Sailing in history to visit more history.

Contrary to all expectations the first part of this travelogue on my trip to Devon and specifically Lundy Island seems to have been successfully published and so I am going to ride my luck here and go for a second instalment.

After the wonderful experience of the previous evening, the day of 13/07/2013 dawned bright and sunny which is not always the case even in what is often laughingly referred to as the “British summer”. It may have been the sun coming in the window of my very cosy bedroom where I had improbably slept the sleep of the just or it may just have been excitement at what I knew Malc had planned for the day. Passing on breakfast which is a meal I rarely take, I showered, dressed and took off for another day which found me retracing my route of the previous day with a few slight deviations by way of interest. In fairness there are not too many ways to go. You either go downhill to the sea or uphill out of down and so down I went as I was meeting our intrepid leader in a pub which will come as little surprise to those who know me.

I ended up again at the harbour which was as charming as the day before and this time I had time to have a look round which provided a most fascinating history which I shall deal with in the next instalment. No, I am not setting out to be a tease but if I do not do things chronologically and with the benefit of my saved images as aides-memoire I shall be completely lost and will undoubtedly miss points of interest that I should have mentioned.

With a fascinating and wholly enjoyable experience on the quay under my belt I retired to the London Inn to meet our inestimable leader. I remember fondly the time when he was overnighting in London and I had quite deliberately taken him to a particular bar in Soho, an area I know well having lived there for a while in the 90’s, which was the well-known haunt of transvestites and transsexuals. For those that do not know London, Soho is, shall we say, fairly liberal. Frankly, the look on his face was priceless and he still reminds me of it to this day. Now it was payback time (not literally obviously) and I was in his world. Not a problem as I can get by in most situations.

Malc was a touch late and so I contented myself with a pint in the pub which was then a Wetherspoon’s but has now apparently been sold on to Yates’s, another similar multi-outlet organisation. I shall deal with the concept of Wetherspoons in another blog as it is a subject worthy of discussion. One of their many virtues is that they tend to open earlier than the 1100 or 1200 opening times favoured by more traditional establishments and this suited as the Offshore was not yet open. Malcolm had everything beautifully organised (thanks again, mate) but insisted on trotting off to check on the arrangements which were all in place and the sailing was definitely on. The rest of the party duly arrived and soon it was time for the off.

A very short wander across the road took us to the pier and the waiting vessel.

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RML 497 Fairmile, a very fine vessel.

The plan for the day was a trip on the Fairmile boat round to Dartmouth (weather permitting at it certainly was) and I was really looking forward to this as I love being on the water. I also love military history (of which more anon) and I love Dartmouth, having visited that lovely place as a teenager and more recently when I had walked a portion of the excellent South West Coast Path some years previously, as mentioned before.

Wandering down the pier (as you look seawards it is the one to the right hand side of the harbour, almost opposite the big wheel) we saw a queue of people waiting to board. This was not a problem as Malcolm had booked ahead for us and so we stepped on board the Fairmile, a most wonderful vessel. I suspect it may once have been an HMS (His Majesty’s Ship) although I am not actually sure what the current designation is but we were welcomed by a very friendly crewman and took our places on the upper deck. As I mentioned, it was a gloriously sunny day and although there was accommodation downstairs, nobody was going to sit down there on a day like this.

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One of two bars onboard – happy days indeed.

As you can see from the photos (and apologies for the quality as my camera was playing up) there is a bar on the upper deck. Indeed, there is one on the lower deck but there was no need to open it on a day like this. Everyone was on the top deck enjoying the simply stunning views of the wonderful South Devon Coast accompanied all the while by the very informative commentary from one of the crew members.

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My kind of sick bay.

So what of the Fairmile? Well, as the crew members were more than happy to explain, it was a rescue vessel in the Second World War and now sports the original designation of her wartime service number RML497 (Rescue Motor Launch 497). Effectively, she was a vessel charged with rescuing Allied pilots downed at sea and rendering medical assistance where required. Much of the then recently refurbished vessel was given over to this medical theme as one of the images here shows.

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The wonderful Devon coastline.

There really is something quite magical besides being very sobering about sitting on a deck marvelling at the passing idyllic coastline whilst thinking about some poor half-drowned and possibly injured pilot who was defending our country against fascism being plucked from the Channel by a craft such as this. It was the loss of so many pilots from ditching over water during the Battle of Britain that led to small craft like this being employed which was effectively the formation of the SAR (Search and Rescue) facility that we take for granted today. I am sure that our future King, Prince William the Duke of Cambridge, would have thoroughly approved of this vessel as he himself was an SAR helicopter pilot in the RAF during his military service. This is not ancient history as many of my aunts and uncles served in that war and one even made the supreme sacrifice. The historical distance of one generation is not great in the grand scheme of things.

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Land  Ho!  Dartmouth from the sea.

Nowadays it is a peaceful, incredibly peaceful journey that greets the visitor safe from the attentions of German Luftwaffe pilots. You travel relatively slowly along the coast with the excellent commentary as mentioned above to assist you. For the twitchers amongst you, I should mention that there is an excellent selection of seafowl to be seen and the crew are at pains to point them out. As one who does not know a petrel from a petrol pump I much appreciated this. All too soon we were disgorged at Dartmouth for an afternoon doing our own thing and what a thing we did!

