NATURALLY THINKING

By Margaret Waddingham

Articles published in the Caundler Magazine

I’m cheating this month. I’ve roamed away from Dorset and shall tell you instead about
what was on our Devon doorstep.
Hatherleigh is on the edge of Dartmoor, and we were lucky to have, within easy walking
distance, our own piece of moorland. It’s split in two, the Upper Moor, which is by far the
larger, and down at the bottom, divided from it by a narrow lane, the Lower Moor. There’s
something very special about the Lower Moor for, though I wasn’t aware of it for the first
year, it’s culm grassland and I became so familiar with it that I think I could have walked it
blindfolded.
Culm is a form of geology found in North Devon, a few isolated areas in other parts of Britain
and also on the Atlantic seaboard in Europe. Its grassland is that which has not been
affected by intensive agricultural treatment ‒ no ploughing, drainage, spraying or the
addition of anything artificial. For centuries, only traditional summer grazing took place on
such land and consequently it left a rich variety of flowering pastures, grasses, heaths and
bogs. Since the last war, culm suffered massive losses through unsympathetic farming,
planting of conifers and the development of roads, so we were unbelievably lucky to have
ours on our doorstep.
It is home to a mass of wild flowers and grasses, some of them particularly rare. Myriads of
insects feed on the nectar from these, and it’s a breeding ground for such rarities as the
marsh fritillary butterfly. Glow worms glow amongst the grasses on warm summer evenings
and it’s home to the skylark, curlew and lapwing, snipe and woodcock, barn owls, stonechats
and meadow pipits.
It was, I found, a place where things happened. I’ve watched a grass snake circling the pond and another wriggling along the stream. When the air was quite still one day, I noticed a patch of grasses moving gently and as I approached, heard a tiny noise and saw a little vole busy nibbling at the bottom of the clump. Another day I followed the sound of tiny squeaks for quite some distance as a little family of voles changed homes, and once I found a dormouse still in its nest. I have watched a weasel undulating along the path in front of me, quite unconcerned.
Bracken encroached, swallowing some of the rare flowers, so little groups of us sprang into action with scythes. A gaggle of brownies helped by leaping on every unfurling frond they could see. The Devon Wildlife Trust, who by then were getting quite interested in it, suggested we tried swaling ‒ the old method of firing in thirds. The morning about a dozen of us tried it, a wind sprang up and we had to summon a passing farmer, who knew much more about it than we did, to help stop the flames from swallowing the whole area. The vast majority of the Upper Moor was planted with potatoes during the Second World War but even so, there are a few small patches which can still qualify as Culm. One of these is to one side of a path leading to a gate almost on the boundary at the top of the moor. This is rich in orchids of all kinds whilst, on the other side, which is part wooded, part scrub, the ground in spring is a sea of pink purslane. In this overgrown wood is a derelict cob cottage, a barn and byre, all deserted in the 50s, but good for prowling in, if such things fascinate you as much as they do me.
The last time I went, there were still enough of the walls to make out a rough layout of the rooms and even a well ‒ rather dangerous as it had no cover. There were traces of a cultivated garden with some gooseberries and raspberries and once I found an old bottle with small, perfect ferns growing inside it. Much better than the ones you can sometimes buy. One early evening in late spring, I leaned on a gate near the very top of the moor. I could hear the bubbling, evocative sound of curlews, and suddenly they were circling right over my head, then swooping down almost to the Lower Moor, over and over again. It was a breathtaking few minutes.
During the Foot and Mouth outbreak in 2001, cattle and sheep disappeared from the Upper Moor and both moors were closed to walkers. It was months before they opened again and the first few sheep cautiously allowed at the top again. It was one of the saddest periods of its long history.
I could go on and on about this special place, but I’d better not. After all, I’m in Dorset now and I’ve found that Dorset too has its special places.

About Margaret

Margaret WaddinghamI was born in Middlesex in 1935 and educated at a convent in Rickmansworth. In 1954 I moved with my family to Cranleigh in Surrey where I met and married Brian. We have two daughters and five grandchildren.
For 21 happy years we lived on the outskirts of Guildford, moving to Hatherleigh in North Devon when our children had fled the nest to get on with their own lives.

My love of writing goes back many years but it was not until I retired from RHS Rosemoor Gardens in 1995 that I was able to devote more time to this and my other favourite pursuits, gardening and the countryside.

For many years I was a regular contributor of short stories, poetry, nature and other articles to three women’s national weeklies, periodical regional magazines and local newspapers. I also had a book of the history of a neighbouring village and a couple of books of poetry published.

One day our daughters phoned to suggest, very gently, that they couldn’t get to us quickly in an emergency and that’s how we ended up in Stourton Caundle.

We couldn’t have chosen a better place and although Brian sadly passed away in 2018, I have come to appreciate the village more and more.

Genevieve (my mobility scooter for those who haven’t met us) and I wander the local lanes, drinking in all that is around me and when I can no longer do this I will still have a small, peaceful garden to sit in where nature comes to visit me.