Friday, 27 March 2015

Sister Cara Mary

The journey through life we all take brings us into contact with many people and, if we are honest, the vast majority we come across mean little or nothing to us. However, every now and then we meet someone who in some way becomes an important to us – either because of who they are or of what they teach us: sometimes both.

This blog is a celebration of one such: the late Sister Cara Mary of Tymawr Convent near Monmouth.

When Marcia and I lived in Avonwick some twenty years ago, another remarkable woman, Greta Scott, lived not far from us. To be more accurate her home was there but she spent most of her time at Tymawr where she had acted as unpaid bursar ever since she had retired. Thus it was that Marcia came to know about Tymawr and to decide that she would visit the convent with a view to a week of silent retreat. I drove her up and we were met by a small nun with spectacles and a rather curious hearing system. She announced that she was Sister Cara Mary and was to care for Marcia during her stay. On that occasion I was with Cara for less than two minutes but that was enough to make a real impact on me – and I must admit that I was far happier leaving Marcia in her care than I had thought I would be.

Over the years, when Marcia was spending a week at the convent every six months, she and Cara became very close and one summer, to my delight, it was arranged that Cara would spend one week of her summer holiday with us in Avonwick. How many of us realised that some groups of nuns actually take a summer holiday?

The weather was wonderful and we had a wonderful time. We drove up to fetch Cara and the first thing she did on arrival was to disappear and change out of her habit into some casual clothes. ‘I have put that nun away in the wardrobe,’ was the way she put it.

Cara was certainly as deaf as I am and it could well be that this was an important factor in our relationship. Not just deaf but determined to continue to communicate with other people using whatever technology we could and putting as much effort into understanding as was needed. Not surprisingly we spent a good deal of time talking about the problems the deaf face and the various ways of trying to deal with what is, actually, a quite serious disability which can, depending on the causes of the deafness, be rather painful.

Cara had an interesting background. She had studied fine arts at The Courtlaud (alongside Anita Brookner and Anthony Blunt: ‘Such a poor muddled man’ amongst others) and had spent much of the war working at Bletchly Park before entering the Order and teaching.

Why was she so important to me? I think it was because in her eyes the church was totally inclusive. She would say things such as, ‘She’s a Christian although, of course, she doesn’t know it’. Having said that she was strict both with herself and others. If you agreed to do something – she would expect you to do it. Thus, having taken her vows she never gave a moments thought to turning her back on them even when life in the convent was for her was very hard.

Sadly, on her third holiday with us (this time at The Hermitage) she suffered a severe stroke and it was not long before she died. We can, however, look back at the five or six days she spent there with the certain knowledge that she was very happy.

PS Had a PET scan yesterday and expect further news next week.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Entering port

This is going to be one of the hardest blogs to write as it contains some pretty grim news. However, over the years I have become very attached to you all – and especially those who send encouraging emails or leave comments. So . . .

As you know I was suffering from anaemia at the back end of last year. As a result I have been taking medication to increase my blood count and that has been working (I feel better now than I did then) but it left unanswered the basic question: why was it happening? We now know. I have a malignant tumour growing in my oesophagus and that is at the root of all the problems.

It has been decided – I have decided – that an operation is not an option. All the advice is that I would be extremely lucky to survive what would be major surgery. So, more and more tests as we look at other treatments. I will keep you informed but I have no intention of dwelling on this in future blogs.

My apologies for ignoring last week’s comments (and messages via email, Facebook and so on). I am sure you will now understand why.
Achieve with David Griffiths at the helm.
Only one photograph this week: Achieve. She is that blue boat moored on the river Dart. Now in semi-retirement, all she does is help with the ferry between the town and the castle at the river mouth during the height of the season. She was, however, the River Dart Pilot Boat until the river trade came to an end with the closure of the Baltic Wharf in Totnes. The name gives the purpose away: it was through this river that much of the timber from the Baltic ports that was destined for use in the west country was imported.

