Location: Portsmouth, Hampshire, Honiton, Devon and London, UK
We left Brighton and made our way along the coast to Portsmouth, arriving in time to tune in our little TV and listen to Boris’s Saturday afternoon address of the nation. Except the 4pm address was delayed to 5pm….then the 5pm to 6pm….and the 6pm to…who knows when, because by then we were sipping our first gin and tonics with my sister Elle and brother in law John! They prepared a delicious spaghetti bolognaise and which we enjoyed with the usual sprinkling of funny stories, laughter and some rather delicious red wine.
After dinner we heard confirmation of the announcement – the UK is to go into a countrywide ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown as of Thursday the 5th November. All non-essential shops are to close, and foreign travel is banned. Thankfully the Australian Embassy in London countered that to confirm that the repatriation flight we’re on is still going to leave on Saturday, and that we are exempt from that rule.
All too soon it was Sunday morning and we said farewell, pointing Truffy’s nose westwards to a campsite just outside Honiton in Devon.
It was our final chance to use the services, clean out the toilet thoroughly and basically get Truffy ready for storage.
On Monday we were welcomed to our friends’ Karen and Dan house, where we tackled the final washing requirements and they were very conveniently having a new part of their loft boarded…just in time for us to avail ourselves of a small portion of space for Truffy’s soft furnishings and a few bits and pieces we aren’t taking back to Australia. We are so grateful to these generous friends for their welcome help – conveniently located just 15 minutes drive from where we are storing our motorhome.
Over the next three days, we prepared Truffy for winter – draining out the tanks, blowing out all the water from the pipes, and after our last storage experience, setting up some mouse bait stations in the hope we can save some of our wiring from nibbling teeth!
Finally it was time to store Truffy. We awoke to a crisp, clear morning and a fabulous view over the frosty white rooftops of Honiton and to the fields beyond. The perfect farewell memory for this stunning part of the UK. The autumn trees were positively glowing as we drove along empty roads to the storage place and parked Truffy up for the last time.
We both felt rather sad driving away. Although this year didn’t bring us the travel adventures we initially expected, we have had some incredible times these past few months, reconnecting with our homeland, watching the seasons change and relishing all the weathers and temperatures that come hand in hand with them.
While we don’t know when we will be able to return we do at least feel comfortable that Truffy’s in safe hands and will hopefully not be in too bad a shape when we eventually return.
Stepping onto an empty train platform at Honiton, followed by a nearly empty train to London, we were reminded that these are strange times, with more to come. This is the first day of the UK’s second Covid-19 lockdown.
Our first step along the way to getting back to Australia was to get a Covid-19 test done. This was included in the price of our ticket with the results being sent simultaneously back to us as well as Qantas sometime in the next 48 hours. Getting a negative result means we can board the plane on Saturday morning…hopefully sooner than that given our flight leaves in a little more than 36 hours’ time!
We caught a taxi to Fenchurch Street where the testing centre was located. It was all very casual and ramshackle, nothing like the NHS centre I had attended for a test two weeks ago. We were called in to be tested one by one, sat in a chair in a tiny cupboard-like office, beside a bin overflowing with cardboard boxes and used tissues. Definitely not the most hygienic testing facility – we both left feeling slightly violated and with the distinct impression we had been placed in more danger of being exposed to the virus than we have in any of our previous weeks of travel.
We left and caught a very quiet tube train from the city to Paddington Station where we checked into the Hilton Hotel for the next couple of nights. Thanks to the lockdown, there is no eating out at a restaurant tonight – just an UberEats delivery in our room.
We have one final day left in the UK before we fly, and with few shops open and nothing left to do or prepare, there’s a lovely sense of freedom about the day ahead. A chance to just breathe and enjoy London for its outdoor spaces and cool temperatures before our upcoming time in Darwin’s 34°C quarantine.
Location: Castle Drogo, Dartmoor, Honiton, Devon, UK
In addition to the change in weather over the past couple of weeks, we are beginning to see signs of autumn everywhere. The flowers we were admiring a few months ago are now beginning to go to seed, their leaves decaying. Trees and bushes which once sported blossom, are now carrying fruit and nuts, with every hike rewarding us with fresh blackberries. We continue to appreciate the change in seasons.
Farewelling Holsworthy on Sunday morning we drove down some tiny lanes in Dartmoor National Park to Drogo Castle. After all the stormy weather it was a relief to see the blue skies again as we wound our way down single track roads, hoping we would not come across another vehicle. We parked in the coach parking space at Castle Drogo – a National Trust volunteer advising us that yes, not only coaches come here but buses too! Not today though, so we had a nice big parking space to settle in.
Castle Drogo was apparently the last castle to be built in England – in the early 1900s. It is more of a manor house with castle features than a ‘real’ castle designed to keep out invaders. We were not here to visit the castle or its gardens however, rather to hike the Teign Gorge Walk, a circular hike (Strava link) through various vegetation down to the Teign River and back. This area is apparently one of the most famous walks on Dartmoor, but despite this accolade, it was not too busy on this sunny Sunday morning.
I think we appreciated everything all the more because of the glorious weather – everything looked clean and fresh after the rain, the insects buzzing around, newly hatched butterflies flitting around the heather.
As we drove out of the area towards the main road to Exeter, we fortunately didn’t come across many vehicles, and those we did were easily able to reverse neatly into one of the passing spaces found alongside the lanes…apart from this one lady. It literally took her 10 minutes to reverse back three metres – she kept reversing into the hedge, driving forwards angrily and repeating the same manoeuvre. Just torture to watch. I bet she was relieved when we finally drove past her and went on our way. Top tip – if you cannot reverse confidently, then do not visit Devon. According to a recent study, Devon has more than 16 metres of road per head of population measuring in excess of 8,000 miles (nearly 12,900km) – and very few of those roads are major arteries. You can expect to have to reverse at some point!
