Delightful Dartmouth

A regular destination on my meanderings and one of my favourite spots in England is what I consider to be the unique and delightful maritime town of Dartmouth. It boasts history, castles, architecture, boats and an iconic college. A combination of nostalgia and the nautical make for a charming and atmospheric town. Its deep-water port made for its strategic importance and the town has been built up the steep banks of the River Dart. The Dart river flows from its source on Dartmoor and upstream is Totnes (see blog).

Dartmouth on the one bank of the river sits opposite the town of Kingswear. Kingswear is like the mirror image of Dartmouth, with both possessing a castle, streets adorned with quaint and colourful houses, and a church. It was only last week that a friend remarked that it’s like a scene from Balamory. For all their similarities, Kingswear boasts something that Dartmouth doesn’t – a railway line! It terminated at Kingswear after someone realised it wouldn’t be possible to get a bridge across the river!! Sounds a bit like Brexit planning. That didn’t stop Dartmouth, this side of the river estuary, building a railway station in anticipation of the line that never reached it!! The railway station building is a striking sight as you approach it from the river perhaps from a ferry crossing or on one of the superb boat tours. Rather than destroy the building due to the absence of a railway line meant that the building became a general ticketing office for a while, and these days, a charming café!!

This branch line on the other side is no longer part of the national rail services. Instead it has become part of the heritage scene with a steam train running the 7miles from Paignton. Each train that arrives or departs is laden with tourists/enthusiasts making the evocative, emotional and gorgeous journey. It has been a common way for me to arrive here from earliest days, and one that perhaps everyone should consider making. There is a poetic feel to arriving as people did in times gone by and surrounded by England’s green and pleasant lands en route. After disembarking and crossing the river (by ferry and not bridge!!), you can sit on the edge of the harbour and watch the steam train puff along the river edge back to where it came from.  This scene that is repeated throughout the day.

A visit to Dartmouth should be to enjoy the river. It is a hive of activity, but no vessel seems to bump in to another. Its strategic importance cannot be ignored as it was home to the Royal Navy since as far back as the reign of Edward III. A walk to the castle takes you past the Warfleet Creek where several boats were made as far back as the 12th Century. During the Spanish Armada, Dartmouth provided ships for the English fleet and a captured Spanish vessel was docked in the town. The town has been home to the Britannia Royal Naval College since 1863. The iconic college has been at the forefront of education and development of naval officers with the imperious building sitting proudly on the hill and overlooking the beautiful town and estuary. It was where her Majesty Queen Elizabeth met her husband. The river plays host to a famous regatta in summer months.

If crabbing off the quay isn’t what you are looking for, the charming Elizabethan streets provide some independent, fashionable outlets. The pubs allow you to spill out from inside and onto the edge of the river to enjoy your pint of choice. Recently I made the walk from the town to the castle having made it on boat previously. Not a member of the English Heritage, the entrance fee to the castle wasn’t paid but instead an exploration of St Petroc’s church along with a customary spend in the coffee shop for refreshments and cake took place. From this point you can pick up the South West coastal path and go off to explore Castle and Compass Coves. This is highly recommended though not in the mud and after a few wet and snowy days (a spectacular fall).

My love of history, fascination with boats of any shape and size, and sense of calm and pleasure that any expanse of water brings, shows why Dartmouth is one of my favourite places in England. Those who have visited with me endorse my approbation, and those who will join me in the future will, no doubt, agree that this town is an absolute delight.

Boring Buckfast

The second abbey visit from my wanderings to Dartmoor. This is a complete and utter contrast to my meanderings around Buckland Abbey (you can read about that here). As I arrive can’t work out whether it sits in its own village or is part of the town of Buckfastleigh. The view as I drive in is dominated by the tower of the abbey from which, I imagine, the whole of Buckfastleigh may be seen.

As most abbeys lost their wealth and land because they were dissolved during the Reformation, it was surprising to learn that this was still an active and clearly wealthy monastery. Whereas Buckland Abbey had been sold to someone who converted it to their home, Buckfast was an active place of living and worship.

It has a long history dating back to 1018AD when there was a Benedictine abbey here. By 1150 it had become a Cistercian monastery. It remained so until the dissolution of monasteries during Henry VIII’s reign in 1539. After centuries of decay and rotting the Abbey was to be built again as some monks from France found their way to the site in 1882. The present church was consecrated in 1932 which is evident in that the church looks relatively new. Silly me, I thought I was on my way to see an 11th century building. The whole complex (living quarters for monks as well) is now part of an international organisation.

