A Look Inside Plymtree: Victorian Modernity

I’m first told about a village called Plymtree whilst I’m on holiday in France.

My feet are dangling in the warm swimming pool whilst my friend tells me about this place. It’s a village in Devon that has remained untouched by the passing of time, he says, a charmingly quaint village that looks like time has frozen there for decades. Whilst the cars are certainly of a modern design, there have not been new builds there for years and even the more modern homes have been built in the style of cottages and have been weathered to blend seamlessly in with the rest of the place. For some reason I’m comforted by the thought of this idyllic village existing in a forgotten corner of Devon, even whilst I’m digesting my late-lunch and contemplating wandering back to the villa for an afternoon nap.

I spent a few weeks driving between various villas in southern France, and whilst I was certainly charmed by the villages that I saw whilst travelling through the country, I found myself yearning for the simplicity and homeliness of an English village. Even after weeks in the glorious sunshine of southern France, I found myself yearning for a slice of English countryside, despite knowing that that weather would probably be nowhere near as good there!

After soaking in the sun for nigh on three weeks, I packed my bags, got back in the car and headed back to England.

It might come as little surprise that the first destination upon my arrival back in merry old Blighty was Plymtree. I scoped the place out on a map first and noticed how the entire village was planned around triangular road system. The school, the church, the village hall, the recreational field, the local shop – all of these places were plotted on the road, easily accessible to every person who would need to use them.

Much to my surprise, and that of the rest of the country, I arrived in Devon to find a gauzy haze of sunshine mystifying the horizon. I wound down my window and opened up the sunroof to allow the fresh scent of singeing cut grass to percolate through the car, before parking up by the village hall. The squat building looked well looked after, if not well-used, but before I could inspect it closer the brief sound of cheering drew my attention away.

I wandered down the road to the source of the sound and came upon a sight that was certainly amongst the most typically rural that I’ve seen in a long time. The crack of leather upon willow, the quiet hubbub of men talking and the drifting smoke of hand-rolled cigarettes. A cricket game was in progress on the recreational ground. The ground was a large one, beautifully flat and green, you could tell that it had been well looked after. The game was well under way, the home side having already scored 150 runs with plenty of time left to score more. Spirits were high and the team were happy to introduce themselves, soon we were fast friends and I was invited to stay and watch the entire match.

You don’t find this kind of generosity of spirit in the city. It’s the reason why I travel to these wonderful corners of the world.

A Look Inside Combe Martin: Mining the Past

Walking into a pub in rural Devon is very different to walking into a pub in my village of Barton St. David.

Stroll into my local haunt, The Barton Inn, and it’s likely that no one will pay you the blind bit of notice.

In fact, you might be as well be invisible in the place, to the point where you could struggle ordering a drink for half an hour – so engaged are the locals in their conversations.

Although I was accompanied by born and bred local, Jack, my entrance into Ye Olde George and Dragon is still heralded by an almighty silence – it’s almost as if the 40 or so locals occupying well-worn seats have been diligently practising, waiting for my arrival. As soon as they spy Jack, behind me, the silence is broken by a roar of ‘JACK!’, quickly followed by the hurried questions of ‘Who’s the stranger?’ which is then followed by a return to usual conversation. I wouldn’t go as far to say that the locals at The George and Dragon were welcoming, but they were certainly friendly after I’d bought half the place a pint of the excellent ale, which landlord Tanya serves with a smile and a quip.

We’d planned on stopping in for one but somehow had got waylaid for a few more. My guide had initially wanted to take me along down the village’s High Street and down onto the beach, but as we left, leaning on each other for support, he had a kind of mischievous glint in his eye.

“Let’s take a little detour, it won’t take too long.”

I was a little too inebriated to bear any suspicions, so I let him lead the way. Soon we began to drop down, away from the main hubbub of the High Street until we’d risen up out of the valley and the village was long behind us. I’d enjoyed the walk up out of the hills and it wasn’t until we’d arrived at our destination that I was able to appreciate how far we’d come. Combe Martin sat pretty down in the valley, a long strip of low-buildings, running a straight course to the coast which glittered blue and aquamarine in the distance.

