SX 666 666

… are the co-ordinates for a tiny open-air chapel in the middle of Dartmoor, built by the Keble-Martin brothers in 1904. This is the William Keble-Martin of the beautiful Concise British Flora which was published in the 1960’s when he was 88 years old and when some new-fangled invention enabled them to print his highly detailed coloured plates cheaply enough. It was 1965’s best seller. He had spent his life painting and drawing and describing every plant in the British Isles. Even today I do not think there is a better flower book.

The story goes that when one of the warrener’s babies needed christening William and his brothers built the chapel out of the stones of a ruin. The baptism was duly recorded in the local parish register, Jack, who was by then a curate, officiating. William had finished a degree in Botany and Greek philosophy at Christchurch. Their father was vicar of Dartington and they were all to follow in his footsteps.

They didn’t know the co-ordinates would end up being that weirdly symbolic configuration as the Ordnance Survey wasn’t created in those days. But there must be some significance as to why he and his brothers were drawn to create this little chapel in this particular spot in the depths of the moors.  On a piece of wood the following is inscribed:

Keble Martin open air Chapel 1904
Divine worship last held here 11th July 1982
text Thou God seest me Gen. 16 v13

As boys they had camped at Mattins Corner as they came to call the place near the old mill-wheel housing and among other ruined buildings of varying antiquity, at a junction below Huntingdon Warren and some way above the peat-brown River Aune. These camps must have been idyllic. Wiiliam later wrote: ‘One day we slept in the afternoon and then went up to the moor top near Aune head and lay up at night. The dew was very heavy. In the midsummer midnight twilight we watched foxes hunting with dripping wet coats. The red grouse were calling warnings to their chicks, sounding like “Go back, go back, go back”. Before sunrise the sky became filled with skylarks singing their prime; then they all came down and fed hurriedly on caterpillars, and as the sun broke the horizon, they all went up again and stayed up singing lustily. They were many and seemed utterly happy.’  The boys dammed up the Wella Brook and dived in. They caught hundreds of trout and said there were still hundreds of trout left. They were well aware of the adders round about but they didn’t bother each other. William became an expert on moths and butterflies, also and his widow gave his collection to Exeter University.

Yesterday, we saw a lone heron fishing in the Aune in the marshes, just where it joins the huge reservoir that was built there in 1957 and we said to each other that otters might well like the slow-running waters. We then struggled through the slurping bog up beside the Wella Brook to the chapel from the River Aune below. After the rainy summer it was wet under every footfall and my feet were squelching inside my old leaky boots. The boggy hillside was full of rushes and mats of sphagnum. I was thinking how in his completed flower book Keble-Martin recorded 31 species of rush across the British Isles (among all the species of everything) all of which he drew and painted from life. I visualised the boy beginning, even as a teenager, to note the differences in the rushes on this hill-side perhaps, the tiny Tormentil beneath his feet, Harebells and ‘eggs & bacon’ of Toadflax and orchids maybe on the windy and damp moorside above. And what else besides….

Down below their encampment the people who lived in the valley of the Aune were forcibly evacuated during the 1950’s, their valley was flooded and the village was drowned, but only after the military had used their houses as target practice. Huntingdon Warren was also burned down in the same decade by Naval cadets.

How very different it must have all been in W. Keble-Martin’s day: out in the wilds and yet not so far from human habitation, making friends with the warreners and having post delivered to them by the postman. Dartmoor was quite a different place in those days when children were permitted to camp there by themselves – to catch trout, to have time to observe the wildlife, the flowers, the butterflies and moths.

About Rebecca Gethin

Rebecca Gethin is a poet and a novelist. Cinnamon Press published her third collection, All the Time in the World in 2017. Another pamphlet is forthcoming with Three Drops Press. Her second novel, What the horses heard, was published by Cinnamon Press in May 2014. Her second poetry collection - A Handful of Water - was published by Cinnamon in 2013. Her first - River is the Plural of Rain - was published by Oversteps Books in 2009. Her novel Liar Dice won the Cinnamon Press Novel Writing Award in 2010 and was published in 2011. She lives on Dartmoor and writes occasional pieces about wildlife and nature. Her poems appear in a variety of poetry magazines and in several anthologies.
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3 Responses to SX 666 666

  1. annab says:

    well i never – keble’s flora inspired me to study botany – used to spend hours gazing at those pics. Was up at 3 barrows yesterday looking down on the whole of South Devon as well as over towards the spot you describe. glad to be alive.

  2. E.E. Nobbs says:

    Thanks for this, Becky. You’re a fine story-teller.I’m going to google Concise British Flora.

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