We lived up to our reputation, awakening later than ever (about 10am), and looked out to a gloomy world. A heavy drizzle had set in, and a mist, blowing from the sea, cast an air of depression over the camp. To some degree we welcomed this, for in its reflected outlook, silence reigned. From snatches of conversation we learned that many tents had failed to hold water, and leakages were many and uncomfortable. Our own little ‘Itisa’ was dry and comfortable, and breakfast was a slow orgy of drawn-out delight. We had an easy morning chatting with various pessimistically inclined and envious campers, writing belated postcards to neglected folks ‘back home’, and paying sundry barefoot excursions across the ooze to other tents, and once to watch the mists rolling in with the tide.
But at noon we tired of the camping ground and packed up, still in heavy rain. After duly digesting the camp rules, we got along with it down four miles of lanes; four miles of steep hills, deep hedges; four miles of honeysuckle to Brixham. South Devon is here at her best, even in the rain; old, packed town, tiny, snug little harbour full of craft, and the smack of the salt sea smarting in its sting with the rain on our faces. Brixham, in sheltered seclusion against the great Atlantic breakers; Brixham and the cliffs of South Devon; Brixham – Heaven, even in the rain.
We started for Kingswear, and climbed a barrier that took half an hour of hard tramping to overcome. On the top the rain redoubled its vigour, soaked us, blinded us, drove into our faces and our eyes, streamed off our bare heads. On a fearful gradient we tumbled down to Kingswear, stopping once to survey the panorama of the river Dart which lay below in a slanting veil of rain-mist like a sky beauty behind filmy curtains. At the ferry we waited for the clumsy traffic boat, and were sedately transferred to Dartmouth.
Like a breath of old Devon, quaint Dartmouth lives on the glory of the past. When England was in its struggling ascendant, Dartmouth was paramount; she sent ships and men – those bold Devon lads we read of in school books and in ‘Westward Ho!’ though in very truth cut-throats, pirates, and willing plunderers, as murderous as any demoralised Eastern usurper or Chicago gangster. Here were built the boats of the much-vaunted Pilgrim Fathers, and from the river they sailed to people the New World, as though the New World had not already suffered enough from the ravages of the white man. First the ravages of the white man’s sword, then the ravages of his religion !
As is my wont, a bright idea germinated in my mind, and though Jack hardly applauded it, he agreed – to sail up-river to Totnes. That is the best way to see the river Dart. We went aboard, and after punting back and forth a few times between Dartmouth and Kingswear, we set sail up the river in company with about thirty dejected looking trippers – and a guide. The guide mounted a box, the audience gathered round dutifully, and in a sonorous voice he rolled out a lengthy history of every house, tree or rock along the route, enlivening the converse with a string of jokes as hoary as some of the rocks themselves.
We gained an impression from him that the weather is always lovely, though, even as our guide quoted this a mist swept up behind, stinging rain came along, and a cold wind blew up in chilly gusts. Everyone scattered for shelter, and we scattered as well, but really seizing the excuse to get away from what one of us irreverently termed “the endless repetition of a gramophone record”. The majority of the passengers were of the dear old lady type, with a few subdued-looking men and one or two pairs of lovers, but never a girl who was interesting. But apart from that and the weather the sail was lovely. Even in the rain, the wooded hillsides smoking mist, the half-hidden creeks sheltering hamlets and often just a fisherman’s cottage made lovely with whitewash, thatch, and roses, were of haunting beauty. As we approached Totnes the weather cleared, and a half-hearted sun gave a half promise. The boat, winding in and out first in narrow channels, then in wider bays, and giving us glimpses of higher, bolder hills, at length churned its way to a jetty, and we found ourselves at Totnes.
Totnes ! I could write a eulogy on its steep main street, but I could not give my eulogy one rich Devon word to make it understood. Maybe it is enough to say we dallied there, and, remembering many sworn pledges, salved ourselves by posting one tin each of Devon Cream. Whatever my personal taste may be, who dares gainsay a waft of Devon sweetness on its way to a stifled Lancashire industrial town, to set dreaming – to brighten at least one soul shuttered therein?
The lanes from Totnes, and the many steep hills, gave us a ready excuse to linger, and to find a beauty spot to have a gorgeous tea thereat was our quickly satisfied guest. We were dispensing with a meal for the second day in succession, but, as I remember the vast quantity of necessities and delicacies we consumed each time, I doubt if our three meals a day idea was of any material gain. All that we saw of Ipplepen was a hillside cottage or two and an ivy-clad castle kept half-hidden in trees. We turned to Ashburton to buy in for the night prior to facing Dartmoor. The early closing demon was following us, for at Ashburton (quite a comfortable little town) we found every shop shuttered against us. We searched, we pried here and there, we banged at doors until in a side street bakery, a buxom dame beamed on us. Everyone came out and gathered round the tandem, and as we did our best to buy the whole shop’s stock outright, opinions not always flattering floated in to us.
