SHOWERY TOR TO ROUGHTOR

SHOWERY TO ROUGHTOR

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Cloud shadows sweep across the lower grassy slopes of the tor and the adjoining stretched moorland. Skylarks sing in constant chatter above the ancient open, expanse of grazed land. Drifts of early flowering grasses, sedge and rushes mix with granite outcrops, iron-age settlement remains and soon-to- flower swathes of turf sprinkled liberally with tormentil, flowering clover and the delicate, hardy alpines clinging within the cracks on the exposed granite.

Roughtor crowns the highest point of a long ridge which runs northwards, almost to the edges of Davidstow Moor and the spires and towers of the Davidstow Creamery. A reminder that we are never too far away from our consumer-led society. If you follow the ridgeline in this direction you come first to the stand-alone outcrop of Little Roughtor and the visible remains of an iron-age settlement, and beyond, again, lays Showery Tor, capped by a prominent cheesewring formation of balanced, piled rocks. From the summit of Showery Tor the eye-line spreads for miles and miles; to Pentire Head, standing guard at the mouth of the Camel Estuary on the North Cornish coast and west to the white ‘Cornish Alps’ rising over the rolling Roseland landscape of St Austell and on towards the vegetation clad spoil heaps of china clay at Stanton. Beyond the moor’s margins, sunlight cracks through distant clouds and highlight the cliffs of Dizzard Point and Crackington. Reflected light bounces off the Davidstow steel spires. But it’s the twin peaks of Brown Willy and the route Jane and I are on now, following the sloped razor-backed spine to Rough Tor’s pinnacle, that dominates this beautiful and remote part of the moor. The ridges and cheesewrings looming ahead like a vast toy jenga set. Looking down the sloping drop towards the Charlotte Dymond memorial, standing stones slump inwards on themselves, towards the boggy, waterlogged floor of cotton grass and sphagnum. It’s uncertain whether this ancient man-made formation originated as a Prehistoric ceremonial or ritualistic space, or is an early medieval livestock pound, but it is more than as likely a Bronze Age or Iron Age hut circle, making this one of the oldest constantly lived and worked landscapes in the British Isles.

Today, a herd of Highland Cattle graze around this stunning site and eye us both inquisitively as we pass them by. A small calf, no bigger than a fully grown hairy Rottweiler, takes the sheltered eastern flank of its mother’s, shiny and shaggy copper tinged coat. In the near distance a small group of ponies and 3 Foals nibble and tug at the short moorland grasses. The cows, ponies and a scattering of sheep populate this land, free to roam over unbounded moorland and the visible ghost-lines of ancient fields. The stream running along the foot of the grass-covered slopes cuts through many centuries of peat, and is bridged by lengths of granite protrusions, where, in the wetter margins and marshy hollows, foxgloves will sway rhythmically in the welcoming breeze on a warm summers day. Upslope the nooks and jagged teeth of the granite blocks and forgotten, part-carved millstones, abound with pollen-rich grasses, sorrel, and in the open, yellow vetch. On the skyline the ponies have moved effortlessly from the lower grassy slopes and now mingle with walkers, who, unlike us, are now making their way back to their car. We on the other hand ‘have promises to keep’ so we stride out further onto the welcoming moor – our flasks of coffee and flapjacks safe in our backpack, for now anyway…

Sam Josh Thomas

The Moot Point – Ockment Press

West Devon

An Ockment Morning

The cloudy wisps of sheep’s fleece that snagged on the golden gorse were full of pin-prick crystals this morning and were in the process of losing their mattress stuffing quality – the lanolin in the wool made the moisture hanging heavy in the atmosphere stand out like pearls. These gleamed and sparkled in the early morning light, giving the fleece a sprinkling of life as if it were a substance like fine fungal threads or root hairs feeding on the evaporating, lifting mists.

