Sandford is a village in mid Devon. It lies 2 miles north of Crediton and 9 miles north west of Exeter and is one of a number of villages scattered along a sandy valley where the earth is red and ribboned by the river Creedy. To reach it from Crediton you must climb up Jockey Hill and under the ghost of the bridge at Forches Cross where ladies were undone, travellers robbed, and overloaded carriages ran away from their drivers. The bridge once crossed from Creedy Park House – now an Arts & Crafts-inspired reconstruction of its ancestral self, burned to the ground in 1915 along with its 300 year old archive – to its historic hunting ground, a precious patch of ancient woodland. Tall beeches and chestnuts shade the dog walkers who converge there from the opposite ends of Crediton and Sandford, not all of whom know about the threat from a nearby housing development a keen-eyed developer has set their sights on.
Early Saxons settled in the volcanic valley where they discovered the fertility of the soil, stained red with iron, and dashed with boulders of impenetrable red sandstone. The valley has been farmed ever since. The Creedy and its inlets keep the watered meadows of its lower stretches rich and green for grazing livestock and gave birth, in the 12th century, to a weaving industry that kept the mills of the valley turning for centuries.
In the village square, the 16th century Lamb Inn, where dusty travellers watered and changed their horses, watches over the gentle toings and froings from its vantage on a cobbled slope. A collection of period houses built from cob and thatch, slate and red sandstone hewn from the local quarry, fan out from the square toward the outcrops of new builds, social housing and farms with mediaeval sounding names like Henstill, Bawdenhayes, Swannaton and Clampitt. Most of Sandford’s centre is designated a conservation area and many of its houses are listed. Ours, thankfully, is not.
It’s quiet here. At night the sky is full of stars. It is easier to feel connected to the natural environment, to your neighbours, when you can hear, feel, see everything that is happening. But sometimes, at night, it feels as though the dark and quiet are pressing into you. With lockdown lifted, life hasn’t returned to anything that I recognise as normal. Glen has gone back to work, but I am still working from home, venturing no further than dog walks, the supermarket, sometimes the garden centre. Life has shrunk. Friends and family feel a long way away; the frantic hubbub of communication from the heightened early days faded now that life is busy again. Coronavirus has left all kinds of legacies. I still don’t feel like myself, months on from being ill.
If you venture out of the village to nearby Kennerleigh or Blackdog or perhaps even further afield, to Nomansland, Sandford can feel like a metropolis when you return. I’m comforted by its relative bustle. Our house sits squarely on the pavement and its front windows are large and thinly paned, so it feels as though people are in the kitchen with you when they pass. You hear snatches of conversations as people stop to chat; hear dogs barking; see schoolchildren ambling to and from school; dog walkers, joggers, daytrippers talking into their phones or calling hellos to each other. People must hear us too. Too many times I have forgotten the thinness of the glass – “Do you think mothers shepherd their children away from our house?”, I ask Glen one morning after another unguarded bout of swearing, “do children say, ‘oh no mummy, not the sweary lady, again?’”
Below us the road narrows so that the traffic has to slow. Sometimes people park in such a way that makes it impossible for tractors, HGVs and the bus to get by. It has become a regular feature to be drawn into helping to find drivers in their Friday/Saturday/Sunday night best who have headed up to the Lamb or down to the Rose & Crown for a meal and a pint. We watch, one day, as the bus mounts the two foot high kerb to get round a car parked on the corner, the driver gripping the wheel and shouting expletives at the top of his voice. The suspension crunches and groans as the bus drops back down to the road, its passengers, wide-eyed, clutching the backs of the seats and mouthing implorations at us as they pass. “That’s going to cost a bit”, says Glen, as the bus rattles round the corner and we listen to the driver’s shouting fade.
It all happens here.
The quiet is a benefit but comes, as with all benefits, at a cost. On Saturday nights local farmers take shotguns and trucks out into the fields to lamp rabbits. Unable to sleep I go up into the garden to watch the lights sweep the ridge and listen to the guns shudder the valley, thinking of the terrified rabbits. “They have to be controlled,” a neighbour tells me. I’ve lived in the country for most of my life, and it’s hard to escape the maxim, “Where there’s life, there’s death”. We listen to the dog bark and whimper, flinching with each shot, until quiet falls again around midnight.
For the last few weeks I have been driven to distraction by the mournful baying of calves and mothers, newly separated from each other. There is a calf who refuses to forget and calls for his mother in the dark of the night, starting again at dawn and hoarse by the end of each day. I don’t know how to bear it. I hatch a plan to find and buy the calf and the cow and reunite them. ‘How much would it cost?’, I ask Glen.
‘But where will you keep them?’, he replies.
Just before lockdown I received a bundle of house papers I’d requested from the solicitor. There are deeds, impenetrable legalese hand-written in ink and stamped with thick wax seals. I decipher the earliest record of sale and discover that in 1884 the house was called ‘Lynch Cottage’, and was bought, by a London railway engineer called Robert Crispin, from the Tremletts – one of the oldest and longest standing farming families in the parish. At that time they lived at Park House, the handsome Georgian House at the back of us from whom Peter bought the piece of land that now forms a large portion of our garden. A piece of land for which, in 1978, he paid the princely sum of £500. Somebody has gentrified the cottage since 1884, the definition of which is ‘entry through the living room’, and made it into a house, adding, I am sure, an elevation, incorporating a hallway and its Georgian-style facade. I itch to discover more.
Sarah Nuttall, an experienced archivist and local historian emails me to tell me that she has found, in an unofficial census drawn up in the late 18th Century by Sandford’s then vicar the Rev George Bent, that our home, listed as ‘Lynch, Crediton Road’ was inhabited by Peter Harvey and 5 others in 1775. She tells me that Peter Harvey married Agnes Couch on 5th May 1755 in the parish church of St Swithun’s where they had a child, who they named Peter, baptised on 8th July 1764. She also tells me that his death is recorded as 16th October of the same year alongside that of his sister, Ann in 1762.
When I read this I sit down on the little blue sofa in the kitchen. I feel a shiver prickle the length of my spine and arms. Agnes gave birth to six children and lost two of them. The house feels suddenly different. For Agnes to have lost two young children seems desperate, no matter how common the experience in the 18th century. I feel her loss profoundly. What must she have felt and thought, within these walls? Like others, we have experienced our share of losses. Before we moved away we lost a baby in early pregnancy. It is a grief, which, like all griefs, doesn’t go away, but that you learn to live with.
I have just returned from a walk with Cooper. It was early evening and the sun came out from behind the clouds, casting slanted shadows, the first hint of an approaching autumn, across the fields. I walked up towards the woods and saw a field of calves, trotting and wheeling, playing in a happy fraternity. In a garden I spied a baby rabbit twitching in a bed of scarlet poppies.
I find it hard to balance the scales of life between the beautiful and the cruel. I tell myself that what is left, is to be kind. To love. To take comfort in the fact that, as Louis MacNeice tells us in his poem, ‘Snow’, “There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses”.
Ysella Sims is a poet and writer. She has had work published in Brittle Star, The Blue Nib and The Guardian and has just moved to an awkward, falling-down house outside Exeter where she co-hosts Poetic Licence: Poetry in the Pub.