Tag Archive | Devon

Devon’s Best? Ferry Cruise on the River Dat, Exploring Totnes and Dartmouth & Exeter’s Underground Passages

Tuesday, June 27, 2017:

Saving the Best of Devon for the Last–Totnes and Dartmouth and Return to London:

            Although we did not intend to do so, you might say we managed to save the best of Devon’s treats for last. The weather too held out magnificently and we were rewarded by clear, bright days–and although there was no sun for much of the day, overcast skies kept us cool as cucumbers. Today was devoted to exploring two of Devon’s best towns—each has a completely different ambience and character and we were hard-pressed to decide, at the end of the day, which one we preferred.

We had a lot of ground to cover today and still return to Exeter in time to take our 5.00 pm coach to London. Shahnaz voiced concerns about going so far away for, after taking a look at the map of Exeter, she was afraid we’d never be able to squeeze both locations into a single day and still make our evening’s coach. I managed to persuade her to have faith in me for I felt sure we could do it, if we left early enough. Hence, having packed our bags last night, we set our alarms for 5.30 am and left our hotel at 6.00 am for the walk to the bus station to take the bus to Totnes that was leaving at 6. 30 am. Luckily, Shahnaz is also a morning person and I did not hear any complaints about having to wake up at the crack of dawn—in fact, she said that she enjoyed the early morning hours when the world was less harried and complicated.

There was daylight all around us as the sun rises early in the summer in the UK. We saw a bus come along that took us directly to the bus station—we jumped into it and were at the bus station, pronto! Our Stagecoach bus came along at 6. 25am, we bought ourselves day tickets again (for 5 pounds each) and off we went on the upper deck to enjoy the Devon countryside that was just about waking up to a new day. We arrived at Newton Abbot at exactly 7.00 am and connected to another bus that took us to Totnes, five minutes later.

Exploring Totnes:

We arrived in Totnes by 7.30 am—while most business establishments were still closed. Life began to stir quietly and slowly as dog walkers got on with their daily routine. We used the facilities at a 700-year old hostelry and then asking questions of early morning walkers, we found our way to the ferry pier as it was our intention to take a cruise on a boat from Totnes to Dartmouth on the River Dart. We discovered that the only ferry for the day went out at 10.00 am and that the return boat from Dartmouth to Totnes left at 5.00 pm—the latter would make us too late for our coach to London, so we decided to do the cruise in one direction only (for 12 pounds per head—the return ticket is 14 pounds per head).

With about two hours to spare, we set out on foot to discover Totnes—and a more Elizabethan city it would be hard to find in the UK (well, maybe Stratford on Avon!) However, Totnes has more listed (heritage) buildings than any other town in the UK. And indeed as we discovered on our self-guided walking tour from the ancient stones of Totnes Bridge that spans the River Dart to the very top of the hill on which the town is perched, each building is enthralling and completely different from the next.

Totnes was a thriving medieval business town and a very important center for wool commerce in the Middle Ages. As merchants made money, they built mansions in Tudor style that cling to the main street that runs like a life-giving artery through the center of town. Using a pamphlet (that we had received from the Tourist Office at Exeter) as our guide, we took a self-guided tour through the inns that were once medieval hostelries, through open squares where weekly markets have been held for the past seven hundred years, through the church yard filled with aged gravestones and to the castle which is a landmark of the town.

One building in particular caught my attention and held it firmly. It is the Tudor mansion of a certain Nicholas Ball (whose initials NB are well represented on the front façade), a wealthy merchant in the 1500s. When he died, his widow inherited his vast fortune. She married Thomas Bodley (yes, the Thomas Bodley of Oxford’s Bodleian Library) and using her money, he founded the famous library in the world’s greatest university. Just imagine! All the world knows Thomas Bodley and no one even knows the name of the widow whose fortune enabled him to create such a stupendous center of learning.

