On the 21st of March 2015 I opened my email inbox to find amongst the usual spam the following message:
I’m a big fan of your Legendary Dartmoor site, and was fascinated to read about your discovery of the Skunk Farm! Could we possibly have a chat about it, as I thought it could make a fun piece for the BBC, who would have thought that skunks were bred on Dartmoor in the 1920s! If you could give me a ring on my mobile number below that would be great. Or else I’ll happily call you if you email me back with your number.”
This referred to a recent webpage that I had posted on Legendary Dartmoor concerning the one-time and long forgotten skunk farm that existed on Dartmoor. Although I would not have considered this topic as a “fun piece” but more of a serious part of Dartmoor’s history I contacted Sophie to see what she was looking for. After several phone conversations it was arranged that on the 1st of April of all days we would all meet at Teigncombe along with a film crew around 11.00am. The intent was to film a short piece on the old skunk farm and as it was April the First put it on air later that evening? I suppose in all reality if someone had said to me previously that skunks were farmed on Dartmoor I would have taken that as an April Fools Day joke. The other point I should make perfectly clear from the start is to exactly which ‘Skunk Farm’ I am referring to. The reason being that recently a local farmer and I may add, an ‘unelected’ member of the Dartmoor National Park Authority, was charged with growing cannabis (aka skunk) on his farm.
As this date coincided with the Easter holidays I did not relish the thought of navigating through the Chagford traffic congestion at that time of day. So the simple solution was to leave very early and take a stroll around Kestor whilst waiting for the appointed time.
I must admit that whilst driving down to Dartmoor there was just an inkling of an idea that maybe, as it was April Fool’s Day, that this could well be a joke being played on me? Imagine a stranger rocking up to someone’s home and asking if this was the old skunk farm – ha, ha, April Fool, more on this theory later.
As planned I arrived at Batworthy and headed up to Kestor, “headed up,” is probably the wrong word, more like got blown sideways up the hill, so strong was the wind. The whole area around the tor had recently been swaled which gave the blackened effect of having had a miniature bush fire blaze through it. From the tor it was a quick tramp across to the Longstone and on the way I met a small herd of ponies trying to shelter behind a very poor specimen of a gorse bush, all with their backsides facing the oncoming gale as is their want. As time was fast approaching the rendezvous at the skunk farm I cut across to Batworthy Corner in order to pay my respects to the ‘Troll’s Table’. For those who don’t know what this is then simply put it’s a fairly large, flat, table-like slab of granite resting on some small rocks at ground level. Don’t ask me who or when it was so named but it’s not hard to imagine a tribe of trolls sat feasting around it. In all reality the slab of granite acts as a marker on the bounds of Gidleigh more commonly known as ‘Cowbridge’.
OK, it was time for my five minutes of fame and so I trundled down to Teigncombe, now I had driven past Teigncombe many times before but never gave it a thought but maybe I should have. All I had arranged was to meet at Teigncombe, what I never realised was that there is Teigncombe Farm, Teigncombe Manor, Teigncombe Barn and Teigncombe Cleave. Starting at Teigncombe Manor I strolled down the drive and met up with a lady who to say she was very suspicious would be an understatement and who asked if she could help. Hopefully she could and I explained that I was looking for the old skunk farm. Having heard this she became even more suspicious and explained that she was the housekeeper and the owners were away and this certainly was not a skunk farm – OK, I’ll get me coat then. Next stop, Teigncombe Barn which was all locked up so this was not that place. I then drove up to Teigncombe Cleave where another splendid property was located. Again, I was met by a couple who came up and asked if they could help? “Is this the skunk farm where the BBC are filming I enquired?”. Once more looks of alarm and suspicion, apparently no it was not but they had not long moved there so it could have been. I was then redirected back to Teigncombe Farm where I was informed the famous Jennifer Saunders and Adrian Edmondson live. Ooops, no wonder the poor housekeeper was so wary. Now do you see why it was quite plausible to think the whole skunk farm thing was an elaborate April Fools? I am sure that the folks I met either thought this or maybe considered I was casing the joints prior to a burglary.
Back down the lane to Teigncombe Farm where I saw a farmer beside the road and this time Bingo, right place, right time and not an April Fools joke. Patrick Stanbury’s family had farmed Teigncombe for four generations and encouragingly he had heard tell of a one-time fur farm, he also told me that the folks from the BBC were going to be late. So we passed the time talking about his farm, Dartmoor and the agricultural industry in general.
Eventually the Broadcaster Sophie Pierce (who originally contacted me) and a cameraman rolled into the farmyard and the film plot was explained. Quite simply both Patrick and I would be asked various questions about the skunk farm. The majority of which would be filmed at the location of the old pens, some of which were still present. A quick introduction by Sophie at outside the farmhouse was filmed and then we all moved up the lane to the skunk fields.
Bearing in mind that the original name of the skunk farm was the ‘Wild Pines Fur Ranch’ it was most encouraging to see plenty of pine and larch trees encompassing the enclosure. The rusting remnants of some pens more than likely were home to the Silver Foxes that were also once bred on the farm soon became evident. Sadly all evidence of the skunks was long gone although embedded in the roots of a youngish tree that had blown down was a rusting ‘U’ shaped piece of metal which may once have been some tool used at the time. Both Patrick and myself were then interviewed on film and various miscellaneous footage was taken in and around the enclosure. Similar interviews were recorded which were intended for broadcast on the local BBC radio. The production then moved a short distance back down to where two renovated buildings stood, there was a good chance that these stood on the sight of the original storehouses shown in the Pathe News clip of 1931. Another short piece of footage was shot here and as they say – ‘It was a wrap‘ which I think we were all glad about as having spent two hours being blasted by the moorland wind it meant we could retire to more warmer climbs.
The piece was then taken away for editing and appeared on the local BBC Spotlight news that very evening along with the radio broadcast. It was really amusing to hear the Spotlight presenters reassuring people that in fact this was not a belated April Fools joke but a serious piece of historical fact. All in all a very interesting and enjoyable day which ended up with the ‘Five minutes of fame’ which hopefully provided an interesting insight into Dartmoor’s past.
Finally I would like to extend a big thank-you to Patrick and his family for sparing the time for this filming opportunity and for the very welcomed cup of coffee and chocolate brownie afterwards. I am also very grateful to Sophie for pulling this all together and the BBC for giving it air-time. It is rewarding to see how far a random piece of research can lead and additionally how it comes to life in another media format.