Travel: A writer's Britain: Spirit of the Moors: From the silent churchyards of Milton Abbot to the swirling fog of Dartmoor's tors, the eerie magic of west Devon captivates novelist Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald
Sunday 20 February 1994 01:02

IT CAN'T be a favourite place unless you have been happy there. The place I want to describe is the village of Milton Abbot - but at this point there's an interruption. Everyone says they know it well, but it turns out they mean Milton Abbas, in Dorset. Milton Abbot, in west Devon, six miles north-west of Tavistock and just next to Cornwall, is a village that guidebooks neglect. It is a village built on a slope - the south side draws its water from the mains, the north side gets it from springs - and sheltering round a noble 15th-century church, St Constantine's.

This church is built of the beautiful local Hurdwick stone, green in colour - 'underwater green', it has been called. At the end of the churchyard there is a steep drop, with a flight of stone steps, down to the Green, the centre of all things for Milton Abbot's not very many young children. This is an echoing green, as in Blake's vision, and when it darkens the last game of three-a-side football trails into silence.

In fact, Milton Abbot is never a noisy place, though I should perhaps make an exception of the rooks, whose voices are much louder than the children's. The village has been lucky enough to keep all its English elms, and the rookery with them. The lane at the bottom crosses a stream which until a year ago used to run over it, and for a hundred yards or so after that, from spring until autumn, there is a display of wild flowers, not rare, but spectacular even for Devon: primroses, violets, stitchwort, red campion. To the west, beyond the elms, the view opens towards the Cornish moors, scattered with rocks.

I go there to visit my daughter, my son-in-law and their three young children. They live in a cottage with honeysuckle at one side of the front door and a rose at the other (although this is not really good soil for roses). The kitchen, built out at the back, looks out over green pastures. The new tiles on the kitchen roof have been known to leak, the old ones are stalwart. As the children get taller, the cottage gets smaller, and it's agreed, and has been agreed for some time, that the family is on the verge of moving. Meanwhile, they are not only prepared to sleep on the floor when visitors arrive, but give the impression that they prefer it.

The garden, by a legal compromise made too long ago to be disentangled, is 150 yards away from the cottage. It is large enough to accommodate a precarious shed and an apple tree - glorious apples which foam more meltingly than any Bramley when they are cooked (though 1993 was not a good year). What kind they are I don't know, perhaps Grenadiers. There are hundreds of anonymous kinds of apple planted, mostly in Victorian days, in the numberless orchards of Devon.

It doesn't take long to walk around Milton Abbot - much longer, though, if you're interested, as I am, in Edwardian architecture. To the north side of the Green (not our side) it has the distinction of being largely designed by Lutyens. Seven centuries ago, the village and its surrounding cow-pastures belonged to the Abbey of Tavistock. It was transferred by Henry VIII, with the rest of the monks' property, to the Earls and Dukes of Bedford. In 1908-09 - by which time the village had still not changed hands - the then Duke of Bedford commissioned Lutyens to lay out new estate cottages. At this period, nearly everyone in Milton

Abbot except the baker and the undertaker worked at Endsleigh, another of the Bedford properties. They walked the two miles to work every morning across the fields.

Lutyens, at that date, had not reached his grand manner. He was still thought of as a sound Arts and Crafts man who a couple of years earlier had done a row of model thatched cottages for labourers at Ashby St Ledgers, near Daventry. The early 20th century was in fact the end of 200 years of English model-

village building, undertaken, as John Betjeman put it, 'with the best intentions, and a conscious effort to provide better living conditions'. Meanwhile, Lutyens had established for himself a Ruskinian moral truth in architecture which implied natural, local materials and a responsibility to the site itself. Elsewhere in Devon this might have meant cob and thatch, but here the material to hand was the familiar green Hurdwick stone, with slate roofing. In the early 1900s Devon produced plenty of graded slates (they have to be imported now from Wales) and, since Tavistock had three times in its history burnt to the ground, a number of the farmers had already begun to prefer slate.

If you look round the village you will see at once how Lutyens's favourite hipped roofs are exactly suited to the plunging sweep of the Green, while the square chimney stacks - reasonably low for an Arts and Crafts man - stand out against the open sky like a modest echo of the church tower itself. The cottages are not all on the same plan. They varied not only with the levels of the ground, but the status of the tenants. But estate workers could count on two to four bedrooms, parlour, kitchen, scullery, fuel store, covered access to the lavatories and a good bit of garden. 'I hate squalid houses and mean gardens,' Lutyens wrote to his wife in 1909, and here he has certainly solved his problems without meanness.

