Wednesday 30 July 2014

Legends of Dartmoor

Dartmoor is one of my favourite places down here in the sunny South West of England. I love its wildness, its romance and its legends. I love the Dartmoor ponies who've been up here since forever and just carry on with what they're doing regardless of whether you're around or not.

Dartmoor ponies
Dartmoor ponies

I love the rocky tors sitting in the midst of the rolling uplands, surrounded by bracken and wild heather.

Haytor, Dartmoor
Haytor, Dartmoor

This is Haytor. They've cut steps into the rock face all the way to the top so, when you climb it, it's a bit like going up the stairs at home, although the view is a great deal more impressive. Even though the ascent is all a bit easy-peasy pedestrian you still get an irrational feeling of achievement when you reach the top and look out across the untamed wilderness of the moor.

Haytor, Dartmoor
Haytor, Dartmoor

And then, on the way down, you can admire the lovely Dartmoor heather, which is looking very pink and rosy round about now.

This bleak and wonderful place (photographed below), just around the corner from Haytor is Hound Tor, which according to the legend is all that remains of a bothersome pack of hounds who were cursed by a local witch and turned to stone. 

Hound Tor, Dartmoor
Hound Tor, Dartmoor

It's said to have been the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles.

And if you follow down the avenue of stones, and over the brow of the hill into the valley on the other side you'll come across the abandoned village of Hundatora. It consists of four thirteenth century Dartmoor long houses with a number of barns and smaller shelters. 

Hundatora, Dartmoor
Hundatora, Dartmoor
History doesn't record exactly when it was abandoned or, perhaps more intriguingly, why everyone scampered. When it was excavated the archeologists found a single coin from the reign of Henry III (1216 to 1272). They believe that the people had gone by 1350. Perhaps they were wiped out by the Black Death when it reached England in 1348, or maybe they simply migrated to find a more profitable living elsewhere in the aftermath of the plague. It was a time of great social upheaval:labour was scarce, wages rose and those who survived were able to move around and command a decent day's pay.

Hundatora, Dartmoor
Hundatora, Dartmoor
It's an eery place that I wouldn't care to linger in on my own late at night. We stopped by one day last week when the thunder from a summer storm was rumbling around the hills in the distance. Fearing the rain everyone else had (sensibly) vanished off the moor, and we were left totally alone with the wind and the bracken and the menace of the storm clouds overhead.


If you return to the road and wander on in the direction of Moretonhampstead, to a cross roads where the main road intersects a moorland track, you'll find the grave of Kitty Jay.

Kitty Jay's grave, Dartmoor
Kitty Jay's grave, Dartmoor
Kitty had been abandoned as a baby in the 1790s and brought up in the poor house at Newton Abbot. When she was taken in the authorities had given her the name Mary Jay, but somehow, for reasons that are lost to history, she became known as Kitty Jay. Kitty endured a hard and loveless life in the poor house, and when she was in her early teens she was sent out as an apprentice to a farmer and his wife at Canna Farm, near Manaton. Now in those days in that part of the world an apprentice was really a polite name for a skivvy, or a maid-of-all-work, who was in reality a badly paid dogsbody.
Kitty Jay's grave, Dartmoor
Kitty Jay's grave, Dartmoor
By this time young Kitty had, however, grown into a pretty girl, and before long she caught the eye of the farmer's son. He seduced her and left her in the  family way. And then, being a bounder, he refused to do the honourable thing. Poor Kitty was thrown out by the farmer and his wife who roundly blamed her, rather than their precious son, for her condition. The name Jay, which she'd been given as a baby in the poor house was, after all, a slang name in those parts for a prostitute. Kitty desperately didn't want to return in disgrace to the joyless existence of the poor house, but she realised that as a fallen woman no other respectable family would take her in and give her employment. Seeing no way out of her predicament she hung herself in one of the barns at Canna.

Back in Kitty's day it was regarded as a serious sin to take your own life, and the folk thereabouts feared the restless soul of the suicide. It was forbidden by Church law to bury her body in consecrated ground, so it is understood that they buried her at the cross-roads in the dead of night, believing that her tormented soul would be disorientated should it return to haunt the living. Oftentimes they also drove a stake through the suicide's heart at the time of burial to hold them in their grave for good measure.