Our next location was the small town of Honiton, about 18 miles north of Exeter. This was to be our home for the next five nights as we had agreed to cat-sit a rather handsome 16 year old called Wooster for our friends Karen and Dan. They were off to Wales for five days of fun with their twin boys before they went back to school.
What an absolute delight Wooster was! In case you hadn’t noticed, we are somewhat cat lovers, and dearly miss our feline fur child, Tassie, who is being cared for by her foster parents in Sydney, Australia. Wooster adopted us immediately, happy to allow us to groom him, and welcomed a warm lap to sleep on. He even took to sleeping part of the night between us…we felt very privileged. In return, we kept him fed and watered, plus gave him his daily asthma inhaler and medication.
On Tuesday morning we walked into Honiton for an explore. It was market day and the high street was bustling. The market wasn’t as impressive as we’d hoped, but we picked up a couple of bargains as we wondered around. Unlike many towns, Honiton has not pedestrianised its main street, meaning huge lorries disrupt the peace as they rumble through the centre. It’s in dire need of a bypass but had a nice feel otherwise.
On Wednesday we decided to explore the nearby city of Exeter. We donned our face coverings for the short train ride, Mr A proudly wearing his very scary Darth Vader variety! Exeter is a university city, and that general vibe could be felt right away. Unlike Honiton, it has gone down the pedestrianised route, with a one way system on the streets to protect people from Covid-19…that everyone was ignoring. Oh well, they tried!
After a delicious lunch at a street-food market, we started to explore around the shops. but the constant hand sanitising and mask wearing got a little tiresome. Several of the store attendants were clearly feeling a little tense at having to deal with the general public and snapped and barked rules at us as we entered. It really took the shine off shopping, and despite being very bored with our current limited wardrobes, we left with nothing new.
Feeling a little dejected, we followed signs down to the Quay. This is a historical area which used to serve a multitude of ships which travelled up the river to this port. These days it is full of interesting craft shops, cafes and bars – we could imagine it being bustling during ‘peace-time’.
We had a look around before returning to the station to catch our train home.
In addition to appreciating some furry company, our house and cat-sit was a great chance to enjoy four days with space, a long shower and a washing machine. As much as we enjoy staying in Truffy, it is good to sometimes move around and recharge our batteries. Having had little drying weather recently, our washing mountain was quite substantial, so finally we feel on top of things.
We left Wooster with a few new catnip mice, a massage brush and heavy hearts. We’ll miss his vocal chats and loud purrs as we move on our way to new adventures.
Last week was Storm Ellen, this week was Storm Francis’s turn to bugger things up. We had it all planned. Catherine’s sister and family were coming to camp with us for the week, and their childhood friend Karen and her family also joining us for a couple of days.
Well, Helen and family lasted one night before their tent was shredded by gale force winds, and holiday spirits drowned by rain squalls lashing; the field turned into a mud pit. Karen and her family sensibly decided to abort completely.
We just felt so sorry for them. This has been a super tough year for all of these folk for many reasons. They were so looking forward to a chance to get escape to somewhere different and hang out with each other. But nothing could be done. Their tent just buckled under the wind. It was pitched well, it just couldn’t stand up to the 52mph gusts that were buffeting us on Monday night. This was only the third night of use for this brand new tent. Poor show Outwell, and we’ve told them so, even posted a number of pictures on their Facebook site showing the broken poles. Not even an acknowledgment. It did make us realise how so much more robust, and good value, our Australian camping equipment is.
So that was that. We were back on our own. The wind subsided to a fresh breeze, and it stopped raining briefly, so we jumped on our bikes and rode into the local town of Holsworthy for a pub lunch. It was the last day of the “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme the UK government has been running to help the pub and restaurant industry by providing £10 a head subsidy at participating restaurants a few days each week in August. We’ve not managed to use it before, so was nice to get a cheap feed.
The riding around here, as I’ve said before, is just magnificent. Several long distance cycle routes come through the area, often following old railways lines, and we headed out a short way on one towards Bude. We joined for a while two touring cyclists who were heading from land End to John O’Groats,. They worked for Sustrans, the national cycle body that has been the driver behind so much of the program of work that has transformed cycling in the UK. I envied them the ride.
With another forecast of rain, wind and more rain, we decided to drive over to the picturesque village of Clovelly, backdrop to so many films, including one of our favourites, The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society. You have to park outside the village entrance, and then pay a small fee for entry before you are able to walk down the pedestrianised high street (we like that!) that descends precipitously 120 metres to the little harbour.
It’s while in the fisherman’s museum that we learn the link to Sydney’s expensive eastern suburb of Clovelly A Plymouth born pastoralist with links to this village of Clovelly in Devon sailed to Australia in the early 1800s. His name was Hannibal Hawkins Macarthur. He purchased a house in Watson’s bay which he named Clovelly after this village. Later, when Sydney’s Council was trying to name the suburb, they considered Eastbourne, but picked Clovelly instead, influenced by the name of his house.
With the rain lashing down it was a slippery walk on the cobbles, but the views were just tremendous. The sense of history once again was palpable. Its easy to see why a number of famous writers and artists have taken their inspiration from living here.
The weather certainly wasn’t suiting the feline population, with several practically knocking on windows and doors to be let in out of the cold and wet. We however braved it down to the harbour, and sheltered while we sipped our hot tea and contemplated what life would have been like heading out on a fishing boat. In 1838 twelve boats set out and only one returned, a storm hitting them and taking twenty six lives that day. We however, fortified by a Devon pasty, and educated by the shop owner about the difference between a Devon and a Cornish one (its all in the pastry folding apparently) and we headed back to Truffy somewhat bedraggled.
After another day of rain…we finally saw a window in the forecast, fortuitously for when we had booked a wine tasting. Yes…English wine….So off we went on the bikes, the winery (Torview Wines) conveniently being located on the same cycle route we had headed out on previously, when we visited Black Torrington and the delicious pub lunch last weekend.. Happy to repeat that stunning ride, off we pedalled with a freezing north wind causing us to wrap up warm. And yes… it is August.
