No Mod Cons

By Clarke, Jeremy | The Spectator, March 29, 2003 | Go to article overview

No Mod Cons


Clarke, Jeremy, The Spectator


Anybody with that ineffable longing to up sticks and go and live in the past might consider Lake Farm, Poundsgate, on Dartmoor, a 14th-century granite and thatch long-house with outbuildings and 21 acres of pasture, meadow, wood and rough grazing.

A long-house is a typical mediaeval upland dwelling, designed to accommodate both humans and cattle. Cattle and their manure were an early form of central heating, and in freezing conditions the cattle could be sheltered and tended without anyone having to venture outside. Long-houses are not uncommon on Dartmoor, but Lake Farm is unusual because the farmhouse is unchanged since it was last modernised in 1661. In that year, an upwardly mobile farmer called Thomas Hamlyn put up a partition between his family and his cows, and added a dairy, a wool room and a porch, the last inscribed with his initials and the year.

The Hamlyn family occupied Lake Farm continuously from 1545 until 1958, when the last surviving Hamlyn, also called Thomas, died, and his line, traceable to a Hamelin who came over with William the Conqueror, was extinguished. In the intervening years between the two Thomas Hamlyns, the only innovation at Lake Farm was the introduction to the house of piped water.

In 1958 Lake Farm passed to the Wilkinsons. The Wilkinsons must also have relished the mediaeval ambience, because, apart from installing a bath and flush lavatory and blocking in a doorway, they made no alterations to the house or outbuildings either. The last occupant was Mrs Dorothy Wilkinson, who, in spite of being well into her nineties and having no toes, gamely hobbled to the village post office and back daily. Her sole companion at Lake was a donkey in his mid-thirties called Dominic.

Right up to the present day there has never been an automobile kept at Lake Farm, or even a tractor. (Thomas Hamlyn used a team of oxen for heavy work.) The farmyard is approached through a nameless dilapidated wooden gate and along a stony track, which could not be described with any accuracy as a driveway. The day I went to see the property, other viewers who arrived in expensive off-road vehicles thought the gateway and track not worth the risk. They left their vehicles beside the road and walked up to the house. I, however, came in the best off-road vehicle there is - the hire car - and drove up.

I was late for the appointment and slightly anxious. I got out of the car and slammed the door. I walked into the ancient sun-- warmed farmyard, and the timelessness of the place hit me like a punch on the nose. The massive, possibly cruise-missile-proof walls of the house and outbuildings are constructed of granite blocks and boulders. The roof of the house is thatch. The yard is cobbled. The view, through a tangle of shrubs sprouting exuberantly from the 700-year-- old dung pit, is splendid. Neatly framed between high granite-strewn moorland slopes, green well-watered meadows and tawny woods fall gently away southwards as far as the eye can see. I listened for a moment and all I could hear was the whisk per of a breeze and the trickle of a stream. It was as if I'd gone through an invisible portal and found myself in one of the pleasanter passages of a Thomas Hardy novel. There were three other viewers, all tall men, waiting in the sunny farmyard. I was greeted by Mrs Freda Wilkinson, a small lady, and her two dogs, one a humorous old Staffordshire bull terrier, the other a lean, long-legged, piebald, dancing Jack Russell. …

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