Prayers of Penitence 1.
The rain in Southern Ireland, although frequent, falls softly. Just as it does in South Devon and on equally lush grassy hills that roll and fold in much the same way. In the mist created by rain and wind Daniel Whitcombe slammed the boot shut on his hire car, his waders, rod and fishing box tucked neatly in and turned towards the Inn where his excited colleagues stood in the doorway holding up in triumph a plastic bag with the days catch and which, Connor O’Donagh, their wily Landlord, had promised to cook over his peat fire should they be successful. “C’mon Mike!” called Eric Del Grande his Michigan counterpart, “One day of leisure left before we get back to business and our good friend O”Donagh has assured us there’s plenty more Irish Whiskey to sample before then”. Katrina Solheim their Project Manager was jumping up and down to keep warm and waving him urgently over. “C’mon Dan! Let’s get this baby prepped and ready to roll, I’m starved already”. Everyone laughed and started to enter the Inn, muttering phrases like ‘Already!? Don’t ya mean ‘again’!” Katrina was known for her habit of feeding up before important deals and then starving herself for weeks until the project was satisfactorily concluded, which Michael had been told was a pretty typical New York thing but which he had no opportunity of confirming or disproving it. Yet.
Suddenly he was hit with a pang of homesickness as he ducked through the door into a dark and cosy hallway, the smell of smoke, nicotine stained ceiling and old oak beams. Dust and age, rolling over his consciousness like a childhood dream, half-remembered. Old things. That was what he had missed in America. A sense of deep, robust, ancient-ness — he checked himself, “ancient-ness’ was that even a word? How easy it was to forget your home-grown tongue in America which assaulted you with all kinds of accents and language, mashed together like a good dub-mix, bastardised, re-formed, re-constituted so you couldn’t quite be sure how to form your vowels and consonants in your own familiar way any more and you developed what his colleagues referred to as a ‘Newbie Twang’.
Then, every once in a while he would catch in passing, maybe from a New Englander or someone from Maine… The soft lilting, buttery burr of South Devon. He missed it but he didn’t miss Sunny Cove. Guilty as he found himself feeling in his raw or unguarded moments, he would keep on running. His father had said it was okay to go away, to become a better man.. That he and his mother understood and were proud of him. The world had offered him great opportunity, he had studied hard for it and was right to take the rewards of new horizons. His dad had been very clear “Son, you go. You live every moment of it, you do your very best, you make us proud and don’t you turn back. Us Devonians we’re adventurers, it’s in our blood, we never fear new horizons. We’ll always be here for you if you need us, but you be strong and you jump at this, seize it now or it may not come again….” Only his dad wasn’t there anymore and somehow, knowing that made it harder to go back. It’s just at times like these when he felt happy and comfortable in his own skin, knew his place amongst his friends and colleagues, a little devil on his shoulder would whisper in his ear “It’s up to you Danny boy, you can’t walk away forever, you’re the head of the family now, your mother, your sister… your brother. They are all expecting you to do something. You gotta man up, Danny”. Daniel shuddered and moved into the bar seeking comfort from his Atlantic colleagues and the warmth of Connor O’Donaghs infamous peat fire. Not yet, he thought, not yet. One day, maybe.
The sleek black BMW was struggling to handle the high, narrow, curving lanes and Jack allowed himself a smile as the driver cursed, reluctant to reverse each time they met a vehicle coming the other way. Jack had learnt quickly enough, you got where you were going much quicker in South Devon if you drove with old fashioned courtesy and were prepared to reverse rather than insist on ploughing forwards. He had nearly taken the side off an area car against a low stone wall during his first week at Kings Ridge Headquarters; impatiently trying to get past a land rover towing a yacht. Luckily he had caught his Sergeant exchanging a knowing look in the rear view mirror with the farm-hand in the back whom they had just arrested for ‘drunk and disorderly whilst in charge of a quad bike’. Jack had hastily thrown the gear into reverse and incurred only an embarrassing scratch along the driver door. Luckily the same Sergeant had a brother-in-law who worked out of a van across the South Hams delivering car parts, repairing windscreens and who was a genius at removing dents and masking paint scratches and something of a specialist on Police Vehicles. He was mercifully nearby and ready to meet them in a lay-by; farm-hand snoring peaceably in the rear seat and effect a magic repair for a bit of cash. Whittles reputation as the whizz kid driver had remained intact thanks to the generosity of his Sergeant.
The guy next to him, a broad shouldered, ginger haired six-footer turned to him and asked how far they were from the Crime Scene? Jack shrugged and answered that he reckoned ten to twenty minutes depending on traffic, which was a South Devon Police ‘in-joke’, which he couldn’t be bothered to explain. Detective Chief Inspector Pete Thompson jabbed his finger in the neck of the driver, told him to reverse and let the Camper Van pass, before turning back to Jack. “What can you tell us about this monument place, some kind of local mystery isn’t there?”. Jack reached into his waterproof for his notebook and started to read his notes out.
The area known as Whatmough’s Ridge, or Rise — depending whom you talked to, is that part of the wood belonging to the Whatmough Farm, but the rest of it, the woodland known as Bicton Wood is managed by the National Trust and follows the coastline west to Pyne’s point beyond the Bicton Estate, willed to the National Trust by the Family in 1949. Whatmough’s Ridge, explained Jack was the northernmost edge of the woods closest to Kings Ridge and followed the line of the head of the inlet of water known as the Kings Water which broadened out in to the Kings Estuary near the village of Augustinswell and the coastal harbour town of Yawlcombe on the opposite bank, which is where the Bank Raid had occurred the previous day. “Nice piece of misdirection there” muttered Thompson, “sending you all to the woods rather than our way”. “So what’s all this folk-lore about pagans then?” asked the C I D guy in the front seat who was navigating instructions on a piece of paper, with an ordinance survey map on his lap for good measure. Here Jack referred back to his notebook, this was the dodgy ground that the Boss had referred to. Her words echoed in his conscious “Keep it factual Jack, stick to the facts”. Jack coughed “I guess I’d better give you the history lesson first, so you can get a better picture of where all the rumour and conjecture springs from”. Thompson turned away to look out the window, waving his hand dismissively “Talk away Sergeant, if DI Ferrers carries on driving like a city boy, we won’t be getting there any time soon.” And smiling at Ferrers indignant reply, he settled back to listen.
