I can’t tell you for sure where the dividing line between West and East Devon falls but I have some ideas about it. It’s one of those geographical subjects you could probably debate endlessly without reaching any final consensus, like where the north of England truly begins. Two things I do know for sure are that my house is definitely in West Devon – the southern bit of it – and that it’s very different to the landscape of East Devon. When I visit East Devon it always looks startlingly polite, a trimmed bonsai version of where I live that always knows the right point to stop drinking on a night out and never oversleeps. You can get tricked into thinking this is the inexorable flow of people and place in the foot-shaped South West peninsula: the further you go, down past the ankle, beyond the arch (me), further and further away from the fat shin of everywhere else, the wilder everything gets: vegetation, buildings, humans, animals, spectral beasts. There’s an old saying in Cornwall that the biggest nuts fall to the bottom of the sock. But the truth is not quite that simple. Three weeks ago I drove north-east through well-mannered East Devon, passed back over into Somerset, and everything abruptly became more mysterious and feral.
Some of this, at least, was the doing of the seasons. We were on a palpable cusp, the veil of leaves and life crisping up to a brittle apex of rust red as it thinned out. For a week or two I had noticed a feeling, too, of being on the verge of some kind of period of change in my life, without being sure quite what it was. I had felt, after getting towards four years of rolling about on my back in it, coating myself in its essence, a new desire to spend more time out of Devon. I’d been evangelical about the place but one of its many benefits was that it had also tuned me into a greater appreciation of other topography. Topography like this, for example: Somerset’s Blackdown Hills. Different hills to the ones near me: amphitheatre instead of pie crust. I walked through woods to their peak and it felt like nobody had traversed the same paths for weeks. The mist above me looked more like smoke from a row of fires and reminded me that in World War II they did light fires on The Blackdowns, to lure German bombers away from Bristol. From the flat ground the mist looked to be all at the summit but once I’d reached it, it was far below me: the same elusive mist that had been lingering around the east side of the M5 throughout the Halloween period. Not much more than a week earlier I’d walked across the Clifton Suspension Bridge in the same mist and out of the murk a ghost white and black cat – barely out of kittenhood – had danced towards me, as if soundtracked by a hi-energy disco hit. I said hello to the dancing ghost cat then my heart sank into my stomach as it leapt onto the divider between the pedestrian walkway and the road, apparently poised to hurl itself into the heavy rush hour traffic.
I whisked the cat away from the divider into my arms and found a phone number on its collar. I texted the number to tell the cat’s owner that their cat was on The Clifton Suspension Bridge and asked if I could deliver it home, using my car, which was not far from the western end of the bridge, near the Leigh Woods Nature Reserve. I stood still on the bridge – which, in this mist, seemed as much like a ghost bridge as it ever had – with the cat – which now seemed not like a ghost at all, but a proper, corporeal, and extremely friendly cat – pressed against my chest. I felt acutely conscious of the seventy five metre drop to the water below, and the ease with which a cat could scale the barrier leading to it, remembering the powerful story the nature writer and broadcaster Tim Dee told on his magical documentary about the power of wind, about being a boy with a paper round in this area and watching a man commit suicide off the bridge. After five minutes I’d not received a text back from the cat’s owners, so decided to give them a call. This presented a problem, since in the six months since I’d got my phone I’d not been able to make or receive any calls on it. After an initial unsatisfactory enquiry about the problem back in spring, I’d decided to make do, sensing that resolving the problem would involve a bureaucratic back and forth that would use up four or five precious hours of my life and involve being given misinformation by various separate, noncommunicating arms of a vast corporation. As it happened, when I finally did solve the problem, I had been wrong about that: it involved a bureaucratic back and forth that used up nine precious hours of my life and involved being given misinformation by various separate, noncommunicating arms of a vast corporation.