A wire boundary fence, overgrown with ragged hornbeam and flecks of sparse gorse, is strung along an ancient, foot-tamped Holloway, the soil worn away down to the granite bedrock after centuries of footfall from humans and farm-stock. Passing under the looming hulks of beech, sycamore and mature holly, it struck me that at this very moment in time, there appeared to be nothing, apart from me and the dog to keep either in or out… Just the occasional applause of a wood-pigeons wing clap reminded me that we did indeed have company… The field lay empty, the slopes showing the spread of granite boulders that lay hidden under the bracken most of the year, hauled clear from the ancient field systems by long-forgotten farmers and their even more, long-forgotten labourers. The dreariness of the wintered trees is backlit as if on a stage by the low pink glow of the rising sun; a sepia-toned murk with the horizon edges smudged out.

The landscape feels as if hypnotised.

A waxwing busied itself in a tree, feasting on a plump clump of ruby-red berries, as now white-tailed rabbits hopped and swaggered across the lower slopes of the open moorland. The blackbirds and robins abandoned their combined attempts to outsing each other and threw snatches of notes into the rising mists, picking at the still air like an avian John Motson – a constant, noisy stream of unmanaged noise talking ever louder over one another. New bursting shoots of cow parsley poke through the verges and primroses and snowdrops break the turf around the tree roots. This weather had carded the strands and clumps of sheep’s wool into swags whilst the mists had filled them with liquid treasures.

Fleece was used in ancient times by being laid into the flowing streams and filtering the water of all its mineral wealth – the particles of copper, tin, silver and gold: the very origin of the golden fleece. Today though the wool snagged on the wire and gorse sparkle unlike anything I have seen before and with the lifting mist, the day started to feel lighter as the gauze-covered sun rose, warming this Mid-February morning.

Sam Josh Thomas

The Moot Point West Devon

samjosh@ockmentpress.co.uk

Between The Moors

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November 2016

Today we awoke to see the full beginnings of winter in this quiet corner of West Devon; the trees now stripped of foliage and baring their skeletoned fingers into the cold, clear morning sky. Thick  brushings of frost coat the landscape, viewed from our windows, the thick ruched kingsize duvet protecting us from the icing sugar that had been blown from unseen lips over the rolling hillsides overnight.

Only a week ago browning coppered leaves still clung to the branch stems and the view across the moorland valley stretched no further than the end of our steep, stepped path; now though, through the twisted fingers of the entwined naked boughs our vision takes us further: across the tumbling River Ockment, across the peak of the crumbling crennalated Norman castle and on and up over the forestry commision pine plantation that is rooted into the far valley walls. To our right, through a wider gap the distant rolls of Exmoor smudge the grey-pencilled skyline, glowing now as Amber as the sun begins it’s journey. 

Yet if we were to walk 800m behind us, up the closely cropped grass-covered slopes, through the clumps of bronzed bracken and the scatter of granite clitter to the trig-point, we would see as far as the shadowed Bodmin Moor laying away, still, to the west; the twin peaks of Roughtor and Brown Willy rising through the frost covered grass-clad flanks.

Our only company would be the herd of Galloway cattle watching us inquisitively; my partner Jane, myself and the dog. Their belts of blacks and browns looking as if they haven’t pulled the skin far enough up over their bellies. Newly born calves the size of Labradors would be staring at us with those huge brown eyes, not knowing what we are as that warming winter sun rises and spreads its glow from behind the moorland ridgeline.

Maybe later, for now though we sink further into the duvet; it’s too nice and warm – maybe later we’ll take that walk…

Sam Josh Thomas

samjosh@ockmentpress.co.uk

Okehampton

 

I’VE BEEN THERE, AND BACK, AGAIN; TINTAGEL – WINTER 2015

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A wide halo around new year’s moon portends stormier weather. Fields are already stogged: cattle feeding troughs mired in ponds of sloppy mud and arable fields gushing earthy water, streaming down sunken lanes and flooding across roads.

On the north coast, out beyond Tintagel’s guest houses, gift shops and plastic Excalibur’s, the heaving grey sea is flattened by an off-shore southerly wind. Above contorted slate cliffs the coastal path veers across sodden, poached pasture, up and down slate steps, slippery with trickling water.

Driest ground is on medieval fields and strips. Here bracken and turf thrive on well-drained ant hills, set in a hollow high above the wave-cut rocks, arches and sea stacks defending Willapark’s ancient cliff castle. A waterfall sprays out over Bossiney Haven and, further on, past dripping slate outcrops and thickets of bare blackthorn, a few white-faced bullocks shelter between yellow flowering gorse bushes, overlooking the deep cleft of Rocky Valley.

