Murder & mystery in deepest Devon…

The west country, with its dramatic coastline, brooding moors and secluded hideaways is a pretty perfect place for writers to escape to – well that’s what I keep telling myself whenever myAgatha Christie enthusiasm flags! Over the years, this corner of England has been home to some of our most popular authors of the 20th century. Two female literary giants – Daphne Du Maurier and Agatha Christie – both spent many happy years in this part of the world.

South Cornwall was the home of Daphne Du Maurier, writer of the haunting classics Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel and Frenchman’s Creek, among many other excellent novels. She lived a reclusive life down on the wild south Cornish coast and nowadays there is an annual Daphne Du Maurier Literary Festival (now called the Fowey Festival or Words & music) which I keep promising myself I must go to! 

In Devon, we lay claim to Agatha Christie. The undisputed queen of crime was born on 15 September 1890 in Torquay, just a couple of miles away from where I live. Once her fame was established and money no object, there was nothing she loved more than escaping with her family to Greenway, their Devon holiday home.

The National Trust opened Greenway House to the public in 2009 and for the first time, visitors had the opportunity to view the many personal collections and mementoes of this much-loved mystery writer and her family. It’s well worth a visit.

Greenway is an imposing house, sitting high on the slopes of the valley running down to the beautiful riverGreenway House Dart, near Dartmouth – one of my favourite Devon towns. If you take the Dart River Boat trip from Totnes to Dartmouth – wonderful in itself – you get superb views of Greenway from the river and can appreciate what a lovely place it was for her to escape to. 

Outside you can explore the large and romantic woodland garden, with a restored vinery, wild edges and rare plantings, which drifts down the hillside towards the sparkling Dart estuary. Lovely!!

I keep saying to Richard, all we need is a nice mansion by the sea where I can sit and muse while sipping a gin sling and I’ll have no trouble writing all my murder mysteries!! Somehow, I don’t think he is taking me seriously…

 

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Here be Pixies!

Did you know we have pixies down here on Dartmoor…? Little people, or ‘Piskies’ as they are usually referred to, that stand no higher than your knee and live among the rocks and combes.

Numerous places are traditionally connected with their revels, one of the best known being beside the River Dart near New Bridge where grassy banks make a delightful picnic place for folk large and small.

Old stories often relate that pixies helped farmers by threshing corn, churning butter and keeping cupboards free of cobwebs, especially if a dish of cream was left on the hearth as a reward although their good deeds would stop if they suspected they were being spied on.

Dartmoor’s numerous rock formations shelter many a cleft and cave and one particular cave has long been associated with the little folk. Known as Piskies’ Holt, it stands on private ground at Huccaby Cleave. Sadly, today it’s out of bounds to anyone without a fishing licence but this was once a popular place where children would leave a shell, a pin or a piece of cloth as presents for the pixies. I read an article a recently where the writer had been given permission to visit the spot and there, on a rock shelf in the cave lay an array of tiny offerings, some obviously recent! The spooky, but beautiful, Wistmans Wood of stunted oaks on Dartmoor, home to many a pixie, surely…?

Piskies are not only found on Dartmoor there are stories from around the world relating to the ‘little people’. In Cornwall they are known as pisgies, in Somerset they are pixies and in Dorset they are called pexies. It has been suggested that in early times they were all fairies but in the West Country they separated off to become piskies, pisgies, pixies or pexies.

There are many ideas as to how piskies originated. It may be that the piskies are pagan spirits who because of their beliefs are unable to enter the kingdom of heaven. Or, more likely, they are early Christian inventions used to discourage people from worshiping their banished pagan gods.

Whatever the truth behind these little folk, the myth lives on and there are still people today up on the moor who will tell you they have seen them. I haven’t been so lucky, but you never know…!

Are there tales of ‘little people’ where you live? We’d love to hear your stories!

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Making scent of it all…

OK, I admit it, I am old enough (just!) to remember steam trains. I am also now of an age to get nostalgic about pretty much anything from my childhood.

We are lucky to have a couple of steam railways near us down here in Devon. One skirts the coast and goes from Paignton to Kingswear – just across the water from the lovely harbour town of Dartmouth. The other, the South Devon Railway, runs beside the river Dart between Ashburton and the town of Totnes. When the river is high, roaring over rocks and surging under bridges it is quite an exciting ride!

When I went on it recently, the smell of the steam engine and the leather of the upholstery transported me instantly back to my childhood in Buckinghamshire and the steam trains that puffed back and forth along the Thames Valley. Steam trains also make those wonderful rhythmical sounds, clanks and bangs and little snorts that all add up to make them seem friendly, almost human, with characters of their own, something the poor old diesel trains never had a hope of achieving.