It was said that the pixies attended to Kitty's grave, looking after her final resting place through all eternity by way of some small compensation for the miserable life she'd led. For many years fresh flowers appeared mysteriously every day on the grave. I have to say that every time I've visited there have only been plastic flowers, but before my time there appears to have been a mystery mourner who tended her grave.

On moonlit nights travellers have reported seeing a cloaked figure kneeling over the grave with its face buried in its hands. Given its great hooded cloak no one could tell for certain whether it was male or female, but the rumour grew that it was the spirit of the feckless boy who'd betrayed Kitty's trust and been sent to stand vigil at her grave by way of penance for how he'd wronged her.

Years ago someone opened the grave and found human remains, which were duly reinterred. Given the site of the burial it seems overwhelmingly likely that the deceased was indeed a suicide. Admittedly no one can say for sure whether the remains were really those of Kitty Jay, but if they were I hope that she's resting in peace and that she has some sense in the afterlife of how her story has touched so many people who come to pay their respects at her grave. Kitty's no longer an unloved nobody: these days she's a proper Dartmoor legend.

All the best,

Bonny x

As shared on the Alphabet Project

Monday 28 July 2014

The Mid Devon Show

Last Saturday morning we all piled into the jeep and set off for the Mid Devon Show. Now I have to confess that I love county shows; I guess deep down I'm still a country girl at heart. There were three generations of us on board: my husband and me, Emi, and my parents and we were all pretty excited about our big day out.

In country circles the local show is one of the high points of the year. I have happy memories of my grandma and my mum entering their Victoria Sandwich Cakes, jams and flower arrangements at our own local Clogher Valley Show back in Ulster. One of my father's cousins still goes along with her best Aberdeen Angus cows every year.

And the Mid Devon Show certainly didn't disappoint. It was brilliant. The sun shone, the cider flowed and everyone had a ball.

The boys made a beeline for the tractors. We're not in the market for a new tractor, but they just like to tyre-kick. I can't say I blame them; some of the modern tractors are such leviathans. Just look how tall the small front wheel of this monster is: Emi could fit comfortably under the mudguard.

But then I guess they've always been keen on bigging up the horsepower for work around the farm.  Just look at this fine chap, all decked out and ready for action:

It must have taken a day and a half to get him brushed and cleaned and into his finery. And I'd really rather not have the job of polishing all his horse brasses.

My father remembers having a gentle giant like this on my grandfather's farm. Back in Ulster each small-holder would have kept a dray horse, and then at ploughing time they did a horse-share with their neighbour, bringing their horse to the neighbour's farm to make up a pair to pull the plough.

There were lots of other horses on display as well. I was particularly taken with the carriage driving competition.

I especially liked the old London rag and bone wagon with its wonderful prancing horse, and the bucket on behind to pick up the poop to bring home for the roses.
I also admired this very elegant lady in her carriage with a groom on behind to open the gates as she drove along.
Emi and his dad were much more in awe of the stunt motor bike riders. I watched them with bated breath, thinking all the while about how one miscalculation could cost them their lives.

I much preferred the relaxed domesticity of the fowl enclosure. For many a long while I've hankered after a few chooks of my own that I could keep in the back garden, but the thriving London fox population and my gypsy lifestyle have held me back from getting any. Don't you think Mr Rooster and his hen are just about the most handsome couple in the chicken coop?

Or how about a couple of crested ducks? They'd be sure to prettify any duck pond that they graced with their presence.

There were any number of exotic, pristine birds, many of whom were for sale - so very tempting ... .
Then we went to take a look at the cattle enclosure. Now I have to say that I'm a really big fan of the moo cows. Those big bulls are the top animals in any farmyard so far as I'm concerned. Maybe it's my Irish background, and all the old stories from the Táin about Queen Maeve of Connacht's attempt to capture the great Brown Bull of Cooley to match her husband's White Bull of Connacht and her battle with Conchobar mac Nessa, King of Ulster, and his champion warrior Cú Chulainn. Whatever the way of it the bull is my undisputed king of the farmyard for whom I have total respect.

