Friday, 21 November 2014

Hello Autumn

The River Dart upstream of the weir.
The autumn has arrived here on the River Dart and at Dartington Hall with temperatures dropping (but not that much) and some periods of nasty cold showers. Worst of all has been the wind which has been quite something - even though all the photographs here were taken on very quiet and still days.
We are now well south of Totnes/
If you walk down the path at the end of the lane, passing a couple of fields on your left which were planted with barley this year and are now lying fallow, you will find yourself on the banks of the River Dart. I would like to suggest that we all boarded a boat and I took you down the river but that is not possible: not far down stream there is a weir which maintains the water level above it. Once it provided a constant flow of water through a mill leat which fed Totnes Town Mill. Now there is a plan to build a small hydro-electric generating plant alongside it. Today it means your journey must begin on foot.

There is a delightful path that runs alongside the river which will take you down to the weir where you will find me waiting to pick you up in a nice safe work boat (of the sort that Roger uses when we go out together so that I can take photographs). Obviously I am assuming that we have agreed the time because it needs to be just about at the top of the tide.

A glimpse of Greenaway where Agatha Christie once lived.
The river winds a bit and I am not sure how far the journey is in terms of miles but it will take us about an hour and a half to reach the mouth of the river. Then as we head out to sea and clear the Mew Stone we shall see, away on our left to the east, Berry Head topped with a tall edifice that looks for all the world like a chimney. It’s not – it is called the ‘Day Marker’ because it carries no light and was built about two hundred years ago to make it easier to find the entrance to the River Dart. I have been delighted to see it on a number of trips.

All of which is only of interest because the other day the wind speeds as recorded on Berry Head exceeded 90 mph and some of the gusts when they hit us here were not far short of that. Thankfully no more trees came down near us but there was some damage done – our greenhouse took a battering and is in need of extensive repairs.

And here we are, back at Dartington Hall again.
But, wind or not, we are seeing some wonderful colours now. They do not compare with those you living in Canada will be enjoying but I am sure you will agree they are pretty gorgeous. Oddly, our native sycamore – a close relative to the Canadian Maple – offers no real visual delights in autumn: the leaves just turn a dull brown as the wither and fall.

This time last year we were without a real fire and we really did miss having one. Not so now: there is a cheerful fire in the sitting room in front of which, as soon as I have posted this blog, I shall sit as I enjoy a toasted tea-cake and, of course, a cup of tea.

All of which is making life very difficult for Marcia. In the other world in which she is presently spending most of her time it is late in spring with the result that when she decides to pay us mortals a quick visit she is shocked to find that nothing looks the way it should. 

These two whippets, Jet on the left and Minnie, belong to a budding young photographer called Thomas Freeman. They are seen here playing on the beach known as Slapton Sands near Torcross.

Friday, 14 November 2014


As some of you probably know, for most of my life my main physical activity has been messing about in boats. Usually these have been small sailing boats, sometimes motor boats of various sizes. Shortly after Marcia and I were married, I decided to take a bit of a plunge into the unknown. At the time I was writing a column for Yachts and Yachting which came out on a fortnightly basis – but was not providing enough to enable us to live. Then I signed a contract to write a book with David and Charles (a publishing house that has, I fear, gone the way of all flesh). This meant we could just about get by but the question was, how?

Well, the answer was to go afloat and spend the best part of the next year on our forty foot ketch – a very old, very rotten boat that needed a good deal of tender loving care to keep her afloat. The book was written in the tiny fore cabin on a triangular desk that at its widest was about thirty inches with a depth of about the same at which point it had no width at all.

It was great fun and despite many interesting moments I think neither of us regretted it – nor will either of us forget the first bath we had when we eventually went back to living ashore. It was at about this time that I started to write and present a short (fifteen minute) slot on Radio Devon all about what was happening in the sailing world. Some of the people I interviewed for that were extremely interesting – and some were disabled.

As a result, two things remain important to me: giving young people the chance to experience what it is like to be afloat and giving disabled people the opportunity to enjoy sailing.

Tony Sutton on the steps of the Himley Hall Sailing Club's cluhouse.
One friend of mine, Tony Sutton, is presently Commodore (the title given to the boss of all sailing clubs) of a very surprising sailing club. 