Milton Abbot, however, is a Devon village without cream teas, without a pottery, and without bed-and-breakfast. There is one pub, the Edgcumbe Arms (Lutyens wanted to add an inn in keeping with his cottages, but the duke turned down the idea). Here they welcome visitors, but can't put them up. They may well suggest that you try Tavistock.

To Milton Abbot, Tavistock is the metropolis. Plymouth and Exeter are for major expeditions, but Tavistock is, for example, where the schools are. Probably the boys and girls at St Peter's Primary School never notice, while they're there, that every time they go in and out they can see Dartmoor stretching away to the horizon under a changing sky. But I would think that they will remember it for life.

Tavistock lies on the banks of the river Tavy, more on the north bank than the south. The valley is so steep that some of the houses have an iron staircase to connect them with their gardens. In the 1840s, the then Duke of Bedford had the town remodelled into open, airy, sturdy, mid-Victorian gothic - an impressive, greenish, gothic Guildhall; a fine, greenish, gothic Bedford Hotel; a covered market. (Hurdwick stone, incidentally, weathers well, but if restoration is necessary the citizens watch narrowly to see that the builders are working faithfully and not, for instance, using green-tinted cement.)

The duke was building over the site of the old abbey, but bits of it were left as picturesque ruins, as they still are. The porch of the misericord is at the back of the Bedford Hotel; the main gateway of the abbey - considerably patched up - is in Guildhall Square; part of the ancient walls still run along the banks of the river. The Tavy, which means so much to the town, was brimming and foaming over its weir when I last saw it in December.

Charles I is supposed to have said that what-ever else was uncertain in this world, it was sure to be raining in Tavistock. In this he was ungrateful to his loyal supporters in the West Country. Tavistock has an average 75in, but Princetown, 1,400ft up on the moors, has over 100in, with wind and fog.

Even so, there are people who make their way there precisely in the hope of fog. I am thinking of the Poor Folk Upon the Moors, a society based in the south-west and entirely devoted to studying the stories of Sherlock Holmes. They were up there last Christmas, in The Hound of the Baskervilles country, wearing deerstalkers and gaiters, to offer dinner to the prison governor. They saw nothing but beauty in what poor Watson called in his diary 'the dreary curves of the moor, with thin silver veins upon the sides of the hills, and the distant boulders gleaming where the light strikes upon their wet sides'. But then, Watson had an altogether unfortunate experience of Devon.

To return to welcoming Tavistock - the whole town seems to stand under the protection of its two bronze statues, of the Duke and of Francis Drake, its favourite son. Drake, with his compasses, is on the Plymouth road - the statue on Plymouth Hoe is a replica. (For some reason both statues have recently been given a coating of what looks like chocolate, but it seems that this will weather down.)

Behind the main square, in a building paved with granite setts from Pew Tor, the Pannier Market takes place on Fridays and sometimes on other days. Permission to hold it was granted in 1105, and I suppose it was a great place then as now for cheese, gingerbread, bacon and dress lengths. These days it deals not only in craftwork and handmade jewellery but a profusion of little glass and china and silver- plated or even silver objects which make you feel, in the teeth of experience, that today you are going to pick up a bargain. Occasionally you do. But the Pannier Market's speciality is half-price must-haves - Ghostbusters, Visionaries (remember them?), Thundercats, Subbuteo, Gladiators - secondhand, but in good condition, the antique toys of the future. Tavistock, then, is the place where we make good the distressing losses and gaps in my grandchildren's collections.

Where else do we take them, bearing in mind that they are too young as yet for the superb walks and trails across the moors? The National Park Authority provides all the information needed to cross Dartmoor's granite back, but there are a few much shorter and much more modest expeditions. Wellingtons, however, and a complete change of pretty well everything will probably be needed, as there is almost always water to get wet in.