“Well what do you think?”

I said it was lovely, but was it really necessary to come so far?

“And miss one of Combe Martin’s greatest historical landmarks”

I turned around to take a look at what demanded this lofty accomplishment. Old disused buildings were huddled together, all centred around a deep pit. Various pieces of construction equipment lay about, making me wonder if we’d wandered onto a building site. I followed Jack cautiously past the rough-hewn stone shacks until we were at the edge of the pit, which sunk deep into the ground to a dark, incomprehensible depth.

“We had no idea this was here until a ten years or so ago. It’s a silver mine. My Dad says our forefathers would’ve worked down there for 12 hours at a time, just to scratch together a bit of silver for their bosses so they could get paid. I had no idea until these archaeologists came to town and started digging around. I was just a kid at the time, all excited because I thought there’d be some buried treasure to find somewhere.”

He looked wistful – a new look on my host and an expression that I didn’t think could come from a 21-year old.

“They used vacuum excavation to dig up most of it. We used to play on these fields but now they’re kind of off-limits, not that anyone really comes up here anymore. Once you dig so far, the only thing you can really do is close off the area and leave it alone. It’s not like there’s any silver left down there anyway.”

Jack looked a lot older than his years up by that silver mine, his jaw set and eyebrows furrowed in a deep expression of consternation. As we turned back from the abandoned mine, a spring began to return to his step as he told me about the next pub on our walk. Soon we were back in the midst of Combe Martin and a motley crew of locals were waving and smiling.

We waved and smiled in return, but I wondered for how long Jack would be contained by the comfort of his hometown and the familiar taste of the local ale.

A Look Inside Combe Martin: A Bustling Street

It doesn’t take much to persuade me to go on a road trip.

Credit: IlfracombeCarlton.co.uk

Throw in a spurious World record, a Wildlife park and a themed-pub – and I’ll be practically firing up the motor in preparation for the off.

Combe Martin is the kind of place where the term ‘village’ is applied very loosely. Over 4,000 people live in the centre and surrounding areas of this civil parish – hardly what you’d call a humble community. This is a storied settlement whose history can be traced as far back as the Iron Age, as such it’s streets are rife with local history, stories that have been passed down through  generations of families who have been more than happy to lay their roots down in this charming North Devon seaside ‘village’.

Jack Pullman meets me at the outer reaches of the village, at the top of it’s village street which, he tells me, is often erroneously thought to be ‘the longest village street in the world’:

“I think it’s actually one of the reasons people come here – they think that this place holds some kind of World Record, that it’s a legendary English village. I just call it home.”

Credit: VisitCombeMartin.com

Jack’s lived here all his life (he turns 22 in February) and is therefore forgiven to take the joys of this unique village for granted. He has ancestry based in Combe Martin going back nearly 300 years. In any other part of England this would be heralded as something special and the family would be considered close to royalty, however in Combe Martin things are a little different.

“We don’t really get that many new people come here that often. Of course, we get loads of tourists and that during the Summer, but as far as people actually moving in – not so much really!”

When Jack talks I have to concentrate very hard on the words that he’s saying. His accent is a rare one in the UK, a true Devonshire dialect. The closest cultural reference that I could give would be Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. He’s not quite full-bore pirate yet, but he might just get there if he stays in Combe Martin long enough.

As we start strolling down the very long village street we pass ambling shoppers, old women and working men with their dogs, all of them smile and wave to Jack as if he’s an old friend. Some of them even shake my hand enthusiastically with rough-worn hands, wafting unfamiliar scents of tweed and waxed cloth into my nostrils.

I ask Jack if he’s a particularly popular person and he laughs, shaking his head as if this kind of question is typical of an ‘out-of-towner‘. 

“It’s just the way people are round here. I’ve met those people before, but I don’t really know them. I bet you if you see them again, when you’re walking by yourself, you’ll get greeted exactly the same. It’s certainly not like London down here!”

