I don’t like motorways, partly because they’re tedious, but mainly because, on the whole, motorways ignore the topography and just barge through the landscape like a big fat greedy rude person trying to get somewhere before everyone else. So to get to Cornwall I used old roads, quite a lot of them, most of them, still classed as A roads, but not the ones most people use any more, except for some local traffic.
Heading west I was on the chalk for a long way – the North Downs divide the London Basin from the Weald, and are made of chalk. It’s hard to imagine how many Cretaceous calcareous creatures died to make a mass of chalk this thick (especially as they were plankton-size), and it’s hard to imagine that the orogeny of the Alps (when Africa banged into Europe) caused the layers of geology in Surrey to crumple as they were squeezed horizontally, west of Guildford twisting through 90˚ to form the Hog’s Back, which is a – well, a hogsback.
Down the steep hill into Winchester, cathedral city and capital of the Saxon kingdom of Wessex, over the River Itchen by the City Mill, and past King Alfred holding up his sword at the oncoming traffic; Gladys Mitchell’s Death of a Maiden is set in Winchester, one of her better Mrs Bradley novels. The through road nowadays takes you behind the main shopping street, so it doesn’t show off the city to its best, then out the other side of the city it’s a slow climb back onto the chalk, along the top until Stockbridge Down; then it’s another steep slope down into the attractive town of Stockbridge, spread along one wide street which bridges the crystal-clear River Test, several large coaching hotels showing its earlier importance. Most of the east-west traffic now uses the A303, which is why I’m not.
Another steep hill out of Stockbridge and then back on to the chalk tops and west through Salisbury (again, the through road bypasses the medieval city – thankfully) and then to Wilton, famous for carpets (the factory site is now a shopping village), Wilton House (the Earl of Pembroke’s house), and probably not well-known for having been the ninth century county town of Wiltunscir. It still has its medieval street plan, having declined when Old Sarum was replaced by the planned town of New Sarum (i.e. Salisbury) from the early thirteenth century onwards.
Carrying on westwards the road passes through some lovely old villages. I often break my journey around here by going into Tisbury, to Old Wardour Castle, or heading northwest to Stourhead to use their café and farm shop, but today I’m carrying on for the time being, through Fovant where the geology becomes very obvious. Apart from the obvious rolling downs to my left, military badges dating back to the First World War have been carved into the chalk.
The road’s a bit less improved along this stretch – much windier with many more ups and downs, and eventually I get to Yeovil. Turning off through a short stretch of suburbia, I’m soon on narrow, high-hedged lanes, and shortly am at (what I thought was) East Coker. I saw two signs that said East Coker, and after I couldn’t find the church, I went into the East Coker Tearooms for a pot of tea and an extremely large slab of fruit cake. It turned out that the tearooms are part of Lufton College, which in turn is part of Mencap National College; helpfully enough, they had a footpath map of the locality on the wall and it turned out that I was in North Coker, which is north of East Coker but east of West Coker.
There’s an attractive range of almshouses (most of the older buildings round here are attractive as they’re built of Hamstone, although they look their best in sunshine and today was cold and overcast) which were started in 1640 but the parish register for 1645 tells us that ‘from the 8th day of June until the 10th day of September, there died and were interred in the contagious sickness, plague and pestilence, three score and ten persons’; and then what with a civil war, Republic, and so forth, the building wasn’t completed until 1660, which, coincidentally, was the year of the Restoration.
East Coker’s church, St Michael’s (it’s on a hill) has Saxon foundations, and is quite attractive, but there’s another reason I’ve come here. East Coker is one of the Four Quartets, and the village is where the Eliot family originated. T.S. Eliot’s ashes were interred here in 1965, and there is a simple wall memorial. I hadn’t realised that the church has another famous connection in William Dampier (1651-1715), naturalist-explorer and pirate.
