Note: This is the first in what will probably become a series of life-writing exercises, published in this blog to enable friends to find it easily. Should any of these exercises ever interest anybody else, well, that’s a bonus…
I first went down to Devon in 1975. My friend Phil had moved there in the autumn of 1973. I knew Phil from secondary school, where he was also friends with my friends Chris and John. Phil had lived in the same town as us for a couple of years, those formative teenage years when we began to share the same tastes in music, books and other aspects of culture, such as the occult, the supernatural and UFOs, thus making us deeply repugnant to the girls in the school. Phil’s mother and guardian were, however, restless, and they found a house on the edge of Torbay, and so Phil left us.
When Phil moved to Devon, we never supposed we’d all remain in contact for many years afterwards. Why should we suppose such a thing? We were young, and people move on. But Phil’s parents returned to Warminster occasionally to visit friends, enabling Phil to also visit us; and he took the step of actually writing a letter to us, which encouraged us to write back, initiating a long-lasting epistolary exchange. And as soon as we were old enough, having maintained this contact, we started visiting each other.
Chris and I first made plans to visit Devon during the summer of 1974, and various close and not so close friends had toyed with the idea of joining us. After all, what young person wouldn’t like the idea of a trip to Devon? To be sixteen-ish and to have a holiday without parents? Of course, Phil’s mum and guardian would be there to watch over us part of the time, but we could visit Torquay, Paignton, Totnes and Brixham alone, without grown-up concerns shaping our days.
Unfortunately, in the end I couldn’t go. I don’t know why. I almost certainly had no money. I was never keen on shelf-stacking, whereas Chris would happily slave in Gateways in exchange for the money required to feed his appetite for books and albums. I simply visited his house and listened to his music, and bought very cheap second-hand books with my paltry pocket-money. I probably had a paper-round, but money from that was almost certainly used to maintain my drum-kit.
So, in July 1974, Chris alone made the trip to the house on the hill in Marldon. Phil was by now going out with his first girlfriend, Alison, and Chris returned with tales of the fun he’d had down there, how great Alison was, the walks they’d gone on, the places they’d visited. Chris was now, in a way, different. He now had knowledge and experiences I hadn’t.
Chris and I made a plan to visit over the Easter break in 1975. This time, I was determined to go. This would be my first holiday without parents. I was sixteen and three-quarters, Chris was seventeen and half. This was to be the only time Chris and I went to Devon together, and I think this might have been Chris’s last visit to Phil’s.
Chris and I hitch-hiked down to Devon on the 27th March. The hitch was smooth, and we arrived at Phil’s relatively quickly. There is nothing really memorable about the hitch, except I do remember that one of our lifts dropped us off on the A303 near Wincanton. There was no bypass then, and the road to the west of Wincanton was twisty. We had to walk quite a long way to find a safe and practical spot at which vehicles were likely to stop and pick us up.
The house in which Phil lived occupied an enviable position just off the Torbay ring-road, on a hill outside the village of Marldon, with a view of the sea at Torbay. All around were fields and lanes waiting to be explored. Close by was Blue Mountain (which wasn’t really a mountain). There were footpaths to Torquay and Paignton, although I don’t remember visiting either of them on this trip.
What remains most memorable about this visit is snow. Just after we arrived it began to snow. A soft, slow fall of wet, heavy flakes that was to persist into the evening. As it fell into the night enough settled to leave a thin covering of wet snow and slush the next day. For the week we were there the weather remained cold or cool and often grey.
We slept in a caravan parked in the drive. We had as many spare sheets and blankets, sleeping bags and coats as we could muster to keep us warm. Before we got into our beds, we read by and were kept warm by gas burners on the wall. Using these, however, caused condensation to form on the walls and windows as the water vapour from the burning gas met the cold metal and glass of the caravan. The heat quickly leaked away through the thin walls once the burners were off. We were young, though, and covered by many layers. Rather than the cold, what I remember is droplets of water running down the walls, and the smell of the gas burners, which is almost impossible to describe as no immediate analogue comes to mind. I think, perhaps, it is the smell of burnt propane and hot ceramics.
