An Honourable Defeat; (Their)story and a Bag of Memories.

I recently checked out the Shed of The Year competition website to see who the category and overall winners were, since we were sworn to secrecy in an email a few weeks ago having been told The Hut hadn’t won, but hadn’t received an update since. The very worthy overall winner was Chris Hield, in the same Nature’s Haven category as The Hut, who’d built an amazing hobbit house shed in his back garden. Click here for more on his winning shed, how he did it, and what else this very creative chap gets up to in his spare time. Certainly not a couch potato!

Many congratulations to Chris, but also very many thanks to anyone who took the trouble to vote for The Hut. Particularly those who told me they managed to vote multiple times on different devices! Well done for enterprise, and I feel it was a very honourable defeat. The more so since the competition blog explains that this year there were over 3,000 shed entries into the competition, so I feel chuffed at having got The Hut into the final shortlist of 21. Plus, by not winning, I’ve avoided the trauma of having to be professionally photographed again, with an enormous, shed-placed crown.

The Hut will still be open to any of our garden visitors for the 2020 season, who fancy climbing up longevity hill. But we’ve decided that next year, we’ll only be opening the garden via short notice “pop up” days to try to avoid the near chaos of our snowdrop season opening this year.

So, if you’d like to know when you can come and see the garden (and Hut), keep following this blog to see when we’re opening, or email us and we’ll add you to our list of potential visitors, who we’ll email each time before holding a “pop up” opening.


The rest of this post has a diverse, wide ranging historical theme, which begins at another site we visited in South Devon last month.

Stover Park in South Devon is a 144 acre SSSI country park administered by Devon County Council and is, in addition, the site of a memorial poetry trail for the poet Ted Hughes, laid out in 2006. Many readers will probably be familiar with some of Hughes’ work, but this site was chosen in consultation with Ted’s widow Carol as being a fitting place for this Yorkshireman to be remembered and celebrated. Hughes had relocated to Devon for most of his adult and writing life, and the poetry trail weaves between the wooded and open spaces of the park with a selection of a few of his poems engraved on granite slabs set in chunky wooden block posts placed along the route. Click here for more on the trail.

A surprisingly peaceful venue, in spite of being close to several large towns, there are thoughtfully placed simple wooden benches to allow visitors to sit, read and reflect on Hughes’ poems before moving onto the next point, and the trail is well designed to take a relaxed 2 hours to complete, over flat terrain.

Hughes has become one of my favourite poets partly because of the style of his poetry and its origins in the keenest of observations of the natural world, but also very significantly because my brother Mark has been such an avid researcher of Hughes’ life and work over many years. Click here for a fascinating piece he’s written recently, focused around Hughes’ poem Pike, “Ted Hughes and the gender of the Pike” (photo above).  Amongst many other things, he’s also managed to gradually assemble a wonderful collection of Hughes’ work, memorabilia and artefacts at Hughes’ alma mater, Pembroke College in Cambridge. Click here for more information about Ted Hughes’ life and work, and view the short video clip below for a little more about the many years’ effort on Mark’s part, and how he hopes the latest acquisition will inspire future generations of English students at Pembroke.

With much of Hughes’ work unavailable on-line, I’m including here an image of a previously unfamiliar poem which we both really enjoyed reading in the open air on a surprisingly warm sunny September Devon day. A dramatic contrast indeed to the atmosphere frozen with his words.

A poem first published in 1978 in his anthology Moortown Elegies (later republished under the more benign title Moortown Diary) – a book of poetry written to reflect several years of working on the land, helping to run his then father-in-law’s smallholding in North Devon. A title heavy with the brutal tensions of life and death, an ever constant on a small livestock farm in rural Britain. Yet words which must, inevitably, have been distilled by Hughes’ earlier life, rent with personal grief and tragedy (see later). Click here for more of an academic review of this anthology and Hughes’ writing in this work. I must hunt out a copy.