But thinking about the lovely smell of the steam (I suppose it’s the soot really!), it set me thinking about how evocative smells can be. A particular scent can instantly recall long-forgotten memories as if it were only yesterday. Mostly, the memories are happy but some, often floral, remind me of someone I’ve lost and while it is sad, it’s also good to pause every now and then in our hectic lives, and remember them, and smile.

And so, here are some of the other smells that ‘set me off’:

  • Freshly mown grass – school sports days, ugh!
  • Two-stroke petrol engines – an early boyfriend!
  • Geranium leaves – fresh, earthiness in a damp garden.
  • Gunpowder – Guy Fawkes night and the joy of childhood…

What about you? What smells bring memories surging back? Let’s hear your thoughts.

Meanwhile… happy Easter and don’t eat too many eggs!

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Wine in the Westcountry…

I am fortunate to live in a county rich in locally grown and produced foods. Devon is unique in England in having a coastline on both its northern and southern edges and it’s an area where farming livestock is still an important part of the economy. We are also blessed with lots of artisan cheese makers, bakers and vintners, our climate being suited to all sorts of exciting foody businesses. Through my blog I’m going to take the opportunity to introduce you to some of our local producers and I hope you will be inspired to try their produce and their recipes!

I introduced you to the rather exotic Devon Chilli Farm a few weeks ago and now, equally surprising, I’m going to talk about Devon vineyards. There are no less than NINE in the county and some of the wines they produce are winning awards worldwide.

Internationally, I think Britain is probably more famous for producing gin and beer than wine but in fact, we have been producing wine since Roman times. Historically though, English wines were seen as a bit of a joke, with people making their own peculiar brews such a potato or parsnip wine (remember Reggie Perrin?) while commercially the quality and consistency was very variable. But, since about 1970 – and particularly at the beginning of the 21st Century – things have improved dramatically.

It seems that Devon, and Cornwall too, enjoys an ideal mix of soil and climate making them suitable areas for growing vines. The latitude and longitude are very similar to the well-known wine growing regions of France so it’s not too hard to see why this area is proving successful.

There’s a vineyard just down the road from our village that produces four types of wine, a white, red, rosé and sparkling. Rather unromantically, these days there are no peasants trampling round in great vats of grapes pressing out the juice with their feet (actually, that always put me off a bit!), today it is all stainless steel tanks and white coats, but the wine they produce is excellent.

The best-known vineyard in this part of the world is Sharpham. They also happen to make excellent cheeses, but that’s another blog altogether! Their Sharpham Sparkling Reserve NV recently won the ‘Best International’ trophy at the World Sparkling Wine Competition, beating French champagnes in the process!

If you are in this neck of the woods, the Sharpham estate is well worth a visit. There’s a lovely café on site for lunch before you walk through the vineyards that go right down to the banks of the river Dart and the wine tastings are inexpensive and very enjoyable!!

For more information, do have a look at the Sharpham wine website at www.sharpham.com

 

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Marvellous Mr Badger!

Why do so many of us see badgers as sweet and appealing creatures? I think, for me, it comes from reading ‘Wind in the Willows’ as a child and adoring Ratty, Mole and Badger. Mr Badger, in his dressing gown and slippers was rather grumpy, but wonderfully solid and dependable. Or maybe it’s just their lovely stripy faces that we like? They always look so characterful. 

Badgers are nocturnal and elusive. We have a great many of them in this part of the world and, driving home of an evening, we will sometimes see a badger lumbering along the side of the road. They are quite big creatures, with short, powerful legs and they amble along with a swaying gait like proper old men! They will often turn to look at the car lights before they disappear into the hedgerow and you get the lovely flash of their white-striped faces before they vanish. 

Like humans, they are omnivorous, although unlike us, they eat several hundred earthworms every night! Badgers are social creatures and live together in large underground setts, made up of a series of interlocking tunnels with nest chambers, toilets and several entrances.

Unfortunately, badger pooh, always neatly piled up in the toilet areas, is seen as the Chanel No.5 of doggy perfumes! If you are unlucky, your dog will come home ‘wearing’ it, usually liberally applied around their shoulders and neck – ugh!! It is very unpleasant, extremely pungent and hard to remove! Our spaniel Welly, the dear boy, has tried this a few times, but he finds the cleaning up exercise (baths, shampoo, towel dry etc.) more trouble than it’s worth.

Again, rather like some humans, Badgers inherit these homes from their parents, while always expanding and refining them. The resulting huge tunnel systems are, in some cases, centuries old. I like to think of them discussing the addition of a new bedroom, or enlarging the lounge over a supper of worms before snuggling down for the night in their ancient abode. Apart from the worms… could almost be me and Richard!

 

 

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