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.

Dreamy Dunster Didn’t Dim

Living in Somerset I cannot ignore the charms of Dreamy Dunster any longer. The charms of this medieval village with its castle which is to be found just inside the Exmoor National park were, for so long, wasted on me. It was here that I spent the penultimate night stay on my End to Enders cycle ride (I will be posting the blog of this experience on its 5th anniversary in April) and regularly the scene of drunken cricket tours. Sadly, its true beauty was never quite appreciated. I do recall walking between pubs on one tour and rather merrily remarking at a quintessential English garden.

Sadly, that tour and its fun no longer exists, so there are to be no more of those muddled memories. Last year I managed to visit the village twice. The first visit was made in beautiful autumn sunshine and the second time for Dunster by candlelight. The first visit was in great company and daylight and confirmed what a dreamy place this was.

There is no better place to start a visit to Dunster than in its aforementioned castle. After a short, steep, plod up its motte, this immaculate looking building doesn’t give the romantic notion of a battle hardened, historic castle. What was once a medieval stronghold was given to the National Trust after a family called it home for 600 years. It disappoints me slightly that it doesn’t resemble my imagination of a former bastion, but that disappointment doesn’t linger for long.

The visit inside had to be paused at regular intervals for photos, and I also had to break off proceedings to admire the steam train move adjacent to the coast as it left Dunster station. Such an image! Puffs of smoke disturb the view as the train moves slowly across the landscape – there is something rather poetic in its motion. Upon leaving the building and meandering over its hilly grounds, we found some solace at the bottom of a hill. I am blessed with photo opportunities, none more so than the river and a working mill. Through the odd gaps in the trees you get a glimmer of the charming village that sits in the shadow of this castle. After taking all the pictures I could, it was time for a quick ice cream and then off to visit the village.

Walking around you could easily be overwhelmed by the beauty of this place. This tiny village, an interwoven web of slate and thatch propped on wooden foundations would probably only need a single, lit match carelessly discarded to bring the place to ash. It is such a haven from modern, advanced, architecture it has so much more appeal than the jungle of a city like New York (see recent blog). A real sense of pride and ownership adorns the town throughout.

Wanting to take a picture of almost every building I was distracted and drawn in to a beautiful gallery. Almost every painting was of tall ships. I clearly share the same passion as the artist, and though not a massive fan of art I was incredibly appreciative of David Deacon’s work. Now a proud owner of a picture of his work it was worth daring inside to be amazed at his art rather than the normal ignorance on display at these places.

It’s here that I turn my mind back to the second of my visits, an occasion when Dunster didn’t dim. Sadly, this visit coincided with a time when I was having to prop myself up on crutches. I came for an event that was billed at being by candlelight. I was left a little bewildered by the amount of electricity being consumed in the town. Rather mistakenly I thought they turned off the power locally for this event and we were about step back in time, guided by candlelight alone as we walked those darkened and dim streets. Disappointingly there were only half a dozen candle lights there, perhaps as a token gesture as the bright lights of shops and pubs teased you to enter. Rumours are that the castle dimmed its power; if it did, I applaud it. Sadly, I was left slightly disappointed at what we witnessed, had health and safety prevented a step back in time or did the high street get greedy and try and feed on the good will of the people supporting a charitable event.

Not to be a hater of all things, the evening that promised so much will not diminish the happy meanderings of Dreamy Dunster. For on that wet evening, in great company, crutches and all,  Dunster itself didn’t dim.

Marvellous Mottisfont

After being let down yet again by today’s youth at my place of work, and rather than rush home to compile a report of the day’s failings, I took the opportunity to visit another National Trust property and seize the moment presented to me. Due to my location the choice was easy enough, although it meant a longer route home. The name of Mottisfont meant nothing to me, but it had cropped up on my recent visit to Romsey. Rather than study the A to Z road map, the post code was put into the sat nav and the easy 9-mile drive was made.

I left Southampton and drove past the charming Romsey which was the destination of another trip made in December which was also made to alleviate the stress caused by the same issue mentioned above. As this trip was completely unplanned, I didn’t let the fact I was only armed with the camera on my phone to deter me. I guess there is perhaps some positives to modern technology in that we are always able to capture any moment in one way or another rather just trying to memorise it.