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A Devonian flag flies proudly over Dartmouth.

I first visited Dartmouth in 1975 as a teenager when I still harboured ambitions of being a naval officer and a kindly careers master at my school had arranged for me to go on a schoolboy’s summer course at the Royal Naval College there. In the event, I was far too stupid to get the grades needed to attend University which was required as part of the deal but I remember that week with great affection, in similarly glorious sunshine, messing about in Royal Naval vessels and playing at sailors. Dartmouth has a long association with the Navy which continues to this day and naval officers still train here.

Many the illustrious man has passed through the hallowed portals including HRH Prince Andrew, the Duke of York who entered as a middy (midshipman) in 1979. Despite his many and continuing PR debacles, I cannot help but admire the man for eventually successfully arguing against Royal courtiers that he should be allowed to serve in the Falklands War in the early 80’s. If reports are to be believed he spent many hours flying his chopper (he was a helicopter pilot by trade like his two nephews) and sometimes as “duty target” which is a military expression meaning to deliberately offer yourself as a target to expose enemy positions or assets so that your people can neutralise them first – hopefully. I can have no argument with his position on that.

The next time I visited was many years later, in my mid 30’s, when I was walking the hugely enjoyable South West Coast Path, one of a number of long-distance walking paths in the United Kingdom which I take great delight in using and mentioned in my previous entry.

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Dartmouth Harbour.

I remembered Dartmouth as being a very aesthetically pleasing place with delightful views, attractive old buildings and a very relaxed feel to it. It was with slight trepidation, therefore, that I returned in case the place had become somehow tarnished. It is always so disappointing to go back somewhere you have fond memories of only to find it has changed for the worse but I need not have worried.

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Street scene, Dartmouth.

Although we were only there for a few hours, I re-discovered a beautiful small town, obviously geared up for the many tourists that were there that lovely sunny Summer day. I have no doubt there are other strings to Dartmouth’s bow but tourism must be high on its agenda and there is much for the visitor. It is a wonderful place and any traveller visiting South Devon really should spend some time there.

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A fine lunch for normal people.

We repaired to the rather pleasant Dartmouth Arms pub where my fellow travellers enjoyed what looked like some very fine food whilst I contented myself with a liquid lunch as I rarely eat solids during the hours of daylight. That is a long story so don’t ask but I have to say the cider was excellent as they really do know a thing or two about my preferred tipple in this part of the world.

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A fine lunch for Fergy!

Much as we were enjoying each other’s company it was by mutual consent that we decided to split up with an agreement to meet up at a particular hour in the same hostelry as it was near the quay for the return trip.  Our splitting up was not at all unusual as we were all experienced travellers with different notions of what we wished to do and it was this type of loose arrangement that made Virtual Tourist meets such a joy as they were always designed to be as non-prescriptive as possible. If people wanted to hang out together that was fine and if they wanted to do their own thing, no slight was ever intended nor offence taken. I heard a lovely expression once that trying to organise VT members was like trying to herd cats and it is true. Almost by definition we were a fairly independent bunch and on this occasion I decided to strike out solo as that is my normal and preferred way of exploring.

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I told you it was historic.  Another fine watering hole.

I remembered from my one afternoon of “liberty” as a teenager that the Royal Naval College occupied a commanding position on a hill overlooking the River Dart from which the town takes its name and it is still there looking as majestic as my possibly rose-tinted brain remembered it. I briefly contemplated a walk up to it but my memories of the previous climb, admittedly somewhat clouded by scrumpy (a notoriously potent cider common to the West Country), deterred me a bit. Even if I had slogged up that hill again I was never going to get past the gates as the security situation in July 2013 was fairly tense with off-duty Fusilier Lee Rigby of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers having been murdered in broad daylight by two Islamic terrorists not far from where I live in London not long before. I decided to keep to the relative flat topography of the town centre and see what I could find which turned out to be quite a bit.

I adopted my standard exploration technique, which I apply worldwide, of no map, no electronic assistance (I didn’t have any and still cannot use it even if I did) and just walking and seeing what I can find. Navigation in Dartmouth was pretty simple in comparison to some places I have been. Keep going downhill and you would come to the river. After that it was just a matter of walking along it until you found the quay again. A very low tech theory I know but it worked beautifully.

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Entrance to the Royal Avenue Gardens, Dartmouth.

Wandering around on this most beautiful of summer days which even the huge number of other visitors could not mar I chanced upon the Royal Avenue Gardens, entered by way of the rather splendid wrought iron arch you can see pictured. I found it absolutely delightful although a little research whilst composing this piece has revealed that like my shut down B&B and sold on regular pub in nearby Torquay things have changed from that halcyon day not so very long ago. Four years later, almost to the day, a report in the local newspaper tells a very sorry tale indeed. Have a read here.

