the woodland to the meadow, as I wander.

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The pathway opens out, leaving  the woodland behind, with just the odd tree hanging on. But there are still the wonderful ancient lines of beech to be seen here and there before leaving them behind for gorse, bracken and marshland grasses. The ENP have done a grand job of re-laying the new pathway and it’s not as undulating as it was on previous visits. However, the character of the walk is still evident as the path follows the meandering great Barle river making its way on to Landacre Bridge. On either side are hillsides which rise dramatically toward the sky and, as you wander, you feel as if you’re being cushioned by these huge natural mounds. They reach down from the sky and tempt you to walk to the next bend – further and further. Who knows what you’ll find as you round the next corner? Greens and browns in abundance, with smatterings of yellow, paint the perfect picture for me – Exmoor at its very best at this time of year.8V7A4013

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Sometimes you’ll lose sight of the river, as you round a bend or make the climb to a rise – but it’s not for long and you know it’s there…you can hear it! I can lose myself in my thoughts as I walk this route – the track taking you up a little and then dropping you down again, following in the wake of the many sheep that graze this area.

I will always keep my eyes open for wildlife as I walk and today I came across a slow-worm, sunning itself on this beautifully warm day, just off the pathway. Its body glowed golden brown in the sunlight and I knelt down to take a closer look and hopefully, encourage it to move into cover and off the pathway, with just a look and silent plea from me.

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The slow-worm evokes childhood memories for me as silky feeling creatures, such as snakes and the like, are of no worry to me. I used to keep two grass snakes as a youngster, that lived by our fish pond. They were never kept indoors and happily lived in the garden.  I would carry them with me, in my pocket when shopping with my Mum or playing out and, as I kept a toad on me too, people thought me strange and never knew what I’d produce from any part of my clothing, at any given time. I had a wonderful childhood!

Passing Flex Barrow and tramping on toward Wheal Eliza, the mine ruins, I sit for a while and look across the river. I remember a time when I walked this way at the end of summer. The riverside was awash with orange and green as crocosmia flowered profusely, dangling and swaying into the flowing water. So many colour palettes can be found on Exmoor and each and every one of them different as the seasons change. No area stays the same as we travel through spring, summer, autumn and winter and that’s why the moor is loved by so many.

I cut through a hedge-bank on the left. It’s a beech hedge, gnarled and full of history and now find myself walking along the river once more. It’s greener here and has flattened out somewhat. It’s peaceful, enchanting and, stepping through the beech hedge,  I feel as if I’ve popped into a different world by simply traversing a hedgerow. However, I find I’ve nearly reached my destination – the hillock on which Cow Castle sits. To fully appreciate where I’ve wandered this fine day, I need to walk a little further to see the rise of Great Ferny Ball. I also get to view the wooden bridges that cross the river and which would take me up towards Horsen Farm – but that’s for another day.

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Having crossed the small wooden bridge spanning the river here, I’ve come into a clearing. There is evidence of more work done by the ENP and I can rest for a while and partake of my apple and bag of crisps, on one of the tree stumps. To the right of me is Cow Castle and to the right is open ground which rises to Great Ferny Ball. I am sorely tempted to walk on, over the bridge, across the boggy, damp grass and through the gate toward a further bridge, but know I should be making my way home again. Instead I sit, eyes skyward, watching a lone buzzard, circling and dipping and diving over the wonderful landscape I’m part of. Just across the way is a ford, primarily used by horses. The river is so very clear and clean – watching it flow and tumble over the stones and boulders is spell-binding and, even though I am fully aware that time is passing by, I have to perch on a ready-made step, legs dangling over the water, and watch as the water passes on by.

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Time to retrace my steps and I turn a circle, taking in my quiet surroundings. I nod my thanks for being able to walk this moor, steeped in history and character and for being able to be part of it in my lifetime. I wish I could bottle the emotions and feelings that I have when I walk so that others, caught up in the rat race of life, could experience what I do…peace and utter joy at being out in the open with my thoughts. Away from the humdrum of what life throws at us on a daily basis. This, out here, is freedom of a very special kind. I wish my friend of 52 years could be with me now  so that she could experience it too, or that I could pop her a bottle of my ’emotion potion’ in the post so we could share yet another memory together in the years to come. But that’s  for another day too.

