Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Walking the Last of the Light on Southernmost Dartmoor

With the biscuit tin by the sea fallen victim to the forces of capitalism, I'd vowed I'd have at least one annual walk on Dartmoor. But though I'd been there twice this year, the physical effort - and consequent euphoria - of climbing a tor or two had eluded me.  And time was running out, because once the clocks have turned back ... well, this is how I feel, only in reverse. 

So with the forecast of fine weather yesterday, the dog and I drove off through thick murk which only got thicker. By the time we reached Exeter, I thought we were probably both completely mad, but once past Telegraph Hill, we rounded a bend and there was glorious blue sky, with fog chiefly in the valleys. The ensuing astoundment must have been what stout Cortez and all his men felt when they clapped eyes on the Pacific.  

And by the time we reached our destination - the car park at Harford Moor Gate, to the north of Ivybridge - we had perfect Dartmoor walking conditions.  

With no particular route to follow but a few things I wanted to see, we struck off in a northeasterly direction, up the side of the Erme valley. The stillness was broken only by birds - a flock of redwings whirring past, crows and a couple of ravens overhead, even the occasional snatch of larksong ...

... and my shortness of breath. I'm clearly not as fit as I was before I broke my leg. 

Before long we had great views opening up all around. This looking back the way we'd come, with Plymouth Sound in the distance ... 

... and here the gleamy bit to the far right is the Erme estuary.

Up ahead, the play of shadow and light was striking.

Ted and I were heading for the Satanic looking promontery on the right, Sharp Tor ...

... but first the sharing of an egg and cress sandwich ...
... on a cairn on Piles Hill ... 

... and a photo opportunity. (Choose the right profile, Ted.) 

Looking over to Three Barrows

Up the Erme again 

We pressed on. It was still pretty squelchy underfoot ... 

... but then we reached the old Redlake tramway and the going became much easier.  

A sharpish turn to the left ...  
... and we gained rocky Sharp Tor.

Ted and I walked to the furthermost outcrop. All was still until the final step up onto the rocks and suddenly the sound of the River Erme far below was loud in our ears. (Dru Marland once explained this phenomenon to me - how one moment you can not hear something and then one step later you can, very clearly because it's loud, but I can't remember exactly what she said.)

Directly below us was Piles Copse, and I remembered the walk Ted and I did up the valley on the opposite bank some years back, when the Erme had been too high for us to ford and we'd had to turn back. You could see the track we'd followed quite distinctly. 

Rather than descend to the wood - though I shall get there one day - Ted and I made for a nearby cairn ... 

... from which there were amazing views of the heart of the southern moor.  My own heart filled up with the beauty of it. 

Heading south now and looking over to Corrington Ball and Brent Hill

As well as cairns, there are lots of other Bronze age relics in the area. This menhir is marked as longstone recumbent on the OS map. As you can see, it's been re-erected and is now also known as the Lazarus Stone. 

There are many boundary stones too, marking the border between the parishes of Harford and Ugborough.   This one is known as Hobajohn's Cross, though it isn't really a cross at all but an incised stone, which probably started out as the terminal stone of Butterdon Stone Row.  

Talking of which ... 

Oh but I'd wanted to see Spurrell's Cross! I must have walked past it.  I retraced my steps and started to cast about. 

I saw Dartmoor ponies ... 

... and this fairly typical bog, which is probably the one in which Martin Sheen is having a dip in Apocalypse Now ... 
... but no cross. I went further eastwards looking for a conjunction of tracks, because that's what it would originally have marked. Then I climbed a few cairns. Still nothing ... though I had a clear view of one of my favourite spots on south Dartmoor, Owley Corner. 

I love it not just because of its name, but because it reminds me a bit of 'Trees on a Hill' by John Nash.

But I was damned if I could find Spurrell's Cross. I even wondered if it had fallen - not for the first time - or been stolen. (It is microchipped because of past attempts.) Next time I'd have to bring my long-distance glasses with me as well as my reading specs. 

'Silly moo,' said the cows.

But it was time to head home. One last longing look up to Ugborough Beacon ...

... a glance back up the valley ... 

... and we were gone. 

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Calleva Atrebatum and St Mary the Virgin, Silchester

Time for a joint birthday jaunt for Daughter No 2 and me. We had a think and decided to go to Silchester in Hampshire. 

We had lunch in the Calleva Arms. Calleva Atrebatum, we are told, is the Roman name of the town they built near the present village in the first century AD. 

Our first stop was the ancient Church of St Mary the Virgin, but we arrived ten minutes before a baptism was due to take place, so diverted to the site of the Roman town walls and amphitheatre instead. 

We walked along the drove cutting through the centre of the site. Now it's fields; then there was a grid of streets with houses, public buildings and a forum. Discoveries are still made during the annual summer excavations by Reading University. 

Silchester was never built over or reoccupied after it was abandoned in the 6th or 7th century, and so archaeologists have an unusually complete picture of life there. 

I bet it didn't include alpacas. 

There were several groups of people wandering about trying to find the amphitheatre. We were misdirected twice before we found it. 

I had that knot of emotion in my throat again as I walked into the middle. 

No evidence survives to indicate the sort of entertainment taking place here. Shows involving gladiators or wild beasts might have been too expensive, but blood sports with bulls, dogs and bears are possibilities, and public executions would have been carried out. 

The opposing entrance/exit 

One of two semi-circular niches recessed into the seating banks  on the east-west axis. They might have been refuges for 'participants' in the 'games'; elsewhere, evidence has been found suggesting that such recesses contained altars to Nemesis. 

On our arrival, we'd noticed a slightly alarming sign which said the car park would be locked at 4pm, and time was getting on, so we hurried back via the walls on one side of the site. 
Silchester boasts 'some of the best preserved Roman town defences in England' - and they are quite impressive. 

The North Gate, then and now
Back, then, to St Mary the Virgin, where the only remnant of the baptism was a disposable nappy left behind in the car park. 
The church is ancient and a far more modern site than the walls we'd just walked. The earliest surviving masonry dates from the early 12th century, though its position, tucked up inside the east wall of Calleva, suggests it inhabits a site held sacred in pagan times. 

As soon as you step inside, you see the plain, late 14th/early 15th century font - clearly still in use - with its beautiful 1985 corona by Giuseppe Lund, representing shoots growing from seeds to maturity. Behind it, a modern memento mori in the form of the striking Carpe Diem window by Jon Callan, a memorial to two young people, Andrew Culbert and Sophie Wilsdon, who died in accidents within six months of each other. 
Here's a more traditional one. 
The chancel  screen, dated by its carved pomegranates to the time of Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine of Aragon ... 
... the frieze of which is comprised largely of finely carved angels. 
As someone brought up in the Methodist church and attuned to the Virtues of Plain, I wasn't surprised to learn that the pulpit dates from the Commonwealth, c1650. The sounding board above it is 11 years earlier and illustrates the change in prevailing attitude towards church furniture of the intervening years. 
Enormous spider descending
Quite a few traces of paint have been uncovered that give the imagination a tiny glimpse of what it might have been like inside before the wielding of great brushes of whitewash. 

The tomb of Eleanor Baynard, depicted in her widow's weeds, who survived the first incursion of the Black Death and died some time after 1359. 
Chancel wall decoration, c1230