The gorgeous brick Parish Church of St. Mary the Virgin was closed when we reached it (but it would be opened by the time we made our way downhill). We skimmed past it and entered the yard of the medieval guildhall which is still the center of the town’s administration. Greek Doric pillars hold up the old structure with its slate roof and its tiny leaded windows. It was closed at that hour but we received a good idea of its importance in former times as well as now. Having taken a few pictures there, we walked under the atmospheric East Gate Arch (which was destroyed by a devastating fire a few years ago and completely rebuilt) with its lovely clock face, and continued our gentle climb up the hill. Passing by The Butterwalk, a covered arcade of shops that is a peculiar medieval architectural feature, we arrived at a market square, where, once a week on Tuesdays, a colorful open-air market is held. Salespeople don Elizabethan clothing and sell their wares! Shahnaz found a complete set of silver plated fish knives and forks with cream Bakelite handles from a dealer who sold it to her complete in its box for 20 pounds! She was delighted with her buy as she packed it well and we continued on our walk. At the very top of the hill, we found coffee shops just opening for the day. Our rambles had made us hungry and the nectarines on which we had snacked at the market square did not quite cut it We needed something more sustaining before we boarded the ferry for Dartmouth—so we were pleased to find a coffee shop just opening for business. I bought a coffee and a pain au chocolat while Shahnaz bought a pea and mint soup that was quite filling. Indeed, our exploration of Totnes had left us completely enchanted. It is a beautiful little town that wears its age with dignity and prestige. Its residents seem very conscious of its vast history and want to retain it with pride. This is evident in the loving care that they lavish on their historic buildings and the graciousness with which they treat visitors.

On our way downhill, we found the Church open and nipped in for a visit. Like all ancient Christian places of worship in the UK, it has its striking features. A soaring nave that ends in a timbered ceiling decorated with carved stone ‘bosses’, a carved stone rood screen that separates the choir from the congregation, wooden choir stalls, mortuary monuments of the rich and famous of their respective eras, an ornate baptismal font with a wooden crown-like cover. We took it all in as we traversed the interior spaces with their quietness and their pious atmosphere. We were very glad indeed that we had the chance to visit it.

Then we were making our way back past the square that contains an obelisque to remember a local explorer who went off to explore Australia but perished there. Across Totnes Bridge we walked to arrive at the ferry pier at about 9. 45 am just in time to purchase our tickets and board our ferry—the Dart Explorer—that was waiting for us in the dock. As we climbed the top deck to take our seats, we were surrounded by elderly pensioners equipped with cameras and binoculars and their morning cuppas.

Ferry Cruise on the River Dart:

Our ferry cruise on the River Dart from Totnes to Dartmouth could well be the highlight of our travels. Nothing can quite describe the atmosphere of the region—its peaceful serenity, the vivid shades of green that cling to its banks that gently rise and dip with every curve in the river, the softness of the air under overcast skies, the gentle ripples made on the water as birds skimmed its surface at the start of a new day. It was incredibly tranquil that morning as only the soft chugging of the boat’s motor broke the silence. There was also a very good commentary from the pilot who navigated the bends in the river with expertise. He told us about the role of the river in the economy of the region, its use as a roadway as well as a source of leisure. He pointed out bird life on the banks, cute cottages perched on the downs, some no more than wooden fishing shacks. He drew our attention to a salmon village comprising three shacks and three local families. He showed us the homes of wealthy magnates who had famous architects like John Nash design mansions for them. The highlight of these mansions was Greenaways, a house that had belonged to the writer Agatha Christie who wrote her novel Dead Man’s Folly in its interior and made it the very setting of her plot. Greenaways is managed today by the National Trust and regular tours of the mansion can be taken from Dartmouth. Sadly, we did not have the time for it, but I enjoyed clicking pictures of the villa as we sailed past. We also passed by picturesque villages like Dittysham that dot the river and offer wonderful photo ops. River craft of every size and hue dotted the blue waves and added to the loveliness of the area.

It was not long before our truly delightful cruise came to a quiet end. The town of Dartmouth came into view with its Royal Maritime College seated high on its cliffs. This was the training ground for both Prince Andrew (son of the Queen) and Prince Harry (her grandson) who were trained here. It is a grand building, very impressive in its size and architectural beauty. We continued gliding our way to what is known as the Dartmouth Pontoon and simply marveled at the glorious Elizabethan buildings that lined the dock for they were built in grand Tudor style and sported the exposed black beams, small leaded windows and white-washed facades that make this style distinctive. When I exclaimed, “My goodness! What a charming town!”, one of my fellow-cruisers smiled and said, “And what an expensive one too! Everything here is costly.” Indeed, arrival by boat is the best way to enter Dartmouth and we were very glad we chose this unusual mode of transport.

Exploring Dartmouth:

Dartmouth grew around the harbor that dominates all commercial life in the town. As soon as we disembarked, we walked around the Boat Basin to the shops. We gave ourselves about two hours in the town but we also wanted to make sure we feasted on the much-touted fish and chips that chef Mitch Tonks of The Rockfish Grill had put on the gastronomic map. Hence we had to hurry through our shopping for souvenirs and our browsing through the many art galleries and shops that crowd the pretty streets. I wished to find the book shop that was once owned by the real Christopher Robin whom A.A. Milne had made famous in his Winnie the Pooh stories. But alas, the bookstore has closed down and another establishment had taken its place. We did also walk in The Butterwalk, a similar row of arcaded shops that we had found in Totnes, and then, without losing any further time, we made our way for our long-awaited lunch.