Achieve belongs to my friend David Griffiths: one time and last River Dart Pilot. One day, about thirty years ago, I suppose, I accompanied him out of the river on board Achieve (crewed for the occasion be Messrs Distin and Bell) and we – David and I – boarded one of those ships from the Baltic (climbing a rather scary Jacob’s ladder). From the bridge I watched as David threaded this ship up the river – and I use the word ‘threaded’ very advisedly because there are places where the channel is both very narrow and very tortuous.

Achieve was already in Totnes when we arrived, her crew ashore to take the bow warps as David turned the ship around in the turning bay before sliding her gently alongside the Baltic Wharf to await unloading.

Then it was back down the river to Dartmouth. It had been a wonderful day – and profitable. At the time I was writing a regular column for Yachts and Yachting and the experience gave me ample material for one of my pieces.

Down the centuries pilots have taken over as ships near the end of their voyages and I am now looking towards that final trip from the open sea to a secluded berth. Luckily I have the best of pilots. You know her as a novelist.

Friday, 13 March 2015

The oak, the ash and the thorn

Welcome to my Friday the Thirteenth blog. Some are, of course, unhappy with the day/date combination believing it to bring bad luck. Not so my late father-in-law who was born on a Friday the thirteenth and, throughout a long and generally very happy life, maintained nothing could be luckier. Odd thing, superstition.

The oak
Here, in England, some of the oldest superstitions and myths involve three trees: the oak, the ash and the thorn (the latter being, almost certainly, the Hawthorn). Those who were brought up in Puck of Pooks Hill by Rudyard Kipling will, I am sure, remember that the children were magicked into forgetting their encounters with Puck and his friends thanks to this simple act:

He (Puck) gave them each three leaves – one of Oak, one of Ash, and one of Thorn. ‘Bite these,’ said he. ‘Otherwise you might be talking at home of what you’ve seen and heard, and – if I know human beings – they’d send for the doctor. Bite!’

Then there is a rhyme which runs:

Oak before ash,
In for a splash.
Ash before oak,
In for a soak.

This goes back a long way and older versions are more elaborate:

When the oak comes out before the ash,
You’ll have a summer of wet and splash;When the ash comes out before the oak,You’ll have a summer of dust and smoke.

Most years, of course, the oak and ash ‘come out’ at the same time in that in both cases the leaves begin to burst out of the buds at the same time. When that happens, Marcia and I call it a ‘sploak’. Marcia and I have paid close attention as to which comes first for many years and made a couple of interesting (if unscientific) discoveries. The first is that for there to be any accuracy, there has to be somewhere where trees from both species are standing close together. Only then will all other factors be removed: height above sea level (which equals differences in both air and ground temperature), exposure to winds and so on. Thus it is that when we find such a pair, we call them a ‘sploakometer’.

The ash. 
The second discovery is that the old rhyme does seem to be right. On the rare occasions when one or other comes out significantly earlier than the other what follows is as predicted. How can that be? How can a couple of trees ‘know’ what is going to happen to weather in future months? The only explanation can be that they don’t but that minute variations (far too small for us to recognise) in conditions over the months preceding each spring create some sort of pattern which determines both when the oak and ash leaves come and the weather conditions to follow.

Sadly the fate of sploakometers in the UK is at risk as a fungus that is gradually killing the vast majority of our ash trees spreads across the country. We have a one mighty ash in the front garden and a few youngsters growing alongside the boundary to the rear. We would both be very saddened were anything to happen to them. I have no doubt that there will evolve a strain of ash that is immune to this fungus in the same way as we are now seeing elm trees which are immune to Dutch Elm Disease establishing themselves. Even so, it means that there will be areas of the country where the landscape will be altered for ever.

The hawthorn or may
Although the oak was undoubtedly the most venerated of our trees (it was, of course, sacred to the Druids who took their name from the Greek word for the oak, drus) the ash was often involved in some bizarre forms of medical intervention. Incidentally, when we say ‘touch wood’ we are following a custom far older than the birth and death of Christ and the wood in question was, of course, the oak.

