I like to climb Yarner Beacon on a clear day, gaze several miles into the distance towards the sea, and try to pick out the location of the footpaths I’ve walked, which, after nearly three years of living here, is almost all of them. I once previously made the mistake of moving to an exciting new part of the British countryside and not immediately investigating every bit of it forensically on foot and I don’t intend to make the same error again. From up here I’m always amazed at the way all the threads connect, their shimmies and jinks and thrusts being disguised when you’re beneath hilltop level, in the thick of it. It could be compared to the moment when, having only previously travelled through London by tube, a person explores the city at ground level on foot and realises the unexpected interconnectivity of the stations, their surprising proximity to one another. So many of the paths here in south west Devon are of a hidden nature: sunken lanes that were already old in Saxon times, created by landowners digging ditches at the boundaries between their properties and piling earth into continuous banks on their own sides. These holloways feel impossibly solid when, as a walker, you’re bracketed by their banks, below the bulk of the land, in an eerily quiet semi-subterranean shale, fern, mud and moss world.
In winter this countryside is a totally different colour to Norfolk’s: reddy brown and green, as opposed to grainy brown and muddy grey. Rich rain-sodden earth and leaf mulch provide the reddy brown; plentiful moss, resilient fern and lichen add back-up greens on the borders of fields and meadows that stay more emerald luminous in the cold months than any other fields and meadows I’ve known. There is a strong argument in favour of every season here: autumn for its crunchy lysergic coppers and golds, its sunlit spiderwebs and sudden forgotten woodsmoke rush, summer because summer here is just dizzying with all the possibile ways it offers to fill your time. But in winter as the land strips itself back it shows you new secrets and you feel like you’re getting a glimpse into something special behind everything else: intangible, ghoulish, a necessary dark pigment on the edge of the land of the living. On a steep rocky holloway leading down from the hamlet of Aish the leaf curtain has fallen back to reveal a ruined barn I never knew was there.
One of its broken woodworm-riddled doors creaks in the wind as I pass, which is odd, as there’s no wind. At the bottom of the hill, beside a water lane, on a fence in a stark garden belonging to an isolated cottage a well-known death figure has been made using thick black polythene draped over two crossed sticks. Hooded and faceless, he holds a lantern in one unseen hand and a scythe in the other. I step gingerly over to photograph him and a man of baby boomer age wearing a fisherman’s jumper emerges from the front door of the cottage. “Ooh, he loikes the reaper,” he says to me, in a strong West Country accent that leaves me unsure if it is genuine or being put on for hillbilly Straw Dogs effect. Something ominous hangs in the air for the twenty seconds until a younger man - possibly his son - emerges from the house, chuckling. I ask him if he made the reaper himself and confirms that he did, with the help of friends, and that it was the centrepiece of a recent New Year’s Eve party. There is no such levity to explain away another haunting site I see six and a half miles upriver, near Staverton: a fence post, recently denuded of nettles and bracken and draped with a blue shawl, matching floppy felt hat and off-beige scarf to form what looks chillingly like a small, stooped woman, turned away from the footpath, crying over some crippling recent tragedy. Of these two ominous homemade figures this is undoubtedly the greater piece of art: constructed using nothing but a banal pre-existing boundary marker and three dirty pieces of clothing, yet conveying absolutely no sense that, were you to touch her and ask her if she was ok, she would not turn around with glowing crimson eyes and gnashing teeth, crunch your skull into fragments and suck fresh blood from your neck hole.
I hike these paths more often in winter, when daylight is scarce and I am reluctant to waste what there is of it on car journeys to further flung walking destinations. South Devon is by far the most touristy place I’ve ever lived but in January, February and March you can take a route across the hidden places and get a genuine sense that no other human feet have precede yours for weeks. One of my favourite walks is a thirteen mile loop to the village of Tuckenhay. I love the way the village looks from the top of the valley in winter, with smoke billowing from the chimneys beside the creek and the jumbled houses climbing into the narrow opposing valley as if forming an unruly queue for a magic tunnel. This most recent winter I walked down the steepest of the hills leading to the village and was reminded of the time my dad drove down the same lane in icy conditions in an old, untrustworthy car during a family holiday in 1987. With unintentional perfect timing Vivaldi’s Winter had been playing on the car’s cassette player as he drove and the combination of the perilous road and the hysteria of the music sent my mum, me and my auntie Mal into fits of laughter. Now, on the same hollowed out road, I spotted a hubcap eight feet above me, lodged in the mossy, ivy-strangled bank, above which brassy hard case robins flitted. How had it got all the way up there? Maybe the driver of the car it had used to be attached to had been listening to Vivaldi too, and got carried away. That is, if the hubcap was a hubcap and not a tiny flying saucer that had veered off course and crashed, which was what it more realistically resembled.