The lake with the hall in the background.
This club sails on what is known as “The Great Pool” in the grounds of Himley Hall, which stands on the site of the old manor house, once the home of the Lords of Dudley (and the place that Charles I spent the night before the battle of Naseby). In the 1740’s, this house was demolished (as was the entire village of Himley complete with the church) and a great house built. 

It was ‘Capability’ Brown who landscaped the gardens around the house which included what was then called ‘the great lake’. In passing, I suppose I should mention that the village and the church were rebuilt at the same time – but at a discreet distance from the house.

The clubhouse - and this is what Tony has to say about it. "Our clubhouse was the Earl of Dudley's boathouse and the very building where Edward, the Prince of Wales, and Mrs Simpson started their love affair. Older members say that they carved their initials into the ceiling beams but they have since been covered over with plasterboard. I keep meaning to find out where they did the carving. remove a sheet of plasterboard and put a sheet of glass in its place.
Then, after the second world war, the property came into public ownership (it is owned by Dudley District Council) and is used for a wide variety of events, conferences, weddings and so forth – and the great lake has become the home of Himley Hall Sailing Club (only being a modest bunch they call it a pool and not a lake). Certainly in terms of water surface area they must be one of the smallest clubs in the country and it would be difficult for them to be further from the sea as they are situated bang smack in the middle of the Midlands of England.

Having said that, they have a well-earned reputation for introducing youngsters to the water and in training them in all the things that matter when you are afloat. Indeed, the club is a recognised Royal Yachting Association training centre. My very best wishes to them: may they continue for many years to come.

Bruce in his natural habitat: on a boat - any boat - on the River Dart.
Then there is another friend, Bruce Symes. We used to sail together on the River Dart in years gone by and the greeting in his last Christmas Card says it all. ‘Still sailing – but very slowly’. What the card failed to say is that Bruce is heavily involved in ‘Dart Sailability’ which owns boats which have been modified to enable disabled people to sail in them and has hoist facilities for them on the pontoon at Noss on the River Dart where these boats are moored.

Manning the Bosun's Locker stall to raise money for Dart Sailability.
All of this costs a great deal of money and Bruce’s ‘thing’ is called ‘Bosun’s Box’. The idea is that they collect all sorts of boaty bits and pieces (even boats!) which they then sell – after refurbishing or whatever as required – at auctions and on eBay.

One of the fleet of boats owned by Dart Sailability out on the river.
So it is that while I spend most of my time hitting the keys on my computer there are two friends who are really doing things that are so worth while. In a world where there is so much going on that makes us want to weep, it is good to read about people who are doing something positive for their fellow men. I give you a toast: Tony and Bruce.

The blog dog this week answers to the name of Jago. Probably. Sometimes. When it suits him.

Friday, 7 November 2014


Today, I fear, we are into zoology and in an area that I know is not one of your favourites: beetles.
It really has been an incredible year weather-wise. All our tubs and borders had 'gone over' and Marcia had given most of the plants in them a haircut. Then, suddenly, they were all in flower again - and the sun was shining - so here are a few November photographs from the garden.
When I was a boy, I suppose I was about fourteen at the time, I convinced myself that I was going to become a beetle expert and so I asked people for books on beetles when they wanted to know what I had in mind for my birthday. This was the first time I had expressed an interest in insects of any sort and so I received An Insect Book for the Pocket by Edmund Sanders which I though was rather good as I already had A Bird Book for the Pocket by the same author. Indeed, I have them still – the latter a poor over-used and battered edition whilst the former could well be described as “used but in excellent condition”.

The reason is simple: the official list of British Birds (which is maintained by the British Trust for Ornithology) has something in the order of 600 species (the figure changes as the list is kept up to date) and Sanders limited his collection to the more common of these. This degree of complexity fell within my abilities (only just but . . .).

The companion on insects however was a very different kettle of fish (not, perhaps, the happiest of phrases to choose in this context). As Sanders says in the Preface, ‘The “Books for the Pocket” hitherto issued in this series aim at describing all species as are of reasonably common occurrence in Britain. This meant about 200 birds, 50 beasts, 70 butterflies and 850 flowers. The insects present a totally different problem and nothing of the sort can be attempted’. An understatement if ever there was one. I was soon to learn that there are over 22,000 insect species living here of which at least 2,000 are beetles.

