The Dashwoods are a bunch of artists from pretty diverse backgrounds and a spread of ages spanning many decades, who meet weekly in Crouch End to exercise their deep passion to draw and paint. So, why not take a brave new step into the unknown? They all agreed to spend a week together in Dartmoor, living together in a big farmhouse near Okehampton to paint 'en plein air'.
Bruno demonstrating his 'Artist's Wrestling Association' stance
It could easily have ended in disaster, with the possibility of misunderstandings, quarrels, disputes and the ruination of their close relationship forged over 20 years of once-weekly, two hour painting sessions in North London. Living together for a week would mean group decisions on activities, supermarket foraging, cooking together and generally 'mucking -in' every day. Also, sharing the individual highs, lows and the inevitable cock-ups. But, if the Famous Five did it, so could The Dashwoods.
Week's plans being laid - L to R: Chris, Maureen, Nancy, Bruno, Charles, Bill & Alan (Tom took the pic)
From the moment we arrived at the Estrayer Farmhouse, there was certainly a tangible group magnetism working to pull us all together, and plans had been made in secret to celebrate 2 birthdays that just happened to fall on the same week. Nancy excelled at the all-important key tasks, combining the creativity of Claire Damon's baking and cunning of Patrick Mcgee, the infamous IRA gelignite smuggler, making a mega-tasty cake, then transporting it in a foil covered milk bottle crate, which despite its size, was surreptitiously sneaked into a pre-planned party at Scott's cool mansion in nearby Sticklepath. With a combined age of 154 (you guess the break), Bruno and Scott were relieved to have only 7 candles to blow out - 22 years per candle!
I'll huff and puff and try not to dribble
Although Scott scaled the North London barbed-wire entanglement a year ago, escaping to Devon, he used to be a regular Dashwood-er, and is doing stirling work preparing the DDC (Dashwood Devon Chapter) for other potential escapees. Busy recruiting 'local talant', he signed up Lynne, who arrived to meet the rest of the gang, but didn't get through quite the same amount of West Country ale as the veterans, who drank the 154th birthday celebration night away.
Sunrise brought with it the determination to pull out the paint brushes, uncover the canvas, and head into the wilderness of Dartmoor. The Jurassic stunted oaks of the dream-like Wistman's Wood ( http://www.legendarydartmoor.co.uk/wistman.htm ) beckoned after reading stories of pixies and the hounds of hell chasing sinners to their doom in it's mossy, lichen-coated tunnels of twisted branches . An ancient Druids meeting place, full of supernatural significance - an ideal place to paint while one shivers in fear.
Chris painting above Wistman's Wood & West Dart river
Charles & Alan at Wistman's Wood
As they scribbled away, eyes half- locked on the gnarled branches and woods, prepared for anything that looked vaguely like a ghostly apparition, the hours ticked away and it started to become apparent that the Devil had only dispatched his recce platoons, disguised as very demure sheep and the odd slightly more devilish Dartmoor Goat to check that the Dashwoods were not stealing anything other than the images of this very beautiful location.
Gorse bushes in bloom on the way back from Wistman's Wood
The Devil's Agent spying on the Dashwoods
View towards Moortown - Nancy and Maureen getting wet and cold
Pew Tor in the background
Best meal of the day starts with Bruno's coffee
settlements that, although no longer standing, are almost impossible not to (literally) stumble on. On any Dartmoor walk of more than a few hundred yards, one will find slabs and collections of granite and various other rocks with distinctly right-angled corners laid out in a discernibly organised pattern. Farmers and other locals have long since pilfered the useful ones and turned them into parts of walls, housing and used them to line irrigation streams at strategic points where they are likely to get eroded and leak, so in such a manner, old villages have been 'recycled' over the years on a huge scale - and we consider recycling to be a current idea! The pub we visited to get out of the drizzle and wind was no exception. The Warren House Inn has been mentioned in late 17th century records, burned down and rebuilt in the mid 19th century on the other side of the road, originally a packhorse path to carry tin and essentials across the moor. The story goes that the landlord kept the original fire burning during the rebuilding, and transferred it to the newly built pub and it has kept burning until this day. It was still burning when we got there at lunchtime! Full of that olde worlde character that tourists, incomers (and the Dashwoods) love. The menu was brilliant, but keep well clear of their lauded 'Warren Inn Rabbit Pie' unless you want to feel queasy all day - I did!
