Devon, November, 2008
Joan loves throwing parties. Handing us a pair of garden shears and a large black plastic bin bag, we are sent off to gather sprays of ivy and holly for the holiday table. "Big, glossy leaves like these mind you!' she tells our retreating backs as she holds a shiny rhodendron branch over her head. It's not raining-yet. There's a back path, a bit overgrown but navigable that leads behind Warfleet inlet up to Gallant's Bower and the circular walk via Little Dartmouth and back by the sea leg of the South West Coastal path to Dartmouth. Feeling uneasy about "borrowing" bits of greenery from the National Trust woods we decide to get the sneaky work done first and then enjoy the walk.
I get stuck (literally) in the undergrowth and thick leaves of yesteryear, trying to go more deeply into the steep hillside forest to snare ropes of green. The wood is ivy thick and I imagine that the trees we are gently and only very partly freeing from their tendrils, are taking a gratefully deep breath. Tom snips the twined bouquets from theeir higher branches. Pretty soon we have what Tom considers to be more than enough greenery. He throws the bag over his shoulder Claus-like and we walk up the rest of the path, through the ancient fort, past the bluebell wood (it's not May so no need to linger) to the view just below the Coast Guard cottages which encompasses all of the harbor, the River Dart exiting to the sea and the opposite shore where the coastal path wanders on, requiring the Lower Ferry to get there from here.
Reaching the muddy farm lane, stirred up by huge tractor tires ,and lined by tall hedges which will be full of birds and flowers and wild garlic when it is not November, we reach the gate of Little Dartmouth. There are changes going on here--an old barn gone, two new ones erected and the planning permission and scope charts posted for us to comment on, so we do-- reassured that the meticulously layered stone barn remains, apparently useful only as an office as it is no longer large enough to house that huge tractor and the other mid- western lookalike farm machinery. This place used to have a spitting llama in the near field with the lambs and a donkey, but maybe its absence is also a sign of the times. The near field is, according to plan, now a barn.
Little Dartmouth is National Trust land and as we let ourselves through the gate into the home fields with the home cows and the enormous round bales of home hay, we feel particularly conspicuous wearing a big plastic bag on our backs (we keep trading off). A modestly popular spot for weekend walkers, we're getting some pretty odd looks from a couple with matching jackets and the young woman who works at the pub we were at last night. Her dog races over to give us the kind of serious sniff that accuses us of a poacher's haul-- at least three rabbits and a brace of pheasant. Hiking it higher in an attempt to look casual, the bag splits a little and a holly arm boings out in a last desperate attempt to scream a botanical cry --murderers, kidnappers, help. I think for a moment that it would be nicer to wear this bag over my head than on my back, so I tell Tom it's his turn to carry it.
We're walking more purposefully now, with an eye to putting at least a field's distance between us and the rest of the world. Tom takes the loot for a detour to the cliff bushes thinking he looks like a casual walker and nods at me to get a move on. I try to but I have to ask those two young women who keep stopping to kneel what the little white things are they are collecting from the cow grass into small waist bags. They look at me in that special way people who know a lot about something have for people who know very little, and inform me of its Latin name which I assume, means mushroom. I collect some too, but forget they are in my pocket until we are back in Massachusetts where they look and smell more like gorgonzola crumble than a fungus delicacy.
Here's where the path splits. It goes up and back to the lane or down the kind of steep down where you have to hand hold small tree branches and negotiate mud in order to reach the sea. The South West Coastal Path goes this way, under the cliff and over the tide -filled gorge by footbridge and we go with it. Ordinarily we might go down to the sea rocks here but the flapping black bag does not make for surefootedness on slippery boulders. Once the trail curves back up and past the odd little cave with a bench tucked into it for windy picnics, we're on the home stretch.
Hungry and thirsty-- Dartmouth Castle and a cup of tea next stop. Our eery tramp through slippery oak leaved trail to the river's rocky promontory, leads to the Castle cafe--- which has just closed. It is raining. I am carrying the sack now and all I can think of is ditching it. We head down the lane, up the drive to the house, toss the bag in the door and jog into the village. The crab sandwich shop is also closed, but the sort of lonesome pub Tom likes because it has Old Speckled Hen on draught, lets us bring in warm Cornish pasties from next door which we eat by the gas fire, watching the rain and the wind blow over the harbor while the boy at the bar plays video games on the pub's computer.
When we get back it is nearly party time. Joan, pleased with our stash, has arranged the greenery stylishly in the center of the long white clothed table which is much admired by the guests who arrive and are handed a glass of fizz. Dinner is a huge success with much laughter, rich conversation and great food. Serendipitously, no one lights fire to the centerpiece like we sometimes do at home, and Joan promises to set it free when we're done.