Tim and his wife are the owners of the winery, and the only employees. Run as a family business they feel they can better control the inputs and outputs. We really enjoyed our visit here. Tim really did a great job of giving an overview of viticulture in this neck of the woods. They acquired the property from one of the many farmers whose cattle had been hit by foot and mouth.
Tim has been involved in the wine industry all his life, and felt he wanted to do things a little differently in his winery, based on what he felt would work best. For instance, the weeds are allowed to grow between the vines. The nettles were thigh high and it didn’t make for a pretty picture, but Tim is adamant it helps the wine because you are not running up and down the soil with vehicles compacting and damaging it, and the added stress on the vines ensures they produce fewer leaves and more fruit. With two pairs of barn owls living on the property, the longer grass also provides them with ample hunting ground.
He also has a novel way of sourcing his pickers for the harvest. He approached several local charities and offered to donate £30 a day for any volunteers they could find him. What a neat idea.
We tasted a number of his wines, with three main varieties, two we had never tried before. In this climate they need to be pretty robust! Climate change is having its impact here like everywhere else. Earlier springs for instance, which becomes an issue when there is a frost, which led to some varieties being decimated this year. Interestingly this is another business that sees its market as being almost exclusively local, with stock for instance going to bed and breakfasts for their welcome packs, and regional farmers markets. We left understanding a lot more than the zero knowledge we had. That counts as a good day.
This is our last day of the nearly a fortnight we have spent at Headon Farm. We have been made so welcome by the owners, Linda and Richard. They epitomise what we’d love every campsite owner to be like. Everything is so well kept and clean, and local knowledge always forthcoming. I wish we could store our Truffy here, they have a gold standard facility, and know they would be such good carers, but having to get back to Heathrow. with all of our luggage…tricky.
For the people who drive here in cars and come back year after year, what a fantastic base to explore Devon and Cornwall. The weather hasn’t been kind, but we can’t control that. We have still enjoyed our time here, just wish we could have shared more of it with friends and family as we planned. It wasn’t to be.
When bad weather is given a name, you know it’s not going to be a fleeting visit, and this has been the case with Storm Ellen. Ellen is a combination of two storms – a tropical storm that originated off the east coast of the USA which met up with another storm coming from Greenland. Is this just weather or the impact of climate change? Nevertheless, the resultant high winds and rain have been what we have been ‘enjoying’ here the past week.
We moved inland from Bude to a farm near Holsworthy, a small market town just across the border into Devon. It is very rural, with few major roads, predominantly a network of tiny narrow lanes, winding around and over the rolling hills, joining up little villages and farms. It makes for ideal walking and cycling territory, and with a break in the rain we went for an explore.
Holsworthy holds a small market on Wednesdays and Saturdays, so we drove in to check it out. It really was small, but we found a lady selling a whole stall of vegan cakes. Being dairy-free, this was very exciting for me (I rarely can consume cake!), and we selected a chocolate orange cake which was divine, and ideal for an afternoon of sheltering from the rain with a cup of tea.
Mark did a little research and found a vineyard about an hour’s cycle away which offered tours and tasting. The wine industry in the UK is growing rapidly and some of the more established vineyards are achieving a great reputation, though to date, British wine accounts for only 1% of consumption here. Its another sign of the changing climate, with the South of France often reaching summer temperatures in the mid to late 30s, and parts of the UK now much more similar to temperatures of France of the past.
We didn’t get very far, with a thorn wedging itself into my rear bike tire, and after 5km I was off my bike and pushing it back to camp. Perhaps it was for the best. Once back, the weather changed , with blustery showers accompanied by strong gusts of wind. We rebooked the wine tasting for next weekend, when hopefully the weather will be more favourable.
Friday morning we drove off to Exeter, about an hour’s journey south-east. My breathing had been doing really well, but slowly starting to decline, so I had an appointment to have some steroid injections at Charing Cross Hospital in London. I farewelled Mark, donned my face covering and settled onto the train to Paddington.
All went well at the hospital, with a successful procedure and my trachea looking really good apparently, and soon I was off to stay the night with friends in Twickenham. I first met Jacky face to face back in 2017, but we had been friends for a couple of years before that, having met online through the support group I run for patients with idiopathic subglottic stenosis. She and her husband Austin were amazing hosts, taking me out in Twickenham to an Italian restaurant, followed by a stroll along the River Thames.
Before I caught the train back to Exeter, we enjoyed a Saturday morning explore along the riverside, opening my eyes to a new side of Twickenham, which I previously only knew for hosting rugby matches. Lovely parks, historic houses, art galleries, barges and birds on the river, it was really interesting and very unexpected.
We’ve been in the UK for six months now, and in all that time had not managed to go for a pub Sunday lunch. Linda, one of the owners of the campsite we’re staying on (Headon Farm), had recommended lunch at The Black River Inn in the village of Black Torrington, so we booked ourselves in.
It was a 40 minute cycle across country to Black Torrington, following some of Route 3, a cycle network along quiet lanes and cycle paths between Land’s End and Bristol. We were grateful for our motors on the rolling hills, particularly on the way home.
A brilliant dining experience, well deserved of their great reputation. They even served Wicked Wolf ale, the beer sold by our old neighbour in West Bagborough.
The coming week is going to take on a different pace, with my sister Helen coming camping with her family, and friends from Honiton also joining us for a couple of nights. We’re really looking forward to it – whatever the weather, we’ll brave it together!
Our fabulous 66km ride out to Okehampton and back left us curious to tour more of this stunning area, in particular to explore Dartmoor National Park. It is the largest area of open space in the south of England, and has been shaped by centuries of human activity.
First though, we got some unexpected news. I had emailed an old work colleague from Australia, who, I recalled in the depths of my memories, had moved to Devon from Sydney several years ago. We weren’t sure where in Devon she was living, but given we are here until the end of the month, we thought it might be possible for us to pay her a visit and learn more about her new life on this side of the world. Her response was just as surprised as ours – she had moved to none other than Tavistock!
