Circa tempore

§

An everyday story of Devonshire folk
May
Having reached the ripe old age of sixty-nine (seventy next year! Gulp!) I was pondering, the other day, about the past. My past, that is. Rather disgruntlingly I am now classed as ‘historical’ because many of the sites that review historical fiction have a ‘the setting must be more than fifty years ago.’ Hrrrmph – and other such testy noises.

So, do memories count as historical research? For my recently new venture into writing cosy mysteries set in the 1970s the answer is ‘definitely yes’, although as I have discovered during writing the first two books (the third is on its way) many memories play you false.

This has always been a problem for witnesses to historical events, or crime, because no one has an accurate memory. Ask a group of people to describe a scene they witnessed or a briefly glimpsed ne’er-do-well, each person will say something different. Which, of course, us mystery/crime writers use to our full advantage!

It is, however, somewhat disconcerting when things you want to remember stay obstinately unremembered. I’m of an age now when half-way up the stairs I’ve forgotten what I was going up for. Peoples’ names – no idea who they are. Embarrassing when you’ve been talking to someone for over half-an-hour, no idea of their name yet you’ve known the person for yonks! Mind you, I have an excuse now because my wonky sight means I can’t always see faces clearly.

I have memories of things I’d rather forget, and memories that are cherished: most notably among the latter, the birth of my beautiful daughter. That was forty years ago this May. With, I’m glad to say, many, many, many happy and proud memories of her in between then and now! I can honestly say, I don’t know what I would do without her.

My earliest memory is waking up one Christmas morning. I must have been three, because the memory is of a bedroom in Byron Road (number 47?), Walthamstow, where we lived before moving to Chingford when I was four. I clearly recall a murky dawn creeping through the window, and wriggling down the bed to feel a heavy pillow case down by my feet. Several Christmas memories are of relatives coming to stay – us kids slept on camp beds on the floor. I had a set of plastic farm animals one year, I liked the collie dog best. I called him Tempo because that was the brand name on the box.

Memories of taking a pull-along rubber horse everywhere I went. She was called Ginger (after Black Beauty) although I seem to think she was a bay colour. Broke my heart when her wheels finally came off. Then there was Star, a china Alsatian dog. I had him for years. Oh and all the Beatles’ posters on my bedroom wall! How on earth did I sleep at night beneath their gaze? For the record, most of them were of George.

A holiday memory has stayed with me for many years – another of those that are tantalising because I don’t know the details behind them, but events have turned full circle. No idea how old I was – Six? We were on holiday in Devon. Yes, Devon – but I have no idea where in Devon. A town, for we were staying in a B & B above (or next door to?) a corner sweetshop. Every day my sister and I would go into the shop to buy sweets, and I remember collecting little plastic coaches that were filled with sweeties. I assume the coaches must have had horses, hence the fascination. I can recall stairs and lovely breakfasts... Then we changed location. Down into Cornwall, by the coast. Again, no idea where. It was a holiday camp next to sand dunes. We had a chalet. My sister took me down to the beach (I only remember the dunes) and it suddenly poured. We got soaked. Back at the chalet we were put to bed – and then... TRAGEDY! Where was Primrose Bunny? My cuddly rabbit. Dad had brought her back from Germany after one of his training weeks in the Royal Marine Reserve. (My sister had a Beswick china horse, but she is six years older than me, so a furry toy bunny would be much better for a five-year old!)

So, Cornwall 1959. Cold, wet, miserable and No Bunny! Dad had to drive all the way back to Devon to retrieve her. Add to that, the holiday camp was awful. Everything was cheap plastic, not very clean and tidy and every meal was fish and chips. I remember Dad getting cross and asking for something different to eat. I guess he was terribly disappointed, not helped by that first week in Devon being glorious – and having to drive miles to fetch Bunny.

I wonder where the town and the B & B in Devon was? It would be lovely to discover that it was South Molton, just seven or so miles from where I live now.

Bunny? Oh no, she is not a memory, I still have her. Like me, somewhat threadbare but she’s up in my bedroom, sitting alongside a few other treasured treasures.

Stay Safe.
April
Sunshine at last. Warmish so far, with a bit of a chill to the wind, but I’m not going to grumble about that.

Our new wooden gazebo is almost finished, so we’ll be able to enjoy morning coffee, mid-day lunch or an evening glass of something nice and cheery out in the garden soon. It has taken a while to build (delivered as a flat-pack kit) because the weather has been so inclement. I really couldn’t expect my husband (aged 88) to climb up ladders to finish fixing the shingles in a gale force wind, could I?

