Towards the end of my recent week in North Devon I made a tour of the country churches to the south of Great Torrington. It was a Saturday, and a fine, dry, warm afternoon. I planned to visit Little Torrington, Buckland Filleigh, Black Torrington and Huish - marvellous country place names! - which would not take me far, but would involve many a narrow country road.
Despite Fiona being a large car, I'm always up for exploring narrow, winding country lanes and usually find it rewarding. You might think that large cars and narrow lanes don't mix. Not so: a large car has the power and general capability to handle any kind of road, and will get you out of almost any rough-road situation. You may, it's true, have to back up before advancing tractors, combine harvesters, milk tankers, livestock lorries, or school buses, but they can't bully you as they might if you were in a small car.
So you can proceed with confidence, only making sure that your side-mirrors are retracted in case they get clonked by the high hedgerows on either side, or any of the aforementioned vehicles as they squeeze past at a passing-place. You must also remember the last passing place you drove by, in case you need to reverse back to it. Often you don't have to: many country locals are amazingly considerate to strangers, especially to women drivers. I love that kind of cheerful, old-fashioned courtesy. I will wind my window down as we pass and give them heartfelt thanks, because they deserve it.
But sometimes I encounter unchivalrous high-and-mighty men in spotless Range Rovers, who seem to think they own the road, and that women drivers are less than the roadkill beneath their wheels. For some reason, they all remind me of Jeremy Clarkson. So I play them, and make them look boorish and discourteous by going into reverse before they do. I will kow-tow to their greatness! But they'll have to endure my slow, nerve-fraying manoeuvres. It serves them right for not instantly making way for a woman on her own. Let them feel embarrassed at the heavy weather I make of it. The further I have to reverse, the longer it goes on for, the more they become red-faced with discomfiture. They know they have broken the code of a true gentleman.
If I can, I deliberately veer into the hedge, and then run forward again - at least twice - signalling a dreadful 'lack of skill', exactly the kind of thing they'd expect from a 'mere woman'. Which of course winds them up. What fun! To be fair, they often mumble thanks as they finally get past. Well, there is at least some mouth-movement, possibly suggesting words of acknowledgement, though I could be mistaken about that. They never look me in the eye.
But back to my tour.
I was of course using the churches mentioned in the opening paragraph as a means to an end. Driving between them would reveal beautiful countryside at every turn, and tucked-away villages not visited by holidaymakers who prefer beaches to farmland and woods inland. Not that this area is entirely off the tourist trail. My mini-tour would take me around what is termed 'the Ruby Country'. The name derives from the distinctive red cattle that were bred here. It's marketed as a secret and enchanting part of rural Devon, quiet and unspoilt, perfect for a hideaway holiday or weekend break, with great pubs, good food, plenty of history, and a host of activity pursuits.
The easternmost part of the Ruby Country (but in particular the land between the Rivers Torridge and Taw) was the haunt of renowned photographer James Ravilious, who died in 1999, and whose widow I met at Appledore in 2015. James Ravilious was the younger son of famous painter Eric Ravilious. He settled in this very rural part of north-west Devon in the 1970s and set about recording it in photographs. These now form an important and treasured collection of partly-vanished country life. Only 'partly' - it hasn't all gone. On this and previous forays, I have felt very much as if I've been following in James Ravilous' footsteps, even if I haven't the same eye for perceptive camera-work, and only now and then shoot in black and white, a medium he exploited to wonderful effect.
How did I get on?
Well, Little Torrington village, just off the main A386 road, was pleasant, but the church was locked. So on to Buckland Filleigh, which was a scattered place, a former estate centred on grand Buckland House, now a sequestered posh wedding venue, with apartments. The church was in its grounds. There was nowhere nearby to park, so I left Fiona in a wide part of the road two or three hundred yards away, and walked along the narrow lane towards the House entrance, which was also the way to the church. I'd covered most of that distance when a giant combine harvester suddenly loomed into view. I honestly don't know how it managed to negotiate these lanes. It entirely filled the one I was walking on. At the spot I'd reached, there was no possibility of tucking myself in on one side, and letting it run past. I'd have to retreat until the lane widened out again.
So, flip-flopping in my summer sandals, I ran before it. I couldn't go very fast, but even so I thought I was making a good (if undignified) effort for a lady who was obviously not in the first flush of youth. I had to cover most of the distance back to my car. The thing was, the combine harvester didn't follow me at a slow, easy pace. The more I ran, the faster it followed! So that I was quite puffed out when I came to a spot where I could at last stop and let it get by. A wave of the hand from the driver. Huh. And I now saw that a car had been impatiently following the combine harvester. They couldn't have seen me running for safety. Eyes stared at me disdainfully as the car passed, as if I'd held everyone up on purpose.
I was now close enough to Fiona to give up on visiting the church. But I didn't. I went back down the lane, this time without being forced into another ignominious retreat, and had a look. The public had a right of way through the grounds of Buckland House to the church, which turned out to be attractive and well cared-for, an on-the-spot facility for marrying couples and their guests, as the House was adjacent. So was a swimming pool, a boating and fishing lake, and acres of woodland walks.
Recovered from my exertions, my next stop was Black Torrington. It was a proper village, not just a hamlet, with a church, pub, school, modern village hall and some shops. I ended up walking around it, but headed first for the church. Approaching closely, I saw pink fabric tied to the railings that led to the porch.