Occupy LSX

I decided I needed to take a trip to visit the Occupy London Stock Exchange (LSX) site at St. Paul’s Cathedral. For those who don’t know, this London Occupy site has been the focus of an important discussion about the role of the church in people’s lives. Three high-ranking church officials resigned over the mismanagement of the protest movement on their doorstep, and for weeks a debate has raged over the position of the church in defending the needs of the poor.

As I write this, an eviction notice has been served, and a legal case is proceeding, but for the moment the Occupy site remains. It continues to be a peaceful, and respectful protest. From what I can tell, the media has gone from being cautiously supportive, to openly negative and nasty, and currently to blithely ignoring the continuation of the Occupation. Next week however, on November 30th, a country-wide general strike is called for. I suspect we will be drowning in a sea of contradictory media reports and opninons.

On the day I went to St. Paul’s, the fall wind had picked up. It was sunny, but sudden gusts picked tents off of the ground, fluttering them 5 feet in the air before dropping them down again on the cobblestones.

Looking from the steps of St. Paul's to the Tent City University

A well-organized information tent was connected to “Tent City University”, a tent space dedicated to encouraging research, thought and intelligent discussion. “Needs” boards were posted (First Aid supplies, kitchen supplies) as were volunteer opportunities. I had heard that a newspaper had been produced a few days earlier and asked if I could see a copy.  It is an impressively produced, well-written journal. This is a very organized movement, and their dedication to education and discussion is paramount.

There are speakers and events every day at LSX. On the day I was there, Manuel Castels was speaking. Castels is a sociologist and an expert in the field of information technology and society. His “Information Age Trilogy” is one of the most frequently quoted sources for understanding contemporary communication. He was visiting the site en route between Barcelona and Los Angeles and he spoke about strengthening the connection between the urban space and cyberspace. The Occupy presence will create change through the lateral thinking possible in cyberspace. But it is still essential to initiate the dialogue in the urban environment. He stressed the need to avoid violence at all costs, suggesting that if the movement was evicted from St. Paul’s “there are lots of other churches in London”. Smaller groups could occupy more locations, and remain connected through the internet. This would not dilute the movement. It will only grow in strength. He spoke about the need to stay connected, “our imagination and our courage should do the rest”.

The lunchtime crowds listening to Manuel Castels

Following Castels was the daily meeting of the General Assembly. I must admit that I haven’t been following the political structure of the Occupy movement closely. While I have been reading the media, I haven’t been following the actual source. Writing this blog is a way of beginning to put things into a perspective for myself. Those of you reading the blog in other countries will have heard other stories, and may have other responses to the movement. But I am impressed by the intelligence and innovation of Occupy London, and by their honest desire to work from a consensus basis.

Having had my own experiences trying to operate an organization through consensus, I know how very difficult it is to get anything done in this way. So I was really encouraged to hear that there are daily facilitation training sessions to help people to learn how to keep the “flow of information and the flow of action though the consensus process”. They recognize that the Occupy movement represents all segments of society and therefore there will be many different perspectives and beliefs. But as one speaker from the General Assembly said: “Deep political disagreements shouldn’t prevent us working together”.

It is, as a journalist recently remarked, a very young movement, one that is still finding its feet. Yet it is already a complex societal structure, with a plethora of different working groups (ranging in topics from finance to health to media). Looking at the calendar of events for next week, I can see a full schedule of presentations and open discussions on such topics as “social dreaming”, “overcoming negativity” and “the misery of job insecurity – a catalyst for social change?”.

Perhaps most surprisingly, and most excitingly, every effort is being made to remain inclusive. There were recent media statements about “undesirables” at the camp site. An offensive article in the London Evening Standard with the headline: “Needle bins at St Paul’s camp to beat junkie health hazard“ prompted a statement from the camp: We have never sought to hide the fact that some of the more vulnerable members of our society have sought solace at our camps, not so much for the food and shelter we provide as for the sense of community we have established in contrast to their experience in wider society.”

What I saw at LSX was noble, and fascinating. It seems clear to me that we are witnessing the birth of a new form of political expression that will use the internet to reach its ultimate manifestation, whatever that may be. Hopefully it will be a peaceful revolution.