After signing in and getting my map, I crossed a bridge at the end of which a sign said, ‘The first sign that spring is around the corner is…..’ Upon walking around said corner, I was distracted as the house dominates one’s view. Completely attracted by the house and river flowing by I began to search for the perfect spot for the obligatory reflection photo. Rather fortuitously I noticed the beautiful, white, drop bell-shaped flowers that are just starting to bloom and to which the sign referred. The snowdrops are in bloom. As the threatening clouds gathered, and the chilly wind seemed to sweep across the country, my mind thought on the never-ending talk of Brexit and my disappointment, distrust even, of politicians and the fiasco they have contrived to produce. It seems an ill wind that blows across these shores at the moment. All was forgotten, both physical and metaphorical, by the bright and wonderful distraction and attraction these flowers are. A stroll along the river Test follows the snowdrop trail.

Can it be believed that this was once a weekend family home? The size and location beggar belief. A step inside and one is immediately greeted by the family’s love affair with art. I am not yet a fan of art and I didn’t hold much hope of enjoying the visit inside, but with a cold winter wind and no sun it was a place of refuge. I enjoyed two rooms, the nostalgia of these studies, rooms full of books, old cameras, ancient sports equipment, board games, musical instruments, etc. The books always grab my attention – perhaps they are the biggest evidence of something that once was – but one in particular caught my eye. ‘Home Guard Manual 1941’ immediately reminded me of those sayings like, ‘we’re not proper soldiers’, ‘put that light out’ and ‘you stupid boy’ from the many episodes of the inimitable Dad’s Army shown over Christmas.

The former owners were clearly art fanatics. The house now being in the hands of the National Trust the tradition associated with the house has been continued. On the top floor was the first of 4 exhibitions to be held throughout the year. Surprisingly I made the walk up the large staircase to have a look. The view that greeted me was a bold green wall with 4 or 5 pony cartoons. The artist responsible for these spent the last quarter of a century of his life in Hampshire. Norman Thelwell lived in the Test Valley at Timsbury near Romsey. After looking at one I was immediately captivated by Thelwell’s depiction of these creatures and joined in with the laughing made out loud by the observers of his work. As the title of the exhibition was laughter and landscapes, I certainly had a few laughs at the brilliance of these comics. What therapy at the end of a trying day.

Apart from these adorable cartoons, Thelwell produced some gorgeous landscape paintings. Some of these scenes I recognised. One painting was of Salisbury cathedral which was the subject of another recent trip. As my route home took me through Salisbury, I thought what better than to try to find the view Thelwell used. So, as I sit and write this blog from the Old Mill at Harnham I wonder if I have found an artform or an artist that I appreciate. As work continues to bring me back this way, and there are 3 other exhibitions planned for the year, I expect to return to marvellous Mottisfont.

Timeless Tyneham

Before 1943, Tyneham was a  simple working village with farming and fishing being the main industries/sources of livelihood. Then Churchill commandeered the village and land for a tank firing range ahead of D-Day the following year. 228 Residents were given one month’s notice to leave. One of the final members to leave attached a note to the church door saying, ‘Thank you for treating the village kindly’. 

 

They never returned.

 

The villagers were promised they could return after the war but, sadly, another war followed and as a result it remained as a firing range to this day.

 

This is another perspective of all those sacrifices made during the wars and particularly the Second World war. Think of your home. Then, imagine being told you had to give up your home…. many of the residents didn’t own these houses and as a result were only compensated for the vegetables in their gardens. It is true that the village was in decline (the school had already closed down due to lack of numbers) with the fishing and farming industry lost to modern advancements and bigger towns nearby. Perhaps it could be argued that Churchill put the village out of its misery, but it was still home to some people and who knows for how many generations.  