Fish and Chips at The Rockfish Grill:

Mitch Tonks uses beer to lighten the batter he uses to coat his fish (cod or haddock). Large slabs of it were presented to us together with crisp chips, tartar sauce and ketchup. Everything was served piping hot, straight from the fire as fried fish and chips ought to be, plus the service was wonderful.  Sadly, we had to hurry through the treat that both of us thought was quite outstanding indeed. And then it was time to race back to our bus to get the one that would take us back to Exeter in time.

Heading Back to Exeter:

We were lucky to find a bus that took us directly from Dartmouth to Exeter. Once again, we gave ourselves up to the sheer pleasure of enjoying the English countryside from the top decker of a bus—I have seen much of Cornwall and Dorset in like manner and it remains one of the high points of my travels.

Tour of the Underground Passages of Exeter:

Lonely Planet says that we should not miss a tour of the Underground Passages in Exeter. Since we arrived in Exeter while there was still time to get to our B&B and pick up our backpacks, we decided to check out a tour and see what it would offer. Luckily for us, they are offered every hour and we got one at 3. 30 pm. Since it lasted till 4.30, we would have enough time to check out and catch our bus at 6.00 pm.

The tour of the Underground Passages starts with a short film that explains its history. We missed the beginning of it as we arrived late. However, I gathered that the passages were designed in the 1400s to bring clean drinking water from natural springs outside the walled city, through lead pipes into the heart of Exeter. The pipes sometimes leaked and repairs to buried pipes could only be carried out by digging them up. These are the only underground passages in the entire country that are open to visitors and a visit is certainly an unusual experience.

When the film ended, we were given hard hats (mine stank horribly of body odor and left me feeling deeply disgusted by the end of it) and led into the passages themselves by the tour guide who explained why and how they were created. Most of the passages are so narrow that only one person can pass through at a time. They are lined with stone that is plentifully quarried in the region. The lead pipes that were used to transport water for centuries were then covered with plaster. Few people have any idea when they are walking through the streets of Exeter that these passages exist below them and that they can actually be traversed. As far as I can tell, the passages are no longer in use although they were used as recently as World War II as bomb shelters.

So there you have it—we managed to get in the interesting tour of the underground passages as well and all of this made for a very fine visit indeed.

We had enough time to make our way to Melbury House from where we picked up our backpacks, checked out, thanked our hosts Graham and Leon for their great hospitality and walked by a short cut to the bus station. Our National Express coach to London arrived on time and whisked us off in a constant drizzle to the capital. How fortunate we felt that we had experienced no rain whatsoever on our travels! Also, luckily, by the time we arrived in London, it had stopped raining although the city was still very wet indeed.

Looking for our Next B&B in Battersea:

Once at London’s Victoria, it was a simple matter of finding the bus stop that would take us to Battersea where we had made Air B&B bookings. Having arrived in London at 10.20 pm, I hoped we would not have to wait too long for a bus. A 44 did come along in just ten minutes and within half an hour, we were on Queenstown Road and ringing the bell of a home owned by a lady name Jane who showed us to our room in the basement of her house. She stayed around for about half an hour explaining all the rules of the house to us and as soon as she left, we crashed on the pull-out sofa which became a double bed.

Devon had been a brilliant experience overall but we were ready to unwind and relax once again in London.

Until tomorrow, cheerio.

Devon’s Northern Coastline: Bideford, Westward Ho! and Clovelly

Monday, June 26, 2017

The North Devon Coastline: Barnstaple, Bideford, Westward Ho! And Clovelly:

            We devoted this day to exploring the North Devon coastline and since it was a week day and we had the luxury of choosing from a number of trains, we had a longer lie-lin. Breakfast was granola with yogurt and coffee in the kitchen in our studio at Melbury House before we got dressed and left. We walked briskly to Exeter Central Station having discovered a simpler, shorter, way to get there from our hotel. Our train arrived at the appointed hour ( 8. 25 am) and off we went. It was the Tarka Line—a picturesque route that traverses the interior of the county of Devon past varied shades of green in field, farm and pasture, before it dropped us off at the end of the line at Barnstaple.

On the Bus to Clovelly:

From right outside Barnstaple station, there is a bus stop that whisks visitors off to the most visited parts of the North Devon coast.  In our case, we were headed to Clovelly (pronounced Clo-velly). It has been years since I have wanted to visit this place based entirely on pictures of it that I have seen of its steeped main street that dips sharply down to the sea. So getting there was, in a way, a dream come true for me. The issue is that Clovelly lies so far away from the beaten tourist track that it is not the sort of place one can reach at random.  Hence, it was very much a part of my plan for a visit to Devon.