A rousing cheer, ironical maybe, but quite loud enough to make the much-flattered ‘Amy’ Johnson green with envy, followed us as we made our exit from Ashburton. We faced wild Dartmoor, walking up a fine hill with a fine descent, and an exquisite riverside ride to a really terrific hill that taxed us sorely. Came another descent, and with reckless speed we plunged down to a cottage, a bridge, a gate, a lovely little river-ravine, and another hill ahead that foreboded heavy work. Then came a dreadfully familiar hissing noise at the rear – and the back tyre subsided ! For a time we didn’t even look at it. We just sat on the parapet of the bridge wondering whether to throw ourselves into the river or not, and eventually broke into a weird dirge instead. Thus relieved, we set to repairing the thing.
A high wind brought scudding storm-clouds threatening overhead ere we fixed up again. Night was coming on, and our hopes of crossing Dartmoor that day were fading. We had got to the first ‘elbow’ on the next hill when we were hailed by a tandem couple in a little hollow, repairing exactly the same kind of tyre burst that we had so much experienced. They were bound for Ashburton, having crossed Dartmoor. We became even happy just then, for there was great comfort in the thought that we were not alone with our woes, but even as we stood there, singing blithely there was another drawn out hiss, and lo, our tyre flattened out of its own accord ! The blithe song changed to a harsh croak, even worse than Jack’s normal singing voice. Frankly, we were ‘stumped’. Two new tyres and four tubes had been of no avail. At last it dawned on us that Mr Dunlop was not at fault. The back wheel-rim, though quite safe for the weight of a girl, was unsuited for two ‘twelve-stoners’ and a load of camping kit. Nevertheless we should have to put up with it. Their tyre repaired, the tandem couple gave us their sympathy which, though genuine enough, left us unmoved, and went their way while we occupied their little hollow and once more set ourselves to the task.
Rain came on, the tube was in a parlous state and the patches would not stick: twilight came over while we still struggled and got ourselves and the whole outfit wet. At last, realising that time and patience were required, we decided to find a campsite for the night. We walked back to the bridge and enquired at the cottage, but were met with an apologetic refusal and the ancient yarn of a disagreeable overlord was dusted and trotted out. Neither could we get eggs or milk. There was a beautiful common by the river, and there was a large notice which distinctly stated ‘No Campers Allowed’, but we were in no mood to be intimidated by notice-boards, and without a qualm we found a really delectable spot, a turfy clearing amongst great gorse bushes. With great trees in front and the river rushing noisily beyond a broken wall – with the wind swaying the branches, though we were sheltered and hidden from the road – with darkness growing – with the tandem broken down – abandoned by the wall – we were intensely happy, and ate such a supper that we left scarcely anything for breakfast !
After supper came a discussion. With lighted cigarettes and drowsy comfort inside the sleeping bags, we were able to make our plans. Clearly we would have to ‘cut’ North Devon out however much we disliked doing it. Our loosely planned tour had been cut to shreds, and now our only way was to move homewards. The morrow would be Thursday; our tyre had gone again, and as it was guaranteed, we decided to return to Exeter and try some other kind. Just as we were on the edge of sleep, Jack jumped up suddenly. He had heard something. We listened; the trees swayed and sighed and on the hills the wind made deep moans; spasmodic rain spattered on the leaves and on the tent; the river gurgled beyond the trees. After a moment we heard an irregular ‘thud-thud’, faint at first but coming nearer ——- ‘thud…thud’ on turfy grass, and rustling bushes, ‘thud….thud….thud’….. and rustles, louder, nearer ! We invited each other to look out and see, and we both displayed a marked preference for the warm eiderdowns. So, eventually, we both popped our heads over the door. The night was weird. Grey semi-darkness, with deeper shadows under the trees that waved branches like fantastic arms in the wind, and bushes that were but vague shadows themselves. ‘Thud…thud’ like a muffled drum close at hand, eerily mingled with wind-sighs and rain-splatters and river-gurgles. We peered into the grey, and…… there was something moving among the bushes ! A faint, darker shadow amidst the shadows of the bushes, a shadow without shape. We stared hard, half in and half out of the sleeping bags, ready to jump – in which direction we hadn’t considered. There were other moving shapes behind…… and the thudding was loud, rapid, now. The first form took shape, and with a snort, broke into the clearing where our tent was pitched. The snap of twig turned our eyes to the trees, and there we saw moving figures, four – five, maybe six. Involuntarily, I gave a shout, and immediately came a rush of forms by our tent – the thud of stampeded hoofs, and five or six wild ponies dissolved into the night.
It was an eerie, ghostly experience, and we laughed at it as we rolled back snugly again. The explanation was simple. The spot where we had chanced to camp was the evening rendezvous of a herd of wild ponies who roam the wastes of Dartmoor, and are very timid of man. They are rarely seen by the traveller unless he leaves the beaten track.