I had been researching rail trails we could ride in the South West (and there’s many to choose from, bless you Devon, Cornwall and Somerset councils), and up comes one called The Camel Trail near Bodmin. I immediately had visions of cycling along past lines of dromedaries munching scones and jam. But no….the trail gets its name from the river it runs beside. In Cornish the river is called “Dowr Kimmel”, meaning crooked river. Kimmel became camel.
Now that begs a series of questions born out of the ignorance I had for this delightful part of the world. I only have vague memories gleaned from long childhood car trips from the Midlands on an annual pilgrimage to find a patch of sand to sit on, with thousands of other hanky-on-the-head wearing, beetroot-coloured Brits.
So firstly, Cornwall does have its own language, derived mainly from over the water in Brittany, France. Cornish is even taught in some schools, all as part of a national cultural revival. Dig a bit further and apparently a person from Cornwall from 2010 onwards was able to identify themselves, should they wish, as seperate ethnic minority. There was even a movement to devolve Cornwall from the rest of the “United” Kingdom, an affiliation that you wouldn’t currently describe as a happy, close-knit family. Perhaps we are all reacting against globalisation and seeking to retain, or recoup, our cultural uniqueness?
I digress, as is my prerogative, being old…so back to the cycling. The Camel Trail runs traffic free for nearly 30 wonderfully wooded kilometres through rural Cornwall. It is extremely well used, even before the lockdown fuelled surge in bike riding here, the trail was contributing over £3 million to the local economy. Judging by how packed the tea shops along the trail were, this must have sky rocketed. So a good investment by the council. New South Wales (Australia) state government take note,: build it and cyclists will come. The UK has 8,400km of traffic free paths and the South West of England is punching above its weight in having so many of them.
Our first day along the trail took us to the small fishing port of Padstow, home of celebrity chef Rick Stein‘s original seafood restaurant in the 1970’s.
Some say the town should be renamed Steinstow, given old Rick now has a deli, gift shop, fishmonger, cafe, bistro, cooking school…and chippy. The crowds were too much for us, and we rode on out of town with no real plan, and doesn’t that sometimes work out the best? We cycled down some gravel tracks and I chatted to a local who suggested a route to a lookout. Check out these views!
We loitered and punctuated the gobsmacked silence with the odd “wow”. What a seascape.
Things did go downhill, literally, as we rode into the small settlement of Trevone at the bottom of the valley, then also when we tried to have lunch. Couldn’t have been further from Steinworld. This is what the only cafe in town produced for a tuna melt, without cheese. White bread and….tuna. I had emphasised she could have mayo, but no there was no tomato, or lettuce or onion…nothing.
And this is so England. In one town the most amazing world class food, and 4km away a village packed with tourists that serves food even British Rail would be ashamed of. Always keeps you guessing does Blighty – whether its the weather (did that sound right?) that is stormy and wintery in August and now in September positively tropical. Or the people, who are on the most part the most courteous, friendly, do anything for you types, then you mention the B word (Brexit..to be clear…not Beyoncé) and they go all mad crazy!
The following day we rode up to the start of the trail (Strava link) and followed it to the small town of Bodmin, and underwhelmed, left quickly, and looped back round to camp. The day before, Catherine got sunstroke, today we wore long sleeved sweat shirts and wind-proofs. and felt disappointed we forgot our gloves!
I think Autumn will suddenly spring upon us (that didn’t sound right either…but I’m leaving it in) and another season will delight us with its changing colours and smells. England…oh England …the land that keeps you guessing…and dressing….
A birthday always gets me musing. Another year, what has been accomplished? What has it taught me? What will I do differently this next year? Given the current challenges that face the world and impact us , those are particularly difficult questions to answer this year. We are not in as much control to shape our lives as we wish, given the constraints of travel and risk to health. Throw in financial uncertainty, and you have a real mix to try and navigate a path.
Compared to so many, we are living a wonderful life, we are still travelling around, albeit not where we planned to, but still enjoying exploring the great outdoors in England. So many places we are finding that are still away from the crowds.
Falmouth is our first big town for a while, and it remind us of that when we can’t even book a table at any of the nice restaurants there for a celebratory dinner. But we are living with a really big risk. If we get the virus we have no home to run to and recover. Our tiny motorhome is not somewhere you want to be seriously ill in., and what campsite would accept us anyway? What rental property would have us?