Another very scenic bus route took us to Clovelly via the town of Bideford which is a junction of sorts for a lot of destinations on the northern Devon coast. Once at Bideford, we discovered that we had a wait of about a half hour before we got into a connecting bus to Clovelly—it was a good opportunity for us to see a bit of this town and we did just that as we went in search of its Panier Marketplace—only to discover that this Victorian Covered Market was closed. Still, the opportunity to walk in these quaint towns and get a feel of small-town Devonshire life was priceless.

Off to Clovelly:

We did eventually get into the bus that took us to Clovelly which we reached at a little past noon—by which time we were both starving. The interesting thing about Clovelly is that the entire village is owned by a single family and they extract a toll off every visitor. This entry fee is used for maintenance of one of the world’s most unique villages. You pay the 7.50 pounds entry fee at the Visitors Center (where the bus drops you off) and enter a vast space filled with restrooms, a restaurant, shops selling postcards, magnets and the like. We acquired a map after paying our fee and then headed straight to the café where Shahnaz ordered a burger while I chose a steak and onion pasty—they do not call them Cornish pasties in Devon! But they are essentially the same things. I also had a decaff coffee.  My pasty and Shahnaz’s bacon cheeseburger (of which she ate only half leaving the rest to me) were both filling and fueled us for the ordeal that lay ahead.

Discovering Clovelly:

Clovelly consists entirely of a single street—it is sharply cobbled and placed on a steep incline. Lined on both sides by the most picturesque little cottages with riots of summer flowers like fuschias, petunias, impatiens (bizzie-lizzies) and verbena tumbling out of window boxes and baskets, the town is as pretty as a postcard. Everyone’s camera works overtime trying to capture the quaint and unusual beauty of the hamlet that profits enormously from its location which overlooks the crystal-clear waters of the azure sea.

Two attractions that most visitors inspect are the home of Charles Kingsley, who is the best known literary figure in the area, and the Fisherman’s Cottage.  Kingsley who was born in the region, made Clovelly his home in the late 1890s as he wrote two of his most famous works: Westward Ho! which is named for the town close-by which is the setting of his novel and The Water Babies. We were able to visit the tiny home in which he had lived and written his literary works—they are so tiny that they feel like doll’s houses. We also saw the home of a typical 19th century fisherman for fishing was the main stay of the local economy. Maintained in period style, these places retain a great deal of character. All the way to the bottom, there are colorful shops filled with colorful people but there are no chain stores, high street shops, fast food places of anything of the kind. This made me feel as if I was walking in the pages of history for nothing seems to have changed in this place for at least a century.

Getting down to the sea is no mean feat and I have to say that my open sandals (because it was so hot) were not the most ideal footwear for such activity. Shahnaz, with her hunter boots, was in a far better situation. Still, I managed as we kept pausing after every few steps to take pictures. All the while, we inched closer to sea level. It took us a good hour to finally see the beach where most people rewarded themselves for getting to the end by guzzling cold beer in The Red Lion restaurant at the bottom. Had we not stuffed ourselves fully at the café at the Visitor Center, no doubt, we too would have enjoyed a drink there.

Getting Back Up the Hill To the Bus:

Shahnaz, who by this time, had been stressing about climbing back up the hill, was most relieved to discover that there was a Land Rover service that for 3.50 pounds took folks back up to the Visitors Center in under ten minutes—saving us the sweat equity involved in doing the hike back up—which would have taken us no less than two hours!  In fact, we did see people making the brave (panting) trek upwards, some with dogs who were so tired that they refused to budge from the cobbles!  Suffice it to say that the Land Rover service is a huge boon and quite indispensable for the elderly and the infirm. We were certainly grateful for the service and as we planned the next leg of our sightseeing, we sat at the Visitors Center and waited for the bus.

Off to Westward Ho!                

The town of Westward Ho! has the distinction of being the only place in the world that officially has an exclamation mark at the end of it. Westward Ho! is also the name of the novel that Kingsley gave the world. The area is filled with Kingsley memorabilia from a large sculpture that overlooks the port at Bideford to his home at Clovelly. Sadly, the town of Westward Ho! was a major disappointment to us for there was really nothing much to see or do there. The bus dropped us off at the main street from where it was only a short walk to the beach front—once again, I was struck by the vast expanse of flat, wide beach (one of the great natural treasures of the British coastline).

