Driving to Devon

Devon: The Home of Cream Teas, Two Coastlines and Wildlife Galore!

Decades ago, as a young whipper-snapper, I spent many summers romping through the bounteous fields of Devon.

One particular year sticks out in my mind as being worth remembering. The year was 1978, I was 14-years old and hopelessly in love with the great outdoors. Unlike many of my peers (who would dedicate their summers attempting to score drugs from various older teenagers) I was content with the kind of frolicking that was fast growing out of fashion: namely wandering through fields and attempting to spot some of the more elusive animals that roamed through this stately, handsome land.

My memories of that time are of blissful peace, and are no doubt victim to the kind of rose-tinted nostalgia that oversaw the shock result of the Brexit referendum. Still, after many pinches of salt have been taken, I can say with confidence that my memories of this county were not completely clouded by misty-eyed longing. Having just returned from a long weekend in Devon I’m happy to report that this place is perhaps more beguiling that I remember it being, full to the brim with cosy pastoral nooks and a bewildering range of wild creatures.

Driving down to Devon I’m assaulted with the kind of warming sense of comfort akin to eating a time-worn family recipe. It had been decades since I’d visited this part of the world, but somehow the landscape seemed familiar. The M5 motorway is hardly the most picturesque way to be introduced to Devon, but that doesn’t stop me from getting carried away down memory lane. As soon as these familiar rolling hills begin to appear, I took left turn and ordered my Satnav to ignore any more motorway routes, I wanted to delve into the country lanes of my childhood…

As I left behind the noise of the highway, I turned my radio off and rolled the windows down. The balmy summer air, heavy with the scent of flowering buds, wafted through my nose. I found myself drifting back into old memories, until a fox darted out of a hedge forcing me to brake drastically. The creature was momentarily stunned and then lithely padded across the road and into the opposite hedge, on its way to terrorise some chickens, no doubt.

After settling down in my B&B in dusky village, I fumbled my way through a couple of country lanes, in search of a pint of ale. I was pointed in the direction of The Catherine Wheel, which I soon stumbled across in the village of Hemyock. This charming little settlement might not have had much in the way of wildlife, but it was certainly full of some characters. Young locals mingled with their older, craggier counterparts and rowdy conversations got rowdier as the night wore on.

The next day I made my way out of the B&B, battling a rather mean headache, and down to my next destination: Dartmoor.

Ice Sets In Early On Dartmoor

‘Winter’s coming early this year.’

Those were the words that I was greeted with on my first morning in Dartmoor. I’d slept soundly the night before, my belly full of comfort food and my mind brimming with the possibilities of all the wildlife that I was yet to discover. I understand that some people find it difficult to get a good night’s sleep in a new bed, but I’m not one of those people. My time on the road, hefty hangover and large meal was enough to send me off to sleep, but it was the cold that woke me up. Ice misted covered the windows of my room and my yawn emitted a huge plume of steam which hung in the air before my eyes. Looking out the window the moor awaited me, but it had changed over night.

“Frost don’t usually fall so early, sign of the beast I tell you.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond to this. The man was dressed head to toe in weather proof materials, with a wide-brimmed hat gently wavering in the breeze. He was perched on a mossy wall, looking out over the moor with a kind of grim determination that I could not decipher. The man looked serious enough, his eyes firmly set on the horizon and his mouth gently chewing on something. I pulled my coat closer and elected for a curt silent nod in his direction, pulled the gate open and stepped out into the frosty moor.

It was late-September, a time of year that was more associated with Indian Summers than early frosts, but the frost was there nonetheless, defying seasonal expectation and somewhat dampening my spirits. The chances of spotting some of the rare wildlife that I’d got excited for the night before had dropped with the temperature and I hadn’t packed expecting this kind of climate. To make up for this oversight I’d taken the sensible option of putting on all the clothes in my possession. Luckily the shops had not been affected by the cold weather so I was able to stock up on enough food to last me the day. In my rucksack I had packed sandwiches, Kendal mint cake (a firm hiking staple) and plenty of cereal bars to last me a day out on the moor, I’d left at first light and was determined to see something spectacular.

Although I’d read plenty about the creatures and plants that inhabited Dartmoor, I hadn’t expected the moor itself to be the most memorable aspect of my time there. The weather was cold, but it was by no means inhospitable and it had transformed the already rugged landscape into a pearly white sea of crystal shards and granite peaks. I passed a small river that had transformed into a makeshift ice luge, the peat bogs had become sturdier and shifted with a disarming slowness that made them all the more treacherous, whilst Shetland ponies nervously trampled through the thicket.

I might have been initially underwhelmed by the cold weather, but I left Dartmoor that day safe in the knowledge that I’d witnessed something truly special.