I suppose I shouldn’t expect him to climb up ladders anyway, but he’s fit and active, and enjoys ‘doing things’. (When he’s not watching ghastly westerns on TV that is.) Me, I’m 69 this month and feeling every year of it. Honestly? I don’t think much of this getting old lark. The stairs, I am sure were not so hard to climb when we first moved here, nor was the lane so steep.

I share my birthday with Franc (Taw River Dracarys), one of our foals ... well, he is four now and as enormous as a giraffe. It is unbelievable that when he was less than an hour old my son-in-law managed to pick him up! The pair of them are great mates – Franc loves playing Rugby Tackle style Scrum with Adam. And stealing hats. I just know that one day Kathy will be in a grand arena about to receive a prestigious trophy from a posh woman wearing a posh hat – and Franc will take a shine to the hat, especially if has artificial flowers and/or fruit decorating it! Could make an amusing front cover for Horse And Hound...

Franc’s Mum, Saffie, is now twenty-two and behaves like a two-year-old. My daughter Kathy has been doing some low-level eventing with her over the winter, both of them thoroughly enjoying themselves hurtling round a field jumping natural-style fences. Saffie has also been enjoying the pond in one of our fields. I say pond, it is actually a large hollow that fills with shallow water. Which, of course, is more akin to mud… We are thinking of renaming Saffie as The Mud Monster.

My very first horse was a grey, Rajah. I remember going to catch him one summer’s day, intending to enjoy a pleasant ride in Epping Forest. I walked all round the several-acre field looking for him. Walked round again, starting to get a little worried – where was he? I then realised that the very brown horse standing at the edge of the pond was he. Covered, from ear-tip to tail-end, in thick, oozing, dripping, smelly, mud.

I left him to it and went for a walk instead.

I had ridden Rajah from when I was about fourteen, bought him when I had just started work at South Chingford Public Library after leaving school at sixteen. (For horsey people he was a silver dun Connemara Cob cross, about 15.2 hands high.) I paid £1 for him. A token gesture in order to take over ownership from his previous owner who could no longer afford to keep him. He was a cantankerous old so-and-so, and my regret is that I did not know as much about horses then as I do now. Typical of many a rider I always thought he was the problem when it came to not wanting to do anything (go faster than a walk – or go down the drive, or jump a six-inch high log.) I now know that the fault was all mine. I should have ridden better, with more empathy and listened to what he was trying to tell me.

*Laugh* All the horses we have now seem to tell me is: 'I want more polo mints/carrots/liquorice!'

For those of you who are reading (and I hope enjoying) my new Cosy Mystery Jan Christopher series, you will come across Rajah in the first tale (A Mirror Murder) and I expect that mud anecdote will turn up in a future Murder Mystery of the series.
March
I’m not sure where that old saying about ‘March blows in like a lion and goes out like a lamb’ comes from, but obviously the God of Weather has either not heard it or is ignoring it because so far we’ve had several stormy gales, and all well before March. (And for the record, there are lots of lambs bouncing about in the fields as well.)

The first storm I experienced here in Devon was not that long after we’d moved in. Early hours of the morning. Still dark. The wind was sounding like an express train coming up from the fields, arching over the stables at the top of our lane then rushing down the garden and hitting the house. It woke me up. I lay here listening to the trees groaning, something flapping and banging – then the next wave hit the house with a resounding ‘thump’. I lay there wondering if we were safe. Would the chimneys fall down, the windows break...? Then I thought to myself, ‘Hang on, this house has been here since 1769, it ain’t goin’ nowhere!” Turned over and went back to sleep.

And that memory has got me thinking: how did the people who lived here back then, in the 18th century, feel about storms when they blew in from the south-west? And even more intriguing, who were they – and are any of them still here?

I don’t know who they were (alas no title deeds, and I haven’t managed to track down a census or church records... yet). But whoever built this house knew what he was doing and the right place to put it, because the walls are 2-3 feet thick, solid stone and tucked away in a dip of the hill so the wind goes over the top, and thunderstorms go round the edge of the valley – we’ve never had one go right over us. There’s a bore hole/well right next to the back door and what we think was a privy a little way up the garden.

As for who ‘they’ were, I’m fortunate to know a lovely lady who is a respected medium or spiritualist, and then, as it turns out, my daughter also has the gift of seeing the people of the past (and not just people!)