Our first destination is Ye Olde George & Dragon, a pub whose 400-year old heritage should surely negate the need for any such descriptive prefix…

This Look Inside is continued in the next post…

An Invasion Unlike Any Other

Only 6 people now reside in the village of Pilkinsbury in what was once a thriving community – home to a Primary School, Post Office and bustling community centre.

“It all began with them ornamental gardens.”

I’m sat down in the centre of what used to be the village square on a rather tired bench that feels like it might break at any moment. There’s a tree behind us, but its bark is barely visible thanks to a thick covering of heart-shaped leaves. Next to me is Gerald Thompson, he’s been living in the village since he was a boy and has seen the transformation from vibrant English community to ghost town. I met up with Gerald to find out what it’s like living in an abandoned village and how an invading plant species stole the life from a once prosperous village.

Just a touch too young to join up during World War II, Gerald has lived a rich and varied life – despite the fact that he lives alone in an abandoned village, his outlook is surprisingly cheery:

“I’ve never wanted for company in the last few years, even when the last of my old friends moved away. I’ve pretty much spent my whole life in this place, to leave now would feel like giving up.”

As he talks to me, Gerald winds a leaf through his hands. The shield-shaped leaf is a good 10cm or so long, it’s ribbed contours matching Gerald’s gnarled fingers. The village square is covered in these leaves. They sprout from bamboo-like plants that rise to just over 3m, towering over both myself and Gerald alike. The buildings surrounding the square are just about visible, however it’s clear that this plant has also clung to them too.

“They wanted it for the ornamental gardens first. The Victorians – this was before my time of course – thought it looked pretty and they figured it was a nice, fast growing plant. Everyone likes quick results, I guess. Anyway, it was pretty much contained to a handful of gardens – but within a few years it had started to spread out to other people’s gardens. Before we knew it, the leaves had made it to the top of the church steeple.”

For decades, the inhabitants of Pilkinsbury, good people who felt like they were closely attuned to their natural surroundings, had allowed this plant to grow across their village, unaware of the structural impact it would have on their homes and the financial toll that it would take on their futures.

“My house has been in the family for generations, I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving, letting go of it for pennies, just because a natty plant had found it’s way into the foundations.”

As we walk around the deserted village Gerald points out the buildings telling me who used to live in each home and when they left.

By the time the villagers had discovered the destructive nature of the plant that their forefathers had welcomed into their homes, it was simply too late. Attempts to hack the plant back with strimmers and machetes had only worsened their predicament. The plant this village were dealing with was Japanese knotweed, one of the most invasive, industrious plants in the world. By the time they’d called professionals to assess the situation the problem had gotten well out of control.

“For a time the older ones, like myself, tried to convince the younger ones that it wasn’t a problem. Our houses might well have dropped significantly in value, but if our families continued to live in them and the village continued to thrive, then was there really a problem?”

Unfortunately there was.

Knotweed takes thousands of pounds off house values because of the structural damage it causes to the buildings that it grows near. Its roots are made up of rhizomes, continuously growing systems that have the ability to grow complete new plants from the smallest of fragments – making each shard hurriedly hacked down simply another problem to deal with in the future.

“By the time we’d faced up to the enormity of the problem, the cost of Japanese knotweed removal had risen too high. The younger ones felt that it would be better to start somewhere new than burden their children with a property that would be worth next to nothing by the time they’d grown up.”

So the people began to leave, in dribs and drabs and then in reams. Over the course of a year, the village emptied – leaving Gerald and a handful of retirees as the last bastions of a once thriving village.

“I don’t resent them – they wanted financial security for their families, I only had myself to consider. It was sad to see them go, but I wasn’t about to follow. This is my home and it always will be.”

A Look Inside Corby Glen: The Sheep Fair

It’s not every day you get to visit an annual event that has been running for 780 years.

Aside from the (relatively) modern clothes that the visitors to Corby Glen’s 779th Sheep Fair are sporting, it’s easy to imagine that this event hasn’t changed for centuries.

My guide, Marjorie, is 75 years old.

