This hip yogi was collecting daan (charity, baksheesh, funds) for his “beloved Guruji, Swami X” and had taken £256.13 in cash to build a temple in the Himalayas. He wasn’t particularly out of place as Totnes gathers many such characters to its cosy bosom, where they become part of the variously costumed population, such as the Elizabethans manning the market stalls on a Saturday.
Totnes, neighbour to Dartington and Dartmouth, sits at the head of the Dart estuary. It attracts a boho-hippie-alternative crowd, visible in their smallholding crusty style (shorts, faded shirts, sunburnt appearance and mud) buying groceries at Riverford Organics. I talked to a man who had escaped London life to farm sheep and wished he made the move years before. But even with a plethora of nouveau ruraux like you find in the French Pyrenees, farming by natives is much in evidence and gigantic tractors carrying massive hay bales trundle down the narrow one-track roads forcing traffic to bow to their snail’s pace.
One of the most moving photographic records of the old ways and faces has been made by the extraordinarily sensitive and skilled eye of Ski Harrison. Her invaluable testament to a vanished way of life was on show at the Devon Rural Archive in the remote hamlet of Shilstone. The strong black and white images of the 82 year old lady chimney sweep, salmon fishermen, traditional builders and workers on the land are incredibly moving. To my surprise I realized I had once stayed at the farm of Margaret and Sheila. My bed was lumpy and the porridge was burnt, but the sisters made me very welcome. Their entire lives had been spent in the area around the farm.
Ashprington, Tuckenhay, Cornworthy, Dittisham, sound like places in Beatrix Potter tales, or Hardy’s novels. But village life of the past is long gone. Pubs are of the gastro sort and traditional vocations extinct. Ski Harrison’s elegiac photos and Alice Oswald’s lyrical poetry have preserved the past for posterity. I heard Alice Oswald recite her long poem Memorial at the Hay Festival this May. She declaimed in the manner of a bard, without reference to text, a tall black haired prophetess, bearing the audience on a voyage imagined with the beauty and power of her language and force of delivery so even young children were mesmerized into rapt attention. An earlier poem, Dart, is a commemoration and hymn to the life of the river and those who live with it.
The way I talk in my many-headed turbulence
among these modulations, this nimbus of words kept in motion
sing-calling something definitely human
We have been going to Devon for the last 35 years, usually staying at Ski and Anthony’s house on Bow Creek, a house that to my mind is probably the most beautiful and pleasing of dwellings I have ever been privileged to know. Originally an old wharf warehouse, it was skilfully converted by Anthony when they returned from Nigeria to settle in Devon. Every window shows a magical panorama of water, mud flats, sea birds and the odd pleasure craft washed by light that changes constantly from pearly to crepuscular to luminous. Giant beeches overhang the edges of the tidal river and the surrounding green of the hillsides are dotted with white sheep.
I had rented a wood eco cabin for a few days after we left Quay House, aka Chateau Harrison, nice in its own way, but hidden among trees so that when the weather turned nasty we were lambasted by the continuous moan and yelp of a wind which at times resembled a tropical typhoon, and then suddenly it would strike ice from the Poles. In the morning, before the rain swept in from the sea I trampolined with abandon and am paying for it a week after. Luckily a wood burner kept the damp down, but the whole place was a little too eco, furnished with those awful ethical bulbs and no proper reading lamp.
I shall always have a soft spot for Devon, but one is too car-dependent (like in rural France) and driving becomes a tense affair, what with the high hedges and single track roads. I was so glad to be back in the saddle on my trusty steed in Oxford, pedalling off to my daily swim.