Clearly I was intended a bird watcher and not a bug hunter. Even so, I was tempted to buy a copy of Beetles in Colour by Leif Lyneborg when it was published as a part of the Blandford Colour Species. Here we are at least in the world of the possible as it restricts itself to the most common 475 species: possible is not the same as simple and I remain almost entirely ignorant when it comes to beetles (despite the fact that if I happen across one when ‘going equipped’ I am unable to resist the temptation to take its photograph).
Standing in the corner of the porch is my old hiking stick which has a leather wrist strop as you can see. Flying all around and sitting in ones and twos all over the house were the Harlequins but this little collection caught my eye and this picture shows how different they can look.
All this is simply because we here, on the Dartington Trust estate, were engulfed in huge numbers of beetles last week as they turned from pupae to adults. This lot are not all that welcome: they are the notorious Harlequin Ladybird (because their colouring is very varied) or, more properly, Harmonia axridis. In the US they are also known as the Halloween Lady or the Multi-coloured Asian Lady Beetle. Their larva are the ones that do most of the damage to other insects since they are rapacious carnivores who will eat anything – including both the larva and adults of their own species – not that their parents are much better.

Since they spend about a week as a pupa, I was surprised to see one of the larva walking down the stick. He (or could it be a she?) is out of focus - sorry about that - but was hurrying away and I only managed to get the one shot.
This is one of those examples of man interfering in nature: they were imported into the US from Asia in order to control aphids (especially on soya). As it happened the first introductions failed to become established but then the population exploded: these ladybirds have now colonised most of the globe which, if we are honest, they would no doubt have achieved without any direct help from us. With so much international trade and so many people travelling from one country to another it was bound to happen one day. Still, they don’t do much for our native ladybirds and other insects: gardeners in particular are always looking for ways of controlling them and so are housewives as they have a habit of hibernating in soft furnishings and curtains in particular. Me? No, I just take pictures of them.

The dogs are Eddie and Teddie. Like many spaniels who have been brought up properly, they proved to be incredibly obedient, alert and totally at one with the boss. Having said that I suspect they are as mad as teeth. I say that because all spaniels are as mad as teeth although some (Springers for example) are madder than others (such as Clumbers).

Friday, 31 October 2014

On Libraries and Words

Last week I mentioned that Marcia would be cutting a birthday cake. Well, this is the cake . . .

. . . and here is Marcia cutting it.

The event was to celebrate the fortieth birthday of the new (as it then was) Kingsridge Library and Marcia had been asked to attend, to chat to some of her readers and, as you have seen, to cut the cake.

Just inside the door was a display of Marcia's books.
Before wielding the knife she spoke of her commitment to libraries because (and this is so strange) her family rarely read books. Her exposure to books was, therefore, limited. Then she was taken into the Children’s Section of the Bristol Central Library. ‘It was like going to heaven,’ she said. ‘All these books, shelves and shelves of books. And then, to make matters even better, I found that through another door there were even more books – books for adults to read.’

She spent the next few years working her way along those shelves – trying all sorts of authors and genres – and reading all the time. From that moment onwards whenever she was asked what she wanted for a present the answer was always the same: a book.

Everyone was greeted and offered a cup of tea Maria Johnson,
the Library Manager.
She was still reading when she and I met about twenty-five years after that momentous moment (is that tautology?) in the Bristol Central Library and she continued to read until, eventually, I nagged hard enough to make her start writing. Indeed, and I say this knowing she will deny it, she is the best read person I have ever met. The list of authors or both prose and poetry from whom she can quote seems endless and her vocabulary is incredible.

Which leads me on to think about what we mean by that word ‘vocabulary’. We each of us have different vocabularies when you stop to think about it. There is the one we use when we are listening or reading – you could call this the ‘passive’ vocabulary and consists of all the words we understand. Most native English speakers will have a passive vocabulary of between 20,000 and 35,000 words. Then there are two ‘active’ vocabularies: one we use when we speak and one when we write (although with some people these two are the same).