Princetown for the Night

A pit stop at The Plume of Feathers

As usual, my rather improvised approach to travelling had left me short of a bed for the night, thankfully I was not travelling in high season so I wasn’t refused a night at the first place that I arrived at. The Plume of Feather is well situated on the very edge of the moorland and I’m sure is usually much busier than I found it that day. When I arrived the temperature had just dropped by a few degrees and I found myself grateful for the log fire that was merrily crackling in the corner of the cosy bar. I closed the door behind me and took a look around the place before sitting down.

A quiet pub is a strange thing. Much like a school or hospital, it takes on an eerie air of silence without the usual background hum of noise that these places are usually associated with. The Plume of Feathers, although handsomely decorated, felt a little abandoned and (dare I say it) a touch haunted as I slowly paced through its environs heightened, no doubt, by the lack of any guests or staff.

Part of me was tempted to call out a beleaguered ‘Hello’, but before I could do so a ruffled looking teenage waiter popped his head out of a door and beat me to it. His greeting shocked me out of my reverie and I held my hand to my heart. ‘Sorry!’, came the response from the sheepish lad, before he showed me to the secondary bar which, thankfully, had a small collection of people warming their hands by the fire and tucking into some hearty looking food.

The familiar smell of pub grub sent some pretty urgent signals to my brain which told me one thing: I was absolutely starving.

The sheepish waiter quickly found me a table near the fire and I quickly ordered my food, based on what I’d seen walking in and settled myself down into a book detailing the natural fauna and flora of Dartmoor. Although sections of the moor (as it’s known to the locals) have been sectioned off for use by the military for over two centuries now, there are still plenty of interesting animals worth making the trip to see.

Dartmoor has not seen much intensive farming or any kind of development as a result of it being categorised as a Special Area of Conservation. Four habitats have been singled out in particular these are: North Atlantic wet heaths with Erica tetralix, European dry heaths, Blanket bog and Old sessile oak woods. Each one of these habitats is apparently home to their own specific species and my mouth quickly salivated at the prospect of spotting so many of these rare and elusive creatures. It wasn’t until I was nudged by the waiter that I realised that I’d been salivating at the handsome plate of food on my table. I promptly dropped the book and tucked in, all the time keeping in mind the cornucopia of natural wonders that laid in store for me out in the moor.

Bird-Watching in France

I was never much one for big holidays.

During my working life I was often harried by the Human Relations team into taking holidays. Unlike my colleagues, who would often have their entire year’s holiday booked well in advance, I was always too focused on my work to think of when I would be taking my next break. I would never say that I was a ‘workaholic’, I never took my work home with me and I always gave myself time at the weekend to ‘depressurise’, as they say. However, once I found myself absorbed into the corporate world of endless meetings, presentations and lunches, I found myself happily occupied and, dare I say, satisfied.

Whenever I was eventually forced into taking my mandatory holiday by HR, I was rather at a loss of where to go. Without a wife, family or group of friends, I found myself in a strange state of isolation. Outside of work I had precious few human relationships and my sense of adventure was somewhat limited by this. I took the time off, but I never used it to travel or explore the world outside my neighbourhood of London. The 30 days or so of holiday that I was granted every year were usually spent reading in silence in my study, redecorating my home and attending to other such thrilling maintenance issues – they were not times that I looked forward to.

As my retirement grew ever closer, I began to give myself the opportunity to dream, to imagine myself in some far off land with a rucksack on my back and a camera hanging over my head. With every documentary and movie that I watched the fantasies grew ever stronger until they became all that I ever thought about. Although I longed to take myself away in an exotic foreign land, I was still a little nervous about taking such a brave step into the unknown.

A few months before I was due to leave work I decided to take the pro-active step of booking a holiday villa in the South of France. I know this might not sound like the most adventurous of steps, but it nonetheless felt momentous to have put a plan in action and, in some ways, make the fantasy a reality.

In July of this year I stepped aboard a plane for the first time in decades. When I alighted at my destination I found myself in a foreign land, drenched in sunlight and new, strange smells. The few weeks that I spent in Languedoc were some of the most rewarding that I’d spent in my life. It felt scary and liberating at the same time having so much free time on my hands with no agenda other than the one that I would set for myself. Each morning I would wake up in my private villa expecting to be running late for my train, but then I’d remember where I was and hesitantly lay my head back down onto the pillow for another hour of sleep. The bags under my eyes, which I’d assumed would be with me for life, slowly began to fade and a healthy glow returned to my face, which I’d not seen on my skin since I was a boy.

I might not have spotted too much wildlife whilst I was there, but my trip to the South of France was certainly one that I’ll never forget.