The Tamar Valley: London’s sylvan links with Buckland Abbey

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Buckland Abbey, Tamar Valley, Devon, November 2019

At last the rain has stopped. Buckland Abbey, once home to Sir Frances Drake (1540-1596), climbs out of its nook in the hillside, reflecting the stony skies above. Drake is known for ‘his’ ships which battled the Spanish Armada in the 1500s, for circumnavigating the earth and for his role in the slaughter of civilians on Rathlin Island in 1575.

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I first heard about him from spending time in south-east London’s remnant ancient woodland known as Great North Wood. It is said that some oaks grown in the Great North Wood were taken to the docks at Deptford and used in the building of some of Drake’s ships. It has never been verified. One thing that was verified at Deptford was Drake’s knighthood in 1851, on the ship named the Golden Hind, something I only learned at Buckland Abbey.

The fields around the Abbey are pocked by small cream sheep that run like chickens as we pass them on the track. In the distance the dammed River Tavy reflects the sky again, the dark woods flowing across the slopes to where the river enters the Tamar. Looking at the Ordnance Survey map, something stands out. To the north-west is a large woodland named The Great North Wood.

BucklandAbbey_OS
Ordnance Survey © Crown Copyright 2019 and/or database right 2016. Licence number 100043379

Could this be simply because it’s so large, or because of Drake’s links to that area of south London? The name is said only to have been popularised in the Victorian period and could have been given to differentiate the once vast area of woodland to that of the Weald that covered most of south-east England in the Anglo-Saxon period. Perhaps this local wood was also named by residents of the Abbey in the 1800s.

Redwings are established now, flocking in the fields. I hear my first fieldfare chuck-chuck-chucking over the Abbey. Down in the woods beech trees burn even without the aid of sunlight. They brighten the most glowering corners. Hazels are yellowing and even the odd wych elm with its almost bulb-bright leaves. It’s here saying, ‘don’t forget about me.’ Many elms have gone, but wych elm survives.

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The rain threatens specks again as the light, if you can call it that, dwindles further. In a combe of a field a grey heron flaps its wings, either a slice of Buckland Abbey’s grey exterior breaking free, or a slither of sky lending itself south, to the glassy Tavy for the night.