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.

Outstanding Oxford

I have a soft spot for Oxford. I had been taken there as a kid on a number of occasions. In 2014 a friend and I walked the Thames path in 9 days. The first few days were somewhat boring and then….. Oxford. The ‘dreaming spires’, the curious colleges, the stunning architecture, the plethora of push bikes, the pubs – surely this is a poet’s dream. Publishing brands of renown, well known industrial brands, history etched all over, museums, etc. Perhaps most tourists are drawn to its filming locations as used in the Harry Potter films or sit and muse over Morse, Lewis and now Endeavour episodes-so far, I haven’t been tempted in.

Oxford must surely be one of the jewels in the English crown, and along with Bath is one of my favourite places in this extraordinary country of my birth. I made it my intention to visit this place when I completed that Thames path odyssey, and ever since that time I’ve always thought why it was that I didn’t discover this place earlier.

My normal route to the city seems to be on a bus these days, although arriving by train and foot has been ticked off! To use the bus is very unlike me. Enjoying the view as I am carried along, the excitement builds as I travel up the Woodstock Road, past St Giles church and see through the tree lined St Giles Avenue the Martyrs memorial. The sight of this structure is the realisation that I have arrived at the heart of this wonderful city. Oxford delivers so much by way of diversity. It is apparent in that first glimpse as religion, pubs, museums, colleges all meet at that one site.

The Martyrs memorial requires some research. I find out that the 3 people commemorated on it were from Tudor times. Bishops Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer were all burnt at the stake for their beliefs. This statue wasn’t raised until 300 years after their brutal deaths. It is claimed that the road level cross in the middle of Broad Street tarmac marks the actual spot rather than the site of the memorial.

Oxford captivates my curiosity; its prestigious pedigree as a leading educational institute has been built up over many a century.  One wonders why I’m so fascinated with this as I never had an interest in higher education. I’m not going to bore you in this blog with the individual beauty and splendour of these colleges, but challenge you to explore it for yourself, for it will truly blow your mind. This aspect is probably worthy of its own blog…. watch this space.

Oxford and its surrounding areas boast the most delightful pubs, full of charm and character, and deliver local brews. It’s not surprising to see why they have made it into so many episodes of Morse, Endeavour, etc. The Trout Inn, The Eagle and Child, Turf and Tavern, Lamb and Flag, and White Horse are among those that have been blessed with celebrity visits, used as TV sets or provided inspiration for writers. As pubs become a part of yesteryear, (they are closing at an alarming rate over here), one cannot beat an evening after work just pub crawling around the many quaint pubs. It could be argued that this is one of the best ways to explore Oxford.

Opposite the White Flag pub is perhaps one of my favourite areas of Oxford and includes the Sheldonian Theatre, Bodleian Library and Radcliffe camera sandwich. These iconic buildings are surrounded on all sides by a number of the university’s colleges. These beautiful buildings are one of my favourite views in this country.

Another fascinating part of Oxford is the number of museums it possesses. The Ashmolean is best described as Oxford’s answer to the British Museum and probably deserves its own blog. The River Pitts museum is madness. The building itself is tremendous was filled with excited children and perhaps they were slightly off putting as regards this curious and quirky collection. Granted I visited both museums on a wet and wild day in the school holidays. The calm and peace of the Ashmolean meant I was able to study and challenge my limited knowledge. The crazy Arthur Pitts was manic.

Perhaps Oxford’s best view is from above. It led the Victorian poet to describe it as ‘a city of dreaming spires’. I’m still trying to find my favourite to enjoy the view (perhaps Carfax Tower is a candidate) but one cannot argue with this description.

As I keep returning to this wonderful place I discover somewhere new and intriguing each time. This blog has only scratched the surface of this incredible place. Until next time Oxford – I cannot wait.

Deer Dyrham

On this visit to a National Trust property I wasn’t sure what was the greater attraction-the deer that reside in the ancient deer park or the exquisite 17th century house. Being told that the deer were in the furthest part of the park, I set off to find them on a long walk around the estate. I saw a group but too far off the path for a picture, so made my way to house. Near the house I was extremely surprised not only to find a huge herd, but to see how incredibly obliging they were to sit or stand and have their pictures taken. Brits being Brits meant we had the silly children who thought that it would be a good idea to pet them or get as close as possible for a picture.

After taking a bucket load of photos in the hope that I got a decent shot it was time to get out of the stifling heat and take a visit inside the house. Its former residents were not very famous, but perhaps had one of the best looking houses around. The house, grand in appearance on the outside, seemed normal and not too extravagant on the inside. It was mostly decorated in grand paintings of its past inhabitants, and the only thing of real notice was the sign that said only 4 humans on the staircase at one time. This modern sign was in place because the building was undergoing major restoration which meant that the staircase was supported by scaffolding. It’s remarkable how these places were even built.

