Friday, November 21, 2014

Catching Up In Chillaton

The house is huge, a great barn of a place, though it wasn't actually the barn before. It's the main farmhouse (now with additions), and there are two other stone buildings flanking it, separate properties that used to be barns, I think. Another smaller farmhouse complex is across the road, built by the original owner of this place back in the 17th century, if I remember what Chris told me correctly. It's two-thirds of the way up one of the many rolling hills in this part of southwest England, in Devon, where the fields are stitched together by hedgerows bordering narrow lanes, lanes that weren't designed for anything larger than a horse-drawn cart, which makes driving interesting, to say the least. And they're tall hedgerows, and often curvy lanes, so I keep one foot on the clutch as I edge forward, trying to peer around the corner, the more experienced locals piling up behind me impatiently. That doesn't happen often, however, as there's not a lot of traffic, or at least I'm able to time my driving into Kingsbridge and back when everyone else is at work or eating lunch at home. The nearest village is over two miles away, but I don't feel isolated. There are friendly neighbors in the home to the right, and more across the lane. But I have been working - and vegging out in front of the television in the evenings - and I haven't been missing company. Missing family, yes, but my weekly visits to Kingsbridge fulfill my people quota nicely.
Every morning, noon, and evening I take the two dogs up to the top of the hill, past the upper lawn (whose chair I haven't been relaxing on in the sunshine, as there has been very little of that lately) and into the field full of mouse runs and rabbit holes and multicolored mushrooms, where the dogs wander around and try to catch mice, and eat rabbit poop, and roll in the grass making funny noises, even when the grass is wet. Which it is, mostly, either from the dew in the morning or the daily drizzle (or torrential downpour) that keeps Devon green in November. I think the day I took these pictures two weeks ago was one of the last really nice days. Lately the cold wind has been rushing down from the moors and up and over the field.

I'm usually able to find a rain-free window to take the dogs up to the field, or even on a longer walk around the lanes. I don't take them on the long walks often because they both have arthritis. The younger dog, Hebe, is on a slimming regime that I should be following myself; I'm giving her grated raw carrots mixed with canned food in the evening, rather than the dry food/wet food mix that her mother Clover gets. The vet said that most of Hebe's joint problems come from the fact that she's overweight. Well, she's less so than she was, and is now bounding around the field each day instead of plodding and panting along. Hmmm ... where are the rest of the carrots?

I make sure the ducks and geese have fresh water, and feed them when I let them out of their house in the mornings. There's usually one duck egg waiting for me, and sometimes two. I'm living on duck eggs, what's left of the produce in the garden (not much now), and cheap things like oatmeal and beans and rice and past-its-sticker-date produce from Tesco. And the occasional treat of smoked mackerel from the fishmonger, or lamb neck filet from one of the butchers in town. England is expensive. I've been cooking a lot more, in the huge kitchen (everything in this house is huge). There are all sizes of Le Creuset ovenware, and decent knives, and a good spice rack. I've made lamb neck tagine, baked beans in tomato sauce, roasted root vegetables, squash and cauliflower stew, and lots of salads with the bitter greens from the garden mixed with romaine from the store.

For breakfast this morning I'm going to make kedgeree: curry-spiced basmati rice I'm going to bake in the oven to warm up the stone-floored kitchen, mixed with flaked smoked mackerel (scraps to the cat) and caramelized onions. Normally that's mixed in a creamy sauce with hard-boiled eggs, but I think I'll fry an egg instead to put on top, after I take the onions out of the skillet. Then it will be back into the study here, the little room off the huge dark-beamed wooden room that I never use, to do more paid writing. Unpaid blogging is done! For now, at least. I've finally caught up with myself in space and time.