We jumped on our bikes and cycled over to her house via the Tavistock Viaduct. The viaduct is pretty much all that remains from the old railway which ran through here and closed in the 1960s – now turned into a short 2km walking and cycleway through a cool leafy reserve and offering fabulous views over the town.
We joined Mary for cold drinks in the garden and proceeded to ask her lots of questions. It was a lovely afternoon and helped us understand more about the decisions behind a big and brave move back around the world after more than 20 years living in Australia.
Thunder storms rumbled around us but we remained dry, with the rain fortunately holding off until we were back holed up in Truffy.
Mary had given us some advice on where to start a walk, and despite continuing wet weather forecast, we were keen to get out on the moors. We drove a short way out of Tavistock and parked up behind a pub, The Dartmoor Inn. We decided to book in for lunch after our walk.
First though, we had to work up that appetite. A lane beside the pub led us directly onto Dartmoor, a completely different scenery to the bright green fields and farmland we have been used to. We decided to take a walk up to Widgery’s Cross up on Brat tor. This was erected in 1887 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, and is the tallest of all the crosses on Dartmoor, made from slabs of granite. A tor is the name given to peaks topped with rock, most frequently granite. Dartmoor National Park has more than 160 tors.
As we climbed up the hill, the ‘Devon sunshine’ descended around us, with swirling cloud obscuring the views and settling thick around us. We clambered up the rocky tor, and sat at the base of the cross enjoying a cup of tea.
At just over 5.5km (Strava link), this was not a long walk, but a great taster of what’s potentially on offer for us on Dartmoor. We are certainly hungry to see more in the future.
Our lunch at the Dartmoor Inn was a wonderful surprise. The new owners have only been there 12 months, but in that time spent several thousand pounds renovating the interior and bringing the menu up to date. We opted for two entrees each – crab salad and scallops for myself and a roasted tomato soup for Mark, followed by scallops as well. Absolutely delicious and accompanied by some fabulous wine options – just one glass for myself and half a beer for Mr A.
Head chef and co-owner Jay Barker-Jones popped out to chat as we finished our meal – explaining his food philosophy and dreams for the pub. We wished them every success – the food quality is definitely in line with Jay’s training in Michelin starred restaurants around the UK. We would say this meal has been the most outstanding of our visit to the UK so far.
Bonus fact for travelling folks like us – they welcome motorhomes to come and park up for the night, as long as they’re dining there that evening. If you’re travelling this way, I would definitely take up that offer and enjoy more than just one glass of wine!
Location: Tavistock, Okehampton and Dartmoor, Devon,
Having time to learn has been one of the great joys of retirement. We have found ourselves, in our three years on the road, improving our understanding of the world around us. Its history, geology, flora, fauna, macro and micro cultures. What a privledge, and we don’t want to waste that opportunity. Take this week for example. we took another walk from our campsite, and came across an old arsenic works from the early 20th century. That led to a bit of reading up about mining more generally in this area, and all of a sudden this whole new chapter in my learning journey opens up.
So we had seen the signs around Tavistock designating it a World Heritage site, but hadn’t really understood why. Its all about the mines.
I have also wondered how this little island I once called home got to be so important for a while on the world stage (Noah Harare in “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” was the most readable explanation I’ve read on that) and the role mining played in Britain’s rise to fame I hadn’t really appreciated.
The archaeological record shows a history of taking ores from stream beds and turning them into something useful since the mid Bronze Age, around 4,000 years ago. In this area, it was mainly tin and copper, thanks to its abundance given a specific geology where mineralisation had occurred. I was definitely asleep in my history and chemistry lessons, as I hadn’t remembered that by adding small amounts of tin to copper – hey presto— you have bronze, an even harder metal. Although the first evidence of this process has been uncovered in Turkey over 5,000 years ago, first evidence so far in UK was a 1,000 years later. It has been postulated even as a reason the Romans invaded to get their hands on Cornish and Devon tin. By the 12th century there was over 60 tons of tin ore recorded as being mined out of Dartmoor and the surrounding area.
This mining activity has so shaped the landscape and made an unique contribution of the area we are exploring that in 2006 it was awarded World Heritage status, as the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape. The 18th and 19th century saw deep mines (over 1500 feet at Morwhellan) for tin and two thirds of the world’s copper, as well as half the world‘s arsenic production. Mining machinery built in this area was sold around the world and become one of the drivers of the Industrial Revolution. Another piece in the puzzle of understanding this country’s history put in place.
So it is a with different eye that we can walk around this landscape, admire its rural beauty, and now appreciate its role on the world stage.
Just imagining the children, some as young as 9, their graves in the local churchyard, climbing down into these mines, sent shivers down our spines, even on this baking hot day. I think of my grandchildren at that age now, and how their world is so different.
One unintended benefit for us of this historical landscape is the abundance of old railways that the far sighted Devon Council has converted to rail trails. I had read about one called the Granite Way that started around 15 kilometres from our campsite. So off we rode, the excitement of the wheels rolling somewhere new never dulls.
We cycled through some pretty hilly terrain, with liberal use of the pedal assistance provided by our bikes. Would we have chosen to ride to the start without battery support? I doubt it. It added over 30 km to the trip, with another 36km return for the rail trail to come. But knowing we could “flatten the hills” a bit we rode it (Strava link).
We are so glad we did. The ride took us through an unfolding landscape dotted with churches with commanding views, Norman castles, and some very enticing looking pubs.
But we pressed on to the welcome more level tarmac of the Granite Way. I had seen pictures from various blogs of the highlights of this route, which is part of the much longer “Coast to Coast” route through Devon (Plymouth to Ilfracombe) , but was still taken aback when we rounded a corner and this restored viaduct came into view.
It was great seeing so many smiles from other cyclists as well, clearly enjoying the day. Even a couple of lycra clad road warriors smiled, unheard of in Australia! It is so relaxing to be away from the threat of cars, and just to be able to take in the view without constantly checking mirrors and worrying if you will be come one of the many accident statistics where bike meets car. Cyclist rarely comes off better! Touch wood, so far, we have experienced really respectful road sharing behaviour from car drivers. The only near accident was when we were pedestrians and a road cyclist came hammering around a blind bend in a village and nearly took Catherine out!