On the returning leg of the walk circuit, we burst from tree cover into a wide swathe, cut straight, and following the line of enormous overhead transmission lines and pylons. The very dry ground beneath was covered in an amazing display of yellow Rough hawkbit seed heads, Leontodon hispidus, and Devil’s-bit scabious flowers, Succisa pratensis. I’ve never seen so many scabious plants flowering in one place before. Yet on this warm, sunny day, where were the butterflies and bumblebees which would normally be thronging to such nectar rich flowers?

Perhaps inhibited or deterred by forces unseen, but heard in the occasional crackle of static from overhead. A reminder that maybe our sensory perception is more primitive than “more primitive” life forms?

A solitary Hornet, Vespa crabro, was seen hawking amidst the flowers for prey. Maybe indeed its presence was responsible for the lack of other insects, though somehow, I doubt it.

In any case, the placing of another piece of Hughes’ writing taken from “The Iron Man” seemed very appropriate.


On to the coast, but reaching back in time a little further, we travelled to Slapton Sands.

For any who knows them, they’re a bit of a misnomer, since the glorious long sweeping beach is largely shingle. Lying just to the West of the cliffs of Dartmouth from where, in 1588, 11 ships left to join the armada to fight the Spanish fleet. Centuries later, on June 5th 1944, beneath the gaze of troops manning the guarding gun emplacements at Brownstone battery, a massive fleet of 480 ships holding nearly half a million troops set sail from the same narrow mouthed estuary, below, for the beaches of Normandy.

We’d seen glimpses of Slapton’s curving beach in the distance from a previous day’s coastal path walk, where we’d also walked through a fabulous meadow, still filled in late September with masses of yellow Cat’s-ears, Hypochaeris radicata, and pink Musk mallows, Malva moschata, clashing colours blending perfectly, as only natural plantings seem to manage.

Slapton is also nationally well known for the huge freshwater lagoon, Slapton Ley, the largest natural freshwater lake in South West England, yet just the other side of the beach side embankment which carries the coastal road. Click here for more. We began our day, with a lovely circular walk through the SSSI site of the Nature reserve, and back through the charming historic village of Slapton, before heading onto the beach.

The other reason I was keen to visit Slapton was I’d discovered, in background reading at our cottage base, the tragic story of Operation Tiger and one man’s determination to create a fitting memorial to commemorate this World War 2 disaster, which led to the loss of about 700, mainly American, servicemen.

Ken Small relocated to Slapton Sands from Hull, and ran a local business for a while before a nervous breakdown affected him. A friend suggested beach combing as a form of therapy, and after a particularly severe storm, Ken was amazed by the numbers of tunic buttons and shell cases that suddenly began to appear on the beach. Ken asked around and was told about Operation Tiger – a rehearsal for the actual D-Day landings which took place about a month earlier in late April 1944.

Slapton Sands was selected because of similarities with the landscape at Utah beach, and 3,000 locals, some of whom had never left their homes before, were evacuated from the villages nearby since live fire was going to be used in the practice landing. The exercise was doomed for various unanticipated reasons and friendly fire from naval bombardment caused many casualties. Worse still was the loss of life when tank and troop landing craft were intercepted and torpedoed off shore by a group of four marauding German E-boats, which had slipped unseen from their Cherbourg base during the cover of darkness, and chanced upon the largely unprotected troop carrying convoy in Lyme bay, travelling round to the landing site at Slapton.

Inevitably with D-Day fast approaching, this huge disaster was completely hushed up at the time, but Ken was amazed that even in the 1970’s no fitting memorial existed to these lost servicemen, save an American memorial in the middle of the beach, which makes no mention of the lives lost.A local fisherman friend told Ken about a location where a large object sat on the seabed nearly a mile offshore, and Ken arranged for divers to investigate this.

They found a rusted, but well preserved Sherman tank at this location, and after years of negotiating with the American government, and handing over $50, Ken was at last granted permission to raise this example of a skirted amphibious tank, launched at sea in numbers during the Normandy landings, and bring it to shore. Though this took Ken a further 10 years of personal effort and sacrifice to achieve.