Dog-walking and duck-watering and the odd garden job - I had to plant two beds of garlic and onion bulbs that arrived the week after Georgina and Chris left for Italy - plus keeping the cat happy and her litterbox clean (I've learned my lesson, believe me), and checking the dehumidifier in the shed, and watering the plants, and feeding the goldfish in the pond below the garden (I forgot to mention the pond) occupies about two hours a day, on average. But! I don't have to clean the house. There's a lovely woman who comes twice a week and does all that. As long as I keep the areas I use reasonably tidy - which is just the kitchen, the small toilet off the entryway, this study, and my rooms upstairs - she takes care of the rest.
Did I mention I have rooms, as well? I don't even go up to the top floor, a converted loft where Chris and Georgina have their desks, or the two-thirds of the second floor where their suite is, plus two other bedrooms. I'm in a bedroom with my own bathroom (and there is yet another bedroom on the other side), just off a large family room. When I was staying here the week before they left, I hung out in that family room to work and watch television, but now that I have the house to myself I spend most of my time in this study, where there's also a television, a good desk and chair to work at, and a poofy sofa that I can lounge on in the evenings, after bedding all the animals down for the night and building a nice fire in the wood stove.

Well, it's 8am now, and finally light outside. Time to take the dogs for their morning constitutional, feed the birds, and get the rice baking. Then it's back to work (I'm hoping I have the mental energy to write three articles today) until it gets dark at 4pm, when the ducks and geese go back inside, the dogs settle down in front of the heaters, and I stretch my shoulders out before tuning into "Pointless."

Life is good.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

South West Coast Path: Paignton To Brixham

The beach at Paignton, looking north to Torquay.

Everyone had told me to go to Brixham for fresh fish, and since I really wanted to take a long walk along the coast, I decided to follow the South West Coast Path along the edge of the inlet. There are 630 miles of path in all, starting at Poole, near Bournemouth. Ferries run between this port almost due south to Cherbourg, in France, which is on another hiking path, one of the many Grandes Randonnées that crisscross the country. This one is GR-223 (the "Tour de Cotentin"), which runs for 270 miles along the northwest jut of land from Isigny-sur-Mer to Cherbourg to Mont St-Michel, a place I still want to visit some day. Kingsbridge, where I go once a week for a session of manual lymph drainage and a new supply of discounted produce from the local Tesco, is twinned with Isigny-sur-Mer.

Or I suppose you could say the South West Coast Path starts on the other side of the peninsula here, beyond both Dartmoor and Exmoor National Parks, at Minehead on the Bristol Channel. The two end points meet up at Land's End, in Penzance, Cornwall, the westmost point of mainland Britain, full of sea cliffs and surfers and offshore wind turbines, meat pasties and kittiwakes and people dressed as pirates.

Paignton to Torquay northward is a shorter walk, but much less interesting, and you have to follow roads more than paths. Scenic views plus fresh seafood drew me towards the southern route instead, out along the seafront past the Victorian colonnaded splendor of the Paignton Club, built in 1881 and still very popular for weddings and events. They're offering a Christmas Day lunch this year including Stilton and broccoli soup, smoked mackerel mousse on toast, roast turkey or beef (or a "nut roast" for vegetarians), and a traditional Christmas pudding for afters. Roundham Road rises up over the headland that shelters the harbor, and I walked up and over to look out over the next beachy cove at Goodrington Sands. I could have jogged left just off Roundham Road above the harbor along Cliff Road for a better view and the official start of the South West Coast Path out of Paignton, but I had heard there were some slippy areas after all the rain. The road continues down for those who are driving, but there's also a zig-zaggy paved path running down the cliffs to the beach.

When the tide's out, you can walk along the beach from north to south, but there's also a nice promenade, undoubtedly crowded on sunny summer Sundays but nearly deserted that day, except for the forklift trucks moving the now-emptied storage cabanas from their long lines along the shore into close-packed ranks in a parking lot on the other side of the railroad tracks. The path starts up again at the end of the beach. I walked under the railway line and started up and over the next headland.

There were several little rocky coves along the way to my left, and I saw more adventurous people with dogs hiking back up from them, but I didn't go down to explore. I stayed on the path, which climbs up through clearings and down into wooded areas and then up again, with the railway line to the left and houses to the right, then no houses at all, just fields and a few golf courses. One of the coves I didn't explore is Saltern Cove, which Wikipedia now informs me contains "a greatly disturbed Devonian sequence" (geology humor, Mom?). Another website mentions its "slump bed" and "coarse Permian fluvial breccias resting unconformably on Devonian slates and sandstones" which I read as "resting uncomfortably," which makes sense if the bed is slumping. It's also a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and the only nature reserve in Britain that lies both above and below the water.