It was always a bit difficult taking my daughter to the re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings, because even the first time (when she was about 9 years old) she was pointing out dead horses and men. (Incidentally, every time we went she always saw the same dead horse in the same spot). Because of her, I also know the exact place where King Harold II was killed. And no, it isn’t where the English Heritage marker puts it. Poor daughter can’t go past the spot without turning chalk white and feeling sick. She has also seen what she thinks is a Sabre-Toothed Tiger down in our woods. She says she’d like to see a Woolly Mammoth – but she’d freak out if a dinosaur of any sort lumbered into her vision.

So who are our resident guests?

We have a maid, not sure if she is Milly or Molly, so I call her Milly-Molly. She’s dressed in late Georgian style (so late 1700s early 1800s) and wears a lace mobcap. Daughter has seen her in various places inside and outside the house – I’ve heard tutting when I take the laundry out to hang on the washing line. Apparently, I should not use the front door for this – laundry goes out via the back door. Daughter has also seen her dancing outside the front of the house. This was on the evening when the violinist who played at daughter and son-in-law’s wedding came to rehearse what tunes to use. I’m so thrilled that Milly-Molly and another young lady were enjoying and joining in with that happy occasion!

There’s the Master. A BIG man (think The Beast from the TV quiz show, The Chase). I do wonder how many times he banged his head on our low beams. My daughter has seen a young boy in our dining room, aged about 8 or 9. No sign of the Mistress though.

We have a dairyman, Jack, in the old dairy – he’s from the Edwardian period we think. Then there’s William who is the Georgian equivalent of the Amazon Delivery Man. He made his rounds by horse and cart starting from Bideford (or Barnstaple – we’re not sure which) both were very busy trade ports. Bideford, in fact, was the third-largest port in England for receiving tobacco from the Colonies. (The other two being Bristol and London). William (we think that is his name) wears a frilly cravat and a feathered three-corner hat. He enjoys watching our horses, especially liking the ‘big chestnut’ (our Lexie) and the Exmoors.

The other young lady (the one dancing with Milly-Molly) I think of as Jane. Now, this is probably fanciful on my part because apparently, she was an orphan who came to live with ‘our’ family – her only remaining kindred. (So I’m being influenced by Jane Eyre). However, our Jane was well cared for. But she was often sad, quiet and lonely because, despite being loved and welcomed she had lost her own mother and father (possibly in traumatic circumstances?) She spent a lot of time alone in her room, thinking, reading and we got the impression that all she wanted was to be loved – and noticed. (I also have the impression of her wearing grey and being like a little shy mouse.)

Her room felt lonely, too. So I made a point of going in there every morning and evening to say good morning and good night, and I put fresh flowers on the windowsill for her.

Within a few months, she’d gone, moved on, passed over. So yes, for all these years, all she wanted was to be loved and noticed...

I never pick the snowdrops or primroses but there are always a few that grow too near the edge of the lane and are in danger of being squished by traffic, so I do pick those. And for that first spring when we were here, back in 2013, I put them in a nice little vase in Jane’s room.

I think she liked that.
February
Trees. I love trees, especially MY trees. And yes, the my is deliberately an uppercase shout because the trees in my orchard, in my garden and in my fields are my trees. Here at Windfall Farm we have oaks, ashes, hornbeams, dogwoods, hazels, willows, two huge holly trees (one of which, I assume the female, is smothered in berries in early autumn), field maples, birch, elders, silver birch, rowans, an enormous bay tree (and I do mean enormous – 30 feet high or so.) Then there are the apple trees, the pears, the damsons and the cherry tree. Is our camelia a tree or a shrub? It is definitely tree sized. And there're a couple more trees that I don’t know the names of. Then there are the woods next door and the trees in the hedgerows along the lane. The trees along the part of the Taw Valley that I can see from the house: the trees of various farms, the trees growing beside the Taw River and the Tarka Line railway. Trees, trees, everywhere. And they are a real joy.

Last autumn was glorious for colour, especially of an evening when the sinking western sun lit up the valley like a theatre spotlight, turning the trees to a gold that shimmered into silver as the wind rustled through the leaves.