I sent a text to my friend Sophie from the bridge, who kindly called the owners of the cat and asked if I could drop it back at their home. She texted back to say the owners had told her that the cat was “always up there” and I should just leave it, because it was “fine”. Would they at least like me to drive it home? No, they would not. By this point I had reached my car, and the cat had got happily settled on the back seat, purring deeply while meticulously cleaning an unseeable blemish on its back left flank. Not seeing any choice in the matter, I picked the cat up and placed it at the side of the road, near the nature reserve. It looked hurt, abandoned. Maybe it had been fine and perhaps the people it lived with knew the truth: that while appearing poised to leap into two lanes of ceaseless rush hour traffic in the UK’s tenth biggest city, it in reality was a practical joker who just liked to sell nearby pedestrians a dummy to shit them up, and would never actually risk its life in such a way. Whatever the case, standing on the bridge at rush hour in the mist I had felt acutely conscious of two things: the fact that I was standing on a famous bridge, at rush hour, holding a stranger’s cat, and the thin line between life and death. I completed the two hour car journey home to South West Devon and proceeded to cuddle my own two cats, Roscoe and Ralph, a little more fiercely than normal. You can’t make sure all the cats are all right. You’d go insane. In lieu of that, sometimes all you can do is pick a couple you really like, who seem to trust you, and try to be extremely good to them.
We’d been getting along okay, these two cats and me, since the deaths of their two other housemates, last winter. The pair of them are very different, one businesslike and aloof, the other a laid back counterculture icon in cat form, but they exist in a state of pleasantly reserved friendship, with little aggro or drama. They seem to agree on all the main political topics of the day and favour sitting no more or less than fourteen inches apart, silently chewing over whatever in their minds happens to be most pressing at that particular moment. With these two by my side, I have not felt any desire to go out and get another cat to replace those I lost in quick succession a few months ago. Besides, Ralph – the horizontal and chilled of the remaining two – offers a love roughly commensurate to that of three or four normal cats. There is the sense that, were I to totally abandon my daily domestic duties – gardening, housework, laptop, cooking, bladder relief – he would remain permanently glued to my chest, determinedly attempting to make dough from my skin while looking deep into my eyes with the fervour of a deranged superfan. When I look at his face as I’m leaving the house, I often feel niggled by guilt, and, upon reaching the front gate, will turn around, tramp back up the path and give him one last goodbye scritch. I did this on my way to my walk in The Blackdown Hills and as I drove away was thinking that I’d been out too much recently, not blocked out enough Ralph Periods in my curriculum. But time is like an invisible patch we carry to help us to get over our aches and pangs: whether it be the small pang of marginally neglecting a Ralph, or something much more significant. Movement can help get the patch to work, too. As I came out of Prior’s Park Wood, I wasn’t thinking about my Ralph guilt, or about the sadness of leaving the cat on the bridge to its life on the edge, or any bigger aches or pains of life; I was thinking about the way that autumn mist creates a silence like no other silence. I was feeling motivated and positive, as I almost always do on walks.
As I emerged from the steep wood, feeling sure I had reached the top of the hill, I was surprised to find another sharp incline ahead of me, and another crown of mist. Out of the silence I heard the heavy thump of hooves, and through the mist I saw the hot breath of three stallions who were chasing in circles around a field at the summit, violently, powerfully, as if conjured out of a secret hole in the earth by a spell. Their size and power was awesome and the ground shook underneath them: a flavour of the Old West, a shocking reminder that men and women rode and tamed these animals, nonchalantly, but a flavour of something darker, too, something very English. I wanted to watch them but also – despite being shielded by a fence – to move away, and as I did, a larger than average dog of unspecific breed leapt at me from behind a hedge. It bounced beside me as I walked, like a toothy punk in a moshpit, nipping at my jacket: not exactly vicious, and certainly not quite friendly, just… possessed. “Don’t worry, it’s okay,” I told the dog, again and again, before I realised that my instructions were not aimed at the dog but myself.
