Joan Wilder: Journalist, Writer, Editor

Fit for a King: Wild, beautiful scenery is part of Bovey Castle's charm

Original Patriot Ledger spread for Bovey Castle article

Charming Bovey Castle in Devon, England

I proceed up the hill and across the lawn of Bovey Castle in Devon, England with a falcon perched on my arm. The hunting bird has just caught a rabbit – sky diving in for the kill faster than I can even see. After fetching the (poor little) bunny, Martin Whitley, my falconry teacher, has instructed me to carry the bird back up to the patio where we began our lesson.

The proud hunter, a Harris hawk called Gawain, has landed on my arm several times already this morning. To get him to come, Martin simply calls the bird then has me extend my arm out quickly. As his talons thwack down with a slap this last time, I take hold of a short leather strip attached to his foot to keep him from flying away. He pumps his great wings once and when he can’t take off he tilts his head and looks at me, but I will not meet his piercing gaze. Martin has taught me not to make eye contact with a bird of prey since they take it as a challenge – adding that his birds are such sweethearts that I don’t have to worry.

Still, something has made me want to do it right. Maybe seeing falcons fly from spire to turret outside this castle-turned- hotel at the edge of one of England’s largest moors has enchanted me. As I carry Gawain up the moss-covered stone steps I imagine that he is mine. For a moment, I sense someone else looking out of my eyes, walking in my shoes: a priestess from Stonehenge, perhaps, or a lady from King Arthur’s court returning from the hunt with her bird. He would be a kind of protector bird – a spirit guide – who had chosen me as his mistress. England’s West Country, which includes Devon (about 150 miles west of London) and the surrounding counties of Cornwall, Somerset and Wiltshire (where Stonehenge is) is the area most associated with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, so I know I am not far off in my daydream. As Martin and I make our way across the great lawn, the two other Harris hawks that regularly hunt with Gawain – Galahad and Morwenna – fly from tree to tree or alight on statues, benches or nearby steps, keeping pace with us.

I have adored England since living in London for a year in 1979 and that affection has grown on several visits. But, while I’m quite familiar with the city, I haven’t spent much time outside it, and never in Devon, although an old acquaintance raised in Cornwall, the next county over, used to intrigue me with stories about growing up on the sea. So, when a friend invited me to get away for four days to a castle (newly renovated by the man who used to own Skibo Castle in Scotland where Madonna got married) – I couldn’t say no. English affection

Every time I go to England I get surprised, all over again, by the affection I feel for the people. It happens the minute they open their mouths. I guess I forget they’re European because they speak English (sort of). And, although I know it can be misleading to generalize about nationalities, on this trip, I’m beginning to think that it isn’t just me, but that maybe Americans and Brits have something special. Being able to speak each other’s language throws the two groups into easy conversation when they meet – unlike most pairs of foreigners – and hearing how differently they use the same words generates interest, curiosity, surprise, amusement, and sometimes, affection: We get a kick out of each other. Then, too, perhaps there’s some cellular memory of the United States being founded by a bunch of Brits and a feeling that we’re a bit like family – with all the good and bad that conveys.

In any case, I’m certainly happy to meet a falconer. Steady, if part-time, falconry work is rare so the transformation of Bovey Castle into a luxury resort that opened in April is a good thing for Martin. Every morning, before he gives falconry demonstrations, he wanders the first floor of the castle in his leather knickers, vest, hat, and hunting bag with one of his falcons. Often, it’s his most gorgeous bird, Merlin, a European eagle owl with a wingspan of nearly 6 feet and the yellow eyes and beauty of a tiger.

“He’s so dim. Really dim. He isn’t much good for anything more than looking at,” says Martin. “‘E’s quite happy to sit around all day and do nothing.”

Martin lives where he grew up – in the village of Widecomb-in-the- Moor. The county of Devon lies between the English and Bristol channels on a small peninsular arm of land in the south-western- most part of England. The county’s countryside is diverse, with rocky coves and steep lanes in the north and England’s only palm trees on the southern, English Channel coast, a unique microclimate produced by proximity to the Gulf Stream. Inland Devon is dominated by the enormous, 235,520-acre Dartmoor National Park, which is known for its granite peaks and moors. Bovey Castle is located inside the park, about 25 miles from the English Channel.

The grounds of the castle itself are so cultivated and vast (in spring there are flowering plants and trees everywhere) that only by looking through my camera’s big zoom lens can I see actual moors at the far edge of the River Bovey valley. Mysterious moors

A 10-minute ride, however, and the tall trees and lush green countryside suddenly disappear and the road becomes a plain ribbon wending through low hills in all directions. As far as I can see the earth is covered in a sameness of bumpy, coarse, grayish mounds of foot-tall shrubs and hay-like grasses. Locals warn hikers against getting lost in these moors, and of their dangers: swamps that suck you in, blinding fogs descending quickly, and thousands of tors (rocky outcrops) that trick lost travelers into going the wrong way. This is truly Sherlock Holmes country and, in fact, the opening scenes of the 1939 Basil Rathbone movie, “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” were filmed in the park.