Looking towards the south in the night sky, there always seemed to be a faint glow on the horizon. Maybe it was the ghost-campfires of the Viking hordes that rampaged across this peaceful, pastoral heaven only thirty-ish generations ago.
The Dashwoods came into luck when they chanced upon a local yokel (he drove a Mercedes) in the nearby pub. He had a wealth of knowledge about the area and suggested a wonderful place to paint that didn't require a long drive. Just round the corner and up a steep track was the old disused Meldon Quarry and adjacent to the quarry, overlooking a valley, crossed by the Meldon Viaduct, is the railway yard at the western end of the old Dartmoor Railway. Complete with the hulks of old locomotives, railway carriages, platforms here was the spot 'the Merc-driving yokel' directed us to............ a decked-out area looking out over the river Oakment valley and the Meldon Reservoir. A mixture of green valleys, lakes, concrete and steel picturesquely fused together ..........'function in a junction'.
Painting at the Meldon Quarry
What a wonderful find. Comparatively comfy, perfect vista, no sheep poo or prickly gorse and a level surface to spread out the kit. The Dashwoods settled into the serious business of artistic endeavour and soon silence reigned apart from the sounds of pencil scratching on paper and brushes tapping on the side of tupperware water containers.
|Meldon Viaduct over the Oakment Valley|
The Dashwoods settle down to serious work
Dashwoods find a great place to paint
Tom and Bill were happy to watch the paint splashing, but as the silent minutes ticked away, they became bored and decided to explore the local walks - jumping over the fence on to the ex-railway track, and heading across the viaduct in the direction of the Meldon Reservoir, the OS map promised a lovely clear circular walk round the water's edge, and back across the 'Dartmoor side' of the reservoir, across the dam, and through the quarry. Picking blackberries as they walked, and finding the route barred at the water's edge, they took 'the high path' across the ridge overlooking the reservoir. Beautiful views across Dartmoor and the surrounding villages soon appeared as they cut across a line of ancient trees marking the final fold of the hill.
|Tom emerges above the tree line|
The colour of the landscape and the Devon Blue sky above tempted them to linger and savour what was clearly a local beauty spot. The path got less distinct as they walked on, and as the footsteps crunched by it became clear that they would never get round the reservoir and make it back to rendezvous with the Daswoods for the planned late pub lunch that everyone was looking forward to. A change of plan beckoned.
|Lookout Sheep Keeping Watch on Tom and Bill|
|Green Tree Tunnel|
|Meldon Dam Face|
|Bruno Works Hard at the Creativity|
Its often done in a setting shared with good beer, wine and tasty food. The inspirations are even greater, and the discussions more animated when a group of artists post-mortem the day of painting over a few pints.
There were days when the group shelved brushes, paints and canvasses to visit local sites of interest. The Fitch Foundry in Sticklepath was superb! We thought that it would be generally boring, but the main attraction for the Dashwoods was a huge working water-wheel that entirely powered the foundry. Unbelieveably, there was a scheduled, working demo of how an ancient foundry worked, complete with a smithy who took questions as he hammered the glowing billets into shape. Slowly, realisation the beautiful tinkling stream running past rocks and clumps of stream-side flowers also had an alter-ego..........it was the driving force that...........................(to be continued.)
View from Branscombe Common
Lynne & Easel
Chris painting - Belstone Common
Love at 1st Sight
Last Morning Mist Rising
Au Revoir Estrayer