Sometimes there’s no alternative to the cliché of ‘best-kept secret’. How did Devon manage to keep this place to itself for so long when I have been committed to finding its hidden gems for Slow Devon and for a recent article in Which? Travel Magazine. How does one uncover these secrets anyway? That’s the job of guidebook researchers, and sometimes the tiniest thread of information leads to a dollop of serendipity, as it did today.
My co-author Janice Booth and I have just started working on Slow South Devon and Dartmoor. A lovely job, specially on a perfect June day when the bluebells are still in bloom and the beech leaves have that iridescent glow that only lasts for a couple of weeks in late spring. We love old churches, and Janice had spotted an entry in The Pilgrim’s guide to Devon’s Churches which sounded quite appealing. It was in ‘the picturesque Kenn valley’ and as an additional attraction its yew tree was ‘in excess of 1500 years of age.’ We were heading for Teignmouth and although we couldn’t locate Kenn on the map, we reckoned it wouldn’t be much of a diversion and that our SatNav, Lydia, would find it. She did — and what a find! Only five miles from Exeter, and perhaps a mile from the dual carriageway leading south, we turned down a little country lane flanked with banks smothered in wild flowers to find a perfect Devon village. And I mean perfect. A little brook runs past thatched cottages, a chestnut tree splashed with red ‘candles’ stands in a grassy circle between the thatched pub, The Ley Arms, and the red sandstone church. An illustrated board by the graveyard points out the flora and fauna found there, and the yew tree is utterly splendid. Huge, cathedral-like with its pillars of surviving trunk around a hollow centre. The church smells right – and that’s important – that indescribable scent of old oak, flowers and mildew that defines our country churches. And it has a most beautiful screen. Lavishly carved, with leaves and saints and holinesses. It’s old, 16th century, and somehow escaped the ravages of the Reformation. Maybe Henry’s men were no better at finding Kenn than we were. Painted saints fill the niches in the lower part of the screen, demurely separated into men and women, and what I loved most of all is that St Jerome’s lion is wearing a halo!
The pub is under new management and full of bustle; men came and went with pots of whitewash as we sat in the sunny beer garden drinking coffee. Too early for lunch but the menu looked appealing.