This was my second time visiting this place and both times have proved to be at completely different seasons. My first visit was at the back end of the snow and heavy rain at the beginning of the year. Sadly I couldn’t explore the glorious grounds that time; I had to stick to the driveway which highlighted how steep and hilly these lovely grounds are. I knew upon my first visit that I would need to come back to explore the near 300 acres of land.

My second visit came during the heat wave that has engulfed the UK and the rest of Europe. I’m not one to complain about it being a sun worshipper but the effects it is having is startling. Is this the biggest sign that global warming is really happening? And have we left it too late to do anything about it? The heat sadly had taken all the colour out of the grass and flowers and made the grounds look almost like a desert. The formal garden would have shown the beauty of the western side of the house: sadly it looked like something from the Sahara.

After walking up the final hill to get the stunning view looking down on the house I left the impressive Dyrham, and a renovated Dyrham Park is perhaps one of the best in the National Trust portfolio?

 

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.

Looks like a good fellow but was he married to his nuts and bolts?

This is my second blog on my use of National Trust membership. My visit took me to Nuffield Place, by no means glamorous and is well hidden but these observations did not detract from my fascination with the place. Walking along the pathway to see the house it did not grab my attention as some of the larger, more glamorous properties do. My immediate thought was that I had wasted a visit but it only proves the adage that we should not judge a book by its cover.

The house was like a time warp and, though I can’t be sure, seemed that everything was set in the 1930s. The owner died in 1963. There were no lavish surroundings, just simple living space.

My knowledge of this William Morris (I am informed there is another famous person by that name whose wallpapers feature in many a National Trust property; indeed one can visit his house somewhere down Kent way) started at zero so that this visit was educational. The family name Morris did not ring any bells with me having neither little interest in cars and none in wallpapers. Those in the know associate Morris with Morris motor cars. I was born too late to see Morris motor cars on every corner of every road in the land. 

Lord Nuffield was one of Britain’s greatest philanthropists. How refreshing to hear of someone with so much wealth being so generous. It left me thinking of a world where money seems to rule everything, and confirms to my heart that money doesn’t buy happiness. Perhaps this man was happy. It is clear that he achieved a lot with the years allotted to him.

Apparently Lord Nuffield was one of the richest men in the world during his time but you would never have guessed this from a visit to his house. These days the iron lung, of which he became a principle donor, is confined to a shed in the garden. He was a successful business man, clearly a practical man (I mean, who has a workshop in their bedroom?!!?). It would appear from the house that Lord Nuffield did not do frippery. The house almost seems like it has been thrown together and suggests that the person who lived there was married to his work with nuts and bolts. I left the property with an inquisitive mind. In endowing part of his considerable fortune to Nuffield College in Oxford I feel it is high time I went to visit this place ahead of the other colleges in that wonderful city.

History at Hughenden

View from the main garden

I’m finally starting to take full advantage of my National Trust (NT) membership. Living my manic lifestyle, finding the time has been difficult to use it to the full. With the long Easter weekend there was an opportunity to get out and explore should the weather had been kind. Who would have thought that I’m becoming fascinated with history! In England we’re blessed with an abundance of history that we really shouldn’t ignore.

Memorial in church

Until today I had never heard of Disraeli so this trip to Hughenden Manor was worthwhile. The house and grounds (though disappointing on first appearance) were crowded as there was an Easter Egg hunt under way. I will not go off on one about commercialisation of religious festivals as there was much to learn about an illustrious, though, to my way of thinking, stomach churning, creepy, former Prime Minister. There is much evidence on display to confirm my impressions. Evidently Queen Victoria thought that he was wonderful, and this is seen in a memorial in the church. And yet, in a perverse way, it is the TV series covering young Victoria’s life that has sparked my interest. It may well be, based on the numbers in the house and grounds, that I am not alone.

The house didn’t have the wow factor that some of the NT properties have that I have visited but it did have some interesting things going for it. The inside of the house was well maintained; the ground floor was mainly family pictures; in certain rooms there were inscriptions printed on the blinds. There was also a lot of information in the house regarding politics and Disraeli.

Portrait of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in the Disraelis’ Bedroom

On the upper floor there were more pictures; these were different though as they were gifts from the queen. These could be spotted by the crown crowning the frame. The first room on the top floor has a timeline of his life. When we were there a passionate West Indian man spoke about Isaac Disraeli (his father) falling out with his fellow Jews at the synagogue and getting his children baptised into the Church of England. At the time this was a vital decision that enabled Benjamin to become Prime minister in adult life. Look around at the walls to see Disraeli quotes. Two of these appealed to me as a traveller, “Like all great travellers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen” and “One secret of success in life is for a man to be ready for his opportunity when it comes”.

Springtime

The final stop was to look downstairs to see how ‘Hillside’ was used in the construction of maps used in World War 2. Tight, congested and overcrowded it was time to leave. It was then time to witness an adult playing stuck in the mud by parking his car on some wet ground rather than the huge amounts of kids running around. The building and gardens looked dank but then so has been the weather of late. Wait for the summer as the gardens will look tremendous.