Walking Notes: The Black Dog Route 6.4.2016

The floor of the kitchen in the house I rent is hard-worn and wooden, with dark splotches and a slightly uneven texture to it. I’m very fond of it, but when it comes to feeding my four cats it can be both a blessing and a curse. On the plus side, it means that if I’m feeling in a flamboyant mood I can slide a bowl of food along it and pretend whichever one of the cats I happen to be feeding has ordered a whiskey off me in a 19th Century saloon. But it’s a hazardous surface to walk on barefoot, especially at breakfast time, when you’re still a bit bleary-eyed and your full sense of balance hasn’t quite kicked in. The small gribbly bits of mechanically recovered meat my cats leave stuck to it blend in with the patterns in the wood and create a deeply unpleasant sensation on the unprotected toe.
I’ve known my cats long enough to know that they will only ever enjoy one type of cat food for up to three weeks; I just wish that they could all agree to fall out of love with the same type of food at the same time, to make matters a bit simpler. They’re going through a particularly fussy period at the moment. Recently my friend Hayley looked after my house for me while I was away, and I left five different brands in the cupboard, just for total insurance. I was going to write her a list of detailed instructions about Ralph, Shipley, The Bear and Roscoe’s culinary preferences, but instead I figured it was best to just get straight to the point and leave her a bottle of wine with the firm instruction that she should drink all of it as soon as possible. I did, however, advise her about the seagulls. 

At points in the past I’ve lived with a couple of feral cats who – no doubt indoctrinated with the unshakeable belief that every catered meal they received could be their last – were great at hoovering up those hardened bits of old food welded to dishes and the floor, but I live with only overindulged feline divas now, so I’ve had to look elsewhere for help: specifically to the strangely large amount of seagulls who have moved to my area recently. These beady-eyed gulls circle high above my chimney every morning, watching for scraps, and probably think they’re doing very well out of me, but in reality they’re the ones doing me a favour. I can put any kind of food waste outside my back door, return moments later, and it will be gone. Chicken bones gnawed bare by Shipley, stale quarter loaves, jalapenos: you name it, they’re totally into it. The other day they even had off into the night with a pile of old beansprouts. I have an inclination that, when the time comes for my ailing, sluggish laptop to finally die, all I will have to do is leave it on my back doorstep for five minutes and never have to think about it again.

I was putting some past-its-eat-by-date kale and an overripe banana outside the door yesterday morning and I heard a new gull noise, amongst the usual ones: squeakier, more frantic… needier, you might say. It took me a few seconds to realise the noise was in fact being made by Billy, a small poodle owned by my friend Susie, who had just been released from his owner’s car and was heading up the garden path to meet me for our weekly walk. When I collect Billy from Susie’s cottage on the edge of the moor my turning of the back door handle is like a trigger that operates an invisible piece of elastic connected to him, and he twangs forward towards me from wherever he is in the building, making a series of noises that shouldn’t by rights emerge from any animal not made out of rubber by a large corporation. Sometimes two more dogs are there with Billy. These belong to Susie’s daughter, Syd: elder, dignified, sad-eyed hounds of great scruffy beauty, only slightly unnerving to be around for the fact that – despite being unrelated by blood – they look like tiny and massive fuck off versions of exactly the same dog. “We’d quite like it if you walked us too, but we know you can’t, and we completely understand,” the been-around-the-block eyes of the calm, wise scruffy dogs say, as Billy pogos the length of my body and yips like a creature who is shortly about to explode from pure joy, leaving nothing but a small pile of fur and sherbert on the hallway flagstones.

It’s not that I’m not flattered by this yipping and squeaking, which can go on for up to a quarter of an hour after Billy and I first meet up; I just feel that it’s a little fawning and unearned. My cats curl up on my lap, play loving paw piano on my chest and headbutt my knuckles affectionately, but that’s the result of my willingness to make myself an annexe of their personalities, plus the years of research I’ve done into their likes and dislikes: what food to buy them, when to stop buying it and purchase a more expensive kind instead, which knitwear to donate to them as bedding, where exactly behind their ears to scratch them and at what time of day. All I do with Billy is allow him to accompany me on long walks across moors and clifftops. I’d be doing the walks anyway, even if he didn’t come along, so it’s honestly no big deal. 