As we reached the end of the trail in the small town of Okehampton, we spotted a family from our campsite who has just ridden the trail with their three boys, one of whom was only five! Brilliant. A long pub lunch while our batteries charged back up, and we rode back, catching them up and riding the return rail trail leg with them. It was so inspiring to hear their story. The two highest mountain peaks in England and Wales have bagged by these little guys, when one was only four!
They don’t posses tablets, and haven’t asked for them. Life in their home town of Newquay seems busy enough with swimming, surfing, riding and hiking. There are many different ways to parent, and I’m sure not an expert, but seeing these young guys’ confidence and interest in the world around them as we shared a bottle of wine with mum and dad, I filed that observation away.
Leaving our campsite in Dorset, it was just a hop skip and a jump into Devon, the adjoining county. Our next destination was a campground near Tavistock in Devon, just north of Plymouth.
We first became aware of The Old Rectory, Camping and Caravan Park when we were desperately looking for a place to live, just before Easter. The nephew of Declan (the campground owner), knows someone we know, as he contacted us via Facebook and suggested we park up here. As it turned out we were able to find and rent Honeysuckle Cottage in West Bagborough instead, and the rest is history.
Still, we had taken note of this location, surrounded by interesting hikes and cycleways, and nestled a short way from the tors and moors of Dartmoor, and had decided to book in for two weeks. What a great decision!
The weather has been variable since we arrived, with temperatures similar to winter in Australia (daytimes at 16-18 degrees) with a good dose of rain and drizzle ranging to a hot and humid late 20s the past couple of days.
Our first impression of Tavistock was of a grand, good looking town, with its central square centred around its Pannier Markets. These were purpose built in the 1850s by the 7th Duke of Bedford using money made from the local copper and asbestos mining operations. The river was re-routed to allow for this building and the square (Bedford Square). There are still markets held here every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
The sunshine of our first day was not set to last, so on Tuesday morning we decided we would cycle into town and have a good look around. Our campsite, The Old Rectory is just out of town, but we managed to ride in with only a short distance travelled on roads.
Diverting down a narrow farm track, we soon arrived at the Tavistock Canal. This picturesque area is now primarily a footpath (bikes tolerated with care), but has an interesting history dating back to 1817. It links to the River Tamar and Morwellham Quay, and was used to transport goods for shipping. These days it’s home primarily to waterfowl, but the excellent craft involved in building this watercourse is still holding strong.
We had a good explore around town on our bikes, the rain holding off enough for us to enjoy a picnic of Cornish Pasties (a vegan one for me – one of the benefits of this latest food trend is dairy-free goodies!) and a hot chocolate.
Wednesday dawned grey, but the rain continued to hold off, so we donned our walking boots and decided to hike to see the aforementioned Morwellham Quay (Strava link). Our campground is located in the hamlet of Gulworthy, on the edge of a huge network of mountain biking and hiking tracks known as the Tamar Trails. The trail network is open for all to use, with maps around detailing which are for walkers only versus shared with bikes.
This whole area is part of the Cornish and West Devon Mining Landscape World Heritage Site – protected along with the likes of the Taj Mahal and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The Tamar Valley was home to numerous successful copper mines in the 19th and 20th centuries.
We made it down to Morwellham Quay, the site of what used to be a busy bustling port – shipping copper to Swansea to be smelted, and receiving other goods such as coal from Wales. Today it’s a museum, with carefully restored mining artefacts and (when there is no Covid), theatre and exhibits depicting life for the mine workers and their families.
Mark had read that the pub, The Ship Inn, had just reopened its doors to the public, and spotting empty benches and an open door, checked to see whether they were serving yet. It was 11.30am, but yes indeed, two half pints of a locally brewed beer were soon drawn and we enjoyed those sitting outside on the cobbled streets.
It was very quiet on this afternoon, just a few people camping in the nearby field, and none of the usual attractions open. We explored what we could around the quay, all very interesting and somewhat hard to imagine with the river not looking deep enough to cater to much more than small pleasure boats, much less the huge ships required to transport goods.
The following day was wet and drizzly, our location high up on the edge of Dartmoor meaning we were surrounded by cloud and fog. We caught a bus into Tavistock to have a look around the Pannier Markets and shops. It’s such a shame the experience has been tainted by this virus. Masks have to be adorned, the market stalls have been halved to allow for social distancing, and people are somewhat on edge. I think the whole experience of not being able to see peoples’ faces has tainted perceptions. A visage hidden behind a mask can look threatening and unfriendly and sadly that is how we were treated in a few of the stores. We didn’t spend long in town, stopping only for lunch in a cafe and returning to Truffy earlier than anticipated.
Friday morning we woke early for us (before 7am!) as fine weather was promised and we had an exciting day planned.
We cycled to the next village of Gunnislake and caught the train from there into Plymouth.
Face coverings are required on trains, and I didn’t much fancy wearing a hot mask for the best part of an hour. I experimented with my scarf, which worked quite nicely.
Neither of us can remember ever visiting Plymouth before and were both impressed on arrival. It was a short cycle from the train station down to the front, adorned with magnificent hotels with incredible views.
We explored around the Barbican area, a buzzing harbourside suburb
We had an explore around the foreshore, enjoying the authenticity of the port buildings and fish markets, not simply providing sights for tourists. When the storm hit, we ducked into a pub to find lunch.
Sated, we set off on our way back to Tavistock. We rode along National Cycle Route 27, following a section known as Drake‘s Trail, named after Sir Frances Drake, the famous Elizabethan seafarer. The track is a 33km (21 mile) route which winds through riverside fauna, forest and through part of Dartmoor National Park.
It was a great day out, and we left Plymouth keen to visit again. It is such an interesting city – with islands, forts, and a lot of history to explore. It’s on our list for a longer trip in the future.