Do you have a child suffering from rickets? Nowadays you might be tempted to believe the youngster to be short of Vitamin D but a few centuries ago you would reject such an implausible idea and realise that the only sensible cure would be to invoke the spirit of the ash. Accordingly you would find an ash with a trunk of less than a hand span in diameter and you would split it with a sharp axe, heavy knife or bill hook. The split had to be long enough so that on the following morning, just as the sun was about to rise, you could take the child and, after stripping it naked, open up the split and pass the child through it. That done, the trunk would be bound back together and the wounds sealed with clay. Behold, as the tree healed so did the child – or so it was believed.

Hawthorn (or the May Tree) had an absolutely vital role for without it there would be no passion, no love and, obviously, no children. In those days the maypole would be made from hawthorn and it would be used to make the garland with which that summer’s ‘Green Man’ was crowned and the girls would adorn their hair with the May blossom. Obviously it was important to ensure that cows remained fertile and provided sufficient milk: a prudent cowman would hang a bunch of hawthorn outside his byre. Note the outside, bringing hawthorn indoors would be to invite bad luck – which brings us back to Friday the Thirteenth.

No matter how you look at Friday the Thirteenth, it was a lucky day for Sugar when she was rescued by Keith and Jeanne Giles: it's called falling on your feet. It took a lot of organisation to bring her over five hundred miles to the Giles' home and I am hoping that Jeanne will tell us how that was achieved in her comment this week.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Tavistock at work 200 years ago

The problem with looking into the history of a place is that sometimes you end up with a feeling of total disconnect – a feeling that the place you know so well could not possibly have been anything like what your research tells you.

Less than two hundred years ago Tavistock was completely and utterly different. It was an industrial town which depended on people to provide most of the power needed to drive that industry.
One thing is certain, 200 years ago there was no Book Stop. It was here, as I am sure most of you know, that the launch party for Marcia's first novel Those Who Serve was held. That was a long time ago but the book is still in print and continues to sell in both print and ebook editions.
In the early 1800’s copper in considerable quantities were found in and near Tavistock. This simple fact had a huge impact on the townspeople in general but what I want to talk about is what happened to numbers of young girls and women: they were employed in the copper mines carrying out filthy, back-breaking work all of which started when they were no more than thirteen years old.

No Bedford Hotel . . .
They weren’t employed underground (or, if they were, there is no record of this happening) but it was their job to carry out all the work needed to convert the ore bearing rocks and detritus that was dug out below and brought to the surface. The whole process was called ‘dressing’ and the areas where most of the work was carried out were called ‘dressing floors’. Some were covered, others were in the open air.

No Crebers . . .
First all the material that had been mined had to be taken from the mine head to the dressing floors. This was done by teams of two women using shovels and hand barrows: usually in their twenties because this work demanded great strength.

Next was work for the younger girls: to wash out the rubbish and put to one side the lumps of rock in which there would be copper ore. It was important that these girls neither discarded valuable ore nor allowed useless material to be passed on to the next process. In short it demanded knowledge and considerable concentration. New girls would work alongside those with experience in order to learn the job and all day their hands – and often their clothing – would be wet as they carried out this physically demanding work: they would be lumping around pieces of rock that could weight up the thirty pounds or so all day long.

No Duke Street . . .
All this work built up their strength and they would be moved onto breaking up the rock and turning it into a powder. This was done in two stages. The first used short and heavy club hammers to break the rocks down to the size of pebbles – the second used flat headed hammers to break up the pebbles and grind them to powder.

Then would be the final stage: the separation of the particle of copper ore from the ‘guange’ (pronounced ‘gang’) which comprised all the bits of stone and so on which were of no value. This part of the job is almost exactly the same as panning for gold – using water to separate out the lighter guange from the heavier metal or ore.