I have been in, and lived in, houses that, while not haunted in the traditional sense, seem to retain an unriddable energy of vileness and anguish that might have taken place within them, and it is possible that the same phenomenon can exist in a patch of the British outdoors, such as this quarter of a square mile of paddock and woods and road. I would not have been surprised to find a mystic stone in the centre of it all, glowing malevolently, just like my friend Luke insists the one on the hill above his house in Devon did one night when he touched it, although it must be noted that he was fairly stoned at the time.
I walked along a fast road, dodging cars that, like the horses and the dog, seemed wilder than most of their breed, and was glad to get into calmer country: first a fallow field behind a barrier of beech trees with exposed roots, then gold-carpeted paths through thick evergreen woodland, and an even deeper locked-in quiet. This part of Somerset is the setting for one of my favourite folk stories, The Men In The Turnip Field. Like all folk stories, it’s told in numerous ways, but all of them are brief, and go something like this:
There was two fellows out working in a field, hoeing up turnips they was and the one he stop and he lean on his hoe, and he mop his face and he say, “Yur – I don’t believe in your ghosties.”
And the other man, he say, “Don’t ‘ee?”
And he VANISHED.
Even through this calmer part of my walk, some of that dark energy from earlier seemed to stay with me, past a bare witching tree with sharp prongs reaching towards an orange crack in the sky, and then along near a children’s panda trapped in dying brambles, so that from a distance it resembled an esoteric hedge sprite, along more quiet paths with mist sinking down on to them, all the way back to a village pub, where I stopped for a pint. The countryside in the approach to the pub seemed somehow simultaneously savage but rigorously organised: a neat but very Gothic church, a bonfire set up two days in advance for Guy Fawkes’ Night, with a scarecrow trapped inside, dressed sensibly ahead of a potentially cold night. The inside of the pub was raucous and cramped, alarmingly so for four thirty pm on a weekday in a scenario that did not seem to involve a stag or hen party. I was hot from walking fast to beat the dark, so I took my pint outside, to the deserted beer garden, and began to make notes about my walk in my journal. After a couple of minutes, I became aware of a shadow looming over me. “What are you doing? Writing in your diary?” a voice asked. The tone was not totally unfriendly but was flavoured with a dash of School Bully. I looked up and saw that it belonged to a wide-shouldered bald man. I initially put him at about 47, which, after talking to him for a few minutes, seemed more like a hard-lived 38 or 39. We chatted a little while, and a few of his friends joined us, smoking roll ups. They observed that I didn’t come across as someone from round there, and I told them they were correct, and that I lived in Devon, not far from Dartmoor.
“I’ve been to Dartmoor,” said the bald man. “Fucking horrible place.”
“What took you there?” I asked.
“I was in the prison,” he said.
After telling me a bit about the birds of prey in the woodland above us, his friend said, “You haven’t asked him what he was in for.”
I told him that I thought that it would have been a bit impolite of me to do so.
“Go on!” the avian enthusiast told the bald man. “Tell him.”
“Stealing women’s knickers. I got three years.”
“He’s not right,” said the avian enthusiast.
“If he’s right,” said another, older man, who had joined us, “I don’t want to be.”
A middle-aged woman joined us, and the bald man started to engage in flirtatious chat with her. I looked across at a sign next to us, which advertised the area as a “Man Creche”, offering women the chance to “go shopping” or “relax”. What about the women who didn’t want to go shopping, and who liked to relax by getting pissed? Were they welcome here? And where were these “shops”? I’d just walked ten miles and hadn’t seen a hint of so much as a corner shop. I said my goodbyes and set off for home.