The next morning, there was still some snow cover on the hills, and the sun came out.
I recall very little of the rest of the week, except the notions the photos trigger. There was a lot of walking over the few days we were there. It was cold to begin our visit, as evidenced by the snow and the coats.
One thing I do remember is that I read George Bernard Shaw’s “Back to Methuselah”. Even now, I’m convinced, in an off-hand, amused way, that I’m going to live until I’m 150 simply because I desire to do so, and by some Lamarckian magic my desire will change my genes to enable such a feat.
Phil, meanwhile – trapped as he was on a hill a long way from the people at school he’d only recently got to know, and having split with Alison – had been unable to ramble at anybody for days before we arrived. Thus, we were subjected to a panoply of his fantastic notions and theories. By the time we left, he’d lost his voice. Some might say it was unfortunate for Chris and me that events happened in that order.
As the week progressed, the weather slowly warmed, as can be seen by the change in outer wear. Here are a couple more images from our walks around the lanes. Our coats have become more lightweight, so the weather had certainly become more clement.
In this picture I’m wearing my black military blouson. I had a thing for blousons. This is, I believe a Civil Defence blouson, and had CD buttons (which should, of course, have been removed). Later, I would sport RAF blousons.
Meanwhile, in between rambling interminably, Phil found time to practice his Frog Dance.
We went to Brixham, that much is certain, because I describe what I thought about it in a letter to Phil in 1976. I was impressed with Brixham; the harbour and harbourside, the architecture, the houses climbing up the sides of the hills, and the arcades and amusements. The whole trip to Torbay left a distinctly watery residue in me. Not only was there Brixham, but I could see from the dining room at Phil’s house the sea at Torbay and large ships at anchor there. Later, after I’d returned to Wiltshire, I had a dream about Brixham and a sunken ship. The dream went something like this, although this retelling contains the kind of rhetorical flourishes that forty years of writing and rewriting has wrought:
I walked around Brixham harbour. At least, it looked like Brixham harbour. No – it didn’t even look exactly like Brixham harbour. It felt like Brixham harbour, though. I was there with Phil and Chris.
The tide was very high and lapped at the very top of the grey harbour walls. And on this particularly warm, blue and sunny day in Devon, the harbour waters were clear. Not just the clarity of unusually clean Channel water – unpolluted by oil and diesel slicks, crisp packets, polystyrene cups, unsullied by the shit pumped daily out into the Channel from the coastal towns, clear not only of cans and prams, shopping trolleys and tyres, and all the usual detritus of a vast world population eager to rid itself of its disposable but convenient trappings – but a Mediterranean clarity. You could see from the surface of the water all the way to the bottom of the harbour. And even there the mud was clean; nothing marred the rippled and water-fluted surface. But most amazingly, sunk deep to its blue funnel, an oil tanker lay submerged in the harbour. The harbour was empty of all other vessels except this monster. Not a trawler or tourist boat could be seen on the still, smooth water. There was only this oil tanker, completely visible through the glass-clear water.
I stood and looked at the sunken giant for some time. And time and again my eye was drawn to the only part of the tanker protruding from the water: the funnel. The funnel was blue, with a gold star on it. The blue was deep, and electric; so deep it was almost black, yet so bright it seemed to burn. The gold was quintessentially gold – though only a colour, it seemed precious in its own right, a precious colour, a twenty-two-carat colour. I was mesmerised by the combination of colours, and the incongruity of that single giant funnel rising from the clear water of the empty harbour. Phil and Chris had walked on, leaving me alone, contemplating the form and colour of the funnel. After a while I became aware that I couldn’t smell the fish, diesel and oil I had learned to associate with the harbour, and even the seagulls were quiet.
On Thursday the 3rd April, Chris and I hitched back to Warminster, leaving the croaky Frog Dancer once again to his own devices. Our journey only took three and half hours. Phil’s mum had made us “lovely sandwiches”, but as Chris noted in a later letter, we never ate them until we arrived at my house.
Soon after this, in May I believe, Phil visited Warminster. But that is another story.