I’m calling it summer because we had to wait a long time for it this year, and it seems, thankfully, to be still persevering with its business. Small winged creatures continue to feast on my flesh and I found a squirrel in the living room the other day, enjoying a puddle of sunlight all of its own. Meanwhile, across the border in Dorset, time has ceased to move altogether. I drove to Dorset yesterday and walked nine and a half miles, accompanied by the insects of early July. The mist was thick when I started the walk and it reminded me of the fog in Emma Tennant’s Queen Of Stones, an evocative and unsettling novel full of strong and vivid characters, all of which are either schoolgirls, the weather or the west Dorset landscape. Belted Galloway cows sauntered towards me out of the mist with their white bands of ragged stomach fur, I remembered I had skipped breakfast and began to crave an Oreo biscuit. The mist burned off quickly and everything smelt dry and hot and salty, including me. The walk began and ended at The Hardy Monument, a vast chimney erected in tribute to Dorset’s second most famous Thomas Hardy: the man who, following orders at the Battle Of Trafalgar, planted a kiss on the face of the dying Admiral Nelson. The apex of my route was the enormous Maiden Castle hillfort, where the grass looks like woven blankets laid over giant furniture and, in the first Century AD, in another battle, which might or might not have included kissing, the Romans messed up the Durotriges tribe. Later, I saw a sign pointing to Hell’s Bottom, with a painting of a man who was yellow, but, I chose not to follow it, owing to not being yellow myself.
In the days directly following the death of my cat Ralph, in July, I thought I heard his meow intermingled with the sound of the river that runs past my house. That might strike the reader as quite eerie but it actually danced around in the hinterland between spooky and comforting, in a way I can’t quite explain. Of course, it’s been sad too, living in a house that doesn’t contain my small friend, for the first time in 20 years. My remaining cat Roscoe now sleeps in his spot by the AGA, and can sometimes appear a bit lonely, but maybe I’m reading too much into her behaviour. I can see a job vacancy slowly opening up for a new colleague to work alongside her. Slowly. But a few weeks ago I didn’t feel like that at all. There was the pain, the wondering whether you really want to put yourself through this again, because it doesn’t get any easier, losing a little pal, and you will lose them, eventually. I said as much to my dad. “THIS IS WHY I AM COMING BACK AS A BRICK IN MY NEXT LIFE,” he replied.
There is perhaps no place in the world where the sun is bigger and more pinky-orange than on a clear late summer evening, over the Severn Estuary. I’ve seen this particular sun dozens of times, chased it along the M5, and I’ve never met another better sun in person. Perhaps the ultimate place to witness it sink to the earth’s floor is the top of Uley Bury, in south Gloucestershire. You stand on this 32 acre Iron Age hill fort and look to the west and the big orange orb mimics itself in the Severn. The water is ten miles away from you, more, but you see it shimmer in the failing light. A bullock leaps up from the undergrowth in front of you and jumps a cloud. Below, hundreds of coins have been jammed into the bark of a fallen tree by residents of the village. A little to the north can be located the 5000 year-old burial chamber with the best name of any burial chamber, Hetty Pegler’s Tump. It is probably not possible to feel, anywhere on this landmass, more like you are standing inside a painting of a rolling, mystical England of the imagination.
I went to see my dad and he took the piss out of the encroaching grey in my hair. I think it was just sour grapes because I’ve grown better corn on the cob than him this year. He felt bad later and complimented me on my appearance. “YOUR MUM IS EXTREMELY BEAUTIFUL, YOU’RE VERY HANDSOME AND I’M A MINGER,” he announced later, after a drink. The following day, he lectured me on the ways of the Comanche during the 19th Century. My mum asked me if he had told me what his Comanche name is. “No, what is it?” I said. “Talks Too Much,” she said.
I don’t know where exactly the red earth begins, as you travel east in south Devon, because the line of it has not been drawn using a metal ruler. It’s before the River Teign, if you’re further south, but it begins later if you’re slightly further up the country. By the time you’re east of the Exe, it’s quite striking, not just in the colour of the cliffs and the riverside footpaths, but in the sea itself, sometimes. I swam a few miles east of Sidmouth a day after heavy rain had churned everything up and felt like I was floating on a bed of liquid copper. I stumbled out of the waves and felt thoroughly red. My face had a kind of red look to it when I checked my reflection in the rearview mirror of my car. In the fields all around me the cows were red. After I’d showered, my bath had a thick residue of red soil and sand in the bottom. I dreamt of red things. I feel sure that if it had been on the coast of south east Devon that the first sea creatures had evolved and walked on land, they would have been red.
