While it’s true that there is no place like home, there’s nothing quite like finding a place halfway around the world that feels almost immediately like home, either. Nestled in the rolling hills of North Devon, Nethergrove House became just that for us. We arrived at the nearest train station in the town of Umberleigh on May 6th and met our first workaway host, Julia. According to English standards, we were now in an area as country as country gets – though the village of High Bickington is less than ten minutes away on foot, and the city of Barnstaple can be reached in twenty minutes by car; so in that sense, it isn’t quite as rural as we Canadians know rural can be.
The country roads here are another matter entirely. Bordered on each side by ten-foot-tall Devon hedges, there is no right or left-hand side driving to be had on these roads. There is only driving straight between the ivy-covered banks – and in the event of escaped sheep, oblivious pheasants, or an oncoming vehicle, the occasional slamming of brakes and consequent reversal to wherever a spot wide enough for passing might exist. As inconvenient as this may sound, there’s also something quite idyllic about the hedgerows, especially when seen at a distance; dark borders accentuating a mosaic of emerald fields interspersed with sprawling and antiquated buildings.
Nethergrove itself is like something from a storybook, the oldest part of the structure having been built nearly four hundred years ago. David and Julia purchased the property alongside two other couples in order to live together as an intentional Christian community. Our favorite part of the house are the two sitting rooms – quaintly rustic, filled with patterns and colors and distinctive character, and each with a wood-burning fireplace we put to use almost every evening, though typically we spent most days outdoors.
Not only does the backyard boast an unbeatable view of the countryside, the adjacent walled garden is an acre’s worth of green-thumb heaven in which we did most of our work. It seems that weeding is our speciality! We cleared away bramble and stinging nettle, upturned root and moss, and came across a sprinkling of snails and, to my barely-concealed horror, hordes of exceptionally monstrous worms. Below, I’ve included a few before-and-after photos of our efforts.
While Tyson and I relished the outdoor work, the greatest blessing was being in the company of an amazing family. David, Julia, and two of their grown children, Timothy and Miriam, showed us such kindness and hospitality that we are feeling rather sad about leaving tomorrow. There was plenty of laughter and conversation to go around, and the family was eager for us to experience North Devon in every sense – and so follows a few of the memories we’ve made during our stay.
On Friday, we visited the beautiful gardens at Rosemoor with Julia and Miriam, who treated us to “cream tea” afterward – tea served with biscuits, upon which clotted cream (which is basically the whipped cream version of butter) and jam is spread. Apparently there is some debate as to whether the cream or the jam should be spread first, but of course we were easily convinced that it’s cream first, as is the Devon way. On the whole, I’ve grown quite accustomed to tea served between meals – I now drink a whole pot to myself in one sitting!
On Saturday, Tyson and I explored Exeter in the sunshine. We walked through the city’s lanes and meandered along the quay in the afternoon, finding a tree under which we could nap for a little while. Julia brought us along to experience a rogation church service on Sunday, where the small congregation gathered in a farmer’s field to bless the crops and the sheep. Afterward, there was a potluck of homemade English fingerfoods we found quite divine. There, Tyson inquired after crumpets – I believe it went something like, “where can I find some nice tasty crumpets?” after which there was great laughter – the word being slang for a fine young lady, of course.
Following the rogation service, we set off for the local food market in Barnstaple, as this was something Tyson had been looking forward to from the very beginning. We tasted locally brewed ciders and fruit cordial, sourdough breads, goat’s milk chocolates, sheep’s cheese, traditional meat pasties and the like, after which Julia treated us to yet another delicious supper of venison burger purchased from the market.
Having laboured in the garden on Monday, Julia ushered us off to see the coast on Tuesday – so we hopped on the bus and saw the shores of Westward Ho! (one of three cities in the world to have an exclamation mark in its name) and the port of Bideford, before stopping to eat fish and chips for lunch in Ilfracombe. This was where a certain meal on the menu shocked us greatly – but I’ll explain that in a bit. We climbed the picturesque hill overlooking the seaside, and though the strong winds never let up we were glad that the sun was shining. That evening, Julia surprised us with crumpets for dessert (the pastry kind!) and again ushered us off – this time to see traditional Morris dancing in the village.
As it rained all day today, yesterday proved to be our last day in the garden. We laid mulch over the areas we’d cleared, pulled nettle and ivy from the hedges, and painted wood preserver on a small section of the building. I’ve had the privilege of reading out on the grass in the yard, the sweeping view of the hills and the sound of birdsong a peaceful backdrop to a somewhat strange book (“The Sun Also Rises”, by Ernest Hemingway).
Having promised that we would do a pub night all together down at the Old George in the village, we walked through the hedgerows at dusk and sat down in the most typical English pub we’ve found yet, complete with ancient stonework, low ceilings, local brews with names like Otter Dark and Doombar, an in-house spaniel, and absolutely delicious food. Tyson had a mint lamb shank with mash and veg, and I had… Well, this brings me to the strange dish we’d seen listed in Ilfracombe, which I would have managed to order with a straight face if it weren’t for Tyson’s snickering – “I’ll have the faggots, please.” Yes, faggots, and yes, you can laugh. We certainly did! As it turns out, these are basically giant liver meatballs smothered in gravy, and they were very good.
Tomorrow, we board a train for Bristol before heading onward to our next workaway in Wales. As I’ve said, we’ll be sad to leave this place – incredibly, and in such a short amount of time, it really does feel like a home away from home. Still, part of the beauty of travel is to head onward; and to hope that we’ll be lucky enough to see places and meet people as beautiful as we’ve done here at Nethergrove.
From my wandering heart to yours,