I concede that he has his perks, though: not just because he is pleasingly twangy and legitimises my presence as a lone, bearded male walker (“Oh, it’s fine, I can smile and say hello to him – he has a dog…”) but because he adds a much-needed levity to some of the bleaker locations where my walks take me. Today is a case in point, as I’m taking a nine mile hike to a ruined church associated with a long tradition of Satanic ritual, where the body of a demon 17th Century squire, who might or might not have killed his wife, is buried. In this environment Billy has a not dissimilar effect to the one an Earth, Wind And Fire song might have in a night alone in an haunted manor house. “Shit,” you’ll think, realising you’ve just absent-mindedly done widdershins around the ruin and remembering that doing that is supposed to make the Devil appear at the lychgate. “There are a lot of crows gathering here, and I don’t like that mortsafe on that grave over there. Oh! It’s all ok! Look! Billy is here, bouncing up and down, like a small haberdashery Space Hopper with teeth!”

I realise this isn’t traditionally the way it’s supposed to work with black dogs: they’re intended to be an intrinsic part of the ghoulishness itself, especially around these South Devon uplands. One difference being that, as well as possessing flashing orange eyes and gnashing teeth and sometimes flying high through an angry sky, the jet black wisht hounds of Dartmoor do not stand at less than the height of a coffee table nor give the appearance of being made entirely out of wool. The legend most commonly associated with Buckfastleigh Churchyard is that of its most famous resident, Squire Cabell, a “monstrously” evil man who is supposed to leave his tomb every year on the anniversary of his death and ride across the moor with his pack of devil hounds. At other times, the hounds circle his grave, shrieking in a bloodcurdling fashion and it’s said that if you walk around the tomb seven times backwards, Cabell – or worse, even his master, the Devil himself – will bite your fingers: more or less the opposite of the alleged effect of doing the same around the Yew Tree a few miles down the River Dart from here at Stoke Gabriel, which I visited in December. It was hearing the story of Cabell that prompted Arthur Conan Doyle to exclaim, “Shitballs! I’m totally fucking having that!” or words to that effect, then proceed to write The Hound Of The Baskervilles.

The position of the ruined church on its own is freakish and ominous enough, perched outlandishly high in solitude on a granite outcrop above the A38. The gradient from the main road below is so steep that it made the conflagration that engulfed it in 1992 absolute hell to put out, the firetrucks having to pump water uphill in their vain attempt to save it. This was the second fire allegedly started by Devil worshippers to wreck the church, following another in 1849, and it finished the place off for good. But the image of the broken walls, with their plentiful jackdaws, and the open air vestry are unlikely to be the primary ones to stay with you after your visit here. By far the most horrifying structure is the pagoda-like building on top of Cabell’s tomb, which was erected by locals to “trap in” Cabell’s evil spirit. Its concrete heaviness and incongruity are deeply unsettling. A bat would reject this building on grounds of blandness. If you were being kind, you might compare it to one of the less imaginative small town toilet blocks of the 1960s. I know its purpose is purely supernatural-functional, but you do wonder: Could someone not have added a couple of nice picture windows, or a bit of wisteria?

This photo is wonky because I was fleeing in terror as I took it.

An electrician called Max recently told me about the caves under here, which stretch for almost three miles beneath the busy A38, and contain a freak stalagmite-stalactite which resembles a figure in 17th Century clothes and is known locally as “The Little Man”. Max also recommended “one of the best places to spot bats that you will ever find” a few hundred yards up the river. Here is the point where the Dart twists down from the moor and widens. Its not a part of the river a lot of people will tell you about, since Buckfastleigh is not a tourist town and the dual carriageway gets in the way a bit, but it’s one of my favourite stretches of water in the county. I walked along it last autumn and remember sitting on the bank in perfect light, the dust from tree surgery on the opposite bank illuminated in the sun and making for an unforgettably golden psychedelic scene. I’ve wanted to visit the church ever since then but found myself repeatedly putting it off during a dark and difficult winter. You’ll not see it in more gregarious circumstances than at lunchtime on a bright spring day like today, directly after rain, when April is revving up for May. But I still get an inner chill from it. I do not want to stay here too long.

Over on the opposite side of the A38 the hills are not so much hills as giant grass walls. It is up and over these that I’ve walked to get here, taking little jagged detours to keep off the roads and cover as many footpaths as possible. Where the paths pass through woodland, wild garlic runs riot and nature smells busy. These paths don’t lead anywhere especially commercial and I get the feeling that some of them have only been walked by a dozen or so feet since November. I drive the route from Totnes to Buckfastleigh all the time and I relish this chance to see it from another perspective, walking through the creases in the land then getting up on high and working out which well-used lane or distinctive farmhouse is where in the distance: a privilege of the West that gets bigger the further West you go until the land thins out in Deepest Cornwall. 

