The Prime Ministers’s attempts to hold a fissiparous Cabinet together having, possibly only temporarily, eclipsed the nations’ obsession with the Ing-er-Land football team’sWorld Cup progress, it must be time to swan off for an adventure, we reasoned. But where to go?
After minuscule debate, Marigold decided we would be heading for Devon, specifically to Brixham where we so very nearly bought a house a few years ago. Part of the triumvirate of towns making up Torbay, the region is widely known as the English Riviera. We’ve already lived on the French Riviera, so why not add the English version was a remark one of us made at the time of our putative house purchase. Sadly, in some ways although not in others, it was not to be, but we’re due a return visit just to check out the area again and seek out the aspects of it we particularly liked.
So, a plan, but on setting out we almost immediately decided to make Totnes our first port of call. It’s Friday, which means flea market day in Totnes, which is more than enough to relegate the English Riviera to later in the day. We adore Totnes. We visit often and never fail to be charmed by its mixture of bohemian enchantment and laid back pace of life. Time Magazine once declared Totnes to be the ‘capital of New Age chic.’ It’s not a bad looking place either.
Totnes has more listed buildings per head than any other town in the UK, there’s a 10th century Motte and Bailey Castle perched at the very top and a Tudor arch straddles the Main Street right in the middle of town. What you don’t get is a Waitrose or a Marks and Spencer and there’s absolutely no chance of a Costa coffee after a petition to keep them out of the town made national news.
Not that coffee aficionados like ourselves, just one short step away from addiction, are disappointed as there’s a vast choice of alternatives on offer. There are quaint tea rooms with pure white tablecloths, resolutely in one’s face vegetarian/vegan cafes/restaurants and any number of trendy organic coffee houses.
We parked topless Ruby in the car park alongside Steamer Quay and were immediately asked if we wanted to take a river boat to Dartmouth.
‘Sorry, not today,’ Marigold said.
‘Well,’ said the boatman, ‘Dartmouth is always worth a visit and it’s only 6 miles downstream taking the direct route. Takes a lot less time than it would take you by car.’
He’s probably right, I thought. Summer traffic, narrow winding roads, every journey is fraught with possible delays and Dartmouth is one of the most difficult places around here to get into and find a parking space. Even so, we said no to the boat trip and set off across the bridge.
We’d already decided we’d visit the castle, but we stopped for breakfast at Seeds – a perennial favourite , [‘seeds,’ right? Oh, please yourselves] – before wandering around the market almost next door. In truth, we were flagging a little already after trudging no more than three quarters of the way up the hill and were glad of a sit down. In mitigation, it was very, very warm, even early in the day.
Outside a couple of musicians were setting up. They looked interesting, but took so long ‘tuning up’ we decided we’d take them in on the way back. (By which time they’d gone). The market was fascinating, as it invariably is. Bread, cakes, fruit and veg, jams, chutney, any amount of hippie-style clothing and hand made jewellery and in the car park a random mixture of junk and undiscovered treasures.
A very smartly dressed stall holder, sitting in regal splendour with an old dog on his knee, told me everything there was to know about the breed in general and his own highly prized specimen in particular. Even down to measurements, from floor to shoulder for example. I listened, stroked the dog, said they both looked very smart and moved on.
By now Marigold was deep in conversation with one of her friends. We’d made a fairly tentative arrangement to meet today – I had actually forgotten- but were pleased to see them. They’re French, we have known them for almost twenty years and we meet up every three or four years on an entirely ad hoc basis, much like today. They’re visiting England, as tourists, and we wandered around together, chatting away.
Marigold and Yvette were walking in front, laughing like loons, while I followed on ‘chatting’ to Bernard. Yvette speaks very good English, even teaches it back home, but Bernard insists on speaking only French. Even though he knows a little English. ‘It’s good for you to practise,’ he says. I should have pointed out it may be a good time for him to practise his English, but the moment passed. So, I struggled.
Just a bit.
We lived in France for ten years, but it was a while ago. I was never ‘fluent’ in the language, but ‘rusty’ does not even come close to my present ability to carry on a conversation with a Frenchman. Especially as Bernard seemed determined to thrash out each and every possible ramification of a no deal ending to the Brexit saga.
After ten minutes I was wilting and the heat was entirely blameless. Less of a polymath, rather a Jack of all trades. Even that description is stretching credulity. Linguistics have evidently tagged on to all my other faculties that are on the verge of extinction.
We caught up with our better halves, yes, still laughing like loons, and bartered fiercely with stall holders, ending up with very little, but proudly clutching a few disparate items we apparently want but can’t in any sense of the word profess to ‘need.’ Hey ho, that’s one of the joys of a flea market.
After a return trip to stroke the old dog, we walked up to the castle as our friends had already expressed an interest in seeing it. I hope they weren’t too disappointed by what little remains of what was once the crowning glory of this prominent Saxon town.
Totnes was one of four Saxon fortified burhs in Devon, the others being Barnstaple, Exeter and Lydford and the original earth mound has a later stone keep added which makes it a pretty impressive sight. The arrow slits of the actual keep are still just about recognisable, the views from up here are magnificent and there were yet more buskers setting up to entertain picnickers in the ‘Bailey’ area surrounding the ‘Motte.’
We parted company with our French friends as we were bound for the coast and Bernard wanted to see if the rumours that it was possible to make wine in England have any substance. We assured him it was not only possible to produce very good wine in England, we were even capable of making cheese. Both commodities, of course, in the opinion of every Frenchman I’ve ever met, being impossible to find outside France.
Sharpham Wine and Cheese is both a vineyard and dairy and only just down the road so we sent them on their way. I read recently that Sharpham produces 100,000 bottles of wine a year, which Bernard may well regard as derisory but sounds pretty impressive to me. I see many similarities between Devon and our former home in the Loire Valley and wine producers have obviously reached the same conclusion.
We strolled back down the hill, browsing and window shopping amongst the bustling crowds. On reflection, it was too hot to actually ‘bustle’ but there were certainly crowds doing whatever crowds do when it’s hot.
We returned to Ruby, put the hood down and set off for the coast. Almost immediately, we discovered an essential diversion after spotting a sign for Berry Pomeroy Castle, which we’ve often heard mentioned, but never visited. Buried, in almost every sense, in a valley just outside the town, it’s ‘only 15th Century’ but the devastation of the centuries is as marked as that of the far older castle we just left behind.
Berry Pomeroy Castle is reputedly one of the most haunted buildings in the UK, but we always make allowance for such claims. Ghosts bring in visitors, although very few had made the journey so far today and we virtually had the place to ourselves.
The building of the castle began in 1460 by the Pomeroy family, who had been the most notable family in the area for hundreds of years, but almost immediately they found themselves short of cash and sold the castle to Edward Seymour, a brother of Jane Seymour, the third wife of Henry the 8th. Jane Seymour died of postnatal complications less than two weeks after the birth of her only child who became King Edward VI. She was the only one of Henry's wives to receive a State funeral and the only one to be buried beside him in St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle.
The Seymour family were riding high in English society at the time and continued to prosper right up to the Elizabethan era when they decided to build a vast mansion to rival the likes of Longleat. Work started around 1600, but was never finished – we’ve had building projects like that – and less than a century later the house was abandoned. It’s a glorious ruin now, an abandoned masterpiece, and in its own way rather magnificent. No, we didn’t see any ghosts.
Much more to come of a very busy trip, but that will have to wait for another day.