Apologies for a prolonged absence of late but it seems, like last year, that summer is for doing things and going theres and not so much sitting down to write about it! Now as jumper sleeves creep around my shoulders and the morning drizzles outside my window, I can bring you a summer scrapbook.
This place, Barton Glebe, is where I spent my days after heading south to Cambridge last time you heard from me here. It is, would you believe, a burial site and yet is one of the most alive places I have ever experienced. I have been making a short documentary about the woodland burial movement in Britain, based on the experiences of people who have buried their relatives here and/ or plan to come here themselves.
It was a fascinating experience, and far from being morbid, led to encounters with people for whom death had led them to an open place; a place where they had re-evaluated what was genuinely important in life. I had never been to a woodland burial site before and this is so far the only one I’ve seen, but what struck me most is the sense that those laid to rest just become part of what is there, literally and visually. For me this translates more accurately what death is – part of a continuum rather than a finite ending. The graves here are dug the day of the burial and filled in immediately afterward. The bereaved can then scatter wildflower seeds and lay a small wooden plaque flush to the ground, which eventually will also decompose.
Anything left on the grave must be of the environment around it and able to decompose. While called a ‘woodland’ burial site, it is still in relatively early stages as the conversion from farmland to woodland only began ten years ago. The idea is to re-establish native woodland species and create a space for the living to use: to walk in, to sit and contemplate, have picnics; as well as to provide for those less inclined to crematoriums, cemetaries or church graveyards, a resting place that feels right. Being a young woodland, it is more akin to a wildflower meadow teeming with bees and butterflies with clusters of aspens and oaks quivering their leaves on the windy Cambridgeshire plains. One dusk I even managed to film badgers!
I was overwhelmed by the number of people who were open to talking about their experiences with the place, and have come away with a veritable treasure trove of stories that now need weaving into a shape that takes form each day, and fortunately with the technology available these days, this can be done wherever I find myself, which suits my nomadic ways.
I find it good practice after the intense period of interaction, conversation and filming to put the clips in order, then put them away for a while to let the ideas germinate in my mind. So one sunset in August I drove away from the swaying heads of wheat that had become my home for a while, to go and find an Icelandic fisherman (my man Orri!) who was coming to join me on a journey out west in my trusty van companion Wanda. Our first night was spent, by happy accident, in my aunty and uncle’s back garden. “Where are you trying to get to tonight?” he asked. “Somewhere on the way to Wales”. “Well I know a lovely spot on the way to Wales…out the back”.
And a lovely spot it was, at the back on the orchard, overlooking a recently ploughed field. Tea was brought to us in the morning, and after breakfasting together they waved goodbye to us in the first downpour I had experienced in what seemed like months.
We headed off along the most beautiful A40 west, stopping here and there, and enjoying the glowing light of sunshine on cornfields after rain, until we got to the Wye Valley at Dusk. We settled for the night on a track in a forest, which, though we had chosen it, was slightly forced upon us as we got stuck in the mud! I woke to find Orri laying hundreds of twigs over the mire so that we could continue on without seeking out a man-with-a-tractor!
The plan was to head to Lammas Project – a place I have been interested in for several years now via a passionate enthusiasm (shared by many) for Simon Dale’s incredible ‘hobbit house’. Lammas project is a community of nine families – of which Simon’s is one – who are in the process of building homes, lives and livelihoods sustainably on a lush and beautiful pocket of Pembrokeshire.
We had arranged to volunteer for Andy and Jane, a couple who live there with their teenage son and are in the process of building a timber frame straw bale barn that shall be their home come the winter, and until they have finished their real house! We were asked to help with hand chiseling mortise and tenon joints for the larch frame. This looks simple enough, until you try and do it with wobbly knotty round timber on equally wobbly A-frames on an uneven slope! The concepts of “straight” and “level”, or at least maintaining them, seem to become as elusive as a needle in a haystack!
Towards the end of our stay the barn frame was raised with the help of many extra pairs of hands who had stopped by for the weekend, and an impossibly large mallet to pound in the wooden pegs (expertly carved by Andy and Jane’s multi-talented Polish perma-wwoofer Alexandra). It involved a healthy portion of ” a little bit this way”, “just a smidgin that way”, and a fair amount of head scratching in the rain, but it’s so rewarding to have been part of a structure that is going to be lived in. The most important thing that I learned there is that it’s alright not to know exactly what you are doing. The point is to learn what you are doing, by doing it. All the families there are making their own houses and their own mistakes, but it is all their own, and so it comes with very different sorts of stress, and very profound senses of achievement.
Slightly teary eyed to leave new found friends and such a special place, we headed off to find some sunshine and found it large and orange, sinking into the sea at Marloes Point – a peninsular south of St.David’s in Pembrokeshire. In the morning we discovered there was a little boat that took people across to the neighbouring uninhabited island, Skomer, which is a sanctuary for all manner of bird life, rabbits and seals. We decided to get on it as I realised I’ve never been on a little boat in England. As we approached the island we were greeted by a family of dolphins alongside the boat…the first the captain had seen all season!
Seals dotted the rocky shores, rabbits nibbled away at the lushness and the sun dried out our damp bones.
