There are certain times or moments when seemingly diverse forces – or sights, sounds and smells – combine to construct a magical touchstone that is a far greater sum than its parts. I can think of no better example of this than Holsworthy on market day…
Stand in the town square and you will hear the distant mooing of cattle and the bleating of sheep overlaid upon a constant gentle murmur that is the unique sound of crowds of country people in conversation – a murmur that is punctuated every now and again by some guttural utterance delivered in the soft lovely Westcountry brogue.
Follow me, if you will, and cross Bodmin Street to wander down Station Road where the aromas of frying bacon begin to mix pleasingly with the earthy smells of farmyard. Ignore the big new supermarket on your right and descend the pedestrian ramp which offers a panorama that is nothing but a sea of corrugated roof – dodge the agricultural traffic plying Underlane – and suddenly we are entering a world that is unique to the great green grassy interior of this peninsula.
Branding experts and marketing consultants talk about the importance of a USP – and the visitor who has now followed in my footsteps from the town’s old central market place down to the less elderly livestock market will, by now, have experienced something of this peninsula’s Unique Selling Proposition.
By now you will be hearing the rapid machine-gun fire that is auctioneer David Kivell’s amplified sing-song delivery on market day. Join me as I walk through the rustic looking door into the basic concrete-clad auction ring. There’s David sitting with an assistant up on the raised dais to one side of the ring underneath the big black digital screen with its red numbers – which is the only bow to modernism in view save for the microphone and a laptop computer.
Admire, with me, the thick bright green gloss paint that someone has painted the metalwork that surrounds the cattle entry gate. Admire too, the big Red Devon beasts which slowly, and rather nervously, parade around the ring. Then look at the faces of the hundred or so men, and perhaps three or four women, who are intently watching the cattle as they circle the ring.
A portrait artist I interviewed recently told me that, to her, a human face was geography written in flesh. It told a story far more profoundly than any words could ever say. If she is right, then these faces at Holsworthy Market are themselves a kind of geography – a red, mottled, craggy, windswept map of a red, mottled, craggy, windswept region.
A dozen years ago David the auctioneer told me: “Farming is by no means dead, particularly in an area like this. This is clay-land and you grow grass on clay. Grass has to be controlled and you do that by running livestock. That’s the way it is, and that’s the way it will always be.”
Crack. And another beast is sold with a whack of the big gavel with its gnarled clenched fist of an end that David holds in his right hand. The crowd stands on the raised concrete floor in loose rows, three or four deep, but the real players – the folk who are doing the bidding by almost invisible gesticulations – are down at the front next to the ring, leaning on the galvanised rails that surround the place at chin height.
Look into their shrewd eyes and you realise they are doing much more than watching – they are scrutinising, calculating, weighing, predicting… Where you and I see mud and the bovine contours of muscle and bone, they see cuts and joints, breeding opportunities and pound signs.
Exactly the same can be said for the men and few women who populate the sheep pens just down the concrete ramp from the cattle area. Row after row of the creatures bleat, look black-faced and astonished, white-faced and bemused, and generally fail to understand the great mercantile goings on that surround them.
Here the auctioneer struts his stuff above the crowd, rather than dictates with a gavel-swipe. From pen to pen he marches on his raised wooden walkway two-feet above the mutton-meat and woolly heads, selling lots of a dozen here or half a dozen there.
At one end of the great corrugated shrine to the animals of the genus Ovis Aries, is an old tin booth painted in the same bright green gloss paint – and on the open door of a wooden cupboard inside someone, a long time ago, taped up a now yellowed dog-eared poster that declares: “Dip All Your Sheep From Top to Tail – Don’t Let One Get Away!”
You may wonder – as I do – who last looked at this poster and said to himself: “Blimey – thank God I caught sight of that! It’s reminded my I must go home and dip the whole bloomin’ flock.” But you and I, as mere visitors, have the luxury of time for such ponderings and imaginings. The regulars in this great cathedral of the lamb chop have to keep their wits about them or be outbid, or spend too much, or miscalculate the value those woolly headed animals that have come in from The Land That Time Forgot, or the Middle of Nowhere.
For that is what I have sometimes called this empty part of the world where Devon meets Cornwall. You only have to look at a map to see why. Holsworthy is way off the beaten track – out there in the massive swathe betwixt Bude, Hatherleigh, Launceston and Bideford. A swathe that most folk don’t enter unless they have some sort of business to attend to in the empty world of culm. The main arteries of our peninsula miss the great tract. You could say it is a place were Red Ruby cattle go to be lonely.
But we don’t want to be lonely, so we walk back up the ramp between the cattle pens and auction sheds – and the line of little corrugated huts where all manner of uniquely agrarian businesses ply their trade – to track down that aroma of frying bacon.
It wafts with savoury promise from the livestock market’s cafe – a place which I have often visited while on journalistic duties in the Empty Zone to enjoy a mug of tea and a ‘full English”. When I do, one or two of the more outspoken clientele will say things like: “Watch what you’m sayin’ – the Western Morning News is ’ere…”
Or: “Tiz thic bloke ‘Esp – ee must be lost on one of ‘is newspaper walks.” Or: “You’m in trouble now Missus – he’ll have ee on Page 3.”
I love the humour, but mostly I get little nods of recognition or smiles from the gentle men and women of the hills. For in no other place on God’s Earth – save perhaps for Hatherleigh or South Molton livestock markets – is there a location in which it is more likely that readers of this newspaper will be found. If you could pick up the piece of newspaper you are reading right now and eat it – then it ideally should taste and smell of, and resonate with, this place.
Not once have I visited the cafe without some kindly WMN reader coming over to say something nice about the paper or maybe make a joke about some daft opinion piece I’ve written. But mostly it will be lovely, quietly-spoken, farmers’ wives of a certain age or much older passing by on their way out of the cafe, and stopping to half-whisper: “I love the walks you do in the paper Mr Hesp.”
Or: “When are we going to hear about that dog of yours again? Monty writes a funnier column than you do.”
Or: “How’s your wife, Mr Hesp, after that bad accident she had?”
I tell you, my fellow visitor, about this seemingly unimportant tittle-tattle because I want to convey the central essence that I detect, discern and enjoy when calling in at the isolated oasis of Westcountry ethnicity and culture such as the one to be found at Holsworthy Livestock Market. One word you could try to use to describe it is: community.
I might not be a farmer – I have never bought a live sheep or cow in my life and never will. It doesn’t matter. Because I am as much part of this big Westcountry community as the highest shepherd working on Brown Willy, or the lowest grazier out on the Somerset Levels. I happen to be a journalist working in this community – you, fellow visitor, do whatever it is that you do – but if we open our eyes to these places and appreciate what is in them and the job they do, then we are helping to celebrate what is best about this peninsula.
And that is the aforementioned ethnicity and culture. The human and social bedrock. The rural, agrarian, heartbeat. Alas, we can no longer do it in what, until now, has been the scene I have set out here – the unique and wonderful old Holsworthy Livestock Market. But there is a new one, and we must be glad that it has been built on the edge of town as much as we must hope that it will thrive.
Auctioneer David Kivell once told me his firm could have taken what may have been an easier, more commercial route, and built a brand new livestock market closer to Exeter somewhere very close to the A30 with its easy access.
What price the capital of the Middle of Nowhere then?
No, let us celebrate the fact that this great agricultural-based enterprise has stayed in Holsworthy and visit this wondrous ancient town on market days whenever we can.