No Pannier Market.
We are talking about quite big concerns: we know that one mine employed over a thousand workers at one time and the other was a somewhat larger operation. That would mean that a third of the town’s population was involved.

Can you imagine what those working conditions were like? Can you imagine any of our youngsters today being prepared to carry out such work?

One thing is for sure: none of Marcia’s characters would recognise the Tavistock of 200 years ago. It was the copper that lined the pockets of the Duke of Bedford who was to use much of this wealth to rebuild the town in the 1830’s. Few of the buildings in the centre of the town existed then: no Guildhall, no Pannier Market, no Duke Street, no Crebers in which to meet Felicity out shopping and no Bedford Hotel in which to eavesdrop on Kate and Cass gossiping over coffee.

This is the cover of Postcards from the Past as published in the USA. The painting is by Vitali Komarov and Marcia loves his work (we have one of his original oils hanging in our sitting room) and she was thrilled to bits when St Martin's Press decided to use his work on the covers of her books. If you want to see more examples of Vitali's work, click here
Vitali Komarov
The real loss is that there was no Marcia Willett in those days to leave behind a word picture to enable us to imagine what it felt like to be living there at that time.

Friday, 27 February 2015

The Railway that wasn't there or Mea Culpa

Last week I promised to tell you about the mistake I made which means that there is an error in The Children’s Hour. You will remember that Lydia Shaw had a lover called Timothy Lestrange (which was just as well as her husband, Ambrose, was not the nicest of men). It is not only Lydia whose life is made much nicer when Timothy is around: the children all adore him and when he is around they find their father far less difficult. As Mina puts it:

Timothy is nice, isn’t he, Mama?’ says Mina. ‘He’s like a very kind magician. Like Merlin.’ Lydia is reading T.H. White’s ‘The Once and Future King’ to them after tea during the children’s hour. ‘He’s put a spell on all of us, hasn’t he?’

Last week, Maria left a comment about trees in winter so this one of beech trees is for you, Maria.
It was taken not far from the setting for The Children's Hour.
Then comes the war. Ambrose remains in London where he is busy making money. Timothy is enrolled into some clandestine group and is shortly to go abroad and will be away for some time. However . . .

Timothy manages one more visit to Ottercombe before vanishing again into Europe. Ambrose and Georgie, by now, are firmly fixed in London; each manipulating the other to attain their own ends. Petrol rationing and restrictions on travel give them excellent excuses to avoid the long journey to Exmoor but, somehow, Timothy finds the means: travelling by train to Barnstaple, catching the last connection to Parracombe and walking the rest of the way, nearly four miles, across the moor.

Obviously not Ottercombe as that is fictional, this is part of the coast that (together with Heddon's Mouth) inspired the idea of a small cove surrounded by tall cliffs and fed by a small stream that had eroded a steep valley on the side of which was perched the house. As so often happens the tops of the hills are shrouded in cloud and visibility is generally pretty poor.
When Marcia asked me to check and find out how Timothy could travel down by train I was able to find the line of the dis-used railway track and details of the old station at Parracombe but I didn’t bother to check when it had ceased to run because I assumed I knew. In 1963 and 1966 the Chairman of British Railways – Dr Richard Beeching (he was a doctor of physics, not medicine, and was also a fully qualified engineer) wrote reports about the need to modernise the UK’s railways. As a result about 5,000 miles of railway line and nearly 2,500 stations were closed and, yes, this was vandalism on a grand scale and should not have happened. Indeed, and at huge cost, some of these lines are being reopened as car travel becomes more and more expensive and the roads more and more congested. Anyway, I just assumed that this line to Parracombe was a victim of the so-called “Beeching cuts” in the 1960’s.

This is the cover of The Children's Hour as published by Wydawnictwo Replica in Poland - and it's not far from what Marcia had in mind, is it?.
Only it was closed before the war: Timothy could not have used it. Indeed, it is doubtful whether Timothy (in the time available to him) would have been able to make that flying visit to Ottercombe.

