From the Chair 12. The Hut Circle
A series of short pieces written during the 2020 coronavirus lockdown by our Chair, Dr Sue Andrew, musing on discoveries made during walks from her Tavistock home.
12. The Hut Circle
The moor near Tavistock brims with archaeological remains, but for those without a trained eye it is often difficult to understand what the lumps and bumps in the ground once were and what they meant to those who created them. Stepping into a hut circle, though, always brings forth a deep human connection – this was someone’s home where people of the distant past lived, loved, and died.
A walk up to the settlement on Langstone Moor, on a gloriously sunny day, heightened this feeling of human connection, and indeed a connection with the wild moor, in a way I’ve never quite experienced before. Traversing north east of Roos Tor, skylarks rose high above releasing a song which filled the air. In the distance over the River Walkham, cattle appeared as moving motes against the hillside. A few sheep wove their way across a golden landscape. There was not a human soul to be seen.
A steady climb leads to an enclosure wherein there are several hut circles. Resting in the sun, only the call of birds and the rhythmic rustling of the moor grass could be heard. Eyes closed, thoughts wandered to the music of our ancestors who had dwelt here so long ago – a dream which was gently interrupted by the approach of eight softly grazing ponies. One, more curious than the rest, came close enough to scent her sweet grassy breath.
I have really missed the moor, but now that the government has eased restrictions on car journeys prior to daily exercise, I’ll venture up there more often. But I doubt I’ll ever feel quite that intensity of connection with the wild moor and its ancient people again. It was a rare and beautiful moment and a day never to be forgotten.
17 May 2020
11. Triangle, Circle, Square
Up on the moorland of Whitchurch Down, just to the east of Tavistock and a short walk from home, sits a small and highly distinctive building. Formerly known as The Outlook, it is now referred to locally as The Pimple, though it is far from a blot on the landscape. Views to and from it are striking, with the seats surrounding it much used.
Perhaps the smallest building designed by the great Sir Edwin Lutyens – its walls measuring just 3.96 metres in length and 1.85 metres in height – the structure is grade II listed reflecting its architectural and historic importance. Lutyens used basic geometric shapes in his plans – a triangle (of walls), within a circle (plinth), within a square (underground reservoir, to which the building gives access). These shapes recur throughout the architect’s work, including in his designs for furniture.
The materials used here, grey-green Hurdwick stone from a nearby quarry, and slate, indicate Lutyens’s sensitivity to site and locality, a key feature of his work. But what inspired the design of this little building? Could there have been a local element to this too? By the time of its planning in 1914, Lutyens was familiar with Devon – he had worked on cottages in Milton Abbot from 1909 and on drawings for Castle Drogo from 1910.
Might Lutyens have known the medieval Three Hares motif that is found on carved oak roof bosses across Devon, including in the churches of Tavistock and Chagford which are not far distant from his 1909/1910 commissions? The Three Hares uses the same geometry – a triangle (of shared ears) within a circle (of hares) within a square (roof boss) – as can be seen in a drawing where the hares are overlaid on plans for The Pimple.
Perhaps this is all wishful thinking on my part, yet, whether Lutyens knew of the hares or not, his little building adorning the Down reflects local tradition in a most meticulous and marvellous manner and is a wonder to behold.
13 May 2020
A walk along the old London and South Western Railway in Tavistock, now a cycle route, leads to a magnificent viaduct built in 1889. A marvel of engineering skill and human endeavour, the viaduct affords views that are unrivalled. To the south it takes in the heart of the town – its churches, civic buildings, market, the river and, everywhere, its beautiful trees.
To the north, the view up Bannawell Street is perhaps not so immediately captivating, being a blend of old cottages with more modern buildings not always sympathetic to their setting, and a sinuous snake of parked cars. Yet it was this view last Thursday evening which proved more memorable, for it revealed the people of Tavistock coming together in a show of support for those who care for the most vulnerable among us.
At 8pm, as had happened in previous weeks, the people of Bannawell Street and others across the town came out of their houses to clap and cheer for the NHS, carers, and key workers. As the acclamation died away, suddenly from far along the street, another sound drifted up – someone was playing a brass instrument, haltingly but with immense feeling.
Referring to the multi-coloured ‘thank-you’ arches posted in windows and displayed on gates and hedges, came the notes of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, that iconic melody from The Wizard of Oz. As the notes of music from Bannawell Street died away, a great cheer rose up – a cheer for the musician, for our carers, and for community too. Not everyone approves of the Thursday evening clap for carers, but for most it offers the chance to express their gratitude and to reconnect with neighbours, albeit for one brief shining moment in an otherwise disconnected week. And it presents a heartwarming view if ever there was one.