A hot day dawned on Saturday so we had a chilled out day. Next month I have been invited to present at an online conference (for the Patient Centred Outcomes Research Institute – PCORI) about conducting research via the rare disease support group I run, so worked on my biography and presentation, while we caught up with the washing before the next rain arrives.
Location: West Bagborough, Porlock Weir & Bridgewater Somerset, Honiton, Dorset, UK
This Friday we will be pulling out the driveway of our Somerset hideaway to once again hit the roads (click here for our planned upcoming locations). Our feelings are very mixed. We are looking forward to seeing family and friends, many of whom we’ve not had the opportunity to see yet in the flesh, but moving on from our protected little bubble will bring new risks as we move into areas of higher infection in the midlands in particular and interact with a wider number of people.
A reporter for the Guardian has spent the last couple of weeks driving around Britain interviewing people coming out of lockdown. We resonated with some of the themes that emerged. For instance, a determination to retain a focus on mental and physical health. For many people who have retained their positivity during lockdown they have credited this to regular exercise, and better eating and sleeping habits. We similarly are pleased with the amount of exercise we’ve been doing, and determined to not lapse back into sedentary ways when we are on the road.
Easier access to restaurants and pub grub is going to make it more of a challenge to continue the relatively healthy eating regime we have maintained, cooking almost all of our food from scratch. I take zero credit for this, other than being an appreciative consumer.
We have also been protected in this rural bubble from the noise and air pollution that many of Britain’s more urban environments suffer from, and we are going to find it a shock to return to the real world of heavy traffic and smog.
But move on we must, and we have been busy trying to get our home on wheels ready to face the rigours of the road. Our main problem was that we lost all our 12 volt power, so no taps would work, no internal lights, the whole system was dead. We also noticed a very rotten egg type smell when we were working in there. Of course I was immediately blamed…but protested my innocence, and for once was proved guiltless. We did some research and eventually discovered that a dead battery if put under charge gives off a pungent aroma, as a precursor to then exploding!
We were lucky to find a local auto electrician to help us, everyone is so busy in lockdown fixing people’s vehicles that have been left idle. The guys at AD Auto-Electrical near Bridgewater were brilliant, quickly finding a wire on our alternator had been chewed though, presumably by mice when he had been left all alone on a farm in storage over the winter. They soon repaired it, then popped a couple of new batteries in, our motor home dealer, Fuller Leisure, agreeing to foot the bill even though strictly we were out of warranty. Good lads.
We also managed to assess and repair some minor stuff ourselves, thanks to Catherine’s love of problem solving and a much more practical bent than my own. I did manage to fit a Heads-Up Unit to display speed directly onto the windscreen. It was so hard to read from the dashboard dial. It has worked very well so far, with no need now to take my eyes off the windscreen to make sure I am keeping under the multiple speed limits we constantly drive through. with speed cameras lining the roads.
We took an afternoon off jobs to walk another section of the South West Coast Path. We started from the small settlement of Porlock Weir, a small harbour with a documented use going back over 1,000 years. It wasn’t hard to imagine the regular waves of Danish and Irish invaders sailing up to the little jetty, with intentions ranging from trade to plunder.
We spotted a little sign advertising local oysters, not a produce we expected to see in the western reaches of Somerset, so we plunged in to sample half a dozen.
Apparently a community initiative in 2013 led to Porlock Bay Oysters being the first oyster farm to achieve the top “Class A” certification in England and Wales. Another causality though of the closing of pubs and restaurants, they now have over 30,000 oysters plump and ready for eating, with their customers only just opening up. As with many businesses affected by lockdown, they are flexing their business models and trying to find new channels to market. In this case selling direct to the public. We loved our sample, easily beating for taste and texture the ones we tried in Normandy, although Scottish shellfish still sits up there for us.
The coast path led us up a steep track through woods smelling that unique pungent aroma you get from trees recently soaked with the showers that have persisted the last few weeks.
We started to notice the remains of old walls and bridges, we learned later this is all that remains of the once grand coastal retreat for the first Lord Lovelace, married to the daughter of the poet Lord Byron. Not much remains of the once grand home, but what does certainly created an atmospheric backdrop to our wander.
One of the Lovelace family also designed a grand gatehouse, which has been restored and sits over the entrance to what is now a quirky tourist attraction – a scenic toll road that winds its way a few miles along this beautiful stretch of coast. Our slightlly plump Truffy wont be fitting through that arch!
This little walk was full of surprises. Next came England’s smallest parishchurch in the tiny village of Culbone.
Unfortunately we had run out of time and had to retrace our steps. Another place on the list to come back to, sometime in our unknown future…
Back at our little cottage which sits in the grounds of the rather grand main house, we had organised a bit of a celebration for the owner. Jenny had just had built a little folly in the garden. Well, not one to miss an opportunity for a decent glass in these stunning gardens, I suggested it should have a grand opening. With her friend down to stay for the weekend, our host concurred and a very pleasant evening was had gazing our over the Somerset countryside this property has such commanding views of.
We also took a trip over the nearby Blackdown Hills to the small town of Honiton to visit a long-time friend of Catherine’s and her family. So many families have experienced tragedy thanks to this virus, and theirs was no exception, so it was an afternoon of laughter mixed with tears, with a very long and thoughtfully prepared lunch culminating in a dairy-free sponge cake, just so Catherine could join in and enjoy it. We also got a much needed feline fix from their gorgeous cat Worcester.
We were then able to return the favour when they came over to our place. We were treated to freshly baked scones, with jam and cream – our first cream tea this year – hopefully not the last!
We also managed to celebrate the opening of pubs on the 4th July by popping down our nearest local for a couple of pints. It was great to see how hard they had worked to flex their arrangements, building a new outdoor bar, counting heads coming in to make sure there was sufficient room to keep our distance, taking down phone numbers for their participation in the Covid-19 track-and-trace scheme and lots of new outdoor seating and cover. Well done to the Farmers Arms.