We discovered this thanks to a very kind and tactful email from an Anglican priest, Father Keith Denerley. Father Keith was Chaplain to the convent where Marcia used to go for a couple of retreats each year and they became (and remain) good friends. He apologised for bringing the error to our attention but, as he put it, in his profession it is important to remain on the ‘straight and narrow’. 

In order properly to enjoy that remark one needs to know that the railway in question, The Lynton and Barnstaple Railway, was indeed a narrow gauge (1 foot and 11½ inches, to be precise) railway with a single track about nineteen miles long that opened in May 1898. It soon ceased to be commercially viable and, despite efforts to run it more economically and to attract more travellers and freight, the last train ran on 29 September, 1935.

Taken a bit to the east of 'Ottercombe', this shows the effect of cloud on thw water of the Bristol Channel. On the far side is South Wales and the ship is on its way to the port of Avonmouth. Navigation here is tricky: the rise and fall of the tide here can be as high as 50 foot (I think I an right in saying that highest tides in the world are around 53 feet - in the Bay of Fundy, Canada). This means the water sluices in and out - especially out when the water coming down the river is added to the ebb flow - and it is very easy to lose control.
However, in 1979 The Lynton & Barnstaple Railway Association was formed to see what could be done. To date they have refurbished one old station (Woody Bay complete with tearoom and other facilities) and have some of the track laid to create a very popular tourist attraction. The trains may not go anywhere but the route takes you through some of the most breathtaking Exmoor scenery. The first train ran in July 2004 and an extension was opened in 2007. The society continues to work towards its ultimate aim: the restoration of as much of the line as is possible.

There is some rather interesting footage of the old railway on YouTube. To see it, click here.

I have no idea how many other people noticed the error – nor do I really want to know. However, if I had done my job properly when Marcia was writing The Children’s Hour that book would not have contained this stupid error. I mean, that line was never, ever, part of the British Rail network that was the subject of the Beeching Enquiry – how could I have got it so wrong?

Friday, 20 February 2015

Three Moors

In recent days, Marcia and I have trying to find the answer to the following question: what is it that makes a novel a pager-turner? Obviously there are all sorts of possible reasons and I would really like to know what you who read my blogs would suggest. Go on, put up your answers as a comment below. In one of Marjory Allingham’s wonderful Campion mystery stories Cargo of Eagles there is a delightful character who goes by the name of Monica Weatherby. She is, as she puts it, ‘the string man in these parts’ (freelance journalist for those who need a translation) and one of her sayings is, ‘I only ask because I want to know’. Well, that’s why I am asking for your help in this matter.

Incidentally, if you haven’t read any of the Campion books you have missed some beautiful writing, a wonderful if understated sense of humour, some delightful characterisation and some thumping good yarns. Be that as it may, back to the question.

We conclude that the number one requirement is that at all times the reader is able to suspend disbelief without even realising that this is happening. Thus one coincidence too many; one character doing, saying or even thinking something ‘out of character’; one reference to somewhere real that contains an inaccuracy; a plant in flower in the wrong season: all of these sorts of things can stop the reader and destroy that suspension of disbelief and that, once destroyed, is usually gone for good.

Putting the characters to one side – very definitely Marcia’s department – the rest of it is what I describe as ‘the geology of the book’ since it the very rocks below the surface of the earth that determines all above it. For the last two weeks I have been brooding on matters associated with Dartmoor which it is the largest area of granite in Great Britain. That, and the fact that it is ‘unglaciated’ (the ice shield that covered most of this country stopped just short of this moor) makes it a very special place.