“Occupy London is a place where everyone is valued for what they contribute to our society and everyone is encouraged to participate in that society to the best of their ability. We are very clear about the standards we expect but we are, above all, inclusive. That is something to be proud of.”


A Sublime Day in London

The Leonardo Da Vinci show at the National Gallery, “Leonardo Da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan”, is billed as “the most complete display of Leonard’s surviving paintings ever held” and has been the talk of the town since it opened. Advance tickets were sold out immediately, but the Gallery reserved 500 tickets per day, released on the day. The box office opens at 10:00 a.m and you are advised that you’ll spend about an hour and a half in line.

Tim got to the Gallery at 8:00 a.m. and there was already a good line up. He was told that he would get numbers 84 & 85, so he settled into coffee and chat with others in the queue, shivering in the November wind.

By the time that I arrived at 9:30, with more coffee, there were over 400 people in line.

The line up at 8:00. It goes way back under the archway

There was a vendor selling coffee and breakfasts, gallery staff giving everyone regular up-dates, and reading material about the show was provided to help us while away the time. The English really do know about queuing and there was an atmosphere of camaraderie and friendship.

We got in to see the show at 11:00. Inside, it was easy to feel claustrophobic. You could really only see the pieces by staying in the flow of the line up, moving slowly along the walls. I allowed myself to go into a calm state, reading the information, spending as much time as I needed with each drawing and painting, the crowd sometimes moving past me like a river gently bumping past a stone.

The show was a revelation. “The Lady with the Ermine” is hailed as the “second-most famous woman in Leonardo’s life”. It’s an astonishing painting of Cecilia Gallerani, 16-year old mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Da Vinci’s patron. In the painting, she is gazing off to the side, an ermine in her arms. It’s a provocative and mysterious portrait. She and the ermine (the symbol of purity) are said to be looking at Ludovico off stage, the light in the painting emanating from him. It is the first time that the painting has been exhibited in Britain and she is definitely the star of the show.

My favourite piece is “The Burlignton House Cartoon”, an unfinished drawing of the Virgin Mary, sitting on her mother’s lap (St. Anne) with the infant Jesus and St. John the Baptist beside them. There was a beautiful sketch of the same scene as well. The great maternal love in the pictures makes me weep. He catches a beautiful, human, relationship between Mary and her baby that is timeless.

There was a fabulous display of his sketches for the saints in The Last Supper. Da Vinci stressed the importance of gesture to show character: “A good painter is to paint two main things, namely, man and the working of man’s mind. The first is easy, the second is difficult, for it is to be represented through the gestures and movements of the limbs”.

A quote from his notebook reads like a playwright, taking notes. You get a vision of Milan, 1493, as Leonardo was contemplating gesture and groups of people: “One who was drinking and has left the glass in its place and turned his head towards the speaker. Another, twisting the fingers of his hands together, turns with stern brow to his companion. Another with his hands spread open shows the palms, and shrugs his shoulders up to his ears, making a mouth of astonishment. Another speaks into his neighbour’s ear and he, as he listens to him, turns towards him to lend an ear, while he holds a knife in one hand, and the other the loaf half cut through by the knife. Another who has turned, holding a knife in his hand, with his hand a glass onto the table.”

We left the Gallery feeling very full.

Having feasted our eyes, we decided to go to St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields for an evening concert as part of the “Just This Day” project. “Just This Day” is dedicated to promoting “Stillness” and in particular, “Silence in Schools”  Apparently, recent studies show the benefits of “strong silence”, a deliberate and focussed stillness, to include higher exam results, increase in self-esteem and a decrease in negative behaviour.

St. Martin’s is in the heart of busy London, yet is known as an oasis of calm. The church was hosting  “Just This Day” — a day of silence and discussion of stillness. But we knew none of this at the time. We just arrived. As the concert began, we were requested to sit, and feel the stillness. Why is it that stillness feels so much more profound when it is enjoyed together with several hundred other people?

Outside St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, after the concert

We were treated to an evening of music by Arvo Pärt sung by the “Choral Scholars of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields” and played by the Ceruti Quartet. There was early Renaissance music sung by Dame Emma Kirkby and played on the lute by Jakob Lindberg, and a piece by contemporary composer David Stoll, “The Practice of Mediation”. It was all sublime. Music of the spheres. Spiritually uplifting.

