A few years ago writer Ysella Sims and her husband moved to Devon from the South East looking for a new start. They lived first in West Devon, then moved to Upton Pyne near Exeter, until they finally found the house and place they wanted to be - in Sandford, near Crediton – to where they moved last year. In this closely observed piece she takes us on a walk around the village with her dog, Cooper.
Sandford lies two miles north of Crediton and nine miles north west of Exeter and is one of a number of villages scattered along a sandy valley where the earth is red and ribboned by the river Creedy. To reach it from Crediton you must climb up Jockey Hill and under the ghost of the bridge at Forches Cross where ladies were undone, travellers robbed, and overloaded carriages ran away from their drivers. The bridge once crossed from Creedy Park House – now an Arts & Crafts-inspired reconstruction of its ancestral self, burned to the ground in 1915 along with its 300 year old archive – to its historic hunting ground, a precious patch of ancient woodland. Tall beeches and chestnuts shade the dog walkers who converge there from the opposite ends of Crediton and Sandford, not all of whom know about the threat from a nearby housing development a keen-eyed developer has set their sights on.
Early Saxons settled in the volcanic valley where they discovered the fertility of the soil, stained red with iron, and dashed with boulders of impenetrable red sandstone. The valley has been farmed ever since. The Creedy and its inlets keep the watered meadows of its lower stretches rich and green for grazing livestock and gave birth, in the 12th century, to a weaving industry that kept the mills of the valley turning for centuries.
In the village square, the 16th century Lamb Inn, where dusty travellers watered and changed their horses, watches over the gentle toings and froings from its vantage on a cobbled slope.
A collection of period houses built from cob and thatch, slate and red sandstone hewn from the local quarry, fan out from the square toward the outcrops of new builds, social housing and farms with medieval sounding names like Henstill, Bawdenhayes, Swannaton and Clampitt. Most of Sandford’s centre is designated a conservation area and many of its houses are listed. Ours, thankfully, is not.
Like most dog walkers, we regularly walk the same ways with our dog, Cooper. One of these is a there-and-back again which runs along the footpath into Gorwyn’s Field, down past Furlongs and over Lower Creedy bridge, along Thornedges to the river.
John is often in his garden as we pass and we call a hello to him and to his chickens, the new contingent settled now amongst the old guard. They are producing a plentiful supply of eggs which John sells, along with tomatoes tasting of summer, from a box attached to his fence. His dahlias are a sweet shop confection of pinks and yellows, his apple tree weighed down with dozens of ripened apples.
Sometimes I meet Colin, his binoculars swinging around his neck, and we talk about the birds he’s seen. The maize has been cut, so the meadow pipits have returned, he tells me, to pick up the chaff from between the yellow stubble which sticks, like a lockdown haircut, out of the red earth. We talk about the swallows, gathering on the wires in the village and how, in previous autumns, I loved to watch the murmurations of starlings down on the banks of the Tamar as the native population swelled with migrating birds from eastern Europe; the dash and whoosh and hush as they lifted and dropped, lifted and dropped, to chatter and roost in the rushes.
It is autumn now and the lanes and hedgerows are filled with bright red haws and rosehips, and a residue of hard-as-bullet blackberries, looking like so many red and black fruit pastels. The mustard yellow Tansy flowers have become black, Art Deco-shaped seed heads and there is a sweet, citrusy tang in the air as the hedges begin to be cut. The fields have been humming with the sounds of combines and tractors as farmers race to make the most of the dry evenings to harvest silage and maize. Sometimes their exasperated drivers knock on our doors, unable to manoeuvre their huge vehicles past cars parked in Sandford’s narrow lanes.
Along Thornedges I stop to talk to calves sheltering, from our first rainfall in many weeks, under the outstretched arms of a giant oak. As they get to their feet, still shaky-legged, I think how this is probably their first experience of rain, how instinct has told them to shelter there. They come over to the gate to lick my hand with their rough, raspy tongues and huff their inquisitiveness at the dog, hovering a safe distance behind me.
In Gorwyns field, where dog walkers unconsciously collect, stopping to chat while dogs run and play together in happy circles - a kind of alternative village centre - an ecological study is underway. It's to assess the environmental impact the proposed development, an extension of Creedy View, might have. It’s difficult not to feel sad at the thought of losing the communal space and the moles, mice, slow worms and invertebrates that help to feed the valley's owls and birds. I have to remind myself that each of our houses were built as a result of the same process. Which piece of heath, moor or farm land, which copse, was cleared to build our houses? Lizzie and I laugh, conspiratorially, at the idea of planting great crested newts under the carpet tiles laid out to monitor the wildlife, as our dogs hurl themselves through the long grass.