Local Walks


Having travelled hundreds of miles and telling of them in 180 articles over a 30-year span, our Local Walker has decided that the time has now come to hang up her boots and other walking gear.

I wonder how many miles have been walked and how many flora and fauna have been described? Churches and other interesting and special architectural buildings have been visited, encouraging us, the readers, to walk and go and see them for ourselves.

Over the years, Paul has enhanced the walks with his charming illustrations.

Illustrated by: Paul Swailes

I am sure that, like me, readers will miss these delightful articles and I give a sincere huge thank you to both walker and artist for their incredible and generous support of the Newsletter.

Thank you both and with my very best wishes for the future.

Judie - Ed



A Cliff Hanger: Now It Can be Told

Many years ago - in the mid 1980's - a summer Sunday afternoon when we decided to go for a leisurely stroll along the shore below Lester Point.

An uneventful afternoon. The only perceived hazard, the possibility of slipping on a bit of bladderwrack or getting our feet wet in a rock pool.

All was calm and still; the air pleasantly warm, not too hot, when suddenly we witnessed a man hurtling through the air from the high cliff above.

It was one of those situations when time appears to slow up unnaturally. His landing on the hard rocks below was inevitable and, in the meantime, we were completely helpless to do anything to prevent it.

We just stood and waited with a sense of dread. Eventually, the large man came to rest on the rocky platform at the base of the cliff. There was some moaning but he was conscious and not in obvious pain. We suggested he stay put in case anything was broken. One of us would go to seek help.

A young woman appeared. She said she was a doctor and had seen him earlier on the coast path. She told him he must not attempt to move in case any injuries were made worse.

She continued on her way and my companion left to alert the emergency service.

The fallen man was very red faced and sweating profusely. He was irritable because his sunglasses and camera were missing.

I searched around and finally retrieved both but the fallen man was exasperated because a bit of the camera was missing. I was sent off again to find the small component.

But I failed and meanwhile the tide was fast coming in and if we didn't move away, we should become cut off.

I propped him up as we made our way awkwardly to the sea front where, as we arrived, a helicopter was about to land and a little crowd of holiday makers had gathered to watch the spectacle.

A wag pointed up to the helicopter and then the fallen man asking, "Is this for you?!"

A tearful, anxious woman pressed forward greeting him with relief. He seemed reluctant to acknowledge her. We discreetly left.

But a mystery remained. Did he fall or did he jump . . . was he pushed? We'll never know.

(Paul Swailes)



Paul Swailes



A Head for Heights

At certain times, when travelling towards Marazion from the direction of Penzance, you may witness a strange sight - a procession of people appearing to walk across the sea to St. Michael's Mount.

As you get nearer you will realise this has been an illusion for at low tide it is possible to reach the island by crossing a stone causeway. At high tide small boats are on hand to ferry visitors across.

We walked over the large smooth slabs of stone, arranged randomly, to the harbour and row of cottages below the castle.

In 1044 a Benedictine monastery was founded there by the monks of Mont St. Michel, Brittany. [The two mounts resemble each other.]

From the 12th century its potential as a fortress was recognised and eventually in 1425 the Crown annexed it and the monks were ejected.

In 1657 the St. Aubyn family bought it and still have a connection with the castle though since 1954 the island has been owned by the National Trust.

We climbed up the winding paths, through the sub-tropical gardens; a vertiginous walk but we enjoyed taking in the wide sweep of Mount's Bay.

Many of the people we passed were treading very gingerly, watching their feet. A few years ago, the advert for a new head gardener on St. Michael's Mount stated that as well as horticultural expertise, he or she should have a good head for heights and preferably an ability - or willingness - to abseil.

The lower slopes were sprinkled with sky blue spring squill. The tide still being out, we returned via the causeway stopping at intervals to scan the sea. To the east we observed the stately silhouette of a great northern diver [the loon in North America]. To the west along Marazion beach several whimbrel rested on their spring passage.

Similar to but smaller than curlews with a slightly shorter bill, the whimbrel can best be distinguished by the dark stripes on its crown.

It is always fun to visit one of the islands off our coast, no matter how small, but there is evidence that St. Michael's Mount was once joined to the mainland as tree stumps have been discovered in the sea around it.



Black Swans and Trains

It can only be Dawlish where the railway line runs between the town and the sea; trains rattling and roaring by at frequent intervals and the beach can only be reached by passing under or over the line.

In early November I found the sea front underpass was barricaded shut as repair work was still in progress. In recent years, the railway line at Dawlish has suffered considerable storm and sea damage with dramatic news footage drawing national attention to the small resort.

So I continued along to Coryton's Cove, crossing the footbridge and down the steps to the little cove while a good train thundered past and disappeared into Coryton tunnel, both the tunnel and the cove named after Jane Coryton, a local landowner.

I had hoped to find turnstones among the shingle but there were just five cormorants gathered together on a little rocky island, one with a white front.

I gazed up at the high, red sandstone cliffs and felt tempted to explore the coast path winding there, but I had come to Dawlish on the Ilfracombe Community mini-bus so could not risk venturing too far and then missing the bus home.

I had looked forward to seeing the black swans, the natives of Australia, which have become a proud symbol of the town.

A special feature of Dawlish is the linear park which runs through the middle of the town, perpendicular to the sea and either side of the Dawlish Water.

And here in the middle of Dawlish Water was a black swan on her nest delicately rearranging bits of straw. A glamorous creature with a crimson bill and frilly white plumage revealed below like snowy underwear.

Further on, five cygnets were being ferried by their attentive parents, along the length of the 'lawn' as the grassy areas of the park are known locally.

The cob walked ahead, stopping at intervals to allow the cygnets to catch up, the pen at the rear. Eventually they settled on the grass under a tree, like a family picnic party; the protective parents keeping the young ones safely between them.

The gardens also contain a collection of wild fowl including mandarin and Caroline ducks, pintails, pochards and whistling tree ducks.

Leaving the park, I continued along the streamside path, with views of back yards and gardens until I reached the parish church.

Then, retracing my steps to the seaside and more trains. A pleasant day's walking on Devon's south coast with dry, reasonably mild weather. Lucky timing, because the very next day we had hail and thunder!

Illustrations: Paul Swailes



Holdstone: "Holy Mountain"?! - Strange Encounters

At 1143 feet, it is the highest coastal hill in the South West. That's quite an impressive claim to fame but to some it is a holy mountain.

When we ascended Holdstone Down in mid-September, our mission was threefold. We were hoping to see wheatears before they embarked on their autumn migration.


Secondly, I anticipated catching a glimpse of the dull but scarce grayling butterfly which is only on the wing for a few weeks in late summer until September. It is the largest member of the brown family of butterflies but as it always settled with fawn and grey marbled wings closed, it is very inconspicuous.

And thirdly, we wished to find the heather still in full colour. Happily, that day the moor presented a tapestry of magenta bell heather and mauve ling with golden yellow patches on the Western gorse.


An encampment had established itself in the normally quiet car park and I threaded my way between kettles and cooking utensils in order to reach the start of the path.

Half way up the hill I observed a pair of wheatears moving a little ahead of me, pausing very upright at intervals, flitting their tails. They flew off when a runner sped past but I caught up with them on one of the other paths radiating out from the summit.

Beside the cairn at the top I discovered a group of people praying. So, now a word about the Aetherius Society and Holdstone's reputation as a sacred site.

About sixty years ago George King, the founder of the Aetherius Society, claimed to have met Jesus there, having seen a bright blue light over the Bristol Channel which heralded the arrival of a being from Venus - Jesus, who instructed him to pray for world peace and enlightenment.

Followers of George King meet at Holdstone to chant mantras and access spiritual and psychic energy from the site, which they store in a strange contraption called a Spiritual Energy Battery, to be released in the event of disaster.

The very first time we climbed Holdstone Down, long before we had heard about these strange and bizarre beliefs, we met a man running down from the summit in a state of excitement. "Is it true?! he asked. "Is it really true that you can recharge your batteries up there?"

We reassured him this was not to be taken literally, that it was simply metaphorical. Last autumn as we descended, we noticed an elderly couple had emerged from their camper van and were staring intently at a small patch of heather clad ground.

They gave a friendly greeting as we passed and continued minutely to examine the clump of heather. Curiosity got the better of me. Had they discovered some rare insect or wild flower, I wondered. I retraced my steps to enquire. It turned out they were engaged in the popular pastime of geocaching.


Illustrations by Paul Swailes



An afternoon with John Ridd, Lorna, Tom Faggus, Jeremy Stickles & All

Paul Swailes

The hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of 'Lorna Doone' was celebrated in August with a dramatisation at the Valley of the Rocks by the Pleasure Dome Theatre Company.

This dramatic setting with the natural sounds of the sea and birds in the background was ideal.

It was an appropriate location as well because it was in the Valley of the Rocks that John Ridd came to seek the advice of wise woman Mother Meldrum, when he witnessed a fight between a sheep and a wild goat on Castle Rock.

Although R.D. Blackmore published Lorna Doone in 1869, the story is set in the latter part of the seventeenth century, a time of political and religious upheaval with the restoration of the monarchy, the Monmouth Rebellion and the notorious Judge Jeffreys.

I did not get around to reading Lorna Doone until last year. I had been daunted by the 640 pages of close type.But I found it much more than the romance between Lorna and John.I enjoyed the historical detail and had not expected the radical views expressed, presumably reflecting Blackmore's own.He had little time for lawyers, the clergy or those in authority, regarding them as unscrupulous and corrupt!

It is a pleasure, too, for those of us living in North Devon to read his descriptions of places familiar to us on and around Exmoor.

For example, visiting Tiverton it is still possible to enter the courtyard of the original Blundell's School, beside the bridge over the River Lowman, where in 1673 the twelve-year old John Ridd was a pupil when given the news that his father, travelling home from Porlock, had been murdered by the Doones.

At Dulverton we can image John Ridd's great uncle Reuben Huckaback, the 'richest man in town', who had the 'very best shop' there.

The first time I walked in the Doone Valley I was a teenager, staying at Barbrook on a hiking holiday.In those days there was a charge to enter the valley.At Malmsmead an elderly farmer stood at the gate collecting the money.

The first part of the walk is through meadows; the buildings of Cloud Farm within sight, is gentle and benign; the route along the river and through oak woods is beautiful but then the atmosphere changes.It's wilder, lonelier, rather sinister, but in an exciting way, as you reach the remote territory of the ruthless Carver Doone and his clan.

From Malmsmead it's a short stroll along the lane to Oare Church, scene of Lorna Doon's and John Ridd's wedding.

The National Park has produced a new publication, 'The Lorne Doone Trail', helping walkers to tread in the footsteps of the characters.



'Running across a meadow, pickin' up lots of forget-me-nots'

So goes the song [You make me feel so young] but in this case the forget-me-nots were not in the meadow but growing along the roadside verge - lots of them, with bush vetch and ox-eye daisies. And no wild flowers were actually picked during the course of this walk!

We used often to take the field path from Barton Lane to Newberry Hill but had not used it since the main road was realigned in the 1990's.

But now a sudden curiosity drew me towards it. In late May passage through the first field was pleasant and easy. Encouraged by the sight of two newish looking metal gates with a concrete platform between, I proceeded to the second field.

However, it was so overgrown I almost turned back but plunged through, seeking the hidden exit and enjoying the butterflies including a small copper landing on a ribwort plantain. A little gem.

Near the corner of the field I thought I was on terra firma, only realising I was at the edge of a bank when I slid down a couple of feet.

Brambled had encased the stile which led to the shady track behind where Windyridge once stood. The bungalow was demolished at the time of the road building.

It was necessary to duck below the boughs of trees that had come down before the track dips down to the road.

I returned to the footpath on the day of the solstice and - what a difference a month makes!

At Barton Lane I was forced to use the stile as the gate now sported a shiny new chain and padlock. But a transformation awaited me. The second field had been mown, the path clearly defined and waymarked.

Paul Swailes

The stile had been cleared of brambles and the fallen trees removed from the track and cut into logs at the side. So this is a local walk I would now happily recommend.

I crossed the road to Newberry Close and a welcome sight was greater knapweed and an abundance of tutsan, a wild hypericum most common in the west. Its flowers have long yellow stamens and give rise to yellow berries which turn red and finally black.

At the bottom of the flight of wooden steps from Newberry Close, a flurry of young dunnocks. Near the footbridge I met a song thrush as I paused to take in the view of Little Hangman and the Welsh coast.

Then on to the little cove at Sandaway which has been renamed Mermaid's Cove. Eighty steps down but worth the effort.

I reluctantly decided against crossing the large blue boulders to the narrow cave. It's tempting but once inside what if there were a rock fall and no one within earshot to stage a rescue? It is a very quiet and hidden cove despite being next to a camp site.

On leaving I caught a glimpse of Stealth House on the former cliff-top site of Rope's End. It looked interesting. The architect, Guy Greenfield, was a Stirling Prize finalist and won a RIBA award for his design 'Nautilus' at Westward Ho!



"What's in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet."

In recent months it has been pleasant to have available a short alternative detour, to a stroll along the Sterridge Valley, between the two Restricted Byway signs.

The first section I had not been to since Olive Kent left Woodlands Cottage. You may recall her dog Panda, later succeeded by the more boisterous but fiercely loyal Pickles.

The lane was longer and much steeper than I remembered it but then I'm a quarter of a century older. The climb was worth it though for the profusion of wild flowers, especially one of my favourites, the delicate wood sorrel. As the afternoon progressed its petals and bright green shamrock leaves would close up.

I heard above my head a loud and witty trill I could not identify. I looked up. Perching on a branch was a male blackcap. I am more familiar with its 'clat, clat' alarm call.

The second stage of the detour - a turn to the left down a deep green lane with high stony banks and floored with a thick mulch of oak leaves; a tree house overhanging the start and further down, the sound of running water coming from a well with a caged front.

It's a hidden and rather mysterious track and I'd been unaware of its existence previously [although there is some indication of it on the Ordnance Survey map].

At the bottom of the track the third and final stage of the detour opens out with a stream, carpets of yellow archangel, comfrey and some hens. Here, passing between houses does feel a bit like invading someone's 'defensible space'. Hence, I suppose, the use of the word 'restricted' on the byway signs and the presence of cctv cameras.

I just managed to squeeze past the large vehicle, blocking the exit of the byway, in order to reach the 'highway'. Then on to Ruggaton Lane where the high bank soaks up the heat, providing each year an early display of spring flowers and butterflies.

I watched orange tip butterflies landing on Jack-by-the-hedge and this caused me to remember Olive Kent again - a debate we'd had years ago triggered by a butterfly fluttering past and my commenting that it was the first orange tip I had seen that year.

"Huh," said Olive, "It's just a cabbage white." She felt it was not necessary to identify a butterfly, bird or wild flower. It is just the same bird or flower, etc., and just as lovely whether or not you know its correct name. I could see her point. After all, it was Juliet who said, "What's in a name . . . " But some of the names are appealing and can tell us a lot about the characteristics, uses or folk lore attached to the plant - like Jack-by-the-hedge for example and the alternative name garlic mustard.

Paul Swailes

Footnote: If you haven't discovered it already, may I draw your attention to Sue Jerrard's regular nature observations, From a Bittadon Garden, in the Coast and Combe Church Magazine.



James Ravilious: "showing North Devon people to themselves"

You may have seen the work of photographer James Ravilious featured on television on Countryfile recently.

In 1972 John Lane, the founder of Beaford Arts, had commissioned James Ravilious to "show north Devon people to themselves" and eventually this resulted in an archive of seventy thousand photographs depicting farming and rural life, landscape and weather taken throughout the 1970's and '80's.

Seven years ago, the Devon Wildlife Trust and Beaford Arts devised a walking trail around Halsdon Nature Reserve near Dolton [south of Torrington] to explore some of the countryside photographed by Ravilious.

The circular route of about five and a half miles passes through woodland and meadows, alongside a section of the River Torridge and includes the specific locations of some of his photographs.

A booklet, Dolton as seen by James Ravilious, produced by Beaford Arts, has a map showing the route and incorporated several of the photographs. The walk can be accessed at the north entrance to the nature reserve at Ashwell where there is parking or at Quarry Car Park at the south entrance.

James was the son of Eric Ravilious most famous for his delicate and rather mysterious water colour landscapes. James also started as a painter and taught art in London, later turning to photography when he felt his own paintings were beginning to look too much like his father's!

James Ravilious died in 1999 and from the vast archive [which is housed in the Devon Records Office] he considered seventeen hundred to be his best. However, at Bideford's Burton Gallery there is to be an exhibition of many previously unseen Ravilious photographs, displayed for the first time.

The exhibition entitled "Here: Uncovering North Devon", runs from the 4th May until the 23rd June. Meanwhile, we can explore a sample of the countryside he celebrated with a walk around Halsdon Reserve.

Halsdon Reserve Illustrations by Paul Swailes



'The Echoing Green' - William Blake

I was glad when a neighbour suggested a trip to Selworthy as I'd never been there. I'd seen pictures of course, of the idyllic village, on calendars and in guide books but in real life it proved to be more picturesque.

Thatched cottages with round chimneys and latticed windows are arranged informally around a little sloping green beside a brook.


They were built in the early nineteenth century for Sir Thomas Acland's retired estate workers. He did not employ an architect but used a pattern book, Rural Architecture published in 1823.

Selworthy Green was designed to be an interesting feature in the landscape and to enhance this notion the residents were issued with scarlet cloaks! So it was even a visitor attraction two centuries ago.

Today one of the cottages provides a welcoming cafe and another is a craft shop.

Noting the fifteenth century tythe barn in passing, we reached the church. I had often seen it from miles away and been curious about its white appearance which makes it stand out. Apparently it is periodically coated with a lime mixture to protect the stone from the weather.

All Saints' church has a sixteenth century pulpit with sounding board to help project the preacher's voice; a much admired wagon roof with angels and bosses; a Georgian West Gallery supporting the organ and above the porch an unusual Squire's Pew in the form of a Gothic pavilion which once included a fireplace.


From Selworthy Green a maze of paths plunges into the extensive woodland. To celebrate the birth of each of his children, Sir Thomas Acland had planted a block of trees - larch, beech, birch and oak.

We sat on a bench to enjoy the autumn colour and the view overlooking Dunkery Beacon and below, Allerford and Holnicote House and then a succession of jays flew past. To see one jay is always a pleasure, but six . . . !

In the eighteenth century, the Aland's Holnicote Estate was so large that it was aid they could cross from the Bristol Channel to the English Channel without leaving their own property.

In 1944 Sir Richard Acland gave the estate to the National Trust. He wrote, "Would it not be rather wonderful to get away from 'this is mine', 'this is yours', 'this is the other fellows' and look out on everything we saw and say 'this is all ours'.

Illustration: Paul Swailes



'Ireland's first woman politician': The Ilfracombe Connection

Ilustrations by Paul Swailes


Our walk takes us to the churchyard of Holy Trinity in Ilfracombe and an unusual event that took place there in September. You may have read an article in the church magazine, by Rev. John Roles, about Anna Parnell or seen the report in the local paper about the gathering around her grave to commemorate her life and work.

In his speech that day, the Irish Ambassador to London, Adrian O'Neill said that although Anna Parnell had been a major figure in Irish history, campaigning for land reform at a time of great poverty and injustice, like other women her contribution had until recently been overlooked.

He said, "It's wonderful to see here in Ilfracombe that she is still being remembered and honoured 107 years after her death."

In the 1880's in Ireland, she had organised the Ladies' Land League to assist the tenants in rural areas who were being turned off the land and left homeless and destitute.

So successful were the women in the practical help they gave, that her more famous brother, Charles Stewart Parnell wanted the league to be disbanded and for the men to take over.

This led to a disagreement between brother and sister; Anna moved to England and eventually settled at Avenue Road in Ilfracombe, using the name Cerisa Palmer.

Anna was a keen swimmer, and on the 20th September,1911 she went to bathe at the Tunnels Beaches. She had been warned that conditions that day were not ideal and unfortunately. she drowned. There was a rescue and attempts to save her life but these failed and she was buried at Holy Trinity.

Mary McAleese, a former President of Ireland, has called Anna Parnell 'Ireland's first woman politician and in 1881 Anna herself said, 'Perhaps when we are dead and gone and another generation grown up ... they will point to us as having set a noble example to all the women of Ireland.'


As you walk about the churchyard, and make your way to Anna's grave in a far corner, you may notice the variety of herbs and wild flowers growing informally. A group of dedicated volunteers takes care of the churchyard and their work was commended by the visitors from Ireland.

A visit would not be complete without entering the church to admire what is considered one of the finest wagon roofs in the west country, dating from the 15th century.

Take time to sit in a pew and gaze up at the richly carved bosses, corbels, gargoyles and figures of angels. There's a lot to see.

But the last word goes to Anna Parnell who said, 'The best part of independence - the independence of the mind.'




Sylvia and Cynthia at Baggy Point but no sign of Scilla

There was a thin but persistent drizzle as I walked out to Baggy Point in mid-July and more joggers than walkers. Til then there had been a long dry spell and the steep slopes above and below the coast path were parched tawny brown.

A harsh, scratchy call drew my attention to three whitethroats, perched on brambles and thorns. Some Latin names are easier to remember than others. The whitethroat is Sylvia communis. A throaty kronk was heard as a raven passed low overhead; in from the sea. 'Kronk' was Henry Williamson's name for this magnificent corvid.

Turning the corner at the end of the headland I paused to take in one of the best views in North Devon; ahead the sweep of Woolacombe Bay and Morte Point and in the other direction Croyde Bay and Saunton Sands.

It had stopped raining and the sun had come out and as I turned back I was surprised to find sixty black sheep, with huge horns, had arrived and were basking near the cliff edge below the coastguards' climbing pole. Not a single bleat came from this solemn assembly, just a cool stare.

A cargo vessel of the Swedish/Norwegian shipping line, Wallenius Wilhelmsen, had appeared on the horizon past Lundy.

An easy downhill stroll along the track where tangles of thin red threads of the parasitic plant dodder draped over the gorse bushes

with here and there clusters of little pale pink flowers.

The sun was now blazing and painted lady butterflies - Cynthia cardui - were on the wing. I was delighted when a hummingbird hawkmoth flew by. Smaller and less showy than a lot of the hawkmoths, it nevertheless has its own charm, making an audible hum as it hovers in front of flowers to feed.

Macroglossum stellatarum has brown and yellow wings and a mouse-like face. Later I was able to observe another hummingbird hawkmoth opposite Baggy House. What a treat.

Once on the cliff top at the end of the headland, I found a single example of the pale blue flower, Spring squill [Scilla Verna]. I have looked out for it whenever I have returned to Baggy Point, between March and May, but I have never discovered it there again and have not seen it anywhere else in North Devon either.

Yet Scilla Verna is very common on the cliffs of West and North Cornwall, in similar habitats to North Devon.

Autumn squill [Scilla Autumnalis] is similar but has straight leaves and no bracts, whereas Spring squill has bluish bracts and curly leaves.

Paul Swailes



'Singing the Blues'

A giant hogweed towered above me. A yellow Labrador was enjoying a paddle in the harbour. But, as I walked along The Warren on a sunny summer's day, I was wondering, "Where have all the butterflies gone?"

A couple of velvety dark ringlet butterflies with their subtle pattern of tiny cream circles appeared in the shadier sections of the path, but so far this year sightings of blue butterflies have been sparse.

Hope Bourne, the writer and artist who lived at Great Ferny Ball, Exmoor, wrote in A Moorland Year:

". . . a host of blue butterflies flutter and shimmer in the strong sunshine . . . like fragments of sky descended to earth. I watch them entranced as they fly about my feet and amongst the flowers, transported back to childhood when such a flight of butterflies was more frequently to be seen than nowadays."

Vladimir Nabokov, more famous for Lolita and other novels, was also a professional lepidopterist, specialising in the study of blue butterflies and writing several books on the subject.

I reached the Martello tower and a gorgeous view of the sea; an intense blue with, closer to the shore, clear turquoise green water creating a rippling pattern over the rocks below.

I witnessed a fly past of cormorants and gannets. A clump of tiny mauve storkbill clung to the base of the tower.

As I continued, a neat brown silhouette flew by - a kestrel - a brief hover and she dropped from sight.

I retraced my steps to see where she might have landed. Instead I heard a cheerful trill but it took some time to locate the goldfinches balanced on the thistles. Then a female stonechat landed beside them.

On a walk it pays just to stop and listen, tracing any small sounds and movements. At the end of the path, opposite the island called Sexton's Burrow, a scurrying in the undergrowth and a glimpse of small rodents.

A wild rockery of centaury, sheep's-bit scabious and lime-green flowered wood sage. [Unlike the similar devil's-bit scabious, sheep's-bit is not a true scabious but a member of the campanulaceae family.]

Returning to the tower I found the peace had been broken by the arrival of speed boats. Helmeted intrepids were hurling themselves off rocks and into the sea. Why?!

Although the weather was wonderful and the boat cafe was doing a good trade, I had the entire route along the narrow promontory to myself. Perhaps the slightly hidden, dark and overgrown entrance to The Warren appears uninviting. But it does make a lovely local walk.

Paul Swailes



A Tour of the Torrs


There are many points of access to the Torrs, but the most spectacular and arduous is the steep zigzagging cliff path above White Pebbles Beach.

But you are rewarded by wonderful sea views and there are strategically placed benches to break the upward trek into manageable chunks and to allow you to survey the passing sea birds.

Beside the path in spring and early summer is an abundance of wild flowers: bluebells, thrift and the graceful sea campion with its mauve veined bladders behind white petals.

Finally, you emerge among blackthorn bushes. A few steps lead to a view point and there's a glorious sense of space as you descend to the coast path. The scene was further enhanced for us by the Oldenburg coming into view.


Two shallow streams cross the path. A party of linnets came down to drink; the males with their pink breast plumage just beginning to show. Wheatears and stonechats may be seen on the nearby stone walls and tops of bushes.

A short climb up from here, a slight detour from the route, leads to a hidden sheltered hollow [where I once found a fairy ring of toadstools] and a rocky platform, where you can sit and look down upon a cliff which is a favourite perch for peregrine falcons.

But is had started to rain - a late April shower on the first of May - so we kept going. As the path narrows and swings round the corner, it is worth pausing to scan the little cove far below. We have sometimes seen a seal swimming between the fingers of rock there.

