The sign said “Road Narrows”. That wouldn’t generally be cause for consternation but already both the wing mirrors of my rented Corsa touched the herbage on either side of the tarmac, and I was thinking “narrows to what?”.
The hedges that lined the way were well above the height of the car, well above the height of a truck for that matter, and offered no view of the gloriously green countryside that I knew lay just out of sight.
It was but one of the anomalies of driving through the West Country of the UK, where highways make no allowance for vehicles to actually manoeuvre abreast of one another. Over the next few weeks we encountered more than one lane which wouldn’t afford a cyclist space to pass by our vehicles without mishap. Welcome to rural England where the road system relies on the co-operation of the drivers, where you may encounter a herd of cattle, some Dartmoor ponies or a cluster of dozing sheep along the way.
Here in the Cape we pride ourselves on the beauty of our environment and, make no mistake, we are completely entitled to boast, but having just spent almost a month in southern England I have to tell you that there are other places with scenery to match ours.
There we found a level of rural tranquillity that mostly escapes us, no matter that we live in one of the more glorious cities on the planet, and a variety of green hues which challenge any preconceived notion of the adjective “verdant”.
In the lower vales the fields lie in apparently random scatter, their borders, universally convoluted and a result of ancient rights of way, ownerships and disputes which create a patchwork of colour unlike anywhere else on earth. Here the borders are thick hedges, greener if possible than the pastures which they encompass, squiggling lines of vegetation that on the one side delineate a farmer’s land and often on the other the limitations of the road system which was born centuries back. Without further investigation a simple drive would convince you that the Romans never held sway here; there isn’t a 20m stretch of straight roadway in a day-long journey and the tracks, albeit labelled as “B” roads and well surfaced with tarmacadam, still follow ancient boundaries, bridle paths and contours used since before the coming of Christ.
The straight Roman roads, which we all learnt at school were to facilitate rapid deployment of troops without the risk of ambush, end at Isca, that’s Exeter to you and I. They never managed to conquer much further south and it is still a matter of pride, particularly to the Celts of Cornwall, that the invasive forces of the legionnaires didn’t overwhelm them. Frankly, if winding roads provide good cover for ambush, I am not surprised that the locals prevailed all those years back. There is an ambush spot at every corner for mile upon mile.
Higher up on the plains of Dartmoor the scenery changes with a rapidity hard to imagine; with the gain of a few metres of elevation the hedges disappear, the trees are all but gone and those fields, equally convoluted as in the valleys, are now demarcated by dry stone walls of granite. Miles and miles and miles of them, constructed entirely with manual labour and chunks of rock without recourse to mortar or other such niceties. Here and there ancient cottages and wayside inns stand out in stark contrast, generally ancient crossroads and way stations which served as a place to eat and rest, change horses and fix broken carriage wheels. The buildings, manufactured from the local granite and roofed with slabs of slate, dour-looking constructions, but thermally efficient and as durable as the sands of time. Most now sport beer gardens for the rare sunny days and log fires for the more frequent cold and damp ones. Hostels boast ancient beams, real ale, slate floors, horse brasses and ploughman’s lunches – every one of them worthy of a brief stopover.
High up here on the marshy, chill and windswept plateau of the moor agriculture still remains virtually feudal. Grazing rights are issued for the ponies, cattle and sheep which dot the barren landscape. The ground owned by the Dutchy of Cornwall, something of a misnomer given that the Dutchy holds land in a number of counties, including considerable expanse in Devon, and provides an income for the Duke of Cornwall, currently Charles, Prince of Wales.
To spend some time wandering the hills of the West Country is to take a step back in time, everything from the construction of the homes to the winding of the roads has its roots in historical events long past. Even the courtesy of the drivers indicates a long-standing acceptance of co-operation, no doubt stemming from the days when a level of mutual reliance on the good graces of one’s neighbours was the only thing standing between an embattled farmer and the bankruptcy courts.
The countryside is a joy to behold and the warmth of greetings and hearths a real pleasure, particularly on chill evenings when all is dark and the wind whistles a bitter tune outside the pub window while the log fire blazes.