Shahnaz busied herself with collecting flat stones on which she intended to paint. I sat facing the sea and drinking in the scent as I thought of Kingsley’s novel. I took in the salt tang in the air and the sight of people wading out in the far distance for the tide was out. After a while when strolling around a pretty street with ice-cream colored houses was accomplished, we got back to the bus stop and looked for a bus that would take us back home on the return journey. But just before we hopped into it, I got myself a scoop of Hockings ice-cream which is supposedly one of the finest in the area.

Luckily, the bus took us directly to Barnstaple which made it easy for us to walk straight to the train station and wait out the ten minutes that it took for us to catch the Tarka Line train back to our home base in Exeter. We arrived there about 7.00 pm and since there was still so much daylight left, decided to go into further exploration of Exeter.

But where?

Dinner by the Dockside:

Having asked the friendly railway personnel who were hanging out at Exeter station whether we ought to see the Dockside or the Underground Passages (with limited time at our disposal), they suggested we get to the Dockside. This rather ‘happening’ part of Exeter is a frequent hangout for late evenings. Getting there involved the use of our sketchy map and a very long walk; but it did provide us with the opportunity to see varied parts of Exeter as we inched forward with every step.

We did reach the Dockside about 45 minutes later, past the Cathedral and Close that looked glorious in the setting rays of the evening’s sun. By the time we were at the Dockside on the banks of the River Exe that gives the city its name, we spied a pretty bridge that spanned the water. Three or four restaurants are clustered together at this spot and since dusk was falling slowly, most seemed to enjoy their sundowner pints—for all these eateries are also pubs. We decided to inspect the menu of all three places and then make a choice for dinner. Eventually we chose a place called On The Waterfront—which, as its name implies, faced the water. Once again, the presence of seagulls intimidated Shahnaz—so, reluctantly, we moved inside to a booth which was not nearly as atmospheric as actually sitting by the quay and watching twilight fall.

Drink and food orders needed to be placed at the bar—we got ourselves draft lagers and settled our feet down for a long rest as our food was prepared: Thai curry fishcakes with a peanut and cucumber relish was part of the elegant Tapas menu and a large Salade Nicoise which came with wonderful grilled tuna, anchovies, eggs, tomatoes, green beans and potatoes. They made for a very filling summer’s dinner and as all the food was very tasty, we dined well. So, although we went entirely by instinct, we ended up having a most satisfying meal indeed.

Getting Back to our Hotel:

Darkness had well and truly fallen over Exeter by the time we got up to leave.  Shahnaz felt daunted at the thought of walking back to our hotel—a walk of at least 45 minutes, on a day when we had put our leg and feet muscles through many challenges on those Clovelly cobbles! So, she was absolutely delighted to see a bus stop and suggested we sit down and wait for a bus that would take us towards our hotel.  As luck would have it, a bus came along within five minutes—one that was going very close to our hotel.  It was truly God-sent! Within ten minutes, we were dropped off at the Duke of York pub from where it was only a few blocks to Melbury House.

It had been an exhausting day but a deeply fulfilling one as we saw such unusual sights in the heart of the English countryside. At the end of each day, Shahnaz and I never failed to marvel at how much we had accomplished, how much ground we had covered and how deeply blessed we were to have the opportunity to traverse these little-known parts of the world.

Until tomorrow, cheerio.

The English Riviera: Torquay, Paignton, Brigham and Babbacombe

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Exploring the English Riviera—Torquay, Paington, Brixham and Babbacombe:

            With the English sun promising to shine down benevolently over Devonshire, it made sense for us to haul ourselves off to the nicest part of the county—what is referred to as the ‘English Riviera’ on the South Devon coast. This comprises the three seaside towns of Torquay (the best-known of the three), Paington and Brixham which are dotted around the perfect bay known as Torbay.

Only since it was Sunday, we had very limited rail service. This urged us on to the bus station where we hoped to find more frequent buses to get us to Torquay. We started our day at Melbury House with granola bars crumbled up in flavored yogurt with coffee and apples before setting off on foot for the bus station—about a fifteen minute walk away. When we reached there, we discovered that the earliest Stagecoach bus would leave for Torquay only at 10.05 am.  This left us a long while to sit and chat companionably with fellow passengers who provided us with a lot of suggestions for places to go to and things to see. It was amazing how friendly the English were to us and how pleased we were to get into conversation with them as we whiled time away.