 

70 and more years on don’t be blinkered into thinking that this is a tourist hotspot – it is not. Visiting here is quite eerie. It’s like time has been frozen. Bylaws prevent the sale of any goods or development as an attraction (there are so many more places that could benefit from this type of law!!). Before reading the superb boards that tell of the history of Tyneham one might easily think that it resembles a bomb site and not a place deserted and almost lost to the ravages of time. The roofless buildings look like they were blown off by bombs rather than, perhaps, blown off after years of wild British weather. The frames of the houses still stand strongly, proudly giving a backward glimpse into the lives of the long-departed community. The only buildings still recognisable are the church and school for both have received some tender loving care. This is a true ghost town which stands as a memorial to the sacrifice made by a village to train personnel in order to accelerate the end of the war. A lonely red phone box stands in front of a cable less pylon, perhaps begging for a buyer – what an iconic symbol of modern times. 

 

Tyneham is located in a beautiful valley that is untouched and unspoilt by modernisation, rich in wildlife and provides access to Worbarrow Bay in Dorset. It is a long time since I made a brief visit here, but perhaps another, lengthier visit is in order. It is isolated close to the coast and it provides a tranquil haven from the well-trodden tourist path. 

 

As I leave, I appreciate my home and think of the sacrifices of many, and also consider whether to write about such a place for fear that this place no longer remains hidden from the masses!!! As I write it is a long way from the modern, instant internet/insta fame that destroys the beauty of many a historic spot. Thank God for bylaws and long may it stay that way.

 

Romsey Ramble

Located 7 miles northwest of Southampton and 11 miles southwest of Winchester and sitting on the banks of the River Test is the ancient and charming market town of Romsey. My latest adventure was a flying visit utilising the little daylight left at the end of the working part of the day and before the commute home. I try to maximise what I can do during these short and sharp winter days.

Although brief the visit was well worth it. I discovered something new to me. At the heart of the town is the ancient abbey which dates back to 907 AD. It was re-founded in 967 AD as a Benedictine Abbey of nuns. Just like the last abbey I visited, it managed to survive the monastic dissolution thanks to the faith and foresight of four ‘Guardians’ of the abbey who petitioned Henry VIII and brought the church for £100. Abbey revenues were, however, confiscated and to this day it relies on generous donations from visitors.

A step inside and I was greeted by an enthusiastic member of the church who was quick to pounce and explain the Abbey’s history!! Sadly, its unattractive outside appearance mirrored what was on the inside. The winter’s day and lack of sun didn’t add to its appeal. It was cold, dull and dreary, the wooden ceiling and stone work giving it an authentic appeal of dating back to the 10th and 16th centuries. Plain and simplistic in appearance it doesn’t show off splendour or wealth like other places of worship. The Abbey now plays host to several musical concerts, perhaps to help sustain its very existence, and is a confirmation of how these once wealthy establishments now try to find a way to survive in this ever-changing world. A revisit to enjoy one of these might be worth it both for myself and the good of the church.

I left the abbey as pupils from a local school steadily filed in for what was perhaps their Christmas concert. I retrace my steps back through the archway of another church. This was once the gateway to the abbey. Sadly, the church was locked up. Around part of this church/gateway runs a stream, which on further investigation may prove to be part of the river Test. A stroll around the medieval town, whilst dodging the silly sales people, is charming enough. It also highlights the current struggles of the British high street as there was a too common sight of the ‘to let’ sign in shop windows. The Abbey hotel looks to offer so much potential, but it stands unloved and abandoned.

As time on my car parking space was running out, I made my way back and this time noticed some slabs with writing engraved on them as I passed by. One such engraving caught my eye in particular, and I shall leave you with it. It is taken from the end of William Butler Yeats poem ‘He wishes for the cloths of heaven’ –

‘…..But I, being poor, have only my dreams:
I have spread my dreams under your feet:
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams’

Charming Cotehele

A flying visit after work didn’t do this place the justice it no doubt deserves – as a result a return to this charming place is on the cards. On a cold autumnal day and pressed for time, Cotehele delivered a warm and surprising welcome. Once again travel for work and membership of the National Trust combine to provide an excellent opportunity to visit another remarkable place around this fascinating country; this was no exception to this general rule.

