On ‘home’ again: among the geese and sheep in the cattle market

I’m about to leave again. I’ve been in Devon for a month, on a hare-paced pit-stop. Sitting in my driver’s seat in the dark and opening my laptop feels reassuringly like being on the road. I’m parked up in a mechanic’s yard – also reassuringly like being on the road, but with the warm knowledge that my good friend, who has just helped my three-month-long boiler frustration conclude, will fix my fridge tomorrow and send me off.

During my month in Devon, which feels happily like a visit, I’ve caught up with some of my favourite people, sadly missed others, and done a couple of impromptu photoshoots. This one was going to have a ‘Devon harvest’ theme…

…but went a bit Gaucho, again…

I’ve done *some* of the bureaucracy I should have, and traded at my first market event with the woves.

I was invited to sell my wares at the cattle market at Goose Fair. Goose Fair completely takes over Tavistock for the second Wednesday in October, closing many of the roads and all the schools. Once a purely livestock sale, it now consists of a funfair and hundreds of stalls of plastic tat with pro salesmen whose theatrical pitches are almost worth watching in their own right. There are churros stands, burger vans and candy floss, but the goldfish of old are scarce or absent – are they still even legal? How many did you flush down the loo in your childhood?

Anyway, I’m not expecting to sell many expensive British-made weavings, but I’m drawn to trading here because it is ordinary: not the top end artisan glamour of the Contemporary Craft Fair; not the arty sophistication of cultured Chagford; but full of local, rural and Plymothian folk. I’m not among the plastic stalls, but among the poultry at the cattle market. The geese shout their heads off all day, poor loves.

Geese White geese

The organiser hopes apologetically that I don’t mind being beside a penful of sheep. I grin, and tell her that that is why I agreed to come, because that is where I feel comfortable. Admittedly none of us had allowed for cow shit on the floor and railings behind our stalls, but someone produces some wet wipes (aaargh!) and it’s fine.

There are spinners and dyers and felters and Dartmoor Whiteface people and Dartmoor Greyface people and Jacob’s people, and we are a little showcase of British wool. Not surprisingly I am often invited to be part of events that promote hill farming in general, and sheep rearing in particular. I love wool, and loathe synthetic fleece. Farmers too often leave fleeces to rot, and if they sell them, are unlikely to cover the £2 per animal annual shearing cost. I am all in favour of Britain as producers and manufacturers, more than importers. I’ve always lived in farming country and feel concern for both animal welfare and struggling hill farmers’ welfare. Farmer neighbours have done me many a kindness over the years. And yet, when I watched the film of Huxley’s The Island, where human clones are farmed for their organs, I suddenly saw farming as a dark concept – though I still kept animals myself and my smallholding dreams are probably only dormant, not dead.

My mum, who brought me up vegetarian and who has now gone vegan while I’ve gone the other way, is a fierce voice of Monbiot ilk, and I too sympathise with rewilders and those who would see our moors empty, or at least emptier, of grazing animals so that they might reforest rather desertify. I also sympathise with certain ex-vegetarian friends who point out that the hill ponies offer the leanest, most natural, organic meat from animals with a very-nearly-wild life. At about midday I am filmed trying some pony meat. I talk to the camera about the many reasons why my first taste of horse is a challenge, and fear that I am betraying not only my equine friends but my veggie friend who runs a rehoming and training charity to promote the use of hill ponies for riding, driving and pack rather than for handbags or zoomeat in a dead market where farmers get just a few pounds per pony, on a good year, and shoot the ‘surplus’ that doesn’t sell. Thankfully many people are trying to make a positive difference for all in this sad situation. Meantime we all do our best, and rub along.

I have a lot of stock, and enjoy unwrapping it all to lay it out proudly on tables around my loom, which I’ve brought to demonstrate. Beside my stall stands my sentry willow sculpture mannequin that a kind ex helped me make years ago for displaying the upcycled dresses I used to design. Before I’ve finished setting up I’ve had to dig into my box of incomplete woves for a lovely, tiny, humble Quaker woman I know who buys a small piece of blanketry as a back-warmer to lie on. Later in the morning another humble character borrows cash from his friends to buy my Emerald Isle scarf for himself. Both sales surprise me, and I am pleased. There is a constant stream of people who look closely at my woves and take cards and give compliments. At least three lovely women take pictures of the stall and ask to publish them on their blogs, or in one case, a local rag, and I am delighted. I meet Seth Lakeman’s violin teacher, who promises to give me a weaving contact in County Sligo. I see old friends, neighbours and acquaintances. We are well looked after. It is a good day, and I am glad that it can work in such an unpretentious setting.

