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Dartmoor farmer reveals the poetry of moorland life

By su_carroll  |  Posted: January 25, 2014

By Martin Hesp

  • Colin Pearse on his Dartmoor farm

  • Colin Pearse as a boy with his parents May and Len, brother Jim and family friend Joan

  • Colin Pearse's view of Dartmoor

  • Colin Pearse's photo of Dartmoor in winter

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It is unusual that we should give a big review to a self-published book – but there is a long and well travelled story as to how a truly massive tome written, collated, photographed and published by a well known Dartmoor farmer came to be lying on my desk.

I first heard about Blissful, Restless Dartmoor while reporting from Widecombe Fair last autumn. Then I learned more about the book while drinking a pint of beer high in the Swiss Alps. And finally it was one curious but alluring phrase – ‘angel meat” – that kept my thoughts returning to the work of one Colin Pearse.

It was farmer Matthew Cole who first alerted me to the fact that Whitefaced Dartmoor sheep were said to produce meat that is so fine and sweet that is has, for many years, been known as “angel meat” among the few connoisseurs who know about its delights.

That sort of thing has long fascinated me – I am convinced we should be making a huge song and dance about the wonderful indigenous foods of this peninsula instead of, for the most part, hiding their culinary delights under a bushel.

Eventually Mr Pearse got to hear about my interest and instead of phoning or emailing me a note, he sent his whopping great big book which shines a brighter and more eloquent light on Dartmoor than 50 other such tomes I could name.

The 460-page compilation consists of 120 poems, other writings, 490 coloured images and 120 black and white images, and it took Colin five years to put the whole thing together between his daytime farming activities.

What you get, in a vast nutshell, is an intimate and knowledgeable view of the great upland expanse we all know and love. Few national parks can have witnessed the publishing of such a book – if you were to pick it up (you’d need the strength of hill farmer, for it is very heavy) and read every single page and view every photograph, you would come away with more knowledge about what could be described as an authentic Dartmoor experience than almost any other piece of printed matter could provide.

Let’s set the mood with one of Colin’s poems, Where I Walk...

I love the story the granite has to tell

I walk the history beneath my feet

In field and barn and yard

Along Dartmoor’s sunken lanes

At first light I glance

Over growth wrapped hedges where butterflies dance

Through well-trodden gateways that I peep

Granite framed with post; to hang

The five bar wooden gate

Shut to rotate the stock, and protect the crop…

An animal passion

In writing a covering note when he sent me the book, Colin said he had been wanting to: “Record in a capsule something that has seen slow change by the very nature of its limitations of farming in a harsh environment… Influenced by old barns, small fields, with moorland rights that are used in summer to free up the home farms for harvest…

“These are time honoured practices going back over the centuries – an animal passion, calendar driven, involving lambing time, harvest time, ‘dog days’, putting the rams in, clear days (November), neighbour cohesion and folklore… One farmer said to have sold his dog eight times because it kept coming home…

“Farms – often with their homestead down a lane allowing uninterrupted farming – less challenged and left to their own devices, harbouring thoughts based on the seasons, weather, farming-lore and local Dartmoor experience and knowledge handed down…

“Also superstition wrapped in holly and moon phases: ‘A Friday moon never no good’; ‘The moons on its back, catching water in its lap’; ‘Two new moons in May – they say no corn no hay’; ‘Rain will follow a halo around the moon’; and ‘The autumn harvest moon’ completes the farming cycle…”

It’s not often journalists get sent such notes in these overly busy frenetic times – and so I spent a happy wet winter’s afternoon by my Exmoor fireside poring over the writings and images which Colin has lovingly collated. Here there’s a picture of an old fashioned meadow choked under a carpet of buttercups; now there are some shots of local thatchers; here some shearers; now a high moorland blizzard; next a curious photo of horse-riders driving sheep across the top of Meldon Dam; there’s an old black and white image of people beating the bounds up at Throwleigh; shots of Chagford’s old livestock market; the same town seen under five feet of snow; shire horses, harvest picnickers; rick-builders; old tractors and new; cider-presses; ancient wagons; and local characters far, far too numerous to mention.

Colin writes about prehistoric stone avenues and solstice stones; he muses upon leaves in the wind and the summer haze; he ponders the cuckoo and the month of march; considers the art of leaning on a gate; mentions well known Dartmoor folk like Professor Ian Mercer, photographer Chris Chapman (who writes the introduction to this book) and the wonderfully named Maurice Retallick of Bagtor Farm; describes moorland life in a blizzard; and even writes a poem about my friend – the aforementioned Matt Cole.

This is Dartmoor under Dartmoor’s skin – if such a thing could ever be said of a high windswept granite plateau. It is life among the rocks laid bare – as seen by someone observant and thoughtful who lives there. A person who so obviously loves the place, that you get the feeling Mr Pearse would perish quickly if he were ever made to live a long way from it.

That is why I love this book written by a farmer. It seems hewn from the Dartmoor stone and maybe, as such, it would not win many posh London literary awards or glean any fancy gallery plaudits for its photos. Nevertheless, taken as a whole it is as real and as authentic as any book you’ll ever peruse in this region, offering a truly unique and vibrant “sense of place”.

Having plugged it so strongly, only one thing remains for me to do and that is find out what Colin Pearse has to say about that alluring a delicious sounding stuff called “angel meat”…

This is what he writes – and it is taken from his Tom Nosworthy Whitefaced Drift of Dartmoor’s “prapper” sheep story.

“Obviously moorland people (moormen) were somewhat biased about their own sheep and held preferences over them, and were spirited by them.

“But the very nature of their management allowed for a sweet product. Swaling (controlled moorland burning) in spring allowed pasture to sweeten from the resulting ash that seems to filter through in the meat’s flavour. Whitefaced Dartmoor wethers (castrated males) were often kept to up to five years old before being slaughtered and much of their lifetime spent on the moor as slow maturing mutton and that in itself would have influenced the flavour of the meat. At that time (there were) no artificial fertiliser or sprays to doctor the meat.”

Colin says the meat “Certainly a special flavour of its own – born of a native breed that thrived on moorland pasture.

“Moorland folklore also evolved special sayings like ‘angel meat’. There was no television, little travelling and hardly radio. The only light at night lit by ‘tilley lamps’. So inspired, sayings like ‘angel meat’ help to highlight day to day life that was home-based. The women of the farmhouse were always developing their own recipes and titles likely to woo any neighbours for traditional Sunday lunch.”

He adds of the sheep themselves… “They are said to have a goat derivative and (have been ) a mix and match of other moorland sheep over time.”

Mr Pearse also mentions the fact that “Okehampton mutton” used to be sent to Birmingham by train and it became famous for having “a taste of its own” – though he does admit that another upland breed, Exmoor Horns, may have at one time been interbred to advance the evolution of the also had their say in Whitefaced Dartmoor.

As for the “angel meat” phrase, all Colin will conclude is this: “Fantasy it’s not, because there is truth in it. They (the sheep) have a wonderful ambience and freshness showing softly in their faces, that this is their place – first and foremost here on Dartmoor.”

Blissful, Restless Dartmoor In Poetry, Photography and Moor People by Colin Pearse is published by Barramoor Books. To order a copy call 01647 221303.

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