When our Stagecoach Hop 2 bus arrived, the driver advised us to buy a Day Ticket which would allow us unlimited use of the buses for the entire day—at 8 pounds this was a steal.  Delighted, we climbed up to the top deck and then gave ourselves up to the sheer delight of taking in charming little villages that time forgot, sleepy villagers in sleepier hamlets enjoying a Sunday’s lie-in, pastures filled with farm animals, tea rooms advertising Devonshire cream teas and highways whose hedgerows were filled with blackberry bushes thick with pink blossom and promises of juicy fruit to come. Even had we no particular destination in mind, just these bus drives would have made our travel to and in Devon seem fully worthwhile. We trundled lazily along until we arrived at the town of Teignmouth (pronounced Tinemuth), where a fellow-traveler called Sally advised us to alight and take a connecting bus which would arrive earlier at Torquay. It seemed like a good plan—so we took her advice. At Teignmouth, we bought ourselves ice-cream from Jane’s Ice-Creams (salted caramel and chocolate) that were divine and, five minutes later, were in another bus that took us off to Torquay.

Torquay, Gem of the English Riviera:

Torquay is known for two famous residents: the real-life Dame Agatha Christie who holidayed every summer in its environs and the fictional Basil Fawlty of Fawlty Towers fame played by the inimitable John Cleese. Torquay is also known for its chi-chi summer residents who bring a seasonable whiff of urbanity to this lovely sea-side resort with its ultra-broad beach, its cliff-perched manors, its restaurants and souvenir stores. It might be a far cry from Nice or Monte Carlo, but Torquay does have its own share of sophisticated charm that I found completely enchanting.

We began by exploring its lovely maze of narrow streets that were absolutely filled with elderly visitors. In fact, in much of Devon, we saw large groups of older travelers—obviously ‘pensioners’, they are enjoying the thrills of their seaside towns before the schools close for the summer and sea resorts become mobbed by families who will fill every niche and crevice of Dorset, Devon and Cornwall with colorful beach gear (as I had seen in Dorset last year). Using our map, we set off for lunch and using a recommendation from Lonely Planet, we arrived at Pier Pont, a sea-front eatery where we ordered a quinoa salad with beetroot, oranges, rocket (arugula) and goat cheese as well as a Baked Potato with British beef brisket. We also enjoyed a bottle of beer that we shared. Our lunch was absolutely scrumptious although it was spoiled for Shahnaz by the presence of hovering seagulls who were horribly vicious and greedy and who swooped down on leftovers on diners’ plates. Our vantage point on one of the outside tables provided us with sweeping views of the beach all the way to the little colorful beach huts that are such a regular feature of the British beach resort. We clicked a few pictures and then walked along the waterfront to the nearest bus stop to get on to a bus that would take us to Brixham as we had received a suggestion to go there next.

On the Bus to Brixham:

The bus ride to Brixham saw Shahnaz soundly asleep as I took in the splendor of the Devonshire coastline. The sea was incredibly clear and as the waves melted on to the shore their colors were reminiscent of Hawai’i with streaks of aquamarine, jade, and even mauve. The jagged coastline was filled with interesting natural features such as terracotta red rock formations that created gateways in the sea (similar to Durdle Door in Dorset). Chic mansions hugged the coast which is clearly the playground of the wealthy.

Everywhere we went on the Riviera, we saw the flotsam and jetsam of the British beach holiday: plastic spades and pails, blow up toys, eateries featuring fish and chips, ice-cream kiosks, stalls selling cotton candy and the inevitable cream tea focusing on scones.

When we arrived, about an hour later, at Brixham, we found that we had to climb a hill to get to the harbor.  The next bus back in the direction of Paington and Torquay was about an hour later—this left us an hour to explore the utterly gorgeous harbor town that seemed to be built in tiers. Each building was painted in a pretty pastel shade—blue, pink, lemon. They seemed to sink gradually down to the sea as we climbed the crest of the hill past souvenir stores.

When we arrived at the harbor, we found a huge replica of The Golden Hind, the ship in which Sir Francis Drake sailed around the world in the late 1500s. Indeed, the harbor itself was simply buzzing with Sunday evening crowds—people of every age from octogenarians to infants in prams were out and about enjoying the benign summer sun. We drank it all in, quite fascinated by the beauty of the landscape and the energy of the visitors. In another week or two, these places will be overwhelmed by the crush of humanity…but for the moment, they are just perfectly stocked with happy people who are far from harassed.

At this point, I noticed The Rockfish Grill, a well-reputed chain of restaurants run by well-reputed chef Mitch Tonks whose fish and chips have been declared ‘Best in the UK’ for the Year 2017.  Naturally, we could not leave Devon without partaking of his offerings. But I was also aware that his flagship eatery is in Dartmouth—which we’d be visiting on our last day. I, therefore, told Shahnaz to hold out on tucking into this seaside treat until we got there (much to her disappointment as she said later that she could have eaten fish and chips at least five times on this trip).

