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.

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