In mid August, I stayed with a friend in Chagford, and on my last day on Dartmoor, headed back to Powdermills Farm, where I had spent many Easters and Summers in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was still a working farm, with Mr George Stephens at the Farm House. It was a typically Dartmoor summer’s day – ferocious rain followed by splashes and sprays of warm sun, when the green of the grasses alongside the Cherry Brook was an almost supernatural, Robin Hood, Greenwood green of ergot hallucination and hypnogogic inner voyages. I made a lot of fast field drawings on the farm, then worked on seven larger acrylics on board, and here’s a selection of them, alongside an account of life on Powdermills Farm almost half a century ago.
Long summers and fragile Easters largely made up our family’s moorland calendar. The moor I remembered was scored with ancient mine workings, fearsome muses, stone circles, standing stones, kists and dolmens as well as the naturally, spectacularly weathered granites atop the famous tors – the ragged profile of Old Crockern and his ilk. Through the Fifties and the Sixties – the rock n roll years – as each of us arrived from the children’s home, the growing family would bivouac on a patch of emerald green grass, perhaps the only patch on the north moors – beside a little russet brook, the Cherry Brook, on a farm called Powdermills in the middle of the moor, north of the B-road between Mortonhampstead and Princeton, with its prison.
Powdermills had been chosen in the 1840s as a site suitably remote enough for the making of gunpowder, the ripe charge of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal. The land was littered with ruined granite outhouses, workers’ cottages, two giant chimneys, and leats, channels and clitter-filled drops that once housed water wheels powered by the Cherry Brook to filter out impurities from the finished product. The gunpowder was delivered to local magazines by horse or steam and from there to the quarries and mines that blew their way into the earth for metal and stone. Some of the tin workings in these parts are very ancient indeed. Without them, there wouldn’t have been any Bronze Age.
The farmhouse had been the foreman’s house, the farm buildings workers’ cottages. There is a story of one worker, by the name of Silus Sleep, who chose to eat all his day’s meals in the morning – so that in the event of an explosion, he would meet his maker on a full stomach to soften the blow. Two testing mortar were set either side of the track from the road. Three thousands US troops were station at Powdermills in the months before D-Day and a group of them took the cannon with them. They were retrieved at Plymouth Hoe and returned to the moor, and to Powdermills, where we’d clamber over them to play.
Storms lash Dartmoor even in the height of summer, and there were floods, collapses and other camping calamities until Dad gave up bivouacking for one of the farm cottages, The Blue Cottage, hired from the Duchy for seventy pounds a year, and one of a row of two between milking parlour and barn that looked directly over towards Bellever forest. The forest was thick but young – post war pine and Forestry Commission pathways. It rose up dark and solid towards the summit of Bellever, like a troubling dream, the approach to the peak ringed by wild blueberry bushes yielding handfuls of tiny bittersweet fruit to assiduous foragers and thirsty mouths. I remember following a stream through the forest, as if it were the compelling plotline of a fairy story, taking you deeper into the wood but forever holding the light of the sky below the crowns of the tall dark handsome pines.
The Blue Cottage had a tiny front garden, and a rock strewn paddock ran the full length of farm buildings behind us. In shearing and lambing season, the farmer George Stevens would round up flocks from the moor – whistling and calling his dogs up the slow slopes of Longaford and Higher White. Sleeping through the sound of several hundred sheep in the paddock at night, as if the sound itself took on the properties of wool and pillowy warmth, a quiet Celtic kid like me would feel the whole of the universe expressing its sheepness.
The cottage at Powdermills had no electricity or running water. We drew water from a well using a long iron hand pump, and lit the rooms with oil lamps and candles and the light of a rayburn. In later years, the landowner Mr Russell had a generator installed, but our cottage was not connected to the 20th century in any direct manner, and I relished the time travel. It was haunted, too. The voice in the ear in our parent’s bedroom. The spirit that troubled my brother in bed by the stair wall. All drowned out by the generator sat shaking and growling in the old barn where dad and Mr Stephens had once tended a dying bull ‘whose blood had turned to water’, like the Mass in reverse, and a bull, too, that creature of the cave wall.
Mr Steven’s farmhouse was a large, square grey shale-covered building of weather-worn Georgian proportions at the end of the row, and through the gate by the farmhouse the path took you to Cherry Brook, and the old gunpowder works, the gorsey slopes that led to Longaford and over the other side, a line of Bronze Age stones leaning towards the westerly sun and the great north moors, the green desert of Britain. The silver flashing Devonport leat wound through the bottom of a valley running east through Wistman’s wood, an acreage of primeval forestry, its gnarled and stunted oaks strewn with boulders, nests of adders and cushions of moss.
These trees, these few little acres of land, were the last remnants of Dartmoor’s original forest, the lay of the land before Bronze Age settlers built and raized and passed. Wistman’s was full of legends, boggy with them – the name from the Celtic for wise man, the Wood of the Wise, and from Wisht, for pixie-led, for haunted, eerie, uncanny. It’s not a place that many care to enter. The Wisht hounds are reputed to thunder through on their wild hunt for the souls of the sinner and the unbaptised. Dartmoor tales wrapped round each other and the landscape like those gnarled, twisted, stunted oaks and made objective truth impenetrable. Dad made studies of the wood, using an impasto of his own making, monochrome miniatures that captured the eerie density of the contorted, wizened oaks that grew as if one creature, wrapped up in itself and admitting few strangers.
I was too far from Powdermills to fold it into my route map, but I was back on the moor, drawing down the family myths and west country tales, and taking a lunch of shepherd’s pie at The Tors Inn after a walk through a farm gate by a grassy knoll onto the moor, and the widescreen desolation that embedded itself into your expectation of it, so that you had the faint, curious sensation of reliving an older time. There’s little husbandry on the moors today. You’ll find a few heads of sheep, cattle, the wild ponies and adventure sports enthusiasts. The Duchy had turned against digging channels to drain the bog for pasture, preferring the concept of a more natural abandonment.
On Powdermills, what used to be George Stephens’ vegetable garden is waterlogged mire, packed with clumps of pixie grass. A few fresians loll and amble on higher ground, near the road, turning slowly like weather vanes in the wind.