This is a large and spacious library with a wide range of facilities.
The big difference between speaking and writing is that the first is ephemeral and the second permanent. That means we are more likely to be adventurous and use words whose meanings we are not entirely sure we understand in speech than we are when writing. It seems that most of us use somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 when we are talking but few use more than 8,000 when they are writing.

Those facilities include this hi-tech corner.
This is fine in every day use but people who write for a living have to do everything they can to be sure that they do not bore their readers by becoming repetitive and so we see that many professional writers have ‘active’ vocabularies that almost equal their ‘passive’ vocabulary and that this is often at the upper range of what is considered normal. This is not all that surprising: many of us use thesauri to find a word we want and that inevitably increases our vocabulary. Words matter more to us than to most: they are, after all, the tools of our trade. Thus a quick dip into a dictionary to check on a definition can result in a couple of hours of valuable work time ‘lost’ as the quick dip turns into a long browse. “It’s all on account of how one thing leads on to another” (to quote – or possibly misquote – from The Specialist by that great American actor, vaudevillian and writer, Charles Sale).

Having said all that, it seems that the average person for whom English is a first language has an ‘active’ vocabulary of about only seven thousand words. Please don;t ask me how people come to these statistics because I really don’t know. If you are interested in the size of your ‘passive’ vocabulary take a trip to

Before I leave you, will you please all join me in wishing Keith Giles (whose wife, Jeanne, often leaves comments here) many happy returns of the day. Marcia and I both hope you have a wonderful time, Keith and that you will be able to enjoy many more in the years to come.

Here we have a retired racing greyhound who enjoys the name of Golem. In Jewish folklore, this is the name given to some animated being magically created out of inanimate materials. Statuettes of a Golem (usually made out of clay but sometimes carved from stone) are somewhat ill-formed but bvaguely human figures. When he wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Tolkein named one of his characters after this anthropomorphic being but changed it slightly to Gollum.

Finally: Marcia Willett's Dartmouth was published yesterday. For details of how you can buy it (assuming you want to, of course) please click here.

Friday, 24 October 2014

The Game Plan

Life for an author is never easy. The game plan was that as soon as the signings were over and done with, Marcia would get her head down and start writing. We have spent a lot of time over the last few months (admittedly squeezed in between other things that had to be done) visiting various places and sitting in coffee bars, tea rooms and so on while trying to find out which ones are visited by the new cast of characters that have been slowly coming to life.

Last week I said I would show you some of the photographs taken at The Hermitage. This was taken in February. As you can see spring is on its way but it was one of those bitterly cold days and we were visited by a flock of starlings. The blackbird on the table looks rather affronted but the blue tit feeding on the nuts is completely indifferent to the invaders.
It is surprising how important it is to locate where characters hang out – or not, of course, and some don’t. I suppose in part this is because if a person chooses such-and-such a place over one on the other side of the road, this says something positive about them. I suspect there is more to it than that: I suspect that Marcia finds places where these guys speak to her and it then follows that these are places they use.

Talking about blue tits: here we see a group of five youngsters on a nut feeder. It is now July and these are no longer reliant on their parents but they still have the yellow plumage that sets them apart from the adults.
This nut feeder is in a cage to stop the grey squirrels taking all the nuts. 
I’ve been thinking about the coffee bars, tea shops and suchlike that Marcia has drawn in her books. A number of them no longer exist – or have changed out of all recognition – which brings me to the thought (and I know we've been here before) that novelists writing in their own time create extraordinarily accurate snapshots of that place and time. Future generations can learn far more about life within that place and time than they can from any history written by someone trying recreate the past from artefacts and records. 

Here we have a common chaffinch - not a bird most people even think about but one I think is rather splendid.
The down side is in that phrase ‘the place’. It represents a tiny droplet in the ocean of humanity that exists: life in the relatively well-heeled society living in the more rural parts of the West Country is totally different from life in cities – be they in those parts that are seriously deprived, amongst the super-rich or anywhere else. Marcia believes in writing only about what she knows and often quotes Jane Austen who once described the ‘canvas’ on which she wrote as being a ‘small, square, two inches of ivory’.

Equally charming if less colourful is Mrs Chaffinch.

However, like all game plans, this one was destined to fail. First up was an email from Kingsbridge Library: could Marcia come to an event they are planning and would she cut the cake, please? If she could manage it, three in the afternoon would be wonderful. Yes, of course she could. Marcia always does everything she can to support libraries and loves talking to groups of readers. Later today we shall be in Kingsbridge.