9. Signs of the Times
Towns are teeming with signs indicating routes and places to visit, shops, services and events. Guiding us across our physical and social landscape, signs point to meeting places and openings. Yet in March new signs began to appear in every window on the high street, in cafés, pubs, outside churches and on the Town Hall. These signs tell a different story – a tale of separation and closing down.
Those on the Town Hall in Tavistock are government directives, instructing people to stay at home and save lives during the current pandemic – a potent message which has largely been heeded. Signs posted in shops tell of protecting staff and volunteers – they ask for support for businesses or charities. Some notices advocate being kind and staying strong, while others thank key workers in the community and the NHS.
Of all the signs in the windows of Tavistock, one, in the window of a local stationer, is striking in its simplicity and its message. Carrying an illustration by Quentin Blake from Roald Dahl’s children’s book, The BFG, and just five words – see you human beans soon! – somehow it says it all.
Dahl’s book relates the story of a little girl, Sophie, and a Big Friendly Giant who captures good dreams to deliver to children, while destroying nightmares. Like most of Dahl’s works, the book contains some nightmarish sequences of its own, but with a fair measure of support from Buckingham Palace, all is happily resolved in the end.
For some, Covid 19 has not just been a bad dream, but an absolute nightmare which won’t fade with the morning light. But for most of us, our children, and their children, things will get better, this frightening situation will be over, and we will meet again. Those five words in the shop window in Tavistock, and the four uttered in the Queen’s recent address from Windsor Castle, should give us all hope in these difficult times.
3 May 2020
Note: The Devon Heritage Centre is keen to amass an archive of COVID-19 related material. See an announcement about this on our forum here. – Ed.
For most of the month of April we enjoyed fine, dry, settled conditions, then the weather changed, bringing billowing clouds and wonderful light. Yesterday’s walk revealed a striking halo around the sun caused by ice crystals in high cirrus refracting and reflecting light.
The sun and its halo have long been appropriated across cultures and religions as a symbol of the heavenly mandate of rulers, and as a mark of the holiness of certain other men and women. Devon has thousands of haloes depicted in its churches but these sacred buildings are now closed for worship and to visitors. Two photographs, taken during my own church visits long before the virus emerged, reveal Devon’s haloes at their finest.
The first, an image of the Virgin Mary in stained and painted glass, the last remnant of a crucifixion scene at Broadwoodkelly church in mid-Devon, dates to 1523 and must rank as one of the most moving images of her anywhere. Mary’s expression, and her tears at the death of her son, make us weep with her. Her holiness is made manifest in the rays of light around her head and the pearls which attest to her purity. This work, by an unknown artist, is likely to have been commissioned as a mark of devotion by figures depicted praying alongside.
The second, an image of Christ at the rebuilt abbey of Buckfast in south Devon, dates to 1965. The glass is in the dalle de verre technique pioneered in Britain by Dom Charles Norris, a monk at the abbey. The glass is chipped so that it refracts light and the pieces are set in a matrix of resin. Norris does not depict rays, instead using the colours of the spectrum to create Christ’s halo and its surrounds.
Both these works, created over four hundred years apart, reveal the skill and artistry that for so long have been a feature of the religious life of our county. Devon’s churches are filled with such wonders – hopefully it won’t be long before we see their light again.
Note: For more information on Norris’s work at Buckfast, please see Robert Proctor’s chapter in Beacham, P. (ed.), 2017, Buckfast Abbey, History, Art and Architecture, London & New York, Merrell, pp. 207–231.
30 April 2020
7. The Bridge
Vigo Bridge straddles the River Tavy like a great grey lizard. Standing on its arched back on warm evenings, bats can be seen swooping to feed on insects below. The view from the east on a spring morning is entrancing, with ducks slowly circling in the still waters before setting off to ride the rapids further downstream. The bridge, as its datestone attests, was built in 1773, and by local tradition was named after Francis Drake’s exploits at Vigo on the north west coast of Spain.
Bridges are brilliant – for thousands of years they have tested human ingenuity. Like everything else though, it is all too easy to take bridges for granted. They are there to make our lives easier, but we, perhaps, give little thought to their care and maintenance.
Yesterday morning I was below the house on the riverbank rooting around – there’s always something to find – when I became aware of visitors. Two men, suited and booted in protective gear and carrying ranging rods, came down the neighbour’s steps. On discovering that they were bridge inspectors, I asked if I could accompany them, at a suitable distance, for a few metres downstream. Steve and Clive acceded happily to my request, and so it was that I watched my first bridge inspection.