Ken had the tank placed at one end of the beach as a very fitting memorial to all those lives lost, and previously un-commemorated and forgotten by those in higher authority. He went further and wrote a book about the incident, “The Forgotten Dead”, click here,  and his son continues his work today with maintaining an excellent website with much more information.

So a wonderful story of single handed research and determination, raising awareness and indeed recording (his/their)story. Which you can read more about by clicking here, and here.


An even older Devon historical reference was the result of a peaceful circular walk based around the lovely hillside village of Harberton, a short distance South West of Totnes. The scenery was not dissimilar to West Wales, though more benign and drier, with generally small fields, hedge topped banks, and once again lovely warm sunshine to appreciate it all, and the occasional unexpected pairs of eyes, watching our progress. We even found a couple of drying waxcaps in a sloping field, thanks to Fiona’s eagle eyes.

Returning to the village along a green lane, with stone walls cloaked at their base in hart’s tongue ferns, we found a wooden seat close to the wall of the impressive church of St. Andrew, Harberton, to eat our packed lunch – the adjacent ancient longhouse Church House Inn unfortunately being closed on Wednesdays.

The nearly circular graveyard with a perimeter of probably relocated ancient gravestones, is dominated by a frankly incongruous huge plain white marble tomb dedicated to Sir Robert Harvey and his family. So unattractive I took no photos of this area.

After lunch we went inside the church and were astonished at its beauty, with several features of exceptional quality

A buttressed barrel roof, with 79 distinct bosses dating to about 1370, a 15th Century rood screen, coloured, painted and gilded – an excellent now restored example of this type of structure.A carved and painted C15th pulpit and some fine stained glass commemorative windows, though several with sad faces.

I reflected on the evident affluence of the congregation of this rural church, compared with the frugality of design of some of those nearby in West Wales, but it was only much later that I discovered that the family responsible for the white marble tomb was more nouveau riche than landed gentry, and had a personal history also marred with tragedy.

(Sir) Robert Harvey was born the son of a Cornish tailor, but at the age of 25 in 1872, he travelled to Bolivia to work in the copper mines, moving quickly to Peru where he became involved in the saltpetre industry. In spite of being captured at the Battle of San Francisco, during the War of the Pacific, he was taken on by the Chilean government for his expertise in nitrate production which rapidly became a huge industry with uses both as an agricultural fertiliser, and in the production of explosives. Click here for more.

In a short time, he became seriously wealthy, and was able to return to Britain in 1883, buying many properties in Devon and Cornwall, becoming both High Sheriff of Devon, and Sheriff of Cornwall, before being knighted in 1901. Yet he would probably have traded much of this financial success and fame, to have avoided the loss of his first-born son, Robert Godefroy Harvey (“Tito”) to pneumonia at the age of 10 in 1895. Some of the wonderful church windows, and the huge marble tomb were commissioned by him to record this event.

He also wrote a detailed biography of his son’s brief life, which although only meant as a personal history for the future benefit of Tito’s younger siblings, is available to read on-line. How many fathers have written a biography of their son’s life in this way, I wonder? Click here to dip into it, but I’ll just quote a little of the lengthy first paragraph from the opening chapter “Iquique” ( the unfamiliar name of the city base of the Peruvian/Chilean nitrate industry).

THROUGH lapse of time and man’s forgetfulness many circumstances which ought to be remembered are allowed to be forgotten, and many persons’ lives abounding in good and praiseworthy deeds, which ought to be chronicled, are permitted to pass unrecorded and unnoticed through inattention or inadvertence in not writing these for the sake of those who are too young to remember, and those who are too old to concentrate their memory on circumstances which happened in their younger days. My youngest child is not yet three years old, and although now he remembers “Tito,” yet he is not old enough to realize that his brother has bid an eternal farewell to this world, and unless his memory be assisted by some permanent record, he will, as he grows older, entirely forget his loving elder brother, who doted on him.______