Five views of Dartmoor including Marcia at Bonehills.
Just as special, but completely different thanks to having a very different geology, is Exmoor. Here the rocks are sedimentary – muds laid down by the silt settling in the seas. They are old: the earliest were being laid down in the Devonian geological age some 400 million years ago. Over time, these were distorted by two crustal plates (one to the north, the other to the south) drifting towards each other, pushing the layers of rock up to form an east to west ridge or arch-like fold. That is, of course, an over-simplification: over time there were all sorts of minor movements superimposed on that basic fold and some of the resulting contortions can be seen where the moor meets the sea. These rocks contain no fossils.

For about 200 million years this area was above sea level but during the Jurassic Age (from about 210 to 145 million years ago) parts of this moor was again covered by the sea. The sediments laid down during this period are full of fossils and are very similar to those on the south coast of Dorset which is known as the ‘Jurassic Coast’.

Then there was more shoving and heaving and, of course, constant erosion due to water aided and abetted during the ice age. Was this moor covered by ice? Probably not permanently in the way we think of the ice shield but there is evidence of the surface being repeatedly frozen and then thawed: with shards of frost-broken rock scattered down the hillsides and jumbles of unsorted fragments lying in the valley floors. All of this creates a very different landscape to Dartmoor. Rarely do you see exposed solid rock except on the coast (which is truly one of the most spectacular coastlines in the country). Instead you have softly rounded hills with deep valleys formed by streams and rivers cutting through rocks very much softer than the granite on Dartmoor.

Five views of Exmoor - with Marcia somewhat dwarfed by the landscape.
Then there is Bodmin Moor. Here we are back to granite again but this moor is much smaller than Dartmoor and, to my eyes at least, there is a bleakness about it – probably because, like so much of Cornwall, there are far less trees than there are in Devon.

And here we are on Bodmin. The second down is rather interesting. Marcia wanted to set a house (this was in The Way We Were) here on Treswallock Down. I was saying there was absolutely no reason why there should be a house up here - full stop. Then we came across this hut circle and Marcia, quite reasonably, pointed out that if people had been living here about six thousand years ago then there was no reason why they couldn't be doing it now. So it was that this is the exact site of Julia's home and I had to come up with the best possible reason for it being there. Oh, and that's her in the next picture down near where she set Mellinpons in Postcards of the Past.
One thing they all have in common: if you know where to stand and which way to look from Dartmoor and Bodmin you can catch glimpses of the sea; on Exmoor they are hardly glimpses: the northern boundary of the moor is the Bristol Channel or, as some call it, the Severn Sea.

I am sure you will all agree that we really do know which of these moors we are on when reading Marcia’s books. I am not sure how she achieves this but somehow she manages to evoke the differences in her wonderful descriptive passages and with only one exception (as far as I know) all the books are true to the geology of the settings. I will explain how that error crept in next week and I have to admit that this was entirely my fault – not hers.

Friday, 13 February 2015


Rather like last week, we have been simply busy getting on which is probably the best thing to be doing at this time of the year. Flanders and Swann (do you remember them?) included in their repertoire an excellent little ditty about the months of the year: A Song of the Weather. The couplet that described February runs thus:

February’s ice and sleet
Freeze the toes right off your feet.

Certainly true here and so there has been little incentive to go out and potter around instead of staying tucked up warm and cozy at home. So it is that I find myself following the same tack as I did last week and talking about my explorations associated with the book about Tavistock and another alley I found my self following which has almost nothing to do with what I am writing about but which I found surprising and slightly compelling. It is about rabbits.

This photograph was taken on Bodmin Moor about a mile from the setting of the house called Trescairn in The Way We Were. It is actually in a field that abuts open moorland and these rabbits seem to be managing well. The soil here drains far better than it does on Dartmoor.
 Have you noticed the crow, top left on the skyline?
When I was a youngster, we lived alongside one of the old English estates which consisted of three farms, plenty of mixed woodland and, although no longer used as such, a deer park. We were allowed to roam wherever we liked once we had proved ourselves to be responsible members of society which we did in various ways. Mine was to become friendly with the gamekeeper and I owe to him rather than anybody else my interest in the flora and fauna of our wonderful countryside. There is, of course, no such thing as a free lunch and I had to be helpful in various ways in order to be able to spend so much time with him.