According to Devon County Council, there are over 3,500 bridges in Devon, of which 384 are listed or scheduled as ancient monuments, including Vigo Bridge (grade II). Those associated with public highways are inspected visually every two years, with more extensive inspections every six years.
Vigo Bridge, that great grey lizard, is more alive to me now. I will peruse its scaly skin with a new-found respect and know that its health is protected by men who, quietly and without fuss, tend its wounds and ensure its safety.
28 April 2020
6. B and B
Looking up at the architectural details of buildings is not always to be recommended when pavements are crowded, but with streets almost empty come new opportunities. An upward glance at many of the buildings in Tavistock reveals that the town is a-buzz. For here and there, on the market, the old grammar school, cottages, and the Town Hall, a B appears. Often accompanied by a date identifying the buildings as mid-nineteenth century, this B left its print when the Tavistock area was a veritable hive of industry. B, of course, refers to Francis Russell, 7th Duke of Bedford (1788 –1861), whose statue, erected through public subscription in 1864, still stands before Tavistock’s Guildhall, now undergoing major restoration works.
Prompted by the Bedford B, thoughts turned to another visitor to Devon in the nineteenth century whose emblem was a bee – Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 –1821). Bonaparte adopted the ancient symbol early in his rule, and had it embroidered on his coronation robes. But the Emperor flew too close to the sun, and after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, he surrendered to the captain of HMS Bellerophon. The ship came back to England, arriving off the coast of Brixham before sailing on to Plymouth when news of its famous prisoner emerged. For ten days the Sound buzzed with boats carrying those curious to see the defeated Emperor (see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-34342061) who was subsequently exiled to St Helena.
Bonaparte and Bedford left their mark in Devon in different ways. Bonaparte flitted in, caused huge excitement, and was soon gone. His was an indirect legacy – reports and paintings by others recording his stay, and a stone and bronze memorial erected on the sea front in Plymouth two hundred years after his visit, in 2015. The Duke’s legacy in Tavistock, as elsewhere in Devon, is much more substantial and enduring, for his busy workers laboured on its buildings over decades and his name is woven into the very fabric of the place.
26 April 2020
Tavistock has taken on the air of a Wild West town, with almost deserted streets and the sound of shop and inn signs swinging in the breeze. Its residents are secreted in their homes, only venturing out when necessary. The visible presence of the law ensures that we are unlikely to experience major social unrest – not for us the drama of a Gun Fight at the OK Corral (though a Duck Fight on the Tavistock Canal is still a distinct possibility).
Many of those shops in the town that remain open are struggling, especially the independent retailers, and one wonders how they will ever recover from this. Together with many shops deemed non-essential, which have closed their doors, they are offering a home delivery service, and while prices cannot always compare with the internet giants, it must be worth it if we can preserve their places in our high streets.
Tavistock is especially rich in independent stores: a brilliant bookseller and music shop, butchers, an award-winning cheesemonger, clothiers, a fine delicatessen, framers, fruit and veg shops, hardware, lighting, and stationers, among others. Many of these shops have had a presence in our streets for years and there are few requirements that cannot be sourced. A wonderful family-run independent toy shop has been here for decades. From a narrow front, it unfolds as a dark and tantalising tunnel of treats.
In its shops, as in so many other aspects, Tavistock is a veritable box of delights. If the town, like other Devon communities, is to spring back into action when this immediate crisis is over, and we are not to be left with a Western ghost town, albeit one without tumbleweed and coyotes, then ordering and buying locally where we can now is, surely, the way forward.
21 April 2020
Along the path to the quarry [see walk no. 3] stands a magnificent old ash tree upon which is perched a barn owl box. The field beyond is rough pasture, just the sort of safe hunting ground these beautiful birds need, and a search among the grasses revealed a regurgitated pellet of indigestible parts which was carefully wrapped up to bring home for dissection.
The last time I witnessed this was in broadcaster Tony Beard’s house in Widecombe around fifteen years ago. I had gone there to be interviewed on the subject of medieval roof bosses for his weekly radio show. A fellow interviewee had come to check on an owl box installed nearby. Following my conversation with Tony, we all walked across fields to a barn, where it was clear that the owl box was still in use. Picking up a pellet we took it back to soak, enabling the fur and the bones to be separated and revealing all manner of fragments, including a shrew’s jawbone with tiny teeth in place.
Owls have long been part of our nature and culture in Devon. Creatures of the night, in the medieval period they were not so much associated with wisdom, but rather with sin and stupidity – owls were birds with big heads but little sense. This idea was made manifest in carvings on two fifteenth-century oak roof bosses in Ugborough and South Tawton churches, wherein owls wear horned headdresses, a type of apparel more usually seen adorning the heads of vain and prideful women.
