Maid in Devon: Pat Keenor talks about what makes Devon different to any other place on Earth

Pat Keenor

Pat Keenor - Credit: Archant

This month our columnist PAT KEENOR reflects on what makes Devon delightfully different to any other place on Earth…

I REMEMBER when I was a child being in the car with my mother and father, on the way to the races somewhere. My father had taken an unfamiliar route and had driven the wrong way down a one-way street. He was stopped by a policeman, notebook in hand.

Father then launched into a convoluted explanation, in broadest Devon, about being new to the area and not seeing the sign. The policeman stared at him in utter incomprehension. He let him gabble on a for a while, not understanding why he decided to take “thiggy rawd” rather than the right “rawd”, before holding up his hand and stopping him in his tracks. The PC shook his head in bewilderment before waving him on his way, muttering: “Be careful next time.”

I was reminded of this incident the other day when I was reading an internet article asking foreigners what they found strange about Britain. It caused something of a furore with, literally, thousands of people commenting. Most of the comments about “weird Britain” were predictable, like our obsession with tea and the fact that Britain and America are two countries divided by a common language.

In fact, an Asian American couldn’t believe it when he visited Cambridge and saw a young man who looked around his mid-twenties drinking tea from a Victorian teapot “with the flower design and everything”. You could almost hear the shock in his voice as he wrote: “I’m talking about those teapots that appear antiquated and seem like they’re over 100 years old!”

But one person had asked: “Why do accents change every 50 miles?” I wanted to tell him that in Devon, it isn’t the accent that changes, but the whole language. The dialect is dying out now, of course, and we all tend to speak like TV presenters but go out into the rural areas and have a chat with a true Devonian and I’ll wager many of us would be totally flummoxed.

The article got me thinking about what the rest of Britain finds weird about Devon and I must admit I was spoiled for choice.

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We may, as a nation, be overly concerned with tea but many Devonians I know are obsessed with swedes – note the small ‘s’; I’m not talking about our Scandinavian cousins.

I once spent an hour arguing with someone about the difference between swedes and turnips. They were convinced that a small turnip grew up to be a big swede. When the transition occurred, she wasn’t quite sure. I knew – being a good old Devon maid – they were two different vegetables. Someone else I met thought the two names were interchangeable. I soon put them right… See? Obsessed.

I wondered, too, how visitors mind being called “my lover” or “maid” by complete strangers. Or by seeing grass growing down the centre of country lanes and the fact that herds of cows and flocks of sheep have the right of way as they are driven from one field to another.

The smells of the countryside can come as a surprise too. Forget the sweet wafting scent of wild flowers in the meadow, it’s more likely to be the smell of dung being spread in a field.

Exeter and Plymouth are our big cities – and, incidentally, anywhere past Taunton is “up north”. Never mind the frightening statistic that you’re never more than 6ft from a rat, if you live in Devon you’re never more than ten minutes from the nearest Fergie – and that’s a tractor, not the former manager of Manchester United.

Your favourite drink is scrumpy cider. But it amuses you that one of the favourite tipples of Scottish drunks is brewed by Devonshire monks at Buckfast Abbey.

In fact, the abbot was forced to respond to the statistic that Buckfast Tonic Wine was mentioned in 6,496 Scottish crime reports from 2010 to 2012. He said it “was not made to be abused” and couldn’t be blamed for problems arising from social deprivation.

And finally, the pronunciation of place names was baffling to many with one person asking: “How in the name of Lady Jane Grey does ‘Leicester’ only have two syllables?”

I refrained from adding my comment to the site and telling him that in Devon we have two Woolfardisworthys, one in Mid Devon and one in North Devon, and both are pronounced Woolsery. I think he would have exploded.