My late father had spent 18 months or so in a plastic box on the mantelpiece, and it seemed about time that he was liberated. Exmoor was the obvious place, and that is where we went last week to find a suitable spot to scatter his ashes.
He was at school at West Buckland during the war, and our childhood holidays with him were spent down there, usually at Barnstaple. From there we could easily get to the wide sandy beach at Saunton Sands; we would take the dogs to the dunes at Braunton Burrows where the sandy track, still called the American Road, showed traces of the metal strips laid by the US military when they trained there for D-Day, not so many years earlier; and we went up on to Exmoor. Thinking back, the Exmoor trips were for rainy days, because if the sun shone we went to the sea, and my recollection that it always rains on Exmoor was probably based on distorted premises.
The early 1960s were a good time for driving – petrol was cheap, roads were well maintained, cars had reached a stage of technical excellence and comfort, and relatively few people had them. My father had a dark grey Jaguar 3.8 with red leather seats, one of the finest cars of its time and much loved by bank robbers and others with an urgent need to be somewhere else.
We spent a lot of time exploring old railway lines – the long-gone narrow-gauge Lynton & Barnstaple Railway and, after its closure in 1964, the Devon and Somerset Railway which ran from Norton Fitzwarren to Barnstable across the south end of the moor. Some of the first colour photographs I ever took, in August 1967, show the Filleigh Viaduct and my father and sister standing on the newly-cleared track-bed between the viaduct and the tunnel which ran from its eastern end, both now buried beneath the North Devon Link Road.
Much later, my father bought a farm at Oakford, down towards Bampton, whose management he combined with being a solicitor in Essex, dividing his week between the two places. My recollections are of haymaking, shooting old cans off tree stumps, and yet more drives round Exmoor. A year or two ago, my wife, whose interests include spinning, weaving and dyeing, made contact via an Internet interest group with a lady who breeds a particular kind of rare sheep. By one of those odd coincidences, she lives at my father’s old farm.
We drove down on Monday and stayed in a remote B&B, the sort of place where you feel you have borrowed somebody’s bedroom, and where good plain food is put in front of you without the opportunity or burden of choice. It was also the sort of place which allows you to take your dog to your room – a mixed blessing, we decided, when a friendly wet nose pushed under the bed clothes, first on one side and then on the other, at 2 o’clock in the morning.
Next day, we drove around parts of the moor which my father used to drive us round – he taught me to drive up there, and if you notice a certain assumption on my part that you will get out of my way on the road, that is probably thanks to my early observation that summer grockles seemed to prefer to reverse up hill for a mile on a narrow lane than to take on a farm Land Rover bearing L plates.
One of the things my father taught me to do was to read an Ordnance Survey map. I still buy old ones where I find them in second-hand bookshops, but I also have the whole of Great Britain in electronic form which, I found recently, can be transferred to the iPad.
It would not take a forensic expert to deduce our route, since the GPS leaves a red line to show more or less where you went; said expert might, however, be puzzled as to the motivation for our erratic course as we criss-crossed the moor looking for somewhere suitable. I recognised one of the places which we passed as the spot from where we watched the 1968 Chivenor Air Day more than ten miles away and 1,000 feet or so below us.
We met up with other family members at the appointed hour, and drove to the chosen spot. Behind us, hidden by the rise, was West Buckland, the curious group of hilltop trees called Bamfylde Clump and, in the distance, the power station at Fremington on the other side of the river Taw. The slope faced down towards Oakford, its approximate position identifiable by reference to the nearby Stoodleigh Beacon. It seemed the best possible place, and we took it in turns to distribute the ashes, confident that the Old Man would be pleased to be there.
A circuitous route home took us to Tarr Steps, to tea in Dulverton and to the site of the former railway station at East Anstey where the old platforms are still visible. 45 years ago, I stood guard whilst a friend liberated a signal arm from the newly-closed station. 25 years before that, my father would pass through the station at the beginning and end of every term.
The top photograph here was taken (not by me) in October 1969. The lower one shows the scene today – my picture was taken from the bridge which can be seen beyond the newly derelict station in the 1969 picture.
Derelict railway stations are always melancholoy but there was was nothing melancholy about the rest of the day. The memories were good ones, and we really felt he would have chosen that spot for himself, with the sun shining over distant views of moor and green fields and an old labrador turning out rabbits from the undergrowth.