It was too soon to see one of my favourite butterflies, the green hairstreak. It is small; the upper sides of its wings are a dull brown but the undersides are a bright apple green. It is only on the wing for a short time so if we reach the end of June without having spotted one, I know I shall have to wait another year at least.

One summer we were returning from a walk on the Torrs, having failed to come across a greenhairstreak, when we stopped to chat to a dog walker who was stooping to photograph some flowers. She mentioned she had earlier found a butterfly and wondered what it was. Did we know? She showed us a picture she had taken of it on her mobile 'phone. It was the elusive green hairstreak!

We continued our circular route along Langleigh Lane. Jack-by-the-hedge or garlic mustard grew about the high banks. A flock of jackdaws took off suddenly from an adjacent field.

The surface of the lane had become eroded and watery in places and as we completed our walk it stopped raining.

There used to be an admission charge for walking on the Torrs, which despite complaints, was not abolished until 1959. In 1856 George Eliot stayed at Ilfracombe for seven weeks to pursue an interest in natural history.



Illustrations: Paul Swailes



"Goodbye to all that": The demise of Horsey Island

So it's a sad farewell to Horsey Island, its wildlife and the walks it provided: the level circular stroll around Horsey itself or as a route towards the delights of Crow Point, the sand dunes and the beach.

There was a breach in the outer bank of Horsey Island before Christmas. Attempts to plug the breach using local marine clay failed when this was swept away by the rising tides.

Severe flooding during the January storms caused Horsey Island to disappear under water. The historic Great Sluice was damaged and there were concerns about the inner bank holding and a threat of flooding extending to further parts of Braunton Marsh.

Because of high tides anticipated for February, the toll road was closed, in the interest of public safety, as there was the possibility of water coming over the top of Horsey's inner bank and flooding the road.


Peter Rothwell

Funding has been promised by the Environment Agency and the Marsh Inspectors' Board but this will be confined to repairs to the sluice and the bank around it. The outer bank, however, is the responsibility of the landowner. So the future of Horsey Island - if it has a future - is far from certain.

Braunton Marsh and Horsey Island were once one large continuous salt marsh regularly inundated by tidal waters. The first stage of reclamation was completed in 1815 and in 1854 when the land, which became Horsey Island, was considered sufficiently fertile, the Great Sea Bank was constructed from the White House to Braunton Pill.

Over many years it has been one of our favourite walks. It was from the embankment path that we first saw little owls lining up on the exposed rafters of a barn roof and watched kingfishers diving from boats.

There were two grey seals we used to see so often we gave them names, Solomon Seal and Grace Seal. This was a completely fanciful bit of whimsey as we had no idea whether they were male or female, but we could distinguish them by their patterns of blotched and spotted markings. They would hang around men fishing from the shoreline or sun themselves on sandbanks. Happy days!


Owl and Seal: Paul Swailes




Bete Noir

We don't hear so much about the Beast of Exmoor these days. There used to be regular reports of sightings in the Journal and Gazette.

A few weeks ago, I heard a natural history programme on the subject in which it was claimed that a big cat [or cats - there may well be more than one] is still often seen by people who live and work on the moor.

But they keep quiet about these sightings because they have adjusted to their presence and do not want the cats interfered with.

People have not only learnt to tolerate them but are fascinated, even enchanted by them and the slight frisson of risk.

Some years ago, near the entrance to Titchcombe, between Goat Hill Bridge and Simonsbath, we witnessed crossing the road a large panther like animal.It had a long stride - steady, not running - strong muscular shoulders and the top of its head and back made a continuous straight line.It was about four feet in length.

Time seemed to stand still as we watched and afterwards my companion and I compared notes in case we had deluded ourselves.We thought about all the animals, wild or domestic, that could be on the moor, but what we had seen did not resemble any of these.

Not long afterwards, we were walking along the River Taw at Yelland and got talking to a man who was viewing wintering wild fowl through a telescope at the edge of Isley Marsh.After a while he lowered his voice, looked a bit sheepish and said, "You won't believe this, but . . ."

He went on to say that as he had arranged to lead a group of ramblers for a hike on the moor near Simonsbath, he'd decided to walk the area beforehand to check out the route and had been astonished to encounter the exmoor Beast.

His description fitted exactly to what we had seen.I have since learnt that what we thought was a black panther or puma is most likely to have been a melanistic leopard.

Apparently in some lights [and if you can get close enough!], the outlines of the spotted markings may be seen beneath the short black fur.

The leopard is regarded as 'the ultimate cat'.There is a Cult of the Leopard and pound for pound it is one of the most powerful of animals.

It is naturally solitary, cautious, shy and secretive;stealthy and intelligent;ideal characteristics for surviving so long on Exmoor.

We feel fortunate to have observed this handsome and impressive but elusive animal.

Illustration:Paul Swailes



More often heard than seen

I've never seen a nightjar. This elusive summer visitor spends the day crouched motionless on the ground or along a branch. Cleverly camouflaged;its grey-brown plumage resembled a piece of bark making it difficult to spot.

But at dawn or dusk it takes to the wing to hawk for insects, mainly moths. It appears long-winged and narrow tailed, its flight agile and buoyant.

Heath and moorland and clearings where conifers have been felled are its typical habitat. It arrives from Africa late April 'til May and departs from mid-August 'til September.

Each summer North Devon bird enthusiasts meet at Welsford or Bursdon Moor near Hartland, for an evening field trip, hoping to see a nightjar or at least to hear its distinctive 'churring' call.

But it is possible that nightjars occur closer to Berrynarbor. Last year an attractive and informative book, The Birds of Exmoor and the Quantocks, was published and one of its authors, David Balance, told me nightjars had been recorded on Trentishoe Down in the past but there had been no records recently because he did not think anyone had gone in search of them. [The last record was in 2012.]

So, he suggested I might like to go there just after sunset or just before dawn. Tempting! But although we frequently walk over Trentishoe Down, we confine our visits to daylight hours.

It would be nice though to know whether Trentishoe Down does still host the nightjar. A challenge for next summer perhaps?

A historical note:The Reverend Gilbert White was intrigued by the usually cryptic bird and in his 'The Natural History of Selbourne' published in 1787 described an encounter with a nightjar [which he also called a churn-owl].

Up a steeply wooded hill he had made a zig-zag path leading to a place for holding summer picnics. He wrote: "An uninvited guest one evening was a nightjar. As my neighbours were assembled in a hermitage on the side of a steep hill where we drank tea, one of these

Churn-owls came and settled on that edifice and began to chatter and continued his note for many minutes.

"We were all struck with wonder to find that the vocal organs of that little animal, when put in motion, gave a sensible vibration to the whole building."


Illustration:Paul Swailes



In Search of Little Green Men

We had gone to Kings Nympton to look for little green men. Not visitors from outer space but the faces carved on the oak ceiling bosses at the church there.


We were inspired by Roger Deakin's book, Wildwood A Journey Through Trees. In the chapter The Sacred Groves of Devon, he describes going to Kings Nympton where he had an 'appointment with the Green Man' at St. James church, then lying on his back along a pew, peering up into the half light of the nave roof at the 'gingham' of beams, each joint finished with a decorative boss about a foot square.

He commented, 'with the Green Man concealment is everything, hiding high in the church roof . . .adjusting to the dimness I began to make out the leaf masked face of the Green Man looking back in half a dozen shapes.'

'He is a reticent figure,' wrote Roger Deakin, 'always half hidden in the woodwork or carved stone like a wren in a hedge.'

This description so intrigued me I felt I wanted to see for myself. We took a torch but it was not needed as sunshine flooded through the windows that day. Binoculars though enabled us to see the detail and variety of the Green Men.

With its copper spire; 18th century box pews and reredos;fine 15th century rood screen [here, also, faces may be found among the leaf carvings];Jacobean panelling and chancel ceiling oddly painted in the early 19th century with sky and clouds, St. James is an interesting church well worth a visit. In keeping with the plant theme, the hinges on the doors of the box pews are in the form of acorns.

From the large car park beside the Parish Hall at the edge of Kings Nympton, we had a pleasant walk through the attractive village, entering the churchyard near The Grove Inn.


Several villages in the area have Nympton or Nymet in their names, derived from Nemet, a Celtic word meaning a sacred grove.

We entered the South Porch, with its staggering total of thirty-six roof bosses, and crossed the granite threshold, which was originally part of a Celtic cross and looking up soon found the Green Men staring down.

The face may be surrounded by or entirely made up of leaves. Or branches or vines may sprout from eyes, nose and mouth The former type is called a foliate head;the latter a disgorging head.


The origins are mysterious but pre-date Roman times and examples have been found in many cultures around the world.

The Green Man may symbolise a close interdependence between man and nature. The Celts had a veneration for sacred trees and believed the head was the repository of the soul.

In time, the Green Man provided a bridge between Christianity and a pagan past, but the heyday of the Green Man occurred between the 12th and 15th centuries which coincided with the building of a lot of churches. Eventually he became more of a decorative motif than a symbolic one.

Closer to home two small examples may be found in Combe Martin's St. Peter ad Vincula - one carved on the rood screen and more unusually, a Green Woman in Mediaeval headdress at the top of one of the stone pillars. Although I know they are there, it always takes me a while to find them. Roger Deakin was right when he said the Green Man tends to be hidden 'like a wren in a hedge'.

Illustrations: Paul Swailes



Warbling Free: Woolacombe Warren to Putsborough Sands

Warblers - chiffchaffs and blackcaps - were vocal but elusive on Woolacombe Warren apart from the whitethroat. Their harsh chatter alerted us to their presence as they perched on top of bushes puffing out their throats.


Recently I heard some surprising research findings concerning blackcaps. Like most warblers they used only to be summer visitors to Britain, but since some have overwintered here it appears that their wings have become shorter and beaks have become longer so that the overwintering birds could become recognised as a sub species.


The theory is that these altered characteristics are an adaptation to using garden bird feeders. I did not realise evolutionary changes could happen that quickly and visibly.

I first saw blackcaps in the wintertime in December 1991 in a garden in South Somerset. The following winter they appeared in Berrynarbor, feasting on berry bearing shrubs, after which they became a regular sight.

But back to the Warren: a lovely place to wander in June or July where we were in pursuit of flowers, especially the exquisitely fragranced burnet rose. The small creamy white flowers with little crinkly leaves and round purple-black hips form widespread patches over the dunes.


In The Flowering of Britain, Richard Mabey recalls "..watching the burnet rose flowers opening in the sun as their pure soft scent blew over us in the breeze."

A plant we were not expecting to see in such massive quantities was black bryony. Usually one stem, resembling a length of flex, may be found twining up through a hedge but on the Warren black bryony had climbed up and over banks and bushes taking them over. The only British member of the yam family it has large shiny heart-shaped leaves and no tendrils.


A battalion of tall mulleins marched along the floor of an old quarry and on the steep path above, scarce yellow wort rose up from a bed of hop trefoil and milkwort. We disturbed a pair of bull finches, their white rumps flashing as they flew ahead.

We continued along the track and across the field to Vention. At the site of a derelict vegetable plat and abandoned green house, we were pleased to observe a spotted flycatcher in a rowan, at North Cleave, near Trentishoe, presenting its fledgling with a gatekeeper. The young bird struggled to ingest the butterfly.


Pale mauve gladdons [also called stinking iris] lined the lane leading to Putsborough Sands. We walked along the beach to view the art deco houses and the Grey House overlooking the sea where American journalist, Negley Farson, entertained Henry Williamson, Kenneth Allsop and various literary luminaries.


Illustrations by: Paul Swailes



"Blooms Berry":Wild Orchids in the Parish

At the top of the hairpin bends near Smythen Farm, beside the old barn called Bountree, was a little bluebell glade and among the sea of blue were many magenta spikes of early purple orchids. An exquisite sight.

I do hope this colony of orchids has survived but since the Keep Out notices and gates appeared there a few years ago, it has not been possible to view them.

A few still appear each spring on the roadside verge opposite and last May I walked up there to take a look. There were just ten orchids.

Along the short track leading off the road, about half way up the hill I discovered another dozen;the purple contrasting nicely with patches of yellow pimpernels, a diminutive and creeping member of the primrose family.

There were a couple more orchids down the steep wooded slope opposite.

The following month when walking into Combe Martin I was delighted to find a colony of common spotted orchids on the high roadside bank between the bus shelter [opposite the end of Barton Lane] and Newberry Close.

I counted thirty-seven of these pink orchids which form a more triangular spike than the looser arrangement of florets of the early purples.

With field scabious and wild strawberry flowers nature had created a very pleasing garden. A few yards back blue meadow cranesbills had naturalised along a field boundary with ox-eye daisies.

Suddenly a female sparrow-hawk had shot out from the dark lane leading to the Sandy Cove;landed briefly in a tree before flying across the road to the alarm of a flurry of small birds.


Last December The Devonshire Association published its magnum opus, A New Flora of Devon.

A mighty tome literally - the book weighs half a stone and is a comprehensive and beautifully presented guide to Devon's wild flowers and their habitats.


Illustrated by: Paul Swailes



Twelve swans a-swimming

Last year a new riverside walkway was constructed at Barnstaple linking the Long Bridge to the Tarka Trail. Access to it is between the end of the bridge and the former Shapland and Petter building.


In the newspaper photograph, just before it officially opened, it looked rather bleak and stark but when we walked there a short time afterwards, patches of biting stonecrop had already pushed up between the concrete and tarmac and there were even the broad fleshy leaves of a sea kale plant. It is intended that the outer wall of this new six hundred and seventy-five-metre long promenade will act as a flood defence. It certainly affords a good view of the river. As we arrived an elegant line-up of a dozen swans passed by.

The new track ends at the area of rough ground with its original informal path leading to the Tarka Trail below Anchor Wood. Turn right for Penhill and beyond or left for a short circular walk back to the town.

On a previous Walk in the Newsletter, I had been very disparaging about the dull section near the underpass but in June what a transformation. It had burst forth with blossom. There were wild roses and two types of wild viburnum bushes; foamy cream clusters of the wayfaring tree [viburnum lantana] and flat white umbels of guilder rose [viburnum oppulus]; the arrangement of true flowers at the centre with the false flowers around the edge resembling a lace-cap hydrangea.

We returned in March. Weeds had been kept at bay along the new track where we encountered just one cyclist, one walker and one dog. Redshanks stood at regular intervals along the water's edge. As the river broadened out there was the odd curlew and great black-backed gull.

Blackthorn and broom were in bud on the more established stretch of the trail. Tortoiseshell and ginger cats perched on walls and banks frowning in the early morning sunshine.

A word about the old industrial buildings which dominate the new walkway. Controversy has raged in recent times concerning their future.

They have suffered neglect and become an eyesore but they were hurriedly given listed building status to prevent their demolition.

However, in their heyday high quality furniture, in the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau style, was made there which found a global market. J.H. Rudd, the designer at Shapland and Petter was a friend of Barnstaple born William Lethaby, the famous architect and designer. An influential advocate of the Arts and Crafts principles, Lethaby founded an important school of design in London.

If you end your walk by crossing the Long Bridge and entering the Museum, you will find at the top of the stairs, on the first floor, a small display of examples of Shapland and Petter's furniture. It is worth taking a look.

  Illustrations by Paul Swailes



"If you go down to the marsh , , , "

. . . you may have a big surprise. Braunton Marsh is one of North Devon's greatest assets for walkers and nature watchers and last October the Gazette ran the headline, 'Rare pelican is spotted on marsh.' An exotic creature indeed. The word 'spotted' in this context may have been the headline writer's witty pun for it was a Dalmatian pelican, more usually found between Greece and Mongolia but now reported in the vicinity of the White House. So, we headed for Horsey Island. En route .. had they seen the pelican? No, but it had been spied by the fishermen's huts, near where the River Caen meets the Taw. A passing jogger wondered, "Did the Dalmatian pelican have spots like the dog?" No! But with its eleven-foot wing span and distinctive bill, the big white bird would be difficult to miss.


It was a lovely, balmy day to be on the marsh, more like summer than mid-autumn. Some wintering waders and ducks had arrived - we counted forty lapwings - but a few painted ladies and dragonflies were also still on the wing.


The dyke known as Boundary Drain and the adjacent pond had joined forces forming a more extensive lake with clumps of rushes. We watched a kingfisher diving repeatedly from a twiggy bush; another landed on a post. Two little grebe bobbed up in their winter plumage.




Further off among more than a dozen little egrets we were surprised to see a tall slender bird, with a long


downward curved bill, stalking slowly through the shallow water, between the rushes, sweeping its bill from side to side. It was dark with a purplish bronze sheen. It was a glossy ibis. Its official Devon status - 'very rate vagrant'.

Our quest to find the pelican was unsuccessful but unexpectedly coming across the ibis was a great delight.

Three weeks later we returned and found that part of the path around Horsey Island had been closed due to a landslip. A man wielding a telescope told us the pelican was still around and had been seen the previous day.

It was a quiet day; not many people or birds about. As we walked along the causeway we noticed a small brown bird jabbing the grass with its bill, searching for ants. We had a wonderful view of it as it seemed quite unconcerned about our presence even flying a little closer to where we stood. With its grey and brown mottled pattern, streaked with black; fawn v-shaped markings and dark eye stripe, it resembled a piece of bark. A clever camouflage.


It was a wryneck, an uncommon passage migrant. Our field guide says it is an elusive bird more often heard than seen, so we considered ourselves very fortunate to have chanced upon it. It has a rather attractive Latin name - Jynx torquilla. Yet again we did not find the pelican and in November when four cranes appeared on the Braunton Great Field near Marstage Farm [opposite Velator Quay], we failed to see those too! But what a fine sight those elegant, grey, four feet tall visitors must have been.


Horsey Island

Illustrations by Paul Swailes



The heart of Exmoor: A village and its hill

With its thatched cottages and inn; ancient packhorse bridge and attractive green at its centre, Winsford is considered one of the prettiest of Exmoor's villages.

There is a total of seven bridges as the Winn Brook as well as the River Exe flows through the village. From under one of these bridges darted the lemon-yellow flash of a grey wagtail.

Nearby stands the solid, four-square house which was the birth place .in 1881 of Ernest Bevin who was Foreign Secretary from 1945 until 1951 in the post-war Labour government when he was instrumental in the formation of NATO.

Earlier in his career he had been a farm worker, founder of the Transport and General Workers' Union and was the Minister of Labour during the Second World War.


Beyond the ford over the Winn and occupying an elevated position is the church of St. Mary Magdalene with its tall ninety-foot tower, Norman font and Jacobean pulpit.


We were fortunate that our visit coincided with a lady tending the flowers who pointed out a small remnant of fourteenth century stained glass depicting the Madonna and Child and showed us a book which had been compiled with pictures and biographical details of all the parishioners who had had an involvement in the two World Wars.

She told us about one former Winsford resident, a psychologist called Doctor Meyer who, at the time of the First World War, had identified and named the condition 'shell shock' [which we now know as post-traumatic stress syndrome]. In this way he sought to save the lives of soldiers.

We left the village to climb Winsford Hill via Spire Cross where we watched a female redstart flitting among stunted hawthorns; a small, brown, inconspicuous bird until you notice its brick red tail - the start - which it moves up and down on perching.

Nearby is the Caractucus Stone, amid mauve flowered ling, tormentil and bilberry. Accounts of its age and origin vary [as does the spelling]. Some guides suggest it was erected by a local Celtic chieftain during the time when Roman power in Britain was in decline. The leaflet available in the church considers the stone to be an early monument to British Christians pushed westward by Saxon invaders in the fifth century.

Winsford Hill is about a mile south-west of the village; 1,399 feet above sea level it provides a 360 degree viewpoint.

On its northern flanks is a deep hollow known as The Punchbowl. By the trig. point at its summit are three Bronze Age Barrows, burial chambers called Wambarrows. Cotton grass and eyebright grew round about.


Illustrated by: Paul Swailes

A group of ten Exmoor ponies with two foals came over the brow of the hill, frisky and lively, their manes and forelocks lifting in the breeze.



A Walk Through History

I'd never been to Tolpuddle so when I saw, in the local paper, that a coach was going from Barnstaple, it seemed an ideal opportunity.

The village, six miles east of Dorchester, is of course famous for the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the six agricultural workers who in 1834 were sentenced to seven years' transportation to Australia.

In 1830, the farm workers' wage had been nine shillings a week. This was reduced to eight shillings and then in 1833 to seven.

When in 1834 the men were threatened with a further reduction to six shillings a week, they tried to negotiate with their employers, under the leadership of George Loveless and with the vicar acting as an intermediary.

Promises were made but not kept so the men formed a Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers to further their cause.

A local magistrate sought guidance from the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, and the six men were arrested and imprisoned at Dorchester. At the Assizes they were tried under the Mutiny Act of 1797, charged with administering an illegal oath. But their real offence was uniting to defend their livelihoods.

The jury was made up of local farmers and the sentence of seven years in the penal colonies of Australia provoked a great outcry. There were protests and demonstrations in their support and a petition with a quarter of a million signatures.

Eventually, the Tolpuddle Martyrs won free pardons and returned home after serving less than half of their sentences.

I started my walk at the western end of the village where in 1934, a hundred years after the notorious trial, a row of six cottages was built in memory of the Martyrs.

It is a long, attractive building in the Arts and Crafts style with a series of gables along the front and between them deep roofs with a dozen dormer windows. It is set back from the main road by a green swath and incorporates a museum.

Next I headed for St. John's church where in the churchyard studded with self-heal and ladies' bedstraw, can be found James Hammett's grave. He was the only one of the six Martyrs to settle in Tolpuddle on his return from transportation. In 1934 a headstone carved by Eric Gill was added to the grave.

In the centre of the village is a three-hundred-year old sycamore known at The Martyrs' Tree, under which the men gathered for some of their meetings.

Further along on the opposite side of the road is Thomas Stanfield's cottage where the friendly society met - a neat white cottage typical of the village. His son John was also one of the six Martyrs.

George Loveless and his brother James [another Martyr] were both Methodist lay preachers and at the eastern end of the village is the Methodist Chapel with its elaborate memorial arch.

But before that, lies a much more recent addition to the village. About ten years ago, after an acre of land had been set aside for use as public open space, a group of villagers under the acronym TOSCA [Tolpuddle Open Space] created a picnic area, adventure playground, orchard and wild flower meadows.

Gatekeepers and small skipper butterflies homed in on the field scabious, meadow cranesbills, knapweed and ox-eye daisies. There are gnarled old apple trees, red current and spindle bushes. The restored village pump stands under a huge bay tree.

In 1630 sluices and weirs had been constructed to manage water from the chalk springs and River Piddle and to produce there these water meadows. And now in the twenty-first century thanks to TOSCA's thoughtful landscaping they provide a delightful feature.

Should you ever find yourself in this part of Dorset, I would recommend a walk through this interesting village.


Paul Swailes



A Swift Walk to Saltpill Duck Pond


We were pleased to see the swifts flying over the pond as each year we notice fewer and fewer of these summer visitors.

Green-veined white butterflies and a solitary speckled yellow moth flitted about pale blue flax flowers, growing among patches of bird's-foot trefoil and bush vetch.

There were mussel shells and fragments of tiny crabs underfoot.

Saltpill Duck Pond is now part of the Gaia Nature Reserve, following the philosophy of scientist and environmentalist, James Lovelock who originated the Gaia concept.

The pond can be reached easily via the Tarka Trail from Fremington Quay in the direction of Isley Marsh and Yelland.

Three new stiles have been erected between the Trail and the path. With the estuary on one side and the pond on the other, this provides a short walk with two distinct habitats to enjoy at once;the cry of the curlew from the Taw side;the sound of stonechats and chiffchaffs in the bushes around the pond.

The old iron railway viaduct over Fremington Pill was undergoing major renovation work and had, according to the information boards, been 'encapsulated' by scaffolding covered by some sort of tarpaulin.

Walkers and cyclists were still allowed to cross the bridge and the effect was that of passing through a tunnel.

As we had approached Fremington Quay the viaduct's unexpected transformation had been striking. It resembled one of the covered bridges of Madison County, Iowa, as featured in the novel by Robert James Waller and filmed starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood.


Illustrations by Paul Swailes



A Devon Belle

A few years ago we were walking along the coast below Trentishoe Down when we spotted a tiny pale blue flower at the edge of the path. Just the one plant in the vicinity of North Cleave.

I did not know what it was but when we returned home I identified it, with the help of my trusty field guides, as the Ivy-leafed Bellflower. [Some of the smallest flowers have the longest names.]

The Ivy-leafed Bellflower - Wahlenbergia Hederqacea - is a scarce plant of damp moors, heaths and peat bogs. Flowering in July and August, it is a modest cousin of the Harebell but nevertheless described as 'a little gem'.


I have a rather charming book [a jumble sale find] published in 1946, Flowers of Marsh and Stream, in which its author Iolo A. Williams considers it one of the 'most exquisite small bog plants, a miniature beauty'.

He explains,

"This is one of those flowers which takes some spotting, even when you know it is there, and you may often not find it till you have knelt down on very wet turf to search for it at short range.

"But once found it reveals a slender grace that is entirely captivating. Among British bog plants I would rank this small blue campanula as one of the very choicest things . . . "

In subsequent summers when walking that way, we always look out for Wahlenbergia Hederacea but have never found it there again.This stretch of coast path has suffered a lot of erosion and we assume that has caused the loss of this uncommon flower.

However, some years later we were walking up the hill from Landacre Bridge, heading for the area beside the River Barle between Sherdon Hatch and Ferny Ball, where Bog Asphodels grow, when we were surprised to find patches of delicate Ivy-leafed Bellflowers creeping about the roadside bank.

The Bog Asphodels we were expecting "sole reason for visit" as Oscar Wilde said when he arrived in America and was asked by a customs official if while in the US he intended to incite insurrection and overthrow the state], but the Bellflowers were a complete surprise.


Ferny Ball was the home of author and artist, Hope Bourne who lived frugally in a caravan there, writing books on self-sufficiency and the natural history of Exmoor.

Regular Newsletter readers will recall PP of DC featured Hope Bourne in her Movers and Shakers series in August 2011.

N.B.If you visit the churches at nearby Withypool or Hawkridge, you will find Hope Bourne's sketches on the covers of the church leaflets.

Illustrations by Paul Swailes





A Spoonbill marched with long strides along the water's edge. We had been watching it feed, sweeping its huge black, yellow tipped bill in curving movements through the water.

