Total Pageviews

Sunday, September 23, 2012

DASHWOODS GO TO DARTMOOR - a week of artistic endeavour and friendship washed down with fine West Country ale

"Friends are the bacon bits in the salad bowl of life", said someone, I can't remember who, but, by the time in life that grey hairs start to sprout, most of us begin to realise that true friendship is worth far more than a thick back it is with the Dashwood Art Group.

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 ( ) 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

It was a reasonably sunny day, with shifting cloud throwing patches of brilliant sunlight across the Moors and the Dashwoods chose little hollows to settle down in, sheltering from the stiff breeze.  A scattering of huge granite boulders some of which were the remains of ancient settlements, doubled as cosy seats, warmed by the morning sun, and offered comfort to city bums, unused to the rigours of country loitering.  There were occasional curious walkers who passed us by, wondering why so many artists had decided to paint so close together - a 'paint in' maybe?  Perhaps the beginnings of an English version of the popular Spanish tradition of  'Concursos de Pintura RĂ¡pida' (Rapid Painting Contest) which has yet to take hold in the Green and Pleasant Land.

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

  Painting done for the day, we headed for the Two Bridges Hotel  for some pre-lunch  liquid sustenance in the shape of the delicious locally brewed Jail Ale - named after the infamous Dartmoor Prison only a mile or so down the road.  Perhaps the more likely threat around the 'wooded badlands' would have been escaped villains in tattered jail-house garb, had it not been downgraded to a low risk Class C penitentiary, and earmarked for closure in 2010.

View towards Moortown - Nancy and Maureen getting wet and cold

The next day was far from sunny, but  despite heavy grey skies and threat of  further downpours, we headed towards Tavistock in the trusty camper-van named Elvis, and the works, high-performance, Astra Estate and struggled up Pork Hill to disembark near Cox Tor and sample the delights of a drizzly Whitchurch Common.  It soon became obvious that painting was not an option that morning .The wind, wet and walk soon blew any residual hangovers away, leaving half the group with soggy shoes and the others with damp cameras.

Pew Tor in the background

Best meal of the day starts with Bruno's coffee

In Dartmoor, thank god, there aren't many 'modern buildings', but the few that do pepper the wilderness are often pubs, and these are unfailingly full of character.  You may not like the 'mixed accumulations over 2 centuries' style,  but there's always lots to look at.              'Modern', to differentiate them from the remains of ancient
 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!    

Lunch at the Warren House Inn

 The wonderful beers that they keep so well at the pub made up for the dodgy dish - Otter Ale, Tribute and Doom bar were hits with The Dashwoods, and there was Tanglefoot and Butcombe as well. All brewed barely an hour's drive from Dartmoor, in the counties surrounding Devon - Cornwall, Dorset and Somerset................I think

Meals were always a a joy - from home cooked breakfasts, scented by Bruno's superb 'alarm-clock coffee', reaching out to all bedrooms as it's aroma wafted up the stairwells, to lunch at a pub or dinner around the huge dining table at Estrayer Farmhouse. 

Charles' Post-Porridge Smile

Alan contemplating the next breakfast dish

Nights at the NOT round table

The Dashwoods all took turns to cook in a spontaneous, unplanned and enthusiastic queue.  Whatever was in the fridge including left-overs and half-finished bottles of beer or wine, were magically transformed into wonderful meals, despite only having one sharp knife and a murderous potato peeler which took chunks off innocent index fingers like a Samurai without a worthy opponent.  We even invited guests over one night, and that was a perfect send off to Charles and Alan who had to get back to London the next day.  The choccy boxes emptied and the glass recycling bins filled, the smokers shuffled out in batches to puff and watch for UFO's, and howl at stars in the crowded night sky. 

Dinner on Charles and Alan's last night at the Farm - Woody Allen dropped in uninvited!

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
Taking a detour down to the water's edge, and then back across the dam, Tom and Bill found their way back to the far side of the old disused quarry, and back up the steep track to find the Dashwoods all huddled together pouring over the results of the mornings paintings.  They were all hungry and thirsty, and the time was ripe to pack up the paints and head in the direction of the local.  Only Bruno was still hard at work, having commandeered a whole bench which he clearly needed for the intense creativity inspired by the surrounding scenery.

Bruno Works Hard at the Creativity
Now, many think that art is a solitary pursuit, and that is often how it turns out.  The truth is that many artists very often seek the company of other creatives and preferably those who also paint.  It's part of the passionate process, and getting together to discuss the detail of the subjects and the many ways of representing the colours, shapes and emotional response is part and parcel of the joy and agony that making art demands.  The impressionists were famous for getting together over an absinthe or three, and so are the Dashwoods, although they prefer to stick to a more refined tipple - the local ale.

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 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