Its a risk that we understood we were taking when we got on the plane to Europe last March – but then we thought it would be over in weeks, not years. Now it looks like a second wave is hittingt the UK. It is a threat that seems very real, espcially if there is even the sign of a sore throat or cough. Are we putting ourselves uneceassrily at risk? Should we have come home on the repatriation flights? Our decision not to was based on the better access to specialist medical resources here that Catherine would need, plus an unwillingness to give up our plans. Being treated for COVID-19 when you already have an impaired airway requires understanding of her specific disease. Here in England (in fact especially where we are in the south-west) there are multiple senior doctors who know her and would understand how best to care for her. In Australia there’s only a couple.
So in the middle of these musings, our flights back to Australia were cancelled. We had not been following the situation closely, naively thinking that as we had tickets booked months ago, our airline would be obliged to find us an alternative option to fulfil their contract. Apparently not. There are currently between 20-30,000 Australians who want to return, and only a few airlines who are still flying to Sydney. Plus the Australian government had said in the early stages of the pandemic, get back quick or settle in for the long haul where you are. So they are now severely restricting the numbers of incoming international passengers they will process. Sydney is 300-350 a day, Brisbane and Adelaide 75 a day each, not sure on Darwin and Perth, but it means at this rate it will be a long long wait. Meanwhile, the airlines are bumping people off economy and just selling business and first class tickets. Bless them…I guess they have to make money to survive.
So what this year will bring? It‘s hard to tell. We only know we want to get back to Australia to see our friends and fur child, check on our assets (car and caravan still stored and all our house contents). When and how are unknown. And what about next year? When we store our beloved little home on wheels here, when we will be able to return? We have no idea. Should we just move back into our property when the current tenant’s lease is up in December, give up our travel dreams for a year? We don’t know…it depends on so many variables connected to the pandemic and therefore out of our control.
Meanwhile the historic port city of Falmouth shows us her beautiful side. On my birthday we took a cab into town. Even that felt a bit weird…then a couple of outdoor drinks and an Indian. That will do us. Some lovely digital catch ups with people the next morning then on with the walking boots once again.
We wander around the harbour foreshore on a blue sky day, watch the boats come and go, sit and have a lovely lunch by the beach, its like a mini Sydney!
No harbour town visit is complete without a boat trip, so off we scuttled over on a little ferry to the little village of St Mawes, famous for the artillery fort built by Henry the VIII to keep those pesky French Catholics at bay.
On the way across we got a good view of “The World”, largest luxury yacht in the world. If you have US$10 million in assets you can buy in to have a cabin ranging from a few million up to US$15 million and then you have your “maintenance fees” of…around $900,000 a year! I’d love to have a look around the wine cellar, with 12,000 bottles of wine in their collection…mmm. And now…moored up – for the first time in 18 years, it has stopped moving. So many firsts in this new world we live in.
So you can see by the blue skies in Cornwall at the moment, there is no shortage of vitamin D in our systems to fight off that virus, fingers crossed.
A burger for dinner, sat on a bench by the harbour and we are done with Falmouth. A little too busy with tourists for us, too many crowds to distance from, and many of them don’t seem to bother. Was this the best birthday I’ve had? No, but under the circumstances pretty damm good. What was missing was physically being around some friends and family, to feel connected with them. But thats how it is, and with Catherine by my side, not much else matters other than our health.
Locations: Dartmoor, Devon and Pentewan, Cornwall UK
A couple of weeks ago we had “discovered” (i.e. a new to us) a gastro pub, The Dartmoor Inn, which was… you guessed it, right there on the moor‘s doorstep. We had lunch there last time, this visit we were splurging for dinner. With my birthday coming up on Wednesday, we had tried to book up some restaurants in the town we will be at then, but each one was either closed or booked out. Its ‘Staycation UK’ time still. So “Carpe Diem” I said, quoting a Roman poet with the somewhat ridiculous name of Horace. Let’s seize the day.
We arrived to find the car park full of vintage Bentleys, and a modern Aston presiding over them. Truffy looked positively clunky, but we didn’t care. None of those cars would be providing a home for the night like ours does. We had sought permission from the Inn to stay overnight in the car park, a very small stagger in mind to bed. But before dinner we had too earn our supper, and marched up one of the highest tors (read small hill) on Dartmoor called Great Links (Strava link).