I also noticed that the Brixham branch of the chain was offering Salcombe Devon crab cocktail—a delicacy that is a must-try in these parts and one that is advertised everywhere. I suggested we get that instead. Shahnaz was game and next thing we knew, we were at the takeaway counter at The Rockfish Grill being presented with little cups filled with finely cut lettuce and cucumber in a light thousand island dressing with mounds of dressed crab meat clustered on the top.  We clutched our treats close to us as we hurried off to the bus stop to catch our bus. While on the bus, we thoroughly enjoyed our crab cocktails that were sweet and juicy and incredibly flavorful.  How happy we were that we had ticked off one more gastronomic treat that Devon could offer as we sampled its specialties. Next stop? Babbacombe, where at the Angel Tea Room (one of the best-known in the area), we would enjoy a Devonshire Cream Tea!!! I simply could not wait.

Enjoying a Devonshire Cream Tea at Babbacombe:

Sometimes it pays to be greedy! Had I not insisted we get to the Angel Tea Room for a cream tea, Shahnaz and I would never have laid eyes on the gorgeous Devonshire coastline at Babbacombe which is truly breathtaking. As it turned out, we got a bus in Torquay that took us to Babbacombe where we were let off on the high street and directed to the road that would take us to The Downs where the famed tea room is located. So, getting there was no problem at all. It was the return to Exeter that would prove far more problematic as the evening wore on and Sunday bus services became skeletal.

But, for the moment, we were focused on Tea! With scones! And lashings of Devonshire clotted cream! And strawberry jam! And a cake or two thrown in for good measure! So after we crossed the high street and took the side street to get to The Downs, which are high cliffs that offer astounding views of the coast, we were thrilled to find ourselves right outside the Angel Tea Room! At this point, we were torn between my need to tuck immediately into one of the creamy treats and Shahnaz’s desire to sit on one of the benches and gaze out at the glory of the coast line from a cliff-top garden filled with wild flowers. I postponed the pleasure of my tea and settled down to enjoy the stunning scenery with her. We paused to take pictures and to marvel at the fact that had we not decided to have a cream tea in one of the places most touted on the internet, we would have missed the grand spectacle on this portion of the Devonshire coast.

About fifteen minutes later, we were seated in the pretty flower-filled courtyard of the eatery and being presented with menus that were basically unnecessary as I knew exactly what we were going to eat—scones, of course, with the works! I also ordered a slice of fruit cake—because that was all they really had left. The other cakes had gone and the place was taking last orders in twenty minutes—we had just arrived on time. Any later and we’d have been turned away. It did not bear thinking about! And, of course, we had tea. Decaff Roiboos for me and Shahnaz as we shared a pot.  Service was wonderful, the scones with cream and jam were luxuriantly sinful but it was the view that stole the show as we sat facing the softly setting sun of a perfect day as it disappeared over the horizon.

Getting Back to Exeter:

Getting back to Exeter proved to be far more challenging than we had imagined as all manner of life seems to come to a standstill on a Sunday evening after 5.00 pm.  Still, after some harried moments, we found a bus that took us safely back to Exeter after a ride that took a little over an hour.

It had been an amazing introduction to the English Riviera and we could see why crowds flock there for a little bit of R&R.

Until tomorrow, cheerio.

Devon, Here We Come! Exciting Exeter.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Devon, Here We Come!

Departure for Exeter, Devon:

            The nice thing about traveling with Shahnaz is that I realized that she too is a morning person. It does not bother us to have to awake and get cracking before dawn has broken. Giving ourselves half an hour to get ready, we arose to the alarm, washed, dressed and checked out of our hotel. Indeed, we were very sorry to leave our serviced apartments at Citadines as we had thoroughly enjoyed our five nights there and had made the very best of our super Central location.

We hopped into the Tube, made our way to Victoria and took a bus to the coach station in time to catch our National Express coach to Devon that left at 7.30 am. We had arrived by 7.00 am and I fervently hoped to pick up his inimitable Cronuts from the bakery of Dominique Ansel on Elizabeth Street. But it appeared that the place opened only at 8.00 am. So, much to our disappointment, we got morning pastries and coffee at Café Nero and awaited the arrival of our coach—which came bang on schedule and picked us up.

On the Coach to Devon:

The horrible heat of the past week had left and become only a hazy memory. Temperatures were very comfortable indeed as we made our way on the coach to Devon. If only we were spared rain, we’d have the most wonderful time, we were sure.