So it’s homeward bound for me then and, perhaps, a half of cider at the Exmoor Forest Inn. Simple pleasures – it’s what I’m all about.

 

 

 

Exmoor – Treasures and Memories

Exmoor – a place of history, secrets and treasures where memories are made each and every day, whether they be good or not so good. It is fair to say that I have my very own secret and special locations that I return to over and over again. Places that hold the best memories for my family and me. That’s not to say that I don’t venture out to find new spots, where I can make new memories, because that’s something I try to do quite regularly. But there are those golden places where I alone exist and can bring all my thoughts and energies together for contemplation and a good old reminder at how lucky I am. Places where I can find complete peace, where I can be at one with my thoughts and, in my mind, that is a priceless treasure.

Living in this part of the country you find yourself growing with the seasons and getting on with the sideways rain, the biting winds, the mists and drizzle.  Nature waits for no one and you have to take the rough with the smooth. With this in mind, on a bitter cold Sunday a couple of weeks ago, I decided that I would take myself off for a mini road trip across the areas of the moor that are special to me and that I’ve visited many times before.

So, done up to the nines (and tens) in an inner fleece layer, a waterproof and windproof outer layer, walking boots and accessories, I began with a warm-up and blow-the-cobwebs-away trudge up Dunkery Beacon. As I left the car park it began to snow lightly and the flakes whirled around in the chill wind. Within minutes the flakes  had disappeared and I was left with the joy of climbing the pathway with the wind against me, making my ears sting through my head covering. I’m used to walking up steeper inclines than the one before me, yet my throat and lungs were burning with the cold and the effort, as I progressed step by steady step. Burying my chin into the high collar of my coat and pushing onward, I reached the top with an invigorating burst because I knew that what I’d see before me would gladden my heart and set me up for the rest of the day. I enjoy the feeling of being alive and revel in the fact that I can come out onto the moor and be part of its bleakness, even for a short time.DSC03478

Clarity was not on the cards and the views, although spectacular, could have been better but things like that don’t seem to bother me. After all, I know the beauty of what’s before me and I don’t need to see it every time. Just to be out on the moor, being a part of it is enough and I don’t ask for anything more. DSC03491

After a quiet half hour or so with my thoughts and of looking towards Selworthy, the coast, Webber’s Post and Cloutsham, I began the descent with the wind behind me and not a soul in sight. Although the sight of a child’s lost, red and woolly hat laying on the ground told me that I’d not been the only one to climb to the top that day. I popped it on top of the stone pillar in case the owner returned.

Back in the car, I decided a hot coffee and then lunch would be on the cards in the next half hour. So, turning right out the car park and making my way up the hill  over moorland the colour of hamstone, I made my merry way to the left turn that would take me, first down and then up, onto the moor. Snow flurries were still fluttering past the window but they became fewer the closer I became to the valley floor. High up the lane you are able to hear the river tumbling along and I earmarked my diary for a riverside wander a bit later on. A steep drop to one side is peppered with gnarled and twisted trees, standing like skeletons minus their leaves at this time of year, yet the creeping, clinging ivy gave colour to the trunks.  The mud is deep and soft on either side of the lane here and not a friend of the motorist if you don’t have the right vehicle. Over the shallow ford at the bottom of the combe the land flattens a little for a short time and there are green areas where you can stop and watch the river wending its merry way. However, on one of the grassy flats, the wet ground and the weather held an abandoned car prisoner for the time being, as the tyres were deep in the mud and not going anywhere without assistance.