Once up and over the high ground, the path descends again down a long steep slippery staircased slope that first parallels and then crosses under the Broadsands viaduct where the trains run. This arched stone bridge was built in 1860. I can't find any information on who built the viaduct, but all agree that it was built according to a design by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a man the BBC History site describes as "one of the most versatile and audacious engineers of the 19th century." He designed all of the viaducts and tunnels for the Great Western Railway network; the Dartmouth Steam Railway runs along a now-unconnected spur of the larger line system, from Paignton to Kingswear.

Broadsands beach looks like a good family beach, and there were indeed families there, enjoying what had turned into a somewhat less overcast day by that point. There was even an open concessions stand at the south end of the promenade, selling sodas and ice cream. I walked to the end of the beach, and then up to the top of Churston Point, another fairly steep climb - though only a gentle incline by the standards of the hardy souls who hike les Pyrénées Béarnaises, n'est-ce pas, Florence? From the top of the cliffs, I could look over to the entrance to Brixham harbour. I noticed odd black lines in the water, and took a photo of what I believe are the ropes for the mussel farms run by Brixham Sea Farms.

Churston Court has been sitting comfortably back from the edge of the cliffs since the 12th century, and the manor house is now the clubhouse for the Churston Golf Course. Baron Churston and his family haven't been peers nearly as long as that, though; the title was only created in 1858 (or 1790, if you're talking about the earlier Baronets of Churston Court). Through the magnetic forces that bring rich people together, the current Baron is now first cousin to His Highness Prince Shah Karim Al Hussaini Aga Khan, who is unimaginably wealthy and is the religious head of the Nizari Shi'ites, all 15 million of them worldwide, being a direct descendant of Mohammed. Or so it is said - I don't want to add to the millenia-old conflict between Shi'a and Sunni on this blog, so please avoid bloodshed in any discussions about the validity of his claim.

Speaking of bloodshed, Agatha Christie used to spend time in this area, at Greenway House about two miles further inland, on the River Dart. Some of her stories are set in and around this property, including at pretty little woods-encircled Elberry Cove, which is where the path took me next. Lord Churston built a bathing-house in the cove, and Ms. Christie enjoyed the quiet waters there. In "The A.B.C. Murders" someone meets his end there, though I won't say who, in case you've just started the book. There was a family there when I walked around the edge over the flat stones of the shingle beach; the man had a Geiger counter, and was perhaps looking for clues. The woman and the child were searching for pretty stones and shells and bits of whatever it is that children are interested in, or that women who are hoping to keep children entertained while men play with machines that go 'ping' are having those children look for.

And up again, through another stretch of woodland that runs almost level along the edge of Churston Golf Course, across the top neck of Fishcombe Point, and down to Churston Cove. That would have been a nice place to stop and look for pretty stones (as another family of three was doing by the water line) or - if the weather had been warmer - paddle about in the shallows, but my water bottle was empty, as was my stomach, and I knew that Brixham Harbour was just around the bend.

"And here must be noticed, what is certainly a special feature in our sins this day. I do not say exclusively of this day, but certainly more than ordinarily apparent amongst us; - I mean, our making religion itself a matter of dissension; - our spending our zeal and our strength in disputes with each other, instead of in the great work of advancing God's kingdom, first in our own hearts, and then in the hearts of others. While we are disputing who is right and who is wrong; about this person or that; what is such an one's tendencies, and what he will do; souls are perishing around us, and our own are in imminent danger. Look at the fact as it is. Our religion, instead of binding us together, is the most fruitful source of our dissensions."

- from "National Sins and National Judgements" (1847) by William Dodsworth, a Church of England minister who converted to Catholicism but was not able to become a priest, being married to Elizabeth, sister of the first Baron Churston

The concrete steps added on the south end of the cove by which I went down turned into steps carved into the rocks themselves leading out again, up one last steep (truly steep this time) trail leading to the first houses of the town, and what used to be a large parking lot that was full of construction workers and what looked like half-built apartment blocks.

Brixham has always been a busy place. There are traces of settlements dating back to Celtic and Roman times, and it was probably one of the major trading posts along this stretch of coastline. Fishing has naturally been a large part of the economy, and up until 1870 it was the largest center of commercial fishing in Devon, until it was overtaken by Plymouth. Wagons and later trains took the some of the catch inland to Exeter and Bath, and hundreds of ships took the rest to Portsmouth, where boatloads of seafood were shipped up to London.