Michael Chequer of Radio Devon
Then there was Radio Devon. Just before she went on holiday, Marcia’s publicist emailed to ask whether Marcia was happy to be interviewed on Radio Devon. Another ‘of course’ – of course. Marcia naturally assumed that this would be as it has been in the past: popping in to chat to Judi Spiers on her morning programme (long term readers of this blog may remember that I once put up a photograph I had taken of them in the studio). Not so – but we were not to know this until Sarah returned from holiday  it seems that they want Marcia be one of the guests on the ‘Good Morning, Devon’ programme in the 9 to 10 slot on Saturday, November 1. Let’s hope she has as much fun with Michael Chequer as she has always had with Judi.

When the publication date is so late in the year, it (and the associated events) coincide with the time when Marcia usually drifts out of our world and into her own, a world that is infinitely more real to her. It all started with The Christmas Angel (Christmas in Cornwall in the US) which the publishers felt (quite reasonably) could not be brought out during the summer.

The next book, which is set in Dartmouth, starts just before regatta – The Port of Dartmouth Royal Regatta to be precise – at the end of August. Anyway, Marcia is hoping that Transworld will bring next year’s book out before then. It has no firm title as yet although it is in production and I expect to receive the copy editor’s comments quite soon. If they do, all the events that follow publication will be well and truly over before she starts writing in earnest next autumn.

We shall see what happens.

How do you define a great novelist? We have been trying to decide and have come to no very firm conclusions so it would be good if some of you could enter into that debate.

Does a novelist have to create characters? That’s not a silly question. Think of books such as Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel where the writer takes real people out of history and tries to bring then to life for the reader.

Do we have to be able to empathise or identify with the characters created by a great novelist? One great novel was Animal Farm by George Orwell and nobody could possibly believe in any of his characters.

What do you think?

I'm not sure which of them is enjoying this encounter most!

Friday, 17 October 2014

Of Mice and Men

Mice have featured more than usual in our lives this week. Mice in the wrong place, that is: house mice (Mus musculus) in one of the cupboards in the kitchen in which we keep food to be specific. I have a very soft spot for mice but I am not entirely sure they would have been very welcome even if they had been field or wood mice (Apodemus sylvaticus to remove any confusion) which I find much more attractive.

Years ago, when we lived about a thousand foot above sea level on the cliffs to the south of Boscastle (on the North Cornish coast) we were having a new five bar gate put in. The holes for the posts had been dug by a chap from the village – the usual three foot deep and about six inches in diameter but he did this by hand using only a crowbar and a spade with a very narrow blade shaped a bit like a hand trowel. Nowadays the usual tool is a power auger on the back of a tractor.

These holes were covered with bits of slate held down with stones to keep small animals out but the next morning we found two dead dormice in the bottom of one of them. The problem with these little creatures is that they have to eat a great deal to keep going as the smaller you are the more body heat you lose and so the more calories you have to take on board to keep going. It is probable that these two died of hypothermia.

Anyway, since I hate killing things unless there is a very good reason, I use live traps and then let the little critters go some place away from houses.

This is the live trap I use. There were two mice in it and I am about to let them out on our way from Dartington to Dartmouth where Marcia was to sign books in the community bookshop (more on this below). Also below is a short video I took this morning showing the one we caught last night eventually trotting odff into the blue yonder.

Just before we left I received an email from Naomi Bates who lives in Australia. Attached to that was this picture of a lizard - a blue-tongued lizard or Tiliqua scincoides scincoides to be precise. 

Then, to our great surprise, as we walked from the car park in Dartmouth there, on the path, was a slow worm, Anguis fragilis, which is also a lizard even though it looks like a snake. We have one in the garden at Dartington but I don't see it very often and have never been able to take a photograph.

Years ago - and many more than I care to think about, we lived quite near to Christopher Robin Milne, the son of A A Milne and the muse for the books that featured Pooh, Piglest and the other inhabitants of the forest. At that time he owned the Harbour Bookshop in Dartmouth. In due course he sold the shop to Rowland Abram and one of his assistants was Andrea Saunders. 