Afterwards I have a date with a ten year old on the dodgems, which are bumper cars as far as we’re concerned. We eat candy floss, chips and sweets. ‘Scream for speed!’ Young memories of 2CV soft tops and Landrover backs open to the stars on fast journeys home to ‘Tunnel of Love’ mean I always love the noise and lights and shadows of the fair.

And now I am ready for my winter destination: Brittany, tomorrow.

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Journey through the music from the far North West to the far South West

Coming back to ‘civilisation’ was hard. I didn’t want to. After resting up in Husinish for a few days to muster the energy for the southward migration, I headed to my aunt’s home on the mainland above Ullapool. Never having visited her before, it was great to turn the wheel procrastinatingly north again, and wind through a few glens to get there. However, even the NW Highlands felt developed compared to the rugged Outer Isles I’d hated leaving. But her little Hobbity hamlet stood on a little green hill bathed in watery sunlight and perfectly overarched by a rainbow, and, looking to the West, I saw that ‘her’ two mountains were the same distinctive silhouettes that someone had pointed out to me from Tolstadh, East Lewis. ‘If you can see the mainland from here, it’s going to rain. If you can’t see the mainland from here, it’s raining.’ And there I arrived just behind the same crags that she calls hers. I couldn’t see Lewis, so it must have been raining. Chances are.

In limbo, even the weather stayed still – unheard of, apparently. We nattered ourselves all out, and I worked on a Devon hedgerow blanket for my mum’s upcoming Big Birthday. Then on the warmest day I’d experienced all summer, I got cheerfully back into the driver’s seat and, singing, drove all day through the (relatively) dry-looking Highlands on the only road through them that I’d not yet taken.

I had quite a decompression plan. Like sleeping on a beach the night after the end of a festival, one needs a long, golden bridge when crossing from the Other World back into This.

And so I and fortune had aligned my dates so that, earlier than originally planned but later than latterly intended, my trip south would take me via a gig of my biggest musical hero, John Doyle. A little folk club in East Scotland had booked him in what they’d called the ‘coup of their year’. Once before, hounds (two, that time) and I had found a great musician and a friendly welcome there on a similar rite-of-passage journey. On that other journey three years ago, with a broken heart, I had been on a recky to see what vardo-living might be like in Scotland. And so now, having made the leap into (albeit-102-horsepower) nomadry, it seemed right to catch John at that particular venue, and indeed it was gorgeous. I even overnighted in the same lay-by as that other time, and felt happy and safe and well.

My concept of home has mutated drastically: home is now simply faith.

So when, the next evening, aiming for the Cumbrian coast, I overshot and suddenly had to limp off the motorway near Morecambe clutchless again, it was ok. It just meant that, thanks to the AA (again), I met another nice mechanic and now know one in Lancashire too. On the advice of superhero Stornoway and Devon mechanics I was carrying a replacement slave cylinder in case the master replacement was not the whole solution, and superhero recovery mechanic Chris put me back on the road without fuss. And, little van working hard and going well, I pressed on all the way to Gloucester services and stayed overnight there – though beware, they charge more than a campsite, such that I begrudged them the price of breakfast (admittedly the best service station breakfast available, I’d found on my way north, with free range local meat and fresh squeezed vegetable juices) and forewent. But it was nice not to have to leave at silly-o’clock in the morning, and have time to be emotional, and then, on the M5, sing my heart out to the old Levelling the Land album, and then write a song in that spirit.

Still not yet fully decompressed (as I’d envisaged a day or two’s weaving in the beautiful Lakes), I phoned a rambling Devon friend and we met on a bit of Dartmoor I’d never met before and walked and chattered in the beautiful September sunshine, until at last I was ready to re-enter.