We walked back to Waterloo station over the Millenium Bridge, the lights of the southbank reflecting in the water, happy and still in the middle of the city.View of the Southbank from the Bridge

Encore Une Fois, part deux

After a morning exploring the treasures at the Marche des Puces in Restigne, Bryan, Peta, Tim and I drove to Bel-Air. Our task for the week was to wash all of the inside beams, and to put everything away for the winter. Although we arrived to a cold house, we got the wood stove burning and it was soon it toasty and warm.

Of course the best part of being in France is market day. Mondays are market days in Marcigny, a little village of about 2,000 people, about 20 minutes away. The town has beautiful architecture that is well looked after.

The market in Marcigny

The Marcigny market is my favourite thus far. It was small, yet filled with stalls of delicious foods. Huge lettuces, about the size of the largest platter in my kitchen. Every vegetable imaginable – incredibly fresh and healthy-looking. A cheese vendor who sold the most remarkable Cantal Entre Deux (my new favourite – it’s a semi-hard cheese that is savory and earthy), a chèvre, aged, dry and nutty, and a runny, creamy something covered in ash that we didn’t get the name of but which we fought over with a passion. We bought some saucissons (dried sausage), selecting one with wild boar and one with Myrtille berries, and some delicious, dense whole wheat baguettes. Clothes, CDs, handbags mixed with food stalls wafting the delicious smells of paella, roast pork and cooked potatoes. Bryan decided to splurge on a treat that he has always wanted to try – Calamari Farci, calamari stuffed with vermicelli, mushrooms and spices. (Good, but not great. An unusual choice for a French market, but reflecting a Vietnamese influence perhaps). We walked by rabbits, pigeons, chickens and budgies in cages. Peta and I found cute winter hats, 2 for 10€ (about $12), perfect for the cool fall air.

It was about 11:00 in the morning when we finished, and we popped into a café for coffee to warm us up. Most of the people at the other tables were drinking small tumblers of white wine. By the time we left at mid-day, the market stalls had been packed up, and people had vanished from the streets.

Marcigny and Peta. Everyone has gone home to have lunch.

Our days at Bel-Air were spent scrubbing and cleaning, except for the day we were invited to lunch at Suzanne and Christian’s. Their friends Monique and Jean Michel were also visiting, and the meal certainly stretched our meager French to the limit. Both Tim and I feel constantly embarrassed by our lack of French, and are very shy in social settings. However, along about the third bottle of wine, both we began to understand far more of what was being said, and were able to contribute with more enthusiasm (but with just as many faults!).

Suzanne served us appetizers (salted cashews, spicy crackers, slices of a bread, like a brioche, with ham and cheese) while Christian served Crémant. First course was a delicious seafood tarte, with a dollop of mayonnaise, olive and an Auxerrois wine (Vin des Fossils, 2010) from the Loire. Everyone we have visited in France is proud to share local produce with us, and  it is one of the great pleasures of the trip to be able to try so many new foods and tastes. Suzanne and Christian had just returned from the town of Charlieu with a specialty from the Loire – Andouille. Andouille is an aged sausage, made from, as far as I can tell, the neck and lungs of pork, and possibly beef as well. It is a very old recipe, carefully guarded. “Une recette tirée des grandes traditions gastronomiques Charliendines qui date de la nuit des temps, des hommes fidèles et rigoureux de cette douce alliance vous garantit ce résultat exceptionnel.” (which translates roughly as: “A recipe drawn from the Charliendines culinary traditions, which date from the dawn of time. Add to this men faithful and rigorous, and the combination guarantees this exceptional result.” The translation is rough, but so is the original!) Suzanne served the Andouille with the traditional boiled potatoes, and sauerkraut cabbage casserole. The Andouille had a dark, extraordinary flavor. Deep, slightly smokey and aged. Like nothing I have ever tasted. Served with a special Macon-Cruzille, 2008.

The entre was followed by the cheese platter (another new favourite – Délice de Bourgueil –  an amazing creamy cheese, somewhat similar to the St. Andre that we get at home). The meal was topped off with chocolates and coffee. There were other wines, other tastes. Too much for my already struggling brain to remember. Local foods, local wines, new friends who are very much of the terroir. A lunch from which we rolled home around 5:00 p.m.