All the way on the journey, I had the company of Gavin, an Australian from Brisbane, who had arrived in Scandinavia for a conference and made a slight detour to see English friends in Taunton in Devon whom he had not seen for almost twenty years since he had last lived there. He kept up a steady and very interesting stream of conversation, shared his snacks with me (crisp, unsalted nuts) and bore with me as I took a much-needed nap. The miles flew past as we passed by dozens of caravans (or campers, as they are known in the UK)—for it is clearly the vehicle of choice for a southwestern coastal holiday. The green downs kept us company as did flocks of sheep, cows and horses in the passing fields.  We made one stop at Taunton and were next put down at Exeter, the largest city in Devon and most important urban center in the region.

Melbury House Air B&B:

When we arrived at the coach station in Exeter at 12. 30, I called Graham, the man who ran the Air B&B in which we had made a booking. He gave us instructions by foot to his place and in about a half hour, we were on his doorstep.  His Melbury House B&B turned out to be a Victorian guest house that he had bought and refurbished to convert into an Air B&B. It carried the tired air of an old dowager who has seen better days. The furniture was dated in the grand old lounge filled with velvet upholstery, dozens of oil landscapes in gilded and carved wooden frames and loads of Buddhas. Yes, Graham and his partner Leon had traveled extensively in the Far East and had shipped back gigantic Buddhas that were sprinkled on every landing from where they smiled in golden splendor.  Our room on the second floor was a very modern studio, complete with an en suite bathroom and a kitchenette where every new appliance made for great convenience.  Once we were handed over our keys, we sized up our room, then left our backpacks behind and set out to discover the city.

Discovering Exeter Cathedral and Close:

The city of Exeter is best known for its thousand-year old Cathedral that has stood on this site and seen history grow around it.  A straight walk down the High Street past every enticing big name store brings the visitor to the ‘Close’, the vast green around which medieval cathedrals sprang up. As with all grand edifices built in the Gothic style during the Middle Ages, the building took over a century to build. Painstaking craftsmanship is evident in the carving of the stone facades which usually feature sculptures of the saints.

By the time we arrived at the Close, we had picked up coffee and sandwiches and we sipped and munched while overlooking the grand façade of the cathedral.  A big fun fare was in progress and families were out in full force to enjoy the amusements. A group of kids were demonstrating their karate moves, another lot were enjoying a bouncy castle, cakes were offered at a Bring and Buy sale that included a chocolate fountain, arts and crafts stalls attracted buyers. We got fully into the spirit of the event and on getting up to explore the inside of the Cathedral, found out that Evensong was about to start in half an hour.

Naturally, we decided to attend the service. With half an hour left to while away, we walked along the ancient city walls—that date from Roman times—to the Tourist Information Center in order to pick up maps and other aids for our travels in Devon. We found the assistant very helpful indeed and armed with a load of printed material, we returned to the Close.

It was time for the fun fare to end and for the stalls to close down. Free cakes were offered to passing visitors and I was pleased to be presented with a lemon drizzle cupcake. Not too long afterwards, we were inside the Cathedral and taking our place at the choir stalls. As we had about fifteen minutes to spare, I circumnavigated the Cathedral to closely examine its ancient carvings, its magnificent timbered ceiling or nave with its brilliant bosses, its intricately carved wooden choir stalls that looked like fine lace and its miseracordia that I pointed out to Shahnaz. The varied chapels were filled with funerary monuments. Very soon, the congregation swelled and by the time Evensong service began, there was a sizeable number of people in the church. There were no child choristers but the adult choir did a very competent job indeed. It made for a wonderful service that we both enjoyed.

The tenor of life in the UK after 5.00 pm is always very interesting to behold. Life seems to come to a sudden standstill as shops down their shutters and salespeople go home. With only restaurants and pubs open, streets wear a suddenly haggard look. Shahnaz and I decided to go out in search of Exeter Central station to enable us to purchase tickets for our intended excursion to the North Devon coast tomorrow. When we arrived at the station, we were informed that it made no difference in ticket prices whether we purchased them in advance or at the time of travel Deciding, therefore, to wait and see how the weather shaped up, we got a hold of Great Eastern Railway timetables to enable us to plan our travels in Devon.

Using our map, we then found our way by a much shorter route to Melbury House where we sank into the bed in our room with much gratitude as we were quite tired from our exploration. We were glad to find a tea kettle in our kitchen and we used it to make ourselves some coffee which we sipped as we ate cheese scones with Stilton cheese, ox tongue sandwiches, fresh raspberries, and pistachio and almond cookies. Yes, it was a strange meal indeed but it was an improvisation of whatever we had picked up, between the two of us, at supermarkets we’d visited.

With the TV on, we watched some game shows and relaxed before calling it an early night.

Until tomorrow, cheerio.