In the morning, despite a castle-induced desire to sit around and do nothing (our waitress, Lynn Whitley, who lives across the moor in a village called Bovey Tracey, is earnest in her belief that it’s the country air that makes us so tired) my friends and I take a drive into Exeter, about 25 minutes by car. A city guide, Sandra Mutton, begins our tour at Exeter Cathedral, one of England’s most magnificent. She is brightly enthusiastic and has great stories going back to the city’s founding in 200 AD and others on the cathedral’s history, including one about the origin of the nursery rhyme “Hickory, dickory, dock, the mouse ran up the clock.”

Talk about attention to detail: evidently the cathedral is the only one in Europe to have a complete “fabric role,” or record of every cent spent during the 108 years (from 1272 to 1378) it took to construct. One item on the books was a cost of one cent, weekly, to feed the cat that ate the mice that had chewed the ropes in the works of the cathedral’s great clock. You can still see a 10-inch arched opening for a cat carved in the bottom of a door that leads into private quarters near the clock.

Sandra tells us that the church owns the square surrounding the cathedral, which used to cause a lot of “argie-bargies” between the town and church.

“Argie- bargies?” I say.

“Oh, you know: arguments,” says Sandra.

A block from the cathedral, on the “high street” (main street) of this very upscale little city a busker plays good jazz while hoards of people shop. It’s a drizzly day after a couple of sunny ones and we warm up inside the Guild Hall – in use for more than 800 years – where the city council meets and the Lord Mayor (sort of like the chairman of the council) holds office. Bill Olive, the current mace sergeant, whose job it is to guard the Lord Mayor, pours forth with a history of the building. An enormous glass case holds the city’s civic regalia including the sterling chains of office the Lord Mayor wears on official occasions and the sword that Bill carries. Another case holds dozens of objects, including cartoon-sized silver keys to the city that literally opened its gates when Exeter was a completely walled city.

“The east gate was just up the top of the high street, here, by Boots the chemist,” said Bill, pointing east.

An enormous display of fresh cut flowers in the Lord Mayor’s office prompts a discussion about the Guild Hall’s importance as a place for the Lord Mayor to receive the people.

“When you’d come visit the Lord Mayor, you’d be given some mead or a bit of bread,’ said Bill, referring to the old days.

On the way out, I notice a photo of Bill and Queen Elizabeth. When I ask, he tells me that it was taken when he was honored for his participation in the Gulf War and that he has met the Queen twice. Castle magic

Back at our castle, guests come together in the piano bar checking in with each other on the day’s activities. Although the great manor house (built in 1906 by the son of WH Smith, the bookseller) isn’t small, (it has 65 guest rooms) staying at it feels like staying at someone’s home – or club.

The guest rooms are on the second floor and six or seven elaborate common rooms on the ground level are there for wandering, game playing, or sitting around a fire with a good book and a cup of tea. The staff, especially the director, Henrietta Fergusson, mingles with guests throughout their visits, like the lady of the house. You bump into her coming and going throughout the day and hear what’s happening: who caught what when fishing, who’s teeing off, what the chef might serve for “bubbles and squeak” that night – all of which makes you feel a part of the place – and comfortable.

And, it isn’t just Henrietta you get to know. I became acquainted with several members of the staff: Wayland Hall, who lives among English palm trees in the seaside village of Torquay where the BBC’s “Fawlty Towers” was set; Richard Lewis, the golf pro who runs the castle’s 18-hole championship course and saw nothing funny about saying there were bass and the “odd salmon” in the River Bovey; Alberto Stocco, the castle’s self-proclaimed Italian Anglophile bar supervisor who saved me by knowing the title of an obscure French film I kept referring to but couldn’t name; and Freddy, a tall, blond 20-something in charge of archery, wine tasting and other activities and often walks his dog in a tweed suit, Wellington boots (Wellies) and a cap – looking every inch to-the-manor-born. And, our bright-eyed Lynn Whitley who went right along with it during tea one afternoon when my friend Owen and I decided to each have both a cup of tea and a cup of coffee at the very same time. “What’s bubbles and squeak?” I’d asked Henrietta earlier. Oh, it’s leftover pots (potatoes) and veggies from the night before, she’d said, struggling. Like your comfort food, I ‘spose, she’d said.

Our last night – our last meal in the hotel’s art deco restaurant. Lynn is serving. She’s worked at the manor for 14 years – through several different owners and incarnations – and meeting people is what she likes most about her job. She knows this is it, too – another little parting. She’s the queen of our hearts tonight – giving as good as she gets with the teases and jibes. She’s got a fair arsenal of tidbits about us to use, too – all having likely shared a few confidences with her at one point or another – the way you do with strangers. It has taken us at least 10 minutes to settle on what to have (you’d think we were deciding on a presidential running mate) when it finally comes to my friend Owen’s dessert choice – the last order. After much raucous discussion, Owen narrows it down to either the sticky toffee pudding or the chocolate souffle. It’s really the pudding he wants, he admits, but only with the whipped cream we’ve come to love – which isn’t on the menu tonight. After all, this is Devonshire cream we’re talking about, not clotted Devonshire cream in this case, but world-renown cream just the same. “Oh, they’ll make it for you. I’m sure they will,” I say. “Oh, yes, of course we’ll make it,” Lynn says. “Have the whipped cream. Go ahead and ‘ave it!! It’s what you want.” “OK. Sticky toffee pudding with whipped cream, please,” says Owen to a beaming Lynn, who nods happily, gathers the menus, and goes off to the kitchen to make some castle magic.

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