All of the people in the industries that supported the fishermen - boat builders, sailmakers, woodworkers and chandlers and ropemakers - made a good living directly or indirectly from the sea. Smugglers and pirates found less acceptable, if often easier, ways to bring in money.

On land, people worked in the limestone quarries and in mining ochre. Powdered ochre was used to waterproof the sails of fishing vessels, and in 1845 a local Brixham chemist discovered that adding ochre to paint made a rustproof coating for iron; production of that paint employed people for the next hundred years.

At the beginning of the 19th century Brixham had about 3,500 inhabitants and was the largest town in Torbay. The fishing industry went into a decline entre-deux-guerres, and the population went with it. Tourism and fishing have both picked up since then, and at the beginning of the 21st century there were over 17,000 people living there. Much money is being put into redevelopment of the fisheries and into making Brixham the place for plaice, as it were. UK chef Mitch Tonks, who lives in Brixham, will be opening a branch of his Rockfish restaurant chain there next year. There are already several good places to eat fresh fish in town, as the Paigntonites know. The town is at the crossroads of several popular trails, including the South West Coast Path.

Note to Torbay Council PR team - I'm available for writing brochures and other publicity. Have your people call my people.

There is a replica of Sir Francis Drake's ship The Golden Hind moored in Brixham harbor. Or at least it's a replica of the original replica used to film the single-season 1961 TV series "The Adventures of Sir Francis Drake," which apparently aired in the US in the summer of 1962 while "Car 54, Where Are You?" was on a break. The TV prop was bashed up by a storm in 1987, but the current replica, one with a galley to make it more authentic, has been at Brixham ever since. This is not to be confused with the truly authentic and seaworthy replica called The Golden Hinde II, which can generally be found moored just off the Thames near London Bridge.

Drake's first cousin Sir John Hawkins went with him on many voyages, generally to raid and plunder and capture slaves, but he didn't go on the globe-trotting (-splashing?) one from 1577-1580, as he was too busy doing counterespionage against the Spanish, whom he had previously riled up by said raiding and plundering and slave-capturing from Africa to Venezuela, which the Spanish felt was their department. As many of the ships he raided and plundered were Spanish, that just cheesed them off more. Eventually all this led to the invasion of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and fortifications can still be seen on Berry Head, the headland just north of Brixham harbor.

The other famous figure associated with Brixham harbor is Prince William of Orange. He landed here on November 5, 1688 with 500 ships, a Protestant Dutch invasion force sponsored by the wealth of those members of the English church and state who did not want the Roman Catholic James II and his newborn son reestablishing the Papists on the throne. James II's oldest daughter Mary had married William 11 years earlier; William himself was the grandson of Charles I, who had married his daughter Mary at the age of 9 to William II of Orange, ruler of the Netherlands. After James II abdicated and fled to France, William and Mary co-ruled England, both having what William thought were equal claims to the throne - an enlightened attitude on his part, given the fact that the "boyz rule" order of succession laws wouldn't be changed for another 322 years.

There are a lot of good restaurants along the Quay, I was informed. Unfortunately they all close after lunch at 2:30pm and don't reopen until about 6:00pm for the dinner service. Guess when I arrived in Brixham? If you said "2:31pm" you would be correct. So I can't tell you about any of the fine dining, or any other dining, options in Brixham, after all.

I had hoped to take the steam train back to Paignton, but discovered that it swerves to the west after a stop at Churston, going on to Greenway (for the Christie fans) and then south to the end of the line at Kingswear, next to Dartmouth. There's an 1864 train station at Dartmouth that sells train tickets, but you can't get there by train - the railway line was never extended across the River Dart, and passengers still have to take a ferry across.

The steam train has as special cargo in July: a giant gooseberry pie. They may not hold the Galmpton Gooseberry Pie Fair every year, but they did in 2007, and I was there with friends from Totnes. The pie procession stops at the Churston station, and goes down the lane to the village green. I could have walked from Brixham harbor to get the train back at Churston, but it would have been another 2.5 miles and 50 minutes, and the bus stop was right there, with a #12 just getting ready to leave. I traded six dollars for a seat on the upper deck, right at the front so that I could see out over the landscape whose eastern edge I'd just spent 2.3 hours walking. After 23 minutes of driving by fields of sheep and cows and mangel-wurzel (actually I don't know what was growing in those fields, I just like saying mangel-wurzel) I arrived back in Paignton.

