Travels round North Devon on my pins – 1. Goodleigh

Around this time last year I made the decision to change my lifestyle. Not get fit or diet, or go on a health kick, but change my lifestyle. Break old habits, create new ones, do some achievable and sustainable. Something that would endure. The consequence of this is that I have lost four stone without ever feeling like I am denying myself food or going without, and I feel more energetic and active. I have managed to do all this without resorting to the dreaded step of eating rice cakes or buying a sweatband.

Anyway, that’s enough boasting. But one thing I have done more over the last year is explore the area a bit more on foot. Mostly this has involved venturing beyond the point where Barnstaple ends and the countryside begins.

Today I went further than I have before, and made the trek to the village of Goodleigh, about two or three miles away from the outer reaches of Barnstaple.

The trip was not without purpose – I was to deliver the latest edition of ‘The North Devon Socialist’ newsletter to the future rural revolutionaries of that village. Now I say that in jest, but also with a tinge of seriousness.

The Left in this country is overwhelmingly metropolitan, and though city-living breeds a certain degree of openmindedness in terms of contact with many other cultures and ways of doing things, it also produces a kind of insularity which doesn’t often get recognised. When you live somewhere that has everything you need bar a place to go on holiday, the rest of the country can be safely ignored and dismissed. Ignorant judgments tend to follow. I stress here that the ignorant judgments are generally few and far between, I can think of two people in particular (not Londoners or near-Londoners incidentally*) whose views have stuck in my craw though. I do appeal to metropolitan chums and comrades to be a little more self-aware about this though.

Conversely, if you are from a part of the world like this, then you necessarily have to travel for education, health, cultural, sporting and many other purposes. There’s no alternative. Despite not enjoying travel much, I find that I have to go to all sorts of places during the year, to go to conferences, marches, meetings, gigs, football matches and so on. This reluctant traveller is probably far better travelled in his own country than many Londoners.  I suggest that the rural or semi-rural dweller has more understanding of the nature and challenges of life in certain cities than the residents of those cities have of generally rural areas.

Anyway, the point is that large city dwellers tend to misunderstand rural areas. Hopefully the excellent results that the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition and Communist Party got in last years district council elections in North Devon will go some way to getting around the idea that socialist ideas are only ever likely to catch on in large cities. The good results may not have translated into people getting actively involved yet, but there is clearly an appetite for the ideas.

There is no reason that socialist ideas cannot catch on in places like Goodleigh. They deserve our newsletter and to be introduced to our ideas just as much as someone in Barnstaple, Exeter, Bristol or London. It is true that workers and young people are being driven out of villages because of a number of factors, the high cost of housing, lack of jobs, and poor public transport and access to public services and shops just some of the most important. But there are still many workers who live in these places, who because of these challenges are likely to be receptive to our ideas.

Anyway, that’s the justification for my trip.  Fortunately the weather was glorious enough to wipe away the dreariness of the last week or so. Devon’s high hedges are both a gift and a curse for the walker. A curse because they block the views lying behind them, but a gift because of the biodiversity they sustain, and the appreciation that you have for the gaps when the rolling hills, forests, streams and fields stocked with bemused and unimpressed cows and one thankfully mellow bull. It wasn’t much of a gate between us.

On the biodiversity, Devon’s mode of agriculture means that we avoided the fate of much of the farmland of the east of England after the Second World War, where the mechanisation of farming allowed the creation of massive crop monocultures and consequent disaster for wildlife. I was to enjoy the biodiversity with my sightings of the butterflies of the hedgerows. I was rewarded with the most striking as I completed my journey back to Barnstaple, the most beautiful, striking and elusive butterfly I have ever seen, a shimmering iridescent blue that I was able to catch up with and reglimpse a number of times before it flew away to hopefully delight someone else.

However, this beauty and the reasons for it also means that Devon’s farmers are poor, small and at the mercy of the dairies, abbatoirs and supermarkets. The current struggle of the dairy farmers against the rapacious dairies and supermarkets must be supported and may even lead to a change in the political mindset of these farmers. There is certainly a developing solidarity between dairy farmers across the country, even involving those dairy farmers who haven’t been adversely affected by recent developments.

Devon’s mode of agriculture isn’t cultural, or as a direct result of Government policy. Economics no doubt shapes it, and the economics of cattle and dairy farming is seemingly going the way it did for the arable farming of the east – dwindling numbers of small farmers, replaced by a handful of big businesses. The consequences for the farmers, for rural workers, for animal welfare standards, and the quality of land management, will be catastrophic.

We can perceive various factors shaping the changes in rural Devon, processes operating at various scales. Another is the quality of the soil, which affects the type of agriculture that can be practised, as well as the topography, which affects which equipment can be used. At the root of this is the even deeper geological processes which help determine the topography and type of soil.

The geology, morphology, economics, ecology and human experience of our landscapes. The streams and leats, wending their way across, beneath and beside the roads, long after the rain has stopped, the water filtering through the system and working its way eventually to the Taw and the sea.

In nature as in human affairs, different rhythms, different processes, working at different time frames. Because of these and the interactions between them, we can only ever have a vague idea of the effects of what we do, what impact they will have in an hours time, a day, week, month, year, decade. If the science of the past two-hundred years has anything to teach us for our everyday lives, it is that we have to live with uncertainty, but we can do something to affect the chances, the odds of certain things happening, individually and collectively.

Who knows whether any of the leaflets delivered today will have an effect, what kind of effect they will have and on what timescale. Anything from a new member ringing me up immediately when they return home and see our newsletter to an idea planted, that might only change someone’s mind years down the line as their life takes a different turn, as other ideas knit together with it in a different way. Or nothing at all. Today I did a little thing to increase the chances of something positive, that one day might trickle downstream into a meeting in Barnstaple.

Either way I had a lovely walk, and Goodleigh seems a pleasant village (it still has a pub, a key marker of civilisation in my book) with some friendly people, one of which was perplexed and surprised that the Reds had made it to Goodleigh. Not in a bad way, more in the manner of a goat suddenly running onto a football pitch during a match. Now to pick the next location.

*In my head, a near-Londoner is anyone who is west of Bournemouth and south of Cambridge. I know it’s wrong, but all that part of the world tends to be in London’s orbit in a way that the areas to the east of Bournemouth and north of Cambridge don’t seem to be.

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