Cotehele is a medieval mansion on a 1300-acre estate deep in the Tamar valley. A drive to the main car park takes you past some of the other charms of Cotehele – a working mill, a quay with a historic boat and a tea room with river views. A return will surely have to take place to visit the Victorian ‘Shamrock’, the former Tamar sailing barge. The former owners for over 600 years of the estate go by the name of Edgcumbe. This is not a name that stands out in British history as far as my knowledge goes but one that screams in my recent memory. Back in the summer I had stumbled upon mount Edgcumbe country park on the Rame peninsula – part of the great estate that the Edgcumbe once owned across Cornwall.

The medieval mansion is a beaut (better looking than the one that is located on the Rame peninsula). It sits on top of a hill providing views down to the river Tamar and the village of Calstock (a village of little importance but dominated by a towering viaduct). The house looks and feels medieval. My whistle stop tour at this time of the year allowed a visit to a small part of the house – the rest is shut down for the winter as it doesn’t possess any electricity. How fascinating to think of a home without electricity when houses these days can’t survive without it. The last Earl of Edgcumbe and owner of Cotehele lost his son in the First World War. He handed it over to the National Trust as a memorial to his son. I’m assuming that as there was no longer an heir to the estate provisions were made for it to pass to the National Trust. Apparently the National Trust has maintained the property in a time warp, and I look forward to seeing and exploring this on my next visit.

Cotehele’s other charm was its commemoration of World War One. The sheer effort in creating such a thing is to be admired and should not be ignored. I was grateful that it had remained up past the anniversary of that great event. A combination of the artist and volunteers helped to cut out 20,000 flowers/leaves to create this and they are entwined with memories from the war. It seems the 100th anniversary of World War One seems to have brought out an artistic effort right across the country and beyond the like of which that I can’t remember seeing before, not just here. I remember seeing all those ceramic poppies at the tower of London to commemorate the start of the war and this seems to have inspired a lot more places to have something done to remember the end of it. Every village, town and city around here appears to have delivered something unique and ambitious.

A rapid look at the upper and lower gardens (these possibly have other names but such was the brevity of the visit that I didn’t get them) gave me enough enjoyment to entice me to come back and see it in its summer glory. Today it looked almost unloved as the autumn had truly taken effect and weaved its web and deprived the flowers and trees of their photogenic beauty. The pond in the upper garden looks like providing a lovely opportunity for reflections of trees and the house.

It was with haste that I left to try and enjoy the last of the autumn sunshine. Cotehele you have certainly made an impression; I shall return as you have charmed me.

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.

a Winchester Walk

I’m so glad I made the drive to Winchester. I had been before, but I couldn’t remember anything of this city. And oh, how I wished I had kept a blog as a kid (maybe a diary, blogging didn’t exist back then)! You could say I was spoilt as a kid; aren’t all kids these days? Not with the latest gadgets or fashionable label. I was spoilt by my parent’s passion to show me not only the world but the country which I call home. It’s with slight sadness of heart that I didn’t appreciate the efforts they made then as much as I would have now.

Winchester was once the capital of this land. This medieval, cathedral city has an abundance of incredible buildings and has history etched all over it. My visit wasn’t long enough, nor did it do it full justice. I did not see it all. Oh, how that disappointment of not seeing everything has already whetted my appetite for a return visit. The city is surely a must see for anyone who lives in England or wants to visit these shores. Not too far from central London or the southern coast, its development at this location can be understood. It became a Saxon capital and a powerful base for bishops. It also plays host to two of this country’s mystical characters – Alfred the great and Arthur and his knights of the round table.

On arrival, I quickly left my car and headed on foot in the direction of the cathedral. Why not, I thought, as I had done no planning or research. Why not just get lost and explore? Immediately I was captivated by the wonderful architecture that is spread all over the city. After capturing a charming pub with oak and white washed walls bathed in glorious autumn sunshine, I crossed the charming river Itchen. Rumour has this was the inspiration to John Keats ‘Ode to Autumn’. It was by chance I noticed a National Trust property on the bridge (a mill) and immediately marched in. It wasn’t my intention to visit a National Trust place today, so a quick peep before leaving in search of other sights was complete in no time.