We were close enough to see that its legs had been ringed with yellow, red and green rings. The ringing could have been done in Holland, Spain or Portugal.

On the opposite bank of the river, on the Pottington side, stood another Spoonbill resting alongside Godwits and Lapwings.


Once a scarce passage migrant, since the late 1980's Spoonbills have been regular visitors to the Taw between August and April. Although also present on the Exe, a greater number usually appears on North Devon's estuary than elsewhere In the county.

Some of the spoonbills occurring in Devon have been sighted as far afield as Morocco and Mauritius.

The route along the river from Barnstaple via Anchorbank and Penhill Marsh towards Fremington Quay used to provide a quick and easy walk when visiting the town. However, since improvements to the Tarka Trail, following the opening of the new bridge, access to the river has become more arduous and involves a dull stretch of path and rather hostile underpasses, garishly painted, before a view of the river is gained.

Nevertheless, once you reach Penhill Marsh you never know what you might see. In 2002 among Brent Geese and Shelduck, gathered on the saltmarsh we saw a similarly sized goose with a distinctive pattern of bold red-brown and black patches outlined in white.


It was a Red-breasted Goose, a species which breeds in Siberia and winters mainly on the Black Sea coasts of Romania and Bulgaria. Although it would have been nice to think it was a truly wild bird that had travelled far, this gorgeous looking goose on the banks of the Taw was more likely to have been an escapee from a private collection. But it was lovely to encounter it in a natural setting in the company of other wild fowl.



Once we witnessed a memorable and macabre event on Penhill Marsh. It involved a Peregrine Falcon and a Little Egret, neither bird at all unusual there of course, but what happened was unexpected.

There was a very strong wind that day. A Little Egret flew past and fluttered down into a gully. Soon a Peregrine flying low and slow landed in the same gully.



Illustrations by Paul Swailes

After a few minutes the falcon emerged on the edge of the gully, dragging out the Little Egret. Anchoring the dead body with its Feet, the Peregrine then plucked and at the Egret, looking warily from side to side and finally leaving the feet, wings and head. This happened to coincide with a spring half term so there were families of cyclists on the Tarka Trail who took in the scene.

Ed Drewitt, a west country naturalist and broadcaster, has made a special study of Peregrine Falcons over many years, identifying their prey items. It is a long list but at that date it did not include the Little Egret.

It could be that this particular Egret was a weak bird, struggling with the strong wind and therefore more vulnerable.

All this within sight of human habitation and industry.



Turning Hares

The hare seems a popular subject for paintings and sculpture judging by those currently displayed in shop windows and galleries.

Yet it is an elusive creature. Here in North Devon we are more likely to see a badger or red deer - even a grey seal - than a brown hare.

Hares may be seen occasionally in the fields between Smythen Farm and Smythen Cross, or may be spotted running along the road between Whitefield Hill and Honeywell.

Should you ever find yourself in the church at Iddesleigh or Ashreigney, look up and you will discover one of the roof bosses is carved with a pattern of three hares running in a circle, with their ears joined at the centre forming a triangle and giving the illusion that they each have two ears, when they only have a total of three ears between them.


This ancient, mythical symbol of the three hares has been found in Russia, Nepal, Iran, Germany and France; the earliest dating back to 581AD in caves in China.

In Britain it is found mainly in medieval churches with Devon having the most examples - seventeen churches in mid-Devon and around Dartmoor with twenty-nine roof bosses, carved with the hare pattern, between them. Broadclyst near Exeter has nine.

The significance is uncertain but the hare has been seen as a magical creature and in Christianity the three hares were associated with the Holy Trinity - but why hares?

We visited Ashreigney, a hilltop village between the Taw and Torridge valleys. Its economy was once based on wool; the present village inn having been the premises of master wool-combers. A Roman road is thought to have passed through Ashreigney from Exeter towards Bideford.

We crossed the village green to the church. The large porch has a cradle roof and an oak door with Tudor linen-fold pattern panels.



Ashreigney Church today and C1932 from the Tom Bartlett Postcard Collection


The pulpit also has linen-fold panelling salvaged from the rood screen. When the church was restored in 1889, much ancient oak was thrown out or sold.

The thirteenth century font is square with an octagonal base. On the wall above the south door are the Royal Arms of Queen Anne.

The cradle roof is considered the finest feature of the church and there at the intersections of the moulded ribs of oak are the bosses. Apart from the one with the three hares, the other roof bosses are decorated with leaves, fruit and human faces.

On leaving the churchyard, three dogs loose on the green gave chase and it was necessary to jump down a bank to get away from them.

The Three Hares Trail leaflet lists all the Devon churches containing this ancient symbol. It has attractive illustrations by the artist Eleanor Ludgate and is available from 20 The Square, Chagford, TQ13 8AB.



Mystery of the White Rabbit

I have three questions. The first concerns a white rabbit; the second, a bull - real or mythical.

The season of 'mellow fruitfulness' and nutfulness had drawn me back to the Cockhill fields. At the edge of one of these fields, beside a little spinney, I was surprised to see a white rabbit. It appeared to be grazing quite happily. No other rabbits were in the field.

I was curious as to whether it was a wild albino rabbit or an escaped or abandoned pet but I was not able to get near enough to find out the colour of its eyes. It occurred to me that Berrynarborites who regularly walk their dogs along that route may also have seen the white rabbit and know if it is wild or not.

It was late September and I was pleased to spot a Silver Y moth on a bramble leaf as I had seen so few this year. The grey moth is a late spring/summer visitor and flies by day or night.

Wild clematis sprawled over the hedges. With its greenish-cream flowers in the summer it is known as Traveller's Joy but when the conspicuous feathery grey fruits appear in the autumn it is more commonly called Old Man's Beard.

Patches of purple-blue self-heal grew among the grass. The loud 'yaffle' cry of a green woodpecker could be heard but there were surprisingly few birds despite all the wild berries and seeds available to them.

On crossing the footbridge one is greeted by an unwelcome sign warning that there is a bull in the next field. It is an old looking sign so maybe no-one got around to taking it down when the bull was moved out or perhaps it has been deliberately left there to deter walkers.

So my second question is - is there really a bull in that field? I'm reluctant to risk entering to find out.

Thirdly, I have an Only Connect question: What connects the DUNNOCK [formerly but inaccurately known as a hedge sparrow] and the flower called SELF-HEAL? Here's a clue: the name of the actress who played the wife of Basil Fawlty.

P.S. Look out for the little spindle tree near the entrance to Claude's Garden, which is covered in pink parcel-shaped capsules which split open to reveal shiny orange coated seeds.


Paul Swailes



"When I set out for Lyonesse"

Castle Boterel, St. Juliot and 'A Pair of Blue Eyes'

". . . blue as autumn distance - blue as the blue we
between the retreating mouldings of hills and
slopes on a sunny September morning. A
and shady blue, that had no beginning or
and was looked into rather than at."

These lines are from Thomas Hardy's novel 'A Pair of Blue Eyes' which is set in and around Boscastle and St. Juliot church at Hennett a few miles inland.

In 1870 while working for a firm of Dorset architects, Thomas Hardy had visited St. Juliot to make preparations for the restoration of the church which had become very dilapidated. There were cracks in the 14th century tower; the carved bench ends had rotted and ivy hung from the roof timbers where birds and bats had taken up residence.

It was a visit which changed Hardy's life. As the rector was ill with gout it was his sister-in-law, Emma Gifford, who greeted Hardy and showed him around the church. Four years later they married and Emma persuaded him to give up architecture to be a full time author.

From blustery and busy Boscastle I took the path inland along the River Valency towards St. Juliot church. It was a very pleasant walk through little water meadows of yellow hay rattle and southern march orchids; banks of bugle and ox-eye daisies, flag irises at the water's edge.

Then on through woodland, a little boggy underfoot after a morning of heavy rain but now the sun had come out and with it a great abundance of butterflies; common blues, wall browns, orange tips and speckled woods.

On Hardy's visits to supervise the work on the church, he and Emma would often stroll down this path to the sea, Emma described the route:

"Often we walked to Boscastle harbour down the beautiful Valency Valley where we had to jump over a low wall by rough steps . . . to come out on great wide spaces suddenly . . . "

In 'A Pair of Blue Eyes', Boscastle is given the name Castle Boterel much as in Hardy's Wessex Dorchester becomes Casterbridge and Barnstaple is Downstaple.

St. Juliot is in an attractive, secluded setting. The church contains a memorial to Emma, which Thomas Hardy designed, on the wall of the north aisle and in 1928 a tablet was installed recording Hardy's association with the church and the neighbourhood.

More recently a three panelled engraved window, commissioned by the Hardy Society, was placed there. It includes a line from his poem 'When I set out for Lyonesse'.

Unfortunately, the ancient chancel screen is not there. Hardy had left instructions for the screen to be retained and its damaged tracery to be renovated but was shocked to find that due to the misplaced generosity of the builder it had been replaced by a new and "highly varnished travesty". "I'll give 'em a new screen instead of that patched up old thing", the builder said.

Emma wrote: "scarcely any author and his wife could have had a more romantic meeting, with its unusual circumstances in bringing them together . . . at this very remote spot, with the wild Atlantic Ocean rolling in with its magnificent waves and spray, its white gulls and black choughs and puffins, its cliffs and rocks and gorgeous sunsettings in a track widening from horizon to the shore."

Illustrations by

Paul Swailes



"Some of the ponies have been known to bite"

Warned the Captain of the Oldenburg as we were about to disembark on Lundy Island - together with other safety instructions like "Don't go too near the edge of the cliffs" and "If you're not back at the landing stage by five-thirty the boat goes without you."

On arrival I followed the track along the eastern side of the island as far as the ruins of Quarry Cottages near the Quarter Wall. There was a strong cold wind that day and I'd passed a group of pigs huddled together to keep warm, half buried in a pile of straw and looking quit cosy.

As the Quarter Wall point I crossed the island heading for Jenny's Cove on the western side where I hoped to see puffins.

Perched on a boulder, finishing her picnic lunch, a helpful lady from Okehampton patiently pointed out where three puffins stood on a cliff ledge among the more numerous guillemots.

"See that gull standing by itself? Well, below that, to the left of that clump of sea pinks and to the right of the rock covered with yellow lichen."

I looked and looked but could find no puffins. She explained again. Eventually I located them: their red legs making them stand out from the other auks. I had 'til then been looking at the wrong gull and the wrong lump of rock and sea pinks!

Mission accomplished I continued southwards enjoying the sight of the Soay sheep, pretty and primitive, with their lambs trotting about the grassy cliff slopes.


As visibility was good I decided to treat myself to the view from the top of the old lighthouse. On our last visit to Lundy the rain and low cloud had been so dense that we could not see the lighthouse until we were actually touching its granite walls so there had been no point climbing the hundred and forty-seven steps.

It is a magnificent building ninety-six feet high constructed in 1819 at a cost of thirty-six pounds. Now used to accommodate visitors - Anthony Gormley stayed there recently when his sculpture, commemorating fifty years of the Landmark Trust [which administers the island] was installed.

Anxious not to miss the boat I started the descent to the Landing Bay. A forest of telescopes blocked the path below Melcombe House.


"What've you spotted - a yellow-browed warbler?" I asked facetiously. [It's usually a yellow-browed warbler!]

"No! Better than that," they all chorused, "A golden oriole." I heard its call three times among the trees but I did not catch sight of it though I was assured it had actually been seen and the cry was not just someone doing a cunning impersonation of the rare bird.

While waiting to board the boat for the return journey to Ilfracombe I watched a gannet diving in the bay and a grey seal's head appearing and disappearing close to the shore.

A ship of the Grimaldi Line was on the horizon and I pondered how it was fine to go to sea for a few hours once in a while but how grim and hard a life it must be working on a merchant vessel for months on end, a long way from home, covering vast distances of ocean.


Lundy Illustrations by Peter Rothwell



Going Nuts in May

I had read about the old clay pits at Bickington which had provided the raw material for Brannam Pottery. The most recent extractions of clay had been in the 1990's but now some of the disused quarries had filled with water.

I located Claypit Coverts on the Ordnance Survey map. This showed a patch of woodland dotted with little ponds. Pockets of water among trees suggested a promising location for nature watching.

We decided to access the woods from Combrew Lane from where a track leads across a field and then through the length of Claypit Coverts.

We started from the layby, near the entrance to Fremington Pill, beside a neatly organised allotment site. Across the main road is Combrew Lane. May blossom was breaking out on the hawthorn hedges and there were glimpses of small plots with hens and bee hives. A bucolic scene.

We reached the gateway to the track and could see Claypit Coverts up ahead but there was barbed wire and a barking dog, so we decided to enter the woods via Tews Lane instead and continued along Combrew Lane.

From a high bank of periwinkles one flower appeared to take flight. It was a holly blue butterfly, a male as it lacked the grey border of the female. The holly blue is on the wing earlier than the common blue and is largely restricted to Southern England and Wales.

We walked into Bickington and soon found the public footpath. A sturdy footbridge took us over a stream where we saw a grey wagtail in his summer plumage of black chin and throat.

The route continued through a series of meadows where beside a ditch gnarled trees revealed their twisted roots above the ground. Some had hollow trunks.

Orange tip butterflies landed on lady's smocks [or cuckoo flowers] showing the pretty mottled green pattern on their underwings. They favour plants in the crucifer family such as garlic mustard/Jack-by-the-hedge.

Eventually we came to a gate and an area where the lorries must once have loaded the clay. Claypit Coverts was now close by but the gate was swathed in barbed wire which looked as if it had been placed there recently and there was a No Entry sign which we could not ignore.

Some handsome sheep near the edge of the wood were staring at us. They were dark brown with black ears and a striking broad white band down the centre of their faces. I wonder what they were. They were quite large.

We admitted defeat and continued to the end of the path [which comes out on the old Bideford Road] before retracing our steps.

We had failed in our 'quarry' to visit the quarries but it had been a pleasant walk over the meadows. Combrew Lane alone, forming a loop adjacent to the main Barnstaple to Bideford road, provides an alternative short walk to the popular Fremington Quay opposite.


Paul Swailes




'Quiet Waters by'

Four years ago a derelict piece of ground in the middle of Swimbridge was transformed to create a streamside garden. It occupies a part of the churchyard of St. James' church, which had never been used for burials as it was too close to the stream.

Behind locked gates it had become overgrown with brambles. Villagers who were children in the 1940's and '50's remember squeezing through the railings to pick blackberries there.

Forty years ago during the national 'Plant a Tree in '73' campaign, the parish council had planted trees and shrubs on the land. [You may recall the subsequent slogans 'Plant some more in '74' and 'Keep them alive in '75'.]

Unfortunately, by 2006 many of the Plant a Tree Year trees had died. The railings had rusted and the gates were still locked when the church and parish council decided to turn it into a public open space for everyone to enjoy, and thus Swimbridge Streamside Garden was born.

Work finally began in 2011. Designed by landscape architect, Peter Leaver with advice from the Devon Wildlife Trust, the garden incorporates plants which provide flowers to attract butterflies and bees or bear berries for birds.

The hedges include native species such as hawthorn, spindle, holly, guilder rose and field maple. Mazzard trees have been planted - the wild cherry peculiar to North Devon.

An old granite roller from a local farm creates an unusual seat. Sculptor and mason, Gabriel Hummerstone has carved on it words from

Psalm 23: ' In pastures green he leadeth me, the quiet waters by.'

Sturdy benches have been made from a beech tree, blown down in a gale at Chittlehampton - called spalted beech referring to a pattern of dark markings caused by a fungus.

A poem by pupils of Swimbridge Primary School has been carved into stepping stones along the path.

The stream itself is the Landkey Stream, also known as the Venn Stream. It rises on high ground to the north of the village, near Gunn, and flows via Riverton along the valley to Swimbridge and on to Landkey; then by Venn Quarry to join the River Taw at Bishops Tawton. It once powered several mills and a tannery.

When we walked along the stream last April a dipper sped past, with whirring wings, alerting us with its 'tsitt tsitt' call. Its flight is fast and direct, just above the water. It landed on a large stone with its characteristic bobbing motion, flicking its short tail.

A dipper [cinclus cinclus] can appear black and white when only glimpsed fleetingly but viewed at close quarters the head is dark brown shading to a grey-brown back and wings. Underneath it is bright chestnut brown. The most conspicuous feature is the large white bib across its throat and chest.

We watched it plunge into the water. It has the ability to swim under water using its wings. It can walk along the bottom of a river foraging for invertebrates. Its diet includes aquatic insects and their larvae, small crustaceans, molluscs and worms.

Swimbridge's streamside walk provides a gentle, level stroll at the centre of one of North Devon's most attractive villages. The last line of the children's poem carved on the stepping stones: 'mythical paradise, lush and green.'


by Paul Swailes




Henbane: "A Strange but beautiful plant."

Peter Rothwell

Throughout the three mile stretch of Braunton Burrows there is only one specimen of henbane, a plant which has become quite rare.

We usually access the Burrows via the toll road or Sandy Lane but this time we had come to the Saunton car park because it was near there that henbane was discovered growing about ten years ago and we hoped to find it, only having seen photographs of the plant.

Henbane [Hyoscyamus niger] has creamy white flowers almost an inch across, purple at the base with a network of purple veins. The plant can be up to four feet high, has toothed leaves and sticky white hairs. It occurs mainly near the sea in sandy waste places.

It is a member of the Solanaceae family which includes deadly nightshade and it is very poisonous. However, originally a Mediterranean plant, it was cultivated by medieval monks in their herb gardens and regarded as an important medicinal plant, a 'hypnotic'. All parts of the plant contain a narcotic drug called hyoscine.

We skirted the area known as Chalet Valley, a scattering of various little wooded dwellings randomly placed among the dunes, half hidden.

We battled with the brambles as we crossed Strawberry Ridge. The paths are less defined this end of the Burrows, more overgrown.

Still no sign of the elusive henbane.

The books I'd looked up described henbane as evil looking and evil smelling yet in her comprehensive guide to the wild flowers of the Braunton Burrows, Mary Breeds dubbed it, 'a strange but beautiful plant'. I was intrigued.

In the area of Hollow Hill we trudged up dunes only to find on reaching the summit, a long and steep drop on the other side. We slithered down, our shoes filling with sand.

It was a relief to enter Wintergreen Slack, a huge natural amphitheatre, enclosed by high dunes where the flat area was covered in water mint, fleabane and red clover; a carpet of fragrant mauve, yellow and pink and no-one but us to sit and enjoy it because everyone else had gravitated to the beach.

There were Michaelmas daisies and a lot of the furry, pinkish haresfoot clover. There was also an active flock of small heaths; modest little ginger-brown butterflies.

Eventually we admitted defeat and as we reluctantly returned to the car park we witnessed a helicopter coming to land next to the Saunton Sands Hotel. We had failed in our quest to find the henbane, but the highlight of the walk had been being surrounded by the gorgeous blend of colours of Wintergreen Slack combined with the scent of mint and wild thyme.


Recommended reading:

Wild Flowers of Braunton Burrows by Mary Breeds.

Paul Swailes



Foraging: a ramble with brambles

A warm September morning in the big steeply sloping field which carries part of the footpath linking the Sterridge Valley to Slew Hill.

Hazel bushes at the top of the field. Around its lower border, a tangle of brambles. This year there was an abundance of berries and nuts so I had chosen to walk there with the dual purpose of gathering hazel nuts and blackberries while enjoying this open, airy viewpoint.

There were sufficient low branches to make the nuts easy to reach and not too many stinging nettles.

The clusters of shiny ovoid nuts looked attractive encased in their light green deeply lobed husks.

Also called cobnuts, filberts [22nd August is St. Philibert's Day], hales or baskets, they are available from late August until October. When pale green and soft they are edible but with less flavour than when ripe with brown shells and if not eaten soon after picking, they can wither in picking, they can wither in their shells.


Richard Mabey of 'Food for Free' fame recommends late September for picking hazel nuts. That's if the squirrels and jays have left any by then.

There had been plenty of sunshine to draw out the full flavour of the blackberries. Their sweetness had also attracted red admirals, a comma butterfly and speckled woods.

A straggle of walkers on footpath above waved a greeting. A jay screeched. Its harsh cry has been likened to the sound of a piece of silk being torn apart. I heard a light tapping coming from the little spinney beside the stream and witnessed a nuthatch wedging an acorn into a crevice in the bark of a tree.


In his poem 'Blackberry Picking' Seamus Heaney describes how as children they had picked large quantities of blackberries, hoarding the fruit in a bath in the barn and the disappointment when returning to find 'a fur, a rat-grey fungus glutting on our cache.' He felt like crying at the sight of the rotten, fermented fruit. The poem ends: 'Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.' Food for free but too good to waste.

This year I had noticed more people than usual out blackberrying. Richard Mabey thinks the attraction is that blackberry picking 'carries with it a sense of season and abundance and just enough discomfort to quicken the senses.' I just think the appeal lies in anticipating the jam or bramble jelly and the rich variety of puddings and desserts.

Finally, homeward bound with a supply of nuts and berries; purple stained fingers peppered with prickles, pausing to buy tasty, home grown tomatoes, sold in aid of the hospice, from the roadside stall at Higher Rows.


Illustrations: Paul Swailes



"Pleasantly the old town stands fanned day and night

by the fresh ocean breeze."


Charles Kingsley, clergyman, poet, novelist and radical, wrote part of Westward Ho! while staying at what is now the Royal Hotel, East-the-Water, Bideford, and in 1944 the Chiefs of Staff of the armed forces met there to plan the Normandy landings.

They probably held their meeting in the conference room on the first floor, famed for its ceiling which made architectural historian, Nikolaus Pevsner swoon, the hotel's current facade being something of an enigma. It was built around an earlier house dated 1688 and parts of the original seventeenth century building survive including that ceiling.



Pevsner claimed it is "one of the most gorgeous plaster ceilings in Devon with a wreath of flowers in the most daring relief so that whole fruits and flowers are completely detached from the wall and also with cherubs and birds." It really is very remarkable.

A few years ago the North Devon Journal published, side by side, a photograph of the buildings along The Quay, viewed from this end of the old Bideford Bridge, with a photograph of Curacao off the coast of Venezuela in the Caribbean. The two places, so far apart, bore an uncanny resemblance to each other.

Whereas Barnstaple largely turns its back on its river, Bideford embraces its River Torridge with gusto. The Quay is a bustling place. People promenade along it; sit outside cafes and chat or watch the fleets of lorries unloading Peters Marland clay into the large foreign vessels moored there. Bideford's Newsletter, the "Buzz", includes a page of Shipping News with details of ships, cargoes, crews and registered flag owners at Bideford and Yelland as well as details of ships observed in the Bristol Channel.

At the end of The Quay we find Charles Kingsley himself; an imposing statue and just around the corner, one of North Devon's greatest assets - the Burton Gallery, a pretty Art Deco building at the entrance to Victoria Park. As well as housing the town's museum and permanent art collection it hosts a changing series of exhibitions, some of national and international importance. It is an attractive and welcoming place and even includes a popular French cafe - Cafe du Parc. Look out for Robert Paterson's beautiful stained glass window at the end of the craft gallery. Another example of his work is in Combe Martin's St. Peter ad Vincula Church.

Originally marshland which was drained, Victoria Park is a lively place enjoyed by all ages. As well as all the usual features of a park it incorporates a Sure Start Children's Centre and in the former municipal greenhouses, a Jig Saw horticultural project.

From the park there is a riverside walk which leads to council offices whose design must have been inspired by the architect Sir Basil Spence. It is a pleasing example of 1960' architecture, light and airy and featuring an elegant stairway. Opposite the gallery and park, off Kingsley Road, is The Strand with an interesting variety of buildings. At one end a house with an unusual elevation is the subject of a painting in the gallery's local collection. At the opposite end the former Northdown House was once the home of Charles Kingsley. In more recent times it was the Stella Maris Convent. Nearby, Bridgeland Street has a fine collection of late seventeenth century houses built for wealthy merchants at the height of the tobacco trade with Virginia.

A winter visit could include Kenwith Lakes to observe the wildfowl or a walk along the saltmarsh southwards from the town. Bideford, so much to see, so much to do. Whenever we have spent a morning or afternoon there we feel as if we have been on a brief holiday.

P.S. Have you discovered yet the White Moose Gallery, hidden away in the old Moose Hall in Trinity Street, near Barnstaple's square and bus station? It is a pleasant modern space and from the 7th November until the 3rd January, it will be showing the photography of Chris Chapman. You may have seen his television films about Exmoor's landscape and people. Open Monday to Saturday, 10.00 a.m. until 5.00 p.m.



Not a bored walk on the boardwalk

We were heading for the boardwalk from Broadsands Car Park but first made a favourite detour through a little damp meadow flanked by a spinney.

Since parking was restricted to one end of the former car park area, several small clearings and the tracks leading from them have become very overgrown. We pushed through the brambles and nettles and were rewarded by a flurry of common blue butterflies with bright orange-brown small heaths among them.

There was an array of ragged robins, southern marsh orchids and yellow flag irises. Several of the female common blue butterflies were of the brown form which resemble the brown argus with orange dots around the margin of the upper side, but with a shading of blue close to the body.

As we cross the boardwalk we always look out for lizards basking on the wooden slats, the least vibration and they disappear. There are the less common and declining sand lizards on the Burrows but we have yet to see them. When a common lizard seems greener than usual, I hope it might be a sand lizard but it's only wishful thinking. There was yellow hay rattle in flower, eyebright and a few seaside pansies. Linnets perched on bushes along the way and I spotted a lone painted lady. This summer migrant is always a welcome sight.

At the end of the boardwalk at the edge of the sands were sea stocks; woolly grey stems and leaves and mauve flowers but no sign of the rare sea rocket.

We sat on a lump of concrete at the site of the old lighthouse and looked across to Irsha Street and Kipling Tors and a distant, hazy blue Hartland Point; a flotilla of sailing boats.

Driftwood, bleached silver and forming beautiful shapes and textures lay on the sand. Informal sculptures.

At Crow Point we were shocked to see the extent of erosion of the sand dunes but it was around the corner on the edge of Broadsands that we eventually found one sea rocket plant, a healthy looking specimen, its leaves a similar shape to ragwort but shiny and fleshy.

Further along we looked in vain for the yellow horned poppy, the only example of it in the whole area of the Burrows. It may have been lost to erosion.

