During my quick visit to North Devon a week ago, I revisited one of the little places along the coast called Buck's Mills. I was last there in May 1998, with M---. And I couldn't help thinking about her.
The village lies at the sea end of a deep river valley, to my mind rather vulnerable to the sort of flash flooding that might occur following a heavy downpour - such as happened at Boscastle in North Cornwall a few years back, and of course most notoriously at Lynmouth in the early 1950s. But in ordinary times this is a most peaceful spot - quite unlike its neighbour Clovelly, a bit to the west, which is a real tourist honeypot. Buck's Mills was once an industrial site of a kind: there were busy kilns producing lime for agricultural use. But all that activity has long gone. Just the ruined stone structures remain. The village has become simply a pretty place to pause on the Southwest Coastal Path. I was told that most of the cottages are strictly for summer use.
The village hangs above the beach, and the river is forced to tumble down in a waterfall. You have to go down a steep path to reach the shore. Halfway down is a tiny stone cottage. This belonged to two women, one an artist, one a poet, who used it during much of the twentieth century. They found Bucks Mills inspirational.
Isn't the cottage quaint? And what a view! It's now in the care of the National Trust. There was no sign that it is ever open for inspection, but the garden gate was unlocked and I got up to the windows and looked in.
Hmmm. A bit basic. You'd think that two women would do something to soften the general bareness with colourful wall hangings, nice padded chairs, and other stuff. I would have, even if this were only my summer home. So far as I could tell, the place consisted of two very small downstairs rooms, two very small upstairs rooms, and a little outhouse built on. There was space for a larder and a stairwell for slim ladies. Very little garden: the cottage was built on a terrace, and completely exposed to the winds and salt spray. Ideal for a seascape artist or writer, or anyone romantically inclined. The ladies were not isolated, because all the local fishermen and holiday visitors would have passed their front door; but, sitting inside, for much of the year, they would have a view only of the ever-restless sea, and no sound but the waves and the wind.
I've always been attracted to the notion of a highly individualistic home in wild surroundings, but I've never wanted to 'rough it'. It would be a home with mod cons. When I saw it in 1993, Dylan Thomas's Boat House at Laugharne in Carmarthenshire in south-west Wales seemed a bit closer to my sort of place:
That's more like it. You've still got the sea right on your doorstep. The waves, the gulls, the mists, the call of mermaids. You can imagine Thomas mooching moodily into the nearby village for a few pints, now can't you? And I'd call up the same vision of Richard Burton, that other sightly younger Son of Wales. Burton's was the main narrative voice in Thomas's radio play Under Milk Wood. A sonorous, distinctive voice. Like all Welsh voices. I watched a TV documentary the other evening about mining in the Glamorgan valleys in the 1920s and 1930s. It made me cry to hear the singing. I don't know why - my Dad wasn't a miner, we knew nobody who was. But the voices got to me.
Thomas had a hut near the Boat House, where he was supposed to have worked on his writings. Looking in, it was a ramshackle, untidy place that I couldn't have put up with:
Last autumn, when up on the High Pennines in the north of England, I came across this lonely habitation, or barn, nestling at the foot of Pen-y-Ghent, one of the famous mountains of North Yorkshire:
Believe me, this was well away from a main road. You'd be cut off for some of the year! But what scenery. What solitude. Not for me - I'd want the sea within reach - but in many ways an ideal home for anyone seeking not merely an escape from town life, but a place for the mind to grow into, and a sanctuary in which to slowly regain a sense of reality.