I was recently beside the ocean, clambering over rocks towards a sandy bay. While very evidently south coast New South Wales, it prompted a distinct evocation of south coast Devon. Perhaps it was the chill of the wind more than anything, working with the rockpools and smell of the sea to conjure up sensations attached to the past. I half expected to turn the corner to find a Mr Whippy van and a field of cars shimmering in a farmer’s field.
Memories are funny things, tending to manifest with specific – and often mundane – detail against a vague backdrop of time and place. Some of my earliest memories of adventuring into the great outdoors were in the backseat of Uncle Ian’s car, BJ’s head primed to thrust out of the window, tongue lolling as soon as the smell of Dartmoor wafted into his nostrils.
While the excitement of a dog comes uninhibited, within me there was an undeniable buzz of anticipation. These trips offered an escape from Plymouth and an early introduction to nature. Realisation of a wider world with seemingly infinite opportunities for discovery. I daresay they were good for my development too, from understanding the patterns of land and climate to counting the number of ponies nonchalantly hanging out in the middle of a road.
Within the confused and complicated process of childhood, these escapes were a treat. Being with Aunty Pat was always a treat, in part because as a kid you always knew you would be offered plenty of treats. It’s why I occasionally pretended to lose my bus fare so I could walk to hers from school for dinner. Sadly, our cherished Aunty Pat died in recent weeks, finally at peace with Uncle Ian again.
Being practically a zillion miles away with border restrictions more akin to 1950s Berlin, I know I will have to find my own way to reflect and celebrate. And I know it will have to involve a treat.
While Uncle Ian and Aunty Pat probably opened up my eyes to the outdoors and shaped much of a life that was to follow, I’m pretty sure they also influenced my love of cake. I cannot remember Aunty Pat without thinking about her layered chocolate sponge, coated in thick chocolate buttercream and decorated with what must have been ten bars of crumbled Cadburys Flake. She also did a fabulous coffee and walnut cake but, as a kid, it’s the chocolate you always go for.
So I decide to make a cake. I think she would approve of my form of commemoration and probably tell me to “put the kettle on and bring in a tub of clotted cream with the cake will you love”.
First, the ingredients. If justification were necessary for eating a cake, I decide to take an opportunistic bike ride on the way to the shops. Someone more spiritual and less cynical than me might have poetically equated the appearance of a rainbow as some kind of sign from above, rather than the sun refracting through water droplets in what has been a pretty damp winter. Still, this thought of people possibly thinking that way made me think of Aunty Pat nonetheless, bringing more memories to the fore. A process which totally distracted my mind from the wearying incline I pedalled up until it was well behind me. Still comforting.
The cakemaking made me appreciate what an absolute chore it all was! Baking the sponge proved straightforward enough, but the icing was another matter. First some butter and more butter, then icing and cocoa powder and so much whipping and stirring that I ended up cheating with an electric mixer. Then trying to smother the icing within and outside and finally encasing the cake in flake without getting chocolate in every nook and cranny of the kitchen. It is a labour of love which is probably why it came so naturally to Aunty Pat.
I was planning on saving the first cut for the next day at a suitable time and place, somewhat ceremoniously. But it was evening, the heating was on, the lighting cosy and there was a whole cake sitting behind a cupboard door taunting me, even though I wasn’t especially hungry. It was always behind that cupboard door. Why wait when it can make you happy now? I know she would approve of that.
In contrast, the next slice of cake spurred me towards the top of a mountain, delivered at an opportune time in the midst of a winter wonderland. A fillip ensuring I can continue to explore and discover afresh. A slice of chocolate heaven shared with a friend and – she would be aghast – coffee delivered lukewarm from a flask.
I can’t say the vistas up towards Camels Hump in Tidbinbilla especially resembled Dartmoor, though the experience of rugged wilderness and – atop the peaks – gale force winds certainly provided a similar sensation. It wasn’t the plan to go this far, to be this adventurous. Other than a mandarin, the cake was the only sustenance I had packed. Thank goodness for all those buttery calories, keeping me going again.
While I’m sure we would have clambered out onto a few tors in our time, most of my Dartmoor memories with Aunty Pat and Uncle Ian concentrate around the rivers. Twisting laneways of crystal water tumbling toward the sea. The dappled light of summer penetrating a world almost overburdened with green. BJ afraid to swim but brave enough to gather pebbles that looked far too heavy to carry in his mouth, as we sit and observe with ham sandwiches on hand.
And so, on a bleak, drizzly Monday I made my way to the Cotter River, thinking this would be the closest resemblance I might find locally. In the middle of winter, bare trees and leaf litter mingled with evergreens forming a scene that felt a touch more Scotland than Dartmoor. But that seems fitting too, for they loved those Scottish holidays in the caravan with Dolly and Ed. That caravan my sister and I spent a night in near Chudleigh, entranced by the magical folding of tables and chairs into a bed.
With the nearby dam overflowing, the water was high and running at speed. It was this sound that mostly evoked the past. The sound and, of course, the taste. Another slice of cake with a decent cup of tea, served on proper crockery rather than plastic paraphernalia. Each mouthful taken with recollection of the warmth and caring and generosity and love of our Aunty Pat.
In a fleeting moment I mulled over the prospect of sending a few crumbs down the river, but I know she would look at me bemused at the thought of wasting good cake. Still, I had a dirty plate and nothing to clean it with other than river, so a few microscopic elements have washed their way out into the ocean off South Australia. A long, long way from home in a journey that probably commenced on those first forays out onto the moors.
We have just come back from the moors and settled down on the new sofa in Ernesettle. I eye the massive bottle of scotch filled with tuppences. The heating has been cranked up almost to the point of being excessively cosy, the bitterness of Dartmoor rapidly fading away. Uncle Ian is taking a seat at his keyboard, looking out over the creek. Aunty Pat is industriously doing something in the kitchen to the benefit of us all later.
Something in the oven, she returns with a cup of tea and – of course – a few slices of chocolate cake. As Mull of Kintyre pipes up from the keyboard, there is a gentle smile on her face. And a simple shared happiness filling all of our hearts.