Understandably, we needed a good walk the next day. The weather was lovely, and Christian offered to take us mushrooming in the nearby woods. Finding mushrooms is akin to the proverbial needle in a haystack – at this time of year they are buried beneath mounds of fallen leaves, often camouflaged the same colour. The day started promisingly, with a large Chanterelle – a mushroom that Christian knows well.

Christian shows Tim a Chantarelle

But although we found many mushrooms after this first, they were mostly inedible and potentially poisonous. However, they were very beautiful and unusual (I never knew that there were mauve mushrooms!) and after a while we developed a “catch and release” attitude. The joy of being out and tramping directionless in a fresh wood made the adventure rich in every detail.

The next day, the last of our week’s visit, the weather went from nice to spectacular. Unbelievably for late November, we took the big kitchen table out into the sunshine and had a lunch of Frisée salad and white wine, basking in the hot sunshine and overlooking the fields of Burgundy. The grey skies of London seemed a very long way away.

A November lunch in France

Encore une fois

Peta and Bryan invited us back to France, to help close up the house for the winter. The trip coincided with a visit to friends in the Loire area, in a small village called Restigne. We were thrilled to be invited to see another part of France with new culinary, and vinicultural, treasures.

Françoise and Pierre live in a house that they have marvelously restored, complete with courtyard, gardens and guesthouse.

Tim in Françoise & Pierre's courtyard

Restigne is only several streets long and surrounded by vineyards.

The main corner of Restigne, with sign posts to local vitners

The nearest city is Tours, and Françoise offered to take us there so that we could go to a craft show to see the work of local artisans.

I have participated in a number of craft shows myself, and I was really intrigued to see the similarities, and the differences, at L’Art au Quotidiens in Tours.

Amongst the many wonderful potters, jewelers and clothing designers were fine furniture makers and restorers able to appropriately re-paint or re-plaster your 16thcentury home. The show was housed in the Vinci Centre International de Congrès, a contemporary building in the centre of town. In the middle of the building there is a large, ultra modern theatre, which was converted to a restaurant for the duration of the craft show. Large tables were set up on the stage where we had a lunch of an extensive salad buffet, hot entrees and seemingly endless glasses of white and red wine. A pianist played American jazz standards on a keyboard set up in the theatre seats. The French really do up a craft show in style.

Our lunch on the stage of the theatre

I have always wanted to visit Tours because of a beautiful manuscript that I studied many years ago, done by Alcuin of York in the 9th century at the monastery of St. Martin of Tours. It is one of the most graceful of the Carolingian manuscripts and is one of the reasons why humanist lettering styles are as appealing as they are.

The cathedral in Tours

Tours did not disappoint. It has a lovely old centre and on this warm November bank holiday (Armistice Day) there were hundreds of people out walking. Françoise told us that people are always out strolling in Tours.

Tim and Bryan in Tours

It’s a very friendly atmosphere. We stopped for coffee in the square, so that we could watch the world pass by.

Back in Restigne, the village is only large enough to support a single Boulangerie, a Charcuterie and a small chapel. But once a year the village is home to a mammoth Marche des Puces, and we have come to help Françoise organize her stall. But before we got started with collecting treasures from the attic and guest house, Françoise took us to see the caves outside the village.

Seven hundred years ago, when people started building in this area, they found large deposits of limestone from which they could easily cut blocks for their houses and Chateaux. They soon realized that when they took the blocks out, they were creating useful spaces. These spaces became caves used for storage, and in times of war, entire villages hid in the caves with their livestock. Today, the caves are still in use by the local vitners. Thousands of bottles can be stored at perfect temperatures. Aside from wine storage, caves are also used for a huge wine industry, as well as large (and rather legendary) parties and often for extra living spaces.

Françoise took us out of the village.

The vineyards outside Restigne

There are vineyards everywhere. As far as the eye can see in all directions. There are a few bunches of grapes left on the vines. They are sweet and warmed in the autumn sunshine.

Peta sampling the grapes in the sunshine

Along the sides of the fields, invisible unless you know where to look, are the caves. They are completely hidden away in the landscape.