She’s lived in Corby Glen for her entire life, she remembers seeing Beverley Allitt walk home from school as a child and she’s never missed a Sheep Fair.

“Even when I was poorly with the flu when I was 10, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

To a weekend visitor like me, the whole thing is a little mind boggling. Whilst the people might have changed in appearance, so much of what the Sheep Fair represents feels like it should belong to another century. It might sound silly, but the mere sight of a retro carousel gently spinning in a field is reminiscent of the 20th Century. Throw that in with the hundreds of sheep that are constantly bleating and milling around and you start to really get an idea of life must’ve been like back in the Victorian era.

“My Ma, used to take me when I was a bonny lass”, Marjorie tells me, whilst we share a stick of cotton candy and a pint of dark ale, that seems to affect me more than it does her.

“You won’t believe me, but back then it was actually more popular than it is today!”

I tell her that I believe her.

Although the Sheep Fair gets consistent news coverage on a year-on-year basis due to it’s historical nature, it’s easy to imagine how it could have been much more popular perhaps a hundred or two hundred years ago. Whilst Corby Glen remains a very rural village, agriculture in the area has been decreasing over the decades, so each year there are less and less sheep to show at the Sheep Fair.

“I’m just glad that our little Fair still gets the attention that it deserves from the rest of the country, it’s such a nice feeling to know that people are thinking of us whilst we’re having our little shindig.”

There are many red faces by the end of the afternoon, it’s not that cold out, but it would appear that the local ale stand has made something of a killing. With Marjorie taking me by the arm, we make our way back up to The Woodhouse Arms, where I’ve promised to treat my guide to a dinner. It’s a good thing I reserved the table well ahead of time; we push through the merry throng of drinkers crowding the bar to find that our table in the restaurant is the only one left.

The Woodhouse Arms is one of two drinking establishments in Corby Glen (the oddly named Fighting Cocks does good business as well, I’m told) and whilst both are popular, it’s clear the former has cornered the market on decent pub grub. I wash down a perfectly slow roasted lamb shank with an excellent bottle of red, whilst my compatriot struggles through a huge helping of Barbary Duck. By the end of the meal we’ve both joined another table and the reveries, that started with ales down at the Sheep Fair, continue well into the night.

I don’t struggle sleeping that night – snoozing peacefully, no doubt with a satisfied smile on my face; an expression that has probably re-occurred for centuries on thousands of similarly satisfied visitors.

A Look Inside Corby Glen: The Woodhouse Arms

A Centuries-old Sheep Fair lures me to Corby Glen…

Credit: VisitLincolnshire.com

When I hear about Corby Glen from a hiking friend it’s not spun in the most positive light.

“You know The Angel of Death was born there, right?”

This sparks an interesting discussion which begins with a recap of the crimes of Beverley Allitt. I’m informed that she spent her formative years in this small village, before moving off to begin her murderous career as a nurse; somehow this conversation ends with my friend fervently recommending a visit to Corby Glen and stopping by at the local pub for a meal, which I’m told is excellent.

Now – serial killers don’t really interest me that much, so I had to weigh up whether it was really worth making the trip over just for the sake of a (potentially) tasty pub meal and satisfy my dwindling morbid curiosity. A quick Google search revealed a much more interesting (and less grim) reason to visit: an annual Sheep Fair, held in October and rumoured to be the longest-running of it’s kind in the UK. Within moments I was looking up directions and reserving a room at the pub. I met a local guide through Trip Advisor and was soon on my way to Corby Glen the home of iconic serial killers and centuries-old agricultural markets…

Credit: TripAdvisor.com

Despite the fact that there only around 1000 people living in Corby Glen, it’s surprising how many amenities the village supports. I mention this to the landlord who greets me at the door upon my arrival at The Woodhouse Arms. He tells me that with the nearest major settlement being around 10 miles away, there’s plenty of demand within the village for the few services that are on offer – his own pub being one of them.

It’s bright and airy inside the pub, which initially comes as a surprise. The windows are rather small at the front you see, with only one large bay window offering much opportunity for light to creep it’s way in.

