Thursday, 11 February 2010

Weekend on Dartmoor

On a Buckfast bridge
I picked up my two exam results on Friday, and despite my reservations, I did fine (again). So that's good, and set me up nicely for the weekend ahead.

You may remember that Friday afternoon finds me further from home than usual, at the main university campus, for lectures on Clinical Pharmacology - it was antibiotics, antifungals, antivirals, asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease on this occasion. Then it was into the car and head for home (1h 20m), a swift loading of chattels (20 mins) and back in the car for the journey to Dartmoor (another 4 hours). As we approached our destination, it started to rain quite heavily, then very heavily, and then we were up on the narrow unlit moor roads hitting patches of fog as well. We arrived at around 10pm.

This trip had been planned for some time - Mr A had volunteered to book a 'camping barn', which was essentially an old cowshed cleaned out so that folks can roll out sleeping bags and cook indoors. The toilet/shower area was very basic too: unheated and with concrete floors. But it was cheap and convivial and eight of us planned to spend two nights there.

Only seven made it on Friday night. We assumed that Mr B had looked at the weather and decided to travel on Saturday morning - but no, when he did arrive on Saturday morning he told us that he hadn't printed any maps and had tried to rely on his Satnav, which had brought him close, but not close enough. He simply couldn't find us, and with no mobile phone reception and too late to make enquiries in pubs, he was quite unable to do anything but sleep in his car. Dartmoor is a barren and inhospitable place at the best of times, let alone late at night in a storm.

Saturday was a beautiful day, no sign of the torrential rain of the night before. We decided to visit Dartmoor Prison Museum, built in 1806-1809 to house French prisoners from the Napoleonic Wars. It was empty for some time after 1815, then re-purposed in 1850 to house convicts - these days it holds Category C and D prisoners. The museum attendant provided a lot of information (but so quietly that most of us couldn't hear him). It seems that prisoners are not categorised according to what they have done, but on how likely they are to escape. Category A means that not only are they keen to escape but they are likely to have outside help; B are keen but lack the outside support; C aren't actively trying to get out but would take the opportunity if it presented itself, and D are either institutionalised or pretty much rehabilitated and working towards their release date.

Any old rubbish connected with the prison seems to have been deposited in the 'museum'. Some of it was very interesting - the glass case full of makeshift tattooing gear, weapons and keys confiscated from prisoners, for example. Some of it was disturbing - the blueprints for a whipping frame and the frame itself, religious scenes painted by a prisoner, and an assortment of oddly painted garden ornaments produced in the prison workshops and available for purchase. Some was just odd - intricate models made of matchsticks, collar studs from one ex-prison officer, a letter written by a prisoner about how good the dog handlers were to his old mother when she visited him.

We moved on to Buckfast Abbey, which is a modern abbey completed in 1937, but built on the site of a medieval monastery. It's OK if you like abbeys, and I thought the modern stained glass was effective. After stocking up with a few provisions in Buckfast village we headed back towards the barn, stopping only at the 3rd highest pub in England, the Warren House Inn. This pub boasts a fire in one fireplace that is said to have been burning continuously since 1845, and was cut off for some time when it snowed recently.

The seven of us in the pub
Back in the barn, we cobbled together a dinner comprising leftovers from last night's supper and the morning's breakfast, and then played the Bucket Game. This consists of writing names on pieces of paper, putting them in a bucket (a saucepan in this case), drawing them out one by one and trying to convey the name to a partner against the clock. This has been introduced many times to different types of friends, but this was the most extraordinary group Mr A and I have ever had the pleasure of playing with.

Part of the problem was the age range - several years older than Mr A down to a recent graduate at less than half his age. Part of the problem was our diverse range of interests and occupations influencing our choice of names. Early 20th century painters knocked up against a TV kangaroo, a 19th century philosopher rubbed shoulders with an Irish freedom fighter, and we had more than one chat show host. But the main theme was that unlike any other group of people I've played with, none of them was satisfied until they knew who these people were and exactly what they had done. We had frequent breaks to clarify these details, and loud exclamations of disbelief that any friend of ours could possibly not know who Jimmy Somerville was until it was pointed out that Jimmy Somerville came to fame 25 years ago, before certain people were born. I wasn't sure that anyone was actually enjoying the experience, but when I suggested we might stop, they insisted that they wanted to carry on.

Our second night was warmer than the first, because Mr B had brought a new tent for Mr A, and we thought we'd erect it to see how it looked. Having done so inside the camping barn, we decided it would be fun to leave it up and sleep inside. On Friday night I'd suffered a little from the cold, and had to get up in the night to forage for additional insulation. Inside the tent was much more cosy!

We'd been very lucky with the fine weather on Saturday. Sunday was not so nice: cloudy, drizzly and overcast. The group split up, and Mr A and I went south to the Devon coast for a view of Burgh Island and then a late lunch with our friends, the Nuclear Family. They moved to a small Devon town from Leamington Spa just under a year ago, and seem very contented with the change.

The return journey was long but the weather was kinder than the outward journey. Since then, and for the foreseeable future, I have been and will be seriously short of leisure time. I have nine deadlines for coursework, and seven weeks to complete it all. Each item takes longer than a week to finish. I need either a machine that can achieve time dilation (like that whatsit that Hermione had in the Harry Potter film), or a chat with an existential philosopher if I am to work out how it will all get done.

1 comment:

Don't Bug Me! said...

I slept in a car on Dartmoor one night over 20 years ago, when I was a student at Exeter. Not that I actually slept - I had two friends with me and we were in a mini.