In exactly two weeks I’ll be back in England. After landing at Heathrow and picking up our rental car, my husband and I will be heading to Devon and our self-catering cottage, Moorland View, in Dartmoor National Park.
Our purpose in going (other than the pure joy of spending time in England) will be targeted research for Book 5 in the Kate Hamilton Mystery series, now tentatively entitled A Collection of Lies. The story is set in and around the fictional village of Combe Mallett on the eastern edge of Dartmoor, just south of the River Dart.
We were there last in October of 2021, scouting out locations and gathering plot ideas. As we did then, we’ll drive through old oak forests and low-lying peat bogs to the windswept moors, punctuated by weathered granite cairns; spiky, evergreen gorse; and lush, fern-like bracken in its late-winter colors of amber and treacle. We’ll see scattered sheep grazing near the craggy outcroppings and a few sturdy Dartmoor ponies with their long-flowing manes and tails.
Not only is Dartmoor the setting for the infamous Dartmoor prison and Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles, it is also a unique and irreplaceable ecosystem. The bleak, nearly treeless moor was once a vast forest, first cleared by humans in the Bronze Age. Many of the old stone fences date from early medieval times. Abundant rainfall permeates the layer of peat that spreads and deepens with the decomposition of the vegetation, resulting in bogs and mires. Blanket bogs are found on the high moor, where the moss-covered peat forms what some describe as a giant sponge, absorbing and capturing the rainfall. Basin mires form in the valley bottoms. They’re called ‘featherbeds’ or “quakers’ because when you walk over them, they feel like a huge, wobbling jelly. Oldtimers advise hikers unfamiliar with the moor to follow the sheep paths—until they come to a carcass.
This time, with the manuscript more than half done, I’ll be checking out specific locations—Dartmeet, the meeting point of the two major tributaries of the River Dart, about five miles east of Two Bridges; the high moorland to the north, land owned by private individuals; and, just to the east, the city of Exeter. Now that my plot is fleshed out, I need to see things for myself.
There really is nothing like being there.