With thankfully not a golf course in sight, and at 582m above sea level, we were treated to a pretty special view. We have come to love this largest area of open space in the southern part of England. It has a Scottish Highland feel to it, and so easy to get away from the other ’walkers’ who barely stray from the car parks. We came across one young lady on the trail as we walked our final kilometre back to Truffy. She was stood in the middle of the path with her phone on speaker while she shouted into it: “IT IS SO QUIET AND PEACEFUL UP HERE”. I groaned at the irony lost on this millennial .
Dinner was a sumptuous affair. Catherine had tender scallops, for me it was the wood pigeon. I tried to withhold the thought of it flying around, cooing in the treetops, unsuspecting of its coming fate. I picked a wine from Saint Emilion, one of our favourite terroirs in France. This was a classic of the area with a blend of Merlot, Cab Franc and Cab Sav. Simply delicious with my main of slow roasted shoulder of beef. Maybe a little powerful for Catherine’s fish dish but hey…I was claiming birthday voting rights.
Saturday dawned for us a little groggily, a pre-dinner drink and a whole bottle of wine between us more than our usual quota these days! We decided to clear our heads and hike up to a church we had noticed up on a hill, anticipating another magnificent view, which indeed we were rewarded with.
Brentor Church sits presiding over the rolling country, and is a favourite (very short) walk it would seem, so we moved on.
So next it was off to our home for the new two nights down in the south-east corner of Cornwall in a small coastal settlement called Pentewan.
This was not our usual type of campground, it was a massive holiday park. Feeling a little underwhelmed we donned our walking boots and pottered down to the beach. Wow! Its so rewarding to have low expectations! What a gorgeous stretch of coast we had landed at.
Off we trotted up the ever present South West Coast Path (well, if you’re in the south west of England between Poole in Dorset and Minehead in Somerset!). What a feast for the eyes, and the belly with all the plump blackberries we were scoffing on the way. Even the locals were friendly here, having a chat with one out gardening. A pleasant change from Rude in Bude.
On the way back we had a poke around the old harbour that once had been bustling with ships carting away the china clay mined locally. Now all silted up, it did provide a lovely backdrop to the pub perched on its edge. Oh that was a beer well earned on the steep paths (Strava link).
Sunday dawned with the rainy showers that have been ever present since the dry spring, but we donned our cycle gear and headed off anyway. We had noticed a rail trail (the Pentewan Valley Trail), our favourite traffic free riding option, and had an explore inland initially, then up and down some country lanes and just followed our noses. once again with no expectatations we were delighted to emerge in the small port of Charlestown (Strava link). Another wow moment. I just love old harbours like this, and these old ships, the stories they could tell. It seems the port and its ships has been a favourite movie set for classics like Poldark. Catherine, with her movie star looks, blended in perfectly.
Returning to camp, the day was not done yet. After madly getting some washing done in our little on-board twin tub washing machine and hung out, it was once again on with the walking boots, and off up the coast path, this time in the opposite direction towards the small port of Mevagissey (Strava link).
Two ports in one day…lucky boy. The walk there was definitely in our ‘Top 10 Global Afternoon Wanders‘ (no we don’t have that list but if we did…). This is world class scenery though, and when we were more than a 5 minute stretch from car parks, not too crowded.
Walking into the village though, and the proximity of their cars, the crowds returned, but not enough to spoil the views of this quintessential Cornish fishing port. An ice cream savoured to fortify us for the return walk, we were off once again along this magnificent coastal scenery.
We are reminded this will be the third season in which we have seen and enjoyed a section of the South-West Coast Path. What a wonderful asset to the country this piece of infrastructure is. All praise to the many individual campaigners, as well as local and national councils who have fought off developers and landowners that sought to restrict walkers’ access to this fabulous coastline.
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.
Eighteen years is more than half of Catherine‘s adult life – married to me. Jeez …how can she still look so good?! But she does.
We usually stay away from beach resorts in school holidays, but Bude happened to be close to where we will spend the rest of August on a campsite a little further inland, so we thought we would experiment.
Accomodation was secured at a pub right in the middle of town. We were so looking forward to a long, long shower after a month using the one in our motorhome. Sadly the one in our motorhome produces a stronger jet of water than our pub. But the room was confy and we set off to explore the town.