I noticed that when the men in the pub in The Blackdown Hills talked about the area where I lived – not just Dartmoor, but the region directly south of it – they talked about it like it was somewhere a bit wild, maybe even a bit backward, where you wouldn’t ever go unless absolutely necessary – for, say, a trip to pick up a purchase of some machinery you couldn’t get hold of anywhere closer, or a mandatory period of incarceration. Maybe if they drove past my cottage, which looks more than a bit Gothic from the outside, they might suspect it to be one of those houses permanently tainted with its own dark history. In fact, it’s the least spooky house I’ve ever lived in. Outside it, a few days earlier, eight friends – Seema, Emily, Phoebe, Jenny, Pat, Hayley, Hayley’s boyfriend Tom and her sister Lydia – and I gathered around a fire and ate and celebrated Samhain. The idea had been to pay respect to the dark spirits of this time of year, sing a few songs, read a few favourite pieces of writing. In the end, we got around to barely any of that. Taking advantage of the large conflagration, Emily and Seema had brought with them an unusually large pile of confidential waste. Phoebe was the only one to remember to bring an instrument: a shruti box, which is Indian in origin, and makes a mournful sound, driven by a system of bellows. As Emily and Seema placed another few phone and utility bills on the fire, Phoebe sent them off by pumping an elegiac note or two out of the shruti box, as if what we were really celebrating was the death of old direct debits, making way for the bright new direct debits of the following year.
That said, if you’d been walking on the lane that night, and you’d seen the front of my house scowling up on the hill above you, with its large wooden front door, redolent of vampire activity, and you’d seen the flames from the left of it, you might have suspected that something much more arcane and sinister was going on. Just as, if you were at that mystic stone that my friend Luke claimed glowed in the dark, on a lonely hillside on the other side of town, you might not suspect that, within only two miles, you would find a surfeit of shops selling expensive furniture and handbags and branded organic chutney, nor the increasingly busy roads that thread through it, choked by traffic on its way to and from the coast. There are certainly dark pockets of countryside here too, sunken lanes and deserted barns, and some of them have scared me, particularly when I’ve walked through them at dusk or beyond, but always in a pleasing way, and not a fraction as much as I’m scared by the idea that the infrastructure of the place near them is being so stretched that all it can do is expand, bludgeoning the mystery of those dark pockets. People think it’s hard to get rid of ghosts, but that’s not true. If you build a road or a cheap and featureless wall on top of their homes, it will normally do the trick.
In the week after I returned from my Blackdown Hills walk, people had been spotting a small white and black female cat on some of the busiest roads in the town near me. Apparently she had come perilously close to getting run over at least a couple of times and didn’t seem aware that cars and lorries were a thing to fear. Another time, the cat was spotted in the fanciest of the town’s furniture shops, sprawled out happily on the largest and most expensive sofa on the shop floor. The cat was reportedly very friendly, and nobody seemed to know who – if anyone – she belonged to. Eventually, after a fortnight of this, she was brought into the vet’s, whose nurses checked to see if she was microchipped and found out she wasn’t. I saw the cat on the Facebook page of my friend Sarah, who works on reception at the vet’s, and was trying to find its owner – if it had one – through social media, and I was struck by what an uncanny resemblance the cat bore to the cat I’d met on the Clifton Suspension Bridge a fortnight earlier. I shared Sarah’s post about the cat and asked her to let me know how she got on with the search. In and around the area, there seemed to have been an unusually large amount of Lost Cat posters around of late. As someone who is given a lot of sad information about cats, you might imagine I might get a bit immune to the heartache that goes with seeing one of these, but in fact the opposite is true – they kill me, more than ever. Here, meanwhile, was the opposite: a cat whose owners were missing. After another week, nobody had come forward. “Would you like to come in and meet her?” asked Sarah, and in a moment of weakness – after ten months of rigorously avoiding the keening eyes of homeless cats – I said yes. As soon as I arrived in the room where the cat was being kept, she was all over me, eating my beard, auditioning to be my scarf, and with very little persuading, I paid to have her microchipped and vaccinated against cat flu and took her home to meet Ralph and Roscoe.