Now who would pick a fight with this majestic Limousin bull? Isn't he amazing?

Or how about this wonderful Angus bull? He seemed to be eye-balling me when I dared to take his photo. He's not a lad to be messed with, that's for sure.

I love the little Dexters who come originally from County Cork. Aren't they the sweetest little fellas?

Or how about the Red Devon? What a beautiful family: Mr and Mrs out for the day with junior in tow.

At the risk of being very boring I could spend all day showing you photos of my favourite cows, but how about those lovely calves that were led out by the children?

This sweet little girl was only 8, and she led her beef calf into the arena like a total pro.

This little girl was a very grown-up 10. You could tell that she'd been doing this for a few years.

And this handsome young farmer-of-the-future was a canny 12.

They were all amazing, and I'm sure their parents were really proud of how well they all performed.

After the amazing cattle Emi decided that he'd have a go on the bucking bronco. Everything went well ... for a while.

He won a rosette, which Maxi wore proudly for the rest of the day.

And then we went to have a look at the WI flower arranging, just to change the tempo and shake things up a bit. And being country ladies they used country props for their arrangements. Check out the bailor:

Inside they had a selection of amazing competition winners. This was the best Victoria Sandwich cake.

And here are the winning entries from the flower arrangement competitions:

Next we took a quick turn in the bunny tent, where lots of very cute noses were twitching nervously at a very excited Maxi,who had never met a rabbit before. We decided not to hang around too long in case he out-stayed his welcome.

We left him outside with the boys who wanted to take another turn around the tractors and went to check out the goats and the pigs.

It was really hot down with the pigs, who were suffering just to stay alive in the heat. But the rather grand dame below looked like she could have been cast as the Empress from Blandings - or, well, she could have been if she'd been a black Berkshire.

The goats, on the other hand, seemed to be coping just fine with the hot weather.

And this little chap actively wanted a chat with us. He came right over and bleated on for several minutes about whatever was on his mind.
Outside Emi had a go at a few rural pursuits. Here he is working hard on a handle for someone's scythe.

There were lots of wonderful country crafts on display from bee-keeping to Honiton lace-making, ironwork and knitting to field work with hunting dogs. Sadly the ferret racing was called off owing to the heat, which was a shame as I was especially looking forward to that one.

As you've probably gathered we had a brilliant time. There was something to entertain all three generations. These shows have a timeless formula, which is a real winner. If you'd like to have a great day out, see the animals and get a window into country living, they're the real deal. There are a raft of them taking place up and down the country over the remainder of the summer. You can find the calendar for forthcoming events here: Country Shows.

All the best for now,

Bonny x

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Irish linen ... and the Wellbrook Beetling Mill

Here in Ulster we pride ourselves on our traditional Irish linen.  Just about every family home boasts a snowy, white table cloth made of fine linen damask that gets pulled out on high days and holy days. Often it's something very precious that's been handed down from grandmother to granddaughter with beautiful hand embroidery that was worked by candlelight a hundred years ago.

For centuries the very finest linen in the world has been produced here. In the old days small farmers up and down the Province grew a field or two of flax, rotating it with their other crops from year to year. When the flowers bloomed in August the flax was ready to harvest, and everyone descended on the fields to pull the plants out by the root. They didn't use knives to cut the stems so as not to waste any of the valuable fibre, which descends down into the roots. At a time when the dark shadow of famine still stalked the land it was important to capture every useful part of the plant and not to waste anything that could be turned into profit to put food on the table.

The flax was then threshed to remove the seeds and the outer straw.

Next the flax plants had to be retted, a process whereby they were soaked in water to break down the outer parts of the plant stem making it easier to extract the useful fibre within. To this day when you go out walking in the Ulster countryside you come across small, black ponds, fed by diverted streams. Once upon a time these were the flax holes, in which the flax was left to rot. My mum (who's really not that old) vividly remembers the putrid smell of the plants when they were pulled out of the fetid water for the next part of the process.

