Tuesday 15 September 2009

'Durdle Door to Dartmoor' by Llewelyn Powys

Llewelyn Powys, a brother of the possibly better known John Cowper Powys, published a number of short essays on the landscape and features of Dorset and Somerset in a variety of books and newspapers. Sundial press have gathered twenty six of these in a delightful little book, giving us a guided tour of one of the most historic and beautiful parts of England. Strictly speaking, it is from Studland to Dartmoor, but that would spoil the alliteration of the title.

Powys demonstrates a joy in nature and history, and has a poetic writing style (that occasionally goes over the top). The essays are unfortunately too short to develop any sustained deep thought, but there are many nuggets of wisdom and vivid description to take away. I read this book mainly on grim commuting trains in London, and was imaginatively carried into an almost idyllic world I would love to explore. If I went on a tour of ‘Wessex’, I would surely take this book as a guide to the interesting places he describes. However I may suffer some disappointment, since these pieces were written in the 1930s, and in them he often harks back another twenty to fifty years. So much of what he describes may have been steamrollered to oblivion by modernity.

There are many treasures in this collection, but one of my favourites is ‘On the other side of the Quantocks’. He describes these individualistic hills based on a journey to visit a grave. “I set out on my expedition proposing to spend my first night at Crowcombe, a small village which lies at the foot of the Quantocks, and from there to walk over the moors to Watchet.” One realises, with a shock, that he walked there for two days (and presumably walked back). He had the thoughtfulness and leisure to walk to four days to commune at the grave of a dead friend. How many of us would today spare that time?!

Then I realised that ‘sparing the time’ is hardly the right phrase. This is time well spent! Walking over the English countryside, thinking, observing, feeling and enjoying. Permeating the essays therefore is a view of life we could well benefit from, if we would only emulate it even slightly. Powys sits in the parlour of the Carew Arms by a “wide old-fashioned fireplace” and eats “whortleberry jam and Devonshire cream”. After his meal he walks up Crowcombe lane with “periwinkles out on the crumbling walls and everywhere primroses”. This is not an invented idyll. It is the world of his beloved England in which he lived in the 1930’s, evidently savouring every moment. Inspirational!

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