Sticking to a reverse chronology, but much closer to home, last month I discovered that one of the most highly regarded noble bards, or poets, of the Welsh Middle Ages, Lewys Glyn Cothi (c.1420 – 1490), also known as Llywelyn y Glyn, was (probably) born barely a mile from us here at Gelli Uchaf at Pwllcymbyd. He contributed significant introductory works to both the “The Red Book of Hergest”, and a majority of poems for the now thought to be lost “White Book of Hergest”, compiled in about 1450. For those who’ve visited us, instead of turning right into our track, turn left at the same point, and the current farmhouse of Pwllcymbyd is about a mile along this track.

However, Pwllcymbyd is a typically descriptive Welsh place name and in the church history I mention a little later on, the inhabitants of Pwllcymbyd were apparently responsible for funding the building of the church in the thirteenth century. The possible translation of Pwllcymbyd into English as  “Pool Valley World”, may reflect a larger community which existed all those centuries earlier in this deep valley amidst the historic, (dating back as far as the sixth century), Royal Forest of Glyn Cothi, which we now know as the Brechfa Forest.

For those unfamiliar with the written works, “The Red Book of Hergest” is so called because of its cover colour, and also that for a time it passed into the ownership of the Vaughan family of Hergest Court near Kington. It’s one of the most significant medieval manuscripts written in the Welsh language. Since 1702 it has been held by the Bodleian library in Oxford and it includes, amongst other works, the wonderful Welsh myth story of The Mabinogion, as well as a collection of herbal remedies linked to the physicians of Myddfai – locally based herbalists from over 500 years ago, near Llandovery. Click here for more.

For more on “The White Book of Hergest” and its cultural significance, click here. Or to read more detail about Lewys Glyn Cothi, click here.

 And here.

Apparently, Lewys Glyn Cothi was one of the first Welsh poets who actually kept copies of poems written in his own hand, and then went onto arrange them into collections – a forerunner indeed of Ted Hughes’ own approach to creative writing which was always in his own hand, rather than typing. Being an expert in genealogy and heraldry, Lewys illustrated many of his manuscripts with his own designs based on the arms of noble families, some of whom would have been his patrons.

Such an extension of creativity was also employed occasionally by Hughes, with some limited edition prints of a few of his poems illustrated with his own careful line drawings, and produced on the old printing press given to his son Nicholas by Hughes’ sister, Olwyn. Hughes’ own personal life was scarred with tragedy – a wife, a lover and (possibly his and) her child, and then after his own death his son Nicholas, all taking their own lives. His last creative work “The Birthday Letters”, published just before his death, is mainly the result of the poet’s creative thoughts and memories of his relationship with first wife Sylvia Plath. Click here for a review.

Lewys Glyn Cothi also lost his son, at the age of five and commemorated this with a moving elegy, part of which is shown below with a translation by Gwyn Williams:

Yngo y saif angau Siôn
yn ddeufrath yn y ddwyfron.
Fy mab, fy muarth baban,
fy mron, fy nghalon, fy nghân,
fy mryd cyn fy marw ydoedd,
fy mardd doeth, fy moeth im oedd

Siôn’s death stands near me
like two barbs in my breast.
My son, child of my hearth,
my breast, my heart, my song,
my one delight before my death,
my knowing poet, my luxury.

The discovery of this ‘Beirdd yr Uchelwyr’ (Poets of the Nobility) link to our locality, came after visiting the simple but beautifully peaceful and remote church of St Michael – Llanfihangel Rhos Y Corn, high on the mountain top beyond Llidiad Nenog and about 4 miles from here. Compare its simple design and scale simplicity with Harberton church, yet this became a significant site for Welsh pilgrimages. There’s an excellent review of the history of this very early church which you can access by clicking here.