My journey so far had been eerily quiet and devoid of wildlife, apart from the odd Exmoor pony, which is very strange but maybe that was just me concentrating and weighing up the ground I was travelling over. As I neared the moor at the top of the hill, there was a herd of red deer to the left of me, taking their pickings from a lush, green field beside a row of trees. From here I could look back over the moor, with its dark heather patches and pathways, and know that I deserved my lunch on such a chilly day.DSC03494Over on the moorland, among the heather and gorse, a herd of highland cattle were sitting, keeping their patch of land dry but still chewing the cud. These beautiful beasts with their friendly, pretty faces give the moor a splash of rusty colour and you can only admire them for their resilience to the weather. Ragged sheep grazed alongside the handsome cattle but felt the need to scatter as I crawled by, unlike the cattle who stood fast, as is normal for them.

One of my best-loved spots is up on top of this moorland, which looks across, on one side to where I’d just come from.  It is usual from this spot to be able to spot red deer and some magnificent stags way off into the distance, at the right time of year. It’s windy up there but you can usually find a buzzard or two and always a few kestrels. I remember the times of laying back on a flat boulder photographing the underside of a kestrel as it hovered on the wind above me. Treasured times, but today… nothing.  Anyway, it was here I had my lunch and hot, steaming coffee before wandering carefully over the tussocks of grass for a bit so that I could look down into the combe. It was with a very chilly wind trying to freeze my ears off, that I made my way back to the warmth and protection of the car.DSC03502

Winding lanes took me slowly up and down towards my next stop. But at the end of the lane, another group of highland cattle were having their lunch with blue-black crows flapping above them for company. I don’t think the cattle minded their smaller companions.

Passing an abundance of differing landscapes is one of the things I love about being on Exmoor. With its combes, hills, woodland, moorland and coast, you can glean exactly what you need from a walk or a drive. Should I need a valley with a greenness of greens or a wild, windy turn across the moor, I know I can find both and  quite quickly too. On either side of me, fields stretched as far as the eye could see – reaching up and over and then leaning down again towards the yellowy moor. Beech hedges still sporting their brown, crinkly leaves lined the fields, giving habitat to many a creature in the winter months. I look forward to the burst of citrus green that the beech hedges and trees will give out when spring comes along. Underneath the hedges and along the roadside, clusters of snowdrops shone out like diamonds, holding their white and green heads proud against the weather. For me, snowdrops herald the beginning of the return of the light after winter – tiny jewels at a dark and patchy  time of the year giving a smile where it’s needed.

A bridge crosses the Barle river and glancing left I can see the valley where the Barle cuts through giving dramatic rises to the left and right. Covered with shrivelled bracken to the right and  tussocks of sedge to the left the moorland here is steep and damp. I’ve climbed the rises several times, where the fields are stepped and a keen foot is required but it’s worth every step you take. It was here on the right that I saw my first ever stag, many years ago but it’s something that I’ll never forget. Antlers rising out of the bracken, very well hidden by its colour but there all the same. A simple pleasure that will always remain a treasure.

Up and over the moor to a junction that gives you choices – left, right or straight on and down. Each way offering a different chance as to what you’ll find along the chosen route. Today I knew where I was going because it’s a spot I’ll return to again and again. It’s where I’ve been privy to fourteen buzzards soaring in the sky at one sighting and where my first hare came to say hello.  It’s a special stopping place for another coffee because if you stay and wait you never know what you’ll see about these parts. Sometimes I’ll wander along the narrow lanes here, I’ll crouch in the corner of a field out of the wind or perch atop the ancient hillocks at the side of the track watching for owls. It doesn’t matter where I choose to sit or walk, each and every place is special to me, they have furnished me with memories that I’ll recall time and time again and I’m happy to keep those memories safe within me. It’s here that I can relax, look out at the far-reaching views and put my life to rights. There is a peace to be had here if only you take the time to stop and listen to the silence.