Straight after leaving the river, the statue to Alfred the Great casts its watch over the city. A sword and not a wand is in his hand. He looks directly up the High Street, and what was described as the oldest high street of the land in a visit to a museum. His statue is as old as the building to his left. The guildhall attracts you to the brighter side of the street. A look in it its doorway distracts you for a little while. But wait! In search of more than a doorway, I stroll off in search of better things. Not much further up the street, a left turn was made through one of the 5 gateways in the walls that once guarded the city (not much left now) and towards the cathedral.

There it was, a 11th century masterpiece, one of Europe’s longest. To say I wasn’t impressed on first view is an understatement! Crowds, enticed to the local lawns for entertainment, were distracted from an interest in the building. Who could blame them, for on the outside it is unremarkable; not one of England’s finest. Taking an inquisitive step inside changes all of that and confirms that truthful saying that beauty is only skin deep. I stood in amazement first of all at the sheer size of this incredible building. I felt so small and lost in such a vast space. After picking up my jaw off the floor I spent my time taking those customary pictures. Every step seemed to discover a fresh, mind-blowing view. I feel that I could have spent all day in there.

I was sad to leave especially as the organist was enticing me to stay with the pleasant sounds he generated. Outside, the amazing autumn sunshine was waving its magical light all over the city. My meanderings took me off the beaten track – as they always do – in search of that amazing discovery. It led me to two things. Firstly, a church that had been converted to flats – an epitome of how religion is portrayed in this ever-dysfunctional modern era. The second discovery was, after getting lost around the converted barracks which have now been converted to flats, the Great Hall. References to King Arthur and knights of the round table were a thing of childhood imagination. There is a round table mounted high up on the wall of this 13th century building. Sadly, this was closed to me due to an event. My fascination with this myth will ensure that this is ticked off on my next visit.

A wander to the top of town seemed like a chore and nothing like the wonders below. A quick visit and a climb up into the Westgate museum, didn’t give the desired city views. So as the autumn chill set in and a need to leave, it was with haste that I left. A visit to “England’s oldest pub” was completed before departure. Can this be true, how will we ever know? It just seems that this statement is published to entice the people in.

Another walk in Winchester will be done. I cannot wait – castles and colleges await! Until then I shall try and remember those long-lost childhood visits.

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.

Brunel’s Bristol

Bristol has been a huge part of my life, and it saddens me that it has only taken me until now to fully explore it. Probably not best to be explored by foot as its sights are widespread and it is hilly as well, I did so anyway. Racking up the kilometres I managed to visit all of Brunel’s masterpieces.

 

Bristol’s location is a puzzle to me as it is a long way from the Bristol Channel. Surely a port at the edge of the land would have been an ideal location for ships and transportation links. Why bring all the ships up to the harbour in the city centre? This route is a glorious passage up through the Avon gorge, as it meanders its way from the Bristol channel to Bristol’s city centre. Presumably the river is deep and wide enough to allow the size of ships that obtained in the nineteenth century to float up to the city centre when Bristol saw much traffic. This could only be achieved by the lock system. The gorge towers up on either side, and when the tide goes out leaves nothing but a mucky mud view. One of Brunel’s engineering creations is the stunning suspension bridge that crosses high above the gorge with more modern advancements meaning that lower bridges and roads have been put in place. Upon crossing these it was fascinating to discover that Brunel had built a swivel bridge and wonder at how much of the docks he built.

The suspension bridge may be viewed from a number of surrounding locations. Certainly, the Clifton side is the best viewing spot. If you can manage to drag yourself away from this wonderful view, wander through this posh neighbourhood of Bristol. I did exactly that as I went in search of Cabot’s tower. Not so keen on Cabot’s tower (some bad memories and all that) I was tour guide for my dad the day we visited, so I felt it had to be included. On arriving and passing a number of elegant buildings I was surprised to find that one could walk up the tower for free! What a shock, when just about everything else touristy in this country has a charge associated with it. Well done Bristol!

