The Real Countryside


The nearest river to my house is called the Avon. It’s one of six River Avons in the UK and possibly the quietest of the bunch, although I couldn’t say for sure because I have only met three of the others in person and nobody – not even a river – looks 100% in real life like they do in photographs. “Avon” comes from the old Welsh word “afon” which means “river” so in fact my local river is called the River River. The River River is not a strutting or renowned tourist river like its neighbour the River Dart; it is more the kind of river you might chat quietly to about a small change in your diet or an evening class you are thinking of enrolling on or ask for help with crossword clues. I claim there’s about eleven minutes’ walking time to its banks from my front door but many with shorter more casual legs than me might protest that this is the preposterously optimistic estimate of someone not living on the real planet. I want to know more of the River River than I do, but won’t be able to unless I get a canoe or kayak, because all the footpaths and lanes take you down alongside the River River for only tantalisingly truncated periods before whisking you back away from it up steep hills from whose summits, when there’s a gap in the trees, you can look back down toward the water and think, “Ooh, I wonder what’s going on in that bit right now!” I trespassed a couple of years ago – while living in a cabin near here, for which the River River was officially counted as the local river – in an attempt to see more of the River River, but ended up on a small island sitting in a derelict railway carriage, which was interesting in itself, but did not deepen my knowledge of the secret places on the River River as much as I’d hoped.

If you follow the River River about eight miles upstream from my house, deep into the moor, you’ll eventually reach a vast dam, much vaster and longer than it first seems, but about a mile before that you’ll get to a fork in the path, where, if you take the vaguer left fork, the greedy suckling earth will pull one of your boots off your feet, maybe even both of your boots and part of a sock, before the path vanishes altogether and, as you scramble to higher, drier ground to regain your composure, a dishevelled yet pragmatic sheep will stare at you in silent judgement and you will be left pinned between two gorse bushes, thinking, “How did I get here and where exactly did the softness of the world vanish to?” It was just prior to discovering this about the left fork, back in April, during the first of our national lockdowns, that I met Keith for the first time. Keith is 73, first came to live on Dartmoor when he was eight, and talks to everyone he meets on his walks and his bike rides. On this particular day he was on one of his bikes and, within around six minutes of saying hello, had offered to loan me one of his other bikes. Since then I’ve used the bike a bit, but not as much as I intended to, because when faced with a choice between walking and cycling, I usually find myself arguing against the case for the latter, for many reasons, such as “What if because you are going so quickly you miss a heron or a kingfisher or some bracket fungus or an old weathered stone that looks like an excellent monster?”

Two Mondays ago I walked with Keith from his house, on the edge of the large village of South Brent, up to a similar part of the moor. Keith spoke to everyone we passed, asking them where they were from, how they were and what route they had taken on their walk. Near an ancient stone row I once helped to conserve, we encountered a man digging a trench and Keith asked him the purpose of the trench and what other trenches he had dug in recent months. “Are you ok out up here on your own?” Keith asked the man, who was probably still only in his 20s and had a beard as black and thick as the most dreadful Baskerville night. “Bloody love it! It’s my happy place,” he replied, as rain dripped off his beard onto a yellow anorak which provided the scene’s main source of light. During the walk, Keith and I kept an eye out for abandoned gates. One of Keith’s favourite hobbies since retiring has been upcycling abandoned gates, making things out of them such as mirrors, coat racks and vases, all of which invariably turn out to be small masterpieces. Of course, as extraordinarily fit as Keith is, he is not strong enough to drag an entire abandoned gate home with him, so he instead saws bits off the gates when he finds them. “Do you have your saw in your rucksack with you today, Keith?” I asked. “No, but I do have this,” he said, reaching for a Swiss army knife in the rucksack’s pocket, unleashing a serrated blade and showing me the wood food still in its teeth from its last meal. “It’s amazing what one of these will get through.” Behind us there was a small memorial in the bank of the holloway. Flowers, an inscription. “That’s for a man who died after a tree he was cutting down fell on him,” Keith explained.

