Brentor is a prominent Dartmoor landmark
Twenty years ago, I left my English Devonshire homeland to live in Asia. Since then, I have rarely felt the need to revisit my roots. With my family spread out across the world, our reunions are inclined to take place in other countries. Last month, however, I returned on a journey of rediscovery, taking my significant other to the significantly favourite haunts of my past.
Written by: RACHEL LOVE
My childhood home was in Yelverton, a scattered village surrounded by an abundance of natural beauty, right on the edge of Dartmoor in the English county of Devon. From the bay window of our living room, we had a panoramic vista of meadows, forests and wooded vales, against the magnificent backdrop of Dartmoor’s tor-capped summits. The moor’s lowland fringe was my playground, Yelverton Common, a transitional grassland grazed by semi-wild ponies, sheep and cattle, coated with gorse and bracken, and dotted with oak trees, hawthorn, rowan and birch. In this gentle countryside, I used to pick dazzling-yellow, coconut-scented gorse flowers; I would then sell my crop to a friend’s father for making gorse wine. Another source of my pleasure was the disused railway track, where the wild strawberries and blackberries grew. The South Devon & Tavistock Railway line ran beside our house; the service lasted for just over 100 years before the passenger trains sadly stopped operating in 1962 due to nationalisation.
Tavistock’s architecture is just one of its many charms
Dartmoor is a mysterious granite landscape of changing colours and textures, with the purples and russets of the heather and the bracken contrasting with the vivid greens of the pastures. Farms, small villages and the pinnacled towers of mediaeval churches nestle in the valleys and the folds of the hillsides, enveloped by an archaic pattern of fields and connected by a network of twisting sunken lanes. Fast-flowing rivers – the Dart, the Tavy, the Lyd, the Meavy and the Walkham – rush down the hillsides in steep valleys. It was the rivers that I loved the most.
Gorse flowers make a wonderfully rich, full-bodied country wine
When I was a child, I used to relish our family summer picnics at the picturesque Double Waters – the meeting place of the River Walkham and the River Tavy. It was a long walk down a stony track. Returning for the first time in probably 25 years, I was happy to see that nothing had changed. It was still delightfully peaceful and scenic. Boosted with the volume of the combined waters, the river here is wide, with a succession of swirling rapids and a quiet pool, where we used to swim before scrambling up the opposite bank to pick bilberries. This area has an industrial past, and is pitted with craters, collapsed earthworks and the spoil heaps of an old copper mine, the Virtuous Lady Mine, which was wonderfully named in honour of Queen Elizabeth I in 1558, and worked until the 1870s. The old mine-captain’s house rests atop an outcrop of rock above the mine’s entrance; we used to clamber into the dark, bat-filled passage and collect rocks, but thankfully we never dared to venture further into the maze of tunnels and part-flooded shafts. Back beside the river, we’d smash open the rocks to reveal bright and silvery surfaces dusted with sparkling pyrite crystals, quartz, and lustrous golden-brown siderite crystals, aka fool’s gold! All these years later, I couldn’t find the entrance to the mine, but apparently it is now closed with a gate to keep out trespassing mineral hunters and foolish, fearless children.
My favourite place in England
Upon reaching adulthood, I moved from Yelverton to the nearby town of Tavistock, birthplace of Sir Francis Drake. Tavistock is a former stannary (tin-mining) town with a pannier market, grand Victorian-gothic architecture, historical abbey ruins, and the gurgling River Tavy running through its centre. Towering above the town, and marching across the streets below on five mighty spans, is a granite-stone railway viaduct, which opened to much acclaim and fanfare in 1890 as part of that now shamefully defunct railway network. Nevertheless, a walk across the top offers fabulous views of Tavistock and Dartmoor.
Whilst living in Tavistock, my friends and I would often head to the beaches of North Cornwall on sunny weekends in the summer, but if I wanted to escape from the ‘grockles’ (tourists), my place of choice was a deep waterfall-fed river pool, close to home. It was my favourite place in England. Keen to share my memories with my partner, we drove through a series of endlessly meandering lanes to Hill Bridge, also on the River Tavy, where there is a salmon ladder and a water channel known as a ‘leat’. The leat was built for the mining industry and powered a water wheel at the Wheal Friendship Mine; since 1932 it has been delivering water to a hydro-electric power station at the nearby village of Mary Tavy. Walking downstream from Hill Bridge, we followed the leat through the sunlit Creason Wood, and found my swimming hole, heralded by its small waterfall and bordered by wide, flat, sun-baking rocks, perfect for warming up after jumping into the icy-cold water. My secret spot was still every bit as magical as I remembered, and the walk as equally deserving of a pint of local ale at the Elephant’s Nest.
Afternoon tea with clotted cream at Tavistock’s Bedford Hotel
No visit to Tavistock is complete without an ascent of Brentor, where a tiny 13th Century church crowns a 338-metre-high, ancient and extinct, volcanic cone. The story goes that the church was built by a wealthy merchant who vowed, in the midst of a tremendous storm at sea, that if he escaped to safety he would build a church on the highest piece of land he could see. Indeed, Brentor and the turret-like silhouette of St Michael’s church is a significant landmark over much of West Devon, and climbing to the top, we got a fabulous return view of Dartmoor, extending all the way to Plymouth Sound and out to sea. Even when the thick moorland fogs descend, with the wind whipping shreds of cloud past the hill, Brentor is an eerily beautiful place.
At the end of our day, we treated ourselves to a decadent Devonshire clotted cream tea at Tavistock’s prestigious Bedford Hotel. Revisiting one’s roots doesn’t get much better than this!