And then a whirlwind month of endless boiler stress, head gasket stress (did I mention the diagnosis by Iain in Stornoway, even though these engines are not supposed to have those difficulties?), money stress, HMRC stress, customers and orders, bad-warp-choice stress, and order cancellation stress…

I camped in SW Cornwall for three beautiful equinoctial days with my mum for her Big Birthday. We ate and drank and walked the dogs and rested in the sun (apart from when I was working) and it was great. Given how Hebridean the landscape is in Penwith, it was surreal how warm the weather, calm the sea and tropical the vegetation. All wrong, in fact.

We met a Poldark extra on an evening beach and my mum tried her usual matchmaking, but I wasn’t interested. We visited the set where they’re currently filming in a nearby cove and nosed among handwoven willow lobster creels and nets and old tools and centuries-old buildings – I was interested in that, it was magical. The moon rose big and bright over the sea and on the next headland the Cornish Proms rang out from the cliff-built Minack amphitheatre as the ships motored through the busy Channel.

On my way back through Cornwall I visited Horse, who is very well, which made me happy.

There was another visit which I have postponed until next year: an exciting commission for a number of seasonal wall hangings of a Cornish garden, artist-in-residence style. We’ve got excited over photos and Harris tweed yarn colours and textures and I nearly squeezed it into a little window but realised that, despite dire need for the money, it was not a job to squeeze into a little window. Art before bank, and the time that time takes, or life gets unhappy. The bills will be paid somehow.

There has been fantastic songmaking with my musical accomplices on guitar and cello. Our trio has surged forwards, nervously but successfully supporting a known act (Jim Causley) in a Devon folk club on our first ever outing, and being treated like special guests at other folk clubs thereafter as we gigged instead of rehearsed (though that was definitely a mistake for at least one song). HUGE thanks and appreciation to David and Jo, as we mostly pulled off our tricky arrangements. ‘Pentangle’ said our first host, and ‘Sandy Denny’, said someone else of our Planxty arrangement. We are onto something, though I say so myself. But have a lot of work ahead.

I find I love folk clubs, and love just how much there is going on around dear old Dartmoor, whose  pubs are full of geeky, rustic, humble, proud, pagan, farming, labouring, beautiful, tuneful specialists, with haunting local and far-flung songs to mine.

Now isn’t that the Celticness I was looking for? Right here at home all the time, if only I’d known how to look. Of course.

Partings, losses, endings: sailing from Stornoway

On my last evening I park by the slipway at Cuddy Point and watch part of a rusty moon peer through the clouds over Stornoway’s inner harbour. I’ve said a few sad goodbyes, which I hope are so longs. I’ve made more friends even in the last days, walking Murph in the wooded castle grounds and sharing the paths with a couple of lovely women. On my last morning I buy lichen-coloured tweed, say some more farewells, and quell tears and departure-nausea as two walkers watch the ferry turn from the rocky woodland above the parking spot I left just an hour ago. I am sad not to have seen Joe, a wildlife tour guide I met on Mull last year with plans to move to Stornoway but whose number I lost. I am sad not to have made it to the St. Kilda swimmers’ party. I am sad not to have visited Cathy and her weaver husband at Achmore. I am sad not to be able to join the next session in An Lanntair or the next singaround in the Carlton or the next gig in the Retirement Centre. I am sad that I didn’t follow up Angus and Violet’s invitation to retreat to their self-catering cottage. I am sad that that crystal blue day at Husinish did not last forever. I am sad that the West Harris Trust are seeking new residents and I am not one. I am sad that there is a great crofthouse in the most beautiful corner of Lewis that I could rent if the world were different. I am sad about all of this and something more. I am sad about the empty holiday houses throughout the Hebrides and South West and everywhere else; the struggling rural communities that cannot fill pubs, buses or sustain post offices; the careless building in beautiful wilderness; the uncertainty of not knowing where my home is; the Syrian and other refugees dying for want of a safe home. And something more. Paths untrodden, opportunities unpursued, and loss: that which we could maybe have had but cannot, or choose not to, even without knowing why. The ferry rolls gently but my stomach doesn’t like it, and Leodhais, island of the materially poor, cultural millionaires, has disappeared into the fog.