Jan 26 2008

River Walk

Black storm clouds, driving rain and the gargantuan gales of the last two weeks have suddenly given way to a blue streaked, watery white sky, punctuated with little bursts of sun light. Not only do I feel my spirits rise with renewed belief that spring will indeed return again, but I have proof of it every time I walk to the farmyard.

Morning and evening I find more evidence at last; we will not, after all, be in darkness for ever. Suddenly snowdrops cascade once more down the orchard slopes, a few primroses catch the light and crocuses, planted so long ago by our son, send up defiant little yellow daggers towards the sun. Hellebores nod nonchalantly and the first shaggy, wild double daffodil has burst into life. Today I spotted a white camellia.

Birds are singing again. Siskin and sparrow bustle through the hedgerows bossed around by robins, fiercely guarding their territory. A skylark calls across the top field and the occasional hobby swoops over the gate down the lane. Buzzards wheel high over head calling as they swirl on the thermals. Wood pigeon land clumsily on the bird table frightening the blue tits. A large cock pheasant strides by regularly, to clean up under the table. January is marching us towards spring!

The old hens, newly feathered, are laying again and bantam chicks grow into sturdy little birds, too many cockerels as usual, of course. The few ewes in lamb this year, we were caught without a ram in the Foot and Mouth movement ban, grow fatter by the day. They no longer rush in from the storms forming an orderly supper queue by three thirty but potter along as dusk falls. Donkeys eeyore joyously, thrilled to be out of their big barn after weeks of confinement, they find a warm spot to sunbath ; dear, funny desert animals, they do not appreciate the wet but love the great outdoors.

I too have been feeling all cooped up inside during the storms. So desperate was I to be outside despite the weather that I set out with dogs in the rain along the river bank on a rising tide. As we slid around on shale and seaweed wondering if we’d be cut off on the rocks before we reached the village I was awe struck at the wild beauty of the river yet again.

Water lapped over our feet, Meg hates paddling, fat old sheep dog, I wondered how I’d carry her home. Wind and rain lashed my face, boats rocked on their moorings, birds took cover squawking across the creek. The water, whisked into froth by the wind and driven in by the tide, broke in tiny waves on the shore. Huge storm clouds tumbled over each other menacingly above my head putting an anxious spring in my step. Discretion being the better part of valour, we turned on our heels for home.

Next day I returned but found a different world. The tide was out, the air quite still apart form the sound of the birds. Flocks of noisy gulls stood out on shiny river bed. I spotted oystercatchers, curlew, a little egret, ducks of all sizes, pintails, mallards, shell duck. No roaring tide or howling wind; just the sweet sound of their calls as they fed on the slippery mud.

Rotting hulks poked their slimy spines above the water, reminder of days when the coal boats came up the creek. On the shore I could just make out the remains of the little depot where the coal was unloaded before being delivered by horse and cart. I read in the library that that is why our house has coal grates instead of log fires. We were the first stop on the delivery round for this Georgian mod con.

As we round the end of the creek I can see right up the river to Dartmoor; a huge sweep of water then dark moor land hanging in the distance. The Dart rises five hundred and fifty metres above sea level on the acidic peat bogs high up on the moor. It tumbles down fed by numerous little rivulets and streams until it becomes a respectable river flowing through grassland and heath, farmland and pasture to Totnes.

Here it becomes an estuary, flooding a ria valley formed in the last Ice Age by rising sea levels and sinking land. It becomes tidal, freshwater mixing with salt from the sea. Oak trees dominate the shore. Dart is a Celtic word for “many oaks”; some trees are thought to be over three hundred years old. I even read of a cave at Buckfastleigh formed before the Ice Age where remains of hippopotamus, straight tusked elephant, bison and lion have been found! I wonder. Now it is the home of horseshoe bats and rare blind shrimp.

The river is a spawning ground for Atlantic salmon, a resting place for migratory trout and a “nursery” for sea bass. Strict fishing restriction, often sadly broken, go somewhere to try to ensure their survival. Grey mullet are plentiful and flat fish and flounders are found near the mouth. Dolphins and porpoises occasionally swim into the lower estuary and grey seals have been seen as far up river as Totnes trapping fish against the weir. Otter numbers are increasing, hares too, I’m told, though I have never been lucky enough to see either. Water voles, on the other hand, have almost disappeared largely at the mercy of mink but dormice somehow survive in fields and woodland along the shore.

Squelching through the river mud, dogs and I reach the oyster beds; rows and rows of cushion shaped crates lining the bank, visible only at low tide. Under my feet I try not to step on those who are free from the restaurant destiny of their crated kin.

Oysters, mussels, cockles, winkles and clams have been gathered from the river’s shoreline for hundreds of years. Then suddenly along came tri-butyl anti-fouling and sewage pollution and the shell fish on the river were destroyed. Then in 1999 the river was designated by government to have “shellfish potential.” By 2003 the “Clean Sweep”programme was completed and shellfish is once again safe and thriving.

We trudge on over soft, springy swathes of oak leaves, seaweed, mud, lichen covered rocks, our boots and paws sliding this way and that. “Danger. Private. Keep Out. No right of way”shouts a new sign on a locked gate. Times are changing.

Rounding the next little headland the village comes into sight, cottages singing in their Tobermory colours, those on the waterfront mostly holiday homes now. But despite this, the village boasts a thriving permanent population which, thankfully, has grown in the last few years; two pubs, a village shop, village hall, magnificent church and, of course the river. It drifts serenely on by as it always has, on its way to Dartmouth and the sea, flowing through hundreds and thousands of years of history.

Dogs and I turn inland up the hill and make our way home, pace slowed, along lanes away from the waters edge, tired and glowing, longing for supper.

I find it difficult to imagine anything but a fishy supper after our watery walk. Maybe we’ll have a traditional Fish Pie made with a mixture of wild salmon, white fish, smoked haddock and hard boiled eggs in parsley sauce, topped with creamy mashed potato and grated cheese. The important thing is to buy whatever fish is available on the day and that is dictated by the weather at sea; fresh and local are my rules.

This is my favourite quick pie, a Fish Gratin really, which often gets me by when I’m short of time.

Skin the fish and carefully take out the bones using tweezers if necessary. Put the skin and bones in a small pan with about 300ml of milk, a bay leaf, parsley stalks, a slice of onion, salt and pepper and infuse by heating gently. Peel and dice a couple of potatoes and slice half a bulb of fennel. Blanche them quickly till just tender, drain and set aside while you dice the fish. Heat a little butter and oil in a large frying pan or wok and quickly turn the fish around till nearly cooked being careful not to break it up. Pile fish, potato and fennel into a well buttered pie dish. Strain the infused milk and use it to make a creamy béchamel sauce; add cheese if you like. Pour the sauce over the fish and top with a mixture of bread, parsley, garlic, lemon rind and butter blitzed together until a slightly sticky crumb consistency. Bake for ten minutes in a hot oven till the topping is crisp. Serve with a crunchy, well dressed green salad.

Next day fishy leftovers can be quickly transformed into delicious fishcakes. With the addition of mashed potato and a dash of anchovy essence, the mixture can be shaped into cakes, dusted with seasoned flour and fried in a light olive oil.

Dart salmon is a luxury of summer not to be missed and anticipated with pleasure. And line caught sea bass baked with fennel and Pernod is, dare I say it, even better! But that is many months away. As spring creeps nearer now is the time to prepare for the long days and short nights of lambing.

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