One of those ways was to take part in the never ending attempt to control the rabbit population on the estate. Sensibly the rabbits favoured places where woodland met farmland, preferably with the field to the south of the wood. They were deeply unpopular with the farmers and it really is quite incredible how much damage rabbits can do to crops. So, when matters got out of hand, I would find myself with Mr Brinkley on a rabbit cull. That evening I would return home with two or three rabbits and my mother would make a wonderful rabbit pie.

It was only when I started thinking about the Tavistock book that I gave a thought to rabbits on Dartmoor. They are few and far between: to be honest I don’t think I have ever seen one up there. In the fields that border the moor, yes: on the moor itself, no. A bit of investigation into the habits of rabbits and I found out why this was.

First and foremost rabbits need to be able to dig burrows. These create spaces in which rabbits can socialise and where they feel safest. Obviously these burrows need to be dry and the soil in which they are dug reasonably friable and stone-free and not too far away from a reliable food source. Take a quick look at Dartmoor and all you will find is the reliable food source. The soil is acidic, very peaty (dry it most certainly is not as peat retains moisture) and carries far more than its fair share of stones.
I took this photograph in May 2013 but neither of us can remember where.
Meanwhile, rabbits were then very important and not just for their meat – then a great delicacy and so eaten only by the wealthy – they provided the fur used to trim clothing and, when felted, to make hats. Nevertheless, breeding rabbits for meat and fur was at the expense of damage to crops but there was a simple solution: create artificial warrens up on the moor which provided the rabbits with the perfect environment in which they could prosper a long way away from any farmland. So, starting in about 1300, that is what they did.

In simple language, they chose a flattish area near the top of a rounded hill, dug a trench around it – an ellipse which could be up to a hundred and thirty foot long and thirty foot wide. Next was a long ditch that ran down the middle of the ellipse, a number of cross ditches that linked that long one to the first trench (never opposite each other but I have been unable to find out why) and, finally, a ‘gripe’ or drain was dug to take the water away from the burrow. These trenches were then covered by turf and stones to support a thick layer of suitable soil which created the burrow. Last of all this was then roofed with further turf to keep as much water out as possible.

Here is how William Crossing put it in his Guide to Dartmoor: The burrows, or burys, as the warrener calls them, are formed by first digging a narrow trench, with small ones branching from it on each side, but not opposite each other. Large slabs of turf are then cut, and with these the little trenches are covered. Over this is heaped a mound of earth, and the burrow is finished. A few holes are made for the rabbits to enter, and they quickly take possession of their new abode.' (Incidentally, Crossing lived in South Brent which is featured in The Courtyard and is one of the many villages in which Marcia and I have lived).

Thus, after a great deal of effort, the perfect solution was found. These burrows – now known as Pillow Mounds and often wrongly thought to be burial mounds – provided ideal conditions for the rabbits away from the farmland and, most importantly, the warreners knew exactly where they were and how to catch them.
We were delighted to find that there were rabbits in the field behind the house when we moved into Dartington Hall. Then one started to come into the garden and not everything he (or she, of course, as the case may be) did was entirely to our liking: I can confirm that rabbits love pansies!
Not that it ended there: almost every year the burrows needed work to be carried out to ensure that the drainage system and the roof were in good order but it was all well worth while.

In 1800’s there were eighteen such warrens being operated on the moor – of which nine were in the Tavistock area – and each warren contained anything up to twenty Pillow Mounds. It was highly profitable: in the 12th century a rabbit and its fur cost far more than a skilled craftsman could earn in a day. Gradually as supply built up the prices dropped: by the 15th century it was down to what our craftsman could earn in half a day and by the 18th century rabbit meat was in the grasp of all but the very poorest.

Amazing where a book about Marcia’s books can take you, isn’t it?