I left East Coker and drove northwest along Camp Road – suitably named, as after it took me through Montacute (meaning ‘pointy hill’), with its National Trust property and motte on top of St Michael’s (again) Hill, it arrived at Stoke sub Hamdon, which lies under the northern flank of Ham Hill – this is the source of hamstone (a Jurassic limestone), but also the site of an enormous Bronze/Iron Age hillfort (some of which hasn’t been quarried away). I next stopped at Barrington Court, another National Trust property – there’s a little cluster of them in this part of Somerset. My first stop was a fruitless visit to the agricultural building that’s got second-hand books for sale, and then I had a quick look round the Gertrude Jekyll designed gardens – it is one of my favourite gardens, although it is past its best at this time of the year, particularly in the walled vegetable garden. As part of a celebration of women garden designers there was a small installation in the orchard.
Missing out on a cup of tea as the small café in the car park was closed, I carried on down the A303, and through the Blackdown Hills, on the Upper Greensand now, which looks as familiar to me as the chalklands. On the A30 approaching Honiton the road becomes much faster and from here on most of the way is on dual carriageway – passing Exeter Airport, and onto the M5 for a short stretch. More obvious geology as the A30 cuts deep through the red sandstone (laid down when hereabouts was a hot desert), and then zooms round the northern fringe of Dartmoor, with longing looks at the signs for Castle Drogo and Finch Foundry. I had really forgotten that I had intended to drive across the moor, to Moretonhampstead, Postbridge, Powdermills and Two Bridges, a route that always makes me think of the novels of Eden Phillpotts; so I came into Tavistock from the north instead. The road comes down near Lydford (an old Stannary town with a once-notorious castle, still retaining its planned Saxon layout – it was one of Alfred’s burhs – and the scenic Lydford Gorge), and then just gently touches the edge of Dartmoor. Widgery Cross on Brat Tor on the left, Brentor crowned by the church of St Michael rising from the mist far to the right, and then Wheal Betsy in the valley on the left.
The long hill down through Mary Tavy now has a 30mph speed limit and it’s nigh-on impossible to keep to. Tavistock’s most famous son, Walter Raleigh, stands in a roundabout, hand on globe.
West of Tavistock the road takes a long turnpike route round, the old road being too steep for carriages – but it’s still there, so I use it. The hill is steep down to the River Tamar, and once over the New Bridge at Gunnislake England’s left behind and I’m in Cornwall.
Unlike further west in Cornwall, this area transcends the boundaries – in fact, the boundary (the River Tamar) defines the area. The Tamar Valley is now an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and also part of the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site. I’ve loved this area for thirty years – it feels like I’m coming home.
After Gunnislake I was off into a warren of narrow lanes with Cornish hedges, and make my way to Cotehele, which must be one of the jewels in the National Trust’s portfolio.
The gardens here are at their very best in the spring when the daffodils and primroses are all in bloom, but it’s such a lovely old Tudor building it appears to grow out of the ground. I didn’t go into the house today, just into the gardens and the gallery shop which sells local art, currently themed on light; what with that and walking down to the potter’s shop at the watermill it was a slightly more expensive visit than I’d intended, rounded off with a cheese scone and a pot of tea in the Edgecumbe Arms on the quayside by the Tamar.
Bohetherick is a hamlet just downstream which has a history of market gardening on its south-facing slopes, and I bought some strawberries and raspberries in passing from a roadside kiosk. The local artist, Mary Martin, paints marvellously evocative pictures of the Tamar Valley, one of which I’m lucky enough to have on my wall at home. Taking the lane through St Dominick I then came back to reality with a bump – in part because of that feeling of loss you get when you leave somewhere you really like, but also by having to go food shopping in Waitrose near Saltash and then checking in to the nearby Travelodge where I had booked a room well in advance (therefore getting the room rate of £19 a night).
I hope the next few days are as interesting – today was just my journey down, tomorrow things start to happen, and I won’t have an interminable evening in a hotel room to fill by writing a long post. Tomorrow is Lanhydrock & Truro.