Then, as happens, the bookshop closed down and Dartmouth became yet another town in which there was no place to go and browse the shelves and chat to the staff about books.

Andrea Saunders with Marcia in the Dartmouth Community Bookshop'
Not for long. It was decided that the answer was to create a bookshop that was run by the community on a not-for-profit basis and that the right person to run it was none other than Andrea with over twenty-five years of experience of the reading habits of locals and tourists alike. I am delighted to say that this project is a great success - in part due to the fact that there are so many people willing to work there on a voluntary basis. What is especially encouraging is that, while other bookshops are closing, this one is planning to expand into a small courtyard at the rear of the shop.

This is a wonderful model - and you can read all about it on their website - and I do hope that other communities take note and see whether or not they can create something similar.


Obviously this chap has a nautical owner. Two leads: a red one to attach him to port (as above) and a green one to starboard.

Friday, 10 October 2014

A Tale of two Claires

Titles are difficult - finding a title of a book and then writing the blurb that goes with it seem to be almost as difficult as writing the book in the first place but this title came to me and now you can see why.

The Claire in the top picture has been working at the book shop at Roman Gate in Exeter for as long as Marcia has been writing and so they have known each other for a very long time. In those early days the shop belonged to Dillons (a book store-cum-chain with an interesting history - next week, perhaps?) but it is now one of the Waterstone outlets.
The other Claire, who works in Exeter, is already known to some of you: she takes photographs of moths which she sends to me in the hope that I shall know what sort it happens to be and which I put up om this blog.
What I wrote last week about neonies was misleading although I didn't realise that at the time.

This matter of the use of insecticides is never as simple as it sounds and it could well be that the EU has this one wrong and the UK was right to vote against the ban on neonicotinoids. Th EU argument is that this insecticide damages the pollinating insects that we need – this decision was based on laboratory tests that exposed bees and other pollinators to far higher levels of neonies than they would experience in the field and at those levels it was, not unsurprisingly, lethal.
Marcia with our old friend Peter Kingsman - to whom Indian Summer is dedicated - having a moment in the Bedford Hotel in Tavistock.
The main need is for something that deals with insects such as the flea beetles that can and do destroy the very plants that produce the pollen on which the bees live – crops such as rape – and, crucially, flea beetles have become resistant to pyrethroids (the insecticide that was to be replaced by neonicotinoid) with the result that over half the crop here in the UK failed before coming into flower. This resulted in less food for the bees: many colonies have raised fewer progeny and are in serious danger of being unable to make it through the winter. Thus the ban on neonies has effectively halved the bee population in areas where they rely on farmers to provide them with their food. Isn't life complicated?

My Friday blog is not the place to explore this subject in detail but I thought I ought to put the record right. As I remarked above, this subject (like fracking and a few others) is never simple but there is one common denominator: the debates about them tend to create a lot more heat than light,

As a result, I have been thinking about pollination quite a lot since last week and especially about the way in which plants spend so much energy in producing flowers designed to attract insects. Nature, in this case, is truly profligate as the following photographs demostrate.

There seems to be a parallel here between nature putting huge energy into producing a display that has a fairly short life and writing. It takes Marcia about a year to write a book – and then there is the work carried out by her editors, the copy editor, the production team, distribution network and the booksellers. How long does it take to read one of her novels? Certainly less than a week. The argument gets rather muddled because there are, of course, many thousands of readers and many of those readers read each novel quite a few times.

It has taken about five years to finish Marcia's Willett's West County which is utterly ridiculous when you consider that we are talking about a very slim volume (just over a hundred pages) where about 25% is taken up with photographs. I just hope some of you will enjoy reading it when it comes out. All the files have been delivered to the printer and publication day will be 30 October. This last week has passed in a bit of a whirl as I was determined to finish everything before I went to bed last night. Very pleased to say that I managed to achieve that but everything else went by the board.

One of the casualties has been the garden. It would have been good to have finished “putting it to bed” for the winter while the weather stayed fine but that just didn't happen – the Indian Summer we have been enjoying broke with a vengeance shortly after Indian Summer was published. I blame Marcia.

Sadly I have no idea what this chap is called but there is something about that solid - even stolid - stance of these terriers that always appeals to me. "Come on world," they say, "I'm ready for you!"