How are things down Maggie Burleigh way?

Posted in Articles, Devon

The Tamar Belle nosed out of its moorings at the Barbican, Plymouth, with my wife and me aboard, bound for Cotehele Quay. Our skipper told us about Drake’s Island, Plymouth Breakwater, German frigates and atomic submarines berthed in the Hamoaze. We chugged north under the two Tamar bridges, past the mouth of the Tavy to the east and Car Green on the Cornish bank, looking inviting in the summer sunshine. In the great meander between Weir and Halton quays we saw two herons, one flying majestically above the water reed, the other perched on a buoy.

Cotehele Quay is a charming place to disembark with its welcoming grey-stone buildings inviting you to explore the house and grounds at Cotehele, ancient second home to the Edgcumbe family. But our objective was to walk through the terraced Cotehele gardens, around the bend in the Tamar to Calstock, which we did, pausing for a picnic lunch on a seat overlooking the river in the shadow of the magnificent viaduct. We returned by train on that lovely stretch of track which takes you across the viaduct, through Bere Alston and Bere Ferrers, over the Tavy Bridge and back to Plymouth.

I love the Tamar valley. Geographers call the river’s southern stretch a drowned valley where the moderating influence of the sea produces a mild micro-climate and few frosts. Flowers, fruit, strawberries and rhododendrons all flourish. But the area has great nostalgic interest for me as well.

If we had caught the northbound train at Calstock, the next stop would have been Gunnislake where my mother was born in 1906. My grandfather, Emmanuel Andrews, owned a butcher’s shop in the straggling village which hugs the Cornish bank of the river and is sheltered from the westerly winds by Kithill, well-known for its stack on the top – a reminder of the once-prosperous South Kithill tin and copper mine.

My mother was born in the shop. Many years ago, on route to a family holiday on the Cornish coast, we stopped in Gunnislake and my mother went into the shop and announced that this was where she had taken her first breath. Waiting in the car, I was surprised to see her quickly re-emerge with the news that she had received a short and dusty answer. I suspect that the shop’s owners were foreigners from up-country.

I never knew my grandfather. He either died before I was born, or when I was too young to remember him. His chief claim to fame in family gossip was that he had once lent a sum of money to Isaac Foot, a contemporary of his who went on to become the Liberal MP for Bodmin and the father of Michael, Dingle, Hugh and John. As far as I know, Isaac duly paid the money back.

The butcher’s shop in Gunnislake must have prospered, because the day came when my grandfather sold it and bought from one of his suppliers a farmhouse with seventy acres of land. Though a small farm, the soil, aspect and climate were good supporting a mixture of arable and dairy produce. The white-painted farmhouse – Treleigh – was in an idyllic setting, a mile or so from the banks of the Tamar but on the Devon side a few miles north of Gunnislake and close to the village of Sydenham Damerel. Although the house was old, it wasn’t as ancient as the farm itself, which I am told is mentioned in Domesday Book.

My mother and her brother and sister grew up on the farm and my grandfather must have managed it well, for until the second world war he employed a live-in maid. In the late 1940s and 50s I spent every Christmas and a few summers on the farm. My uncle always cut a holly tree rather than a fir for Christmas, I imagine because holly was readily available on the farm. As I look at the map today, the names of villages in the area remind me of Andrews family chatter from those days: Horsebridge, Hampt, Luckett, Stoke Climsland and Lamerton.

My earliest memories of my grandmother are of being ushered into her bedroom where she dispensed peppermints from a large brown jar at the side of her bed. The house had no electricity until the mid-1950s and my grandmother would issue visitors with an oil lamp to take up to their bedroom. When I was very young, she occasionally took me out into an area off the farm-yard which I think was called the ‘mowie’ where she would carve me a whistle from the twig of a tree. In her final years, she went totally blind and never ventured far from the house. She died, aged ninety-three, in 1965, but lived long enough to cradle her great-granddaughter Sara in her arms.

It was a great day when electricity arrived in Sydenham Damerel. When the man from SWEB came to read Mrs Sandercott’s metre, he was amazed at how few units the old lady had used and queried this. ‘My dear,’ the old lady replied, ‘I just switches on to light my candle and then I turns the ‘lectric off!’.

Almost as soon as Fred and Evelyn, my mother’s brother and sister, were wired up, they bought a large TV set, throwing out their old radio set and accumulator. In fact, the Andrews had a television years before my own parents bought one. My aunt and uncle quickly fell in love with Richard Baker, the newsreader, and a young and enthusiastic David Attenborough who brought the sights and sounds of birds and animals from far-away countries into their living room. Our visits to the farm on winter Saturdays were made more memorable for me by watching Dixon of Dock Green before we set off for the return journey to Exeter. I remember once a technologically-minded friend from Callington enquiring whether my aunt had heard that you could install a magnifying lens in front of the screen to improve your picture. Evelyn replied that she thought this was only necessary with small sets.

My Uncle Fred had inherited the farm from old Emmanuel Andrews but had none of his father’s ambition. He kept the farm ticking over, never investing in a tractor, relying on his horse and a more mechanically-minded neighbour to harvest his few fields of corn. I can still see him milking his ten cows, perched on a rickety three-legged stool, resting his head against Daisy’s flank. He once invited me to try my hand at squeezing Buttercup’s teats, but I barely managed to cover the bottom of the pail with milk. The shippen, where he did the milking, boasted a dovecot at the top of stone steps and, often today, when I hear the lazy coo of a pigeon, I am transported back to summer days at Treleigh. (Picture: Treleigh Shippen today)

Uncle Fred’s limited ambition for the farm was to ensure that it provided him with enough income to finance an annual coach tour to Europe. He spent the winter months reading about the medieval cathedrals he planned to visit, later impressing his fellow travellers with his knowledge. His other passion was buying furniture at local auctions and I am glad that one or two of his best buys now grace my own thatched cottage in mid-Devon.