When storm Arwen swept through Devon during that November 2021 night we lost half of the yew tree in the front garden, which as it fell, brought down three of the dogwoods and a trellis of roses. An ancient hazel in the orchard and two buddleia bushes were also uprooted. Several more were down in the woods, although we haven’t been able to get there to properly investigate yet – too boggy underfoot. Not that there’s any urgency, for our strip of woodland is ‘wild’ land, overgrown and left to Nature to govern as best she sees fit. Our Exmoor ponies love it down there, their own special ‘hidey-hole’ where they shelter from the wind and rain – or the hot sun in summer. When we get hot sun. Or a summer come to that. We’ve a waterfall with about an eight-foot drop in our woods. I am proud to say that I climbed up it during the first summer that we were here. Alas my old arthritic knees couldn’t do it again now.

The trees we lost will be chopped up and recycled for next winter’s logs. On the plus side, the remaining half of the yew tree is healthy, the dogwoods needed pruning anyway and there are several baby buddleia trees growing.

In the autumn of 2020 we lost one of the damsons in the orchard, an old wizard of a tree, grey-bearded with lichen that covered boughs and branches which were gnarled like an old-man’s arthritic fingers. For several years I’d made rather splendid Damson Gin from the fruits of this old tree – the fruit that year was its undoing, for there was so much of it one bough split. We managed to harvest the damsons, but the tree itself was beyond saving. It is growing again though. Branches shooting out let right and centre from the still-living stump.

The living and dying of trees is all part of the natural cycle; some, like the oaks and yews, can live for years – centuries even. Others are comparative to Mayflies, seeding, growing, flourishing, dying in only a handful of years – a timespan that is but a day to the ancient old trees.

The Sequoia trees in California were fascinating. My good friend, Connie, took me to the Reserve to see them – even back then in the mid 2000s, California was suffering from drought. Everywhere in the Sequoia woods was tinder dry and crunched beneath your feet. The air smelled as if I was walking through a timber yard – that aroma of dry, dry wood. No moisture anywhere. One tree, rotted away inside, was so large Connie and I could easily stand inside it. The woods had an air of timeless ancientness. It was an eerie place, and I couldn’t initially figure out why.

Then it dawned on me. There was no feeling of the past, no spiritual feeling one gets when entering a church or castle or any old building. There were no ghosts anywhere. Probably because no one had ever died there because no one had ever lived there. The Native Americans from the past had dwelt a little further along the coast. I suppose, where the Sequoia trees grew there was little vegetation so no grazing animals, ergo nothing to hunt. But more than this there was no sense of time. Time stands still among the Sequoias. Time to these hundreds and hundreds of years-old trees is on a different scale to our sense of being. A second, a minute, an hour for us is, to these old, old trees, a decade. I got the impression that to them, the human visitors were rushing about as if in a vastly speeded-up film. While to us, the trees dwell in a slowest of slow-motion time span.

What disgruntles me about trees is their thoughtless destruction. Agreed, trees are a crop to be planted, grown and harvested for practical use. A crop like wheat or barley or turnips, the only difference being that trees take years – and years – to grow into maturity. But to cut glorious mature trees down by the dozen for the sake of it? In one specific instance the reason was to destroy a young oak ‘in case it fell down’. Apart from the fact that it’s unlikely a young oak will fall down anyway, (by young, I mean about 40 years old – a mere sprog) the only damage it would have caused was to block the lane. And if that happened it would not have taken long to clear it away. Fortunately, the homicide never happened and the tree is still there. Where it will remain for many more years, Nature willing.

Trees ‘talk’ to each other (apparently they can communicate via the underground network of fungi that spreads for miles and miles among the tree roots). The sap running up and down the inside of a trunk can, with the right equipment, be heard bubbling and cracking. Branches tap or bang against each other in the breeze – and the sound of a strong wind rushing through the canopy sounds like a train approaching, while a gentle sighing wind as it ripples through the leaves reminds me of the voice of the sea.

Trees give us timber, shade, shelter. They soak up water – much of the present flooding problems are because the trees have been uprooted and concrete laid where once there was soil. Trees absorb pollutants, act as windbreaks and noise barriers. They reflect heat upwards and cool the air. More than twenty species have medicinal uses – birch bark has antiseptic properties, the willow is a form of aspirin. The presence of trees can calm stress and reduce blood pressure. As they grow, trees absorb carbon dioxide, aiding the reduction of global warming.

Trees provide a habitat and food for insects, birds and animals. Old trunks with cracks and hollows give shelter to bats, beetles, woodpeckers, tawny owls. Berries and nuts provide food. A mature oak could sustain about five hundred different species – a micro-city of life.

But maybe, more important than any of that: trees are beautiful.
January
A new year and a new beginning.