A notice by the White House warned that the path around Horsey Island had been 'compromised' due to erosion.

There were some deep holes and dips which were not there before and by the end of the summer through lack of use the nettles and brambles will have effectively closed it.

But in early June, fragrant Rosa Rugosa with ox-eye daisies flanked the path.


Paul Swailes



'In ancient times . . .'

Hidden in countryside between Penzance and St. Ives are the remains of Iron Age settlements. One of these, Carn Euny, was built more than 400 years BC and was still occupied during the fourth century AD.

We visited Chysauster [seven miles east of Pendeen], a village last inhabited at the time of Roman Britain.

From a quiet lane in the parish of Gulval we climbed up to the path across the fields to reach this fascinating relic of 'ancient times'.

Both Carn Euny and Chusauster consisted of cluster of round stone walled rooms grouped around a central courtyard, with an outer wall forming a circle around each homestead.

This pattern of dwelling is peculiar to West Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.


At Chysauster there are the remains of nine of these courtyard houses and we were free to spend an absorbing morning roaming among the carefully excavated dwellings; wandering in and out of the circles of low stone walls; the round rooms which would have been roofed with turf or thatch.

During the course of our visit there was a light drizzle. A kestrel hovered above and underfoot was a dazzling array of wild flowers. Bluebells with wood anemones and wood sorrel, but also lousewort, milkwort and tormentil.

In North Devon I should not expect to see all of these species occurring together in the same place - bluebells in woodland and on cliffs. Sorrel and wood anemone also in woods but the latter alongside rivers too; whereas pink lousewort, milkwort [blue, mauve or pink] and yellow tormentil would be largely confined to the moor.

Perhaps it is the presence of the granite which gives rise to such a rich and varied flora.

At Chysauster the houses were alighted in pairs along a grass fairway or 'street'. With minor variations, the usual pattern consists of a main entrance facing away from the prevailing south west winds.

A paved passageway leads through the thick outer walls to an open space, the courtyard, about twenty-five to thirty feet wide. To the left a lean-to bay was used as a shelter for livestock.

Opposite the entrance is a large Round Room; on the right is the narrow Long Room and in some dwellings there is a Small Round Room. In the Round Rooms a stone with a hollow in it would have held the upright timber which supported the apex of the roof.

In some rooms there remains a stone hearth and stone querns had been found which were used for grinding grains. Water channels, lined and covered with stone slabs, connected to a sump for the storage of rainwater.

Once forested with oak and hazel, by Roman times these granite uplands had been cleared of trees.

The excavation of Chysauster took place at various times from the 1870's until the 1930's. It is understood that in the early 1800's, Chysauster was used as a venue for Methodist preaching and known local as the Chapels.


Illustrations by Paul Swailes



"So here's to you my rambling boy

May all your rambles bring you joy."

by Tom Paxton

. . . and sung and made famous by the legendary Pete Seeger 1919-2014 who died earlier this year.

At great expense and after weeks of traffic delays, heavy plant manoeuvres and hard labour in all weathers, we have a new footpath.

No longer will we be dependent on the tides for determining the route between Watermouth and Widmouth Head.

On the first of March, a rare dry day, we decided to try out the new path. The condition of the existing fenced in path, alongside the road opposite Watermouth Castle, has been poor for some years so it is advisable to walk along the road to the harbour and emerge on to the main road via the gate between the sailing club and the harbour master's office.

This brings you directly to the pristine new tarmac path running beside the road for a short distance before a new flight of steps leads down to the original coast path. A little further on the previous entrance to the path has been cordoned off and a notice states that further improvements are planned.

The path was quite muddy and had been churned up by cyclists. Not a suitable route for bicycles. There are pleasant views of the harbour through the trees; of The Warren and Sexton's Burrow. Owners were working on their boats. Men were fishing from the cliff below the Martello tower.

On a tree trunk lying along the edge of the path, I found a colony of scarlet elf-cups [Peziza Sarcoscyphs coccinea] - a very attractive fungus. The inner surface of the round cups is bright red with a smooth, shiny texture. The outer surface is whitish with a chalky texture. The cups can be between two and six centimetres in diameter and appear from January until April.

Arranged in clusters, there were more than I have ever seen in one place. My field guide says they are 'widespread though seldom numerous' and are thought to be declining. They are most frequent in the west of England.

They grow on fallen and decaying wood, attached by a very short stem. They can appear to be growing from the ground but investigation will show that they are actually on a branch or twig which has become partially buried.

There were banks of dog's mercury. Although the green flowers are small and insignificant I am always pleased to see it because it coincides with the beginning of spring.


Illustrations by Paul Swailes

The lambs in the field below Widmouth Farm looked strong and sturdy. Nearby, the path became a sticky quagmire beside the stile, above where the coast path crosses the track leading to the private beach in its own tiny cove.

There were plenty of ivy berries but no blackbirds feasting on them - in fact an absence of birds altogether. In January 2010 when there was widespread snow in North Devon, except on the coastal fringe, we had walked out to Watermouth and found the camping fields full of redwings. This last winter I have looked out for the winter thrushes but have not seen a single redwing or fieldfare.

On the way back I glanced wistfully at the 'forbidden land' on the outer edge of The Warren where we are not allowed to roam and remembered the abundance of wild flowers on the cliffs there in springtime. The decision favouring the landowner following the public enquiry four years ago was a surprise and disappointment.

Perhaps we villagers should have descended en masse, in an act of civil disobedience, like the ramblers walking in protest on Kinder Scout in the Pennines before the war.

I'm sure Pete Seeger would have approved!




'And all things draw toward St. Enodoc. Come on! Come on!'

John Betjeman

It was a sunny Sunday one September when we walked from Polzeath along the Camel Estuary to Trebetherick, to visit St. Enodoc church, half hidden amid the dunes.

The coast path took us along The Greenaway where former poet laureate Sir John Betjeman spent his childhood holidays. In 'Summoned by Bells', the blank verse autobiography of his early years, he describes gales slamming the bungalows and rattling the doors when 'enormous waves house-high rolled thunderous on Greenaway, flinging up spume and shingle to the cliffs.'

He recalled his fear of falling when climbing these steep, smooth cliffs, with only a narrow ledge to rest his feet and clutching a clump of sea pinks. The cliffs which had appeared so tremendous as a child but to the adult Betjeman seemed small.

From The Greenaway there are views across the estuary to Stepper Point and below, the beach where before breakfast he had 'run alone, monarch of miles of sand . . . and walked, where only gulls and oystercatchers had stepped before, to the water's edge.'

Here still were the shells, lumps of driftwood and heaps of bladderwrack like those observed by an Edwardian childhood more than a century ago.

We rounded Trebetherick Point to reach Daymer Bay, a popular beach sheltered by Brea Hill to the south and then on to the lane in 'whose ferny ramparts' were pennywort, toadflax, fennel and periwinkles. In his poem Betjeman referred to the honeysuckle hedge; mint around the spring; the coconut smell of gorse and the thyme scented links.

The lane ended abruptly and we followed a path for about a quarter of a mile to reach St. Enodoc surrounded by tamarisk and rabbits - and strangely, by golfers for the little church is on a golf course and it is necessary to keep a lookout for flying golf balls.

It was once known locally as 'sinkinny church', the sinking church after it had become buried in the sand, which had drifted against the walls and when the roof gave way the sand found its way inside too, so that entry could only be made through the roof.

Eventually the church was restored in 1864 when all the sand was removed and the Norman font recovered. There is a holy water stoop near the door and the remains of a fifteenth century carved screen between the chancel and the nave. Flanking the path to the church door are some medieval stone mortars once used for grinding corn.

St. Enodoc has a short thirteenth century tower bearing a leaning spire. It has a bell taken from an Italian ship wrecked off The Greenaway in 1875. It was the site of many burials of unknown sailors whose ships were wrecked on the Doom Bar while seeking shelter in the Camel Estuary.


Illustration by: Paul Swailes

Between the church and the sea are the remains of a village which had to be abandoned in a hurry when it was overwhelmed by a sand storm.

It was hard to imagine the turmoil of ship wrecks and sand storms during our visit to St. Enodoc. All was peaceful and calm and we could appreciate why John Betjeman had such happy memories of the place and wished to be buried there. His grave is in the churchyard, near the lych gate.


[Quotations taken from 'Summoned by Bells' and the poem, 'Sunday Afternoon Service in St. Enodoc Church, Cornwall' by John Betjeman 1906-1984.]



Bats in the Chancel

Described by the nineteenth century clergyman and historian, Sabine Baring-Gould as 'picturesquely seated in a nook', the small and remote church of St. Peter at Trentishoe is about half a mile inland from the rugged Exmoor coast.

In early autumn we walked to it along Trentishoe Lane, a level and straight road for most of the way until it does a sudden right-angled turn and dips down to reveal the narrow tower beside a farm with a trickle of cottages and barns further down the hill.

At a field gate along the lane, with no human habitation nearby, trays of eggs had been placed for sale. Very trusting but can there be much passing trade here we wondered?

I remembered that when I had visited the church last summer swallows had been nesting in the porch. There was evidence that they had been back this summer too; a little mound of bird lime on the threshold. We turned round to see above the doorway three empty nests.

Inside the little church a large cloth had been spread on the floor before the altar and on it was a scattering of droppings. We looked up and saw, in a neat row, equal distances apart, twelve pipistrelle bats roosting on the chancel ceiling.

The church contains a compact organ in the form of a wooden rectangular box, which was salvaged from the Mauritania. Strange that this artefact from an ocean liner should find its way to this lonely spot on Exmoor.

A special feature of Trentishoe church is its eighteenth century musicians' gallery, a narrow wooden structure at the back of the church reached by some stairs. A hole has been cut in the parapet to accommodate the bow of the double base.

It is unusual to see one of these galleries preserved because so many were removed during Victorian restorations when organs replaced the bands of village musicians.

There is a good portrayal of these church bands in Thomas Hardy's charming early novel, Under the Greenwood Tree. In a lot of Hardy's novels tragic events occur due to misunderstandings, missed opportunities and failure to speak or act at the right time, but Under the Greenwood Tree is a gentle study of rural life and rustic characters.

Hardy's original title for the books was The Mellstock Quire and in 1896 he wrote of his regret for the passing of the 'orchestral bodies' of up to a dozen players who provided the music in churches. He believed the result of their displacement by an organist or harmonium had been to reduce the direct involvement of the parishioners in the life of the church.

He pointed out that, 'the zest of these bygone instrumentalists must have been keen to take them on foot every Sunday, after a toilsome week, through all weathers to the church, which often lay at a distance from their homes.'

The gratuities they received barely covered the cost of fiddle strings, repairs and manuscript paper for them to copy out their music. Seeing a rare gallery like the one at Trentishoe is a poignant reminder of their dedication.

As it had started to rain and become darker in the church I'd switched on the light so that my friends could see to sign the visitors' book. Soon there was a barely perceptible, faint rustle. Foolishly, I had unwittingly disturbed the bats. I quickly switched off the light; the bats settled again and we went out into the drizzly churchyard to leave the creatures in peace.

Illustrations by: Paul Swailes



The Artists' Cabin at Bucks Mills

Perched above the beach at Bucks Mills is a tiny one-up one-down stone cottage called The Cabin. For many years, from the 1920's to the 1970's, it was the studio and summer home of the artists Judith Ackland and Mary Stella Edwards.

Examples of their work can be seen at the Burton Gallery's permanent exhibition. They specialised in landscapes and dioramas and devised a method of model making called Jacaranda; intricate figures made from cotton wool and then painted.

Painting on the beach, 1933 Judith Ackland 1898-1971


Now owned by the National Trust, The Cabin's annual Open Day was held on the first of June when many admirers flocked to see inside the tiny furnished rooms with crockery and cooking utensils still arranged on the shelves.

To reach Bucks Mills you can either walk, about a mile and half, down the wooded road from Bucks Cross on the A39 near Clovelly, or start from the car park on the edge of the village.

From there it is a pleasant walk to the sea past pretty cottages and gardens. Welsh poppies and lily of the valley flowered by the stream beside the road.

On the slipway to the beach is a collection of old fishermen's huts with heaps of lobster pots and there are magnificent Elizabethan lime kilns, one castellated and resembling a castle. In 1811 J.M.W. Turner came to Bucks Mills and sketched a scene around the smaller kiln with Clovelly in the background.

Illustrated by: Paul Swailes

At a short distance along the beach to the east is a waterfall. We stood on the beach to enjoy the view across Bideford Bay and to watch the fulmars flying past.

To the west we were surprised to see, silhouetted against the horizon, the dark pyramid formation called Blackchurch Rock.

In the sixteenth century Richard Cole of Woolfardisworthy built a harbour at Bucks Mills. The remains of the old quay, a pile of massive boulders, are visible at low tide. Richard Cole is believed to be the original Old King Cole.

The following poem was written by Stella Mary Edwards and included in a volume of verse called 'Summer Tide' published in 1965.

A Truce with Time

To watch that sea creep slowly in, draw gently out
To see the gulls above it swoop and call.
The cliff-edge flowers softly blown about
Both whiter than the foam each gleaming presence
Distinct and separate yet one in essence
With me as with the light embracing all
Lulls time itself to sleep.

Mary Stella Edwards

Illustrated by: Paul Swailes



Edwin and Gertrude's Idyll

It was a happy collaboration between architect Edwin Lutyens and gardener Gertrude Jekyll which created the unique garden of national importance at Hestercombe, near Taunton.

In 1909 they were invited to design a garden on a sloping ground below Hestercombe House, a mansion that has been described as a Victorian monstrosity. Lutyens was responsible for the formal structure, a series of terraces around a sunken plat and rills bounded by a long pergola. Gertrude Jekyll devised a planting scheme which softened the edges of walls and paths and incorporated typical cottage garden flowers.

We entered the garden via a flight of Lutyens' trademark circular steps, to the Rose Garden which was intended as an outdoor room for enjoying afternoon tea under the shade of an arbor with the scent of old fashioned China tea roses and the sound of rippling water.

I headed for the Grey Walk; the first area to be restored in 1974 after the garden had been neglected since the war when American troops had occupied the house. [In the 1970's Gertrude Jekyll's planting plans were rediscovered in a potting shed.] I sat on a bench to enjoy the views to the south over the Vale of Taunton to the Blackdown Hills beyond and must have become invisible because, to my delight, I was surrounded by small birds.

It felt as if a spell had been cast by the serenity of the garden; the mellow old stones giving their stored warmth and shelter. A blackbird sang. Goldfinches landed on the santolina beside me. Pied wagtails flitted at my feet and martins dipped to the water below.

Here Gertrude Jekyll had wanted plants which provided scent and texture so there was lavender and catmint cascading over the walls; rosemary and pinks and for touch, furry grey lambs-ears, one of her favourites. Consideration of these senses was important to Gertrude who had only transferred her attention to garden design when her sight began to fail.

Previously she had been a painter and produced intricate craft work in several different media. Friendship with John Ruskin and Burne-Jones had led her to the belief that 'painting was not enough' and encouraged by William Morris no less, she had taken up metal work, embroidery and wood carving.

A long rill with raised terraces runs down each side of the garden. The West Rill is mainly planted with shrubs and roses; the East Rill dominated by herbaceous plants such as irises, poppies and red hot pokers with sedums and euphorbia. Jekyll used citrus fragranced choisya a lot, the masses of white blossom 'lighting up' corners.

The water features are beautiful. A recessed wall forming a semi-globe with a pool forming the bottom half of the sphere. Water flows along narrow channels - the rills - planted with arrowhead, water plantain and forget-me-not. Ribbon like loops of stone act as little weirs to control the water levels and form planting holes for deeper rooted plants.

Throughout the garden the rough grey stone quarried from behind the house, is used extensively for walls with balustrading and dressed stone for ornamentation carved from golden ham stone, from the quarries on Ham Hill near Stoke sub Hamdon.

The West and East rills are linked by the 230 feet long pergola; honeysuckle and clematis clambering up the alternating round and square pillars; greenfinches and coal tits enlivening the scene. The idea of the central Great Plat was to take the eye away from the ugly facade of the house! The paths follow a geometric pattern around a sun dial.

This contrasts with the small enclosed space called the Rotunda. Lots of interesting stonework and a circular mirror pool in the centre designed to reflect the sky. Here the colours were blue, white and grey but nearby is the Victorian Terrace, which pre-dates the Lutyens/Jekyll garden, still laid out with regimented rows of bedding plants in clashing oranges, reds and pinks, so different from Jekyll's anarchic drifts of subtle shades.

The Rotunda leads to the Orangery, a neo-classical building designed by Lutyens, now used for weddings. The young architect first met Gertrude Jekyll when he was twenty. She was forty-six. They went on to design many wonderful gardens together. He called her Aunt Bumps.

In the 1990's a much earlier landscape garden was restored; originally created between 1750 and 1786 in a combe to the north of the house with forty acres of woodland, lakes and temples, an octagonal summerhouse, mausoleum, Chinese Bridge and magnificent waterfall called the Great Cascade.

A walk around the full circuit of this garden takes about two hours. Hestercombe is two miles north of Taunton just outside the village of Cheddon Fitzpaine.

Acknowledgements and thanks to Sue Neale and her Ilfracombe Floral Art Club for arranging the visit to Hestercombe and for throwing the outing open to non-members - and for publicising this in the Berrynarbor Newsletter.



Herner and Hall

Herner and Hall. It sounds like a double act and in a way it is.

The Ordnance Survey map showed a large house on a hill with woodland around it and nearby a weir and a church close to water meadows beside the River Taw. It looked like an interesting place to explore.

The mansion is simply called Hall and the church is at Herner, barely a hamlet, two and a half miles south east of Bishop's Tawton. But we decided to start our walk at Chapelton railway station which faces Herner church from the opposite side of the Taw.

Leaving the little station car park we crossed the railway line and soon reached a foot bridge over the Taw. The river is quite wide at this point and the bridge is imposing, borne on a series of broad stone piers. There is a lozenge-shaped island where a pair of grey wagtails bobbed about the gravelly shore. A fisherman stood in the middle of the river casting his line.

The right of way over the fields takes the form of a firm and level track and after about half a mile it brought us to the lane leading to Herner where a disused chapel still retains a large bell above its roof bearing the date 1817.

Opposite, a barn of cob with circular pillars to the front, has its earlier thatch roof still showing beneath the corrugated iron and just around the corner is the church with its fifteenth century tower embattled with crocketed pinnacles. The nave and chancel were rebuilt in 1888.

The church is set above the road in a little garden, rather than the usual churchyard. We climbed the slate steps and walked past hedges mahonia japonica and shrubs bursting with white and pink cameliasl.

A bicycle was propped against the porch. This church is classified as a 'chapel of ease' and appropriately an elderly cyclist had sought sanctuary in the porch to enjoy a cigarette, his newspaper and flask. As I tried the door, I said, "I suppose it's locked." He confirmed it was and added, "You haven't missed much!

One of the guide books I'd consulted beforehand agreed with him stating, 'The church has little to offer the visitor' and other guides had ignored it altogether. However, if we'd been able to enter we should have found wagon-roofs throughout and a carved Jacobean pulpit. Worth a visit I should have thought.

Another disappointed would-be visitor had posted on the wall of the porch a notice of complaint about being excluded from unwelcoming locked churches. In response, the key holder had put beside it an indignant riposte accusing the author of 'boorishness'. Oh dear!

On leaving, harmony was restored by the variety and quantity of wild flowers along the roadside. Among wood sorrel and stitchwort, archangel and alkanet, a single early purpose orchid.

Now the mansion could be seen up on its hill, with sheep and lambs grazing before it. We passed a high curved wall with a gothic arched doorway set in it but the public right of way to Hall is past Herner Bridge with its little weir, via a steep driveway through a bluebell wood where peacock butterflies flitted.

We rounded a bend and found ourselves at the side of the mansion and a walled garden. Of the original building only a large barn with buttresses survives. The present house was rebuilt circa 1850 in the Neo-Tudor style with a baronial hall at right angles designed by

Philip Hardwick in collaboration with Gould of Barnstaple. Along the front are bell-shaped gables and wide mullion windows. It is Grade 2 Listed.

The site has been occupied by the same family - descendants of the Chichesters - for the past seven hundred years. On a gate post is a figure of a heron - symbol of the Chichesters - like those at Arlington Court.

The route continues through a fascinating collection of barns and outbuildings in a mixture of cob, stone and brick, some with gothic windows and carved doors or sporting a fox weather vane or ornamental cupola.

In the middle of the yard is a quaint old granary, raised off the ground by cylindrical supports, Some pretty red-legged partridges appeared in a field behind the barns. A hare raised its head above a dip in the field and a green woodpecker landed close by; the only sign of human activity, a post van rumbling down the stony drive.

Chapelton to Hall via Herner is a walk I should recommend highly to anyone who enjoys old buildings, wild flowers and quiet, gentle landscape.

Paul Swailes



"Butting through the Channel in the mad March days"

John Masefield

Downend is a headland of low cliffs at the southern end of Croyde Bay. On the road from Saunton, just beyond the third layby, a narrow opening beside a derelict lookout station, gives access to the coast path. The castellated lookout station is a bizarre building with wooden outshots supported by brackets and stilts. This is the only steep section of an otherwise level walk.

Below is a wave-cut platform of rock, formed in the Ice Age and known as a 'raised beach'. Although the rocks are grey and black the patches of sand between them are pinkish cream and in one area of beach, almost pure white.

From here in the winter sea going ducks may be observed. I was told that in mid-December a large flock [more than a hundred] of common scoter was seen off Downend and just two eider duck.

But as we scanned the shore in early March all we found were 'the usual suspects' - cormorants diving, a curlew flying past, a few active rock pipits, great black backed gulls and most plentiful of all, oyster catchers noisily announcing their arrival as they landed to join those already on the rocks.

This was the location of the wreck of the Ceres; a ketch built at Salcombe in 1811 to take supplies to Spain where the Duke of Wellington's troops were fighting in the Peninsular War. In 1852 it was bought and enlarged by a Bude ship owner. But in 1937 the Ceres foundered off Croyde and its crew was rescued by the Appledore lifeboat.

In several places the edge of the coast path had been severely eroded but is still passable. The neat yellow flowers of coltsfoot sparkled along the cliff top. The dandelion-like blooms appear before the large leaves. The stems bear overlapping fleshy, purplish scales.

These stems were boiled with brown sugar to produce a cough syrup. The plant was also used as a herbal tobacco. Coltsfoot's Latin name is Tussilago farfara, tussis being Latin for a cough.

We descended to the beach where the sand was firm underfoot and resembled a colourful mosaic with the fragments of blue mussel shells mixed with tiny orange and red pebbles. The bulky white shape of a cargo vessel of the Grimaldi Lines loomed on the horizon; an Italian shipping company based in Genoa.

At the stream which dissects the beach we found, in the company of pied wagtails and a male stonechat, a small plump wader, a sanderling - Calibris alba. Alba because in winter plumage it is the whitest of the smaller waders having a white head and underparts, pale grey back, straight black bill and black legs. Darting back and forth along the water's edge it feeds on molluscs, insects and crustaceans and travels to breed in Greenland and Siberia.

We scrambled up over the sandhills, following the coast path route, to reach the track leading to the village.

Illustration by Paul Swailes



WALK NO. 136

A "sleepy" little village?

Returning from the sawmill at Pennymoor and seeking a short cut back to the main South Molton road we chanced upon Puddington.

There's a journalistic tendency to attach the adjectives "sleepy little" to any village being reported on,

regardless of size and often when the village community is far from sleepy with a variety of lively activities, events and clubs being organised.

However, as I walked around Puddington I saw no sign of human life; no traffic, no dogs being walked, not even a cat on a window sill. It felt like a deserted village.


Although it was only the third week of August there was already an autumnal air with a lowering grey sky and the swallows gathering on the telegraph wires; Dartmoor on the distant horizon looked dark and forbidding.

Puddington's church, dedicated to St. Thomas a Becket, was rebuilt in 1838 by W. Bowden. The churchyard appeared neglected; paint peeled on the door but the church held some surprises - some of them macabre. There is an octagonal font in the perpendicular style and some late 15th/early 16th century bench ends



More unusually, there is a 'memento mori' memorial plaque, with skull and crossbones, which had been saved from a fire at Honiton's church in 1911.


Two bells on display at the back of the church were removed there when the tower was declared unsafe.

According to the information board, in 1935 the sexton hanged himself on a bell rope.

On a more cheerful note, Puddington had been the home of a once famous humourist who called himself Jan Stewar and specialised in telling witty anecdotes in the Devonshire dialect.



Fauna among the Flora at Marwood Hill Gardens

Our esteemed editor had kindly given ma a voucher for entry to Marwood Hill and as most of our previous visits had been in Spring or Summer, we decided to delay our visit this time until the Autumn. I was curious to see what colour might remain in late September - especially after the soggy Summer - and before the russet and golden tones of Autumn leaves had got underway.

On arrival we headed for the quarry garden and soon discovered on a path, beside the ericaceous border, a dead mole. It is unusual to see these industrious and beautiful creatures above ground alive so although regrettable to find poor Moldy Warp like this, it did provide a rare opportunity to observe the special features which adapt it for a life underground, excavating its system of tunnels; the large muscular 'hands' with shovel-like palms and strong claws, the long flexible snout, club shaped tail and coat of dark velvety fur.

Moldy Warp. the creation of Alison Uttley in her Little Grey Rabbit books
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes

We went down to the middle lake where a secluded seat enabled us to pause to enjoy the view of the little island with its fine sculpture of a mother and two young children by John Robinson.

When we first visited Marwood Hill in the 1980's there were mandarins on the lake; the neat little ducks which looks as if they have been carved out of wood and painted in bright colours. They are no longer there and now there are mallards with moorhens and a few Canada geese. Grey wagtails flitted to and fro across the lake.

The rabbits we encountered among the eucalyptus trees were not at all timid. At the top of the hill is a spiral seat inside a circle of six silver birches.

In late September there were still a lot of flowers blooming in the bog garden; alpines flowering in the scree beds and in the Summer Garden, beyond the folly, the herbaceous plants were attracting red admirals and small tortoiseshells.

But the greatest number of butterflies were around a large shrub near the walled garden. The shrub was unfamiliar to me so I asked one of the gardeners what it was. She told me it was a clerodendron, also known as clerodendrum or glory tree. The fragrant flowers in August and September are followed by turquoise blue berries.

