In Devon, near the River Dart, the lanes are deep and completely convoluted. The banks on either side are filled with flowers - bluebells, buttercups, ragged robin, cow parsley, wild garlic, toadflax, and more, and also a mass of ferns and wild clematis, and lords and ladies. What life was like before the age of the motor car I can scarcely imagine. The work and care involved to get a horse-drawn wagon, or oxen along - up and down, and how to drive sheep or cattle along, must have been highly demanding. Even driving a car require the utmost attention, because the roads are so very narrow and enclosed for the most part with stone work. Meeting anyone coming from the other direction requires fast reflexes, skill, respect and patience. The passing places are just about adequate but only if you manoeuvre through them very slowly.
We came a higgledy-piggledy way to Dittisham in order to take one of the minute ferry services - the Dart Higher Ferry - across this beautiful tidal river. The crossing cost us about £5 and took roughly10 minutes. Charming.
As I sit in the conservatory of our friend's friends' house, I can see an expansive bay of calm silvery water, with woodlands coming down to the water's edge for the most part and a couple of dozen yachts moored and almost motionless in their safe anchorages. Across on the other side, Agatha Christie once lived. The area is now protected but only because locals fought to prevent industrial estates being banged in onto what must have been seen as 'cheap' farmland. The house we are in is one of a set of what were originally council houses built with these superb views, and covenants prevent them from being flogged on for stupid amounts of money. The rectory up the lane, not so protected, was done up by one family who made it look beautiful and offered it for sale for £1.2m, and had a fight on their hands with more than one bidder - so it went for about £8m. Its swimming pool which used to be the playground for local children is now private. The house is now mostly unoccupied and has electric gates. It was probably just one banker's bonus.
Last night we went in convoy down these winding mysterious lanes to F*****s, a hotel-cum-restaurant, where about 20 people gathered as the preliminary event for the weekend's party. These were all friends and family of our friend Wattie who has had varied and interesting career in the BBC and in the restaurant and hotel trades, and so there were some very amusing stories about friends who'd got too involved in the cocaine trade and ended up in jail, or who'd set up a new resto and made a success of it, and ended up with a chain of them in London. The hotel itself is an old, long low stone building with a lot of original panelling plus extra decor brought in, and furnished with family pictures and the rest, all very beaten-up looking and comfortable, an amazing eclectic blend of beautiful and useful, and in no style at all. Completely inimitable I would have thought. Our hostess is the sister of the owner. Their grandfather had an antique business in Edinburgh (I suppose about 100 years ago) and amassed a large collection of very fine things from various estates, and so some of this is now in use in the hotel and in the house where we are staying.
This morning we went into Dartmouth to buy socks, and there we saw a shop called Junk and Disorderly. (This was funny enough to prompt me to create a new Facebook page called Funny Shop Names).
Then we followed our host Patrick who kindly led us by more of these amazing lanes into Totnes.... a steep and arty town which has banned chain stores so it is consequently filled with proper shops - butchers, bread shops, lots of hippy things, art galleries, grocers, delis, bookshops, shoeshops, all that. The great disciplines of the mass market are not imposed in Totnes. There are some fairly professional-looking homeless guys sitting about. The market is thriving with every kind of garden plant, clothing, antiques, bric-a-brac, hot food, furniture, books etc on briskly run stalls. The church of St Mary has an astonishing medieval stone screen across two chapels and the chancel with corbels and tracery. The Puritans took the Rood from the top of it but the main work is outstanding. We climbed the wrong hill to find the castle but then went back up to where it's been since 1068 - a Norman motte and bailey, grim place, frequently rebuilt but still with nothing much more than bare stone and grass and a memory of masculine aggression and possession. Power. That period of English history when the Norman Vikings took us over is one of savage oppression which is barely mentioned in heritage sites like this. Castles and kings are exalted. But they were brutal, kept to their own language, treated the English natives as scum and feudal slaves. It wasn't till the Black Death in the 14th century that market forces gave the English people some sort of leverage to regain control of their lives and land. The view of the town from the walkway at the top of the walls is pretty amazing, and you can see the way the town land had been portioned out in Saxon times - long strips giving each property a frontage and then space at the back, like smallholdings. The slate roofscape is very beautiful and sculptural. The town is jolly and bustling and friendly.
Altogether we bought socks of two types, a T-shirt, 4 marble coasters, a basket, a wrap-skirt, a pink purse or wallet and lunch. Very fine day. Tonight we go back to the hotel for the real party. I fear I should have reported on the glories of yesterday's drive through the New Forest, into Dorchester, and then out past Maiden Castle and the brilliant red-earth fields of Devonian Devon, but it's already slipped into a past which is barely retrievable. Time passing.