Feb 20 2021

A Pause for Thought

It’s Groundhog Day: time stands still, time freezes, all is repetition, repetition. Is it just me or do the days seem to creep by as weeks fly past? What day is it today? Everything seems the same and yet completely different. Routine takes over my life. But how lucky am I to have space all around me. Millie dog and I walk to the top fields every day to feed the sheep. We climb the hills and look out over Dartmoor in the distance and the river below. We tend the donkeys and clean the stables. We feed our lockdown chickens, Avian Flu not Covid !  Sometimes there’s a little treat, friends walk by and we manage a quick chat, a bark, over the fence. Isolation, aloneness, no friends for a cuppa, a glass of wine or supper in the kitchen.

We wait, we hope, we try to be patient. Vaccinations are going well we’re told, then contradictions flood the media. We hang onto hope. That is all we can do. How will it all pan out? Only time will tell. We wait, we obey the rules, we isolate, we go on hoping.

And then the power cut: we lose everything. No WiFi, no internet, no phone, no contact with the outside world. No electricity, no heat, no light, no cooker, no hot water, no washing machine, none of the things we rely on and take so for granted day by day. I get back from the yard soaking wet, I can’t have a shower or wash my muddy clothes. I can’t prepare supper; I can’t send an email or call a friend. The house is cold and dark. All I can do is light the fire and wait.

A flurry of trucks arrive. Men in hard hats and red jackets jump out and scale the electricity pylons in the woods beyond our gate. Like trapeze artists, they swing from pole to pole high above the ground for hours until finally power is restored. They vanish as quickly as they appear.

It sets me thinking. How did our predecessors live their lives in days gone by in this tall, strange, narrow, remote, funny old house; a four-bedroom folly built by the Rector of Dittisham for his daughter in 1767? The deeds are lost so we know very little of its history but we do know that over the last two hundred and forty years it has belonged to churchman or farmers. The Reverend Francis Lyte lived here for a year or so before crossing the river to become the “Poet and Priest of Brixham”. I wonder if maybe he might even have written “Abide with Me” in this house! We’ll never know of course! All we do know is that the family from whom we bought it all those years ago had farmed here since 1922.

I heard on the radio the other day that someone somewhere has unearthed old records which show we are experiencing the highest rainfall since 1767, the year our house was built. As I watch our 21st century builders equipped with all the latest gear struggle to climb the scaffolding in howling winds and rain to mend our leaking roof and replace our rotten windows, I try to image the scene in the 18th century as men dug into the muddy Devon hillside in torrential rain toiling to build this Rector’s strange folly

Some folly indeed, down a muddy track almost a mile from a steep riverside village, it stands three storeys high at the head of a creek with ten windows, all at the front, looking east towards the River Dart. There were no other windows either on sides or back until the modern kitchen extension of 1820 was built. This was to conform to the Window Tax introduced in 1696 by William the Third to compensate for revenue lost through the clipping of coins. More than ten windows incurred a higher tax.

A well outside the basement kitchen was the only source of water and the privy was a long, cold walk from the backdoor.

A ford ran at the gate we are told and there was certainly no little shop in the village which was only to be reached on foot or by horse and cart. And Dartmouth was only accessible by water.  One token to modernity, if you can call it that, in this quirky house, were the coal grates. Very unusual for the time, they replaced the usual wood burning hearth. Coal barges unloaded their cargo at the head of the creek onto horse drawn carts just outside our gate, so coal was available to warm the two main rooms; so very modern in the eighteenth centuary. But I keep imagining just how hard and bleak life must have been

Dartmouth is still our nearest little town. A town with a an extraordinary history, it has managed to re-invent itself ina quite remarkable way, time and againacross the centuries. It sits at the mouth of the Dart, a river which rises five hundred and fifty metres above sea level on the acidic peat bogs high up on Dartmoor. Dartmouth perches at its mouth, a town with a history of ships and shipping and a story dominated by the sea. But it was not until 1823 that the town became accessible by land for wheeled vehicles, almost sixty years after our house was built. Up until that time only pack horses or ponies could manage the steep descent; the river was the highway to the town.