Upon inspection, the organised layout gave an aura of corporate and commercial management but that is not to say that a fee was demanded for entrance. I was immediately directed into a new looking information centre. Clearly there was some money being made somewhere and somehow. Has this got anything to do with the tonic wine that is produced here? Although I didn’t understand the need for this centre, much of the information gleaned there is quoted above. It also gave me a view of the monks who were, ostensibly, there to assist the tourist. Perhaps it is not the way I think of monasteries, but it was interesting to see two monks debating and trying to work out how to use a single mobile phone!! They were hardly millennials but were trying to embrace the technology.

Upon leaving the exhibition and getting the customary outside photos, I immediately headed into the abbey. Unlike some of the recent cathedrals and churches I have visited it had a rather dull and spartan looking interior. This is in no way meant to be offensive – it was just that it wasn’t that impressive. The only nice part of the ceiling was roped off and inaccessible. So, took a couple of shots and left without spending more than 10 minutes inside. Perhaps I discovered that not all abbeys are blessed with amazing architecture and craftsmanship as seen in many other buildings up and down the country.

So I left the abbey neither impressed nor inspired. The visit took place in October and this may explain why it has taken me so long to write this blog. It’s amazing to think how a little bit of commercialisation, professionalism and advertising can entice people to a place. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone making the effort to visit this place, but I believe on doing so you will be disappointed.

Totnes Town

I’m very lucky. In order to do my work, I have to fetch myself to yet another delightful English town. This time my destination is located in the southern part of the charming county of Devon. I am headed for the delightful town of Totnes. It is spoilt with a wealth of charming architecture and fascinating history – how lucky am I.

As I start to put together some blogs about one of my favourite parts of England, I’m so happy to have discovered Totnes. I will admit that the first time that I arrived here as an adult that I wasn’t really interested in the town and happier to go about chasing the local steam train with my father while other members of the family hit the shops. How wrong was I to write the place off?

This fascinating market town sits on a hill, overlooking the breath-takingly beautiful Devon countryside and the River Dart. The view is slightly impeded these days as the town is built up. At the top of the hill sits Totnes Castle – it is easy to see why they built it here. The castle belongs to the English Heritage portfolio. Sadly, I’m not currently a member and pressed for time I had to forgo a visit here – perhaps next month.

Leaving the castle, one descends to the high street. The steep hill is full of charming buildings that have managed to keep their outside facades as the modern shops fill their insides. At the top of the town sits the Civic square, where the local markets are held on a Friday and Saturday. Nothing much happening here on this occasion, I followed the high street. Walking down the steep hill I am fascinated by the East Gate arch, which was once the gateway to the medieval town and has now been faithfully reconstructed after a devasting fire in 1990.

To the left of this archway as I wander down the hill there are a set of steps. Take these and follow the path as it meanders around St Mary’s Church. This 15th Century church is built in a glorious red stone – some research claims this is from Devon county. A step inside is worth it as always, although on this occasion I am rushing around so I take a couple of quick photos before departing on my exploration once more.

Directly adjacent to the Church grounds is the Guildhall. Founded in 1088 as an abbey, I believe, it was built in 1553 as the building it is today. For something that is tucked away and hidden, it is surprising that it once was the heartbeat of the town. It is now a museum to times gone by and a small fee of £1 – a suggested donation – gains one entrance. As time was an issue I had to save this visit for another day, perhaps when the cold and rain come. A quick peak inside reveals the names of the 600 mayors that have ruled the town and what looks like a royal standard on the wall.

I leave here and retrace my steps back to the high street where I follow it on down. Again, I admire all the lovely buildings either side of the street. I am drawn to a beautiful looking pub up the corner but as I’m working that pleasure has to be missed. It also distracts me from the ‘Brutus Stone’. According to local legend Brutus of Troy, the mythical founder of Britain, stepped off his ship here and the stone marks the spot. It is claimed that he said, “Here I stand and here I rest. And this good town shall be called Totnes”.  It is not that I would know what or where it is. I shall look out for it next time in Fore Street and near to number 51. At the bottom of the hill a striking pink building captures my attention as its brilliantly lit up in the autumn sunshine.

Its perfectly located next to the bridge over which I cross for wonderful views of the River Dart. Bathing in glorious autumn sunshine late in the day, it’s so still and peaceful even though the tide had gone out! Some customary shots were taken of mirror like reflections. A quick dash to the car and then a slower, mundane drive along the A38 lie in wait. Totnes, I can’t wait to see you again.

Top notch Tavistock

I’m very lucky that I get to travel with my work around this wonderful county. Today was no exception as my work took me to West Devon and the town of Tavistock. Upon my arrival I was greeted by a roundabout in the centre of which was a statue. Closer inspection revealed it was of Sir Francis Drake. This name is known to many and will feature greatly in up and coming blogs. It is believed that he was born near to this town. The statue looks straight down the street that leads to this well-established town. I’m informed that it is or was a stannary town and a visit to the museum would have explained all that this, but time was at a premium!! It has something to do with tin.