Knowing Billy’s penchant for winding up other creatures, including me, I will not let him off the lead if there’s even the slightest possibilty that some livestock might be around, but as we take a steep rocky holloway, I set him free. Almost instantly, he spots two pheasants and shoots off at speed, and I give chase then slip over on the steep sharp rocks below me, bumping down the hill on my back and scraping a chunk of skin off my arm.

Even though I’m covered in mud up to my armpits, I carry on moving north after reaching the church. I’ve never walked all the way to the moor from my house before and that was my aim at the start of the day. Also, despite visiting Cabell’s tomb, it wouldn’t seem like a proper Black Dog walk if I didn’t get to the moor itself. I’ve been up to this lower edge of it in winter and it’s been six degrees colder than at my house but today it feels hotter than everywhere else, palpably closer to the sun, with that odd sparkly air you get up there sometimes, where everything moves more slowly in front of your eyes. But I only graze the moor’s edge, like someone visiting a modest summit just to put their national flag in it, then I turn and take Billy home. On the way back I explore the streets of Buckfastleigh. It’s not one of the towns people will tell you to visit if you’ve never been to Devon, many of its shopfronts are a little run down and faded, and it has the ignominy of being associated with some of the West Country’s most disturbing underage sex scandals of the past, but it’s an unpretentious, cheerful town with pretty medieval streets, competitively priced secondhand furniture shops and arguably the loveliest otter sanctuary in Britain. 

By the time I’m back below the church, I’ve covered twelve – mostly very vertiginous – miles and it’s another seven back home. I’m aching and coated in dried clay and I’ve mistimed the rest of my day severely. I abandon my plan to walk home and do something I’ve never done before during a walk: lame out and order a taxi. The garrulous middle-aged man who picks me up sings the praises of Buckfastleigh, compared to another town not far away, whose pre-existing taxi company went to war with him when he moved in there. He is far happier now, he says, since he moved here. As he gives me a brief edited version of his life story, the watchful spire of the ruined church on the inland cliff recedes in the rear window and, with it, to an extent, does the notion of Light and Darkness as fixed concepts. Yes, a location could possess its history of ghouls and demons, with superstitions that 21st Century progress fails to completely suppress, but it’s also important to remember to weigh matters up fully. The devil towns might have their ruined black magic churches, ominous corvids and threatening moorland vistas, but they’re also often the friendliest places to move into and start your own small business.

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11 thoughts on “Walking Notes: The Black Dog Route 6.4.2016

  1. Great black dog story. The UK really lends itself to wonderful, spooky tales. We just don't have the same history in the US. Sure, plenty of ghost stories over here, but none of the gravitas that the UK stories hold.


  2. Beautifully written, as always. Love reading about Billy, even though I'm more a cat fan than a dog one.

    I really love that you begin this piece with a description of your kitchen floor, including the "gribbley bits" from your cats' food. How well I remember those bits, back when we had three cats, & were feeding them what you call "mechanically recovered meat". Now we have one cat, & he mainly eats dried munch, which still manages to get around the floor, gradually turning rather horrid.

    I have never tried putting unwanted food bits outside for the gulls, which – despite living around 40 miles from the sea – we seem to have in abundance.

  3. I know how it feels to have cats who are going through a faddy phase. My old cat used to engage in this type of psychological torture as approval was withdrawn without warning from some previously yummy kitty meat.
    The two I have now are so astonishingly greedy there is never anything left after feeding. They can be given worming tablets undisguised by anything and they crunch them up off the kitchen floor thinking they are a special kind of biscuit.

  4. 'A small haberdashery Space Hopper with teeth' ! Great.

    I have been to Buckfastleigh lots of times and never thought to visit the church. I really like the way you write about aspects of Devon which surprise me and make me think again about where I live.
    Thanks Tom.

  5. For a tomb of someone notoriously evil, that door looks quite.. small, wooden and easy to break into (or out of). Are you sure it's his tomb and not just a small shed he frequented to take his tea?

  6. I truly enjoy "traveling" with you, and am pleased you have Billy to keep you company. I really read all you write, as it's so informative and it makes me wish to walk a day with you. I am in Upstate New York, but would love to see where my family hailed from originally. Of all the wonderful words that you write (I tend to draw better circles widdershins, should I worry?) the one part that sticks with me, like the warmth on Billy's beautiful coat is "nature smells busy". I like that. I am one to associate smells with times, sights and feelings. This just stood out to me. Thank you. Pleasant travels with Billy and quiet evenings with your fur family.

  7. Today, I went to the beach with my children. I found a sea
    shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She placed the shell to her
    ear and screamed. There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear.
    She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is completely off topic but I had to tell someone!

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