We walked alongside the Bude Canal. It was opened in 1823 to transport lime rich sand up into the poor surrounding soils of Devon and Cornwall, eventually reaching 35 miles through hilly country via inclined planes.
Yes. I‘ve become a bit of a canal geek/lover. Growing up in the Midlands and then living in Milton Keynes, the Grand Union Canal was about the only interesting thing for me in the area. I’ve been reading up on the history of the UK network, and we’ve been watching the delightful series “Grand Canal Journey’s”, hosted by Timothy West and Prunella Scales. We can feel a canal trip in our future! It’s about the right speed for me these days…
At the beginning (end?) of the Bude Canal a gigantic sea lock is opened at high tide and sea state permitting. It forms now a lovely focus to the town, with people strolling and riding along the parts that still remain open.
We had tried to book a bit of a special dining experience for our anniversary dinner, but sadly Bude has very limited options, and the ones they do have are booked out until mid September! So it was off to the local Indian for us, a far cry from our anniversary spent last year in a fancy hotel in Slovenia. Well, we had a lovely night anyway, and were treated to a glorious sunset.
We saw that the South West Coast Path literally went by our front door, so off we set in the morning, fortified by a big old fry up. We have stopped eating breakfast nowadays, but it was thrown in the room so we were not going to see that go to waste (it went to waist instead!)!
The path took us along spectacular cliff tops (Strava link), with views north up to GCHQ Bude, which gained some notoriety when Edward Snowden blew the whistle on some of the activities going on there. Basically they were intercepting and copying large amounts of data that comes through the submarine cables landing at the beach we walked to at Widemouth Bay.
The path was none too crowded, it‘s not hard to find peace and quiet even at this peak season, by just walking away from shops and roads. We watched several kestrels performing amazing flying feats in a stiff breeze, then with an eye on the approaching storm clouds, turned our feet back to Bude.
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.
Location: Moreton, Weymouth, Bridport and Charmouth, Dorset
Arriving at our next campsite, another Camping and Caravan Club site, it was becoming “normal” to have to wait in the motorhome and be given a list of all things you couldn’t do because of the restitutions designed to minimise the spread of the COVID-19 virus. But the sun was shining and we tried to cast aside our concerns, deciding to catch the train into the nearby seaside resort of Weymouth. Not a place either of us had recalled visiting before when we lived in England, but the wow factor on this blue sky day was huge.
We walked around the old harbour area, I’m always fascinated by them, and not just because that’s always where the cafes and restaurants are (although that does perk me up), but its the history that seeps out off the buildings. What tales they could tell.
This town just had both of us gawking at it loveliness. It seemed to have just a great balance between feeling like a working harbour, and a place you would love to holiday in. It wasn’t until afterwards that we read it was the first place to record the Black Death arriving in 1348!
Once we moved around the edge of the harbour, walks opened up along the coast. The South West Coast walk for instance stretches for hundreds of miles in either direction from here.
But our tummies told us it was time to pick a lunch spot, and after chatting to one of the locals, who turned out to be a London chef with a holiday house in town, we went to the restaurant he recommended. It was our first “flash” lunch since Sydney in February. It was so perfect, until they messed up the order and brought Catherine a dish that contained dairy. But once the error was pointed they were mortified, and wouldn’t let us pay for a thing! What exceptional service.
Some places just have a great vibe about them, and this was one of them. I even managed to get my eyes pressured checked on the spot – and all was well – a great relief.
Every time we looked up and out at the sparkling ocean, we had to remind ourselves that we hadn’t been transported to some mediterranean resort. Well until you looked at the people wandering around – definitely Brits!
Next stop on the Dorset whistle stop tour tour close to the small town of Bridport. We had managed to find a space on a Caravan and Camping Club farm site. These are great places for us, with just a water tap, somewhere to empty your toilet waste, and on this one, mains power.
We could walk right from the site out onto the hills, and ended up doing an 18k circuit.
A little stiff, the following day a we pumped out a 39km cycle up through enough hills to give us decent workout, even with our batteries. People seem to think an electric bike is like a moped. You just twist the throttle. Some of them are. Ours are whats called “pedal assisted” – you get a little help – but you still need to work.
