Walking the Mighty Bovey

The river ran clear and cool and made glassy waves around smooth rocks and sunken tree-trunks. The sunlight fell bright and green and the branches trilled with birdsong. I sipped thoughtfully on a miniature bottle of red wine. “I wonder,” I thought, “if I feel at home.”

Some people are afraid of the sea or oppressed by mountains but everyone loves a river. A river’s an adventure, and also a time machine. “You can’t step in the same river twice,” said Heraclitus, but he was being too literal. A river is continuity; it can show you the beginning and the end and all the rapids and rocky bits in between. A river is a thread that stitches together bits of geography and also bits of memory, including the memory of things you have never experienced for yourself. It’s like a life, or a lineage.

All my life I’ve imagined the River Bovey, that rises at the edge of Dartmoor and runs through dark woods between the green hills and village pubs of Devon. My ancestors lived for centuries on its banks, mostly in the ancient town of Bovey Tracey, which Oliver Cromwell chose as the site of the Battle of Bovey Heath, where he routed the royalists on 9 January 1646, on what I am willing to bet was a cold and rainy day with the wind carrying the mists down off Hound Tor.

Some branches of the family wandered forth at various times into the world, but most of them came back again. There was a Bovey among the 1820 Settlers, but that line seems to have quickly died out. My side of the family seemed content to stay put until a certain George Bovey – perhaps under pressure from the law, for he was a renowned scoundrel – left a hundred years ago for Africa. George begat Richard, and Richard begat me.

I have never fully felt at home, wherever I have been. I was born in Durban which always felt too hot for my bones, and I’ve lived much of my adult in Cape Town, which doesn’t truly feel like home to any chap whose parents and grandparents didn’t go to the same southern suburbs school he did. In between I lived in Johannesburg, where I felt most comfortable, but that is because Johannesburg is a temporary place that gathers up the rootless and the homeless. I’ve always wondered if there’s some part of me that vibrates to the frequencies of a different place, under a different sun, so I went to Devon to see it for myself and to walk the River Bovey, to find its source and perhaps mine too.

Day 1

Base camp was a room above the Cromwell Arms. I tried to gather some information from the locals, but Devonians are a tightlipped lot and they don’t travel far afield. I asked the innkeeper how long it would take to walk to the source of the Bovey. He blinked at me suspiciously. He had lived there fifty years and hadn’t seen any more of the river than the part that flows through town beneath the old stone bridge and past the wooden mill. No one had ever seen the source of the river, he said. He wasn’t sure it had a source.

I filched some pork sausages from the breakfast buffet and set out in the yellow May sunshine. The grass was spotted with tiny daisies and buttercups and the copper-coloured riverbed glowed like gold. A white-bearded gentleman told me he hoped to see me in church on Sunday. There were swallows and choughs and chaffinches and a bright cloud of midges on the water.

I climbed a stile and through a kissing gate and skirted a green meadow with fat white sheep. I scanned the cloudless sky and wondered why everyone doesn’t spend every summer walking along an English river. Then somehow it started raining.

I squelched back to Bovey Tracey and spent the rest of the day beside an orange fire, learning about the town. “Bovey” is from Saxon times – Bovi himself was a mighty theign or local king – and “Tracey” is an unpopular hangover from the Norman conquest, when the invading De Tracey family became lords of our manor. A generation or so later, William de Tracey was one of the four knights who travelled to Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 to murder Thomas a Becket. What a thing to discover on a rainy Devon afternoon – that in your ancestral village, your name is yoked to the guy who killed the Archbishop of Canterbury.

William de Tracey tried to atone by building the grey square-towered village church, where I searched the weathered tombstones in vain for traces of my family. The locals still haven’t forgiven him. They simply call the village “Bovey”, and now I do too.

Day 2

Day 2 brought a problem. Two hours upstream I reached a split. The river unspooled ahead, silver and green, but the path veered off and joined a lane, climbing a hill away from the river. The riverbanks were fenced off behind a sign saying “Private farmland – sheep”. This would not do. How dare sheep enjoy access to the mighty Bovey, but not an actual Bovey? I scaled the fence and marched on until a furious man on a tractor bellowed across the meadow and steered toward me with intent. I hotfooted it back to the lane.