After a few weeks when the outer parts of the stems had rotted away the flax was taken out and dried off before being scutched,which involved beating off the remaining external fibres using long wooden knives.

The long strands of useful fibre were now hackled, that is to say they were drawn through a succession of increasingly fine-toothed hackle combs, which were essentially beds of nails to remove any remaining chaff. This remaining chaff was known as the toe, from which a rough, inferior textile for poor men's clothes were made: hence the expression toe rag. Next they were spun by hand into linen threads for weaving.

Once the linen cloth was woven on a loom it produced a loose, open grained fabric, which was then beaten, or beetled, to close the weave and produce a denser textile. And this is the point at which the Wellbrook Beetling Mill just outside Cookstown in County Tyrone comes into the picture. Built in the 1760's and operated commercially until the 1960's, it's the only surviving beetling mill in the Province that remains operational.

It's powered by water from the fast flowing Balinderry River which is diverted into a mill race that raises it some 15 metres to fall and hit the water wheel at the side of the building. There's a sluice gate that operates the on/ off switch and can be controlled from inside the building where there are seven beetling machines, two of which are still operating.

When you take a tour of the premises they'll open the sluice gate and start one of their engines.  The noise will impress you even though you're standing on the floor above looking down from the viewing gallery. I can only imagine how deafening it must have been for the folk working on the same level as all seven machines when they were in action. And many of those poor folk were children of as little as eight years of age, just like my Emi. They were better at dodging and diving between the machines, where they worked 12 hour shifts, six days a week for a few pennies. Most of them skipped school completely to earn the small pittance they were paid. Literacy rates were low, many were injured, their lungs weakened by the straw debris in the air that they breathed throughout their long workday and almost all of them suffered impaired hearing as a result of the unrelenting noise of the beetling engines.

The smaller children would start off measuring out the skeins of linen thread for the weavers on a clock easel such as the one in the photo above. Because they weren't able to take time off to go to school few of them were able to count. As a result the clock easel had an internal mechanism called the weasel. When the requisite number of resolutions had been made to measure out the correct length of thread (usually 80 yards) the weasel would pop. This is believed to have been the origins of the nursery rhyme:
Half a pound of tupenny rice,
Half a pound of treacle,
That's the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel. 

It's a bit chilling to think that such a popular nursery rhyme should have its origins in such grim and exploitative child labour. And it makes me look rather differently at the antique table linens that my mother and I have cherished down the years. Some of them are heirloom pieces that my grandmothers embroidered, and others are wonderful finds that we've snapped up as job-lots at auction. Often these wonderful fabrics go unappreciated in a world where everyone wants a low-maintenance, non-iron tablecloth or an oilcloth that doesn't need anything more than a sponge-down. But for those special occasions when you might think of dressing up the table, inviting a few friends over and making something really wonderful for dinner there's nothing to compare with the timeless beauty of fine linen damask. Have a look at some of my grandmother's handiwork and see what you think:

My paternal Grandma embroidered the cloth in the photos above as a centrepiece for her dining table, and the reverse side is almost as pretty as the display side. Her needlework is so very, very neat. What makes it all the more amazing is that she was as short-sighted as I am, and must really have struggled to thread her needle in the gloom of her not very bright lights with her heavy glasses that slipped to the end of her nose every time she bent over her work.

I can't say that Emi is desperately impressed with any of this. He enjoyed the booming racket of the mill, and the splashing majesty of the waterwheel when the sluice gate opened, but flowery antique table cloths are totally not his scene.

Every night when I get home
The monkey's on the table,
Take a stick and knock it off,
Pop! goes the weasel.

For now I'll keep them safely wrapped in tissue paper, and take them out from time to time when we've got something really special to celebrate but it's hard to forget the story of the weasel and the sacrifice that went into producing them.

Up and down the City Road,
In and out the Eagle.
That's the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel.

If you're over in this neck of the woods and you'd like to check out a little bit of our industrial heritage you can find the website for the Wellbrook Beetling Mill here:Wellbrook Beetling Mill. It's run by the National Trust and makes a great venue for a weather-proof afternoon out.

All the best for now,

Bonny x

As shared on the Alphabet Project