Upon leaving the park, we were in front of the SS Great Britain. What was once the largest steamship ever to be built and the first to cross the Atlantic looks nothing compared to the ships that travel the oceans these days. Its amazing to think of the number of times that I have been in Bristol and have never visited this iconic ship. Another piece of work by Brunel, but perhaps I have not visited being put off by the price to visit this ship. The ship is moored in the floating harbour, a walk around here is well worth the views on a summer’s evening. At the western end of the harbour a few charming pubs exist alongside the locks; in the centre is the massive M Shed, guarded by 4 former ship cranes. This harbour lacks the volume of boats you would normally associate with most harbours probably due to its awkward entry and exit to the channel. Perhaps the larger ships use Avonmouth. During one weekend in the summer months this place turns into a harbour fest. The city, which I deem pleasant to visit at any time, becomes a hive of activity then and really buzzes.

A short walk from the harbour in either direction is the cathedral or city centre I am not one for shopping so I avoid the shops – just like the rest of the country seems to be doing but, no doubt, for other reasons! Instead I take a visit to the city’s cathedral. Amazingly this place is free to enter as well! Double bonus points, Bristol. So many of the English cathedrals seem to charge an exorbitant entrance fee. I believe this cathedral to be one of the larger in the country and a visit inside does little to contradict that. A visit to this wonderful piece of architecture is a must for anyone. One thing that surprised me was that the stained glass windows in most of the building weren’t the normal religious depictions that one would expect. This as a result of the bombings in the war which meant that most of the windows were blown out. The church decided to replace them with memories of those who helped Bristol during the war.

Drag myself away from here and across the college green and make a way up Park Street. Normally I make my way down it in a drunken state, but this time I was drawn to what I thought was another church on top of the hill. On closer inspection I was proved wrong. This is in fact a part of the university.

After finally looking at what Bristol has to offer, rather than what has always been for previous family visits or nights of drinking this place has blown my mind. If I had more time then I would like to look at one of Brunel’s great engineering feats, the railway. There are many other wonderful places yet to discover in this fascinating city.

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.

 

 

 

 

Beautiful Bath

I don’t quite know how to go about my second blog but I decided to write about a place that seems to be capturing more of my heart every time I visit. To my way of thinking I haven’t been to a more charming, peaceful or romantic place in all of England or the world. Perhaps I ought to get out more.

I had been to Bath as a youngster but just cannot remember anything about family visits. My memory of my first visit as an adult is of being distinctly underwhelmed by any beauty that the place possessed, but, slowly, mostly as a result of time spent with those who have graced me with their company when visiting, or even when exploring on my own, I have been captivated by its (unique?) charm.

The town’s small and compact footprint is appreciated best of all by standing on one of the surrounding hills which provide a stunning backdrop to this delightful town. Alternatively, a climb to the top of the abbey gives the view from the other direction. It is, without doubt, best explored by foot, allowing one to feel the energy that flows through its streets, its wonderful squares creating a sense of calm amid the excitement popping up elsewhere, usually associated with street performers of various energies and abilities. Every square is surrounded by cafes and restaurants which are normally full, have outside seating for one to feel the buzz in a detached and inactive way. Sit back, and soak up the atmosphere as the world passes by, those pockets of excitement coming from some street entertainment, more often than not a musical player or singer.

My favourite of the many is the main square though finding a suitable place to sit is often a challenge as these popular hotspots can’t cope with the demand. Seating is provided outside, but taking a place means to rely heavily on the British weather which, as Britons often remark, is unpredictable. When the sun is shining, though, it’s great to sit back and appreciate the view of the Abbey and the atmosphere it creates. This results in it becoming the main hub of activity as people flock to admire this fantastic building and the Roman Baths which are located on the edges of this square. I sit, admire the architectural lines and wonder how these buildings were ever created; how much time went into building them; the levels of dedication and devotion required; how they have managed to stand the test of time, etc. By this I mean that some people must have spent their whole lives just building them. As we all marvel at the architecture around us we are joined by street artists and buskers, trying to earn their living from the obliging tourists. They add something very special to this electric atmosphere as these musicians are generally more talented than the wannabees you see on TV. Then there is the bird man; he captures the rats in the sky; and manages to coax them down, his targets being those people so determined to have the perfect Instagram photo.