When Keith was eight, he and his mum and his brother lived in a council house in Perth, Scotland, and his mum applied to swap the house with a family who lived in a council house in Walkhampton, a village on the western edge of Dartmoor. A removal lorry drove the Devon family 526 miles north, dropped them and their possessions off, then loaded Keith and his mum and his brother and their stuff in and drove them back to its point of embarkment. Keith remembers sitting on a chair in the back alongside his brother, with the flap of the lorry down, watching the road disappear behind them. After that, his six and a half decade moorland adventure began: an extended childhood of long walks and cycle rides and swimming in rivers and flooded mine shafts, only interrupted by several decades working in Plymouth dockyard on nuclear submarines and raising a family. As he told me about it, it was hard not to envy a formative period in such a place, and not to think of my own childhood, which took place three decades later in a Nottinghamshire mining village where, after walking through woodland decorated with torn up pornography and faded cans formerly housing Lilt and Tizer, I made my den from an an abandoned sofa on the smaller of the two slag heaps behind the house. The rivers and canals nearby were not ones I chose to swim in, due to issues with industrial run-off. But it was a very good childhood. I spent the largest portion of it outdoors and enjoyed it a lot.

I’d been in a lot of pain an hour or so before I arrived at Keith’s house, and had come close to cancelling on him. For the last month, following closely on the heels of a bout of shingles, I’d had a blood clot in an extremely painful part of my anatomy, which had led to other internal bleeding and an infection inside my intestine. But walking, I felt, was the best thing for it, and, as I had hoped, made me forget about it for a while. As Keith and I reached the highest point of our hike, the most vivid rainbow curved over the valley behind us: a giant multicolour mimic of the ancient humpback bridge that went over the River River below it. Look at that ancient humpback bridge from a distance, and it might have seemed merely dark inky grey, but peer more closely at the lichen glued to its old stones, and you were looking at a near-endless palette, the more textured real story. I only took two photos on the walk and the one I took of the rainbow didn’t convey half of the true beauty of it. I hesitated about putting it on Instagram, as I do more and more often before putting something on Instagram, or the Internet in general. I think it’s the pandemic that makes me hesitate even more: the knowledge that a lot of people would like to be out on some moorland, looking at a rainbow, but can’t be. But it’s more than that. I feel reluctant to contribute to what can be an unhealthy culture of envy, based largely on an unrealistic and harmful longing about places and experiences and lives that don’t exist. Of course, Dartmoor does exist, and is my favourite place on earth. But in the Instagram version of this narrative – that rainbow arcing over that valley, with not an ounce of ugly in frame – this was a day where nothing bad happened, a week where nothing bad happened, a life where nothing bad happened. Because I did not post a photo of my bleeding intestine, or the huge dent in the side of my car from where I’d smashed into a wall a week previously to avoid a head on collision with a lorry driver hurtling towards me down a country lane at reckless speed, or of anything worrying or upsetting in my life, it did not exist. Some days I feel like photographing something nice I see is almost a harmful act. I feel like by doing it, I’m insulting the integrity and honesty of the landscape, contributing to the thin digital icing that’s on top of everything these days. Conversely, I do not stop enjoying photographs, taking them and looking at them. I also like Instagram.

I always walk a lot but have walked more than ever recently. One moment that this became very apparent was on Thursday afternoon, when I slipped on a narrow ledge of stone and almost fell into the deep intoxicated water of an upland ravine, due to the fact that the treads on the bottom of boots I didn’t buy all that long ago have already worn down. The previous evening my brilliant girlfriend and I had decided to revert to merely being close friends due to the sad but unswerveable fact that we want two very different and incompatible things in our futures, but the water going over the rocks would have made a great picture – maybe 1500 likes territory online, if the hard working algorithms in Mark Zuckerberg’s senior office decided they were really into it. I have walked more of late because of the pandemic’s reduction of exciting social possibilities to fill our time and because every walk gives me another nugget or seven of inspiration for the novel I’m writing, but also because I have had a strong instinct that it’s what I need to help me get fully well again. I never feel worse after a walk. Has all the walking helped my health troubles? I cannot say for scientifically sure. But I am now out the other side of a course of antibiotics, plus two other kinds of medication, plus all the self-administered foot mile therapy, and I am feeling just about like me again in at least fourteen ways, which might even be the full nineteen ways by next week.