Years before I was born, Uncle Fred had been fitted with a badly made and rather obvious glass eye. This disfigurement didn’t prevent a lady who lived on the Cornish side of the Tamar from falling in love with him. But Fred was never a man to rush into a quick decision and entered into a long engagement with the lady. After nine years, the engagement was broken off, amicably as far as I know.

My sister and I never called my Aunt ‘Evelyn’. She was known to us as Ha-ha, apparently because when my sister was young, Evelyn would take her on her shoulders and walk up and down repeating Ha-ha, Ha-ha, Ha-ha. I remember, as I grew older, feeling faintly embarrassed addressing her this way in company. Ha-ha looked after a shed-full of hens and did the cooking on her Aga. From time to time she would post clotted cream to us and this would arrive at our home in Exeter in a cocoa tin sealed with a circle of bread.

All the fields at Treleigh had names though I have forgotten most of them. I do remember Pump field, the largest, rising gently to the east above the house, with a pump of fresh water that I never remember running dry. Above the field, a lane ran between Townlake and Tuelldown. If you turned left at the gate from Pump field and walked for a hundred yards, you came to another lane leading off to the right. Completely overgrown with brambles, weeds and grass it was known as Maggie Burleigh lane. My mother told me that many years ago, Maggie Burleigh had walked down the lane one dark night, climbed a tree and hung herself. I don’t remember my mother divulging, or whether she knew, what triggered Maggie’s desperate and final act. Perhaps she didn’t know. But none of the locals dared use the lane again.

Where Fred hated driving, Ha-ha loved it. I remember her driving us around the fields in an open-topped Standard Eight. Later she graduated to an elegant Triumph Dolomite, then an Austin Healey Sprite and later to a magnificent maroon MG saloon which she garaged in an old stable with a mud floor. Her driving terrified the family, especially my uncle. When she drove into Tavistock on market day, she always left the key in the ignition claiming to believe that if the car were stolen this would indicate that the thief’s need were greater than hers. None of her cars was ever taken. Like her brother, Ha-ha never married. She also entered into a long engagement, in her case with the son of a Crediton butcher. I have no idea why this romance ended. 

 My uncle and aunt attended Hampt Chapel across the Tamar at the top of a steep hill above the old mining village of Luckett. Hampt Chapel was a Plymouth Brethren assembly. The Brethren had no ministers and the style of their Sunday morning services was unusual. Traditionally the men only prayed, or announced a hymn, or read from the Scriptures making a few comments as they felt moved and guided by the Spirit. At Hampt Chapel, there were only two men who attended regularly – my Uncle Fred and a Mr Diamond who lived with his wife in a few rooms at the back of the chapel. Since my Uncle Fred and Mr Diamond never spoke in public, except very occasionally to announce a favourite hymn, the chapel depended on visiting men from Plymouth – authentic Plymouth Brethren. (Picture: Hampt Chapel today)

Actually, looking back, I don’t think Uncle Fred was ever truly happy with Brethrenism or nonconformity in general. He once told me proudly, with something of a wicked twinkle in his good eye, that he had been blessed by the pope in St Peter’s Square. The few religious books which lined his shelves were by Anglican bishops.

On our family visits to Hampt, the situation was eased slightly as my own father would do his best to make contributions to the worship. But my main childhood memory of the Chapel is of its musty smell, the strips of faded red carpet on the pews, and the sound of the slow tick of the clock on the wall during long periods of silence. Still, when I hear the sound of an ancient and ponderous timepiece, my mind races back to that little place of worship above Luckett.

I suppose the Chapel’s chief claim to fame in Steer family history is that it was here that my father met my mother. Although my father was born not far from Treleigh, in Tavistock, he grew up in Crediton. His best friend was the butcher’s son, Edwin, who courted my aunt. My father used to claim that he saved Edwin from drowning in a Dartmoor pool, but I never heard Edwin’s version of the event. Curiously, today, my own son is a close friend of Edwin’s grandson. It may be because of the connection with Edwin that some time in the 1930s my father was invited to preach at Hampt where my mother played the organ.
Father made the journey from Crediton to Hampt on his motor-bike. His duties would have included liasing with the organist, and the Andrews family duties included entertaining the preacher for lunch on the farm. I was never told whether it was love at first sight, but whatever happened I am an embodiment of the subsequent union.

Not long after my grandmother’s death, in 1965, Uncle Fred suffered a heart attack. He and Ha-ha sold the farm and retired to a house on the edge of Whitchurch Down, Tavistock. They both died in the early 1980s. 

 I have only once returned to Treleigh, and that more than twenty years ago. I wonder how the current owner has survived the ravages of foot and mouth disease. I think I must visit the area again. I should love to know whether the clock still ticks in Hampt chapel and whether there are pigeons cooing above the shippen. But I won’t venture down Maggie Burleigh lane. (Picture: In August 2002 Roger and his wife, Sheila, did visit Treleigh. This is what they found.)

Roger Steer
A shorter version of this article appeared in Devon Life in November 2001