Hopefully we now appreciate these graceful avians more than we once did, although they are greatly threatened by our modern ways. But owls should benefit from the ‘Stay Home, Save Lives’ campaign too, for it reduces the man-made dangers that sorely afflict these lovely birds.
14 April 2020
3. The Quarry
Looking for new paths to wander within a short distance of home in Tavistock, a footpath identified on the OS map of Dartmoor seemed inviting, for it promised to lead to a disused quarry which the map indicated was now flooded. Climbing above the town on the Old Exeter Road, it does not take long to leave the houses behind. Just past an old barn, sensitively restored as a dwelling, the path shown on the map wends its way between fields. Celandines form a carpet of golden yellow, with primroses, violets, stitchwort, pink campion and bluebells jostling over banks among the soft greens of navelwort, moss and unfolding ferns. Nature as nature intended.
The path runs on through a field of horses. A man, chainsaw in hand, emerged from a wood. Striking up a conversation at a suitable distance, we asked if this was the way to the flooded quarry. It was, he replied sadly. The quarry, once a haven for wildlife, including peregrines, had, he said, been drained and is now a waste recycling centre where lorry loads of rubbish are brought for reprocessing, with the residue infilling the site.
As we descended through a hidden valley towards the quarry, the whispering of the Wallabrook and the soft sounds of songbirds were replaced by the harsh hammering of heavy machines. Traversing beneath the old railway viaduct and turning onto the road back to Tavistock, scrap vehicles slumped silently, slowly shedding their shells, although their demise was not met without some humour (see picture).
Meandering home, I thought of a beautiful summer’s day the year before last, when we visited species-rich Sourton Quarry, also disused and flooded, but now owned and managed sensitively by the Devon Wildlife Trust. Perhaps one day nature will reclaim Wilminstone Quarry too and the peregrines will return.
12 April 2020
2. The Weathervane
The Bedford Hotel in Tavistock, usually a lively venue for gatherings of visitors and local people, is closed. Its curtains drawn, it is still and silent in these days of social distancing. The only perceptible movement is a weathervane that sits above a turret over the Portrait Room. The vane knows no restriction but blows where it will, sometimes gently, at other times fiercely.
Weathervanes have a long tradition in Devon, as elsewhere. The earliest still in use in England, and probably from the medieval period with later repairs, is believed to be that in the form of a cock at Ottery St Mary church. Another vane, in the form of a wyvern, possibly sixteenth or seventeenth century in date, and now in the collections of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, is pock-marked, apparently by musket balls fired in target practice during the Civil War (see rammcollections.org.uk/object/92-2010/).
The vane in Tavistock bears no great age. It was created in copper in 2001 by Greens Weathervanes, who at that time had a workshop at Tor Royal in Princetown. Based in design upon the White Rabbit, Herald to the Queen of Hearts, drawn by Sir John Tenniel for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the vane is a veritable work of art. Finely-crafted and beautiful, yet strong enough to weather any storm, the vane is a worthy modern addition to a historic Devon hostelry.
At this strange and deeply unsettling time, we can but hope for favourable winds which will turn our course and herald better days to come. Until then, like Alice, we can be guided by our curiosity to explore, albeit very locally, for there are many paths to follow and there is so much to learn.
10 April 2020
1. The River
My house, a Duke of Bedford cottage, built in Tavistock in 1857, has steps leading down to the River Tavy. Life along the water is ever changing. After heavy rain in the hills of Dartmoor, the river rises at an alarming rate – its power awesome. On a summer’s day, it meanders softly over granite pebbles and slate stones, but always provides a rich habitat for all manner of birds and insects. Sometimes it is easy to take its flow for granted and its gentle whispering becomes almost unnoticeable.
But now, in these extraordinary days, when we are confined as never before, the river, for me, has taken on a new meaning. Last week, it brought me a treasure, not immediately apparent. Wandering among its stones, and gazing into its depths, an unusual form emerged – an unnatural form, clearly worked by the hand of man. Encrusted and rusted, up it came for further study. After much endeavour with a wire brush, wire wool and eventually a needle, its purpose and detail emerged – it was once a fine decorative boot scraper, perhaps made around the time my house was built. The scraper is narrow so would not suit its original use today, but it will sit happily alongside a small pair of clogs, presented to my grandmother in the 1920s, and whose scale it perfectly matches.
These are difficult days for us all, but maybe what will come of them when the present crisis is over, is a renewed appreciation of our place, of family and friends and our own histories, and of the joy of finding treasure where least expected.
5 April 2020
All text and photos by Sue Andrew. Click on the photos to see larger versions.