Totnes and Dartington
During the 85-mile drive southwest to Totnes from Glastonbury, Somerset’s plains and soft hills gave way to something wilder, more wooded, more forbidding. Before hitting the town itself, I had an appointment on its outskirts to meet Tom Cox, citizen folklorist and naturalist, author of best-selling books about his cats, for lunch at the Riverford Field Kitchen.
I arrived at the field kitchen — an airy, relaxed restaurant on the grounds of a large working farm — wearing a floral headband. I note this only because it is rare that I meet anybody, least of all a man, who shares my enthusiasm for floral headbands, but Mr. Cox is such a man. We sat down to a huge, wholesome lunch served family-style, and dug into miso-glazed eggplants, piles of freshly picked greens, carrots and broccoli, a homely but luscious fish pie crowned with a cloud of buttery mash, and two puddings with custard.
Mr. Cox’s new book, “21st Century Yokel” comes out this fall, and he said it’s about “being a walker and a lifelong country person, but it goes off into many other areas: folklore, family, little comedies of everyday life.” He moved to Devon in 2014, and feels “very spiritually at one with the landscape here” — a landscape he described as “rugged and rainy,” a “psychedelic countryside” and “the greenest place I’ve ever lived.” I apparently had come at the best possible time: “The explosion of colors is such a huge orgasm here in spring,” he told me.
Our bellies full, Mr. Cox drove us to the Dartington estate. Dating to the 14th century, Dartington was bought in the 1920s by Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst (she, an American heiress; he, a landowning Yorkshireman) who aimed to establish a new model of rural life, community and education. Today, the Dartington Hall Trust is an independent charity and social enterprise with a focus on arts and ecology, supported by a range of businesses (shops, a restaurant, a pub) whose profits are reinvested in the community. Mr. Cox recommended that I spend some time walking its lush grounds and gardens — and urged me to seek out one of Dartington’s newer enterprises, a dairy managed by a philosophical farmer named Jon Perkin.
Three Jack Russell terriers greeted me at the farm, barking like mad as they circled my feet. I bought a cup of goats’ milk ice cream (an extra-zingy mint chocolate chip) made at the dairy, then sat down with Mr. Perkin within view of a good number of the dairy’s 180 goats. He spoke candidly of his challenges with depression and anxiety, and about how working with animals helps him cope.
“Animals are the most mindful creatures on the planet,” he said, the dogs clambering all over him. The area’s therapeutic tendency extends to its farms: He hasn’t fully formulated it yet, but Mr. Perkin is developing his own kind of mindfulness practice — goats included. I pressed him about how goats might help ease anxiety and depression. “Sit down in a pen of goats,” he said, “and you can’t help but smile.”
That evening, I drank strong local cider, a Devon specialty, in the back garden of a Totnes pub and listened to locals talk about Dartington and art, therapy and community. As the sun descended over the River Dart, I rested by its banks and thought about what I’d seen, whom I’d met, what I’d tasted and drunk and felt so far in the southwest: its beauty, sure, but also the openness of its spirit, the potent pull to which so many had succumbed.
Still, nothing prepared me for what I’d see the next day at the Timehouse Muzeum: The Time Travellers Museum and Narnia Totnes Shop. The unwieldy name put me off (and why that “z” in Muzeum?). But I’m glad I went. Housed in an 18th-century building on Fore Street — the lower half of Totnes’s steep main drag, which slopes sharply toward the river — the museum is entered through the Narnia shop, which has little to do with the books by C. S. Lewis, and sells cool records, gifts, T-shirts and postcards. (A sign at the edge of town announces that Totnes is “twinned” with Narnia. The connection abides, and the creator of the Timehouse, Julie Lafferty, an artist and designer, recognizes that it is a draw.)
Exit the shop, and the museum begins. It is the most hallucinatory experience I’ve had since I gave up actual hallucinogens a long time ago. You start below ground and work up to the top floor, through a series of rooms designed to evoke major eras in recent history; many also include Ms. Lafferty’s hypnotic films. I didn’t feel so much that I was going back in time, but rather that time was suspended.
Period furniture and artifacts and original paintings, also by Ms. Lafferty, combine to tell a complex story about life and society, war and peace, art and music. Some sections — like the Moroccan tearoom, awash in rainbow light beaming through multicolored windowpanes — are achingly beautiful. Others, like a chamber next to the tearoom, loaded with imagery and memorabilia from World War II, are unsettling. The museum is essentially an art installation forged by a single creative spirit who might just be a genius.
A little dazed, I stepped out of the museum into blazing sunlight. Still, I walked up the long stone stairway that coils around the mound on top of which the ruins of Totnes Castle sit, and surveyed the Devon countryside from its heights, breathing it in, steadying myself after the dizzying effects of the museum and the sunshine.
From Devon, I set out for Padstow, a picturesque town on Cornwall’s north coast, with pastel-painted houses, world-renowned seafood — and an unusually spirited May Day tradition. Documentation of it goes back at least to the early 19th century, but it is likely much older. I’d longed to visit since the early 1990s, when I first saw Alan Lomax’s 1953 documentary, “Oss Oss, Wee Oss.” Scenes in it reminded me of the cult 1973 British horror film, “The Wicker Man,” and I wanted in.
In his 1981 book “Rites and Riots: Folk Customs of Great Britain and Europe,” the British folklorist Bob Pegg describes the festivities: “The main attraction at Padstow May Day … is the Obby Oss, a heavy construction built around a six-foot-diameter hoop, covered in black canvas and supported on the shoulders of a man whose head is covered by a grotesque mask resembling a bishop’s miter in shape.” He goes on to describe how two such osses (horses) dance, egged on by a figure called the Teazer. The music stops, the horses sink to the ground, the Teazer strokes them tenderly until they revive — and the whole thing is repeated all along the route.