Looking back over the last few days through photograph albums that Gran kept reminds me of what a long life she enjoyed and my time with her was relatively short.
Itâ€™s hard for me to imagine what she was like as a child, as a teenager or as a young adult or how the devastating backdrop of the war must have shaped her outlook on life as she raised her family and saw her children grow up.
My memories of Gran begin when she would have been approaching her sixties, having recently separated from my Grandad and set off on a new direction in her life. It was at this time that we moved down to Devon to live with her at Higher Langdon farm, where Joe and I enjoyed for a while an idyllic childhood.
My memories of Gran at this time are of a powerfully independent and active lady who had fashioned the life that she wanted and was enjoying the sense of freedom that she had achieved.Â I remember how proud I felt that my Gran was such a dynamic character â€“ she always seemed so resourceful, so energetic and to an 8 year old boy the fact that she rode a motor bike elevated her to a whole different level.
There was another, more tender side to Gran. I remember from this time that Joe and I would often go in to see her in the mornings at the weekend before she had got up and she would talk to us while drinking her morning cup of tea from her teasmaid machine. I can still picture some of her treasured possessions: her childhood teddy bear, the china Siamese cat that sit today in the window of her house, a miniature guitar, a photograph of Michelle and Louise taken at nursery or primary school. I was reminded of this last photo by a picture of Frances and Maddy from a few years back.
After mumâ€™s death everything changed. It seemed to me that it took the wind out of Granâ€™s sails. She mellowed, Dad always said. Gran moved to her bungalow in Thorn and we moved to Exeter. During this time Joe and I would go out and stay with Gran for weekends or weeks in the summer. Thorn was always like a bridge to the past where we had peace and quiet and wide open fields to play in all day long.
I think it must have been around this time that Gran took up walking and would be found most weekends trekking around Dartmoor with Harry Starkey and his group of ramblers. Joe and I began going out on these treks with Gran and I remember at first how I disliked them and how Gran would berate me for dragging behind and whining. I remember the early starts, meeting up with a load of old folks in some car park on the moor, more often than not in the rain, mist or drizzle. Walking along, 20 of us stretched out in a line with half a dozen dogs and Harry at the front explaining the history of, standing stones, tram lines and peat bogs. Cowering behind rocks at lunch, a round of sandwiches wrapped in tin foil, a two-fingered kit-kat and an apple. Being sent to scramble over rocks looking for letterboxes.
At the time I secretly thought that Gran fancied Harry and thatâ€™s why we went, but after a time I came to love these walks across the moor and this was to grow into a passion that brought me closer to Gran and that I still have today. As I grew up and moved away I would continue to go and spend a week every now and then with Gran. The bungalow at Thorn remained a retreat where I could stay and recharge my batteries with the peace and quiet and the opportunity to walk.
Granâ€™s philosophy was always that her home was at your disposal to use as a base camp. When I stayed it never felt as if we were obliged to spend our time in each otherâ€™s company. Iâ€™m not sure whether this was because Gran instinctively knew that I often needed space or because we were both naturally alike in that sense â€“ I believe it was the latter. During this time, sometimes we would walk together â€“ perhaps around Fernworthy reservoir or up to Kestor or across to Batworthy corner.
Other times I would go out for longer walks on my own and when I got back we would sit out on her veranda in the evening and talk about where I had been, how dry the moor was or how well the paths were marked. She would show me the routes that she had taken years before all drawn out on her own maps. Gran always inspired a sense of adventure in me.
Some years later Merry and I would stay with Gran for a week in the summer. The routine was as ever â€“ make yourself at home, use the house as a base camp. I remember once that we went out for a 3-day trek with the tent and on the first night the weather turned bad on us. We spent the night huddled under some rocks in a thunderstorm and next day picked our way back across the moor in drizzle and a blanket fog. When we got back to Granâ€™s we were soaked through. I remember Gran was genuinely surprised that we had given up and turned back. She was like that â€“ she had such determination and such strong resolve. The thought of being put off by the weather was just not in her character.
Gran was never the most sociable of people. I donâ€™t think she was unfriendly, I just think that she needed to live her life on her own terms. For companionship she would look towards animals. I canâ€™t image the number of cats that she has given a home to over the time that I have known her.
I think at the end of the day Gran always found solace in the beauty of the natural world. She loved Dartmoor and her heart and spirit will remain here always. She loved the wild and unspoilt landscape, the clear night skies and the abundance of wildlife that she could watch from her veranda. She loved to have space to fill with animals that she would take in, usually the waifs and strays that had been made homeless through old age or neglect.
I suppose now when I look back I see some of those characteristics that defined Gran in myself and in my children and in our family.
Writing these words has given me the opportunity to spend a day thinking about how important Gran has been in my life and what a remarkable lady she was. After the last few months it has been a great comfort to share these memories.