Silhouettes were replacing Dartmoor’s details; its heather, ferns and grasslands were fading from view, the last rays of an orange sun departing a late-summer sky stippled with clouds. I watched, remembered to take a photograph, and soaked up one of those moments of stillness that make walking such an uplifting experience.
It’s easy to see why this area inspires artists, how it consciously and unconsciously becomes part of what they create. Getting to see that inspiration at work, by calling in on a selection of Devon’s many artists, was how I wound up on the moor, part of a tour of west Devon that placed art, nature, food and characterful villages all on the same palette.
I owed the view to Dartmoor but the walk around the valley of Tavy Cleave, near Lydford on the moor’s western fringe, was down to Guy Barnes – owner of Lee Byre near Okehampton, my guesthouse for two nights. Guy has a deep affection for this area, and an added benefit of staying here is the guided moor walks he offers (from £30pp including transport and packed lunch). As we walked, Guy pointed out the church of St Michael de Rupe atop Brent Tor, shared ghost stories of nearby Wistman’s Wood and talked about how the moor’s history can be seen, layer-like, when you know where to look.
I left Guy so he could return to his parents and young family who share the beautifully converted former dairy and stables that are now a three-bedroom B&B with views of rolling hills. Over a (pricey but artfully done) dinner of chicken caesar salad (£14.95) and roasted carrots, smoked bacon and broad beans (£6.95) at the Dartmoor Inn, I double checked my Devon Open Studios brochure for details of the artists I’d visit over the next few days. There are many villages in this county where the satnav is not king, so the guide’s fine-tuned directions are essential. Back at Lee Byre, I prepared for the upcoming artistic indulgence with a final look at a night sky now filled with stars and then a restful night in the cool, calming Tavy room, where the mattress was good-squishy and the silence enveloping.
Since 1999, the Devon Open Studios project (run by Devon Artist Network) has seen artists across the county open their workspaces to locals, tourists, art scouts and buyers. The artists pay £150 to take part, and keep 100% of their sales; visitors get the chance to see ceramics, glassware, jewellery, photography, painting, textiles and sculpture being made and explained. Many of the artists also run courses, so if the creative bug bites there’s a way to learn more. This year’s event runs from 9-24 September, with 250 artists taking part at 160 venues. Devon is a big county, so it’s wise to focus a break on a specific area (or artists), otherwise your head may feel as squeezed as your car does on the countless narrow lanes.
I was almost face to face with David Bowie at Andrew Sinclair and Diane Coates’ The Sculpture School in North Tawton. The work in progress, of Bowie circa 2002 looking at himself as Ziggy Stardust, will be unveiled next year in Aylesbury, where the musician first performed as Ziggy in 1971. It was just one impressive aspect of a studio where figurative work takes precedence over conceptual art. I eavesdropped as Andrew lectured students before Diane led me around a site they hope will one day also feature a sculpture park.
Not all artists have such sizable spaces, but a refreshing aspect of my trip was dropping in on some of the smaller studios: Siobhán Williams (felt sculpture) at her bijou Hof Gallery and holiday cottage in Northlew; and Alison West (ceramics) and Gillian Frost (textiles) who are exhibiting together at Gillian’s beautiful house near Chagford. From Gillian’s, trundled in my car down to Chagford, a village packed with cafes, a church, quaint houses and a pub everyone I met had recommended – The Chagford Inn. My tendency to over-natter meant I’d missed lunch at the pub, but I made up for that with a ham baguette and moreish chocolate cookies from Blacks Delicatessen.
Chagford also has a four artists in one treat of a venue known as Studio on the Square. Here, I found illustrator and painter Danielle Barlow and jeweller Miriam Boy hard at work. Danielle and Miriam share their charming workspace with Virginia Lee (sculpture, prints) and Jenny Hutchison (textiles) and over coffee and cookies chatted about Danielle’s new crowdfunded book The Green Wheel Oracle and the jewellery classes Miriam offers.
Some of the Open Studios’ artists are new to the project, while others, such as potter David Gundry, have been involved from the beginning. His fine barn studio/shop in Belstone has a huge wood-fired kiln in a separate building: he welcomes the annual event, and understands all its opportunities. Over in Brentor, it’s a different story for printmaker Jo Larsen Burnett. This will be her first year and she was unsure what to expect. Her studio was completed just eight days before my visit, so visitors will not only discover a treasure trove of prints and illustrations full of wit and invention but an artist welcoming guests into a new space.
As I left Brentor, Jo suggested I stop at a lay-by a couple of miles south on Station Road. I followed her instructions, pulled over and breathed in the fresh air while gazing once again at St Michael de Rupe church as blue sky battled the white clouds scudding above it. My trip was over but the inspiration behind it was now deeply ingrained.