All this arrived in what had been a busy few weeks for me, to say the least. I was in the middle of a book launch and tour and, in the same week I met the cat, had decided to relocate to a different part of the country. I already dreaded the prospect of moving Roscoe and Ralph 280 miles to our new house in the Peak District. But could one small extra cat really make much difference? The white and black cat seemed very at home very quickly and after four days, had bonded with me considerably and learned to tolerate Ralph – the only slight drawback being that Roscoe appeared to be keen to do away with her, possibly through the medium of poison, applied to her food in the night. But on the Thursday of our first week together, the day of my book launch, I received a call from Wanda, another receptionist at the vet’s, to say that the cat’s owners – her second owners, in fact, who the cat had lived with for only a short time, after her original owner had been evicted from his house – had come forward, and wanted her back. An hour before my launch party, I drove her back, and said a reluctant goodbye. I then went and did four talks in three and a half days, not mentioning any of what had happened to anyone but a couple of my closest friends. I had some questions – “Why had the owners of the cat taken a fortnight to worry enough about her being lost to ask around locally, in any wide sense?” and “Why hadn’t they got her chipped?” being two – but I tried to blank them out, as there was nothing that could be done.
The following Wednesday, back from my events in London, I received another call from Wanda. “Guess who’s back here?” she said. Apparently, after only a day at her previous home, the white and black cat had escaped. She’d then been narrowly saved from being run over by a HGV on the busiest road in town by a pedestrian, who’d taken her home. After another attempt through social media to find her owners, she’d been brought to the vets, whose team had convinced the owners, with the help of Cats Protection, that she would be happier living with me. I repaid the vet’s fees that had been refunded to me the previous Thursday and reopened a little part of my chest that – out of necessity – I’d concreted up.
I didn’t go out looking for another cat, but historically speaking that’s rarely been the case with me anyway. It’s more that they tend to find me. If you write some books about cats, and you have some cats, people tend to assume that you’re someone who goes around collecting felines, popping one in a rucksack, another in a satchel, each day, as you go about your business. But the fact is, I’ve been on the planet over four decades and I can genuinely say that this is the first time I’ve acquired a cat as a solitary act – not because someone I was in a relationship with or a member of my family wanted or already had a cat, but for me. That’s apt, as it sums up my reasons for moving, too: I’m doing it 100% for me. For the first time. As I type these words, breaking off from writing a story about a hare to do so, my new cat is on my chest. It’s uncomfortable, writing this way, but I’m not complaining. She’s more of a kitten than a cat, really – six or seven months old at most, I suspect. She does seem a dead ringer for the cat on the bridge, but maybe if I went back and met her spiritual sibling again, I’d discover that that isn’t quite true. She’s perhaps a little smaller. On one side of her back is a black fur heart: a bigger version of the small white one The Bear – the elderly cat of mine who died this time last year – had on his chest. On the other side is a white hare, in profile. I’ve decided to call her Clifton – not just because of the incident on the bridge, but because the bookshop in town that she was initially spotted outside is run by a man called Cliff, and because we will soon be moving to a house overlooking one (well, more of an edge, if you use the customary Peak District terminology, but I’m thinking of it as a cliff), and because Clifton in Nottingham, where I spent a fair bit of time in my youth, is known for being quite tough, and I figure my Clifton must be too, to have survived up to now, as a three-time stray. “Isn’t Clifton a man’s name?” a few people have asked me, presumably thinking of all the thousands of well-known men throughout history called Clifton. The answer is I have decided that it is not: it is a name for Clifton, and it suits her. I do suspect she’s a bit of a softy, though – not a business cat at all – and, keeping that, and her recent past, in mind, I’m glad we’re moving to a very rural place situated well away from roads, major and minor. I am hoping Roscoe will have calmed down by then and forgiven me, just like Ralph took a grand total of ten minutes to do. The Big Day is only nine days away now. I feel a bit bad keeping her in and not letting her discover some of the mysterious places outside the back window here but I’m going to stick to my guns. I saw her staring through it earlier, in desperation. It’s a bit misty out there this afternoon and all that big dark countryside must look very intriguing. But that’s okay. They make plenty of mist in the place we’re going, as well.
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