We then had the pleasure of a long, fast downhill into the small seaside town of Charmouth, heaving with school holiday visitors, but with almost no tourist development. The few cafes there were had massive queues for the standard fried fare. As usual we were relieved to have brought a picnic and a flask of tea.
This is a part of England‘s south coast that we will come back to and explore more, ideally when its not peak season. It has ingredients we love – walking cycling, and enticing pubs. Hopefully it will at least be when we can actually get in to a pub spontaneously and not have to book – as we were told we needed to at the one place we tried. Testing times.
Location: Bristol, Worcester (Gloucestershire), Gunthorpe (Nottinghamshire), Swinethorpe (Lincolnshire), Harby (Nottinghamshire), Kettering (Northamptonshire) and Milton Keynes (Buckinghamshire)!
Yup..a lot of charging around the last couple of weeks, after so many months going nowhere!
We left Bristol early, fortified with last night’s delicious chilli-con-carne served up by Catherine’s cousin Ian and wife Caroline, and dashed up to Worcester where our e-bikes were booked in for a service.
These guys at On-Bike have been an absolute delight to deal with both in the sales process and now with their excellent after sales service. They are so busy at the moment they have had to shut the shop to the public three days a week to give themselves a chance to build up more bikes ready to be shipped around the country to eager customers. It’s great to see them doing so well after years of hard work building the business up.
While the bikes were being given some remedial work, so was I, in the form of a much needed haircut! Catherine had been trying to keep me presentable, but it was time for a barber’s shop.
Most of the shops were open, and it was our first chance to have a wander around anything order than a supermarket since Vienna in early March. We found the experience a little daunting, not being able to try clothes on for instance, but I ended up with a pair of hiking trousers from my favourite clothes store, Rohan.
Worcester has put a lot of effort and money into its town centre over the last few years, and yet retained these beautiful facades.
That same afternoon we drove up to Nottinghamshire as we had booked our motorhome in for some work the next morning… or so I thought. We called in to drop off our old batteries, to find I had messed up the dates and we were due Thursday not Wednesday! I had organised our whole program as soon as lockdown was lifted in a frantic morning of phone calls to campsites and friends, and just got it wrong. So we had a day up our sleeve
We had decided to stay in the car park of a pub just over the road from them, the Unicorn at Gunthorpe, set in a lovely position by the river Trent. Unfortunately that‘s where the loveliness ended. We had a very sub standard meal, barely edible. The entrance we had come in by was deserted when we were trying to leave it, not a soul in sight, but the young lady on the door made us walk all the way round the pub, squeezing past tables of diners, to go out the “designated exit”. The next day I asked if there was anyone who was interested in our feedback and was told to fill out an on-line form. I asked again if there was anyone locally who had cooked the meal last night or who managed the pub who would like to hear, and was told again, fill out the on line survey. So I guess not. There are many pubs that no doubt that won’t survive this pandemic, Some it will be sad to see go, others not so much.
We took ourselves off for a walk along the river. What a tranquil escape from the network of busy roads that surround it. I am currently reading a history of the canal network in the UK, and now look at these river roads in a new light. For so many years they were the arteries that pumped the trade of heavy goods and raw materials around the country.
The Trent is England’s third longest river, and enabled goods produced in the industrial heartland of the Midlands to be transported down to the sea ports on the Humber estuary. The UK has over 2,000 miles of navigable waterway, and there are some future adventures right there me thinks.
In the late afternoon sun we drove over to see our friends up the road on the border of Lincolnshire, having booked at a campsite we had seen modestly signposted near their village many times but never actually visited. Well, we were in for a treat! What a hidden gem this was.
Camper UK Leisure Park had superb facilities (which were actually open, most are not). These guys had recently built a whole load of lovely wooden chalets and just opened them only for the very next day forced to close them under lockdown, so it was great to see the park busy once again. It should be a good season for campsites in the UK with most people staycationing. Hopefully they can recoup the losses from the spring and early summer to stay in business.
It was another early for us (before 7am) start, especially with a few too many wines under our belt from drinks with our friends the night before, and back to Gunthorpe and our motorhome dealer, Fuller Leisure. They had a loan car waiting for us, a spirited little Mini which I really enjoyed driving after the not so nimble Truffy. We had been suggested a visit to Belvoir Castle to fill our day while they worked on our vehicle. Off we went and had a decent enough wander round the country surrounding this impressive pile.