Down below, beneath crags draped with ivy, the stream races brown, to be overwhelmed by waves foaming up the narrow outfall. Later, weak sunlight gleams through the Ladies’ Window, Tintagel’s isolated church a dark shadow on the south-western horizon. Inland, up to a rough, watery lane, stands St Petrocs at Trevalga, its weather-beaten tower facing the ocean, Celtic cross hoary with lichen.

Lanes, slate stiles, and deep mud lead to St Nectan’s Kieve, hidden and secured behind gates, roaring within darkening woods floored with soggy leaf mould and sprawling ferns.

Higher up, past ranks of shut-up holiday caravans, last pale light merges sky and sea, distant Long Island towering above cliff-level, the rising moon a streaking of gold behind the thickening cloud.

 

© Sam Josh Thomas, 

Ockment Press Ltd.

Border Raid

BORDER RAID

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Below me, way below me, on one lonely side of the ridge, there are endless quiet miles of English countryside. The lightly rippling patchwork of an Edward Thomas landscape holds all the promises of the quiet, rural life, and in the distance, there are the enigmatic pencilled outlines of Elgar’s Malvern Hills and the beginnings of Houseman’s Shropshire and her own hilly range beyond. In the other direction, falling away along the ridgeline the promised picture is completely different: long, thick charcoaled smudges of whale-backed mountains lurk under a darkening cloud, impressive and austere, concealing the coalfields where my ancestors worked and lived for centuries (I remain the only one of my remote, strange family – if any survive, that talk in this anonymous, unsinging London accent). The great coastal cities and gateways lay beyond.

In this direction is the Land of My Fathers; Wales

The landscapes either side of the ridgeline could hardly do a better job of summing up the nominal character of the two nations; one polite and gentle, near pastoral really – a quintessential E.M. Forster environment. Whereas the other side could not be more different with a wild, craggy and indomitable vista running westwards to the Irish Sea. This ridge is the easternmost bulwark of the Black Mountains and the ancient border between England and Wales and matched physically by the line of Offa’s Dyke. Ideally, you need a full day of far-reaching visibility to fully appreciate the breathtaking drama laid out before you, but even on overcast grey days, it can deliver fully, on its promise. Today the cloud which marred the early morning has peeled away like a wrapper as I flop into the soft, sweet nutty scented heather to eat lunch and take my time to consume not just food but also the exquisite view; a bustling blue sky layers a shifting collage of shadow and sun onto the rich green pastoral landscape below me. Buzzards and kestrels hang above, suspended and wheeling on unseen wires.

The Black Mountains were once a fighting frontier on a par with the Antonine and Hadrian’s Wall along the Northumberland and Scottish borders; from where I stand now my Welsh ancestors have challenged and at times, rebuffed the invaders from over the border ranging from the Romans to the Anglo-Saxons to the proud, indomitable armies of Edward I. Maybe that’s why we charge so much to cross the bridge: We still try to keep the buggers out…

Today, ironically, these parts just happen to be one of the most anglicised parts of Wales thanks to a long line of baby-boomer ex-hippie incomers (I chose Cornwall as my escape route from London) yet that does little to affect the profound spirit of place which seeps out of every pore of this wonderful, evocative landscape.

Not far away, on and around the Llangattock escarpment, a thin crusting limestone outcrop buffers the sandstone country of the agricultural Black Mountains from the fossil fuels of coal country, and there are few better ways to experience this lesson in geopolitics, in how our culture grows from the ground, than cross over it and feel the atmospheric change with the geology beneath. Within any nation, there are many borders, many countries and many, many changes.

Everytime I come back to this borderland I can feel something inside of me ease and welcome me back in like a friend, and today is no different from before. The very first time I walked down the street to the River Usk in Cricklehowell I felt an unknown surge of contentment; there is something invisible but inexpressibly comforting in the rounded hills, the hawthorn, hedgerows and the sequestered valleys, reminiscent of Yorkshire but with the edges softened, a much softer accent and a welcome absence of Geoff Boycott.