Endsleigh, the estate where the population of Milton Abbot used to work, is about two miles out of the village. The elaborate 'cottage' - in fact a large villa - was an indulgence of Georgina, wife of the (sixth) Duke of Bedford. Sir Jeffry Wyatville designed it, with ornamental gables and its own Swiss Cottage, in 1810, while Humphry Repton was given a free hand with the gardens. These two had a site in a thousand on a steep hillside overlooking the Tamar, which divides Devon from Cornwall. Repton, who aimed at creating an earthly paradise, combined nature and art, intertwining real branches and trunks with branches of stone. Endsleigh is now a fishing hotel. But when, in 1955, the Bedford family had to sell their paradise, the Endsleigh Trust ensured that the grounds should be open to the public on summer Sundays. Once a year, too, the right of way is open beside the river bank. You walk from beautiful Greystone Bridge as far as Endsleigh. You can stop for a picnic, or go on to Horsebridge. If the children want to see the Dartmoor ponies close up, a good place is Pennycomequick, just outside Tavistock on the Princetown road, where you can park off the road on the edge of the moor.

If the sight of the tors gives them an uncontrollable desire to run downhill, we go to Double Waters. Take the Plymouth road out of Tavistock and, opposite the cemetery, turn down an unpromising lane which looks as though it leads to an industrial estate. It ends at a cattle grid, and beyond that is open moor where everyone can run straight down the valley where the Walkham and the Tavy meet. Persuading them to walk up the hill again is, of course, a different matter.

The place to go if the children want to climb is Pew Tor. Drive out of Tavistock on the Princetown road as far as Moortown and you will see it on the other side of a stream. Anyone can go up it without difficulty and stand at the top in the great washes of air, looking for miles across the two counties. Apart from the climb, there is a chance of finding among the boulders, half-hidden in cotton-grass and heather, one of the curious objects that I stumbled across on a recent visit. They are tin canisters, each with its own seal; what they are for, who puts them there and moves them secretly around West Dartmoor is a mystery.

A ritual is, however, growing up around them: if you have been careful to bring an ink-pad and notebook, you can take an impression of the seal and record the date and place, then put the canister back in its hiding-place.

Sometimes we take the Tavistock-to- Okehampton road and turn left at Mary Tavy. Between Peter Tavy and Mary Tavy - both once copper-mining villages, now silent - there is a track leading down through oak trees to a bridge across the Tavy.

You can sit here by the golden-brown water, watching it divide round the granite rocks in its bed, or you can paddle or go a little way across on the stepping-stones. There is no particular need to cross the bridge. This must be one of Devon's most undemanding expeditions, but it's the one I remember most clearly of all, between summer and summer.-


WALKS AND PLACES TO VISIT: Dartmoor National Park is 365 square miles of wilderness and home to ponies, buzzards, deer, otters and other wild animals. Footpaths, cycle routes and bridle paths lead from the rugged moorland, dotted with tors (peaks) and hilltop churches, as at Brentor, to valleys sheltering cosy villages such as Drewsteignton in the Teign valley.

Tavistock grew around its great abbey, which was built 1,000 years ago on the western edge of Dartmoor. Sir Francis Drake was born in Tavistock and made his home at Buckland Abbey, a 13th-century monastery, a few miles away. You can wander around the abbey, with its huge open hearths, Tudor great hall, kitchen and garden and see the exhibition of the Armada and Drake memorabilia. Open from 2-5pm Saturday and Sunday.

Lydford Gorge is one and a half miles of wooded ravine cut by the River Lyd, with views of the 90ft White Lady Waterfall and Devil's Cauldron whirlpool.

Lydford Castle is a ruined Norman stronghold set high on a mound overlooking the village. Location: between Tavistock and Okehampton, west off the A386 opposite Dartmoor Inn.

HOTELS AND RESTAURANTS: *Horn of Plenty, Gulworthy, nr Tavistock, Devon, tel: 0822 832528. Superb food, wines, English cheeses and desserts. Comfortable rooms looking over Tamar valley. Double, pounds 72.

*Collaven Manor, Sourton, nr Okehampton, Devon, tel: 0837 86522. A 15th-century, creeper-clad house with beams and fires. Restaurant - good food; set dinner pounds 21. Double, pounds 79.

PUBS AND INNS: *Royal, Horsebridge, nr Tavistock, Devon, tel: 0822 87214 Delicious home cooking and home-brewed ales.

*Castle Inn, Okehampton, Lydford, Devon, tel: 0822 82242. Bar, good food and rooms in this 12th-century pub. Double, pounds 50.

*Church House Inn, Holne, nr Ashburton, Devon, tel: 0364 3208. Wholesome country cooking and cosy rooms. Double, pounds 45.

*Listed in Egon Ronay Guides.

FURTHER INFORMATION: West Country Tourist Board, 60 St Davids Hill, Exeter, Devon EX4 4SY, tel: 0392 76351. Isobel Hunt

(Photograph omitted)

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