This is just a bit of an extract.
I used to think I was getting the hang of the hedges. I walk up the lane to the village several times a week, and in the green tunnels of the deep Devon lanes it’s often hard to see anything except the tunnel walls, especially in May, when the green would be outdone by the purples, yellows, blues and whites if it were not so bright and new. And if the roaring of a three hundred horse power green and yellow John Deere comes the other way, there’s nowhere to go except back-first into the hedge. There’s no better way of getting closely acquainted with the hedgerow species.
But today I’d come in a direction I’ve never taken before, through the churchyard and past the Methodist chapel, heading North and West. And the hedges here were entirely different. Well, not entirely. The species are more or less the same, but their forms are different. Here, the campion is much more pink than red, and the stitchwort has bigger, more ragged flowers. There are bluebells where the ransoms ought to be and jack-of-the-hedge where I’d expect cow parsley. And I can still see St. Mary’s tower.
A South West Water workman had been called out to a rarely-visited water treatment plant, and in his investigations must have disturbed a bat roost. A bat is flitting about in the lane like something between a large moth and house marten, totally disorientated. Swallows, spooked by their night-time rival, lined up along the telegraph wire that follows the lane, and chattered angrily at it. The day was as hot as we’d had so far this May, and in the late morning sun the thing looked quite pitiful. The deep lane climbed steeply up the side of the valley, and straightened out into one of the long, ridgeway routes that cut across the landscape, a prehistoric superhighway that would have followed the same route for millennia. I walked in the footsteps of a million cattle, sheep and tar-footed geese being driven to markets in far distant towns. Stopping for a rest in the shade of a windswept tree, I looked back east. On the slopes of Exmoor, far away across the Taw valley, bright yellow fields of rape break through the haze like shafts of sunlight through cloud. At my back is the last hill before the land begins to drop away into the Torridge valley, and Exmoor will be left behind and out of sight. If I climb the gate and look south, I can just see the shape of Dartmoor coming into view. I felt like a lone asteroid on the extreme edge of my solar system, starting to feel the pull of the next star. This is the watershed, the High Culm Ridge where the spring-fed streams start to flow the other way, and I will no longer be on the sheltered, lea side of the ridge, but facing the wind. Above, a buzzard curls its long, lazy loops in a territory of updraughts and air currents, unconcerned about which way the water falls.
In the fields behind me that make up High Down and Beara Moor, a smallholder on an antique tractor was topping the thistles. For the past few weeks I’d been helping out with a project to digitalise Devon Country Record Office’s collection of Tithe Maps and Apportionments. These are the maps drawn up in the 1840s when reforms to the tax laws meant that the government had to take a proper account of landowners’ wealth. The name, use and ownership details of every field, orchard, copse and brake is meticulously recorded. Land is given a reference number, and the property valued. Some estates seemed to have a theme to their names, such as William Down’s Cliston estate, with its Eastern Ireland, Western Ireland, and Inish Meadow, suggesting a certain amount of homesickness on the part of an Irish migrant. But what I found most interesting was the much more common, often unimaginatively descriptive names attributed to fields. Nine Acre Field, High Orchard, Bennett’s Plot, Emmanuel’s Down. And it came as a surprise, in a way, at how accurate the names were. Now, almost every village has a cul-de-sac called Orchard Close, a Ward’s Cottage or a Fountain Fields, and they’re just rustic names. But every Orchard Close in the tithe apportionment will be an orchard, Ward’s Cottage will come under someone else’s estate, and Foutain Fields will be a ‘waste and spring’.
High Down and Beara Moor are almost indistinguishable today. Where, in 1840, one would have probably been culm grassland and the other moor pasture, today both are highly improved pasture. In a transformation as dramatic as the Bronze Age slash and burn farming that created the moors in the first place, NPK fertilisers and tractors powerful enough to plough even the rockiest ground have left very little in the way of ‘Waste’ or ‘Moor’ on the High Culm Ridge at all.