The invisible Caves, in the fields outside Restigne
The Entrances
An archway leading to the caves

Back at Françoise and Pierre’s, we got a tour of their cave, tucked right under their house.

Dinners chez Françoise and Pierre are marvelous affairs, where we sit at table for many hours. We drank various vintages of the delicious Cabernet Franc that is made in the fields just beyond the village and stored below. There were numerous courses, concluding, always, with cheese platters followed by a dessert. As ridiculous as it may seem to bring cake to the French, I had made my favourite chocolate torte, Bonnie Stern’s California Chocolate Pecan Torte, (thanks to my wonderful friend Hinda who emailed me the recipe just in time) to give to Françoise and Pierre. Thankfully, the recipe is astonishing and the cake came up to their culinary standards. It helped that it was made with good French chocolate.

In response to my cake, the next day Pierre purchased a Galette Bourgueilloise – a specialty of the region. Where the chocolate torte was heavy and rich, this was such a light confection that you could almost believe you were eating flavoured clouds. Extraordinary. It, like the wine of the area, has an appellation controlee. Unique to the region, it is a very good reason to visit again.

Aperitifs with Peta, Pierre, Bryan, Françoise and Tim in the courtyard in Restigne

CONNECTIONS: A day discovering exciting new plays for youth

After our travels in Cornwall and Devon, we’ve enjoyed coming back to London. Amongst other things, I’ve been making some connections with people who are working in the field of theatre for youth.

Since 1995, The National Theatre has been commissioning plays for youth age 13 – 19. Over the last 16 years, they have collected a canon of plays by professional writers that provide young people from diverse backgrounds with meaningful ways to explore theatre and their world. At The Ottawa School of Speech & Drama, I have produced 5 of these plays with Canadian teens and I wanted to see how the plays are used with British youth.

“Connections” is the annual theatre festival in which U.K. schools and theatre groups present premiere productions of the new plays. As part of the process, directors attend a weekend workshop to meet with the playwrights and facilitating directors. I was thrilled to be invited to attend the 2012 Connections Directors Workshop as an international delegate.

There are ten new plays for 2012 Connections and over 100 directors were attending the workshops. Because I was not focusing on any one play in particular, I got to observe a variety of different writers at work with facilitating directors, all exploring different tasks and approaches to the texts. It was a fabulous day for me. I love creative process.

I arrived at the National Theatre Studio near Waterloo station, but wasn’t really sure where to go. I felt a bit at a loss until I met Edward Bromberg from Riksteatern, the national theatre in Sweden (http://www.riksteatern.se/). Edward was also attending as an international delegate, and he took me under his wing.

We started with “Journey to X”, by Nancy Harris: “A tale about friendship, a journey and the risks that teenagers take when plunged into an adult world.”* The facilitating director Charlotte Gwinner led the group in a discussion of the themes of the play, examining the world and rhythms of the play, while the playwright was able to answer essential questions and open up the dramaturgical process.

From “Journey to X” we went to “Socialism is Great”, by Anders Lustgarten: “The propaganda of the East meets the propaganda of the West in Anders Lustgarten’s play about love, work and power.”* The facilitating director in this workshop, Angus Jackson, worked with the whole group to examine blocking choices and the underlying motivation of the characters, asking the writer for clarification as they went along.

During the lunch break, I met up with my UK contact from the National, Anthony Bank, who was the facilitating director for “Prince of Denmark”,by Michael Lesslie”: “Set a decade before the action of Shakespeare’s play, Michael Lesslie’s imagined prequel follows the teenage Hamlet, Ophelia and Laertes as they rage against the roles handed down by their parents.”* Their morning had been spent in a voice workshop, exploring the use of iambic pentameter. After lunch, fight director Alison De Burgh led us through a basic sword-fighting workshop, always mindful of safety and methods suitable for young people.

Sword Fighting workshop, with Alison De Burgh

In “Generation Next”, by Meera Syal”: “two young British Punjabis are about to get married. Three times. Through three different generations. Exploring notions of identity and culture with a comic eye, Meera Syal addresses a shrinking world and our growing desire to move towards something or somewhere we think is better.”* A play very specifically for a cast of Asian actors, Meera Syal was there with facilitating director Iqbal Khan working with only one director and his cast of young actors. They discussed personal cultural biographies as they developed an understanding of the historical context of the play.