It was here I found the only painted lady butterfly I have seen all year. I like its Latin name Cynthia cardui. It is a migratory butterfly which cannot survive the British winter. I imagine the painted lady in a love triangle with the small and dull grizzled skipper jealous of his much larger and more colourful rival, the red admiral.

A curious plant caught my eye. I was surprised to learn it was a member of the pink family. Dianthus superbus. With its shaggy pink, deeply fringed petals it resembled a ragged robin.

A small rodent shot out from under the dianthus, crossed the path and disappeared among shrubs. It was a bank vole; its back being a rich reddish brown. A field vole would have been greying brown. This is the easiest way to distinguish between the two if you only have a glimpse.

Other differences are the length of tail. The bank vole's tail is about fifty per cent of the length of its head and body, whereas that of the field vole - alternatively named short-tailed vole - is only 30 per cent of the length of the head and body and all one colour. The bank vole's tail is bicoloured, dark on top and pale below. Both voles have very small ears but the field vole's ears are less visible than those of the bank vole.

Our autumnal walk of discovery around the gardens demonstrated that there's more to be enjoyed there than trees and flowers.

Illustrated by: Paul Swailes

Footnote: A big thank you from the staff and volunteers at the Garden for the support received for their Macmillan Fund Raising Event which raised over £1700 for this worthy cause! £491 was raised on the day but a fantastic amount of £1,244 came from Sage, the Eurasian Eagle Owl's collecting box throughout the season.

The Gardens are now closed for the winter but will welcome you all again from Friday,1st March 2013.



We Saw Meshaw

In a hollow where six roads converge, lies the small village of Meshaw, seven miles south-east of South Molton; a cluster of thatched cottages and pretty gardens packed with traditional cottage garden flowers.


Illustrated by: Paul Swailes

This is reflected in the choice of house names. I saw at least three with the word 'rose' in the title. Apart from the main road to Witheridge, the other roads rise steeply out of the village giving the impression of a compact and sheltered little settlement.

Lavender and pale yellow rock roses grew near the church gate and tight rubbery clumps of stonecrop hugged the ground; the yellow flowers so luminous that an old country name for the plant was 'Welcome Home Husband Be Ye Ever So Late'.

The steep path through the churchyard was bordered by ox-eye daisies, cat's ears and orange hawkweed - the latter a naturalised garden escape. I like its alternative name Fox and Cubs referring to the bright flowers grouped closely together, several to a stem.

The church of St. John the Baptist was rebuilt in 1838. The architect was R.D. Gould of Barnstaple who was also responsible for Butchers' Row, Bideford Town Hall and the rebuilding of Arlington church. The tower, however, is much older, dating from 1691, castellated but without pinnacles. The outer door of the porch was closed which often indicates yet another locked church. There is always a brief moment of suspense as you turn the handle but this time

the heavy door yielded. It is a simple, modest church; an all-in-one nave and chancel with no side aisles. Some nice stained glass windows in the chancel but no elaborately carved bench ends or other ancient features. Even the guide books have little to say about Meshaw church. However, there were two features which impressed me, both unusual in their different ways and which said a lot about the village, suggesting a generosity of spirit. The door of the bell tower was ajar and bore a notice ; 'Welcome to Meshaw Book Exchange' with an invitation to swap or buy books. The small space had been fitted out with book cases crammed with a good selection of contemporary fiction such as A.S. Byatt and William Boyd whilst classics available included Marcel Proust!

There was seating, a square of carpet, even a kettle. I bought a copy of The Pilgrim's Guide to Devon's Churches with details and illustrations of all 618 Anglican churches in Devon. Now there's a challenge - to visit all of that lot! A useful reference book, well presented and modestly priced.

In a prominent position in the nave, next to a copy of the famous painting of Jesus saying, 'Suffer the little children to come unto me'. was a large picture frame entitled 'Meshaw Evacuees 1939-45' containing photographs of the children with names, ages, dates of arrival to the village; a record of outings and activities, a sketch of the village and a Prayer of Thanks.

One hears accounts of the callous, even cruel treatment of evacuee children by their 'hosts' but here they seemed to have happily enjoyed the presence of the evacuees among them, drawing them into the life of the village and continuing to remember them.


When travelling less frequented routes in North Devon it is interesting to stop off at unfamiliar villages along the way, to have a wander and visit the church. There are always discoveries to be made.



Three heads better than one

Three giant wicker heads had been suspended from trees along the Tarka Trail between Torrington and Weare Giffard as part of a national 'Giants in the Forest' project to encourage people to visit the Biosphere Reserves in North Devon, Dumfries and Galloway and the Dyfi Valley in Wales, and to help raise awareness of the Biospheres' Nature Improvement Area work.

So, having read reports about the wicker heads in the Journal and the Gazette, naturally we were curious and set off from the Puffing Billy near Torrington to track down the 'giants'.

Tangles of mauve bush vetch and yellow wood avens grew alongside the track. A grey heron waited motionless beside the weir and then, just beyond the third of the old railway bridges which cross the River Torridge, we discovered the first of the wicker heads. We almost missed it.

Though enormous we had not noticed it as we walked past because it was located high in a tree and by chance we just happened to look up at the right moment. It was impressive; simultaneously comic and sinister.

The wicker heads were placed along the Trail in May and will stay until November. As they have been seeded with grass they will grow and chance with the seasons and the organisers hope people will photograph the heads over the summer and autumn to create a record of these changes.

Illustration by:
Paul Swailes

We continued along the Tarka Trail scanning the trees for the other two heads. A few more benches had been added since our last visit, some quite sculptural like the sturdy three-breasted bench opposite a gap in the trees which gave a view of Weare Giffard Hall and church tower. Up a flight of steps a large shelter had been constructed from old railway sleepers.

Near Annery, in the narrow strip of land between the track and the road, there was a smallholding with ducks, hens and rabbits and an old fruit cage. A viewing platform overlooked the river and a family of swans with cygnets.

But we still had not found the remaining heads. Disappointed we retraced our steps. We had asked cyclists and other walkers we met en route if they had spotted the heads None of them had known about them either. The cyclists remarked that if they craned their necks to look for them up in the trees as they cycled they would have toppled off their bikes.

We paused to admire the view of the Beam Aqueduct also known as the Canal Bridge. It no longer carries water but was part of the Rolle Canal opened in 1827 to carry agricultural produce and imported coal and limestone until 1871 when it was superseded by a branch of the South Western railway which used part of the canal's route for its track bed.

In their book 'West Country Waterway Heritage : Discovering Inland Waterways in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset', Jean Hall and Joy Yeates claim that the Beam Aqueduct is 'one of the finest and most impressive canal features in the South West.' It is in a very beautiful setting spanning the River Torridge.

The canal had been the idea of Denys Rolle of Torrington and it was engineered by James Green, the Surveyor of Bridges for the County of Devon. It was intended to form part of a network of canals in North Devon and to link up with the Bude canal, but the six mile stretch to Bideford was all that materialised.

The Canal Bridge c. 1830

James Green pioneered a system of raising and lowering boats by means of inclined planes and lifts in hilly country, instead of using locks, thus saving time and water.

Suddenly, not far from where we had started our walk, two giant heads stared down at us, with more prominent noses than the first head; the wicker entwined with ivy, moss and polypody ferns. They were rather gorgeous. We greeted them with surprise.

According to the Biosphere organisers the heads were supposed by 'combining art, technology and the natural environment to inspire people to think about their surroundings and how they are changing' and 'to reflect on their relationship with the environment and the seasons.'

Well, I don't know about that. Those lofty aims certainly had not been realised by all the people who had walked or cycled pasT the giant heads without even realising they were there.

However, they are fun and I would recommend hotfooting along to the Tarka Trail at the Puffing Billy sometime between now and November to see them while they are still there.


Photographs by courtesy of Matt Edworthy of the North Devon Biosphere Service



'It's a shore thing.'


Illustration by: Peter Rothwell

When walking North Devon's wonderful variety of coast paths I often try to work out the attraction of being within sight of the sea; whether gazing out over the vast expanse of water from the high cliff tops of Exmoor or standing at a sandy shoreline.

Crossing the Burrows on a calm and sunny day, the first view of the sea is always a revelation as if seen for the first time. The smooth pale sand and the sheer beauty of blue sea meeting blue sky; the intensity of the colour blue. On days like that the sight of the sea is simultaneously soothing and exhilarating.

The film 'A Matter of Life and Death' made in 1946 [by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger] includes a scene filmed at Saunton Sands. An airman, played by David Niven, lands in the sea having jumped from his burning plane. As he walks up the beach, looking around in awe, he assumes he must have died and gone to heaven.

Adding to the strangely surreal atmosphere, a young boy sits at the edge of the dunes playing a pipe and surrounded by goats! Happily, Sixty-six years after this memorable scene was shot, that spectacular stretch of shore remains unspoilt.


Illustration by: Paul Swailes

Even on days when the sea is rough and pewter grey it still exerts its magnetic pull. At Windy Corner on Ilfracombe's sea front it can be difficult to remain upright as the wind tries to force you back inland.

It was from there one late Sunday afternoon in April, as the boats 'Osprey', 'Kingfisher' and 'Jay Jay' were doing a brisk trade in fishing trips, that we noticed a large number of herring gulls circling over the sea - but not around the fishing boats. Their attention was concentrated on something round in the water close to the shore; the head of a grey seal. We watched it diving, catching and eating fish.


Illustration by: Paul Swailes

In his fascinating book, 'Land's Edge : A Coastal Memoir', the Australian author and environmentalist, Tim Winton, muses on his liking to be near the sea; to see it each day if possible, despite not feeling any great restless need to travel on it. He concludes, 'The sea is as disturbing as it is reassuring'.

Winton has a theory that west coasts tend to be lonely, wild and remote; that they are often the final frontiers whereas east coasts tend to be civilised, sociable and sensible. This he considers applies to the western and eastern coasts of Australia but he believes this contrast can also be seen in west and east coasts elsewhere. So glory be to our wild and remote coastline - our 'final frontier'.



Far From the Madding Crowd at Maiden Castle

Last year in early May we were passing through Dorchester when I was surprised to see from the map how close Maiden Castle was.Only a couple of miles from the town it was worth a detour.

We walked along the track leading to the ancient monument.It loomed impressively ahead, much bigger than I had expected.

Illustration by Paul Swailes

The guide book claimed not only is it the best example of a prehistoric fortress in Britain, with enormous earthworks, but Maiden Castle is also one of the finest Iron Age hill forts in Europe.

The short turf was studded with cowslips and the air was full of linnets and skylarks.Several stonechats perched on bushes at the side of the track.I turned my head in the direction of a harsh churring sound and caught sight of the mistle thrush responsible for it.

As we reached the hill fort a bright orange butterfly; a small heath, fluttered past slowly and low to the ground.There was a view, somewhat incongruously of Prince Charles Poundbury development, looking rather like a Toytown version of how a housing estate should be.Well, at least the inhabitants of Poundbury are able to enjoy a wonderful view of Maiden Castle.

It is about three-quarters of a mile long.The Romans built a temple at the eastern end.From a distance it had appeared to be a smooth and solid mound but we found ourselves in a complex system of earthworks folding and circling about us like hills within a hill.What a feat of engineering those Ancient Britons achieved.

My companion had gone a little way ahead and was soon out of sight.When I saw him on top of an escarpment, which dropped steeply only to rear up just as steeply on the opposite side, I felt a sense of deja vu although I had never been there before.

I recognised it as the location for the scene in the film version of Thomas Hardys Far From the Madding Crowd, in which Sergeant Troy [played by Terence Stamp] impresses Bathsheba Everdene [played by Julie Christie] with his swordsmanship.

Having assured her first that the sword is blunt Troy, brilliant in brass and scarlet, shows off his prowess, charging up and down the slopes, brandishing his sword ever closer to the watching Bathsheba until finally he uses it to cut off a lock of her hair.

But you said that it was blunt and couldnt cut me!" she protested.

That was to get you to stand still, and so make sure of your safety.The risk of injuring you through your moving was too great not to force me to tell you a fib."Troy explained.

Bathsheba shuddered, I have been within an inch of my life and didnt known it!"

These were the images that popped unexpectedly into my head as we wandered about the strange landscape of Maiden Castle.

Although Bathsheba marries Sergeant Troy, the marriage is a disaster and she finally settles with the dependable shepherd Gabriel Oak.He tells her, Whenever I look up there you shall be and whenever you look up there shall I be."

I wondered what Bathsheba and Gabriel would have made of Poundbury or what their creator Thomas Hardy an architect before he found fame as a writer would have thought of it.A carbuncle on the face of his beloved Casterbridge?



"Spring in the air Mrs. Jones?"
"No! Why should I?"

As I write on the third day of the new year, there are reports of winds gusting to 84 mph in parts of the west country whilst Edinburgh has experienced winds exceeding 100 mph.

But it is mild, whereas I see from my old diary that last year on the third of January we had snow. On the same day there was an earth tremor in North Yorkshire, registering 3.6 on the Richter Scale, which could be felt in Lincolnshire and Cumbria. The following day there was a partial eclipse of the sun. So, a lot of drama!

Having seen primroses in mid-November and the first celandine in December, I decided to extend my trip to the village shop by going up Castle Hill and down Ridge Hill looking for signs of spring.

On the roadside banks - goose grass, the dark green leaves of lungwort blotched with pale green and the heart-shaped leaves of archangel with their silver chevrons; patches of violets flowering among them.

On top of a grassy bank the while bells of snow flake, which usually follows its relative the snowdrop, had been putting on a fine display for a few weeks. With them a lone grape hyacinth which would normally flower in April.


At the bottom of Rectory Hill the wall valerian was blooming and the yellow sowthistle. I surprised a weasel crossing the footpath over the field. It soon vanished in the undergrowth carrying a rabbit bulkier than itself. Growing with holly by the gate is Butcher's Broom, a strange shrub with bottle green branches. The tips of the oval leaves are deceptively sharp because despite their appearance, they are not true leaves but modified and flattened stems.

At the top of the path were clumps of wild chives which have a more garlicky flavour than the garden variety. They are useful as a stopgap and by the time the garden chives are ready for cutting the wild ones will have become too coarse to be palatable.

Halfway up Castle Hill the yellow-green umbels of Alexanders had opened out and the neat round leaves of wall pennywort or navelwort were showing with a few furled leaves of cuckoo pint.

A flock of starlings took off from a field opposite Croft Lee to perform an aerial ballet.

Near the top of Ridge Hill the springy four-sided twigs of spindle [euonymus] still bore pink, lobed capsules opening to reveal orange coated seeds. Further down the hill, where it was more sheltered, were several lesser celandines, Wordsworth's favourite flower.

Another unseasonal flower I was surprised to find in December was triangular garlic [or three-cornered leek] at Torrs Park, Ilfracombe. A spike of white bells, it would usually flower in April or May. I have been picking purple sprouting broccoli since the end of September although this year I had tried a late variety, which should be cropping in April and May, instead of the usual Early Purple Sprouting ready from February or March. This is very curious.

So far the wood pigeons are leaving it alone. A line up of pigeons, one atop each plant, can look very comical but they have a devastating effect on the tender shoots. This year pheasants have been coming into the garden and they also head straight for the purple sprouting plot but no sign of damage yet.

The awful pun I've used as a heading is one of the seasonal quips with which the Welsh father of Andrew Davies [adapter of many classic novels for television] used to annoy his family and customers. The other being: "Winter draws on Mrs. Jones?" "None of your business!"


Illustrated by Paul Swailes


WALK - 129


This month I am abandoning the moor and the marsh; the coast path and the river bank and going instead for a walk around a building! A very special building by one of the greatest architects of the Arts and Crafts movement, Charles Francis Annesley Voysey 1857-1941.


The former Winsford Cottage Hospital at Halwill Junction near Beaworthy [a few miles south-east of Holsworthy] is a rare example of Voysey's work in Devon.

Built in 1899, in memory of her husband George, it was the inspiration of Maria Webb-Medley whose country estate was in the neighbourhood. She was the daughter of a Victorian artist and illustrator of children's books, Henry Selous, celebrated in his day but now largely forgotten.

In 1900 in a report about the new hospital, the Western Morning News dubbed it 'A Lady's Noble Gift'. A hundred years later the hospital closed and in 1999 the Winsford Trust was set up to secure ownership of the building, recognising its architectural importance - it is Grade 2 Listed - the Trust's stated mission was 'to ensure that this distinctive building is fully restored; remains in public ownership and provides a base for activities that will enrich the local people and a wider audience.'

When this year a series of open days was held to allow the public to view the former cottage hospital, we jumped at the opportunity having wandered around the outside of the empty and abandoned building about twelve years ago, soon after it had ceased to be a hospital.

The one-storey building fronts a quiet, rural road and bears many of Voysey's hallmark features; deep roofs, gables, five broad chimneys and one tall and tapering one, long windows tucked under the eaves, a generous and welcoming porch - all typical characteristics of the domestic architecture with which he is most associated.

In fact Winsford was the only hospital he ever designed and not surprisingly the Western Morning News remarked on its 'cosy and homelike air'.

To the rear of the building two wings project - these housed the four wards - and between them a verandah, where convalescing patients could sit overlooking a south facing garden with pleasant and open views of fields and woodland with Dartmoor in the distance.


A small orchard was even provided at one end of the lawn. The fruit trees are still there today and on our first visit, when the site was not being used, we found the secluded garden had become a haven for birds; a great spotted woodpecker, a flock of gold finches and a spotted flycatcher making forays from an apple tree.

Voysey had wanted the building to be in harmony with its surroundings, to give a sense of protection 'quietness in a storm', he said. He held the conviction that no detail was too small to deserve the attention of the architect and at the Winsford Cottage Hospital this can be seen in the beauty and simplicity of his window fittings, door hinges and handles, all of which have survived very well.

A principle of Arts and Crafts designers was that form should follow function - hence the asymmetry of some of the elevations rather than forcing rooms into the rigid proportions of formal Georgian or neo-classical facades.

Voysey also designed furniture, textiles and wallpaper. Coincidentally, he was born the same year as Barnstaple born architect William Lethaby, that other great luminary of the Arts and Crafts movement and promoter of its ideals.


When we visited again in September this year, we were greeted by Perry Evans who gave us a fascinating tour of the building. The bright entrance hall has an art nouveau fireplace with glazed tiles and the floor is paved with small yellow mosaic tiles.

The operating theatre, kitchen, laundry and nurses' rooms were along the front of the building. Here there were smaller fireplaces with Voyseys' signature heart motif. We were shown the decorative air vents which incorporated animal and plant patterns. Such attention to detail. The place was light and airy and from the wards the patients looked onto the garden and farmland beyond.

Should you have the chance to visit and walk around this architectural gem in the heart of the Devon countryside, I would highly recommend it.


[Acknowledgement and grateful thanks to Perry Evans, Development Officer at the Winsford Trust, for showing us around and for additional information.]

Illustrated from original drawings by Paul Swailes



'Somewhere beyond the sea : The north-west extremity of Devon

"If an unfortunate vessel is driven by a north-west or a south-west gale within the horns of Hartland and Padstow points, God help her hapless crew for she is doomed to certain destruction!" wrote William Hurton in 1852. "Along the coast there is no harbour or refuge, nothing but iron rocks. Here the roar of the ocean is incessant and mighty waves fling themselves against the giant cliffs."

In more recent times, in his attractive book 'Along the Shore', Mike Towns the former warden of Northam Burrows Country Park commented: "Struggling to remain on your feet in the teeth of a gale at Hartland Point brings home just why the Romans called this wind blasted spot 'the Promontory of Hercules'."

By contrast it was a lovely day when we walked out to Hartland Point; mild and sunny with a gentle breeze. Four grey seals were surfing the waves in Barley Bay on the eastern side of the point while out at sea gannets were converging. Eventually there must have been about thirty of them. We watched as they started to dive; wings drawn back, then the plunge from a great height followed by a big splash. Magnificent birds.

The narrow road beyond the lighthouse gate is now out of bounds to the public and when we saw the huge chunks of rock which had fallen from the cliff on to the track we could see why.

So instead we walked past the emergency water catchment area and up to the coast guard lookout, 325 feet above sea level, where there is a good view of the lighthouse on its small plateau 200 feet lower down.


Illustrations by Paul Swailes

Built in 1874 it took three years to construct. First the inaccessible site had to be surveyed from the sea before the road was blasted out of the side of the cliff and the site levelled.

When completed, Bishop Temple of Exeter, later Archbishop of Canterbury, officiated at its blessing. From Blagdon Cliff, to the west of the coast guard lookout, can be seen the rusty remains of a wrecked ship on the beach below.

On the 31st December 1982 the Johanna, a 978 ton Panamanian registered coaster, ran ashore just south of the lighthouse.

Hartland Point is a good place for sea watching and we saw flying past fulmars, great black-backed gulls, a few razorbills and further out

towards Lundy - which is only twelve miles from the point - a line of manx shearwaters. They are present between April and September as they breed on Lundy.

Ninety per cent of the world population of manx shearwaters breed in colonies around the coasts of Britain and Ireland. In the autumn the shearwaters from Lundy cross the Atlantic to the shores of South America, a journey which can take a month.

A team from Oxford University has been monitoring their movements and has found that the shearwaters tend to fly down the western coast of North Africa so that they can make the shortest possible crossing of the Atlantic to the coast of Brazil; from there along the coasts of Uruguay and Argentina, finally reaching Patagonia.

As we headed for the Radar Station on North Cliff we found clumps of wood vetch drifting down the cliffs; its tendrils allowing it to sprawl over other vegetation. Its white flowers are delicately veined with purple and nationally it is rather a scarce plant, though less so on sea cliffs between Minehead and Hartland.

It is occasionally found on the edges of woods and I have seen it growing on a section of the old railway line near the Slade Reservoirs.

The Radar Station is the strange structure; a large white sphere on top of a tall 'stalk' which can sometimes be spotted from our own shores, especially Baggy or Morte Points.



Good Day at Blackchurch Rock

I'd had a distant glimpse of Blackchurch Rock from out at sea on board a heaving and rolling Balmoral. I'd seen photographs of it in books and was intrigued by this strange and unusual rock formation.

It is a dark pyramid at the eastern end of remote Mouthmill Beach, west of Clovelly, punctuated by two large pointed holes which resemble Gothic windows.

In a recent article in the North Devon Journal, in which people were asked what were their favourite places along the North Devon coast,

Dave Edgecombe, Project Officer for the Area of outstanding Natural Beauty, chose Mouthmill Beach which he described as 'a real hidden

gem . . . far from the madding crowd.' His family had spent '. . . many a happy hour whiling away the day there.'

We started our walk from the National Trust car park at Brownsham, a small hamlet reached by a maze of lanes from the Hartland road.

A broad track through a wooded combe leads eventually to the beach. The Sitka Spruce and Douglas Fir make this a rather gloomy trek but the monotony was relieved by the wild flowers; Enchanter's Nightshade and Yellow Pimpernel with, in the damper areas, Brooklime and Hemlock

Water Dropwort. The needles of Douglas Fir have the scent of oranges when crushed.

Suddenly the prospect opened out and there was the beach composed of rocks, pebbles and boulders. Mouthmill is a lonely atmospheric cove with its disused quay and large lime kiln with the remains of two derelict cottages behind it.


Paul Swailes

There is a view of Lundy and across Bideford Bay to Baggy and Morte Points. We picked our way carefully over the rocky shore to reach Blackchurch Rock. It did not disappoint. It loomed above us suitably sombre and mysterious.

The poet and radical Charles Kingsley, author of The Water Babies and Westward Ho! lived nearby when he was a boy. His father was the Rector of Clovelly.

In 1849 Kingsley described Mouthmill: 'A deep crack in wooded hills; an old mill half buried in rocks and flowers over which wild boys and bare-footed girls were driving their ponies with panniers full of sand and as they rattled back to the beach for a fresh load, standing upright on the back of their steeds, with one foot in each pannier, at full trot over rocks and stones where a landsman would find it difficult to walk.' [The particles of shell in the sand being used to neutralise acid soils.]

Hard nowadays to picture this quiet place the scene of such activity.


Blackchurch Rock from the Tom Bartlett Postcard Collection






The Colour Blue


In recent years there has been a controversy involving Britain, Spain and a small chestnut coloured duck with white cheeks and a bright blue bill.

A native of North America, the Ruddy Duck was introduced into captive collection in the UK in the 1930's. Two escaped from the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Slimbridge in the early '50's. Five years later, twenty more escaped until eventually the pretty duck had successfully established itself outside Britain - including Spain, where through hybridisation it threatened the existence of the closely related and highly endangered White-Headed Duck.

In view of this, the European Commission funded a cull of Ruddy Ducks to eradicate the alien species from Europe and aid the conservation of the White-Headed Duck. Not everyone was happy with this!


A similar situation, though in reverse, has concerned the native bluebell Endymion [or Hyacinthus] non-scriptus and the Spanish bluebell Endymion [or Hyacinthus] hispanicus. So many of our typical spring flowers, like the snowdrop, have their origins in the Eastern Mediterranean but Hyacinthus non-scriptus is a true native and special to Britain.

Unfortunately, garden escapes of the larger, paler Spanish bluebell naturalise and interbreed with our wild bluebells possibly jeopardising their numbers in future.

To experience the shimmering colour and fragrance of a bluebell wood in May, we went to the RSPB reserve, Chapel Wood at Spreacombe.

There, between the trees, the racemes of flowers, arranged on one side of the stem and drooping at the tip, ebbed and flowed with the breeze.

The Spanish variety is more erect and does not have the flowers confined to one side of the spike. Another distinguishing feature - our Hyacinthus non-scriptus has cream anthers whereas Hyacinthushispanicus has blue anthers.

As we reached the top of the hill the blue became more intense with the flowers more closely packed together and less greenery and stitchwort between to dilute the colour. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called the patches of bluebells 'falls of sky colour'.

On the western side of the wood we were pleased to find that the steep path had been much improved, making the descent feel a lot safer. The work had been carried out by Western Power apprentices as a community project. Halfway down, a sturdy bench provided a good place to stop and watch woodpeckers, nuthatches and assorted warblers.

Near the site of the ancient chapel some children were absorbed in woodcraft related activities, laid on by the RSPB for the Bank Holiday.