My preferred route back from Tuckenhay is the most arduous and impractical one, along the creek bed, where hopefully the tide will be low. The first time I was about to take this route I encountered two dishevelled, wheezing walkers coming from the opposite direction who told me that I shouldn’t try to get down there, since they’d only just made it through, and they, unlike me, had walking poles and proper anoraks with labels on them. Had they known me they would have realised that “I wouldn’t try to go that way if I were you - it’s difficult” is one of the three main motivational hiking phrases a person can say in my vicinity, along with “There’s a great pub at the apex of this route”and “This hill is well-known due to the coven who are said to have practiced in the copse at its plateau during the middle of the 17th Century.” I thanked them and pressed on, in exactly the direction I’d intended, negotating slimy pebbles and fallen trees with relatively little trouble. But this latest time along the creek was tough going. Rain had wrecked the valley for the previous five days. Vast mounds of slippy alien bubble seaweed sat on top of even slippier wet rocks, like the soggy crust of treacherous pie. I took an hour to walk a broken studded necklace of land that I’d taken just fifteen minutes to make my way over last May. I only narrowly avoided tripping over and in some ways it wouldn’t have mattered if I had, since I was already a six foot long strip of pure mud-spatter masquerading as a human male. I had some shopping to do on the route home and thanked my lucky stars that I lived in the kind of place where the sight of a man who looked like The Creature From The Black Lagoon buying biological washing liquid and bananas would raise few eyelids. The seaweed smelled less pleasant than usual: it gave off a salty pungent rot threat. Some of it had caught in the branches of the gnarly oaks which stuck out on precarious crooked noses of granite above the creek, blasted there by the storms of recent days during high tide. Above that was another lonely haunted-looking barn I’d not previously spotted. A few strands of black binliner were caught in the barbed wire of the adjoining field. I’d not all that long ago learned the excellent Irish term for such an phenomenon: “witches’ knickers”. The creek formed a thin channel through the mud, then rounded the corner to merge with the river, which, like all other rivers in Devon at this time of year, had acquired that black look it does not possess even on the coldest and most unforgiving day of autumn, summer or spring. It whispered in my ear about the bad stuff it wanted to do to me and I climbed away, back to higher, more solid earth, relieved. Further on, in a hedge on the hill above Sharpham, near the natural burial ground, I saw another example of witches’ knickers, far more elaborately and eerily crafted by nature: a curved strip of former black bag, complete with hood and slanted eyehole, that only someone in the most fierce denial about the dark side of existence would fail to admit looked like a demon - if not the devil himself - reclining among the thin twigs, watching weary travellers struggle up the hill and idly planning their fate. If I looked closer, which I did not quite want to, I half-expected him to be casually examining his fingernails. A few weeks earlier, similar nearby hedgerows had been strewn with redoubtable, undying wild clematis. Forgetting what the folklore name for these was, I asked a man emerging from a nearby garden if he knew. “Those? They’re dead men’s whiskers,” he said. He was incorrect: the name I was looking for was in fact“old man’s beard”, but I preferred his term, and resolved to use it on all tenable future occasions. Now, though, the wild clematis seemed to have vanished. We had entered January: winter’s peak. Time of tax return terror, bare trees, delusional gym resolutions and scheming hedge demons. Too bleak even for the strong and wiry whiskers of the deceased.
Once you spend enough time out walking and witnessing this stuff you realise that there was always a predestiny to the ghosts and monsters that have, for centuries, spilled from the imagination of rurally-situated British writers: if the people who invented them didn’t invent them, someone else would have, or at least ones not unlike them. The countryside - particularly the gnarly, craggy, knobbly countryside of the deep south west - and the creaking, weather-blasted architecture of that countryside, especially when stripped back by seasonal change, is too rich with spooky imagery for it never to have happened. I am hugely inspired by this on my walks, to the point that it can send me into a minor state of witchy rapture, and I welcome its onset, but, even so, winter is not my season. It claws at me with its mucky nails and strips me back until I’m in the proper fallow state to best receive and fully appreciate my true season, which is spring.