My last stop of the day was “Alice by Heart”, by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik: “How do we leave childhood behind? How do we close the book? A fresh new rock-musical take on Alice in Wonderland, from the creators of Spring Awakening”.* Writer Steven Sater (yes, he wrote Spring Awakening, one of my favourite musicals) and musical director David Shrubsole had obviously spent a busy day guiding, teaching and answering questions.

National Youth Musical Theatre Students, workshopping "Alice by Heart"

The room was filled with directors and about 12 actors from the National Youth Musical Theatre program. It was the end of the day and the facilitating director Timothy Sheader was focusing on transitions and design. Steven Sater answered questions about the writer’s process using a pre-existing text (“Alice in Wonderland”) as a springboard for an exploration of underlying themes.

By the end of the day, I had seen bits and pieces of 5 of the 10 new plays. I had met with teachers and directors who were passionately excited about producing these new works with their students, and who clearly relished the opportunity to ask questions of the writers and facilitating directors. It was a rare opportunity.

As the workshops ended, Edward invited me to go with Maria Lewenhaupt, his producer from Sweden, as well as delegates from theatres in Norway and Denmark, to see “Shalom Baby” a new drama-comedy at the Theatre Royal Stratford. A wonderfully layered piece, it is a play where the same characters are explored in 1930s Germany and in contemporary Brooklyn. American rap poems were juxtaposed with poignant forbidden love in Germany. It’s a moving and accessible exploration of xenophobia and contemporary blocks to happiness.

It was a long day, a great day. A day of more questions than answers. Just what I needed to kick start new thoughts.

*NB: all quotes from the National Theatre web site: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/65630/connections-plays-2012/plays-2012.html

A new doorstep in an ancient landscape

We had never met Mal Peet and his wife Elspeth Graham before we landed on their doorstep in Exmouth. Mal and Elspeth are writers. Mal and Tim share the same publisher, and have many mutual friends in the world of young adult literature. We were invited to spend a night if we ever found ourselves out their way.  So we conveniently found ourselves in Exmouth.

Exmouth is on the coast of East Devon and has stunning long sandy beaches. It is a part of the coast where there are wonderful seaside towns devoted to easy beach living. But it is also the entrance to the “Jurassic Coast”, an area of English coastline that stretches from Exmouth in the west to Swanage in the east. The “Jurassic Coast” is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site because it represents a geological walk through time. In ninety-five miles of coastline, you cover 185 million years of geological development, spanning the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Too much for one day. It is an area that I definitely want to come back to.

Mal and Elspeth live mere blocks from the beach in Exmouth, in a wonderful Victorian house with their too adorable dog Pedro. As Mal cooked, we launched ourselves into riotous discussions about children’s literature, rogue construction, rock and roll, aging and everything we’ve ever encountered in our lives that brought us to this point. Literature, art, music, theatre, politics – we travelled late into the night solving the problems of the world.

The next morning, a little the worse for wear, Mal and Elspeth drove us through the lovely seaside town of Budleigh Salterton (and who could resist that name!) to the extensive salt marsh commons of the Otter Estuary Nature Reserve. We walked along an ancient public walkway bordered by huge chestnuts, oaks and tamaracks to get to the town of Otterton.

A view into Otterton

Otterton is an old Saxon village on the River Otter that used to be the largest settlement in South East Devon. Formerly a port, the river became dammed up with rock and silt several hundred years ago, and the land became agricultural. It is an archetypally beautiful rural town, with thatched cottages, cob and brick buildings and a restored mill. The Otterton Mill, which is open to the public, has been in use for 1000 years. The mill grinds locally produced organic wheat for the breads that they sell in the restaurant bakery.

Elspeth, Mal, Tim and Pedro outside the Otterton Mill

We had coffee in the outdoor café, visited the great local crafts shop (with some of the most exciting and dramatic pottery that I have seen in a long time) and walked back along the River Otter.

The River Otter

We had known Mal & Elspeth for only a few short hours, but it felt as though we were lifelong friends as we meandered our way back to Exmouth.