My friend Keith makes vases and coathangers from abandoned oak gates he finds on Dartmoor. Whenever I see an old abandoned gate, I let Keith know. This month I bought two vases off him – one for me, and one for a relative’s birthday – and he showed me a secret island in the river near his house. Keith has great stories about the moor, and that’s partly because he’s lived on or near it for seven decades, and partly because he talks to everyone he encounters while walking on it. Since knowing Keith, I’ve also got in the habit of talking to more people I encounter on the moor. Last month, while swimming, I saw a tall skinny man covered in tattoos, bathing his bloody feet in the river, and I asked him some questions about his day and his life. He was called James and had come over from his native Belgium on a hiking holiday, retracing a route his girlfriend had taken on her own a couple of years ago. He’d walked close to 40 miles in two days and seemed deliriously, excitably tired. He was looking for a spot nearby where wild camping was permitted. We walked to my car and I gave him a lift a couple of miles closer to his destination and he bought me a pint at my local and told me about how hiking had rescued him from an addiction to social media. “I used to do Instagram; now I do Outstagram,” he said. The previous night, he’d been caught on the high part of the moor in the mist. “I started singing and shouting to myself,” he said. “I don’t know why. I thought I was going crazy.” “That will be the pixies,” I said. “What are they?” he said. “They are the little folk of the moor who play tricks on you in the mist,” I said. “I actually suspected that might have been what had happened,” he said.
My car had its MOT. It passed but during their investigations the garage found “the nest of a small creature” inside the engine. The nest’s owner, they said, had probably moved on, or had been out at its day job when I took the car to the garage. The garage informed me that, even though the nest did not affect the car’s status as a roadworthy vehicle, they had taken the time to carefully remove it on my behalf.
So, yes, there’s all that but it’s not been a normal summer here on Dartmoor. Last summer wasn’t a normal summer, either, but this one was even less of a normal summer. The level of SUVs on the tiny lanes – roads which never imagined vehicles like this, even in their most futuristic dreams – has reached what feels like breaking point. Three or four years ago, long before I knew the house I currently rent even existed, I’d drive the long narrow lane leading towards it from the lower ground in late afternoon and pass maybe two other cars at most. Now, at the same time of day, it’s often more like seventeen or eighteen. If they’re big, and you’re in a smallish car like mine, they more often than not hurtle at you at a terrifying speed, assured of their invincibility, and you make yourself even slighter and less obtrusive for them, reversing around bends and into the hedge, adding to the Devon rash on the left side of your paintwork. I don’t mind having a scratched car, but I do mind the sudden feeling of being in a constant game of Dodgems against people who nearly all purchased their dodgems in regions where the rules of dodgems are entirely different. Am I allowed to complain about incomers, being still something of an incomer myself, who first moved to the area less than eight years ago? Maybe not. But I feel like I should be able to complain about something unsustainable and unjust that’s currently going on here, as it is in many rural areas. Maybe it will change next year, if more people once again holiday abroad, but I suspect that’s not the main part of the problem. The big cars, driven arrogantly, go with the big houses, purchased arrogantly, either as primary or secondary dwellings, with the proceeds from sales of other homes in even more expensive areas of the country, making it more impossible than ever for people with perfectly decent jobs – especially young people, without wealth behind them – to ever get a mortgage here on a place to live. Look at the houses available to buy in the south west right now, after eighteen months of panic buying by well-off urban escapees, and it’s like walking into a supermarket where all the shelves are empty apart from one or two, each of which contains only a few moldy apples and cucumbers, then when you look even more carefully, each of the apples and cucumbers now cost £50. You keep thinking it can’t possibly go on getting more like this, and then it does. The week before last, on that increasingly problematic lane, I waited in a queue of six ordinary-sized cars as two drivers of £50,000 people carriers stood on the tarmac screaming at one another because neither had been willing to forfeit their status as Metal Penis Of The Road by moving out of the other’s way. Meanwhile, an ancient woodland has been closed off to the public due to visitors stripping the moss off its trees, dropping litter and building fires within it, and on a hillside on the edge of the local town, another chunk of green is hollowed out to make way for some houses that will almost certainly not be “affordable”. There are, of course, far bigger problems in the world, in the UK, in the South West. I’m very aware that this is a niche complaint about trouble in faeryland. But it is the reality of 2021 in a National Park in the south of England: a place that undoubtedly benefits from tourism but is suffering visibly every day, culturally, socially and ecologically, from the knock-on effects of this country’s ever more ludicrous housing crisis.
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