We continued slowly South, stopping off at the fantastically labyrynthine Kidwelly Castle, to the Gower where I used to spend my summer holidays as a child. It seems a bit monopolised by suburbanesque campsites these days and all we wanted was a little quiet spot, so we kept driving to the end of the road at the end of the road, where there was an open gate and a track. There we found Dai, a National Trust warden’s son, who lived in a caravan overlooking the National Park! He kindly invited us to park on their land in exchange for some candles!!! I love the wildness down there and the blackberries were in very fine fettle that little bit further south.
With time alas ticking away before Orri had to leave back to his shrimping boat in Iceland, and keen to get down to the Southwest, we made a big (for Wanda) leap down to Somerset via Bristol and the Cheddar Gorge, getting rather waylayed at the cheese section of a farm shop! We were forced to stop in Porlock in the rain and dark, as it proved to have been a long day for all of us. But glad of that we were when the sun rose and we realised what we would have missed by making the mistake of trying to get to ‘a destination’. It is an absolutely stunning stretch of coast and the A39 runs right along it. As you head into Exmoor the view out of the window fills with gorse and heather, punctuated by swathes of dazzlingly green pasture.
We realised that many of the places we wanted to get to were accompanied by sets of double chevrons on the map, which we feared may be a bit much for our dear old van, so, feeling in need of a shower and a swim headed off to find a river fed lido I had heard about, where you get a cup of tea with your entry fee, here in the village of Chagford which is nestled right within Dartmoor National Park. Apparently the pool was built in 1933: the land was given to the locals on the condition that they maintained it as a working pool. If they do not maintain it, the land will revert to the former owner. As such it is one of many focal points of the community, which as it turns out is rather eclectic…
We were sadly not able to have a swim or a shower as the pool was closing early due to the carnival parade, with which most Chagfordians seemed to be involved. It was a delightful and ingenious array of costumes, even with a dog-in-bulls clothing as a sidekick to a matador! All the shenanigans and high spirits more than made up for the lack of a wash! The icing on the cake was being invited back to one of the carnival goer’s houses for a bath – thank you Damien! He also furnished us with good advice for park up spots on Dartmoor, some bread and cheese for our journey, and a strong recommendation to visit the cosy Warren House Inn – one of the most remote pubs in England, which has a fire that purportedly has not gone out since 1845! We arrived there right on time for Sunday lunch, not even realising it was Sunday!
Dartmoor has a veritable bounty of parking spots with the most amazing views, and not a single ‘no overnight parking’ sign in sight! I could spend an eternity there just watching the light changing from minute to minute. The horizon is dotted with Tors and driving along the small roads is an adventure – they clearly were not made for any more than one direction of travel!
We finally found the parking spot of dreams one evening after a down poor, again with that inimitable light from behind grey blue clouds. It was like being in a magic garden, a miniature world.
There is something very special about having a stream running through your garden, as the Dartmoor ponies agree. We awoke to hoof steps galloping down the hill for an early morning drink, and gradually they were joined by more and more until there were about ten just outside our van.
That is a place I shall carry with me and return to, but as Orri’s departure loomed we headed along the river Dart to spend a night on the South coast of Devon. There the sloes were plump and soft and we decided a litre bottle of gin would need to be bought to put them in!
We crossed the estuary of the River Dart to Dartmouth (a rather strange but exciting sensation sitting in a van on water!) and headed northeast along another river, the Teign, to find a rather different kind of house on wheels, where we were to spend our last evening packing bags, making curries and sloe gin, and flowing the sound of clog morris dancers to arrive at a nearby pub.
The Exeter and Teign Valley Railway is a disused line where, at the old Christow Station, one enthusiast has taken it upon himself to maintain and build camping coaches for people to stay in at a very reasonable price. Colin is a lovely and interesting man who is an enthusiast not only about authentic building and repair, but about quality of life in general, by keeping things simple. He also believes strongly in child’s play, and in this vain has spent 1000 hours (!) building a second ‘children only’ camping coach that is “scaled to a child’s world but with everything in it that allows them to be independent”. He tells them stories about the Little People that live in the woods before they go to bed.
He referred to the facilities as ‘very basic’ (so basic in fact that some people leave when they see it) but I wonder what people have got used to these days? After being in the van it was positively palatial. It has a kitchen: cooker, sink, kettle, teabags; electricity, heating and a DAB radio. The kazi is across the tracks and water is delivered fresh everyday (1 churn + 1 watering can = 1 day’s supply). What more do you need?! At £21 a night for 2 people it’s an absolute bargain and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Colin has a refreshing absence of business sense: he doesn’t do advertising and his website’s down, but if you’d like to stay in this wonderful place, call him on 01647 253108.
And it was at another train station that I left Orri, realising that I too would have to head back to bricks and mortar to work on a rough cut of my film so that I can show it to its commissioner before I make my autumnal migration to Iceland. Before that though, I am off to Moscow, then New Mexico. This Autumn has proffered many surprises, that shall have to wait for next time…
These larger leaps away from England also mean that I must part with my dear van Wanda, who has allowed me to travel the length and breadth of my country this summer – an experience I shall take with me wherever I go. If any of you would like a caring companion of a vehicle, that really IS ready to go (all things necessary for a road trip included…even an extra 3 man tent! MOT’d, taxed…) have a looksee here, but quick!!! Only 2 days and 22 hours to go!
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