My very dear friends
I shan’t apologise for being so long in writing. Letters that start with apologies are dismal, and you have things to do and I’m pretty sure you don’t want to hear any more excuses from anyone this year, so instead let me just tell you that it’s good to be writing again, and this letter finds me chewing the end of my quill in a tumbledown cottage in a very small village in Devon, on the edge of Dartmoor.
I came here for six weeks of rest cure, to be huddled down in a cozy den in the darkening winter, like a slightly dazed fox or chastened bear, letting things settle and wounds heal. It’s also a homecoming of sorts: before my people fetched up in South Africa, they sprang from the moist soil and dripping woods and furzy uplands that line the mighty River Bovey, that dashing artery that drains Dartmoor and feeds modestly into the River Teign.
Some years ago I made a pilgrimage to walk the length of the Bovey, which wasn’t entirely the triumphant roots tour I’d been imagining. Regrettably, the Bovey isn’t one of the world’s great watery gods. It’s no Zambezi or Don or Mississippi: it ambles prettily enough through a few miles of farmland, between sheep meadows, and splashes and tinkles down through a couple of polite narrows and rapids, but it’s hard to imagine any adventure-seeking young boys running away on a paddle steamer on the Bovey; what small islands it has could scarcely shelter a medium-sized otter, let alone Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. There is a Bovey Castle but when I presented myself optimistically at the doorstep the current inhabitants proved aristocratically reluctant to take a prodigal Bovey into their outflung arms and provide him with a four-poster bed and a butler-drawn hot bath.
On that visit I stayed in my ancestral village of Bovey Tracey but I was only there a few days and much of that time was spent squelching along muddy paths with rainwater trickling down my collar, so I never really warmed to the place. This time I wanted to spend more time in the area, the way my ancestors would have lived: in an old stone hovel, without car or horizon, wintered in and muttering to myself in a West Country grumble. So here I am, in the village of Buckfastleigh, and anywhere I go, I have to go by bus or on foot.
Buckfastleigh is a pleasant walk of three hours over the moor from Bovey Tracey, which is a walk my ancestors must have taken in some numbers because to my surprise the graveyard here is filled with Boveys, including a grand stone sarcophagus and a plaque suggesting that when Arthur Conan Doyle toured the area, gathering material for The Hound of the Baskervilles, he might have based one of the more noxious Baskerville characters on a certain hard-hearted and possibly wife-murdering John Bovey of Buckfastleigh.
Since we arrived, I’ve been examining the locals with a gimlet eye to assess my genetic heritage. It’s not entirely encouraging. I wouldn’t describe the locals as the most dynamic, out-going or attractive people I’ve encountered. They’re less a gene pool, if I’m honest, than a shallow basin of tepid water in which a weary traveller might rest his aching feet. But I suppose they’re friendly enough, so long as you take the initiative to speak first and don’t startle them with eye contact, and if you deliberately blur your vision you could argue that there’s nothing physically wrong with them that two generations’ worth of transplantation to a healthier hemisphere and a dash of choice-based genetic mixing wouldn’t cure.
Jo says she can see that part of me has roots in these people: she recognises the same interest in strangers but mistrust of neighbours, the same tranquil willingness to be silent in company regardless of how excruciatingly awkward it might be become, the same admirable capacity to walk around in short trousers and t-shirts on the coldest days of the year.
“Would you say those are attractive qualities in a person?” I mused, hopefully.
“It depends on what you think of shorts on a man over 40,” she said diplomatically, guiding my attention to a genial, badly shaven, gnome-like fellow ambling his knees towards us up Fore Street. He and I passed each other with a nod and grunt, our eyes averted.
“You could be twins,” said Jo.
I’m not sure what I wanted from Devon: answers, certainly, but to which questions? These last two years have caused many of us to ask ourselves where we belong, or why we belong there, or what “home” means. I’ve never had the slightest intimation that Devon means home, but sometimes going where you came from helps you see things that are too close to you to notice.
In Ashburton, a village an hour’s walk from Buckfastleigh, where I was startled to discover a war memorial commemorating the bold deeds of another Bovey, I met a woman of about my age. She was interested, and funny, and had a clear and luminous light in her eyes. I thought: “This person belongs to a wider world.”
We fell to chatting and it turned out that she had never been out of Devon, and had never lived anywhere but Ashburton, except for a few months in Paignton, 90 minutes away by bus. I told her about the uncertainties of traveling around in the age of Covid, staying a month or six weeks at a time in different countries.
