On Dartmoor there is a crooked stone cross beside the road between Moretonhampstead and Postbridge. Folklore has it that the cross was erected as a boundary marker by a tin miner named William Bennett in the 16th century. Looking out across the moor, the cross at your back, the rocky outcrop of Birch Tor rises up on your left, and the lumps and bumps of the old Vitifier Tin Mine slope down to your right. The tin mine is long overgrown but its labyrinthine trenches make a brilliant playground. The Redwater Brook flows along the bottom of the valley, bubbling through an open area dotted with the granite ruins of mine buildings. It’s a good place for a picnic and a paddle. Sitting in the sunshine, munching on your sandwich, it’s hard to believe this was the centre of the most extensive surface mining on Dartmoor, operating from Medieval times right through to 1925. The conditions at Vitifier Mine were supposed to have been awful. The air quality in the mines themselves is reputed to have killed many miners, and the accommodation was so bad miners had to take turns using the same beds. Apparently many of the miners were on the run for petty crimes, making them and their families essentially refugees to be used as the mine owners wished.
We visited the mines this weekend. I disturbed a common lizard who shimmered away, a golden streak rippling over the heather. Dragonflies hovered by the stream. We chased minnows with Wren’s new fishing net. In the boggy places tiny blue and yellow wildflowers winked like stars. The steep sides of the spoil heaps were soft with bracken and grasses. It’s a salutary reminder of the Persian adage, “This too will pass.” So I’m back and feeling a bit better. The world might not be any less bonkers than it was two weeks ago but as I scrambled over the tor in the sunshine with my lovely little family, and ate juicy red tomatoes by the stream, I decided it can’t be all bad. And I’m not a 16thcentury tinner so…small mercies!