Looking at its history it was no surprise to see that what you see today is not really a castle, but a copy of one, rebuilt in “Gothic Romantic Revival” style, that for me just screams fake and cashed up, from one of the richest landowners in England the Dukes of Rutland.
We collected Truffy, hoping his warped bathroom door had now been fixed. Next we headed down to Northamptonshire (our third county that day!) and my hometown of Kettering.
Its a bit of ritual when visiting our friends there to head out for a curry, and what a feast this was. The Royal Bengal is an example of how well a dining experience can still be delivered under the current restraints. Superb food, attentive and friendly service, working espcially hard to make sure Catherine‘s dairy intolerance was catered for.
The following morning we enjoyed a much needed hangover breakfast in the garden, joined bymy great friend and second cousin Derry. His family own and run the care home that both my parents were so well looked after in. It has been a super stressful time for all of them as they navigate this pandemic. What heroic work has been done in this industry, and so poorly supported by, what sounds like, an incompetent county council. The people who work in these care homes, and their residents, deserve better.
Then we were off to Milton Keynes for a weekend with my daughters and grandies. This was the first time I had been able to see them since leaving the UK last year. What a brilliant weekend we had. Dinner Friday night at a lovely pub, excellent food and service once again, and a really good catch up with these two young chips off the very old block
Then we had a short post dinner drive out to our campsite for the weekend near Buckingham. A field basically, with fresh water and a toilet dump point. No power, but with our new batteries the whole 12v system is now working really well. A bit of sunshine into the solar panels and we left with more power in the batteries than we arrived with. At £20 accomodation cost for two nights, we were happy!
Saturday morning saw Hayley (daughter number two) arrive with her boys Luke and James. Kites were flown, chases were had around the field, just perfect.
Hayley had acquired a new member of the family just before lockdown, the very photogenic Belle, a bichon frise puppy, and she enjoyed the new sights and smells of this farmland retreat.
Hayley had also spotted there was a winery not far away, so carted the boys back to MIlton Keynes, collected her sister and dashed back (she’s a dynamo!). Well this was my first sampling of English wine, Catherine has beaten me to it on a previous trip and was very positive. The winery had some good reviews (Chafor Estate) and we constructed our own tasting, sampling four of their wines. It was just lovely to do something like this with my daughters, especially since for Zoe it was her first opportunity to do some wine tasting.
The next morning we packed up and headed back into Milton Keynes and Zoe kindly hosted us for brunch. She takes after us in being a doting feline servant, to the stunningly coloured Simba. Then it was off to the park. Zoe lives right next to one of the many beautiful green corridors that wind their way through Milton Keynes. We saw red kites soaring overhead, and admired the way this new town has so matured since it was home to me 30 years ago.
So with the whole family in tow now, there was more chasing around and eventually…I wore them out!
It has been a hectic week, with more to come, but the joy of finally being able to reconnect with family and friends just so rewarding. It‘s hard to know how we divide our time up between our families, but it is definitely Catherine’s turn next!
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: West Bagborough, Glastonbury, Exmoor & East Quantoxhead, Somerset, UK
We have both commented that the weeks and even months we have been in lockdown seem to be flashing past. I was puzzling about this and remembered reading something about how the perception of time accelerates as we get older. So that may account for why I am expereincing this phenomenon, you chuckle, but how about the “child bride” Catherine, as my friends endearingly have called her?
So here’s my take. One of the reasons that older people do experience the passing of time differently (well documented if you fancy going down that rabbit hole – start at the Wikipedia page) is that for them (“us” if you insist), new events are in shorter supply. We have seen it and done it. Our brains find it no effort to process those routine events, so as we pay less attention time appears to pass more quickly.
In lockdown for us, and I suspect many others, the days pass with little differentiation in activity, and it‘s all low stress, so the brain doesn’t engage too much in deciding which flavour of Pukka tea to have this morning. or do we turn right or left out the gate on our walk today.
However, the last week has brought two new activities into our lives. A book club and family genealogy. One of the things I really miss in lockdown is just shooting the breeze with friends, often over a glass of something. Digital catch ups for me are always more stilted, lacking the comfortableness of being able to pause and reflect, and gauge from body language how the other parties are reacting. Often the subject of conversation is books or article one of us has read, so after starting a particularly good read I decided to float the idea of an online book club amongst these friends. We had our first Zoom based hook up. Given the constraints of the medium it seemed to work for us.