I’ve made the decision to develop a different format for my monthly Journal, changing to Taw River Dispatches instead. You will find what I have done writing-wise, or intend to do (events, next book etc,) on the home page under ‘News’, while here on these pages will be my thoughts on everyday life, relating to Devon and my village; maybe interspersed with some reminiscences of the past, or a few dreams for the future, but mainly just snippets of interesting things in general as observed by me from my cosy eighteenth-century farmhouse.

Covid 19, with all its variants from Alpha to Omicron, has brought many changes to many of us; from elbow bumps instead of handshakes to thinking about safe places to go or unsafe places to avoid. Omicron is the Greek for the letter ‘O’ – the ones in-between were insignificant variants of the virus, apart from two letters which were not used: Nu and Xi. Nu is too much like ‘new’ so was thought to be confusing, and Xi is some Chinese chap of importance, and thus undiplomatic. It seems that these viruses mutate, with the strongest being the most effective at surviving by spreading from new host to new host.

Which got me thinking… Viruses such as Influenza, SARS, HIV and now Covid 19, are living organisms. They are alien parasites, maybe not aliens from outer space (although for all we know they could be) but an invasive species bent on world domination – so I can’t help thinking: where is Dr Who when you need him/her?


The January short, dark days and cold winds are with us here in England. The prospect of snow and more heavy storms building over the Atlantic loom on the horizon. A time of year where it is easy to understand how the people of the far distant past must have lived, felt and believed as they huddled, wrapped in Sabretooth Tiger furs or deer hides, round a crackling hearth fire. Would the sun ever shine again? Would the trees come back to life? Here at my lovely old house, built circa 1769, what did the people who lived here think about during those long winter evenings spent in what is now our sitting room? Back then it was the kitchen/living room where the entire family spent most of their waking hours; cooking over the open fire, eating, talking, laughing, arguing.

There would have been a large table – probably oak – where food was prepared and eaten. Meal finished, the table would have been cleared for the Master of the House to sit in his special chair and update the farm accounts, for the Mistress to perhaps set out her sewing things. Maybe the children, ranged along the bench built into the wall beneath the window, were playing with wooden farm animals. The floor would have been stone-flagged with rag-rugs scattered around. (They would have moved on from floor rushes by the eighteenth century.) This was a fairly well-to-do household, not wealthy but not poor. The house was (is!) well built. Two- to three-foot thick stone walls. Huge A-frame beams holding up the roof – was it thatched back then, or did it have slate tiles like it does today? A narrow, steep, staircase up to the landing, and floors somewhat upsy-downsy, none of the floor is level upstairs; all the floorboards creak. There is no sneaking in at night; no burglar could get in without waking everyone. Even knowing where the creakiest floorboards are I can’t get to the bathroom and back at night in creakless silence.

I often wonder how many times the Mistress told her husband to ‘Take those muddy boots off’ as he came in from the farmyard. They would have had chickens, probably geese, cattle, perhaps pigs and goats. Horses certainly. I expect the menfolk would have walked up to the local pub most nights: The village’s Exeter Inn dates back to late Tudor times and was, then, on the main road from Barnstable to Exeter – hence the name. I assume this was the first ‘comfort break’ and change-of-horses stop. With the Master out of an evening, was the Mistress pleased that he was not under her feet?

The kitchen, the heart of the home, would have been warm and cosy in January. The blazing fire, the next day’s bread ready to go in the bread oven first thing in the morning. (The bread oven is still there, built into the wall adjoining the fireplace.) The copper kettle would be singing from its hook above the fire, candles burned atop the deep-set windowsill, lanterns hung from the beams casting shadows over walls, ceiling and floor.

This was a happy household. I felt it hug me that first time I walked into the old part. An aura of contented energy filled the place, welcoming, inviting, loving. That joyful sense of ‘coming home’. I knew in that instant that this was the house I wanted to buy and live in.

We moved in on January 18th, 2013 (in a snowstorm!) It took me a few years, however, to grow used to the fact that this was now my home – to shake off a feeling that the dream would end soon and I would soon have to leave. Then it struck me as why I felt this. I realised that I am only the caretaker. I don’t own the house, the House owns me. It belongs to all who used to live here and to all who will live here in the future. My family, living here now, are just passing tenants.

The laughter and the voices from the past linger as echoes in the beams and the stone walls. And yes, the house does have its ghosts; benign spirits who are our friends and who remain here because they love this place as much as we do.

I hope to stay too, when it’s my turn to Pass On. I have warned my daughter that if she doesn't look after my garden properly, I will be here to haunt her.