I grew anxious, huffing up the hillside. What if the lane dog-legged right, and I never saw the water again? For an edgy hour I wound round the back of the hill and dropped down and there – a bright ribbon of light – was my river. Beaming, I crossed a narrow bridge lined with peonies and foxgloves into the village of Lustleigh, and found a pub and a pint of Otter Ale. A bumblebee droned and the beer was just right. The English clergy needs rain: if every day was as perfect as this, there’d be no need for a heaven.

Day 3

African explorers encountered many perils searching for the source of the Nile – crocodiles, slavers, tropical diseases – but none so distracting as a good English ale. The pub in the village of North Bovey, on the river above Lustleigh, is called The Ring of Bells. Afterwards I went weaving north along the friendly bankside under a green canopy of beech and ash and sweet chestnut. I swear I saw an otter but it may have been the ale.

After an hour I followed the river out of the woods and found myself before a grand, wide castle overlooking lawns smooth as a golf green. A golf ball whistled past. It was a golf green, laid out through the grounds of Bovey Castle.

I entered a thicket. Roots tripped me and branches snatched and then … the river disappeared underground. I was alone in a wide patch of damp ground, a soggy source, a hidden spring.

I sat and sipped one of the several mini bottles of red wine I’d saved from the flight. That’s the problem with looking for origins – of rivers as well as family trees. The Danube arises from a feeble spring in the Black Forest; the Ganges starts as a mingy Himalayan trickle; the Bovey from just a damp patch on the edge of a moor. Nothing of value is ever as mighty as it later becomes: all the drama comes downstream.

Day 4

Dartmoor is the reason most people come to South Devon. You can see its crags and downs from Bovey Tracey, bright green in sunshine, pearly and haunted when the mists come in. It’s the largest unfenced area in England, 956 square kilometres with an uncanny hold on the English imagination. There’s many a Devon legend of unwary wanderers lured onto the moors by pixies or the devil on horseback, to be swallowed forever in the bogs and quicksand. Dartmoor is where the Hound of the Baskervilles roamed.

It was bright and clear when I walked out on the moor and the downs were crossed with the pale lines of walking trails heading toward Hound Tor and Hay Tor and Sharp Tor – dark smooth mounds of granite pushing up through the thin covering of soil. Hikers and wild, shaggy Dartmoor ponies dotted the horizon. There was immensity and joy, the sheer pleasure of easy walking on gentle land, fragrant air, a hillside of bluebells. I thought, “I may never be this happy again.”

I had a pint at the Old Inn at Widecombe-in-the-Moor, and then several more in the long golden evening. Gold turned to slate blue then moony darkness. The road ran beside the moor and we looked out over Haytor Down, dusted with magnesium, glimmering under the stars. Shadows of shadows moved across the emptiness. It was a warm night but I shivered with spooky pleasure.

Day 5

The Bovey is 22 kilometers long and I’d walked most of it upstream, but a few kilometres down from the village it joins the River Teign. I tried walking from town but it soon disappears into farmland and clayworks. I pored over an ordnance survey map. There was no way down the Bovey, but if I drove to Chudleigh Knighton I could pick up the Teign and follow it back up to the confluence.

I pulled off a narrow road into a ploughed field and bogged down in the mud, spinning the wheels. I walked back up the road, waving my arms to be more visible to the lunatics who came roaring around blind bends. The worst drivers in the world are all in sports cars on narrow English country roads.

I clambered down through brambles and nettles to the public footpath. The Teign was deep and dark and slow as oil. It was nice, but it wasn’t the Bovey. The last of the airline wine clinked in my pocket as I walked. I hadn’t found any answers in Bovey Tracey. I’d seen people who looked like me, and discovered in them some of the shyness and social awkwardness that I thought was mine alone. I’d spent beautiful summer days in the forgiving Devon countryside beside the river that bears my name, drinking some of the finest beer on earth, but this wasn’t my home. This was just a stopping place in the long journey of my genes. My home isn’t where my dad was born or where I was born; home is where you choose to be.

I clambered down the bank, nearly crushing a pair of bright lavender marsh orchids, and there it was – the end of my journey. I have no children, and won’t, and I sometimes feel like the modest end of a modest line. The Bovey flowed tranquilly into the Teign and in the process both became bigger, joining a larger destiny, turning splendidly south in search of the sea.

“That’s it,” I said.

“That’s it,” said my wife.

The sun was still high and we walked back to find a pub.

Getaway magazine, Spring 2015