I ate a late lunch at the Shoreline, which does a very nice pot of moules-frites with Brixham mussels, I must say.

"There must be a beginning of any great matter, but the continuing unto the end until it be thoroughly finished yields the true glory." - Sir Francis Drake (1587)

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Vacation In Paignton

What is a vacation? Some people - myself included, often - would say that I'm always on vacation these days, traveling around and seeing new places, with few if any commitments or things to put in my day planner. If I had one. No reason to set the alarm clock in the morning. No daily grind, no dull routine. And that's all true.

Or mostly true, anyway. These days I put in at between 4 and 6 hours of work on the computer, 7 days a week. All of my housesitting assignments have involved responsibilities, cleaning and walking dogs and feeding cats and making sure that houseplants don't die, that mail is collected, that any issues that come up with the animals or house are taken care of. So far that has added another hour per day on average, and with this housesit it's more like two hours. So if that's six hours of computer work and two hours of housesitting work, there's my eight hours of what is often routine, and even dull.

That's why the five days I spent at the B&B in Paignton felt like a vacation. I was still working on the computer, but not for as many hours a day. And I didn't have to take care of any pets, or clean the room, or cook my own meals and do the dishes afterwards. It was wonderful.

It's a little over 300 miles from northern York to the southern beaches of the English Riviera, about the same distance physically and climatologically as it is between Portland and the "banana belt" of coastal Brookings, Oregon. It was still fairly chilly, especially in the early mornings, but I got up one day before the sunrise and pulled on my wool coat and walked down to the waterfront to watch the sun come up. I took dozens of pictures that aren't going in this post because they just didn't capture the way the sky went from blue-grey to pink to orange to bright gold between the clouds. Seagulls and cormorants and the occasional heron flew by, ravens (or maybe carrion crows) quorked along the top of the seawall, pecking at shells and discarded chip bags, the slow waves splooshed against the wide bottom step, and the other early birds of the human persuasion jogged or strolled down the pavement behind me, many with a dog or two in tow.

There's a harbor at Paignton, but most of the commercial fishing is done a few miles to the southwest, out of the larger harbor at Brixham. I did see one trawler go out, perhaps for mackerel, which is quite common along this stretch, or possibly for cod or plaice or eels. When I asked at the B&B for a good seafood restaurant, the proprietor (and everyone else I asked in Paignton) told me to go to Brixham for fresh fish.

I stayed at the Brampton Guest House, where Mark and Alyson set me up with a single room on the first floor with a narrow but comfortable bed. There really wasn't room to work in the bedroom comfortably, but they let me use the dining room after the breakfast service was cleared away. I had the "full English breakfast" almost every morning; the only thing I couldn't have was the sausage, because no one in England makes sausage without adding breadcrumbs to the meat. Seriously. You have to ask the butcher specifically for gluten-free all-meat sausage, and if they do make it, it's done in batches which they freeze, because not too many people ask for them, I suppose. But the back bacon was good, and Alyson checked the label on the baked beans to make sure they weren't thickened with wheat starch, and I had brought a loaf of gluten-free bread with me for a week's worth of toast. Only instant coffee on offer, alas, so I drank a pot of tea every morning instead.
Paignton is at the center of one long edge of a roughly rectangular inlet off the English Channel, with Torquay at the top edge and Brixham at the bottom. As at the Jurassic Coast along the larger scoop of inlet north of Torquay, a lot of the cliffs are made of crumbly red mudstone and sandstone, and so therefore the beaches are, too. When there's sand on the beaches, that is - a lot of them are covered in smooth stones instead. But one of the reasons this area is so popular is because there are a fair number of sandy beaches, and in the summer they're packed with people, often families who come out from midland cities year after year, bringing folding furniture and beach umbrellas and other summer supplies which they store in rented wooden cabanas along the promenades.