I remember a few years ago when, during a trip to the Midlands to see my parents, I was walking not far from my old school in Nottinghamshire, in the small town where most of my family still live. I took a photo of a wildflower meadow a couple of miles down the road, in a dip below a hillock which on a clear day will give you view of IKEA on the far horizon, although not of Nando’s and Benson’s Beds, which are next to it. If you go about a mile further out, you get to the place near my mum and dad’s old rented house where people used to set fire to cars every Friday night. It was about one in the afternoon when I took the photo of the wildflower meadow. Three quarters of an hour earlier, I’d seen a couple of sexually frustrated young lads fighting on the street, as I often do when I revisit the town. I uploaded the photo of the wildflower meadow onto the Internet. “Where you live is so perfect,” someone on the Internet told me, straight after I posted the photo. “Is it even real? I want your life.” During all my recent walking I have thought a lot about the idea of the “real countryside” and the opinions people chuck about when talking about it. I post photos of the darker side of rural Britain and I don’t think my social media output can be simply called a highlight reel, but maybe I need to be more comprehensive: maybe I should post every dead rabbit or crow or frog I see, every Fiat bumper trapped in a hedge, every pheasant wheezing out its last four breaths after being hit by an SUV, every spent plastic firework cylinder, every polythene fertiliser sack trapped between the boughs of a tree, every slurry lagoon and bagged dog turd and pylon. But those things are also no more “the real countryside” than is a vivid rainbow arcing over a deep green moorland valley, where a fit retiree who looks far younger than his years eyes up an abandoned oak plank and visualises the fetching lamp base it might soon become, in his artful hands. 

I am not Keith (although I admit I would quite like to be when I grow up). I do not have his strong claims to being a true Dartmoor local: mine are based on three separate periods living ever closer to the moor, commencing in March 2014, the fact that I’ve walked about as much of it as I humanly could since then, the fact that I’m moving properly onto it in a few days, and the fact that my great grandma lived on the moor and her family provided food for the prison in Princetown during the mid-late 1800s. It could be more tenuous, I suppose. But I will always be undeniably Nottinghamshire in many ways. I have become more conscious, since being away, of all the ways my family there, and to a lesser extent the towns and villages there, are inextricably me. I often miss where I come from. I miss the habit of most people there of saying exactly what they think, and because I grew up accustomed to that I am still thrown by the habit of many people down here of doing the opposite, even though I know it often comes from a polite place inside them, rather than just a phoney timewasting one or a complex mixture of both. I am aware, too, that living in a place that retains so much green space might – and from some examples I’ve seen, can – slowly nudge a person into becoming a bit smug, and that’s something to be carefully guarded against. But then you get someone like Keith, someone as many light years as you can imagine from smug, but who is a total human part of that green space. The more I walk on and learn about Dartmoor and its history, the more enraged I get when I see litter in its car parks or a motorist break the speed limit on its lanes or walk past the building site of an unimaginative new housing estate bludgeoning ancient wild space on its fringes, or see rich Londoners panic buying second homes, and first homes, this summer and driving the house prices up still further, making it harder for locals to maintain a reasonable standard of living. But what right do I have to feel like that? I’m not “from” here. The place I’m from had much more of its green space bludgeoned a long time ago. If I am annoyed that I can’t afford a house here, I should go back to where I come from, where they’re (a bit) cheaper, right?

