Just Back From…. South Devon

I booked a week away in south Devon in December when it was cold and dark and I needed something to look forward to in the spring months. We have always taken a spring break since we got together and as a teacher the Easter holidays were the first chance to get away. Even after leaving teaching the habit has stuck with us. In recent years we would return to the West Country and carry out research into where we would like to live. Now of course we have moved down to Cornwall so we can enjoy spring here without going very far.

Dartmouth

One of my projects is to visit every county in England (and possibly Wales and Scotland), preferably to stay a few days, but at least to have driven through other than on a motorway. So for these ‘at home’ breaks (I refuse to use the word staycation), I look for somewhere where I haven’t been.

South Devon is only a couple of hours drive from us and a region I haven’t been to since I was 12 years old and on holiday in Buckfastleigh with my parents and dog. It was the year when we were supposed to be having a week in Devon and a week in London, but the car broke down shortly after Exeter and we found ourselves spending extra time in Devon. I do remember an amazing farmhouse breakfast where we stayed overnight and also stopping off at Stonehenge and running around the stones (you could do that in those days), but I recall absolutely nothing about London! My mother had a friend living in Orpington, then in the Kent countryside, now just another part of the Greater London sprawl.

Anyway, I digress. I booked a week in a National Trust cottage on the estate of Coleton Fishacre on one side of the Dart river. I thought it would make a nice base until I realised that to get anywhere you have to deal with the conurbation of the English Riviera towns of Torbay. Or pay the extortionate sum of £9.50 or £8.50 (depending on which ferry you take), to cross the river over to Dartmouth. But it turned out OK. The cottage was well-equipped even if a little chilly in the kitchen, and the garden to which it was attached (albeit down a fairly steep driveway) was gorgeous, as too the 1930s Art Deco period house.

It also turned out to be the early Spring Bank holiday, a fact that had escaped me, which meant that certain nearby towns like Brixham and Totnes had roads closed over the weekend for the spring celebrations. We saw a lot of pirates roaming the streets in Brixham!

Torbay

We didn’t make it to all the places I had in mind, but we did get to a few and the Devon countryside is a delight with all those rolling hills and red soil, though perhaps not such a delight to walk up.

Looking North-west from Berry Reserve to Exmouth and Lyme Regis (right)

Staying close by on the first day, we walked down to the Daymark, a 25 metre high navigational aid built in 1864 that can be seen from miles around. We were going to continue to Froward Point, where the Brownstone Battery, a coastal defence during WWII was built. There are a number of buildings in the site and anyone interested in military history would enjoy this. We on the other hand realised that the steeply sloping track down to the point would make coming back difficult and walking along the coastal path on the edge of the cliffs, is not an option, so reluctantly we turned back.

The Daymark

The view across Start Bay was amazing. We could see Blackpool Sands and Slapton Sands in the distance and the Start Point lighthouse.

Close by was another National Trust property, the former holiday home of Agatha Christie so we popped over there that afternoon to have a walk through the extensive woodland gardens and a nosy around the house. There are several ways to approach the property – by steam train and ferry, but if you want to use your car you must book a space first.

Greenway

Berry Head Nature Reserve north of Brixham is another location of a former gun battery used during WWII and also the site of a Napoleonic Fort built to defend Torbay from the French, and was once an iron age fort. There are still some ruins and ramparts at the north and south fort and the Napoleonic Fort Guardhouse 1802, a Grade 2 listed building, is now a lovely visitor centre and cafe. We had a lovely walk around the nature reserve and then attempted to visit Brixham, but found it impossible to park there so decided to nip over to Dartmouth instead where we had a great (but not cheap) fish and chip dinner at Rockfish with a view over the river to Kingswear.

Berry Head Reserve

Talking of Kingswear, we fell lucky on our first evening as we drove into the town hoping to find somewhere to eat and passed a tiny cafe which does steak and mussels on a Wednesday evening. Taking a chance we went in and ordered the steak. It took a while to arrive (it is run by one woman), but was absolutely delicious and two steaks with all the trimmings plus a bottle of not too bad red wine came to less than £40.  You get the best photos of Dartmouth from Kingswear and vice versa. And I hadn’t realised just how remote and how small Dartmouth actually is.

Pretty Kingswear

Another trip took us to Buckfast Abbey and the Dartington Hall gardens. The only expense was £1 to park at Dartington Hall, and then £10 for excellent coffees and cakes as we sheltered from the rain after visiting the gardens.

