On a sunny day in late July, we walked by one of Devon’s rivers. With holidays and visitors, it’s taken me until now to write about it.
We started our walk from the village of Loddiswell, high above the river valley. On this warm late July day, we descended through quiet lanes confined by steep Devon Banks alive with a confetti of butterflies (mostly Meadow Brown and White). In spring, these banks are painted white with the starry flowers of Wild Garlic (Ramsons) mixed with splashes of Red Campion, but although there are few flowers now, something must be attracting the butterflies. At Reads Farm we left the road and took a path under trees and beside a stream to reach open grassland bordering the river.
This is the middle Avon, part of this Devon river that rises high on Dartmoor dropping down to reach the sea at Bantham and Bigbury on Sea. Rain had been sparse recently and the quiet state of the river reflected this.
We headed upstream on a riverside path enclosed by tall grasses and brambles, accompanied by more butterflies including this beautiful Comma. The dry, warm summer has been good for butterflies and I can’t remember having seen so many for some years.
Near the same spot was a stand of tall plants with striking orchid-like pink flowers; these are Marsh Woundwort, a plant of damp places. Woundwort features in both Gerard’s and Culpeper’s Herbals and, as the name implies, it has a long history in folk medicine for use in wound healing.
Soon the path entered woodland. The river was still close by and the tree-canopy cooled the air and dimmed the light. There are supposed to be Dippers and Grey Wagtails but we don’t see these birds today. We do see a Blackcap and my daughter sees the unmistakeable iridescent blue flash of a Kingfisher. There are Otters in the Avon and sometimes you can see otter spraint on the river bank, the closest I have come to a seeing a wild otter.
Eventually, the old railway bridge appeared ahead of us. Although the bridge is a human artefact, its mellow brick now blends in well with the trees surrounding it. The sunlight filtering through the trees and reflecting from the water produced ever changing dappled patterns on the old brickwork. In the photograph of the bridge (below) the image is confusing because of the almost perfect reflection of the bridge on the surface of the still water.
We crossed the bridge to head downstream on a path continuing through woodland along the track bed of the former South Brent-Kingsbridge railway. This opened in 1893 and ran for seventy years; some called it the Primrose Line because of the profusion of these flowers in spring. Eventually, we come upon the old Loddiswell Station, largely intact. This used to serve legendary cream teas but we are out of luck today as the buildings are up for sale. When the trains ran, the station was said to be a “brisk walk away” from the village. What they didn’t say was that this included a steep hill and, after crossing the river again, that is our route back to the car.
I recently read “The Old Ways” by Robert Macfarlane describing his many walks along long-established paths. I was particularly interested in his idea that in walking along an old path it might be possible to “slip back out of this modern world”, to conjure up traces of past lives. As we walked along the track bed of the old railway, I thought again about this idea. Could I find any trace of former lives as we walked here?
When this railway came to Kingsbridge near the end of the 19th century, it would have changed people’s lives. South Devon would have become more accessible. Local produce could be sent further afield; this included crabs and lobsters for London and Southampton (for the liners). The railway would have carried men off to two wars and the lucky ones would have returned. The railway would have brought people to Kingsbridge for holidays and in 1939 children evacuated to Kingsbridge would have passed this way.
Many of these events would have been coloured with high emotion. As I walked, I could imagine some of the events and how people might have felt. These sensations were heightened by finding the old station buildings which gave me a tangible framework for my imaginings. Perhaps that’s what Macfarlane means by slipping out of this modern world.
The photographs are by Hazel Strange.