Yesterday Michelle and I made the familiar journey down the long country lane to lay flowers at my mother’s grave.
We wanted to say thank you, now that the old house has finally been sold.
If I’m going to be honest, It was gratitude mixed with huge relief, given the state of the place and the exorbitant monthly interest charged by the bank.
Another winter unoccupied and nature might have claimed it for herself.
I had lain awake in the night, imagining broken panes of glass in the conservatory from the Autumn gales, and overgrown with bourgainvilia that surrounded the heavy wooden front door. I imagined the creeping damp had blackened every room and the uneven floors had risen into small mountain ranges. Now it was all over and peaceful sleep had returned.
The lane to the village has steep banks and high hedges on either side with few passing spaces. There are dips in the road where large pools of water form after the rain. We both hated it.
In summer it was invariably clogged with camper vans and nervous townsfolk who could not judge its width or reverse to the nearest passing place. And in winter, one had to run the gauntlet of tatty work vans, huge-wheeled tractors or the occasional speedster in a beaten-up Nissan Micra.
It’s only three miles or so from the main road, but always feels like ten.
It was always a great relief to arrive at Strete Lodge unscathed and to see Mum’s smiling face. She would put the giant kettle on the AGA and offer a selection of cakes, donated by kindly neighbours. Latterly it was we who made the tea as mum sat in her little red chair in the snug and dozed on and off like a puppy. She tired quickly and her wakeful periods, far from being bursts of frenetic energy, involved slow and treacherous expeditions to the nearest toilet, before sleep overtook her once more.
Today there would be no such welcome. We parked in the little Church car-park and crossed to the churchyard and mum’s grave.
I removed the putrid remnants of the flowers we had taken some weeks before and replaced them with the new. The grave looked rather pathetic and I resolved to arrange a headstone now that the ground has settled.
She was not there and I felt no need to linger.
We drove around the corner and past the old house. There was a SOLD sign; there were stranger’s cars on the drive and a large skip. The latest occupants in its three hundred year history had taken up the challenge.
I felt only relief.
The dogs, who had hitherto lain sleeping in the back of the car began to stir, knowing where they were.
They had always galloped excitedly through the conservatory and into the snug and the kitchen, their claws scrabbling across the wooden floor to announce our arrival. But not today.
It was t-shirt weather for November and we decided to walk the circular route around Little Dartmouth, taking in a section of the Southwest coast path. It’s a walk I have done many times with my brother, but never with Michelle, who used to stay at the old house and chat to mum.
Parking at the little National Trust car-park, the dogs leapt out, eager to get their bearings.
Michelle donned new walking boots and a winter coat.
“I don’t think you’ll need that,” I warned.
“I will,” she insisted, pulling the thing on.
“It’s a circular walk,” I assured her, “but a little hilly.”
She seemed content with the arrangements so we set off down the grassy footpath towards the sea.
A charm of Goldfinches twittered and flitted in the hedgerow. There was a field of yellow straw-like grass, with deep green fields beyond, and beyond that, rough patches of gorse on the cliff-edge and the cobalt and turquoise sunlit sea.
A Skylark sang to us as we descended the path and my face began to beam with a broad smile.
Michelle knows that I love the countryside and the sea and it was a perfect day to explore them both.
The first downhill section is a little misleading to the inexperienced walker. We stopped to admire the breathtaking views across the bay to Start Point where the lighthouse still shines its steadily blinking light into the main guest bedroom up at the old house.
Late yellow gorse blossom shone like stars of the night sky among the darkening, decaying thorns.
A stonechat rested on a protruding lookout branch.
A Red Admiral butterfly was busy living its ten months of life.
Down and down we went where the path became narrow and muddy.
An old gent with an ageing black lab skated uphill in front of us, waving his arms to keep balance.
I tried not to look at Michelle as her eyebrows darkened with the gathering cloud overhead.
She took off her coat and tied it around her waist and caught sight of the faint smile on my lips.
“You didn’t tell me it was this muddy,” she complained.
“I didn’t know until we got here,” I replied, walking on.
She muttered something about only coming for a walk on the beach and ending up on a great trek, but I tried to change the subject.
“Just look at the view. Isn’t it beautiful!” I said.
“You know I’ve got a sore heel, “ she persisted. “You never said it was this steep.”
“I suppose I didn’t notice before,” I offered.
My brother and I had talked and admired the ever changing scenery. We had never once discussed sore feet or muddy and steep paths. I simply hadn’t noticed.
“You’re hot, you must admit. I can see you are.” She continued.
We climbed the vertiginous cliff path. Under the wind-bowed Hawthorn tree, next to the rusting bracken.
I stopped to admire the twisted branches, painted with lichens of sage green and cobalt yellow as Michelle puffed along behind me.
Seabirds – gulls and cormorants sat on the jagged outcrops of black rock below.
A plume of smoke drifted up the face of the distant headland and the sea gently washed the feet of the cliff.
“Isn’t it perfect!” I said, as Michelle caught up.
“Oh yeah!” She said with not a little sarcasm.
We played the childhood game of long car journeys: “How much further is it? How long will it take? Are you sure you know the way?” Et cetera.
Perhaps I had overestimated Michelle’s appetite for a country walk. Perhaps it was a bit steeper and muddier and longer than I remembered. But it was stunningly beautiful and that makes it all worthwhile, I assured her.
Although I could see that she wasn’t entirely in agreement, I admired her perseverance. She did have quite a limp and talked a lot about wanting to lie in a ditch and die, but I knew she was joking.
Soon we turned the corner and it was a hop, skip and jump, a couple of steep muddy fields and a relatively short path and we were on the home straight, I reassured.
Michelle’s *eyes had taken on the look of cautious reserve which you see in those of parrots, when offered half a banana by a stranger of whose bonafides they are not convinced. (*Credit Wodehouse)
Seeming to accept that we must, in fact, be nearing the end of this painful ordeal Michelle stopped complaining about her foot and began to fantasise aloud about lying down and what she might like to imbibe when we got home.
I fancied tea and cake up at the old house, then remembered that was another time ago.
At last, the car came into view and she punched the air with all the joy and vigour of a Grand National winner. And such are life’s little ups and downs. Our valleys and triumphs, our battles and blessings. We must never forget to remember, nor to appreciate the view.
“Rather than go back along the lane shall we take the Ferry?” She said.