 

I do hope they have rectified the situation in the intervening nine months to time of writing as the Gardens really are worth preserving. I would have thought that a local authority so dependent on tourism for revenue would have done better but they are probably too busy awarding themselves expenses increases and funding ludicrous politically correct schemes.

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Royal Avenue Gardens, Dartmouth.

Whilst the main gardens were indeed a joy there was a “gem within a gem” in the form of the Veale / Savill garden which was an unexpected and very satisfying find. As I increase the content in this blog, readers will notice that I have a great interest in military history of all periods and this extends to memorials, war graves and the like. This is not a morbid fascination at all but, as an ex-serviceman myself, I feel that the sacrifices made by generations before us should be remembered and it will be a theme I shall return to frequently.

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War Memorial, Dartmouth.

Obviously, before visiting the Veale / Savill garden I spent a few moments in quiet contemplation looking at the well-tended war memorial here and wondering just what the effect of the loss of so many young men would have meant to such a relatively small community. Like everywhere else, it must have been colossal. Regrettably it never seems to end and there is an addendum in the form of a small stone at the foot of the main memorial which commemorates those who have been killed since WWII. They were a sailor who was killed in China in 1949, a Scots Guardsman in Korea in 1950 and a “tankie” (member of the Royal Tank Regt.) in Afghanistan a mere four years before I stood in front of his memorial stone. It certainly gave me pause for thought.

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War Memorial, Dartmouth.

The Veale / Savill garden commemorates a most remarkable act of heroism during the First World War. In the charnel house that was the Battle of the Somme in 1916 an officer of the Devonshire Regiment, Lt. Eric Savill, lay wounded in no-man’s land merely yards from the German lines. Pte. Theodore Veale of the same unit ventured out no less than five times under heavy enemy fire (virtually point-blank) until he finally rescued his officer. During this action he recruited volunteers (one of whom was sadly killed) and lugged a light machine gun out to cover his comrades as they dragged the officer back to the relative safety of the British lines. For his outstanding heroism he was very rightly awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) which is the highest military valour award available in the UK and may only be awarded for actions performed “in the face of the enemy”. He was presented with his medal by King George V in 1917.

Remarkably, given the ferocity and appalling casualty rates of the Somme, both men survived that awful conflict. Pte. Veale lived to the ripe old age of 87 until his death in 1980. Savill (later Sir Eric Savill) went on to become Deputy Ranger of Windsor Great Park amongst other posts where he was renowned as something of an expert on cultivating magnolias, several examples of which adorn this small haven or at least did when I was there (see above link!). He died about seven months before his rescuer. I wonder if they kept in touch after the war or did the rigid class system of the time and the obviously traumatic effects of that brutal waste of life, which many men tried to block out, cause them to drift apart. I rather hope they did have some contact.

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Memorial plaque to Cpl. Theodore Veale, VC.

After the very interesting gardens I continued my wander round the town, trying to avoid the crowds and availing myself of the hospitality in several of the excellent hostelries that seem to populate every street corner here and appear determined to outdo each other in terms of quaintness and charm. Despite my various dalliances I made it back to our agreed RV at the Dartmouth in good time and we swapped stories of our afternoon over yet another pint, well another couple in my case anyway.

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Heading home.

A short walk regained our vessel and we set off back to Torquay. There was not much of a commentary from the crew on the way back as the vast majority of the passengers had been informed of all the points of interest on the outward leg but this merely served to allow us to savour the glory that is the British countryside in our very occasional good weather and which is seen to best advantage, I always believe, from the water.

Again, I have to be the bearer of bad tidings and again, it was only whilst I was researching this piece that I discovered that the Fairmile no longer plies the seas around Torbay so you will not be able to have the wonderful experience I did. Due to a cutthroat commercial battle between rival commercial ventures which was known locally as the “ferry wars” she became unviable. I cannot believe that in the space of less than five years my B&B has closed down, my usual pub sold on and this noble vessel removed from service. It seems like nothing stands still in and around Torquay. The one small consolation is that she has not been abandoned and has been acquired in 2015 by the National Museum of the Royal Navy which should at least ensure her future.

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Looks good enough to eat, doesn’t it?

Safely disgorged back in Torquay harbour the others retired to their respective hotels for a quick wash and brush up whilst Malcolm and I did the honourable thing and went straight back to the pub where we were to be having a “farewell meal” as the others all had to leave reasonably early the next day with fairly long journeys to undertake. When they returned not too long after, they all set about what looked like a very decent meal (Natalie’s Mediterranean seafood salad looked particularly good) although I was fully in liquid diet mode by this point. It was yet another lovely evening.  To paraphrase what I said in the previous blog entry, an evening spent eating and drinking well in very convivial company after a day in beautiful weather amongst the joys of the British coast, what more could a man require?

Farewells were duly made quite early with the obvious tinge of sadness although everyone agreed it had been a wonderful couple of days and that Malc had done a superb job organising it. With the others gone, he and I decided that another quick one wouldn’t hurt and that led to another and………. well, you get the picture and it was a very mellow Fergy that made his way back up the hill to his cosy bunk.

Stay tuned.