The day was tramping on and I’d yet two places to visit. So, journeying on along the lanes with hedgerows blocking most of my view, I was happy to trundle along to my next destination. It will come as no surprise to many of you that Landacre Bridge is where I was headed. The area around here has it all – moorland steep and rising, green fields that hold a multitude of treasures, the river and the bridge. It’s where I’ll head towards should I need re-energising and, whether I am alone or not, I’ll always find much-needed solace here. Stand still and you can hear the history of this place and the footsteps of those that have gone before you. I have my own vision of what life was like around here and often wonder who crossed over Landacre bridge and where they were going all those years ago.Withypool to Landacre Walk 2012_V7A1319

My first sighting of Landacre was many years ago when I followed a herd of sheep up the hill to Lanacre Farm. I waited patiently whilst they were moved from one place to another. I’ve walked from Withypool to this spot, I’ve looked down at the bridge from up on the moor and I’ve walked from Simonsbath to where I stood on that bitter cold day. I’ve flown Harris hawks with Nigel of the North Devon Hawk Walk up on this moor and it is a privilege that I can come here at the drop of a hat. As the river flowed under the arches and I stood on the bank watching it course by, I knew sure as eggs is eggs, that this place would always be special to me.

Tearing myself away, I retrace my steps up the hill and towards my final destination for the day. I hang a left and then a left again passing fields and ancient beech lines, crossing a cattle grid and am now on bleak moorland again. Gorse clumps, tussocks of grass and bracken pattern the ground but it is a ground that I love to be travelling over. Exmoor ponies graze here, backs to the wind, their manes ruffled in the breeze. They cross the road in front of me and it’s no hardship to wait and watch for a while.8V7A3794

Now I’m looking over the moor where I’ve wandered so many times before. Along, down, up and over the combes, the grass where wild flowers are in abundance come late spring, where, if you sit and wait patiently, you will be rewarded with treasures abound. I’ve sat here during the month of May, year after year, waiting for the first call of the cuckoo. Waiting to see the flight of the cuckoo in and out of the thorn trees, watching them tussle in flight with the meadow pipits and knowing that it is here, that I’ll lay my weary head when all is said and done._V7A1147 (2)_MG_0413 crop

It’s a very special part of Exmoor, popular for all kinds of different reasons and rightly so.

Out of the mists that shroud the moor, I’ve watched the hunt appear like ghosts from a Bronte novel – off and over the moorland before you’ve even had a chance to breathe. But today, as always, it’s where I can be alone, where I can hide if I want to and be anonymous to those around me. Where I can be part of the land if I choose and where I can wander to my heart’s content, oblivious to what’s going on around me. I cannot count the number of times I’ve sat among the rabbit droppings with my trusty, old field glasses, one eye on the rabbits cavorting about on the incline in front of me, another on the bird life around me and listening to the lowing of the cattle that roam this part of the moor. Here, I am at total peace with the world and that’s not a bad thing – it’s a simple pleasure that is priceless and every day I count my lucky stars that I am able to be part of a land that is loved by so many.

It’s late in the day and still cold. A cloak will soon wrap itself around Exmoor immersing it in darkness once again, protecting this land of secrets, treasures and  memories. Always.

It’s time to go home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Priceless Treasure

I had a visitor to the cottage some days ago, nothing unusual in that but this was a special person who enlightened me a little as to how the cottage was many years ago. In my eyes that’s a priceless treasure to hold close.

Out of the blue, on a glorious hot afternoon as I worked in my garden pottering about with a few weedy things, a kindly gentleman came to call. He asked if he could take a quick look at the garden to see if it had changed much since he’d lived in the cottage. I smiled, as he did, and instinctively knew that this was going to be a special few minutes.

My visitor had a broad Somerset accent and explained that he’d been born in the cottage some ninety-two years ago! I’d never have guessed his age to be anywhere near that figure. He climbed the few stone steps, which lead to my colourful garden, without a thought to his bones or body. The steps were as he remembered and I wondered how many times he’d climbed them before as a child and adult alike. DSC01677

I felt quite a proud gardener as we leaned on the paddock fence and took in the scene before us. To witness the stranger’s face as he looked around him at the bursting Sweet William, roses, herbs, pinks and a wild array of mis-placed cottage plants, was a magical moment.  I’ve longed to meet him, because I knew of him but had no idea, however, that he’d been born in my cottage, so full of history, of character and stories – yet to be known.  I’d been told of the man who had once lived here and who had loved his flowers and vegetables. Neighbours had said that he would be pleased I’d taken his patch over, tending it with a love that only gardeners can understand…and here he was, standing with me at the fence looking over my handiwork and he was in a world of his own.DSC02572