Drag yourself away from the square and wander towards the river. It is here that the only part of Bath that disappointments – I refer to the iniquity that one is forced to pay to enter Parade Gardens – a travesty. I can’t understand the need to pay to enter, so as a matter of principle I’m left to enjoy the view from the walkway above. After appreciating the gardens on a five minute elevated walk, one follows the path around to get a first view of the famous Pulteney bridge. This iconic bridge, unique and famous just adds to the romance of the town or is it a city? When one walks across it one is blissfully unaware that there is water 15m or so below such is the abundance of shops and cafes to distract. Armed with a camera means that a different view is recorded by shifting a few metres each time and then clicking. Try to freeze the water in the photo as it cascades down the semi-circular weir or, conversely, try to capture moving water by an adjustment to the settings – what joy loaded with a single regret in that a tripod has been left at home. The bridge connects the main town to the Great Pulteney Road, a superb street packed with Georgian buildings, in a straight formation leading to the Holburn museum. The beauty of this house parade is, sadly, spoiled by the large number of cars parked on either side of the street – surely there is another way? Cars are such an important part of modern life but ruin the appearance of this historic and wonderful street.

As mentioned the Holburn Museum sits at the end of the street. Free entry is claimed by the literature although, understandably, a small donation is requested and best to pay as the frowns are palpable. Paying up front was a mistake as, sadly the museum, was wasted on me. I don’t understand art! The museum is situated in Sydney gardens, a small park with not much going for it. On walking through the park, I’m not drawn to anything else other than the fact there is a closed down and abandoned bowls club, a painful reminder of the current issues facing grass roots sport. If this country has more and more elderly people living in it and is struggling to run a bowls club, how are other sports going to survive? We have more and more older people – they can’t all be sitting at home playing computer games.

Upon leaving the park and crossing the railway line, I pick up part of the canal path – well worth the walk -giving spectacular views across the town dominated by the Abbey. Again, only as a result of visiting with someone, was I introduced to this pathway; it weaves its way around the edge of the town and furnishes brilliant views. There are many locks on this canal as it climbs out of the town through the surrounding hills, further evidence of this being a relatively modern town. I leave the path and follow the signs for Prior Park. I had high expectations for Prior Park gardens (National Trust), all the pictures I had seen had portrayed a mirror lake, rare bridge and gardens. Maybe it’s the long and steep climb to get there or the dingy lake (were those pictures photoshopped?) but I was not impressed and the walk did not seem worth it (800 metres at 1 in 10). I appreciate the work that goes in to preserve these places for us to enjoy but it appeared that green algae had troubled the efforts this year.

After completing this part, I return to the Abbey and main square. It’s here that I plan my next route which is to head towards Victoria Park via the circus. As one leaves the square and wander along the high street, I’m drawn to the alarming number of ‘to let’ signs in abandoned stores. Is it a sign of the ever-changing society in which we live? Are commercial juggernauts and the internet taking over and killing this country? How many pubs and shops cannot survive anymore due to a lack of business? One only has to walk along the high street and everyone is glued to a phone, blissfully ignorant of all the beauty around them, whether it be people, shops, pubs, etc. The ability to only communicate through a phone deprives many of the beauty of both people and places that surround us as we live in a cyber world.

The high street is short enough that I don’t have to worry about it for too long before arriving at ‘the Circus’. Not formed in a square, this circular masterpiece is a gem. Houses surround a circular middle green all looking at each other like numbers on a clock face. Cars are the only caveat. Removing myself away from this circular wonder and making the final walk to Royal Victoria

Park, I am fascinated by the view of the ‘most majestic street in the UK’, the Royal Crescent. It is hard not to argue with this statement. This is the masterpiece of the younger of the John Wood architects that had such a influence on this town’s design. Sit on the green and marvel at the view in front of you and let your mind wander through yesteryear (ignore the cars).

In my opinion no visit to Bath is complete without some time spent in Alexander park, a free beauty spot which is known to the locals but not to many outsiders. It provides exquisite views of the town. I would recommend driving up to it, but walking up would be worth the not inconsiderable effort.

Perhaps its location has meant that no one has wanted to fight over it and why it has become a place for relaxation and pleasure seeking. All that is needed is for folks to wrench themselves from their phones to lift eyes, move their legs and see what is around them.