Once we had arrived at Chapel Wood as a couple of visitors from California were leaving. Although the bluebells were just past their best, the Americans were enthralled. They had not seen anything like it.

The nature writer, Richard Mabey, describes bluebell woods as 'a uniquely British spectacle'.

Chapel Wood

Illustrated by: Peter Rothwell



Three Bridges

A walk along the River Taw in late spring, from Seven Brethren Bank to Elmpark Copse opposite Bishops Tawton.

Once the retail park was left behind, there was blossom along the path: elderflowers and the creamy white flower-heads of guilder rose [Viburnum opulus], The outer row of flowers are three times the size of the flowers at the centre, but they are sterile. It is the small florets which secrete nectar. The guilder rose is an attractive shrub with leaves divided into three lobes.


The path passed under the old disused railway bridge; now a footbridge from Rock Park opposite. The bushes were full of the red and yellow flashes of a charm of goldfinches. The air was full of swallows. As the river curved beside Pill House and Rumsam, we passed beneath the second bridge - this time the great concrete structure of the by-pass.


Two shelduck were standing in a damp field next to a patch of yellow flag irises. A female kestrel hovered overhead; swooped; caught a small rodent.

Soon we came to the third bridge - the railway bridge carrying the Tarka Line. A train rumbled over it as we approached. The ground was covered with the mauve flowers of bush vetch. There were also the deeper purple flowers of common vetch. A male stonechat perched on some brambles sounding its eponymous alarm.


We climbed the steep path which led to Elmpark Copse, full of the blue spikes of bugle and brown and cream speckled wood butterflies. But we did not manage to get far because the little wood was overgrown and we had to turn back.

And this turned out to be serendipitous because as we returned along the riverside path, between the copse and the railway bridge, we heard an unfamiliar sound - couldn't recognise it at all - a noisy chattering, a loud rattling coming from some twiggy bushes.

We located the strange noise. It was being produced by what appeared at first glance to be two whitethroats. They certainly had white throats but were slightly smaller and greyer with shorter tails and darker faces.

The tiny birds were actually lesser whitethroats [Sylvia currucua]. They are summer visitors and passage migrants and the south-west of England is on the edge of their range. They are more secretive than the more common whitethroat, seeking mature hedgerows, scrub and dense ground cover.

The unintentionally funny description of a lesser whitethroat, in one of my field guides is: 'a relatively short-tailed warbler with retiring habits'!

Illustrated by Paul Swailes



"It's only just out of reach,

round the block, on the beach,

under a tree . . . "

Stephen Sondheim

We were standing on Grey Sand Hill at the edge of Northam Burrows watching groups of Brent Geese flying along the estuary to assemble on the Skern.

It was New Year's Day and a brutal wind was blowing; penetrating the wool of our gloves and making our fingers numb but these handsome geese are always a joy to observe whether on the water or on land. But in flight they make a fine spectacle.

The seaweed on the shoreline was moving. Closer inspection revealed several Turnstones flipping over the strands of seaweed searching for invertebrates. These small industrious waders, with tortoiseshell patterned plumage, are capable of tipping over quite large pebbles.

We followed around the edge of the Skern where there were a lot of Shelduck, a few Curlews and Widgeon. As we crossed the little bridge over the Pill, a flock of gold finches took off from the corner of a small paddock and below them something moved by the hedge. It was a Snipe, just a fleeting glimpse before it disappeared.


Paul Swailes

From the lane we heard a hoarse rasping cry so crept back to look in the field again. There were Redwings and Lapwings and then between the horses, two stripy heads and long necks appeared above the tussocks of grass.

As they emerged, the cream stripes on their backs could be seen clearly. We watched them jabbing their long bills into the ground for worms. Snipe are shy birds, often staying hidden but they tend to be more conspicuous in cold weather. The collective noun is a 'wisp' of Snipe.

A man had arrived with a telescope so we pointed out the Snipe to him. He told us he had only recently started watching birds having been active in a group which studied moths. A fellow member of the group had encouraged him to extend his interest in natural history to include birds.

When out walking and there's a sudden movement on a beach, up a tree, in a field, under a hedge - it's always worth a second look. It could be something special. Who knows?!



November. No entry. We negotiated the maze of closed and barricaded paths to reach Newberry Beach, then past cottages and up the steep lane to Sandaway. Old Man's Beard sprawled over the hedges; the fluffy seed heads of Traveller's Joy, the wild clematis. Along the way naturalised fuchsias and hebes were still in flower.

At the top of the lane, a short walk along the roadside verge and then down a half-hidden but sign posted path. When we had last gone that way in June it had been very overgrown. We fought out way through the brambles and nettles to emerge in the corner of the caravan site's car park.

Holiday makers looked startled to see two geriatrics, dishevelled and daubed with 'cuckoo spit' [insect larvae deposited on plants] appear where no path had been evident.

But now in November, it was much easier; crunchy beech and sycamore leaves underfoot and just the odd low branch, festooned in ivy, to duck under. Ivy is so useful to birds for food and shelter. On the path

ahead, blackbirds were turning over dead leaves. A discreet yellow way marker arrow indicated the way to the beach, down seventy plus steps.

The bronze peak of Little Hangman came into view looking deceptively close. The quiet little cove at the eastern end of Sandy Bay has boulders and pavements of rock; silver grey with white stripes and smoothed by the action of the sea. Large outcrops are tufted with holly and gorse. Bladder wrack popped beneath our tread.

A wren could be heard chirring in the bushes; another further up was singing loudly. Appropriate that the wren's Latin name is troglodytes troglodytes, cave dweller, for we were heading for a cave.

It has a narrow entrance, a passage way open to the sky approximately thirty feet long and then the cave itself about the same length, around sixty feet in height and seven feet wide. The 'walls' are dark wine red, embossed with limpets and at the far end is a smooth ledge of shiny pewter coloured stone.

In June when we visited the cove, as we stepped out of the cave we found the Balmoral sailing past, looking very serene and completing the seascape.

Illustration: Paul Swailes



Sanderlings and Sandwich Terns on Saunton Sands

It was a glorious day in late August but as we crossed the Burrows we'd only encountered a small party of cyclists.

On reaching the beach we found a sparse scattering of sunbathers along the edge of the dunes. However, about a mile away, at the popular end of the beach, through the heat haze, the crowds of holiday makers appeared like an abstract pattern of flickering colours, more shimmering mosaic than human.

A dog bounding along the water's edge disturbed a group of small pale waders. They landed again a short distance away and ran about the shoreline. They were Sanderlings, a scarce winter visitor and passage migrant.

However, they occur on the Exe Estuary and the Taw/Torridge Estuary, together with Saunton Sands more than at any other sites in Devon. Here they may be seen throughout the year, whereas at other Devon sites they are present for only a limited number of months.

Some way off we noticed a few Common Gulls resting on the beach looking very docile. They, too, are classed as winter visitors or passage migrants but in the last Devon Bird Report, twenty-one were recorded in the area of the Taw/Torridge Estuary in August, whilst there were few August records elsewhere in the country and in single figures only.


The damp sand was firm underfoot which made the walk along the beach a pleasure - none of that sinking feeling that can slow up a walk on sand. As we came closer to the gulls we found that the two birds at the edge of the group and facing the sea were Sandwich Terns [a similar size]. They were already in autumn plumage with a white patch of forehead showing between the black cap and the long black bill with its yellow tip. The wispy crest at the back of the crown was clearly visible. We heard their rasping 'kirrik' call as they flew out to sea to join another half dozen Sandwich Terns which were diving frequently.

It is fascinating to watch these graceful, agile birds. When they have completed the dive they come up again quickly without the need to rest briefly before taking to the sky, as the considerably larger gannet does. It is the commonest tern in Devon where it is most likely to be seen off the south coast and in much larger numbers. April,

August and September are the months to look out for Sandwich Terns on the coast of North Devon.

Illustrations: Paul Swailes



Lady Smile

When we had last descended Trentishoe Down to reach the hidden path called Ladies Mile, the steep slopes had been blackened by recent fire, making it bleak and forbidding. But now it was transformed. The fresh green 'croziers' of the new bracken were pushing through the peaty soil and between them, a mixture of milkwort, tormentil and bedstraw, around which flitted small heath butterflies. Among the small heaths were a few green hairstreaks. I had come to this rough terrain in mid-June especially in the hopes of finding these small butterflies. When landing on a flower, it perches with closed wings and it's the hind wings which are the attractive part of this butterfly. They appear to have been shaded in by a soft green chalk.

Green hairstreaks are on the wing for a relatively short time and if I have not seen one by the end of June, I know I am likely to have to wait 'til the following year. Last year I went over the Torrs where one or two green hairstreaks can usually be found in June but I searched in vain. Some way off we had noticed a lady walking her dog, stoop to take a photograph. Later, as we completed our circuit she caught us up and told us that she liked taking photographs of insects. It was a new hobby We mentioned we'd been looking out for green hairstreaks. She showed us the photograph she had taken of a butterfly that afternoon and asked us what it was. It was - of course - a green hairstreak!

As we approached Ladies Mile the hill became steeper and it was easier to go down backwards on all fours as one slid on the gravelly stones underfoot. In this sort of situation I start to wonder why it is possible to walk up a steep path with confidence but going down there is a fear of slipping and falling. Yet it is the same hill. There is probably a logical explanation or maybe it is psychological after all - irrational trepidation.

Reaching the path through the narrow strip of woodland, we were rewarded by brief glimpses of a pair of grizzled skippers, difficult to see as they darted among the leaves in the dappled light and shade, with their chequered pattern of black and white. The caterpillars feed on the leaves of wild strawberry and various members of the rose family.

In a little sunny clearing, by a glowing copper beech, we found a small flock of the scarce pearl-bordered fritillaries, a butterfly we had never seen before. They were attracted to a patch of slender thistles. With their bright orange colouring, they have the pattern of black spots and veins on the upper wings typical of the fritillary family.

On the hind wings, however, there is a row of pearl-like patches. The pearl-bordered fritillary is a butterfly of woodland and scrubby coastal grassland where gorse is regularly burnt back [swaling]. The eggs are laid on violets. The butterfly has declined severely since the 1950's. It is found more in Wales and the south-west. May and June are the special months for spotting these three small, special varieties of butterfly.

Several paths radiated out from the clearing. We took the one that led up towards the road and Holdstone Down. A bullfinch crossed the path and hastily disappeared. Overhead were swallows and larks. Somewhere a wren sung its incredibly loud pure song.

Illustrated by : Paul Swailes  



'Bring forth May flowers.'

The anonymous rhyme, 'March winds and April showers. Bringeth vo'th May flowers' was collected by Frederick Thomas Elworthy in his 'West Somerset Word-Book' 1886.

This spring the April showers had been strangely absent but the grassy slopes above the Hoaroak Water at Hillsford Bridge were liberally studded with May flowers - violets, primroses and blue spikes of pyramidal bugle.

We followed the path to Lynmouth. It was not long before we spotted the two stars of these fast flowing, boulder strewn rivers - the dipper and the grey wagtail.

We took the short detour to the waterfall. It was more impressive than I remembered it to be but it gets less attention than the waterfall further along at Watersmeet.

Nearby were patches of wood anemone and the rare Irish spurge [Euphorbia Hyberna], a handsome plant with yellow-green flowers. This is the only place in England where it grows.

Between Watersmeet and Lynmouth, 'Myrtleberry' had always been a focus of cosy domesticity amid the grandeur of the deep gorge. But the hens and beehives had disappeared from the tiny meadow across the river and the house and garden were completely hidden behind high 'fortifications'.

However, a little further on, the stoneware ginger beer bottle was still set into the rock, marking the site where the Lynrock Water factory had been before it was swept away in the flood of 1952.

Along this stretch of the East Lyn River there is a series of natural pools; Ramsey Pool, Blackpool . . . under Blackpool Bridge there was much dipper activity.

Normally the words Blackpool and dipper would suggest an amusement park at a busy seaside resort, but here in this tranquil place, the dippers were dumpy, brown and white birds, adept at diving and swimming under water. They often nest under bridges or behind waterfalls.

Beyond the bridge the floral mixture changed - stitchwort, yellow archangel and mauve bush vetch. Green-veined white butterflies fluttered among the alkanet and triangular-stalked garlic, growing at the gravelly edges of the river.

Green-veined white butterflies resemble the small white in flight. But when they land the grey-green vein pattern can be seen on the hind wings. In the females of the summer brood, the veins are paler and less distinct.

As we reached Lynmouth the numbers of grey wagtails increased. The males showed the black throat patch of their summer plumage; perched on rocks, flicking their long tails; their bills crammed with flies.

Illustrated by: Paul Swailes


WALK 119

In pursuit of an April rarity: Romulea columnae

It was April and we were heading for the Dawlish Warren National Nature Reserve at the mouth of the Exe Estuary.

There is a flower that grows at Dawlish Warren and at no other location on the British mainland - so, a true rarity. It is the Sand Crocus [aka the Warren Crocus] and April is the month when it comes into bloom.


We wondered whether we were likely to find an example during our visit. A voluntary warden, working beside a pond, indicated the little dune meadow where the crocus grows. We searched thoroughly but found no crocuses. We were told that as the sun had gone in, the flowers would have closed their petals and were likely to remain closed, and thus invisible, for the remainder of the day.

We returned the following morning. It was bright and sunny - a good sign. But we searched again and found nothing. Feeling rather sheepish, we continued our walk, enjoying the coastal scenery, birds and butterflies.

When we came across the warden, we mentioned our lack of success. He explained that although the sun was out it had not yet been out sufficient hours to coax open the shy crocus petals.

We left the reserve via the railway bridge, which carries the mainline trains at frequent intervals. We paused along the road to admire an acacia tree, with its knobbly yellow mimosa flowers. The tree's owner soon popped out of her house to tell us about its history. She was proud of her splendid tree but had been asked to have it cut down when it was threatening nearby power lines. However, a compromise had been reached. A few offending boughs had been removed and the tree saved. She was keen to show us around her garden but when she suggested giving us a guided tour of her neighbours as well, we declined! We said we'd hoped to see the Sand Crocus but had failed totally. Were we so unobservant or had it all been anelaborate hoax? "You'll need a magnifying glass," she laughed, "It is very, very tiny."

That afternoon, at our third attempt, when we walked back to the Warren, we knelt down and scanned the short turf with our hand lens and quickly located the elusive flowers. And they were exquisite.

To appreciate fully the subtleties of colour and markings a magnifying glass proved a useful aid. The narrow pointed petals are pale lilac mauve with purple veins; yellow at the base with bright yellow anthers and a delicate apple green on the outside. The Sand Crocus plant is one to two inches high and the flowers, half an inch across when fully open. The thin grass-like leaves are curly and wiry.

Later, when we saw from the coast path a man walking slowly over the crocus meadow, staring earnestly down at the ground, we asked if he was looking for the Sand Crocus. He was, and suddenly we had become experts! We crouched down and found several open crocus flowers spangling the turf. We handed him the magnifying glass and on cue, as he photographed one of the flowers, a Small Copper butterfly landed on it. Normally mauve and bright orange clash but in this case the colour combination looked perfect.

The man had been travelling around the country seeking and photographing rare plants. He had received his training at Kew Gardens where he said he had been a contemporary of Alan Titchmarsh!


Illustrated by: Paul Swailes

W.A.W. - the 'Walkers are Welcome' Accreditation

Last autumn, at the time the future access to our local coast path, on the headland at Watermouth, was being

reviewed, Wiveliscombe in West Somerset was awarded the 'Walkers are Welcome' accreditation.

Described by Martin Hesp in the Western Morning News, as an accolade and an 'Oscar of the walking world', the W.A.W. status is expected to help strengthen Wiveliscombe's attraction for visitors and in turn, to boost the area's economy



'Tired we are of summer . . .
Fill the marsh with snipe.'

Charles Kingsley

In the autumn and winter, the circular walk from Yelland, alongside Isley Marsh and the River Taw to Instow and back via the Tarka Trail, yields plenty of sightings of waders and wild-fowl - many of them winter visitors.

However, when we took this route last November it provided some surprises, two birds we had not previously seen at that location - a Little Owl and a Green Woodpecker.

The Green Woodpecker flew into a hawthorn bush, near the entrance to the RSPB Reserve, where it was half hidden amongst the foliage. But when it came down to a patch of grass, startling a rabbit, we were able to watch it feeding warily until it crept behind a clump of Stinking Iris berries.

There were six Spoonbills on the marsh that day, standing close together at rest with their long bills tucked under their wings. Berrynarbor residents, Tim Davis and Tim Jones, have made a detailed and interesting study of the history of these spectacular birds becoming a regular feature on the Taw estuary since the late 1980's.

Sea Buckthorn, with its silver leaves and orange berries, grew around the site of the former power station. On the pond beyond the jetty a pair of Little Grebes disappeared beneath the surface. There was a lot of Bristly Ox-tongue still in flower beside the path; small yellow daisy-like flowers and leaves covered in vicious prickles.

Then as we approached the lane leading to Instow cricket ground, we saw the Little Owl perched on a low post between gorse and Tamarisk. Its yellow eyes stared intently. It had the appearance of a fawn egg streaked with brown. It remained static for a long time, apart

from turning its head. But after it had flown off we were lucky enough to spot it several more times from the cycle track.

In the winter of 2008, the arrival of a Long Eared Owl beside the Tarka Trail on the opposite bank of the Taw created a lot of interest.

According to Trevor Beer the ancient Greeks believed the Long Eared Owl to be so stupid that if you walked around it a couple of times it would turn its head and keep turning its head until it had strangled itself!

In praise of Leycesteria Formosa:

The Leycesteria Formosa is not the most elegant of shrubs. Its persistence in throwing up clusters of green cane-like suckers can be rather a nuisance. But how the birds love its purple berries, held within dark red bracts and arranged in pendulous 'lanterns'. The berries are especially popular with Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, Blackcaps and Bull Finches. For several weeks this winter we have had up to five Bull Finches feeding regularly on our Leycesteria

Illustrated by: Paul Swailes.


Our Local LOCAL WALK - 117

Two peregrines were perched companionably on their favourite ledge above Hagginton Beach. Along the path between Rillage Point and Samson's Bay there were several unseasonal flowers, of late spring and early summer, blooming again although it was now late September.

Men were fishing from the rocks and there were a number of kayaks and small sailing boats out on the water.


We had stopped at Widmouth Head to watch gannets diving when we spotted a pod of about half a dozen porpoises beyond Sexton's Burrow.


Their backs were arching above the surface of the water in a smooth, unhurried movement as they swam; their triangular dorsal fins prominent.

There were still a few tents and caravans at Watermouth but the path around the headland itself was deserted. Had it been possible to walk there, a wonderful view of the porpoises could have been enjoyed.

The combination of fresh air, exercise and beautiful scenery is restorative; so effective that walking is becoming more and more recognised as a form of therapy.

The poet and composer Ivor Gurney [1890-1937] spent the final fifteen years of his life as an inmate of a mental hospital in the City of London, in a room with no windows, separated from the source of his inspiration - the River Severn and the Gloucestershire countryside.

Eventually a friend brought him a set of Ordnance Survey maps so that he could relive his favourite walks in his imaginations.

I remember when as a school girl I was given my first one inch to the mile Ordnance Survey map of Taunton and Lyme Regis. [In those days, the cloth backed version cost an extra three shillings!] It was revelatory.

Not only was it aesthetically pleasing to look at but it opened up a vast possibility of hikes - the steepest hills; hidden patches of woodland; remote churches. With it I planned round routes for my Girl Guide patrol to venture out on Sunday afternoons.

This week we came a sizeable step closer to being able to walk around the entire coast of England - all 2,800 miles of it, with the passing of the Marine and Coastal Access Act on the 11th November. The Scottish coastline has already been opened up to walkers; the Welsh coast follows soon. The English coast will be available within the next ten years.


Illustrations by: Paul Swailes



Larks ascending over Dunkery

The Bristol Channel islands of Steep Holme and Flat Holm could be seen clearly and far, far away like a finely drawn white mirage, there was the Severn Bridge.

I was surprised to be able to see it from such a distance but a motorcyclist from Watchet arrived and confirmed that it was the Severn Bridge and that although he came to Dunkery Hill most weekends, just to enjoy the spectacular view, the bridge had never shown up so distinctly before.

As we walked to the Beacon, skylarks rose up from the heather, soaring higher and higher. A female kestrel hovered, fanning out her tail. In the direction of Horner a troop of horses, round the escarpment, broke into a canter.

I picked a few bilberries but in this dull damp summer they had not had enough sun to draw out their flavour and sweetness.

There was a small yellow and white flower I could not identify. It looked like cow-wheat but I was curious, never having seen a bicolour form of this plant; only the all-yellow cow-wheat common and plentiful in the sessile oakwoods of Exmoor [and more locally, in the weeds at the bottom of the lane leading to Bowden Farm]. So this

open moorland seemed the wrong sort of habitat. However, later when I looked it up I discovered that as well as the yellow woodland variety, there is a white cow-wheat splashed with pink which grows on moors. It is semi-parasitic on bilberry.

Illustrated by: Paul Swailes

It is also the food plant of the caterpillar of the heath fritillary, which is found only in two places in the Tamar Valley; a site to the north of Canterbury and - following a successful reintroduction programme to save it from extinction - some combes below Dunkery Beacon. It is on the wing in June and July.

A recent edition of Radio 4's 'Living World' featured the heath fritillary when Lionel Kellaway visited Hallscombe near Dunkery in pursuit of the butterfly. These 'radio nature trails' are a hidden gem, being broadcast at the unsocial hour of half-past six on a Sunday morning.

The orange and brown butterfly had faced extinction when grazing was reduced, allowing invasive plants, such as bracken, to increase and crowd out its food plant.

We were returning from Taunton via Wheddon Cross when it occurred to us that it must be about ten years since we had last been to Dunkery. Perhaps we shall make our return visit sooner - next June or July - to search for the heath fritillary, one of our rarest butterflies. Now there's something to look forward to!



'Let there be cuckoos, a lark and a dove . . . ' [song - Nat King Cole]

When in May 2005 I heard the cuckoo call from woods in the Sterridge Valley, for the first time in ten years, it seemed an encouraging sign.

Last year I heard it in the valley only once, briefly and distant. This year I did not hear it at all in the village. In fact I did not hear it anywhere else either and I miss it; those strange evocative notes that mark the passage from Spring into Summer.

A decade earlier while walking along the River Barle from Simonsbath in May, we had witnessed six cuckoos between Wheal Eliza and Cow Castle and along the hill path above Sherdon Hatch, perching in trees and bushes, fanning their long tails and calling exuberantly.

I now think it unlikely that we shall ever see anything like that again. It's hard to like the cuckoo with its ruthless behaviour; laying its eggs in the nest of a meadow pipit or dunnock then leaving the host bird with all the work of rearing and feeding. The baby cuckoo shoving out of the nest the surrogate bird's own eggs or newly hatched young.

Nevertheless, the prospect of its absence from our countryside in the future is to be regretted. The cause of the cuckoo's decline may lie in its Winter quarters in Africa. It may be that climate change has led to insect prey [such as moths and caterpillars] hatching too early before the migrants' return. The decline in the birds whose nests it parasitises may also be a contributory factor.

But whatever happens, I shall always associate the path along the River Barle and the grandeur of its scenery with our close encounters with Cuculus canorus. Of Exmoor's most popular walks, this route from Simonsbath must be one of the most beautiful and spectacular.

Yet on one occasion the highlight of the day took place right at the beginning of our walk as we were leaving the elevated National Trust car park at Simonsbath.

Slowly and unobtrusively down the steep bank at the edge of the tarmac came a fawn bird with stripey markings on face and head, about half the size of a partridge. It matched the colour of the dead beech leaves covering the bank.

We stood intrigued as it continued towards us and then crept round the edge of the car park. From its shape and general appearance it was obviously a game bird of some kind, but what exactly?

Luckily in the Exmoor National Park office below we found a Ranger at his desk. When I described what we'd just seen he became quite animated, grabbed a camera and shot up the steps. "Sounds like a quail", he said.

After a while we relocated the bird, which had climbed to the track above, and the Ranger confirmed that it was a quail [Coturnix coturnix] a rare Summer visitor to Exmoor, which once bred widely in the Brendon Hills and in the Porlock Vale in the nineteenth century.

The quail is the smallest European gamebird. We did not hear it utter a sound but its trisyllabic call is supposed to resemble the phrase 'wet my feet'. It usually remains hidden so we were fortunate to see it out in the open and this will probably turn out for us to be yet another 'one-off' wild life experience.

Soon afterwards I happened to be given an old poetry anthology in which I found a poem called 'Quail's Nest' by John Clare. In it the poet describes coming across a quail and her nest and wondering what it could be. His curiosity is satisfied when he meets a shepherd and tells him what he has seen. The shepherd, 'knew and said it was a quail's'.

The poem seemed to closely echo our own unexpected meeting with the quail and our inability to identify it without the expert knowledge the quail and our inability to identify it without the expert knowledge supplied by the park ranger 'standing in' for John Clare's shepherd.

Illustrations by: Paul Swailes



At the heart of the seaside resort of Weymouth is the Radipole Lake nature reserve. An area of lagoons and extensive reed beds, it provides a refuge for a variety of wildfowl. When we visited in April, the duck species included Gadwalls, Shovelers, Pochards and Tufted Ducks.

A rare duck called a Hooded Merganser had over wintered there. When it first arrived, it had not yet acquired its fully mature plumage but now it was gorgeously attired - a white fan-shaped crest outlined in black; a white breast with two black bars and brown flanks.

It had the spike-like bill common to sawbills and with crest raised, as it swam under the footbridge, its baffle-shaped head looked huge in proportion to the rest of its body.

Although native to North America, it was thought unlikely that this one had crossed the Atlantic. If you followed the BBC's 'Autumn Watch' last year, you may remember Bill Oddie making a detour to Weymouth to take a look at this unusual bird.


We left the RSPB's lakeside Centre - manned by helpful people keen to share their knowledge and enthusiasm - for a very enjoyable stroll around the reserve. We were in for a surprise.

Our field guide had pointed out that a visitor to Radipole Lake in springtime would be unlucky not to hear the loud, explosive song of a Cetti's Warbler - seeing one is a different matter, however, as the shy, wetland warbler sings from dense vegetation and rarely emerges. At intervals along the path we heard the distinctive and ear-blasting series of notes but the birds were hidden from view.

