Thursday, 19 April 2012


Yesterday we drove from Plymouth to Hereford. We decided to go over Dartmoor, despite, or maybe because of the threatening weather. Having been to see the Turner & the Elements exhibition at Margate (for the second time) last week, my eye was tuned in to mists and lowering clouds, and we certainly had a dynamic atmosphere to explore. I may have been a bit harsh in my comments yesterday about the grief-stricken or crazy tone of Plymouth, and I would not want to be seen to be condemning it - it is a hard-working, active, dedicated place with stunning views and impressive topography. I was just very aware that it's not an easy place to move around in. You cannot go directly to your objective. You must go around, up, down, behind, askance. A very mental place. Leaving, out through the increasingly leafy suburbs we found road-works and a coach which had blundered into the middle of the entrapments and barricades. There may have been an edge torn off a building, not sure. Resulting hold-ups were short-lived and merely amusing. I have never been across Dartmoor before. Climbing away from the sea, one is rapidly aware of the climatic differences brewing from altitude, as the glistening vivid green buds of the low lands shrink and shrivel, and the landscape turns brown and bleak. The skies did not let us down, with huge swathes of dark and soggy threat sweeping along. We kept seeing patches of sunlight on neighbouring hills - always somewhere else. These stabs of theatrical illumination served to make our own position all the more dark and bitter. Only two little Dartmoor ponies to be seen, sheltering against a belt of foreign-looking trees. Solitary corvids swept past, with wing tips turned up, floating past almost like hawks. I longed for these to be ravens, but I think they were crows. Rookeries were not to be seen. Up to Princetown, and the great prison like a Gothic warning, with the rain drenching down over it, and the water running down the roads in inch-deep streams, and the light struggling to get in under the clouds. The ground is all heathery and brown, quite desolate. If any inmate were to escape (would they? could they? how long since that happened?), it would be frightening to be living in one of the solitary houses around, so easy to be held hostage..... The strong Celtic quality to the architecture - stone cottages, slate roofs, small windows, low stone walls, lots of pebbledash rendering, all dark and wet... some of this has been mitigated by cheerful modern paints, and occasional enticing signs offering Tea or Pottery etc. but not very effectively on a cold spring morning. We had the whole of the moor to ourselves, it seemed, seeing fewer than eight vehicles altogether as we crossed to the north. Getting down into Moretonhampstead we found some of the most constructive bad parking ever to be seen: farmers' wives double- or triple-parking, huge delivery lorries unloading wares, through traffic entirely trapped, people backing in long lines to make space, and all done in a carefree manner implying this is a daily practice. Very instructive. Skirting round Exeter we started on what became a marvellous Comparison - hence the title of this blog. The Exe Valley is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, and yet I have never heard of it. Its wide meadows and wandering river are scenes of the utmost tranquility and fruitfulness, unspoiled, calm, inspiring. We stopped at Stoke Canon for a coffee. There they have a Community Pub - brilliantly conceived and executed as a piece of social engineering - filled with happy people (playing dominoes), advertising the next Film Night (The Blues Brothers), talking about the last one (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), serving coffee by a very roundabout way.... When we asked, the barman looked a bit wild and said it would take ten minutes as the chef hadn't arrive yet. We agreed to wait, and eventually he came in with two mugs of fragrant coffee which he had collected from a shop over the road! While we drank it, he chatted with us and then the chef himself arrived, shouldering a big bag of chopped vegetables or something. We saw the village has also gained funding from the National Lottery for their church, so they are obviously very well organised in Stoke Canon. Eventually we made it to Watchet - or Williton to be precise - to visit the Bakelite Museum. The mill it's housed in is at least as interesting as the collection, which is a not-quite experiece. It's the personal and slightly weird collection of an artist (whose marvellous self-portrait hangs on display), taking in not just Bakelite but all sorts of 19th and 20th plastics: radios, toys, TVs, eggcups, clocks, puzzles, electric fires, hairdryers, plates, picnic sets, hoovers, golf clubs, ornaments, chairs, caravans, bikes, more and more stuff, some of which I have myself bought years ago, and so slightly dispiriting because one's OWN LIFE is here part of a museum display. Very idiosyncratic, and we can only hope that in future some august institution will buy all this and set it out in a more spacious hall, with better labelling and lighting. Actually, the present building is full of holes (no glass in some of the windows), so it was cold and bleak in there, and the pouring rain and dark skies did not do much to help. Going to the loo there was rather like getting to the garden of Polhawn Fort, by way of a wet path beside towering cliff or quarry face, creeping round the back of the building. The M5 gave us more Turneresque experiences, with wild spray pushing up in front of us as we sped over rivers and past ranges of hills barely visible in the rain. Still, England is lovely. We pressed on to the Severn Crossing and then up into the Wye Valley - something I have longed to see since my Damascene discovery of Dorothy Wordsworth's Journals three years ago... I was mortified to find the road to Tintern is in fact high above the river, up on the shoulders of the valley. You only get that view of the meadow flats as you get to Tintern itself. This was not what I had anticipated, and I was aware of being ill-prepared for my visit to this hallowed place: Turner and Wordsworth having presented it to us so powerfully at about the same time, a Sublime, Picturesque landscape, offering an inner view of ones own life. Anyway - we paid up and went in, mooching round the huge ruins, stepping over vast puddles, wondering at the height of the structure, reading the rather good signs... Then Cream Tea in The White Monk Tea Room (all tips going during 2011 to charity, no mention of tips in 2012. The River Wye is a sinister looking creature, tidal at this point and always rather frightening with steep muddy banks and no quarter. I don't like it. The contrast with the Exe earlier this morning was very striking. This is how I would like you to remember it. The River Exe and the River Wye. Is there a River Zed?

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