Today herds of semi-wild ponies watch on quizzically as I walk on unfettered, for miles and miles under a warming spring sky that appears to grow ever wider and longer by the hour, until the golden glow of sun eventually softens and wanes. As I descend into the valley patterned with freshly budding hedgerows, it throws a rich golden honey light over the ‘Land of My Fathers’ and brings out the ruddy colour of the rich red, fecund earth under my feet.

 

Sam Josh Thomas

© Ockment Press Ltd 2016

North O’ The Moor

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The brilliance of the constellation Orion fades through the crystal clear morning with the onset of dawn. Calls from Tawny owls deflect from the tree-shrouded hillside above our moorland home, and the A30 carries the muted ‘whoosh’ of the commuting traffic speeding through the steep-sided road cutting. In the field adjoining home a rabbit ‘boinks’ across the dewy grass to the burrowed hedge banks: sheep huddle in the corner awaiting more light before fanning out to graze the greening moorland. The sky becomes bright pink, orange, and turquoise, with wisps of cloud crossed with nail scratches of condensation trails from jets, moving eastbound on the transatlantic flightline in quick 5-minute intervals.

On this fine autumnal morning once familiar views now appear as a succession of cut-outs or stage flats from a theatre backdrop. Below me now the ancient market town settles beneath the shelter of the valley walls, clothed in a mix of oak and pine and blanketed mist resembling a Dartmoor ‘Brigadoon’

Soon the landscape is flooded with a golden light that burnishes withered leaves on copper beech, sweet chestnut and sycamore, reflects on the glossy sylvan greens of ash and lifts and enhances the scarlet redness of the profusion of haw berries. Two buzzards wheel above me, undeterred by the harrying, thuggish jackdaws, but the dog and I remain oblivious now to their constant ‘kak-kak-kak’ cries, becoming as they do part of the senses; mixing imperceptibly with the visual and aural landscapes and contrasting perfectly with the steady hum of the road.

Sam Josh Thomas –

Ockment Press Ltd

(Photography – Jane Munro)

THE MOOR

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Harvesting cereals is fast these days, probably going unnoticed by many of the passers-by making their way towards Okehampton, close to my home. The golden stubble is glimpsed intermittently through the gaps in gateways and hedgerows off narrowing lanes, encompassed by ancient earthen banks tumbling with honeysuckle, sloes and hawthorn. Loaders, balers and trailers race and take positions on unseen starting grids to gather the big round straw bales before tonight’s forecasted rain arrives. Some uncut fields of the later spring-sown barley remain, awaiting the early autumn cut. This afternoon, up above the town,  this circular walk reveals the open, undulating panorama of fields and woodland over Dartmoor and Bodmin moor, partly obscured by the sun ‘drawing water’ from the hillsides. Cloud shadows wander lazily across the pastoral landscapes, where patches of sunlight enhance the emerald shaded shoots of regrowth in amongst the hay and silage fields and the luminous, warming glow of the blonde stubble and uncut corn.

Up here, just a few metres or so above the rooftops, clumps of tall, flowing grasses, coloured to straw contrast with the pinks, purples and oranges of ling, bell heather and crocosmia. Blackberries are ripening perfectly, staining my fingers as I snaffle a couple – the dog likes them too… A motley crew of cows and calves view us placidly, quietly chewing among the bracken and golden coconut scented gorse, masking the granite outcrops which freckle through the well-drained turf. On the hill’s northern flank, rowans with an abundance of scarlet red berries (a bad winter to come maybe?) Appear vivid before the hazy, lazy blues, greens and ‘Boris Johnson’ straw blondes of lower lands stretching over into the foreign lands of Launceston. A flock of pipits skim perfectly across the undulating hillsides, scattering southwards away from the plaintive mew and shadowed wings of buzzards.

Below me lays a now familiar territory of the green, smooth valleys and patchworked fields of arable and dairy enclosures around this West Devon market town. Shafts of welcome sun glint on the church tower down below me, nestling in the narrow lanes of my adopted home, drawing me back down to the self-imposed promise of a much-needed coffee.

Sam Josh Thomas

Ockment Press Ltd. West Devon