Tavistock & West Devon Branch report: Feb to Jul 2016

Our winter season of talks continued in February when Alex Mettler treated us to an inspiring talk on the Bedford Hotel which has featured so prominently in Tavistock’s history, housing a number of remnants of the ancient Benedictine Abbey and the scene of many significant events over the past two hundred years. Built as an extension to the 18th century Abbey House, its architect was Jeffry Wyatt. The original staircase and ceiling plasterwork are still a feature of the present building. A stable block and later a ballroom, designed by John Foulston, was added. For some years owned by Trust House Forte, the hotel has now returned to private ownership under Philip Davies.

The Flanders Poppy is widely regarded as a symbol of First World War remembrance. However at our March meeting, Dr Ann Pulsford, invited members to consider the more humble bog moss, sphagnum, as perhaps a more fitting emblem of that time. Twenty million casualties rapidly exhausted the supply of dressings. Sphagnum moss proved to be a cheap alternative. By 1918 volunteers were collecting moss on Dartmoor on an almost industrial scale for cleaning and processing into dressings at local depots such as Princetown. One hundred sacks of dried moss and five hundred dressings were sent out weekly for hospital use in hampers made at the Blind Institution in Plymouth.

At the AGM in April, our Chairman reported on a successful year with encouraging signs of renewed growth. Later Dr Sue Andrew entertained members with a fascinating talk on Church Houses. These have existed in Britain, large numbers of them in Devon, for over 500 years, many in continuous use, although subject to numerous changes over the centuries. Constructed by skilled craftsmen using traditional techniques and local materials, they were built primarily as extensions of the church for secular activities. With the growth of Puritanism, church ales celebrations held to raise funds for the parish were seen as a source of drunkenness and suppressed. Some Church Houses were abandoned although many adapted and survived as almshouses, poorhouses or schools.

The venue for the first of our summer visits was the Theatre Royal, Plymouth, with a guided tour “Behind the Scenes”, a follow-up to an earlier tour of TR2, the Theatre Royal’s unique Production and Learning Centre. Our guide took us first to the “Lab”, an innovative space designed to empower and facilitate creative talent. We visited one of the dressing rooms, the orchestra pit and finally the wings, backstage areas and stage of the main Lyric theatre. The climax of the outing was a relaxing lunch generously provided by one of our members and her husband at their home.

In June, despite the inclemency of the weather, a number of members turned out to support a guided tour of the Butterfly Conservation Heath Fritillary Reserve in Lydford, led by Colin Sargent, a patient, knowledgeable and entertaining guide. This was a unique chance for us to see one of the country’s rarest small species of fritillary, threatened with extinction in the 1970’s but subsequently re-established at Lydford where the sheltered embankments on the disused GWR railway cutting have proved to be an ideal habitat. Rain and unseasonal cold prevailed until we arrived at the site, when for a brief spell the weather improved allowing us to observe a small number of these rare and fascinating creatures.

The last of the summer outings, a circular walk on Dartmoor, followed by a pub lunch at the Plume of Feathers, was led by Willem Montagne, a Dartmoor guide with many years of experience. This was an entertaining and challenging walk taking in all aspects of the landscape, ranging from the geomorphic and geological to archaeology and natural history and from the Bronze Age mysteries of the Merrivale stones to Swell Tor, Foggintor quarries and King Tor – a noteworthy end to the year’s activities.

Barbara Edwards

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