The book chosen was the new best seller from Rotger Bregman, Humankind. Essentially it is an analysis of our basic nature, is it kind or is it cruel? It offers fascinating revisionist history on events and phenomena we thought we knew and understood.
The other new activity that has helped time slow down a little and provide new stimulus, has been researching my family tree. Inspired by cousins of mine and Catherine. Catherine’s cousin Karen has been able to trace back theirs, to the the 1700’s in Orkney. Her family history is full of talented artists, rich merchants and military leaders. Some even have dedicated Wikipedia pages.
In contrast my ancestors (that I’ve tracked so far), have not broken out of the abject poverty of farm labouring, crammed into boarding houses with other families (16 of them in one case) except for a great grandad and uncle who both ran fish and chip shops, which perhaps explains my fascination for a well cooked plate of this English fare. More on this as our respective stories unfold.
I have never shown the slightest interest in my family history to date, I am ashamed to say, but whatever brain chemistry clicked into place during lockdown I’m so glad it did. I’m finding it hugely interesting and so grateful for the discretionary time to tackle it.
However, it hasn’t been all indoor sports, and our usual diet of walks only briefly held back by more typical changeable weather. We decided to check out Glastonbury, famous for its namesake the Glastonbury Festival, which isn’t actually held near the town, and that pretty much says it all. We found it an uninspiring, slightly run down place full of New Age nonsense shops (sorry but.. really…), however the local bakery did catch my attention!
The pubs were all still closed, but one caught Catherine’s eye given its distinctive facade. It turns out to be the oldest in south-west England.
We quickly donned our boots and escaped the thundering lorries that sadly hadn’t yet been routed out of the High Street in this town and dashed up the hill that rises up over the flat surrounding countryside of the Somerset Levels. Glastonbury Tor is a natural hill emanating of erosion, although a lot of twaddle has been written by New Age “scholars” about the function of the terraces that wind up its steep slope. I’m not going to even credit them by repeating what they say. The actual archaeology of the site does though remain clouded in the mists of the Neolithic though, like so much of our history from that period. For us it was sufficient to sit with our mugs of tea and quietly contemplate the fabulous 360 degree views.
With the novelty of inclement weather, we did an afternoon’s drive around the lanes and villages of Exmoor, our first excursion to this area. While it was a little too wet and cold to do too much walking, we did enjoy the sights, and managed to find a cute little deli in the village of Dunster that we’re sure to return to.
One walk that will forever remain in my mind from this week was the coastal ramble that forms a very tiny part of the “English Coast Path” (how did they think of that one?). I had no idea England had a path all the way round it..and it doesn’t…yet. When completed, in theory this year (in practice I doubt it, with the competition for funding in the recession that is going to hit the UK hard) it will be 2,795 miles in length (around 4,500 km).
Currently, various sections are open (click here for more details) and conveniently one of them is on our doorstep. I think this area must be one of the most well served in the world by long distance trails for walking and riding, quite amazing and a credit to the foresight of several governments, and the popularity here of getting out into this beautiful countryside.
We started our walk from a car park at East Quantoxhead, a small settlement a little way back from the coast. It was our first time on a bit of grass since we had our awning fitted in March, so much to the amusement of our fellow car park neighbours we rolled it out to check all was working.
Looks pretty good, however it‘s a reminder of our aborted plan to have spent the summer cruising through the hot climates of Spain and Portugal. We quickly roll it up again and put that thought behind us.
We wandered up to the cliff edge and gazed down the coast. I really can’t remember such a heart lifting view. We overhead a fellow walker exclaim “It looks more like a picture than real life”, and he wasn’t wrong.
The pebbly beach was pretty busy as there was a car park close, but as usual once again, no more than a 10 minute walk from the reach of a car and the population thins out to a spattering of smiling fellow trampers.
Wild flowers, including orchids, were everywhere, the Quantock Hills, providing a stunning backdrop. No wonder this was the first place in the UK to be given a classification of Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
So we think our time here is drawing to a close, our little cottage is rented from July 12th, so we have to be out by then, but there’s no date yet for campsites to reopen, so that‘s introducing some challenges to our forward planning! Fingers crossed the government gets its new guidelines for them out in time, but its looking less likely I think.