So as we start to pack up the cottage its hard to not feel nervous about what awaits us, but it‘s time to go. Saying goodbye to this welcoming community, and hoping one day we can work a return to this little slice of paradise into our travels.
Location: Watchet, West Bagborough, Dulverton, Somerset & Putsborough, Devon, UK
June continued its mixed weather with two days of solid rain. forecast. We took advantage of the final dry day for a little while and drove down to Watchet to walk some of the coast walk, intending to go to a town intriguingly called Blue Anchor.
It was an overcast day so there were few people about, and we saw nobody on the walk, which followed the cliff top with lovely views.
We walked as far as we could along the coast before reaching a coastguard barrier – not far beyond this the cliff had collapsed into the sea, apparently happening in early March. The diversion inland didn’t really appeal with the impending storms, so we made it a short walk and returned to Watchet – just 6.5km. Blue Anchor remains a mystery for now!
With extra time up our sleeves, we decide to drive over to Dunster again, to have a better look at the town. Mr A was also hoping the Rohan outdoor gear shop was open, now that clothes stores had been given permission to serve customers again, but unfortunately this store remained closed.
Tuesday’s downpour arrived as scheduled. Fortunately I was busy helping with a medical research project which took up a lot of my time, and Mr A delved deeper into investigating his family tree, unearthing new names and histories on his mother’s side.
During a break in the wet weather we had an impromptu visit from two of the friends we have made here, Karen and Jane Ayre who run the caravan park down the road. During lockdown they have been training a young pony, Vinnie, which will eventually be sold to a family for a young child to learn to ride. He’s quite small and very gentle, and even Mr A (who has a fear of horses) was brave enough to give him a stroke.
After a couple of days of enforced rest we were itching to get out and about again. So on Friday decided to jump in Truffy and head back over to Exmoor and the small town of Dulverton.
Mr A navigated the narrow lanes brilliantly, barely flinching as we squeezed between old stone houses and parked cars as we found our way to a parking spot beside the eighteenth century Marsh Bridge on the outskirts of town.
We set off on a circuit walk (Strava link), following the River Barle into town.
The showers dissipated totally by the weekend, allowing us to get out for a muddy walk locally on Saturday. Again, the colours seemed all the more vibrant for being freshly watered.
We were just walking up through the village on our way home, when we noticed a couple of our neighbours having socially-isolated drinks on their front lawn. We were invited over to join them, and soon our plans for making curry and relaxing with Netflix were out the window.
My cousin Ian and his family, Caroline, Emilia and Leo, drove down from Almondsbury for the afternoon on Sunday. We were so excited to see them – not only the first family we’ve seen since mid March, but the first time I have seen them in six years! I am sure we all looked older, but especially this children – I have not met Leo before, and Emilia was a baby in a high chair last time!
Thankfully the rain held off so we enjoyed Father’s Day cake and tea in the courtyard before a short stroll around the village and surrounds.
It was a fun afternoon, but as we waved them farewell, we took note to ensure we don’t have sore heads next time we encounter excited children!
On Monday we took our bikes exploring around some of the local villages and lanes – there are some incredible buildings around here. One of them, multi-million pound Denzel House has just been sold to a London-based electronics importer apparently – as we rode past ogling, we saw several people working on improvements to the grounds.
The overall ride was lovely, and we took in the whitewashed village of Stogumber which sounds to me like something you’d chop up and serve in salad. Apparently the name is derived from Stoke (meaning dairy farm in old English) and the surname Gunner (presumably the owner of the dairy?).
It was while we were our riding that we heard the welcome news from Boris announcing that from 4 July campsites could open (as well as pubs, hairdressers, other holiday accomodation and so on – as long as they are ‘Covid-secure’). I say welcome, but it comes with mixed feelings. The opening up means returning to the stress of finding a place to stay, potentially mingling with other people, and leaving our new friends in this haven within the Quantock Hills. I for one have a little bit of nervousness about what the coming weeks will bring.
So this week the chaos began, the mad dash to try and find campsites with space for us in locations we would be interested in visiting. I would liken it to trying to find tickets to see The Rolling Stones, with everyone selling out almost immediately and if you’re lucky you get the last two on offer. Although unlike getting tickets to one band, we have to go through it again and again booking up the coming few weeks.
We gave ourselves a break on Tuesday afternoon to head back to the western Quantocks, and parked Truffy up by Crowcombe Gate, taking our second walk in this area.
The heath and bracken looked healthy and lush after the rain, and most of the soil well drained. We admired the views we have seen from many angles over the past three months, never tiring of that magical feeling this area brings.
Wednesday promised to be a hot day, with temperatures climbing up in to the early 30s. We decided that cycling would be the coolest activity (other than swimming in our pool, and who wants to spend the day doing that?!), so we found a cycleway by the coast so we might enjoy some sea breezes and perhaps a dip in the water.
We drove to Barnstaple in Devon and parked up. Our intention was to ride the Tarka Trail in the other direction, towards Woolacombe. Off we set on off-road cycle lanes, which soon turned into country lanes (Strava link).
The path’s signage was a bit misleading, and soon we had to ask for directions from a couple of other cyclists. We soon realised that the Tarka Trail was no longer following old rail tracks, but now had become the Sustrans route 27 cycleway, which shared narrow country lanes with cars. We found ourselves pulling off regularly to let vehicles past, but people were friendly and grateful, not aggressive towards us.
As always, we were pleased for our electric motors, with some decent gradient hills along our ride, especially in the heat.
Our destination for the day was Putsborough, the quieter and less commercialised end of Woolacombe Beach. The coast walk comes along here, and by the looks of it would be spectacular and ever so quiet.
The car park and sole café was doing good business, but once you were on the beach people were well spread apart with plenty of social distancing (quite unlike the newspaper headlines for that day!).
I left Mr A on a bench with the bikes and went for a stroll across the sands and a paddle in the water. It is a perfect beach for children with warm rock pools and soft sand of the ideal consistency for sandcastles. The water wasn’t that cold considering we are in the UK (though I didn’t go in for a swim – the water is between 15-19°C!).