A whistle-stop tour of St. Eustachius church (who was St. Eustachius?) Never heard of a church called this but it gave sight of beautiful stained glass and ancient, Tudor, tombs to Fitz and Glanville. It was evident to be a place that hosted concerts more than religious gatherings but maybe it was just that time of the year??  Exon Singers were due to perform a number of events; if I had stayed all day I would have been blessed with a rendition of Handel’s Messiah.

After leaving the church and crossing Bedford Square the town hall is encountered. Between this impressive building and the guard house sits the Pannier market, a great combination of knick knack stalls and coffee shops/eating places surrounding the market area. First thing in the morning barely a person disturbs this area, but visiting at lunchtime, this had become a hub of activity.

Tavistock town is an architectural gem; it provided a quirky shopping experience for those with me but my best time was spent at the river Tavy that flows adjacent to the town. There are a set of falls which, with a road carrying, stone, bridge behind them, are most impressive.  I perhaps could have sat there all day but being so close to Dartmoor National Park its seemed silly not to tie in a visit here as well.

Drake’s Digs

My latest National Trust blog concerns a visit to Buckland Abbey. On first hearing the name I expected to be visiting a  religious ruin. Not doing any research into this venue I arrived to be for what was once an abbey had been converted into an elegant Elizabethan mansion.

As with most abbeys in our land they probably would have been dissolved because of the reformation during the reign of Henry VIII. This would have resulted in their vast estates and buildings being sold or passed on to the rich people of the land. It made its way into the hands of two very famous explorers – firstly, Sir Richard Grenville, until his death at sea, and then Sir Francis Drake. It was Sir Richard, who was born in the hamlet, who took it upon himself to convert the Abbey into a Elizabethan mansion before the more well-known, Sir Francis lived there. The house is picturesque from all view points within its lovely grounds; it boasts a quaint little garden which was in full bloom. The inside lacked beauty and was more of a museum the only highlight being an odd stained glass window reflecting on the life of its previous owners.

 

I must confess to never having heard of Sir Richard Grenville. I did some research to discover who he was. He was cousin to the famous Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake. I will admit to not knowing anything about Sir Richard, but, like his more illustrious cousins, he was an explorer/sea captain. The top part of the house is a shrine to his more famous cousin, Sir Francis Drake. The house gives reminders of the life that these explorers must have lived, and, oh how I would have loved to lived this exploring part of their lives. Imagine setting sail, with no apps or GPS, not knowing what was over the horizon or discovering places until then unknown. The stories they could have told or blogs they could have written. How very different to the modern explorer/traveller, where live updates, and abundance of information are available at the touch of a button.

I left this place in awe of its famous inhabitants, and curious to find out more about them. Little did I know that the one of them would be a common theme in my later explorations.

Springtime at Saltram

My latest NT blog is of plain looking Saltram in springtime. Idyllically located on the banks of the estuary it is easily seen why the Parker family purchased the estate. The house, however, looks so plain and ordinary at first sight with no grand and elaborate designs, and strangely enough from the inside doesn’t give a view of the estuary.

Inside the house I was greeted and welcomed by a proud volunteer; he was keen to explain the greeting by the god of mercury, wealth, travel and roads who looks down on the visitor from the ceiling. From here access to the rest house is through one of 4 doors, each doorway guarded by one of the 4 elements, fire, water, earth and air.

An unaccompanied walk around the house normally allows me to do my own thing, but today it draws my attention to room wardens (or theirs to me), who seem so keen to engage in conversation about the house. One in particular talked about how the interior design is down to Robert Adams. His eye for detail is evident in everything in the house but it’s the ceilings that are the most impressive feature. Maybe a fact that confirms that not all beauty is on the outside but on the inside.

As I was informed on my visit it perhaps wasn’t the house that they were after when they brought it but the grounds of the estate. It’s hard to argue with that as I meander my way around them in glorious spring sunshine, tear drops and blue bells awash the ground like an artist’s pallet. Add to this the grass and weeds that can’t be touched so as not to ruin the spring flowers. Having read the signs and notices I didn’t jump in to get my picture, unlike the kid on a school visit.  The walk along the tree path is a tunnel of green as the trees take full bloom now spring is in full swing.

Maybe with more time on my hands I may have found the river from the grounds, or taken one or bigger estate walks; instead I had to drag myself away to ensure I beat the bank holiday traffic. Sadly, I failed but consoled myself in the memories of another National Trust adventure, and a new place discovered.