Buckfast Abbey

Our final day took us across the Dart and along the coast south towards Bigbury Bay in South Hams. We stopped off at Slapton Sands¹, a two-mile shingle beach that separates the sea from the freshwater nature reserve of Slapton Ley on Start Bay. This bay in the English Channel lies between the River Dart’s estuary and Start Point.  And from here you could see the Daymark over on the far headland. Continuing slowly through several small and winding villages and the town of Kingsbridge, we eventually arrived at South Milton sands only to find the beach cafe had already closed for the day!

This is beginning to become a habit. Oh, well, we didn’t really need a Devonshire Tea, although a strong coffee would have been nice after driving along those hair-raising narrow lanes with very few passing places to reach the beach. And why is it that other drivers always seem to expect me to reverse? Especially the ones in the monster BMWs or Range Rovers.

We had an early dinner booked back near Blackpool Sands at the Laughing Monk in Strete so after a stroll along the beach we retraced our drive stopping in Torcross to take a closer look at a Sherman tank and memorial.

Slapton Ley Nature Reserve

We had a delicious fishy meal at the Laughing Monk and then returned to Dartmouth to wait for the lower ferry to take us back across the Dart and to our home for the final night. Next time I must visit Dartmoor which loomed in the background for much of our time down in Devon. And I also think I am beginning to prefer staying in a town or village so we can walk to a pub or restaurant for dinner. 

¹Slapton Sands has a very moving story attached to it. In 1943, the beach was taken over by the allied forces to use as a rehearsal area for the D-Day Landings. Unfortunately, a combination of live ammunition and poor visibility resulted in the deaths of 749 American servicemen. You can visit a stone monument which was set in place on Slapton Sands to commemorate the ill-fated ‘Operation Tiger’, along with a Sherman Tank at nearby Torcross.

Sherman Tank

Walking in an artist’s footsteps

Whilst in Essex and with time to spare between checking out of one place and checking in to another, we decided to visit the quintessential English Dedham Valley on the borders of Essex and Suffolk where Constable drew inspiration for some of his paintings, notably “The Hay Wain“.

“The sound of water escaping from Mill dams …, willows, old rotten banks, slimy posts and brickwork. I love such things … as long as I do paint I shall never cease to paint such places.”

~ John Constable

The scene is rural England at its most romantic and although the spot which inspired him has altered slightly you can find the easily recognisable view at Flatford. The area is charming; narrow lanes lead to hamlets and meadows and there are plenty of riverside walks along the River Stour which meanders through this enchanting valley. Dedham, East Bergholt and Flatford is affectionatley known as ‘Constable Country’ and you can see examples of his work and information about the man at the National Trust exhibition centre located at Flatford.

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Continue reading Walking in an artist’s footsteps

Just Back from… Barcelona

It was going to be New York for my daughter’s 40th birthday getaway, until we saw the prices, and since we were only going for three days it made more sense to make it closer to home so we didn’t spend two of those days in the air. Yes we were going on another mother and daughter city break! Been a long time since the last one which was also to Spain just before my eldest grandson was born. He is now 14 years old. BA came to the rescue with some very decent European city breaks – hotels and flights for £350 each. We opted for Barcelona, a city neither of us had been to before and which has been well recommended by fellow bloggers. Thank you Restless Jo and Lucid Gypsy for all your help, advice and links.

Placa de Catalunya
Placa de Catalunya

Day One

A very early start meant we were arrived at Barcelona airport by 9 am – we stopped for a coffee before boarding the Aerobus into the city, tickets were prepaid for so no problems whatsoever and the buses are every 5 minutes so no waiting like you have to at Heathrow. A smooth drive with a drop-off close to the hotel where we were able to stash our luggage and head out to explore. First thing though was breakfast. We quickly found a lovely bar where we had coffee, orange juice (the Spanish make the BEST orange juice) and buttery croissants. Then we simply wandered for a few hours until it was time to join a free walking tour of the Gothic Quarter. The architecture in Barcelona is so interesting – I spent most of my time gazing upwards at the windows, carved entrances, wrought-iron balconies – Gothic mansions, Catalan Art Nouveau, and the magnificent imaginative Gaudí and taking far too many photographs.

Continue reading Just Back from… Barcelona

The Witch Finder General and Malthouses

Our first stop on the recent trip up the east coast of Britain was in a little place called Mistley which is situated on the River Stour in Essex. You may have heard of Manningtree which is a little further up the river as it is the smallest town in England. Mistley’s use as a port can be traced back to the Roman occupation with archaeological evidence indicating that a Roman road connected its riverside to the important garrison town of Colchester (Camulodunum).

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Both Manningtree and Mistley are attractive towns with Georgian and Victorian architecture. Manningtree was a centre for cloth in Tudor times with barges transporting it to London and it is believed that the reference to Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV as “that roasted Manningtree Ox” relates to the practice of roasting a whole ox at the town’s medieval annual fair.