The restaurant, situated at the back of the building, is another story altogether. Some tasteful modern renovations have been made to the traditional building, letting huge swathes of sunlight sweep in and bathing the packed dining room with a golden glow.

When I arrive, work is going on in the pub and the landlord shakes me by the hand, insisting on taking by bags to the room.

“We’re having an industrial extractor fan installed – probably the only industrial thing for miles around – unless you count Jim’s chicken farm up the way!”

For £85 per night my room looks spacious and comfortable. I’m reminded that breakfast is included in the cost and the deal looks even better.

As I walk back down to the main pub, the smells and sounds of a popular lunch service drift through the nicely decorated interiors. The tables are packed out and the food smells (and looks) great. My belly growled but I knew that I needed to explore the rest of the village before sitting down for a mammoth meal. I’ve got a date with a local who wants to give me a look into what it’s like to live in a place like Corby Glen…

This Look Inside is continued in the next post…

The Countryside in Motion Pictures

Us countryside folks rarely get much of a look-in when it comes to representation in the movies.

Similar to the much maligned Southern States of America, the UK’s countryside and those residing there are often given short shrift when it comes to how they’re portrayed on the big screen.

‘Cornish people as violent, xenophobic psychopaths’ in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971)

Not many movies get made by people from the countryside, as a result cinema-goers are often given a very skewed, biased depiction of what living in the countryside is like.

Cultural cliches are often used as shorthand by lazy movie makers who find it easier to lean heavily on worn stereotypes than attempt to present a three-dimensional portrayal of characters from the Westcountry. The tweed-wearing farmer, half cut on cider and with an incomprehensible accent is one of the most commonly used archetypes in movies and television – it’s surprising that film-makers are allowed to get away with this still, considering the focus the media has on politically correct representations of certain groups.

‘A rather darker, cynical edge is given to the locals who are revealed to be a part of a sinister cult,’ in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz (2006)

Take the popular, long-running murder mystery series, Midsomer Murders. Whilst the show is technically is set in the fictional county of Midsomer, the writers draw heavily from tired countryside cliches to depict a version of the English countryside that is both misleading and offensive. Local characters are repeatedly portrayed as being slow or dimwitted, especially when being interviewed by the well-spoken hero, Inspector Barnaby.

Midsomer Murders’ unique draw as a mystery show is the juxtaposition of the idyllic countryside with gruesome murders, an idea that is used once more for comic effect in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz. Although arguably deeper than Murders ever was, the director still gets a lot of comic mileage out of exaggerating rural accents and depicting country folk as unintelligent. This time, however, a rather darker, cynical edge is given to the locals who are revealed to be a part of a sinister cult. Though comic and (arguably) well-meaning, Wright’s picture did not do the image of rural England any favours.

Similarly, Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs is notorious for having depicted Cornish people as violent, xenophobic psychopaths. Dustin Hoffman’s turn as an American mathematician who is forced to embrace his violent side was well-received at the time, however it remains today as a film that depicts rural folk as uneducated, backwards people. I’d like to say that this kind of profiling and negative stereotyping is a thing of the past, however even films released this year, such as The Bad Education Movie, have used rural characters for cheap, low-brow laughs.

Thankfully, it’s not all bad news.

Ellie Kendrick in The Levelling (2017), where Somerset is the backdrop for ‘a powerful family-driven story.’

Despite rural locations and people being misrepresented for decades, there have been two films released this year that have made the most of beautiful locations and realistic characterisation.

Hope Dickson Leach’s debut feature, The Levelling, tells the story of a daughter returning home to her Somerset farm in the wake of the 2014 floods that severely affected the agricultural community. This dark film uses the ruined Somerset levels as a moody backdrop for a powerful family-driven story. Similarly, God’s Own Country also makes use of rural England’s stunning scenery whilst telling a story of gay lovers who meet through their agricultural work, which already has critics drawing comparisons to Brokeback Mountain.

The Levelling is available on-demand and to buy now. God’s Own Country will get it’s home release on 29th January 2018.