Eventually, some movement in the bushes and our first sighting was of the bird's reflection in the water. We froze. The little bird was soon revealed, climbing a vertical thorn branch, splaying its broad, round-ended tail and extending its white throat at it sang. Its back and tail were reddish brown, its face and breast grey. We were close enough to see the pale eye stripe.

Some years ago I'd been sent postcards of two Radipole churches, the thirteenth century St. Ann's with its triple bell-turret and the stained glass chancel window at St. Aldhelm's, designed and made in 1985 by Jon Callan of Dorchester. We decided to track down these churches.

Not far from the northern boundary of the reserve we found St. Aldhelm's, a fairly modern church. Sunlight flooded through the huge window above the altar. It was impressively beautiful. Mainly bright blue with seven stars and 'seven lamps of gold', the window illustrates a passage in Revelation Chapter 1. The red alpha and omega were a reference to Jesus saying, "Fear not, I am the first and the last . . ."


We walked to the outskirts of town where in a rural setting, close by a large Tudor manor house, we found the little church of St. Ann's. It had a painted interior. The pale blue panels on the bench ends were delicately painted with wild flowers and butterflies. Each one was different - cowslips, ragged robins, bluebells. On the ceiling were three paintings by Anne Tout depicting the nativity, the baptism of Christ and the resurrection.

We started back towards town through a community woodland where oak, ash, crab apple, field maple, holly and hazel had been planted.

Rare birds, churches with unexpected works of art, Radipole is full of visual delights.



In the footsteps of Elinor
Abbey River

Snowdrop Sunday at Hartland Abbey drew the crowds. Wellington booted and accompanied by a large contingent of dogs, they surged along the wooded track, beside the Abbey River, to the sea at Blackpool Mill.



Blackpool Mill Cottage was used as a location in the recent BBC production of 'Sense and Sensibility', and this has added to the popularity of the Snowdrop Sundays when the Abbey opens its grounds to the public.

Elinor and Marianne, the heroines of Jane Austen's novel, move to the modest cottage with their widowed mother and younger sister following the death of their father; their former home and its large estate having been inherited by their half brother.

Elinor represents the cautious good 'sense' of the title and her sensitive and more impetuous sister Marianne - the 'sensibility'.

Since watching the television dramatisation I had been curious to see the cottage and its rocky cove. As we set off, a green woodpecker passed in front of the Abbey with rapid undulating flight and a blur of yellow and olive green.

A few wild daffodils were scattered about the banks; there were patches of strongly scented winter heliotrope and growing on a half buried twig, two perfectly round Scarlet Elf Cups - white on the outside and with a smooth, deep red lining. The fungus makes its appearance between January and May.

After a mile and a quarter, we reached Blackpool Mill and it was in a lovely and romantic setting with a rugged coastal hill rising behind it and the wild Atlantic close by. However, it seemed a surprising choice for Sense and Sensibility', its isolation, difficult access and bleak situation in adverse weather conditions must have presented the film crew with plenty of potential problems.

In the book Jane Austen transports the family to the less remote Barton Cottage ["small, comfortable and compact"], four miles north of Exeter and though surrounded by hills, open downs and woods, it is within sight of a village.

A whole cast of characters awaited us. The head of a Grey Seal emerged for air. A Peregrine Falcon sped past. A flotilla of Lesser Black Backed Gulls bobbed about among the rocks and further out could be seen the stately form of a Great Northern Diver.

We climbed the steep cliff path to obtain a view of the twin waterfalls spilling out onto Blegberry Beach below. Ravens tumbled about the cliff tops.

On the way back we made a detour to the pretty gazebo on its elevated viewpoint; saw the camellias in the bog garden and visited the walled garden, with its globe artichoke plans and potting sheds and conservatory with limed growing abundantly in it. The sheltered garden was lively with feeding birds.

It is remarkable that even with so many visitors that day, the gardens and woods and the beach at Blackpool Mill all maintained an atmosphere of peace in this far north-western corner of Devon.



Bird Notes

Recently, the centenary of the birth of the French composer Olivier Messiaen was commemorated. He had a lifelong fascination with birdsong and this was an important influence on his work.

An anecdote from his childhood claims that while out in his pram one day, he had asked his mother, a poet, to stop talking so that he could hear the birds! Later he was to transcribe birdsong into musical notation.

That so many of us share an interest in observing the behaviour of birds and derive such please from their beauty and colours and movement intrigues me. I suppose we envy and admire their ability to fly.

But it's an interest which can all too easily tip over into eccentricity and obsession. For some enthusiasts, pagers alert them to the latest unusual sighting and the internet keeps them constantly updated.

For others there are no electronic prompts but simply a case of going for a walk and finding the unexpected. Or a passing stranger might say, "Have you seen the . . . ?" or "Did you know there's a . . . ?"

We belong to this latter category and over the last year we have been fortunate in coming across by chance some very special birds while out on our usual stamping grounds.

In October we were walking around Capstone Hill and going up the path from Windy Corner on the seaward side, my companion said, "There's a little bird here and I'm afraid there must be something wrong with it because it's not flying away. I almost trod on it."

Luckily there was nothing wrong after all. It just wasn't very shy and was soon pecking about the grassy slopes beside the path.

It was a Snow Bunting, a native of Norway and Iceland, white with apricot fawn striations on its back and a short yellow finch-like beak. Later, on our return, we found the pretty bird sheltering between two vertical slates on top of a low wall.

That same day we continued on to Ilfracombe harbour. From a distance there appeared to be a cormorant out on the water. Nothing unusual there but as we approached the harbour wall we saw it was a Great Northern Diver. A stunningly glamorous bird, still in its summer plumage; a black back with a white chequer pattern which created a sparkling effect like spangles; a glossy black head and neck with a band of black and white stripes around the throat.

It had ruby red eyes and a large dagger-like bill. It was diving frequently. We watched it catch a fish and a crab. In America it is known as a Loon and is noted for its melancholy wail.

In March we were walking along the river between Braunton and Barnstaple when a man ran past and asked if we'd come to see the Long-eared Owl. No, we had not known about it. His friend had seen it the previous evening and if it was still about it would be roosting high up in a tree, probably obscured by the foliage of a conifer. We crept along not wanting to disturb the owl, craning our necks as we peered up into the branches.

Not far from the lime kiln near Heanton Court we found the owl fully exposed and perched in a low hawthorn bush staring at us. Its streaked buff and brown plumage made its body resemble a piece of bark.

The bird was motionless so that when two young women with children in pushchairs came by, they asked, "Is it real?" The owl winked at them as if in reply.

A couple of twitchers arrived. They showed us their pagers which informed them that the Long-eared Owl was in an olive tree! We were amused by the idea of olive groves flourishing along the River Taw.

If you have ever come face to face with a Barn Owl or Tawny Owl, you will have noticed that their eyes are wholly black. In contrast, the eyes of the Long-eared Owl are golden orange with a black pupil which gives it a feline expression.

Last spring I mentioned the King Eider which had appeared in the Taw Torridge estuary; the first ever seen in Devon. It was hoped that it would return later in the year. It did, having spent the summer in Ireland. It arrived in October and stayed just over a month in the vicinity of Northam and Appledore.

And finally, it is good to know that as a result of government proposals the coastline should be open to walkers, we Berrynarborites will again be at liberty to walk our local stretch of coast between Big Meadow and The Warren. Alleluia!

Illustrated by: Paul Swailes



"Welcome! wild rock and lonely shore,

Where round my days dark seas shall roar;

And they gray fane*, Morwenna, stand

The beacon of the Eternal land."

Reverend Robert Stephen Hawker

I had only seen Morwenstow Church from the sea previously, while on board the Balmoral on a cruise from Ilfracombe to Padstow. The tower came into view first, a prominent landmark to ships, and then the old vicarage could be seen, nestled in its dell between high cliffs, and from 1834 until 1875, home to the famous Reverend Hawker described as a noble hearted eccentric.

Three months later, on an autumn Sunday that was more like high summer than any day in August had been, we crossed the border to visit the church of Saint Morwenna and Saint John the Baptist and to explore its stretch of coast.

Morwenstow is in Cornwall, but only just, about eight miles south of Hartland, it is the most northerly of Cornish parishes. The Celtic Saint Morwenna was one of twenty four children of the ninth century Welsh

King Brychan. In 'Westward Ho!', Charles Kingsley described the Atlantic coast there as "a howling wilderness of rock and roller, barren to the fisherman and hopeless to the shipwrecked mariner."

Under the trees at the top of the churchyard are the graves of many sailors including those from the brig, the Caledonia of Arbroath which sank in 1842, on her homeward journey from Odessa. The ship's figurehead was placed next to the graves and has recently been restored. It had been usual to cast the drowned bodies of sailors into a single pit just above the high water mark without inquest or religious rite, but the Reverend Hawker would search amongst the rocks for the victims of wrecks and ensure that they received a Christian burial.

Above the church porch is a sundial with the inscription "Life is like a shadow". The church is large for such a sparsely populated parish and has many unusual features. The Saxon font is an irregular oval shape, with a cable moulding, like a twisted rope around its middle. One of the Norman arches in the north aisle is decorated at its centre with a grotesque face, part man, part bird. The carved oak bench ends are Tudor. There is a Mediaeval fresco in the chancel, possibly depicting Morwenna. The rood screen incorporated carvings of deer and oxen feeding on vine leaves. A boss in the wagon roof of the chancel shows a pelican feeding her young.

When a visitor commented on the 'zig-zags' on the capitals of some of the pillars, the Reverend Hawker explained that the chevron pattern represented the waves on the Sea of Galilee.

*fane - archaic word for church.

Hawker's Hut

The Reverend Robert Stephen Hawker

The Vicarage, Morwenstow

The Church of Saint Morwenna and Saint John the Baptist

Next to the church is the vicarage, designed by Hawker in 1837, with chimneys made to resemble in miniature the towers of churches with which he had been associated. In its garden is a holy well, the water from it used for baptisms.

We walked across the glebeland fields and along the coast path to Hawker's Hut, a tiny hut with a turf roof, set into the side of the four hundred foot cliff, which the Reverend Hawker had built himself out of driftwood. It has been preserved by the National Trust and is the smallest property in its care. It was here that the Reverend Hawker came seeking inspiration for his sermons and poetry and it was here, too, that he was visited in 1848 by the Poet Laureate, Alfred Lord Tennyson. The following year Charles Kingsley came to see the clergyman in his hut. We clambered down to it, opened the stable door and sat inside watching the waves crashing far below and the ravens flying past with their 'cronking' cry and it was strange to think of the Reverend Hawker sitting in the same spot a hundred and sixty years ago, composing his sermons and being visited by those famous authors, with the sea pinks and yellow toadflax and wild scabious growing all around.

Continuing south we descended the steep drop to Tidna Water, with patches of water mint and betony and a pair of wheatears getting ready for their long autumn journey; then up to Higher Sharpnose Point with its wartime lookout, now serving as a useful shelter. The promontory is so high and narrow that it has been described as 'almost an arete' - like a mountain crest. But it makes a good viewpoint, overlooking sixty miles of coastline and Lundy seen from a different angle to the one we are used to.

On neighbouring Lower Sharpnose Point is a collection of large white dish aerials used for surveillance. [When we had turned off the Atlantic Highway for Morwenstow, we had passed a discreet sign with the letters GCHQ.] Originally set up to monitor Soviet satellites, it was claimed that the site was a primary target during the height of the Cold War. I recalled those few days in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world held its collective breath, while we felt we were on the brink of Armageddon.

We returned our steps to Morwenstow and its church, forever linked with the memory of its former vicar, the humane Robert Hawker, whose normal garb combined the clerical collar with a fisherman's jersey and boots; who originated and made popular the celebration of the harvest festival and wrote 'The Song of the Western Men' [otherwise known as 'Trelawny'] which became an unofficial National Anthem for Cornwall.

He placed a stone over the doorway of the vicarage with this verse inscribed:

'A house, a glebe, a pound a day,
A pleasant place to watch and pray!
Be true to church, be kind to poor,
O minister for evermore.'



'Westleigh nestling among the trees ... with Instow close to the
water's edge, will make the artist long to fix the scene on canvas.'

from a 1934 North Devon Guide Book.

Between squally showers we ascended the hill to St. Peter's Church past rows of cottages, many of them thatched; rosemary bushes around the war memorial on a bank planted with potentilla, Rose of Sharon and deep pink cistus.

The centre of Westleigh is a tangled knot of little streets and the village is pleasantly situated within view of the River Torridge.

We entered the churchyard through a deep archway, forming the centre of a fine old building with mullion windows; part lych gate, part long

church house. Lych gates provided shelter for coffins on arrival at the church, lych being the Saxon word for corpse.

Westleigh church dates back to the early years of the fourteenth century, with a north aisle added two hundred years later. It is noted for the medieval Barnstaple tiles on the floors of the nave and aisle, and for a painting called 'Rizpah' by the celebrated Victorian artist, Frederic Leighton, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1893.

However, disappointingly we were not to see any of this as the church was locked and there was no information about a key holder, so we paused to admire the elaborately carved, decorative bosses on the ceiling of the porch before walking around the outside of the church. The tower, which dominates the village, is Early English with stout buttresses at its corners.

The lack of pinnacles emphasises its sturdy appearance. Red admirals were visiting the ox-eye daisies and knapweed flowering among the headstones. Although it has been such a poor year for butterflies a lot of red admirals emerged in late August in bright newly-minted condition,

their wings unfaded and unbuttered by encounters with spiders' webs or being buffeted against brambles and thorns. Seventeen red admirals on one small buddleia was a splendid sight.

. It was a short walk down the lane from the village and across the main road to the river where there are views across the estuary to Northam and Appledore. There were a lot of black headed gulls on the beach, still in their summer plumage, and oyster catchers, and at the water's edge a solitary bar-tailed godwit. Appledore was lit up by sunshine but soon, as we walked along the track towards Instow, a grey gloom settled over Crow Point and it was raining again. The bonus when it stopped - a rainbow spanning the junction of the 'Two Rivers'.

Illustrations by: Paul Swailes



"Swallows and Amazons"

A lot has happened at Wistlandpound Reservoir in recent months. A bird hide, boardwalk and viewing platforms have been constructed. There is a new shelter; a choice of two way-marked trails and a lively programme of events and activities has been planned throughout the summer.

An enthusiastic new site manager was appointed last august. Employed jointly by the Calvert Trust, the Forestry Commission and South West Lakes, he has to reconcile the different needs of the various users - the anglers, the boat users and the walkers. But at heart and by training he claims first and foremost to be a conservationist, which is good news for visitors who enjoy the flora and fauna Wistlandpound has to offer.

We set off on the 'Discovery Trail', appreciating the improved surface and routing of the path around the circumference of the lake. There used to be several points at which you could get quite 'bogged down', following spells of wet weather.

It might have been this improved access which had brought so many more people to Wistlandpound than we had seen there before.

A string of ducklings ventured out from the shore. A cormorant had perched on a boat, spreading its wings to dry, and a small flotilla of Canada Geese were tolerating a Greylag in their midst. It appeared to be behaving rather aggressively towards them.

At the new bird hide an ingenious display board charts the long journeys which would have been travelled by some of the wildfowl that can arrive at Wistlandpound in the winter months.

In one of the 'arms' of the reservoir, we found Amphibious Bistort; a mass of floating leaves with compact spikes of pink flowers.

Growing in several damp areas was Brooklime with its small, deep blue flowers and sprawling fleshy leaves. Another member of the Veronica family was pale flowered Thyme-leaved Speedwell, a low plant with tiny oval leaves. Cut-leaved Cranesbill, one of our native Geraniums, with its pretty leaves and purple-red flowers, was also present.

Richard Mabey in his book 'The Flowering of Britain' wrote, "Many of the most persistent and decorative garden escapes are also from Southern Europe." He cites "Honesty, Dame's Violet, Purple Toadflax and half a dozen cranesbills." Several of these appear at Wistlandpound, although far from any garden.

Naturalised at one corner of the reservoir were tall plants which on a previous visit I had mistaken for a while flowered form of Honesty. However, this year not only had it spread, making a fine display, but because it was at a more advanced stage [although it had similar leaves to Honesty and its flowers also had four petals], I could see that its long cylindrical seed pods were more typical of a crucifer. The flowers are fragrant.

I was told it was Dame's Violet. Apparently the name derives not from dames but from Damascus [despite its Latin name, Hesperis Matronalis].

We left the 'Discovery Trail' for the 'Challenge Trail' higher above the reservoir and through the trees. Here we came across a few tall spikes of Purple Toadflax, another garden escape. The flowers are snapdragon shaped.

There were patches of Yellow Pimpernel, a neat flowered member of the Primrose family which likes damp, shady woods.

There had been several cream and brown Speckled Wood butterflies but as we reached a clearing, a yellow Brimstone fluttered past. The Brimstone has a shape unlike any other butterfly and when it perches with wings closed it resembles a leaf.

A Great Spotted Woodpecker flew across the track and attached itself to a nearby tree trunk. It was a female, lacking the red nape of the male. We were pleased to see a young Green Woodpecker in the garden recently - a less common sight these days, although we occasionally hear their distinctive "yaffle".

Illustrations by: Paul Swailes



'On the Road to Marazion'

From a distance, the string of figures making their way across the causeway to St. Michel's Mount appeared to be walking on water. This is only possible when tides allow. At other times the island can be reached by ferry boat.

As well as the magnificent former Benedictine Priory, with its perilously steep sub-tropical gardens, there are cottages, a church and small harbour. Returning to Marazion over the old stones, shaped and weathered by the action of the waves, we saw a few Guillemots dotted about the water, still in their winter plumage.

Further away, and diving frequently, was a larger bird - about the size of a goose - mostly black with a white breast. We suspected what it might be but for confirmation, when we'd reached the 'mainland', we continued along the coast to a jetty which brought us closer to the bird - a Great Northern Diver; an oceanic bird and scarce passage and winter visitor, also known known as a loon!

We went back through the town and along the coast road to Marazion Marsh, an RSPB Reserve, enjoying as we walked the view of Penzance, Newlyn and Mousehole to the west and The Lizard peninsula to the east. Mounts Bay claims to be one of the most beautiful bays in the world.

On the beach stood a small flock of whimbrels, like curlews but smaller with stripes on the crown and their downwardly curved bills shorter. They are most usually seen in spring and late summer.

It was late April and a good time possibly to see birds of passage stopping off at the wetland on their spring migration. As we arrived at the nature reserve we were told about two interesting and attractive birds which had been observed there that week.

One was a male Blue-Headed Wagtail, Motacilla flava flava, a sub-species of the Yellow Wagtail, Motacilla flava flavissima [flava meaning yellow, so flavissima being most yellow].

We did not think there was much chance of seeing the small bird but scanned the Pied Wagtails and Wheatears on the grass alongside the Red River, which runs through the reserve. And there it was, among the flag iris leaves at the water's edge! It was the buttercup yellow plumage and long flickering tail which drew our attention. The slender bird had a slate blue head with a white superciliary stripe, an olive back and brownish wings. It flew on to a reed, slid down it, tried again and clung on for a while. It was a beautiful and graceful bird, a treat to watch.

We crossed the bridge over the railway line to Longrock Pool and there, among a flock of Sand Martins was the other bird to which we'd been alerted, a Black Tern - about twice the size of the martins. It put on quite a show, exhilarating to watch, its buoyant aerobatic flight a few feet above the water, then suddenly dipping to skim the surface of the pool. The Black Tern frequents freshwater habitats such as ponds, lakes and swamps and unlike the various sea going terns, it does not plunge into the water when it hunts for food. It was a very striking bird with a black head, neck and breast and slate-grey forked tail, back and paler grey wings. The forked tails of terns led to their country nickname, 'sea swallows', or Morwenna in Cornish.

Marazion Marsh is the largest freshwater reed bed wetland in Cornwall and has been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest with more than a thousand different species having been recorded there - two hundred and fifty of these being birds, five hundred plant species, five hundred insects and eighteen different mammals.

Illustrated by: Paul Swailes



A First for Devon - Somateria Spectabilis

If the church had not been locked, we should not have seen the rare bird. We had planned to visit Landcross church, which is situated within a loop of the River Torridge and then try to gain access, through a narrow strip of woodland, to the river itself, though no official path was shown on the map.

The hedge banks along the lane leading to the little church were full of spring flowers. One of the cottages next to the churchyard was being re-thatched. A red admiral [normally a migrant butterfly but increasingly to be found over-wintering here] fluttered over a wall and an unusually pale buzzard circled above.

Promisingly, the heavy door moved forward, but only by a couple of inches. The church was locked after all and so joined a long list of village churches on Torridgeside which we have been unable to enter.

Nor could we find any public rights of way nearby, so it was on impulse, as we returned to Bideford, that we decided to have a wander over Northam Burrows instead.

Arriving at the Skern, we stood to watch a large flock of Golden Plovers, swirling and twisting in a billowing mass, appearing black then bronze. They landed densely packed together.

A local man told us that a King Eider had been seen in the area that week, though he had no observed it himself, and that it was the very first time one had been discovered in Devon. [The Common Eider is recorded in the Taw/Torridge some years but groups are more often to be found off the South Devon coast.]

As we set off across the grass, some walker passing by said that if we were interested, the King Eider had been resting on the sand bank in line with Airy Point. We crossed the blue cobbles of the Pebble Ridge and trudged over a carpet of bladder wrack, which made a satisfying crackle as the seaweed's blisters burst.


A group of Brent Geese floated past serenely in a line close to the shore. We scanned Pulley Ridge, in the middle of the estuary, but could see nothing unusual among the gulls and waders there.

Then, in the distance, we saw a solitary figure with a telescope near the water's edge. We noted the direction he was looking and then saw it! The duck was swimming all by itself in the section of the estuary called 'The Crumbles'. It was mainly black with a light front and a white patch on the side of the stern.

The King Eider dived a couple of times and surfaced with a crab dangling from its bill. It was lovely to watch this rare visitor from the Arctic looking so at home, catching its food in our North Devonian waters.

The man with the telescope kindly invited us to view the King Eider through his scope, enabling us to appreciate the bird's most distinctive

feature. Above the short red bill is a large orange 'shield' which is not present in the Common Eider [which also has a white back instead of a black one].

The King Eider is a large duck, 55 to 62 cms, about the size of a shelduck. It is a vagrant to the British Isles in winter; sometimes among flocks of Common Eiders off the north and eastern coasts of Scotland.

When there are interesting and unusual creatures about, there is a great camaraderie and exchange of information among people out and about enjoying the countryside.

It was the end of February; a mild, still day with good visibility. The weather reports claimed it had been the sunniest February on record and the warmest for a hundred years.

Illustrations by: Paul Swailes



Illustrated by: Peter Rothwell

"Listening to the swell born somewhere in the Atlantic
rising and falling, rising and falling
wave on wave on the long shore ... "

It was my sixty-first birthday so we had gone to Woolacombe for lunch; kleftican of lamb - shoulder cooked very slowly in red wine with coriander seeds and oregano, served on a bed of couscous with a Greek salad.

The chance of a walk afterwards did not seem likely as the weather forecast had not been good; a possibility of severe gales with winds gusting up to seventy miles an hour along the North Devon coast. [Later it was reported that Donegal had achieved winds of an incredible 107 mph.]

However, it is rare that we don't have a pair of binoculars and warm hats stashed away in the car 'just in case', so as the rain had not yet arrived we set off at a brisk pace along the sea front to Mortehoe.

Baggy showed clearly and beyond it Harland Point but Lundy was only an indistinct blur on the horizon. The big waves thundered in, crashing over the grey rocks at Barricane Beach.

It was not until we turned back that the wind had strengthened and was roaring in our ears. We were sheltered by the high walls composed of thin slivers of silvery slate, arranged in a neat herring-bone pattern, which are such an attractive feature of Woolacombe. The broad slate gate posts splay outwards like buttresses.

The builders of the Edwardian villas adopted a variety of architectural styles and interesting features, many of which survive today. All along the esplanade the hebes were still in abundant flower although it was early January. A large unseasonal bumble bee was 'working' the purple blooms.

Recently, Woolacombe received some good publicity from an unusual source when two young characters in 'The Archers', who had just fallen in love, selected Woolacombe Bay for a romantic winter break. The resort was described in glowing terms.

A little way up the hill leading out of Woolacombe, the Church of St. Sabinus is well worth a visit. Sturdy red sandstone on the outside with its stocky tower; light and airy inside with a saddleback roof. Built in 1911, the church is dedicated to an Irish saint who was shipwrecked at Woolacombe.

Illustrated by: Paul Swailes

Most years the bushes and shrubs of the Sterridge Valley play host to a rather special little bird and this winter was no exception; a firecrest making an appearance in the Valley several times in late November and December.

Europe's smallest bird [measuring three and a half inches] and related to the more common goldcrest, the official status of the firecrest in Devon is that of a scarce [mainly autumn] passage migrant and winter visitor. It is more often observed on the south coast and on Lundy than in North Devon.

Like its cousin the goldcrest, the female has a yellow crest and the male has an orange one bordered by a black stripe on each side. But the addition of a broad white supercilium and below black eye stripe, gives the tiny firecrest a vibrant and unmistakable appearance.

Its shoulders glow with a golden bronze iridescence which the goldcrest lacks, and it is constantly active in search of insects and spiders.

A little egret has also been frequenting the valley this winter, dabbling its yellow feet in the stream beside Ruggaton Lane and landing several times in the River Sterridge.



A Memorable Day at Raparee Cove

It was on the Today programme that I first heard about it; how the day had been dubbed 'Emancipation Day' and that afternoon, Friday the first of August 1997, there was to be a ceremony at Ilfracombe's Rapparee Cove to commemorate the St. Lucians who lost their lives when the ship they were travelling on, 'The London', had been wrecked on the rocks there, on the night of the ninth of October 1796.

As well as a detailed report in the programme, the Bishop giving his 'Thought for the Day' had chosen the event as the topic for his talk.

Earlier in the year, February 1997, severe weather had caused erosion in the cove and this had led to the discovery of human skeletal remains and iron shackles.

At the time of the shipwreck, two hundred years ago, the bodies of the sixty or more men, women and children from St. Lucia, who had drowned, were buried at the cove in a mass grave.