There weren't a lot of tourists during the week, that week, but all of the B&Bs filled up for the weekend, mainly because of the nearby Dartmouth Food and Drink Festival. The B&Bs rent rooms regularly to contractors, too, who are hired in the off season to make repairs to summer rental homes, or to build more of them. In the six or seven blocks between the center of town and the seafront, it seemed like every single row house was a B&B. I'm glad I wasn't there at the height of the summer season, because it's probably a madhouse, and very noisy. The nights were quiet that week, until the dawn chorus of seagulls started.
The harbor is at the south end of town, accessible by foot at any time, but by water only when the tide is in. There are lots of tourist-oriented shops, of course, including several arcades (which all seemed to be playing the theme song from "Frozen") and more than a few pubs, souvenir stores and sweets stalls and a pretty good range of restaurants, including a Thai one I went to the night I arrived which was really very good. Most of the time I made do with my massive breakfast, a midafternoon snack of nicely crispy chips (fries) and a pint of local cider by the window at the Shoreline overlooking the water, and dinner of grapes or oatcakes with hummous or something like that from the local Lidl or Spar, whichever I happened to be nearest when I started getting hungry again.

I did get gluten-free fish and chips at Squires one afternoon as an early dinner, and it was pretty good, though their chips aren't nearly as nice as the ones at the Shoreline. They use a purchased gluten-free batter mix that contains garbanzo flour, which creates a really solid crust that's somewhat heavy (at least the way this place made it), unlike the thin crunchy coating on the fish at Oliver's in London. It was still good, though. It was nice having all of these options within a few blocks' walk of the B&B.

It was nice being so close to the waterfront, though again if it had been mid-August I might have been complaining about the noise and crowds. Most of the large hotels fronting the promenade two blocks away have pub/bistro places with large table-filled courtyards, and I imagine on a summer's evening those tables are packed with people enjoying their beer until the wee hours of the morning. With the occasional rain squalls, 50-degree weather, and generally overcast skies of late October, only a few hardy souls - and/or smokers - were at the outdoor tables, and only at lunchtime.

They sell food on the pier, too, but much of that appears to close down after the summer, at least on weekdays. When I went down on Saturday morning for a last walk along the beach, it looked as if the larger cafe on the pier was getting ready to open for lunch. There is a small shack serving seafood that was open every day, but frankly the food didn't look too fresh, even the cockles and mussels alive, alive-o that they were advertising. And I don't eat octopus, just on general principle.

Though they have several of the coin-pusher games that I love in the big arcade on the pier, I was saving my pence and didn't play any of them. Apparently there's a TV game show here based on this arcade game, called "Tipping Point," but it doesn't seem to be a real winner. So to speak.
Insignificant profits and sumptuous profits do not stand on the same footing. No, it is all a matter of proportion. What may seem a small sum to a Rothschild may seem a large sum to me, and it is not the fault of stakes or of winnings that everywhere men can be found winning, can be found depriving their fellows of something, just as they do at roulette. As to the question whether stakes and winnings are, in themselves, immoral is another question altogether, and I wish to express no opinion upon it. Yet the very fact that I was full of a strong desire to win caused this gambling for gain, in spite of its attendant squalor, to contain, if you will, something intimate, something sympathetic, to my eyes: for it is always pleasant to see men dispensing with ceremony, and acting naturally, and in an unbuttoned mood. . . .
       - Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Gambler (1867)

The pier at Paignton juts out over the water and points almost directly east to Amiens, 260 miles away. I haven't heard from L. since I posted my post-birthday confessional and sent him the link. I enjoyed my quiet week alone at the seaside, but sometimes it would have been nice to have company - though not in bed; there was barely enough room for me. I would have spent more time in the arcade if Morgan and Leah and Corey had been there. I might have looked for a fishing charter or explored the cliffs for fossils if Mom and John had been there. I probably would have done about the same thing if Kate had been there, because she too appreciates a week where there's not much to do but walk around and read silly books and eat french fries. Oh, and get massages - I had three massages that week, and it would have been four, but after the third one my shoulders were saying "okay, it was nice for a while, but now we're almost even more sore than before you started" so I canceled that one. Except Kate's not really into massages. And there wasn't much in the way of vegetarian food here (and a distinct lack of maple-barbecued tempeh) so this might not have been the best place for a sisters' week out, come to think of it.

All in all, though, a good week and a nice break from what routine I have. Especially the walk to Brixham, which I'll talk about in the next post.