My gentleman explained that the paddock had been full of vegetables grown by his father and carried on by  him. His parents had kept bees in the far corner with several bee hives. There had been no running water and no electricity and with an outside toilet, in the still standing outhouse, a little way from the cottage – things seemed tough. But to him, it was a life well-lived. The outhouse is now covered in succulent ivy which curls around a green man tile. At the moment it houses a multitude of useful items but I guess, like the cottage, it would have its own story to tell.

DSC00418I was trying to explain to him what the cottage means to me – how it has tales in its walls, how its heart beats if you stand in the hallway and listen carefully, how its character is built from those that lived here before me. He smiled and nodded and I knew he understood where I was coming from and that I wasn’t away with the fairies at the bottom of the garden, like most people think I am.

I asked if he’d like to come look around inside and the invitation was welcomed. I learned that there had been no kitchen extension back then but the bank of shrubs and flowers up to the garden was still intact. A water pump outside the now dining room window had long since disappeared but he recalled his mother pumping water from it with a clear memory – back then, it would have been outside the kitchen door. The well, we know, still remains but is hidden now with stone slabs and gravel.

My dining room was his kitchen and he could see his mother sitting in a chair before the large stove in the corner. Where my book shelf now stands there was a dresser and beside that a table running under the window. Under the stairs was their only larder and food store – it now houses my own store cupboard but in a very different manner to what was there originally. On the walls their light came from mantles with chain pulleys that could be pulled one way or the other to increase or decrease the light and he remembers a tiled floor in the porch, which is now our boot room. In the corner of the lounge there is a cupboard that houses my excess crockery – he told me it was originally there, all those years ago, but it used to house the jars of honey collected from the bees. I was amazed to realise that the cupboard had been there all that time.

He marvelled at the chaffinch and blue tits feeding at the table outside the kitchen window but most of all he took pleasure in knowing that the old holly tree was still standing to the side of the cottage. It is my special holly tree as it has ivy twisting and twirling all the way up the trunk and I love to look at it, to chat to it and ask for its protection. Again, to think that the special tree has stood for quite a number of years is a revelation to me. You can instinctively know these things but it’s always good to have it confirmed. 8V7A0909 (2)

As my gentleman thanked me for my time, I thanked him for his stories and told him I’d look after his cottage.  It all goes to building up a picture of what life was like here on Exmoor those ninety-two years ago. He hesitated outside the back door, looking around him and said ‘Well, I never thought I’d be tinkling this way ever again – thank you so much – it’s wonderful, just wonderful!’

It made me wonder about things that happen when I’m on my knees working in the front part of the garden. I’m not far from the old wooden five bar gate and I often have feelings of being observed in my work. Anyone can pass by the gate – walkers, riders, cyclists but this is a different sense of being watched. Several times I’ve turned slowly trying to catch whoever it is who keeps an eye on me and, believe me or not, I have caught a fleeting glimpse, more than once, of an old man in a rather too large cap, baggy trousers and shirt (his sleeves rolled up around the elbow) with braces, leaning on the gate in a relaxed manner.

DSC02425Chatting to neighbours but not letting on what I’ve seen, it appears that a previous owner used to stand at the gate once or twice a day, nodding at passers-by. Whether my company on those special days was my kindly gentleman’s father or another previous occupant remains to be seen, but I know he’s there and keeping an eye on what I’m doing in the garden. I cherish times such as that afternoon visit.

There’s always something happening around the cottage to make me smile and I know in my heart of hearts that some things will never really change – they may develop a little but they’ll never really alter that much where I live.  I’m happy to exist on a mixture of both the old and the new as I go about my daily business here at the cottage and I’ll look after the memories and stories, for those that will come after me, here in what is for now, my special home, my little bit of Exmoor.