After a week spent running around Manchester and London like a blue-lipsticked fly, it was nice to get back to Dartmoor. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the main reason I started illustrating and writing books was so that I could live here…
Back in the early ’90s when Sarah and I still lived in Brighton, we only used to get one week per year on the moor. It was usually the third or fourth week in September, and we always used to stay in the same place, at Wooder Manor, just outside Widecombe, where farmers William and Angela Bell have converted some of their outbuildings into cosy holiday lets. (If you ever think of exploring Dartmoor for yourself, Wooder is an excellent base.)
We were staying there when I started writing Mortal Engines, and when I needed a family name for my hero I just looked out of the window, and called him after nearby Natsworthy*, where a line of grand old beech trees comes down to the road.
But eventually we got tired of going home after our holidays, so I started illustrating full-time so that we could move here (I can’t drive, so if I was going to live in the country, I had to have a job that I could do from home)**. We’ve lived on the moor for almost sixteen years now, and for the past seven we’ve been William and Angela’s neighbours, just across the valley from Wooder.
Last night Sam was on a sleepover with some friends, so Sarah and I had the rare chance to go for an evening walk together. We left the car at Natsworthy and walked up over Hameldown to the ancient settlement at Grimspound. Here are a few pictures which I snapped on my phone…
Someone had pitched a tent in the circle of the old wall at Grimpsound, which must be a wonderful place to camp, but in this picture I’ve carefully positioned Sarah to block it out.
Hookney Tor catching some low evening sunbeams.
Not a menhir, I think, just an old gatepost in a fallen wall.
…and here’s a rather better one which Sarah took with her camera (she’s a proper photographer).
Photo: Sarah Reeve
*Actually, now I know the lie of the land a bit better, I don’t think you can see Natsworthy from Wooder Manor – it must have been some other line of trees that I was looking at. But I thought it was Natsworthy.
** Or I could have LEARNED TO DRIVE, I suppose – for some reason I never thought of that.
Last week, in between downpours, I took the dog for a quick walk up the hill outside the village…
I hadn’t planned to go far, but when I reached the top it was so nice in the wind and the autumn sunshine that I kept going. I ended up walking right along the back of Hameldown hill, much to Frodo’s delight.
I always wonder about these old posts, which are dotted all over the top of Hameldown. I’ve read that they were erected in the war to stop German gliders landing and were originally much bigger, with barbed wire strung between – but why would you land a glider on top of Hameldown? It’s a big old boggy hill in the middle of nowhere. Anyway, they look very good, standing there in the wind and weather.
Looking north west from the summit. In the sunlight over there are Kes Tor and Batworthy, one of my favourite parts of the moor.
Coming down off the northern end of Hameldown, I passed this monument to the crew of an RAF bomber which crashed there during the war.
At Natsworthy, the storms hadn’t quite stripped the last of the autumn leaves off the beech trees. Sarah and I were staying at Wooder Manor, a bit further down the valley, when I started writing Mortal Engines, and this is where Tom Natsworthy’s name came from.)
And from Natsworthy it was a pretty easy stroll back down the lanes in the evening sunlight.
Moretonhampstead is a little town on the eastern edge of Dartmoor. It’s not far from where I live, but we seldom have a reason to go there, so yesterday was the first time I’d visited Green Hill Arts, a former primary school which has been turned into artists’ studios and a very nice exhibition space. What drew me there was their new exhibition ‘Widdershins’, featuring paintings, drawings and sculptures on mythic and mystical themes by some of the artists based in or around the nearby town of Chagford, whose most famous members are Brian Froud and Alan Lee.
How I would have loved this exhibition when I was fourteen! Back then, Froud and Lee were my heroes, but I never got a chance to see any of their original artwork – I just had to pore over their illustrations in books like Faeries, which they illustrated together in 1979.
Nowadays I would usually run a mile to avoid the sort of people who insist on spelling ‘fairy’ with an ‘e’, and Froud seems to have abandoned forever the quirky and beautifully observed landscape backgrounds and strange, foreshortened spaces which were what I always liked best about his work. But it’s still good to see some of his pictures up close, including this ‘Green Man’, (above) which is also used as the exhibition poster.
Wendy Froud, his wife, makes what are basically dolls: troll dolls, faery dolls (definitely faeries with an ‘e’). She makes them wonderfully well, but unfortunately I feel about dolls the same way that many people feel about clowns – Eugh, they’re so creepy, with their little beady eyes and their winsome, waxy faces! RUN AWAY! Still, she has one piece in this show that I did like very much – a ‘wood troll’ with gnarled stick-like hands and a bunch of actual sticks sprouting from its back. It could have stepped out of one of her husband’s paintings from the ’70s, and it’s clearly a relative of the mystics in the film The Dark Crystal, which Brian Froud designed and Wendy Froud worked on.
Alan Lee is in New Zealand at present, busy with the Hobbit films, but he’s well represented here, with a couple of pencil drawings and the painting of the sleeping Smaug from the illustrated edition of The Hobbit , as well as one of Fangorn Forest from The Lord of the Rings. There’s also a piece of his concept art from the LOTR movies – a loose pencil sketch of Eowyn vs the Nazgul, the battlefield suggested with old-masterish skill and economy by wiry, wandering pencil lines. And there’s one of his pictures from Faeries too, done in his older, tighter style, and a cover illustration for an anthology called Hist Whist which I think I can remember being fascinated by (and trying to copy) before I even knew who he was.
His daughter, Virginia Lee, seems to have inherited some of his talent: there’s a rather beautiful little relief plaque here of a scene from The Fellowship of the Ring (below, though a photo doesn’t really do it justice). My favourites were two of her pastel drawings; imaginary landscapes in which stone angels’ wings and carvings of the Tinners’ Hares take the place of the stone circles which crown some Dartmoor hilltops.
And it was particularly nice to see some pictures by David Wyatt (with whom I was lucky enough to work on the Larklight trilogy) hanging here among the Frouds and Lees. His pictures have similar qualities to theirs, while being entirely his own: beautifully drawn, full of invention and visual humour, and steeped in the landscape and atmosphere of Dartmoor. I’ve pinched the image below from his excellent blog.
Widdershins continues at Green Hill Arts until 10th August. In addition to the artists I’ve mentioned there is also work by Terri Windling, Rima Staines, Hazel Brown (whose little boxes of miniature objects have something of the genuine weirdness of 19th Century fairy art), Neil Wilkinson Cave, and Paul Kidby. And Green Hill are running a tie-in programme of events and workshops, too. If you are in Devon, or planning to visit during the summer, this is well worth a look.