We looked at each other and she thought, but didn’t say: “What about growing through your life with the people around you? What about having roots and laying deep tracks? What about belonging somewhere and knowing who you are?”
I thought, but didn’t say: “What about the world? What about seeing as much as you can of what there is to be seen? What about never belonging, so having find out who you are?”
Neither of us understood each other. We both very deeply understood each other.
I’ve settled into a daily routine. Every morning and evening I walk down through the village to cross an old stone bridge then climb 196 steep stone steps up through a green wood to the ruins of the Church of the Holy Trinity. It was built in the 1200s – “despite much opposition from the devil” – and has been the hideout of outlaws and the centre of a graverobbing syndicate. In the last war a German bomb blew out its stained-glass windows. In 1992 it was burnt to the ground, allegedly by a local group of Satanists. Still though, the ruins are atmospheric and ring with jackdaws, and the graveyard was recently voted “Most Improved” in the 2021 Devon Churchyard competition.
194 of the stone steps are laid with horizontal oblongs of Dartmoor granite, but there are two steps where the stone is arranged vertically. Any wish made while standing on either or both of these steps will infallibly come true. Every day I make two wishes going up, and two coming down. Once, descending in the dusk, I opened my eyes after the second wish and saw a horseshoe bat flapping toward me, perfectly at eye-level. It circled my head and came back for a second leisurely pass. I like to think of it as a good omen.
“Do you make the same wish every day, or do you make as many wishes as you can to try and get as many wishes granted as possible?” Jo asked me.
“The same two,” I told her.
“Interesting,” she said.
She makes different wishes, to spread the net wider. I try to carve the same wishes deeper through repetition, into the very stone of the steps. She thought but didn’t say, because she didn’t have to, that there is more Devonian in me than I care to recognize.
My walk takes me through the ruins of the church and across a field and down through a small glade to come out at the golden sandstone of Buckfast Abbey, where the Benedictine monks make their own tonic wine – 15% alcohol and infused with caffeine, very popular – the locals say knowingly – in Scotland. There is beautiful stained glass and an axial chapel of blue and golden glass where you can sit and be silent. The Abbey has a physic garden and a poison garden and lawns with signs saying “Please feel free to walk on the grass”. Brother Adam the apiarist monk took 70 painstaking years to breed the Buckfast Bee here.
Every day I take the same walk although there are other walks, and each time it feels as though I am walking a deeper track for myself, as though entangling myself more deeply with the trees and stiles and muddy paths. Something in me responds to the depressing inward beauty of the place, the distance from the world and the proximity to loneliness, the jackdaws in the ruined church and the ravens on the tors, the bright rills of water, the way the afternoon sunlight burns the green hills a brighter green and makes the white sheep blaze as though their wool were made with magnesium. You can see across to the moor with its shaggy wild ponies, its rocks and heath, a passing storm making tendrils of mist and shapes like people.
There’s a pull to stay – the same pull to immobility that kept my ancestors here for centuries and centuries and centuries, living and marrying and making a living and dying within the same precincts and parishes, walking the same ways, doing the same things, in the same ten- or twenty-mile radius: the pull to know something – not to know much, but to know this. It’s the same self-annihilating pull, I realised this morning with a shock, that I feel when I return to the Bluff, the deep-sleepy suburb where I grew up in Durban, a place much beloved by the people who live there, a place where my schoolmates still live, in the same houses they grew up in or just down the road, and which I fled as soon as I could.
I’m very grateful for the opportunity, at this time of all times, to see where my uncomfortable nature was bred into the bones of my father’s fathers. I’m grateful for this time of stillness and to feel the granite weight of accumulated generations, the echoes and memories of thousands of years of staying sensibly and sort of safely in one place.
On Saturday I catch the train to London then fly to Spain for Christmas, and then to Milan for New Year and then onward to a part of Greece I haven’t been before. In February I’ll come back to South Africa for two months and then we’ll go somewhere else again, Jo and I, because there are those who stay and those who go, and all of us can be either of them, but I am one of those who go.
I hope you are well, and are figuring out how to make yourself happy. Some are lucky enough simply to be happy, but the rest of us need to work it out, and it takes much time and many wrong turnings. I hope we’ll all have a happier 2022. We deserve it, I think. You definitely do.
Much love Darrel