The Otter Estuary Nature Reserve, and Pedro

From Exmouth, Mal & Elspeth took us to Exeter where we were to meet up with cousins Penny & Eric. A trading town since 250 BC, Exeter, like Plymouth, suffered greatly during bombing raids in the Second World War. Recently however, the downtown has been revitalized and is now a great blend of contemporary and historical architecture. The downtown shopping district manages to incorporate the remains of the Roman wall, the 15th century St. Catherine’s Almshouse and chapel, and rows of well-preserved houses from every architectural period.

The central feature in Exeter is of course the cathedral.

The Exeter Cathedral

Built in 1170, the cathedral has been added to and restored over the course of the last 900 years and is an imposing and inspiring sight. Inside, we were treated to the sounds of the choir and organ, reverberating on the stone arches.

Inside the Exeter Cathedral

A perfect way to send us off, bidding farewell to Devon, Cornwall and new friends, and heading back up through the country, to London.

Cathedral Gargoyles

Discovering a corner of Devon

There is a reason why everyone raves about Devonshire Cream. When you eat it, you feel like you have a direct connection to lush green grass and sunshine. Even though it was the end of October, the fields of Devon were welcoming and the cream was plentiful.

Visiting Tim’s cousin Pip and her husband Steven gave us a chance to explore a bit of the Devon countryside. There is a huge organic farm, Riverford, right near their house, with open fields that we could see from the back windows. Riverford runs a kitchen, restaurant, stores and box deliveries of organic produce.

The fields of Riverford farms in Devon

After our Looe cottage with no views, it was wonderful to see land in every direction. And after our focus on the fruits of the sea, it was good to come back to such wonderful fresh produce.

Pip and Steven live quite close to Totnes. “Did you inhale?” is the common question you get asked after you tell people you’ve been to Totnes. A town of only 7,600, it has a reputation as being a centre for the arts, healing therapies and alternative lifestyle choices. It’s an old market village, filled with “new age” stores, high end fashion, health food and book stores all set in the twisty streets under the shadow of a Norman castle.

Totnes High Street

Our mission, however, was only to find all of the ingredients to make Tim’s wonderful Thai fish stew. Tim’s Thai Fish Stew is our “default” meal – it is quick to make, comforting and delicious. In Totnes, the hardest ingredient to find on main street was the Nam Pla (fish sauce), but once we located a bottle of that, the rest was easy. The meal warmed up a chilly fall evening.

The next morning dawned bright and sunny and we were ready to head out for a walk and adventure. We started in the town of Ashburton, a lovely village of about 3,500. Formerly a “Stannery” town (the administration of tin mining), it has great produce stores, interesting crafts and a very welcoming atmosphere. Ashburton is on the edge of Dartmoor National Park, and we had hoped that there would be a good walk to near-by Buckfastleigh. But the only paths were along the highway, so Pip drove us instead to Dartmoor for a brief walk.

Dartmoor, with shadows from the clouds skittering across the land

This moor-ish adventure was quite different from our experience in Bodmin. The sunshine helped a lot, but there is defnitely a bit more colour in the surroundings. There was almost a lushness to the landscape. That is, if something can be lush and desolate at the same time.

Dartmoor is enormous. Vast. Once you are in the park, there is moor in every direction. But really, there is not a lot of variety in a moor. A little bit goes a long way.

Tim & Pip on a Tor

So after a great walk with Pip and Alfie the dog, we were fine to move on.

Pip dropped us in Buckfastleigh, a tiny town of about 3,600 that used to be a wool-producing centre. Now, however, the main attraction of Buckfastleigh (other than that the name uses half of the letters of the alphabet, and each only once) is the South Devon Steam Railway.

This lovely steam train runs from Buckfastleigh through Staverton to Totnes and having just seen the “Railway Children” in London, we wanted a chance to experience this adventure first hand.

Tim, in the train, waiting to leave the Buckfastleigh Station

The train hugs close to the river Dart on a former Great Western Railway branch line through the Devon countryside.

Chugging beside the River Dart

Filled with train enthusiasts and excited children, we chugged along, steam pouring from the engine’s chimney and the train literally making a “Choo-choo” sound. I stuck my head out the window to watch the sunshine on the steam, the image from so many classic movies.

South Devon Steam Train

And yes, I got a bit of soot in my eye just as they say you will if you stick your head out of the window to watch the train. But it was worth it for the chance to step back in time.

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