Silver River by Virginia Spiers, with paintings by Mary Martin

Silver RiverI’ve been waiting for this for a while and today my copy arrived, and it was worth the wait – it’s a lovely book, published by the Tamar Valley AONB. Virginia Spiers has been writing Guardian Country Diaries since 1994, and she often writes about the area round her home near St Dominic in the Tamar Valley. Her sister Mary Martin has been painting the valley since 1975, and her paintings often focus on the fertility and productivity of the area, which has a history of market gardening. The lanes still have small road-side stalls selling fruit, vegetables, and in the spring, daffodils. When I am in the area I regularly find myself stopping to buy raspberries, runner beans, or whatever flowers are in season; it’s then difficult not to eat the fruit while driving along, but the narrow, deep, twisting, sunken lanes with their Cornish hedges make that inadvisable. Much of the land round about St Dominic is now owned by the National Trust, and they have recently planted a ‘mother orchard’ at Cotehele where many local varieties of apples and cherries are being conserved – due in great part to the activities of Mary Martin and her husband who have been collecting local varieties for the last quarter of a century. This is also an area with a history of mining, and the ruined buildings, chimneys, and river quays are a constant reminder that this is within the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape World Heritage Site. The mines produced copper and tin, and latterly arsenic; some mine dumps still contain toxic metals and on these gorse is the only plant which will grow. Virginia has selected 94 of her diaries about the Tamar Valley which talk about all aspects of the area; each one faces a reproduction of a painting by Mary. It’s arranged seasonally, starting with Spring – which is what I always think of first when I think of the Tamar Valley, when the hedgebanks are yellow with primroses and daffodils. Having stayed there regularly at Easter it was a shock to go in June and find that the hedges were full of pink and red flowers; in August some of the lanes are almost closed off as the growth from either side meets overhead and almost to the middle, and driving down them feels like quite an adventure. I shall read a diary entry or two before I go to sleep, mulling over their reflections on the mark of the past on the landscape and its affect on the present, as well as the present activities of the local people, and with the image of Mary’s paintings in my mind too.

Update 8 March 2011: Silver River is now available from Mary Martin’s website, as are Mary’s other books and cards. There will be an exhibition of Mary’s paintings in St. Dominic from Sunday 29th May to Sunday 5 June 2011: Tamar Valley, Cornwall’s coast and France.

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