The ride back to Barnstaple was equally lovely, with plenty of water drunk.
Fish and chips from our favourite chippy in Taunton (Sea Bass Fish and Chips) were our reward for our efforts, enjoyed in Truffy at the side of the road. Perfect!
And so on Thursday we decided to make a concerted effort to get all of our bookings locked in for the next few weeks. Priority had to be seeing family, as it seems crazy we haven’t even seen Mark’s daughters and the grandchildren since October last year.
After a lot of phone calls, messages and waiting for websites to work, we have confirmed the following locations which will take us up to September. Phew!
We know this has missed out a few people, but we don’t leave the UK until early November, so hopefully will have an opportunity after the summer craziness!
Another week streaks by in our lovely little rented cottage here in the west of Somerset, with a clear blue sky greeting us as we pull the blinds back every morning, apparently the sunniest May on record,
The toughest decision of the day, ‘Shall we walk or ride?’ and ’What shall we have for dinner?’ I think we will always remember this lockdown for the bizarre dichotomy of living our day to day lives in the most stress-free way we ever have, surrounded by the world in chaos.
This is a life we have never experienced before, having been mostly city dwellers, passing though the landscapes as we travel, but not being immersed enough in it to really appreciate the depth of its beauty and function. Not really seeing the rhythm of a life that goes on there by people who call it home.
I recently read a book that touched on this theme, called ‘A Shepherd’s Life’, set up in the English Lake District. The author, James Rebanks, a shepherd himself, makes a number of really poignant observations about the tourists who come and travel through his countryside, but with no appreciation of how that landscape is worked to produce the food that enables our lives. I feel in many ways our travels over the past few years, while broad in their scope, have lacked the depth of perception that comes when you stay in one place long enough to start to see the cycle of nature moving through the seasons, something we really don’t notice in Australia as much.
By this enforced stay in one place we have been able to watch spring come to the landscape, to see lambs take their first stumbling steps, to then come back a few weeks later and watch them bouncing around with their mates. To spot the wild flowers change as spring is turning into summer. It has just been a totally different, and in many ways, more meaningful expereince than the ‘drive through‘ touring we have been doing.
As I reflect back on individual walks we have done, all from our back door, they start to merge into one long memory of being immersed in this beautiful lanscape , putting one foot in front of the other as we watch a fox dash to a hedge before scornfully peering at us over her shoulder then disappearing instantly, or a deer startled by us invading its little slice of paradise, and bolting through the woods. We just want it to go on and on, relishing the breather from having to decided where to travel to, negotiating unfamiliar roads, trying to find campsites, constantly planning where we go next. Our minds feel calm, and it’s wonderful.
The history of humans in this landscape continues to enthral us. In Australia it is so inaccessible to most non-indigenous folk like us, but here it’s around every coroner. The fire beacon on the top of a hill, lit to warn of invaders sailing up the estuary, there’s a story to be uncovered everywhere we look.
It was time to swap our boots for our bikes, and I had read about a cycle trail running through the coastal town of Barnstaple. The Tarka Trail (named after the 1927 novel, Tarka the Otter, set in north Devon) is over 200 kilometres of traffic-free path, the longest in the UK, and all running along old railway lines. Off we set, for our longest drive (at 90 minutes) since mid March. It felt like quite an adventure! We had read horror stories about the traffic on the coast, but this day it was empty, as was the car park, apart from the mobile virus testing station being run from a big army truck.
This was magnificent riding, we batted along and soon found ourselves passing though a number of small villages before settling on the beautifully positioned Instow, on the estuary of the river Taw and Torridge (just roll of the tongue don’t they?).
We chatted to a couple of fellow cyclists who turn out to be motorhomers as well, as we munched into our first proper Cornish pasty. Just blissful. We so miss that random connection with another human being sharing stories and learning from each other.
With 50 kilometres under our wheels we arrived back at our car park and noticed the army truck had left, and the 2.7 metre height barrier had been put back down. Given we are driving a 3 metre high motorhome, that became a problem!
It had been lifted up when we arrived and I had sailed through, not really anticipating it would be lowered and locked. Oops…several panicked phone calls to the council, who were wonderful, and a warden arrived to unlock it. Next problem, the army had changed the padlock and not told him the combination. He tried for a while to reach them with no success. We had visions of spending the night there, which would have been illegal under the current restrictions, with no bed linen, food or cooking equipment. Luckily in the end they reached the military men and we were released.
A fish and chip supper in Truffy on the way back and our day trip was complete. There is just something about well fried English fish and chips that tastes so delicious to us, starved of that in Australia where they do it very differently. I guess its what you grow up with, hard baked into your taste buds, like mother used to make Yorkshire pudding, in my case.
The only interruption to our serene regime comes when Catherine is out on a walk and arrives back carrying the tiniest baby rabbit (apparently called a kit).
She had noticed it lying on the road, just having been narrowly missed by a car and covered with gravel. Its little eyes were still closed it was so young, maybe a day old. Perhaps the victim of that fox we saw, or a buzzard? Catherine was straight on to her sister, who worked at the RSPCA, and armed with advice put a message out onto the local village chart group. A few minutes later a kindly neighbour has offered her a heat pad and syringe to try and get some nourishment into her. All we have is oak milk, but she takes it and seems to settle down in the cosy little warm nest we have made.
So here we are on the second morning with an addition to our household, and she is still with us. So two extra days of life for this little one. Catherine’s niece and nephew are loving following the story, and just for that alone its worth it. A cycle down to the local Co-Op rewards us with kitten milk, apparently the best substitute for doe milk. Catherine is almost clucking with maternal delight feeding her this morning, until the little one releases her first pee down her arm.
We have decided now she seems stable, that a name is appropriate. Catherine has the inspired idea of Bags..as in we are in West Bagborough, so Bags Bunny. I will leave you with that to roll your eyes and laugh at us, or with us, we don’t really care 🙂