November 8, 2007

Mists and Moors

Was there ever anything quite so beautiful as the English countryside? Rolling hills and hedgerows, mists and moors … At the risk of sounding treacly, it all makes me feel like I’m coming home. I guess that’s what comes from growing up reading too many British children’s books. In my mind, the ideal landscape was never something in my own backyard but from the backyards of Kenneth Grahame and Beatrix Potter. I’ve been told the Germans have a similar problem: They all pine away for the American West as described in a Karl May book.

Still, I never saw the British countryside for myself until I was 20 years old. An incredible two-week road trip from Surrey to Scotland with my friend Lucas secured a special place for Britain in my heart, and ever since then I’ve been longing to go back. So it went without saying that when Kevin and I were in Oxford last week a road trip was in the offing. Fortunately, he has some cousins in Devon, a five-hour drive from Oxford and the perfect destination to see some of the country’s most beautiful scenery.

Kevin’s cousins, Daphne and Jim, live in the quaintly named “Fathom Cottage” in the little village of Newton Ferrers, near Plymouth. I suppose it is customary in England that everywhere is just dripping with history, and Newton Ferrers is no different. Jim informed me it was founded in the 11th century as part of a land grant from William the Conquerer to his blacksmith for services rendered – “ferrer” being a derivation of the Latin ferro for iron. Well, William’s smithy must have been a very deserving man, indeed, because this corner of Devon is some incredibly beautiful country. It’s among Britain’s AONBs (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) – they actually have such a designation – and today, a quarter acre of riverfront will set you back a cool million.

Although Daphne and Jim are octogenarians, they are far from growing sedentary in their old age. Jim, in particular, is an avid driver, and he seemed happy to drive us all over the countryside. And boy was I glad to be chauffered! Those hedgerows may look picturesque by day, but at night they are a death trap – especially when pheasants and rabbits jump out at you from every direction. At 81, he handles those narrow one-lane roads better than I do at 26.

Under Jim’s careful direction, we visited tearooms and medieval churches in villages with ancient-sounding names like Noss Mayo and Widecombe-in-the-Moor. We toured a Tudor manor house and garden at Cothele, in nearby Cornwall. We even spent a whole afternoon trapsing across the moors and frolicking with the wild ponies at Dartmoor, thus fulfilling a childhood dream of mine. Ever since I read The Secret Garden, by Francis Hodgson Burnett, I’ve wanted to visit a moor and see one of those mysterious creatures for myself. I wanted to know what gorse looked like and to hear whether the wind whistling over the moors really sounds like “some one crying.” It does.

Although Yorkshire was the setting for The Secret Garden, Dartmoor has it's own literary claim to fame: It’s the setting for sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. I actually read that story, just by chance, a few months ago, but nonetheless I neglected to remember one of its most important details: the danger of the moor’s sudden and impenetrable mists. We encountered one such mist just as we were driving out of the park, and it was terrifying. It reduced visibility to zero, and turning on the headlights somehow made it worse. Jim told me these mists can be fatal: A few years ago a local girl became lost and died when a mist descended on her school group without warning. That, in my mind, is scarier than any story involving hellhounds.

In the end, though, the scenery wasn’t half so interesting as Kevin’s relatives. Daphne and Jim are the dearest couple in the world. Daphne is incredibly sweet and motherly, without being oppressive. She made a 20-plate meal for us our first night there and was forever asking if we wouldn’t like another cream tea. Well, yes, I would, thanks. Jim is a master of that particular brand of dry British wit and constantly had us laughing to tears. He’s also a hell of a singer, always singing the lyrics to some Cole Porter tune or WWII ditty. And oddly enough, he bares a striking resemblance to Stanley Holloway, the actor who played Alfred P. Dolittle in the movie version of “My Fair Lady.” On our last day in Devon, he fulfilled my bashful request and serenaded me with Dolittle’s signature solo, “Get Me to the Church on Time.”

As Kevin and I begin the countdown to our own wedding, it’s particularly reassuring to see a couple that’s still so happy after more than 50 years together. I just hope that after a half century together Kevin and I will be as content – and living in a cottage on the moors, to boot.

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