Whatmough’s Ridge had originally been named Abbots Beere and the site of an Augustinian Abbey and the most famous Abbot, one Geoffrey de Bicton. Local family names such as Spratt and Abbot and indeed the presence of Augustine, Augustina and Augustin were still popular Christian names in families who clearly had once been connected to the Abbey, even if the detail of that connection had been lost in the mists of memory and the passing of time. Devonians were renowned for re-creating their names so that genealogists would tear their hair out trying to re-connect a family line back to it’s tin mining or agricultural roots, be they Norse, Neolithic, Roman, Saxon, Celt or Damnonian (the Devon Tribe of Britons).
The woods, which were managed by the Abbey didn’t encroach the Abbey or the ridge like it did now. Come the Reformation, the Abbey had been dissolved and the monks scattered to Europe, Cornwall, Scotland and Wales; to sundry safe places and the Abbey buildings had been allowed to dissolve themselves naturally over time, notably providing a charming folly and picturesque back drop to a Georgian Gentlemen’s residence built by one Augustus Wykeham Delabeare whom had claimed to be a descendant of Geoffrey de Bicton. Delabeare had taken some of the choicest stone to build his house but had not plundered the Abbey ruins otherwise.
Although there are sketches and mentions in surviving books, of the Abbey as a Georgian Folly, there are no records of anything pagan or mystical about the Ridge other than as a pleasant spot for a Delabeare family picnic. At some point in the late Eighteen hundreds one Colonel Stephen Augustus Delabeare back from the wars and looking for distraction decided to turn the family fortunes to farming and borrowed more stone from the ruins to create barns and walls. Abbots Beer, now known as Augustins Folly continued to quietly merge in to the rolling Devon landscape as nature took back what man had stolen from it, a silent presence on the softening horizon as saplings took root and soared upward toward the heavens.
Then came the Second World War. Devon suffered, with it’s naval ports and factories producing textiles and munitions, its farms and fishermen struggling to balance their needs against those of the Nation. The Germans frequently flew in, over South Devon targeting Plymouth and the fishing ports where Naval activity was likely. One dark night in 1941, two German Junkers planes limping back to Europe and attempting to preserve fuel and gain height over the sea, unloaded their unspent bombs on both a church where villagers sheltered during the air raid and Augustins Folly. Scoring two direct hits with different consequences but changing the landscape of both places forever.
By Christmas 1941 Augustins Folly was an ugly, raw, fifteen metre crater of blasted stone and brick and the official burial place of three local boys; Richard Ellacombe aged 16, his cousin Fred Noyes aged 14 and one Roger Wykeham Delabear aged 16, who had all been out ‘rabbiting’ when the air raid siren sounded at midnight over at Yawlcombe, whining on that clear night over the rolling landscape warning the coastal villages and farmsteads along the Kings water and the Yawlcombe estuary that danger approached. The boys had taken shelter in the Folly rather than cross the open ground down to the safety of the house.
Some attempt was made to move the rubble and discover the bodies for a good Christian burial but only parts of the boys human remains were found and it became too much for the families to bear. A special service was held at the crater, a secret affair despite the long procession of local people who tramped up the ridge from Kings Ridge, Sampford and Augustineswell, or were ferried in boats over from Yawlcombe, so as to avoid the emotive prying of the press. Augustins Folly was fenced off and finally left in peace. A bitter ending to it’s domineering presence in the local psyche.
The Delabeares abandoned Wykeham House and Farm and it was left empty until Nineteen Sixty One when an incomer farmer George Whatmough bought the land and began producing beet and grazing sheep along the ridge. He was rigorously discouraging of trespassers, offended many of the locals and his farming neighbours the Spratts by zealously fencing off his part of the woods so as to breed pheasants and fencing off his boundaries — just to be contrary, many said.
George Whatmough was a successful farmer but not a healthy man, he died in sixty nine following a heart attack whilst tending to his sheep on the ridge. His son James took over, a shy young man, and friendless largely due to his father’s unpopularity but he re-opened old paths down past the farm to Augustinswell and Sampford and was better accepted by the local community than his father had been. So much so, that in the seventies James and his new wife Annie diversified into holding a small annual music festival, a folky affair which brought a welcome new trade of wealthy families to the area, keen to be part of the next ‘in-thing’ .
It is then, in the Seventies, as far as any one can tell that rumours of the Folly as a site of pagan interest began to circulate. A hole was cut in the Folly’s fence and the Folly ‘desecrated’ by young folk drinking and drug-taking’ according to locals, or just general high spiritedness according to the Police, who found it tiresome to have to take the long walk up to the ridge to poke through beer bottles and condoms looking for evidence of Satanistic rituals and crime. It is assumed that the festival-goers of the Seventies were responsible for re-naming Augustins Folly — Whatmough’s Ridge. Later James Whatmough was advised to reinforce the fencing, the National Trust introduced a boundary fence to their part of the woods and a fait-accompli was reached.
Annie Whatmough died in 1995 after a very short battle with cancer and James Whatmough retreated from the world, reduced his staff, let his crops lie fallow gradually selling off land to wealthy incomers looking to build expensive gated weekend-homes by self-proclaimed ‘internationally prized contemporary architects’.