Yesterday, feeling free of pain and antibiotics, I thought I’d celebrate with a longer than usual lockdown walk from my front door. I fell out with my current house a bit in August, after experiencing quite extensive damp and drain and flooding and landlord problems, but before that I was very fond of it, and wanted to remember all the nice aspects to living here, before I move ten miles up the road, to a slightly different kind of terrain. I also wanted to explore the last remaining paths around here that were still new to me. So I put my OS mp and a large orange in my jacket pockets, plus a couple of pound coins just in case I found some eggs for sale outside a farm, and strode briskly off, conscious of the limited daylight. I thought fondly about the mason bees who live in my bedroom wall, that one superfriendly sheep up the road who looks like a panda, the tiny mysterious secret door across the lane with a horseshoe and a padlock on the front, the view back towards the dormant church from the south with the moor in the background that looks straight off a 1950s postcard. I walked down to the River River and enjoyed all the liquid stories, the culmination of an almost constant sense that the land around here is one big gurgling body. I walked up high away from the River River and found new quiet bridleways where trees stealthily fucked up the remaining hopes of forgotten buildings and a fleet of farm vehicles had been left to rot. I sat on the old discarded bench seat of a car by the side of a lane and picked stones out of my shoes and inspected my blisters and sat thinking about good people who’d enhanced my life and yearned for an era when it was once again possible to see more of them. I’d intended to walk 16 miles. It turned out to be 20. The day was like lukewarm dishwater: grey, with rain all through the air, without it ever actually raining. As I reached the last steep hill away from the River River, which keeps looking like it’s ended then keeps surprising you with another twist and another climb, my vision blurred. I descended the last hill to the house with all the grace and directness of half a tennis ball. Every bit of clothing I had on was plastered to my skin with sweat or the other various moistures of Dartmoor’s subsidiary land. I stripped it all off in the porch, like someone three drinks past cares and logic after a chequered night out. How did I feel, compared to when I’d started out? More geographically integrated? Yes. More sore? Yes. More alive and emotional? Yes. More broken? Yes. But worse? No. Definitely not worse.

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13 thoughts on “The Real Countryside

  1. A fascinating piece, I do not know Dartmoor at all, it sounds beautiful and challenging. I think you have to be quite a hardy person to live in the real country side. I like that you still choose to shoW the beauty. Why not? There is enough ugliness. Glad that you are getting better, but be careful not to push too hard.
    Thank you!

  2. It seemed to me that the Ramblecasts helped to make this piece of writing Tom, and the rambles needed to happen so the writing could grow out of them. So the miles were worth it!
    Is Keith going to appear in a book sometime, like 70s Pat? Your description of him made me hope that I might bump into him one day, near Walkhampton perhaps.
    There was so much here that I laughed at – the fit retiree on the look out for potential lamp bases, the saw with the bits in its teeth, the perils of driving in Devon lanes, meeting maniac van men on a mission.
    But you are so right about how a simple thing like taking and sharing a beautiful photograph can lead to a sad misunderstanding of what a person’s real life is, with all its complexity.

  3. Destroying woodland and nature for more housing and HS2 is evil depravity. Unfathomable. People who litter are ludicrous. I am enjoying 21st Century Yokel so much.
    I love your Ramblecasts and hearing the wind in the background!!

  4. Thanks for taking me to the real countryside I loved reading this piece. Looking forward to reading about living on the Moor itself!

  5. Your writing takes me away from reality. I miss England terribly, you share it in such a lovely way that I can close my eyes and feel it again. It’s so soothing. Thank you❤️

  6. Lovely piece Tom, good to see something creative came out of Kimberley Comp. Possibly “Undeniably Nottinghamshire” could be the title of your next book.

  7. Lovely stuff Tom, good to see something creative came out of Kimberley Comp. Perhaps “Undeniably Nottinghamshire” could be the title of your next book.

  8. I used to live in Brent, oppositethe church. Loved it there. It was the closest I was able to get to living on the moor because of the commute to the south coast I had for work. I loved the area around there, some beautiful walks. Is the dam you mention Avon dam?

  9. This took me back to a childhood holiday staying with friends of my parents in Avonwick, in their little house right on the rivers edge. I was only around 8 at the time but vaguely remember exploring the countryside around with the other kids, pretending to smoke our chocolate cigarettes while trespassing some farmers barns. The rail carriage triggered a memory I’m unsure is real, though apparently the village had a station up until the 1960’s so perhaps I also saw parts of the abandoned railway?

  10. I am mildly envious of what you describe in your writing, your photos ….. your life, not in an upsetting way, but in a way that I acknowledge I will never experience what you have. I have of course experienced my own bags of dog poo strewn across farmers fields paths but am grateful for the beauty of your rainbow.

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