It was February 1982 when we arrived and our lives changed forever. We simply fell in love with this poor old battered farmhouse. On the day of completion we were early. We sat patiently on the grass pondering our future. In time an old tractor trundled up and our neighbouring farmer, handed over a key; I gazed at it in wonder, just one enormous, rusty, unused old key; the key to our new life.

Our arrival was, of course, eventful. First the removal lorry broke down on the way. And then, as I had predicted in several high decibel phone calls to the removal company, it was far too big to get down the narrow lane to the house. Everything had to be decanted unceremoniously into a small hired van in the middle of the village right outside the shop; a good place for everyone to get a look at the belongings and the people who had bought “Dorothy’s House”.

Death watch beetle, wet rot, dry rot and flourishing fungi meant we had no floor boards on which to arrange anything. All our belongings, everything but the most basic necessities, had to be stacked high in the farm dairy. They would remain there for the next nine months. We began to forget about them; things we had deemed so essential simply weren’t missed. As the months passed I soon learnt that black mould is permanent and green mould can be brushed off…..

The dairy, now a cosy study, was part of a cold north facing addition circa 1820. The deep slate shelves all around the room still remain. Each shelf has a gully which held a trickle of cold water that acted as the cooling system, keeping hams and cheese, milk and cream fresh; a nineteenth century “refrigerator”.

For months we all camped downstairs, sleeping on plastic covered mattresses. The children were ecstatic. They climbed around the house balancing precariously on the joists, exploring every corner and bagging a future bedroom each. They spent hours happily picking wet wallpaper off damp walls, they counted dead flies and compiled a scrap book of the amazing interior decoration. They recorded all details of yellow and orange staircase, pea green paneling in the little Georgian sitting room and the beautiful iron fireplace steeped in cream paint. They explored the overgrown garden and made camps in the orchard. They tramped across fields arriving home wet and muddy with happy exhausted dogs.

There was no hot water in the bathroom and the lavatory, perched above the kitchen extension of 1820, replaced the mounting block at the original backdoor which had enabled incumbent rector or farmer to lower himself onto his horse from on high! It was inclined to give those brave enough to use it, a fairly substantial cold shower when flushed. Fortunately there was another one upstairs which was less eccentric, but journeying to it meant balancing once more on those ceiling joists.

I loved the solid fuel Rayburn. It stood cream and battered in the corner of the old kitchen. It hadn’t been used for years but it was the only source of heat we had. All the chimneys were blocked up either deliberately or by years of nesting birds. So to cook our food, give us a little hot water and keep us warm, I set about bringing it back to life. I called the chimney sweep, scrubbed the old thing, bought some “nuts” to feed it and fired it up. If the wind was in the right direction it was a marvel. But, as the hills rise high behind the house, on grey days the smoke was returned unceremoniously down the chimney. I began to understand why it had been out of action for so long! It began to rule our mealtimes. Would it roar into life and cook lunch or would thick cloud, hanging heavy in the sky, make us wait till supper time for the fire to draw.

The old kitchen and pantry had no sink or drainage of any kind but a small modern breeze block scullery, housed a metal sink whose waste pipe ended in mid-air. Water flowed first onto the floor then trickled optimistically towards a little drain hole: sometimes it disappeared, sometimes it didn’t. It was a long, wet walk from cooker to sink with a saucepan. Cooking was a challenge.

In November the builders arrived and the restoration process began. The pantry vanished together with the waterfall lavatory. Suddenly a large space appeared which would in time become the new kitchen. Ceilings fell down, new ones replaced them. Heating and plumbing appeared; water, no water, heating, no heating.  And, of course, things got so much worse before they got better.

Christmas approached and after much discussion we decided to make a valiant effort and celebrate in the shell which was to be our home. We hung a curtain across the bathroom door for Granny who whistled to indicate her occupancy; new floor boards in place made her journey slightly less hazardous. 

Rubble was barrowed out of the kitchen; the floor was leveled. A shiny new sink appeared then taps, hot water. What more did I need! A Christmas tree acted as camouflage and a few decorations lit up the occasion.

The dear old Rayburn came up trumps and cooked a turkey to perfection. Chairs and table were pulled out of storage and dusted down. Table laid, crackers in place and friends and family sat down together for the traditional festive feast in somewhat unconventional surroundings.  My father gave me a long hard look and asked if I thought we had been altogether wise. I just smiled.

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