And delving even further back in time, what prompted this exploration was a recent book exchange in Fiona’s book group, which involved a locally self-published book in 2017 titled ”The Pumpsaint Temple of The Stars”. The author, Jay Laville, describes how using inherited books and dowsing rods as guides for research, she’d mapped out on the ground, a vast earlier landscape-scale map of the constellations made millennia ago in the stone age or iron age epoch, and centred around nearby Pumpsaint in Carmarthenshire.

Fortunately, there’s a review of the concept and detailed locations involved which you can peruse, should such things be of any interest, by clicking here, for a detailed web page of The Morien Institute.

Jay Laville’s book develops much earlier referenced work, which drew on traditional bardic and druidic writings, and purports to explain that our hamlet of Rhydcymerau is incorporated in the zodiacal sign of Taurus, a winged bull with a ring in its nose.

This is one of the most Westerly of the dozen constellations, spread out over perhaps 15 miles.Further to the West, high on the mountain top, are several ancient burial mounds on the summit of Mynydd Llanllwni.The West having been chosen as the perfect location for early Celtic burial grounds in sight of the setting sun,A hugely potent symbol for many earlier civilisations, perhaps more in tune with their natural surroundings, than the current generations of our species?

This discovery of possibly very early local (hi)story which has at least some sort of a written basis, as well as largely unrecognised clues in the landscape, made me wonder again about the 3 huge slabs of stone which we’ve discovered and have since resurrected from their dumping grounds hidden beneath vegetation when we arrived.

The largest stone has signs of being hammer dressed at some point in is history. A garden visitor years ago told us it was a blue stone, possibly from the Preseli mountains. But how or when did it get here?

Quite recent work has established that the Preseli blue stones, which form the inner circle of stones at Stonehenge, were given their final working on site – thousands of stone chips have been found. The chips from particular stones have a specific geological fingerprint and using these and a bit of detective work, a collaborative research team were able to track down the exact quarry of outcrop of rocks in Pembrokeshire where at least one of the bluestones would have originated. Evidence of simple wooden wedges being driven into the vertical rock fissures has been discovered, and subsequent swelling of the wood would have levered off a slab.

How, and by which route, the stones were then moved to Stonehenge remains speculative. And also whether they were moved in one go, or recycled from another closer location or installation. Research is ongoing, click here to read one of the latest papers on this fascinating ancient (hi)story.

But all this adds to the mystery of our stones. Were they merely glacial erratics, dumped as moraine as the last huge glacial sheet covered and then retreated from this part of the world 10,000 years earlier?

Or were they laboriously hauled here and incorporated into a design of Taurus’ outline, and subsequently over millenia, ignored and recycled multiple times to end up now gathering a patina of moss and lichen? Creating a warm seat for watching the few remaining butterflies which venture out in this rain soaked, gloomy October to sip the nectar from the still remaining Buddleia flowers, which are opening on our incredibly long flowering Gelli seedling form.

Could we get a sample analysed to find out whether it came from one of the known bluestone quarries?

All these stories leaving trails of evidence, sometimes clear and well defined.

Sometimes, the further back in time one travels, vague and clouded in mystery.

With all this recent backdrop of (hi)story, exploration and discovery over the last 6 weeks, to conclude, a more personal story. Thanks to the spark of a request from Mark for any of the other brothers’ memories of family cars, a new challenge has arisen.

A previously undiscovered collection of family slides was collected on our recent Devon trip. A generation of lost, or rather unknown, family records in images, not words. For four sons to ponder. I’m very grateful to Peter & Pam for searching these out from their attic, dusting them off and doing an initial filtering, and passing them on. I now have the chance to help reconnect the four, not so young now, boys with long forgotten family memories. For better or worse.

I have the self-volunteered task of viewing, editing, binning and digitising many thousand images. A long task ahead of me for wet winter days and evenings, and one stirring many thoughts and recollections of very happy family times, and some occasional darker moments, before Mum died suddenly, just before I finished my first term at university.

A consequent legacy of independence has probably influenced all four boys to some degree. But wonderful to now have some physical, visual links to fill in a personal (back)story and wonder.

Where, or why or how?

Certainly personal stills and reflections.

