Devon cream teas, Cornish pasties and cask ale are a sure fire way to undo all the good work we had put in over the last 12 months. It’s not like we weren’t expecting it. We have been back to the UK five out of the last six years, for various reasons. But this time was different. This was more than a quick two week trip, this was us living back in the land of jaffa cakes, Walkers crisps, and chocolate hobnobs for three months.
Catching up with family and friends before heading to mainland Europe was a huge thing for us. Luckily we managed to secure a number of house sits, a couple of them being close to our respective families.
Upon arrival we spent a three nights with long term friends Stuart and Helen. I have known these guys for donkey years. Stuart and I share the same passion and frustration for Everton FC. We walked their gorgeous dogs, Ben and Curtis, through leafy, if not somewhat muddy, Berkshire lanes. Drank far too much wine and caught up on the comings and goings of their five kids. They very kindly lent us their car to travel down to Devon whilst we searched for some wheels of our own.
Three things really struck us as we drove towards Devon. Firstly, the amount of litter on the side of dual carriageways and motorways. You expect this in countries with next to no refuge collection, but not in England. Secondly, the amount of farmland that has been given over to solar farms. England’s green and pleasant fields are now fields of glass. Thirdly, the amount of dead badgers. We can’t remember seeing one let alone the dozens that now slept forever at busy roadsides.
Our first house sit was in the city of Exeter, only 20 minutes drive from Julie’s Mum (Maureen) and sisters (Tracey & Alison). Our charges for three weeks, a cute border terrier called Fizz and a super hunter cat that goes by the name of Jasper.
First order of the day was to secure a car. Given that we are planning on being in Europe for 10 months we needed wheels to get around. Hiring a car for that long was prohibitively expensive. We even looked at short term leases but in the end decided to buy a cheap but hopefully reliable runaround. We found a Toyota Rav4 within budget and the perfect size for squeezing through old narrow Italian streets.
Most mornings we would find the remains of some dead rodent. At least Jasper had the good manners to leave the leftovers in his bowl, well most of the time. One morning Fizz was particularly interested in something under the kitchen table. Turned out to be wee mouse with part of its stomach hanging out, yuck.
Maureen lives in the pretty estuary town of Topsham, along with 5,000 other folk. Sat alongside the River Exe and rich in history, Topsham was once the port for the Roman City of Exeter. A number of buildings having a strong Dutch influence due to early trade between England and Holland. Topsham also had a thriving shipbuilding industry in days of olde. The infamous ‘Topsham Ten’ pub crawl was a rite of passage for many a 20-something. There’s the Goat Walk which links the town with the marshlands, a draw for twitchers.
Julie and I have been together for 6 years but our families have never met. So we managed to convince my Mum (Margaret) and sister (Lesley) to drive the 5 hours from my home town to Exeter for a few days. Turned out that our Mums got on like a house on fire.
Lesley was keen to visit a couple of old Cornish fishing ports that used to be regular hangouts when she lived in Plymouth. So off we went, first stop Looe. So different on a cold February morning than in the height of summer. Once a thriving port, the town is now all about buckets & spades and Cornish pastie shops. Next stop was the tiny fishing village of Polperro.
A haven for smugglers in its hey-day, Polperro has a less touristy feel than Looe partly due to the fact you are not allowed to drive through the village’s quaint narrow streets. We did managed to squeeze ourselves into the 16th Century, Three Pilchards Inn, the oldest pub in Polperro, for an ale and some lunch.
Fizz, the border terrier, can get quite poorly with irritable bowl syndrome so was on a strict diet with no human food allowed. To our shock and horror we found her one afternoon in the garden consuming the remains of a bag of M&S Percy Pigs. She had managed to get into a bag left on a dining chair and retreated to the safety of the bottom of the garden. I’m sure her thinking would have been ‘by the time those so-called carers reach me I will have scoffed the lot!’. Turns out the Percy Pigs didn’t have any ill effect, phew.
As well as family, Julie has heaps of friends from school and college in the area. A short drive to Newton Abbot and lunch with college friend Molly and her family. Molly and Ian’s son, Roman, is autistic. Last year, Molly posted on Facebook about how upset Roman gets because he has no friends and never gets invited to birthday parties. Well, Molly’s post went viral. What followed were thousands of birthday cards sent from all over the world, interviews with the BBC, ITV and various national newspapers. Check out @reachoutthehandoffriendship on Facebook. An inspiring family, with bundles of love in their hearts.
The following day we headed to a corner of Dartmoor to catch up with another college friend. Ruth and her family live in the beautiful village of Chagford. We had a great afternoon chatting and eating homemade cake and scones. We took Fizz along and headed up to one of the tors for a blustery walk and a dramatic view of the surrounding area.
I had an afternoon in Plymouth catching up with an old Navy buddy. It’s been at least 35 years since Dave Honey and I were shipmates onboard HMS Alacrity. We had a lunch and a couple of beers bringing each other up to date on how life had been since we last saw each other.
Julie’s niece (Bethany) and nephew (Ashley) came over for dinner and a game of monopoly, Exeter edition of course. Ashley had just been Iceland with the Boy’s Brigade so we compared photos and experiences. Whilst Lee (Alison’s partner) and I froze to death watching Exeter City, Julie and her youngest sister, Alison, had a good girlie catch up.
Old English pubs are a thing of beauty. Each so very different but with the same aim. One such place is the Highwayman Inn in Stourton. Originally built in 1282, (that’s 734 years old folks). Once quoted as being the most unusual pub in Britain. You enter through a stage coach into a maze of rooms and caverns, with an eclectic array artefacts and curio. Oh, and did we mention the resident ghost? The outside back wall looks like the giant shoe from Olde Mother Hubbard. One of our last outings with Fizz was to another fine example of a Devon hostelry. The Double Locks pub (just 315 years old) sits next to the Exeter ship canal and clearly Fizz was a regular here. She seemed right at home in this dog friendly drinking establishment; just another example of Fizz leading us astray.
Three weeks flew by and it was soon time to move on. We treated Maureen to a few days at the Cornwall Hotel and Spa in St. Austell complete with spa treatments. Mother’s Day dinner at yet another great pub, this time the Polgooth Inn. In fact Julie and I went for a quick shop one evening and ended up back at the Polgooth, tut tut. Nearby is the quaint port of Charlestown. Built to transport copper and tin from the nearby mines, this 18th century port is frozen in time with its square riggers tied up in the harbour.
We had lingering visits to the Cornish fishing ports of Mevagissey and Fowey. Wandering around narrow streets, watching the fishing boats return to harbour, sneaking into the odd pub for another real ale. Without the wave of tourists you get a real sense of what sleepy little gems these villages are.
We took a day trip over to Padstow, home of Rick Stein. Nicknamed ‘PadStein’, such is the influence on this fishing town by the celebrity chef. I had been wanting to eat in one of his restaurants for many a year, the Cafe being in budget. But I had a total muppet moment and ordered the steak, whatever happened to ‘when in Rome eat the bloody fish’. Julie’s Pondicherry cod curry was yummy and there was dish envy from the moment it was plonked on the table. My steak on the other hand, despite coming from some organic Cornish farm tasted like an old boot, and that’s doing the boot an injustice, very disappointing.
It had been a wonderful three weeks catching up with family and friends. We got a real taste, both literally and figuratively of life in this part of the world. We sometimes get the feeling that the rest of the UK is on fast-forward, missing out on the joys of a slower pace of life. With waistlines expanding it was time to leave the charms of Devon and Cornwall behind and head north.
Next stop. Battle of Hastings, Howarts Express and mystery on the streets of London.