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Mistley is also the village where Matthew Hopkins lived – the notorious Witch Finder General, who struck terror into the local community during the 17th Century.

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In the 18th Century local landowner Richard Rigby MP attempted to develop Mistley into a fashionable spa town, symbolised by a swan. He hired the architect Robert Adam, to design and remodel the existing church. The two towers are the only remaining parts now after the centre section of the medieval church was demolished in 1870. It is the only known church modelled by Adams remaining.

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We stayed at the Mistley Thorn which overlooks the quay and is a short stroll away from the riverside. The malting industry has declined in Mistley, and the majority of malthouses and stores, have become redundant over the decades, with the inevitable result that vandals and arsonists have taken their toll on the town’s industrial architecture. The quay is currently derelict and fenced off, causing much distress to locals.

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The “Free The Quay” organisation have spent the last five years, or so, fighting for the reopening of what they maintain is a historical right of access since the Trent Wharfage Company decided to fence off the publicly accessible 130 metre section of the quay in 2008.

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The Old Barley Stores on the riverfront have been converted into luxury apartments, meaning that Mistley still looks like a town of malthouses, even if people are now living where the grain was once stored.

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Nearby is a food processing factory.   The English Diastatic Malt Extract Company  (EDME) was originally founded there in 1884. The site is now a specialist research & development facility. The whole area is filled with the distinct nostril stimulating smell of malting grains. Eating a granary loaf will never be the same again.

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An evening stroll along the riverside was not very exciting. Passing the local ‘lads’ hanging outside the Towers in their souped-up cars, music blaring, cans of lager and dodgy smelling cigarettes was a tad unnerving, but we moved through them as quickly as possible and on to the riverside walk. Unfortunately the tide was out so we were faced with mud and sand banks. Brent geese, a couple of swans with their cygnets and some gulls waded in the mud. It might be a nice spot on a summer’s day with the tide in as it is tree-lined with lots of benches from where to take in the view. But on this evening it all felt a bit sinister.

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Hence I changed my camera settings for a more dramatic effect.

The Mistley Thorn is a restaurant with rooms – large, homely and comfortable rooms, ours overlooked the river AND the road. With no aircon we had the windows open, but even in such a small place there is a lot of traffic noise especially early in the morning. The following night we closed the windows which do have secondary glazing, and there was no noise. However, in the unseasonable hot and humid weather we were having it was uncomfortably warm. The hotel serves excellent food and it does get very busy, we ate there both nights and can honestly say it is worth doing so. Breakfasts were equally delicious and all the staff we encountered were more than friendly. A good spot to stay if you want, as we did, to explore Constable country and the Beth Chatto Gardens and be close to Colchester and if you don’t mind the smell of malting grain…

We discovered that Mistley Thorn was the base of Matthew Hopkins, self appointed Witch Finder General, from 1642 at the start of the Civil War. Hopkins, the son of a Puritan minister, was born at Great Wenham, Suffolk in 1620. He was based in Manningtree & Mistley during the age of the brutal witch-hunts 1645-1647 during which 112 people were hanged for witchcraft, 82 coming from Essex. Hopkins and his colleague John Stearne were responsible for most of these. The witch finders were paid twenty shillings in fees and expenses for each successful prosecution, which became such a burden to the local towns. They were most successful in 1645 when 33 women were locked in cells in Colchester Castle and tried at the County Assizes in Chelmsford. All except one were found guilty. Fifteen were hanged in Chelmsford, four were hanged on the village green in Manningtree, nine were later reprieved and four died in the cells. Hopkins himself died of consumption in 1647. He is buried in an unmarked grave at St Mary’s church, Mistley Heath. The statutory offence of witchcraft punishable by death was repealed in 1736.

Witchfinders – A Seventeenth Century English Tragedy is by Malcolm Gaskill, published by John Murray 

Just Back From… West Penwith

P1200996 - CopyWe transferred to Bojewyan, slightly north of Pendeen on Friday 5 June from Penzance. Initially we’d only booked for a one week holiday/house-hunting trip, but at the last minute I managed to find an extension. I was looking forward to exploring the coastline in this wild region of West Penwith. It has a very different character to the rest of Cornwall; it feels almost like an island. Remote villages and hamlets are strung along one of the most beautiful roads in the land  between St Just and St Ives. Travelling by road is slow, tractors, trucks, German campervans, French motorhomes, sharp bends, drystone granite walls, abandoned tin mines, carns, views across the patchwork arable fields, bleak moorland, gravel lay-bys barely big enough to fit two cars in to, a maze of hidden lanes and paths and tiny trout streams trickling down to the aquamarine coloured coast. Continue reading Just Back From… West Penwith