What was going on here on an Austrian roadside?

This seems a more conventional pose, with Dad, typically, behind the lens.

On the first night of fishing, I began randomly. Trawling through the oblong yellow plastic boxes with their clear tops, and with no hint of what lay inside each one, I picked the uppermost.

I saw the clear Kodak date stamped. Jan ’76, faint, in the top corner of the first slide.

Certainly 2 months late to find any photos of Mum, yet by some unfathomable synchronicity with the recently discovered melancholy of Dolores Keane playing in the background, there in blurry view, on the simple hand held slide viewer, a delight.

Late autumnal light, shafting from between the clouds, atop the local Wrekin, helping create a perfect silhouette.

Mum and Dad together, gazing West.





8 thoughts on “An Honourable Defeat; (Their)story and a Bag of Memories.

  1. Now Julian! How much can I take in on one reading! Not a lot! So I’m certain I will be returning to this post many times over the next weeks to re read and try to absorb some of the fantastic facts and interesting details! One thing for sure is that I can just look and really enjoy all the beautiful photos you have taken. Love the family photos too…such memories for you.

    PS It wouldn’t let me enter a comment from WordPress !

    • Hello Marianne…
      I know – I never think of my readers – most won’t bother with this, I guess… Not really designed for today’s busy people.
      But it seemed appropriate to lump all these historical links together, since that’s how they were concertina’d into quite a brief period. There won’t be any more family pics I don’t think, though just spent another 90 minutes sifting… it brings back lots of memories of course and also huge admiration for the sort of non relaxing holidays Dad and Mum set up for us over many years, which I don’t know that we really appreciated at the time.
      Would be interesting in due course to hear if you’ve heard of the Temple of the stars before…
      Best wishes

  2. The Hut had very worthy fellow competitors and had it been a race I am sure they would have all ended up hugging each other.
    I hope you include yourself as “today’s busy people”. It often takes more than one go and a cup of coffee for one of your posts :). Amelia

    • Hello Amelia, and apologies, as with Marianne, for the length of this post – I promise to compensate with a much shorter follow up!
      I’ve always thought that the WP platform suits what I want to record, but really what I seem to churn out often goes against the grain of the rapid fire of information/social media in today’s world.
      Still, at least I know a few patient folk will plough through at least some of it, so thank you. 🙂
      I think you’re probably right about The shed competitors – is it a peculiarly British pastime I wonder, or are the French as keen?? It certainly seems to be a predominantly male pastime though…
      Best wishes

  3. There’s no reason why you should know but I live in Totnes and have done most of the walks you showed in your post! Stover is one of our favourites for a Sunday afternoon for the bird feeder and, nearby, a sandy bank on a curve of the Teign river where sand martins nest in profusion. I have also rehearsed music in Harberton Church.

    • Hello Philip,
      I did reckon you lived down that way, but didn’t realise it was Totnes – we stayed in a Broadhempston cottage. There was a selection of great circular walks books available which put us onto most of those we did – not surprised you know all the locations so well… We also did a great walk round the coast from Coleton Fishacre, and to the battery and back (much busier than Harberton!) – there was a serious climb up at one point with loads of steps, above which was a plaque commemorating Colonel H Jones – I guess you’ve walked that as well. A lovely part of the world to live in indeed.
      What a special place to rehearse music – Harberton Church – absolutely stunning inside and I hope locals wouldn’t be too offended by comments about the huge tomb outside…
      Best wishes

  4. Glad your Hut has been shortlisted. Congratulations! The Hobbit Hut deserves the honor. It is amazing.

    Great poetry tour. We have an Iron Man statue here in Tramore. You can see him from miles away.

    Ken Smalls of the world keep the history alive.

    Love your old photographs. It was so good to be young 🙂

    • Thanks Inese,
      It’s good to look back on when we were young, but actually we four boys have all been fortunate so far in life, and I think probably would all say we like things now as much, but a shame that parents aren’t still with us to share thoughts and experiences with…
      best wishes

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