There has been some uncertainty as to whether they had been slaves or prisoners of war. It was the time of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

On 'Emancipation Day' in 1997, I walked from Larkstone down to Rapparee Cove. Families of Rastafarians were walking slowly about the beach and down to the water's edge, solemnly selecting pieces of seaweed, pebbles or shells.

Although it was the height of summer, it was a grey day and soon a grizzly drizzle started which lasted throughout the rest of the afternoon.

Dignitaries in African robes of gorgeous fabrics and colours; some with swathes of cloth around their heads like turbans, others with round embroidered caps, appeared at the top of the cliff and wound their way down the path.

I held back, trying to look inconspicuous, but some kind ladies took me under their wing and drew me forward. They had never been to North Devon before and were impressed by the scenery which reminded them of the Poldark series on television.

A minute's silence was held and when we looked up again the scene was transformed by a sea of white as men and women dressed in white from head to foot had arrived and were assembling on the little platform at the back of the cove. They were members of a choir.

We were addressed by a king from who was robed in emerald green. Reporters and camera crews from the BBC and ITV were recording the event and Bonnie Greer [a regular on Newsnight Review] wrote a radio play about it, starring Tony Armatrading.

In the intervening years, Rapparee Cove has looked rather neglected. Recently we walked up from Hele Bay and over Hillsborough to revisit it, ten years on from that memorable day in 1997, and were pleased to see it less litter-strewn than usual, although there was evidence of several fires in and around the shelter.

It was a mild, sunny autumn day but the beach was deserted apart from a grey wagtail flitting about the stones near where the waves were breaking and a pair of ravens 'kronking' overhead.

There was a lone cormorant swimming and diving at the mouth of the Cove as there had been on that afternoon ten years ago but it was difficult to believe that this tiny cove could have held such a large gathering of people.

We walked up to where a memorial stone has been placed and stood to watch the great bulk of a ship, of the Grimaldi Line of Genoa, moving almost imperceptibly up the Bristol Channel.

Only 8 Darwin Gallery shopping days to Christmas!



A Scent of Honey and the Ascent of Peter Rock

There was a heady scent of honey wafting up from the bell heather and ling as we made our way along the coast path to Peter Rock, high above Heddon's Mouth.

It was early September. The sea was blue and unruffled. As we started our walk with Trentishoe Down's bleak, dark presence looming above us, we were cheered by the sight of the Balmoral passing by. She looks at her most serene when viewed from these lofty Exmoor cliffs.

There were a few unseasonal foxgloves and sea campions still in bloom. We stopped to watch as the waves washed over a grey seal lying on a rock in Elwill Bay, far below. Eventually it swam ashore to one of the hidden caves. Beyond could be seen the two pyramidal rock stacks called the Mare and Colt.

At beautiful East Cleave, where the path divides, we turned left for Peter Rock. This is raven country and it is also one of the most vertiginous and rugged sections of our local coast path. Someone who does not enjoy heights would probably feel very uncomfortable here. Otherwise, this wild terrain is quite exciting.

As we turned a steep corner we saw a female Dartford Warbler perched on a gorse bush, flicking her long tail - her colours a little duller than the male. Several times she disappeared in the clumps of heather soon to re-emerge long enough for us to observe the jewel-like ruby eye with its distinct red eye-ring.

Once exclusively a bird of lowland heaths, the Dartford Warbler has settled on Exmoor during the last decade. Whereas only one was recorded in North Devon in 1997, five years later in 2002 numbers had risen to nineteen. Soon the dense woodland of the Heddon Valley, the scree slopes, water meadows and the river itself came into view, as if mapped out hundreds of feet below. We followed the path

inland and sat among shiny golden moss, with blueberry and scarlet rowan on either side, overlooking this spectacular view. A Small Copper butterfly landed on a scabious flower. There were isolated spikes of golden rod. We were surprised to see near the horizon, the steam of a train at the restored Woody Bay Station.

On returning, when we reached the dramatic North Cleave Gut, we took the footpath across the field to Trentishoe Lane where, about its sunny hedgerows, there were butterflies aplenty - Painted Ladies, Gatekeepers and Small Heaths.

A fluffy, spotted pheasant chick tottered down the bank joining its two siblings and their anxious mother squeaking and chirping in the dry ditch. I suppose she was a pheasant but with a warm russet colouring to her neck and shoulders and a red patch on her face near the eye, she did not look like a typical hen pheasant and the markings on her back were also more streaked.

Illustrations by: Paul Swailes



Small blue is beautiful!

Traipsing over the vast expanse of the Braunton Burrows in mid-summer, it was wildlife on a small scale which most caught my eye.

Near Flagpole Dune a crowd of common blue butterflies fluttered over carpets of bird's-foot trefoil. Nicknamed 'eggs and bacon' because of the yellow flowers streaked with red, this is an important plant for the common blue which feeds on the nectar and lays its eggs on the leaves.

Blue butterflies have been likened to tiny scraps of sky, fallen to earth and on the move. Stopping to watch the common blue butterflies, we were delighted to find among them a few small [or little] blue butterflies with the pretty Latin name Cupido minimus.

This is a scarce species and Braunton Burrows has the only colony of small blue butterflies in North Deon. The male is greyish black with silvery blue scales near the body. The female is dark brown. The underwings are silver grey with tiny black dots [lacking the orange markings found on the underwings of the common blue]. They for only ten to fourteen days, laying their eggs in the flowers of the kidney vetch.

Illustrated by: Paul Swailes

Underfoot were short, tiny-flowered plants; patches of storksbill, eyebright and scarlet pimpernel. There was cantaury, our commonest native gentian; neat pink flowers with yellow centres.

Along the Northern Boundary Track I have never before seen so many poplar leaf beetles. The handsome shiny red beetles were clinging to the willow scrub, several to a twig. They are about three times the size of a ladybird but minus the spots.

Here also were large numbers of dark green fritillaries. Contrary to their name, these powerful fliers are actually bright golden butterflies with dark markings. The green refers only to the greenish tints on the underside of the wings. They, too, are classified as a 'scarce' species.

We reached the narrow pond on Soay Plain, a haven for dragonflies. There was a libellula with its broad pale blue abdomen, a type of darter dragonfly.

Then came into view several emperor dragonflies; large hawkers with rapid flight. The males have a long blue abdomen. The females are green. They are capable of hovering and flying backwards and can move each pair of wings alternatively, lending greater flying power. It will prey on other dragonflies.

The dunes are high and imposing. There is a wonderful sense of space and freedom but there is also a concentration of small delights in the variety of insects which live there.



William Boot and "the Smith of Smiths"

Sidney Smith

Combe Florey lies in a small valley between the Brendon Hills and the Quantocks, close by the route of the West Somerset Railway.

With its thatched cottages built of the distinctive red sandstone, its mill stream and general leafiness, it conforms to the idyllic notion of how a village should be. And so thought the Reverend Sidney Smith, Rector of Combe Florey from 1829 until 1845.

"I am extremely pleased with Combe Florey and pronounce it to be a very pretty place in a very beautiful county", he wrote to a friend a few months after arriving there.

But the famous and much admired reformer and wit was a late convert to country life. Enjoying London, he had hitherto regarded the countryside as a "healthy grave".

However, he quickly took to Combe Florey and the residents of Combe Florey took to their eccentric but humane and cheerful priest. He continued to live there after becoming Canon of St. Paul's Cathedral.

His philosophy of life was "Do good and be happy". He was dubbed "the Smith of Smiths" and Macauley claimed he was "the greatest master of ridicule in England since Jonathan Swift".

I made my way to the church of St. Peter and St. Paul past the imposing gatehouse dating from 1590. A green pug moth fluttered against its dark red walls. Beyond its great arch was the Manor House, seventeenth century originally but given a new and 'modern' front in 1730.

Stitchwort and Jack-by-the-hedge were growing along the way, and opposite the church, ancient steps lead to a steep mount known as the 'Monk's Garden'.

The gnarled yew in the churchyard is believed to be fifteen hundred years old and has been awarded a certificate in recognition of its longevity!

A nuthatch appeared at its base. A song thrush could be heard, repeating each phrase of its inventive melody and in the bushes, a blackcap 'clatted' metallically.

The church has some 15th century carved bench ends but the rood screen is a 19th century replacement. On the other side of a little door at the back of the pulpit I found a flight of steps, very steep and narrow, rather claustrophobic being blocked up at the top. They had once led to the rood loft above the screen.

On the floor lie 14th century stone effigies of a knight and his two wives; stone images of their five dogs at their feet, an indication of how such people regarded their canine companions so long ago.

Behind the church I entered a meadow of speedwell and lady's smock and the buzzing of bees. Here is a small plot containing the graves of Evelyn Waugh and his wife Laura. The famous novelist lived at Combe Florey until his death in 1966.

In his novel "Scoop", a satire on journalists and the newspaper trade the unworldly William Boot is sent - in a case of mistaken identity - to report on a civil war in the fictitious country of Ishmaelia. Propelled from his uneventful life of badger watching in a small village near Taunton, he is truly an innocent abroad.

Until then, William Boot has been responsible for writing the natural history column for a national newspaper - "' Lush places' edited by William Boot, Countryman".

Examples of his oeuvre: 'Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole . . ." and "the wagons lumber in the lane under their golden glory of harvested sheaves; maternal rodents pilot their furry broad through the stubble . . ."

These parodies are often quoted as just how unstintingly funny such pieces can be. At one point, "William resolved to give rodents a miss . . . and write instead of wild flowers and birdsong.! Oh dear! I little imagined when I first read "Scoop" and laughed at these pastiches, that I should be writing nature notes for a village newsletter over thirty years later.

It is remarkable that such a small west country village should have been home to two famous men, very different in character and temperament and separated by more than a century but both noted for their mocking wit and sense of the ridiculous.



A Lundy Sunday

On the final day of April last year, we landed on Lundy Island. As we climbed the cliff path from the quay to the sound of warblers, the formal, classical building facing us as we neared the top, looked oddly familiar. A few years ago a drama documentary about Napoleon's exile on St. Helena had been filmed on Lundy. The actors portraying Bonaparte and his doctor had been seen to emerge from Millcombe house for their stroll around the island.

The house was built by the Heaven family who bought the island in 1834, giving rise to the nickname, "the kingdom of Heaven".

As we had not been to Lundy before, we first headed south to the thirteenth century Marisco Castle with its square keep, passing the austere St. Helena's church built in 1896, using granite quarried on the island. The Lundy Granite Company supplied stone for the construction of the Victoria Embankment in London.

On the cliff tops at the south west of the island, we came across a flock of linnets; wheatears and around some boulders, a black redstart; the sooty grey bird flicking its red tail. This winter there has been a female black redstart among the rooks at Wildersmouth Beach in Ilfracombe.

We arrived at the Old Light, a disused lighthouse also built of granite in 1819. Pevsner described it as a 'beautifully proportioned structure ninety feet high and at 567 feet above sea level, the highest in Britain'. We could not resist climbing up it.

By the end of the century, it had been replaced by two new lighthouses at the north and south ends of the island.

In fields nearby were hoards of rabbits, many of them black. There are plenty of interesting creatures living on Lundy, including wild goats grazing the cliff sides and Soay sheep, which look goat-like - an ancient breed, natives of the remote Scottish island of St. Kilda.

The Quay and Lighthouse.

As Lundy is only three miles long and half a mile wide, we had soon crossed the plateau to the eastern side, where we witnessed a small group of sika deer emerging cautiously from the cover of the rhododendrons.

They still had their grey-brown winter coats but in summer would be chestnut red to yellow-brown, with white spots, rather like a fallow deer but smaller. They were introduced into Europe from Japan and north east China.

The rhododendrons have to be controlled if the rare Lundy cabbage is to survive. This yellow flowered plant is found only on Lundy.

It was a grey, drizzly day but peaceful and it is this quality that is emphasised nowadays when attracting visitors to the island. But it was not always so.

Occupying its strategic position at the junction of the Bristol Channel and the Atlantic Ocean, Lundy became a base for pirates in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and in the middle of the eighteenth century it was leased to the notorious Bideford merchant and smuggler, Thomas Benson MP.

The trip to Lundy was organised by the Devon Bird Watching and Preservation Society, a splendid body formed nearly eighty years ago with the object of furthering the study of birds and assisting in their conservation.

The Society manages about a dozen reserves throughout the county; undertakes surveys and maintains detailed records of bird species in Devon, as well as producing an impressive range of publications each year and arranging field events.

St. Helena's Church

Illustrations by: Paul Swailes



"Wild folk are these here, gatherers of shellfish and laver and
merciless to wrecked vessels."

Charles Kingsley 1849

When Charles Kingsley wrote about the 'wild folk' who lived in the vicinity of Woolacombe Bay, the seaside resort had not yet been built. Even today the length of the bay, from Potter's Hill in the north to Vention in the south, is mostly free of development.

The kestrels hunting over Potter's Hill on the breezy January morning, lived up to their poetic name - windhover. The round hill at the end of the Marine Drive was given to The National Truest by Rosalie Chichester of Arlington Court in 1935.

Woolacombe Warren, which stretches for two miles between the splendid beach and Woolacombe Down, was once a golf course. The fragrant Burnet Rose grows abundantly there. It has neat cream flowers and small crinkly leaves. As late as November last year we had found Burnet Roses still in bloom on the Warren.

Curiously, the plant only occurs in one small area of the more extensive Braunton Burrows.

There were a few new shoots of cleavers and fumitory and the small quarries along the way were ablaze with gorse. Always, at whatever time of year, somewhere there is gorse in flower. Hence the saying, "Kissing goes out of fashion when the gorse stops blooming".

At Vention we took the lane down to Putsborough Sand where there is a large outcrop of red sandstone called Black Rock.

Just above the edge of the beach, among the row of white, flat roofed Art Deco houses, is the Grey House; its stone walls and slate hipped roof half hidden between cedars and palms.

Overlooking the Atlantic rollers, this was once home to the parents of the writer and broadcaster Daniel Farson. His mother, Eve, was a niece of Bram Stoker, the author of 'Dracula' and his American father, Negley, was a journalist who had reported the rise of Hitler for the Chicago Daily News.

Henry Williamson wrote of him, "Dear Negley Farson, whose smile is like the sea and sands of Woolacombe Bay."

Illustrated by: Paul Swailes



"The river running by"

It was Friday the thirteenth, late afternoon when we stopped, on the way home, to walk along the Taw near Pottington. A few straggly blooms of tansy and St. John's wort remained.

Three black-tailed godwits stood at the water's edge. Their legs are longer and their bills straighter than their cousin the bar-tailed godwit [which has the pretty Latin name Limosa lapponica].

Waders present along the river were mainly curlew, lapwing, redshank, dunlin and the ubiquitous oystercatchers but a single whimbrel had been observed on the estuary; most often seen as a passage migrant in spring and autumn.

Among the redshank was one which looked rather different, taller and more slender. It was a spotted redshank though in its pale ash grey winter plumage it did not look particularly spotted.

Autumn is a good time to find interesting arrivals on the river but most unexpected and spectacular was the appearance of twelve spoonbills flying in single file up river, with long necks extended, swan-like; slow and silent without the 'singing' sound made by swans' wings in flight.

All twelve were mature spoonbills with greyish-pink bills. The adults have black bills with a yellow tip.

On landing, the spoonbills waded through the shallow water sweeping their bills from side to side to feed.

Passing cyclists and walkers had climbed onto the low wall at the side of the track to gain a better view of these impressive birds. Something special for Friday the thirteenth!

Illustrated by: Paul Swailes



"Writes to Roam"

The Warren had been 'out of bounds' since a section of the public footpath, leading to it from Watermouth Harbour, had collapsed.

When access to a beautiful and familiar stretch of coastline is lost, I suppose one appreciates <it all the more. So, when we heard that the path had been repaired, we decided to exercise our 'right to roam' - well, really just to enjoy the view and do a bit of sea-watching.

Illustrated by: Paul Swailes

There was a light drizzle as we made our way along the finger of land, called the Warren, to the squat Martello-type tower. Opposite is the steep little island, Sexton's Burrow, guarding the entrance to the harbour.

It is pleasant to see the small boats gently bobbing on the water. Many of the boats which frequent Watermouth and Ilfracombe harbours have birds' names - wigeon, osprey, sea swallow.

Illustrated by: Peter Rothwell

We were watching gannets diving, some of the majestic ocean-going birds flying close to the shore, when the sun came out and with it the holiday makers. It was late August. Some of the visitors had only arrived the day before and not yet got their bearings. "Is that Lundy Island?" asked one man pointing to the Welsh coast.

We continued over Big Meadow where Himalayan Balsam growing along the river, burst its seed capsules at the least touch and the sloes in the hedges had a blue bloom on them like plums.

From here we had a good view down to Small Mouth where a pod of porpoises circled close to a party of fishermen perched precariously on the rocks.

This stretch of the South West coast path is also the route between several camp sites and the beach so there was a constant movement of people in both directions. Yet it was still peaceful. The drama is in the quiet grandeur of the landscape.

As one small boy hauled himself up the steep field, he announced self-importantly, "That's the trouble with England - too many hills."!

We had a couple of sightings of a clouded yellow butterfly; bright yellow with a silver figure of eight pattern on the hind wings and prominent green eyes. 2006 seems to have been quite a good year for the clouded yellow.

It is a migrant butterfly [breeding around the Mediterranean in winter]. some years it is very scarce but occasionally it is abundant and such years, being special and infrequent, are dubbed 'Clouded Yellow Years'.

We paused above Golden Cove to look at the fulmars, snug on their high cliff ledges, and returned via Bamant's Wood.

In 'Along the South West Way. How the West was Lost - an Unofficial History', A.G. Collings describes the struggle to gain and maintain public access to the coast and some of the acrimonious legal battles which were involved.

Illustrated by: Paul Swailes

In 1905 after a newly arrived land-owner had blocked a coast path and obstructed access to a Cornish cove, used 'from time immemorial' by the local fishermen an editorial in the Western Morning News, responding to the ensuring court case, suggested:

". . . centuries of use have consecrated these paths in the eyes of the public, and it would indeed, be a disastrous policy on the part of the land-owners were they to attempt to oust all public rights over them, and to asset to the uttermost their private rights of ownership . . . the rights of property can only be maintained when they are in accordance with the natural feelings of justice entertained by the people."

Fair comment from over a century ago. The opinions expressed by a columnist in The Cornishman newspaper at the same time, were less restrained. Angry and passionate on the rights to roam, with warnings of revolution and riot, it is stirring stuff and I am tempted to quote the article here but even a hundred years on it is still controversial!



'The hedges full of bloom'

John Clare

At Willingcott Cross, half a mile south of the old Mortehoe Railway Station, a small car park has recently been created to serve the extension of the cycle track which follows the course of the former railway line. The car park is bordered by banks of wild flowers - mugwort, spear thistle, yarrow and woundwort - which, when we arrived there in mid-July, were noisy with warblers.

A whitethroat balanced on top of a tall hogweed. There were blackcaps and a garden warbler, all three glorying in the beautiful Latin name - Sylvia.

A board in the car park carries interesting information about the history of the railway line to Ilfracombe and some splendid photographs taken in the 1960's showing the magnificent engines bound for Ilfracombe from Taunton, Wolverhampton and Waterloo.

With gradients of one in forty and one in thirty-six, the sections of the line known as Mortehoe Bank and Slade Bank were among the steepest inclines for steam trains anywhere in the country. At Mortehoe Station additional pilot and banker engines were attached to the heavier trains to enable them to cope with these steep inclines.

Along the track several large and small skippers fluttered about the willow herb, tufted vetch and meadowsweet and reminded me of the popular Edward Thomas poem 'Adlestrop' about an express train drawing up at a lonely station on the Oxfordshire-Gloucestershire border in late June. In the poem Edward Thomas lists some of the very same flowers growing beside the platform.

The scent of Rosa rugosa wafted over the bank for on the other side were extensive hedges of this lovely deep pink rose. Bristly ox-tongue and goat's beard, those taller and shaggier cousins of the dandelion, added a dash of yellow. Rabbits shared their field with vehicles belonging to a Dare Devin Stunt show, the animals apparently indifferent to the big lorries.

The track continues on the other side of the main road. When this section of the cycle route to Lee Bridge was 'improved' about five years ago, the rich variety of vetches and clumps of some of our finest wild flowers, field scabious and greater knapweed, were lost. In their place grow docks and the weeds which soon colonise disturbed land.

There are some pleasant views across the fields to Borough Wood and beyond it, the sea at Lee Bay. Along this stretch of track bloomed green flowered wood sage with yellow melilot and purple self-heal. A flock of swallows flew close to the ground. A tangle of bedstraw was visited by ringlets and meadow browns, both dark butterflies which are on the wing on dull days as well as sunny ones.

After Lee Bridge, the track passes through a high-sided cutting. There was a lot of birdsong amongst the dense vegetation; the sweet and penetrating notes of a wren and the virtuosity of a song thrush running through its repertoire of tunes.

As we left the cutting I was pleased to find patches of wood vetch as this graceful mauve flower is classified as 'scarce'.

Soon we reached the Higher Slade Reservoir. During the last couple of years work has been completed to provide access to it from the cycle track. The sun had come out and I was looking forward to some butterfly spotting. In previous summers the big grassy slope falling sharply away from the reservoir, had been like a wild flower meadow attracting a wide range of butterflies.

However, this year the area has been tidied up. The grass has been mown very short. The whole floral display had gone and there were no butterflies.

As a consolation, there were several of the big emperor dragonflies whizzing about and the greatest quantity of bright blue damselflies, common coenagrion [agrion puella] that I have ever seen. They formed little rafts of shimmering colour just above the surface of the lake whose clear, still waters were ruffled only by the presence of two dogs enjoying a bath on a summer's day.


WALK - 96

"When the budding scarf of April

Ravelled on the Devon Hill."

from 'Keats at Teignmouth' by Charles Causley

When Cornish poet Charles Causley was a little boy, his mother took him on a trip to Teignmouth. As she told him how John Keats had once lived there, she cannot have imagined that her own son would grow up to become a famous poet too.

Those lines, ". . . the budding scarf of April ravelled on the Devon hill", always conjure up an image for me of the drifts of snowy blackthorn blossom lightening the Devon landscape in springtime.

On a breezy, sunny morning in late April, we were on Little Haldon, high ground a couple of miles to the north of Teignmouth with viewpoints over the Teign estuary; the peak of Haytor on Dartmoor on the horizon and the string of pits along the river valley and the old Stover canal where a special sort of ball clay, a derivative of granite, has been extracted.

This heather clad plateau, dotted with a few Scots Pines, appears quite barren but is an example of the rather scarce type of habitat called lowland heath, characteristic of parts of Dorset and East Devon. A couple arrived with wicker baskets which looked like picnic hampers but as they opened the lids a cloud of pigeons was released. The birds were on a 'training flight' and we watched them winging their way back towards Totnes.

We trudged along the network of overgrown and prickly tracks, reaching a wide ride where a lizard wove in and out of the dried grass.

We met a man who recalled his experience of Little Haldon Hill during the War when, as a teenager in the Home Guard, he had taken part in training manoeuvres there.

Scanning the surrounding farmland where there were a few red Devon cattle [always a pleasure to see], we noticed in a little field flanked by woods on two sides, a small herd of fallow deer, some grazing, others lying down, still in their dull brown winter coats.

Great Haldon loomed nearby. Also known as Exeter Forest, it is a vast area of coniferous plantation and heathland. It looked rather daunting so we stuck to exploring its smaller neighbour.

Illustrated by: Paul Swailes



On the trail of wild animals

"The Tarka Trail is still open" called out the fisherman, wheeling his bicycle to the bottom of Sticklepath Hill. Since the construction work had started on the new bridge across the Taw, we had avoided the area but now we followed the detour through side streets and factory sites to reach the riverside.

Just below the newly created causeway I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a bright shape start up from the rough grass and quickly disappear again. I turned and watched a fox pounce repeatedly, springing high in the air, this, despite the earth moving machinery and constant procession of trucks nearby. After a while the vixen sauntered off towards the causeway and so, even closer to the heavy plant activity and noise.

Like a puzzle picture where you have to spot the odd one out, we scanned the huge gathering of Canada geese, grazing the water meadows below Anchor Wood, to find among the pattern of black and fawn and white, a bar-headed goose, two greylags and a white-fronted goose.

As we headed towards Fremington Quay we were pleased to see, on Penhill salt marsh, about a hundred Brent geese, elegant in their black plumage with the narrow band of white on the neck.

Recalling the fox, active in the middle of the day, so close to Barnstaple town centre and major road works, made me think about the wide range of larger wild mammals which can be observed, during the hours of daylight, within the parish of Berrynarbor.

A routine car journey out of the village can be enlivened by the possibility of seeing red deer or brown hares.

Recently, as we travelled along the Sterridge Valley, we noticed in the sloping field opposite the forestry, thirty deer lying in the sun, grouped around an island of gorse and brambles. On our return a few hours later they had moved to the corner of the field to graze.

More elusive in North Devon than the red deer is the hare so it has been especially thrilling during the last year to observe them [again from the car, which serves as an effective hide] in fields near Smythen Cross. We watched four hares there at the week-end. They are beautiful creatures with their large golden eyes, black and white markings on ears and tail and tawny brown coat shading to darker, greyer brown.

That same evening, as early as half-past six, I had a clear view from my kitchen window as a black and

white head pushed through the hedge. The badger mooched about some shrubs; standing on its hind

legs it put its paws up on the bird table, trotted around the apple tree and completing its circuit of the lawn, it went back through the hedge.

Red deer, badger, hares - all this within the first two weeks of March. The badgers tend to start appearing in the garden in March or April just before darkness falls, with nightly visits concentrated throughout May and June, gradually becoming less frequent; with the odd appearance; in the autumn up to about November.

Last April we saw for the first time, otters in the river at the bottom of the garden, between eight and nine in the evening. A persistent 'fluty' whistling sound drew us towards the bend of the river. Near the bank, a

section of the surface of the water appeared to rise up and then turn itself into a sleek grey-brown head and back. It swam slowly across the river. On another occasion, while we had a brief view of the otter in the water, the one responsible for the whistling was hidden apart from movement in the vegetation.

At the other end of the parish, marine mammals are regularly sighted near the entrance to Watermouth Cove, off Widmouth Head and Samson's Bay - pods of porpoises and the odd grey seal.

The village of Berrynarbor is certainly rich in its variety of wild life and is home to several species of the larger mammals.

Illustrations by: Paul Swailes