Robin Mills went to Winsham, Somerset, to meet writer James Crowden. This is his story.
“I was born in January 1954 in Stoke Damerel, a roughish bit of Plymouth overlooking Devonport Dockyard. Father was in the Navy and ended up as chief engineer of Ark Royal. So I was brought up in Tavistock and discovered that both places were deeply associated with my ancestors 200 years ago. One, an Irish gunner in the Napoleonic Wars, called Dennis Crowden, a bit of a rebel, got flogged off Madras for drunkenness and insolence to his officer. He stayed in the navy 20 years and served on HMS Triton with Jane Austen’s brother. Triton helped capture two Spanish frigates off Finisterre carrying gold and silver from South America. Dennis’s cut of the prize money was £182 4s 9d, not bad for a gunner. The captains got £40,000 each, equivalent to £4m these days! When they took the bullion from Plymouth Dock to the Citadel, it needed 63 artillery wagons and a regiment to guard it.
The other interesting ancestor was Zacharias Pascoe, my great, great, great, great grandfather, a Cornish tin miner from Helston and Wendron who spent over 50 years on Dartmoor. He led the tin miners’ riot in Chagford in 1793, lived to a ripe old age and died in Tavistock poorhouse aged 96. His cottage near Princetown is gone, but Pascoe’s well can still be seen. Dennis Crowden married Jane Pascoe—Zacharias’s daughter. So I am Irish and Cornish mixed. My middle name is Pascoe…
So the western edge of Dartmoor had strong connections with my family. These days I live just into Somerset but I also have links with Dorset. Dennis’s son, James Crowden, was a coastguard in Lulworth in the 1840s when there were fierce battles with smugglers. I got to know Jim Miller, a legend in Lulworth. His family had been fishermen and smugglers, but roles were now reversed—Jim lived in the coastguard cottages. James went to Scotland where he won an Albert Medal for saving life at sea. His eldest son, born in Lulworth, became a doctor; his son, my grandfather, became a professor of applied physiology.
My mother’s father was also naval; he was on convoys in both wars including OB 318 where the U-boat was brought to surface and the enigma machine captured. My grandmother’s cousin was Winston Graham, the author of Poldark. More smuggling and tin mining.
So although my ancestors were naval, I decided to join the Army. ‘If it moves you salute it, if it doesn’t move you paint it, and if you can’t move it you blow it up.’ They posted me to Cyprus so I spent a lot of time in the Middle East. I was there in ‘72/’73, just before the invasion of Cyprus. I was very junior and thus expendable, so they sent me to Turkey to find out where the invasion was coming from. I got held up by Kurdish-Iranian communist bandits on Mount Ararat, and then travelled through Iran. Another time I was in Afghanistan, and did a ‘Long Walk in the Hindu Kush,’ where I was held hostage for two days. So that was interesting. In 1976 I left the army because I was increasingly interested in mountains. In fact I probably wouldn’t be alive now if I’d stayed in the army much longer. I spent a year in Ladakh, was snowed into the Zangskar valley for 6 months, often at -30C. I lived with Tibetan Buddhists, researched agriculture and monasteries. I travelled down frozen rivers for weeks on end and climbed a new Himalayan peak. As I had a degree in Civil engineering, I charted the long term effects of the road being built into the valley. I later studied anthropology at Oxford Pitt-Rivers Museum.
I saw wolves, tracks of snow leopards and watched Tibetan nomads hand sheep shearing, a skill I later took with me to the Outer Hebrides. With shearing it is important to hold the sheep—if you let go, it’s 10 miles to retrieve it. Crofting was living right on the edge, peat cutting, salmon fishing, whisky, lobsters and deer stalking, all those sort of things.
I then worked as a boatman in Bristol docks for a couple of summers. In 1980 I came down to North Dorset near Shaftesbury. My father kept sheep so I knew about them. For 20 years I worked as a shepherd, sheep shearer and woodman, all the basic things—I was slowly going native, but it was exactly what I wanted to do. I ended up lambing for the conductor John Eliot Gardiner.
Sheep shearing I did with my brother, mostly flocks up to 250 with one of over 1000 in Durweston. Forestry: I worked in beech woods, thinning, felling and logging. It was a wonderful way to keep fit and to get to know the area. I was also very aware of the stories people were telling me about farming before the Second World War, i.e. pre-tractor. They had a deep respect for the land, a way of thinking which was not about maximising everything. The life of the casual agricultural labourer was hard but very enjoyable. Many workers were highly skilled and traditionally chose that way of life because it offered greater freedom.
At one time I was winter shearing down at Julian Temperley’s cider farm in Somerset and having finished early one day I spotted this house, for sale in an estate agent’s in Crewkerne. From the photograph I could tell it was twice the length of house for the same price as one in Shaftesbury, so we put in a Dutch auction bid, and got it. That was 28 years ago, and I just continued the same way of life. Shearing was superb when the sheep were in good condition, just a pleasure to do. Some farmers were helpful, others less so; “There’s the sheep, there’s the cider…’bye”. Then lambing, usually 2 big night lambings, three weeks each, 12 hours on 12 hours off. Either down here or up in Wiltshire. At night you’re your own boss with maybe 1000 sheep to look after, and to be out at those times of night is superb, unreal. Cider making, that was also very important, I’d do about 2 months a year in the autumn. When I was still living near Shaftesbury I went to Julian Temperley’s farm at Kingsbury Episcopi to buy cider for haymaking, and was asked to shear his sheep; that led to helping with the cider-making. These days I judge cider at the Melplash Show, Bath & West and in Hereford. It’s hugely rewarding to see the resurgence of good local farmhouse cider and the planting of new orchards.
So the writing evolved from farm work. Through the sheep I met an old shepherdess at Fontmell Magna, Ann Hodgson. She introduced me to some key people like Cecil Coombs the hurdle maker, and another shearer got me in to working on the Pitt-Rivers estate. I was very conscious of the way these people survived by working on the land, and I wanted to record it. Because some of them were quite private people, I realised that poetry was a way of recording their lives, their thoughts and attitudes. That was how the first book, Blood Earth and Medicine came about. Since then I’ve done a lot of oral history, both about men and women working on the land, e.g. in Dorset Man, Dorset Women. Dorset Coast. I have also written extensively about cider and Ciderland won the Andre Simon prize. I have given talks at the Royal Geographical Society, the Alpine Club, Royal Society plus Oxford & Cambridge.
On a different tack I’ve written about a 2nd World War poet, a schoolmaster from Millfield in Somerset called John Jarmain. He was at El Alamein, and then was killed in Normandy. I have written about the Boer War and am now tackling a new book, 1914—Chandeliers to Annie Laurie. I realised that many wartime stories have been lost so I try to rescue a few of them. I wasn’t really intending to do the First War at all, but reading some of the diaries you realise that this too is remarkable oral history; some are so articulate.
I have also done radio work for the BBC. One programme about sheep counting systems was chosen to represent Radio 3 at two international prizes. I like combining poetry and drama, seeing how far you can take the listener with layers of sounds. I have made programmes on floods, Somerset Levels, tin mining, eels, elver migration and Three Hares. Maybe one day I shall write up my own travels and family history.