I have so far written less than double digits of posts on my brand new website here and have probably made a liar of myself on about half of that small number.
My problem is that I promise faithfully to be brief and I do start off with the best intentions but the road to Hell is paved with them as we were told when children. Inevitably, I end up getting side-tracked and writing a tome that would not disgrace Tolstoy on amphetamine. When writing historical posts I usually begin by looking at my images for that day as an aide-memoire and that process for this day, 15/07/2013 reveals a day of uneventful travelling South to North which should produce a novella as opposed to the sagas I have been churning out previously.
It was a Monday morning which is a time of slight depression for the majority of the working masses but is of no consequence to me in my happily retired state and the weather gods were obviously conspiring with the travel gods to give me a really good run. Fourth morning of my trip, fourth morning of utterly glorious weather and my spirits could not have been higher. Showered, dressed, my meagre possessions packed and my guitar slung over my shoulder I headed downstairs, pausing only to deposit the key and a potential confrontation with my landlady as to why I did not wish to eat her breakfasts (I do not do breakfast) and out to face the day.
I had a bit of a decision to make as I had to be in Barnstaple that evening for onward journey to Ilfracombe and then to my ultimate destination of Lundy island the next morning by ferry. Although it is not so far as the crow flies, and remember I was only travelling in one English county, it still takes about two hours on two stopping trains with a change at Exeter St. Davids but again no problem. I knew I could not check into my B&B until late afternoon so the decision to make was to head off early or have a day in Torquay and go later. I decided on staying for a while as I had grown very fond of the place in my few days there.
Even with the guitar I was travelling fairly light and so it was no problem on the downhill run back into town to revisit some of the places I had been over the weekend. I was greeted warmly in them all but in a couple I was obviously recognised and asked relevant questions like, “how was the trip to Dartmouth” or else the more standard, “Usual, Sir?”. This pleased me no end and presented a number of possibilities. a) I had spent far too long in these places and chatting to the staff, b) I am so physically noticeable (6’5″, long hair, beard etc.) that people remember me, c) they are exceptionally professional bar staff or d) any or all of the above. You decide. As happy as I had been in the morning, the addition of a few pints of fermented apples never hurts and it was a borderline euphoric Fergy that made his way to the station with still enough of what wits he has to get there in decent time. The rather poor image shows a sign I saw in one establishment and was an order I felt strangely compelled to obey!
I was sad to leave Torquay as I had enjoyed it much more on this trip than on my previous visit where I had breezed through it in a few hours. I promised myself to return and, although I have not fulfilled that vow, I shall in the fullness of time. As I mentioned, the trip to Barnstaple is a mere 48 miles (77km.) so do the maths yourself but whilst it can never be termed an express service it is most remarkably scenic and runs for a portion of its route alongside the sea, separated from the water by no more than a fairly narrow pebble beach. I hope the image here, which I tried to “artistically frame” in the train door, gives an idea. The whole line is semi-officially known as the “Tarka Line” and more of that famous otter in the next post.
Remarkably for the rail system in the UK we arrived on time and I alighted at the adorable Barnstaple station complete with the old heritage rail sign you can here as opposed to the soulless corporate versions they have now. Job done and the day was ticking along nicely.
Thinking ahead I decided to head straight to Ilfracombe which is what I did in good order. I knew all too well the perils of further pub visiting at that point and Barnstaple could well have been my downfall. The reason I was in Barnstaple at all was that there has been no train to Ilfracombe since 1970 when it was closed for commercial reasons as the car saw it off and so a short and comfortable bus journey was required.
I wanted to divest myself of my kit and was conscious of not inconveniencing the people in the B&B so I restricted myself to a quick one or two before heading there to be greeted by a note on the front door stating that they had had to pop out briefly but if I went to see Mrs. X at number Y across the road she would sort matters out. I did so and a charming lady showed me into her immaculate home, offered me a brew which I declined and made a quick ‘phone call which brought my hosts in double-quick time to show me to my very clean and tidy twin room with ensuite bathroom.
The room was obviously a partitioned larger room on the first floor of a Victorian / Georgian house and was not particularly spacious but what do I need? From any sort of accommodation I require a clean and comfortable bed, some hot water for my ablutions with added bonuses being a bit of peace and quiet and the absence of cockroaches, rats or other annoyances. Yes, I am a man of simple tastes and I have slept in some places that I would not wish on my worst enemy which undoubtedly assists me on my travels both financially and in terms of choice.
The bed was very comfy, if a little short for my 6’5″ frame, but I do not expect landlords to spend a fortune on custom-made oversized beds on the off-chance that a lanky brute like me or taller may walk in the door. I have accustomed myself to all sorts of sleeping conditions and indeed, at age 58, I have recently spent three very happy) months sleeping on a tiled floor which presented no problem at all. Yes, there is a blog in that when I get the time). The water in the shower was hot both evening and morning and of vermin there was a marked absence! In short, it was very clean, tidy, warm, friendly, convenient for my destination and the town, totally devoid of road noise in a quiet side street, what more did I need?
I could enter now into an entire discourse about the various options available to the traveller in the UK where accommodation options are not cheap but, on the novella principle outlined above, I shall refrain and save it for another post.
A quick sluice down and I was off to sample the nearby “fleshpots” of an Ilfracombe basking in the still warm rays of a declining sun. I am running out of synonyms for delightful and charming here so I shall say that it was very likeable which is appropriate in terms of the town which I liked very much. In terms of “fleshpots” I am sure they once existed as they do in any town with a maritime connection but I didn’t find any although whether they no longer exist or because I did not have the requisite local knowledge I could not possibly say. No, before you get the wrong idea, I was not looking for what the late Terry Pratchett so wonderfully described as “ladies of negotiable affection” but merely places with a bit of an edge.
What I did find was a few very decent pubs, at least one of which had been recommended to me by John Gayton who I mentioned in an earlier post here and who will feature heavily in future submissions. My images show me that I was back home a little shy of the witching hour (midnight) which is unusual for me but I had much to do on the morrow.
I do hope I have adhered to my self-imposed brief of novella vs. saga here. Believe me, I really have tried and have omitted much in the arguably laudable interests of brevity. Again, I am very much finding my way and would appreciate any sort of feedback. Do you wish to hear all my often tangential musings on my rambles or would you just prefer me to stick to a strict recitation of events? I am entirely in your hands as I want this to be as enjoyable an experience for you as it can be given my obvious limitations. Having decided, against all logic, to start this site, I really want to make it the best my abilities allow.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.