Arts and Letters in Mainz

Tim’s niece Patricia Roach is an opera singer with the Staatstheater Mainz, Germany.  This spring, she has been performing the role of Amando in “Le Grand Macabre”, an absurdist opera by Gyorgy Ligeti. It was a great reason to go and visit.

We arrived in Mainz, via Frankfort, a simple 20-minute train ride from the airport. Trish met us at the train station, on her bike, coming straight from a rehearsal of Cosi Fan Tutti. She directed us onto a city bus to go to her apartment, and she followed behind on her bike.

Trisha’s apartment is a quiet oasis sitting tucked into trees and parkland. We were greeted by her partner Alex, a wonderful German man who proceeded to make us a delicious pasta with smoked salmon. Try out: Alex’s Pasta Mit Lachs-Tomaten-Sahne. It’s a fast and delicious meal. We launched comfortably into a discussion about EU politics, German guilt and pride, contemporary opera and support for the arts as we tucked into steaming bowls of pasta.

After a suitable period of digestion, Trish headed off for her makeup call at the theatre, and Tim and I headed into town to have a glass of wine before the show. With the lyrics from Joni Mitchell’s song “Anima Rising” stuck in my head (“Seventeen glasses, Rhine wine”) we began our adventure of tasting excellent dry Rieslings. Turns out the Germans know a thing or two about making great wine.

Staatstheater Mainz

“Le Grand Macabre” is opera as you have never seen it. The music is incredibly difficult, atonal, dissonant, jagged and surprising. The plot is non-existent, the characters broad and bizarre. The theatre has a web site with a great trailer and photos. http://www.staatstheater-mainz.com/index.php?id=1333

It was fabulous. We loved it. We also thought there were lots of funny parts, but the rest of the audience wasn’t laughing so we tried to hold in our hilarity. Was there something we were missing by not speaking the language? No, Trish assured us, Germans just don’t laugh in the theatre. Cultural differences.

We went out for a light bite after the show. It was great going out with Trish. Not only does she speak fluent German, but the waiters know her. As an opera singer, she is a recognized personality in the city. We ordered some local specialty cheeses: Spundekäse, which is a puffy cream cheese and quark mixture served with chopped onion, paprika and a soft salty fresh pretzel; and Handkäse mit Musik, a semi-soft cheese that you pour salad dressing over. The “Musik” part of the name is because it apparently makes you fart musically. Or at least so Trish told us, but she is an opera singer so perhaps everything is about music.

Mainz is a city of 200,000 that sits on the Rhine river. Two thousand years ago it was a Roman fort that formed part of the northern edge of the Roman Empire. Just outside of town they are excavating the largest Roman amphitheater north of the Alps. It was a theatre that could seat 10,000 people.  Clearly, the tradition of theatre runs strong here. Today, the state theatre hosts an orchestra, as well as full time opera, ballet, theatre and youth companies. This in a small city of 200,000.

Mainz has gone through numerous sieges and occupations throughout the last millennium, and has been alternately a part of Rome, France, Prussia, the Rhineland republic and of course the German Third Reich. The city has always tolerated a combined population of Christians and Jews and during the Second World War, the Bishop of Mainz created an organization to help Jews to escape.

I have written elsewhere in my blog about visiting cities that were devastated during World War 2. In our travels we’ve gone to Plymouth, Exeter, Cardiff, Liverpool, and of course London – cities that had to do massive rebuilding. Sixty years on, we are fascinated by the architectural and cultural choices that were made. This was our first experience of the destruction in Germany. 80% of Mainz was destroyed in the war. Small bits of the old town have been cherished and fit into new buildings. There are wide pedestrian walkways.

Tim & Trish in front of the Mainz memorial

A vast open square in the centre of town preserves a part of the original 1,000-year old Cathedral, combining it with a memorial to Mainz Jews who died in the war and the burning of Mainz on February 27, 1945.

A 16th century tower nestles into modern buildings.

A 16th century tower amongst the 20th century buildings

The tower is all that remains of the workshop where Mainz’s most famous inhabitant, Johannes Gutenberg, and his partner Johann Fust printed the first bible and changed the world.

Gutenberg is the man who credited with the creation of moveable type and has been called the most influential man of the second millenium. We made our pilgrimage to the Gutenberg museum.

In the heart of the museum, on display in a locked vault, is one of the 49 remaining 42-line Gutenberg bibles. The books are large, (over 1200 pages and about 20 inches tall), the type is justified into two columns of 42-lines each, the columns tidy and clearly legible. The ornamentation is hand drawn and the effect sublime. This 2-volume set (Old and New Testament) required 6,000 goat skins to produce. Such a manuscript would have taken a scribe at least 3 years to execute. Gutenberg was able to make 150 a year. The revolution began.

The museum has a vast room dedicated to incunabula (the books printed in the first 50 years of printing presses) and you can easily see the profound effect. Scientists, mathematicians, geographers, physicians, philosophers could all have their ideas and theories disseminated at lightening speed with the result that there was an explosion in all fields of study and research.  I have studied all of this for years, but somehow seeing it so graphically represented in the museum was quite profound.

The museum also had exhibits on binding, papermaking, Asian printing and a fabulous contemporary exhibit called “Moving Types”, examining type animation in the age of computers.

Outside the museum are sculpted cubes representing various innovations and epochs in the development of letters.

Outside the Gutenberg Museum

A city in the middle of a wine growing region, that reveres typography and letterform, arts and culture – what took us so long to get here?

Tim in Mainz

Dipping into Scotland

Tim has a lot of family in the U.K., cousins who he didn’t know when he was growing up. One of the driving forces of our trip has been to connect with family, to visit with them whenever possible and see where their lives have taken them.

Cousin Victor and his wife Ayleen live in Edinburgh, one of the great capital cities of the world. During the Enlightenment, the city spawned some of the world’s most influential thinkers. It continues to be a mecca for artists and scientists and is sometimes described as “The Athens of the North”. Apparently, Robert Louis Stevenson said “Edinburgh is what Paris ought to be.”

Old Tolbooth Wynd, the Tollbooth road into the city

The protective Edinburgh castle, perched atop an extinct volcanic crag, guards the city.

Edinburgh Castle, atop an old volcano

The Royal Mile, the main pedestrian thoroughfare, stretches from the Castle to Holyrood Palace, nestled under the ancient volcano of Arthur’s Seat, “a hill for magnitude, a mountain in virtue of its bold design” (Robert Louis Stevenson).

Looking from Edinburgh castle through the city to Arthur's seat

Our first destination was Holyrood Palace, one of 9 royal residences in the U.K. “Treasures from the Queen’s Palaces”, is a special exhibit at the palace, celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee. There are Jubilee events throughout the U.K. this year, and we were lucky to catch this one in Edinburgh.

The Treasures have been selected from vast collections that have been assembled by various monarchs over the centuries. There were exquisite paintings, manuscripts and sculptures, but I think one of the things that most impressed me was a Faberge Egg, made of a delicate wire grid filled with a mosaic of tiny jewels. In the egg was a miniature with portraits of the Russian Imperial family. I’ve only ever seen Faberge Eggs in photographs and this was a stunning piece of art, although to my way of thinking it was also a frivolity symbolizing excessive Royal wealth. The kind that starts revolutions.

Directly across from the Palace is the new Scottish Parliament building. Built in 2007, it aims to reflect a union of the natural landscape and the urban city. It sits just at the confluence of the two, nestled at the base of the Royal Mile, under the shadow of Arthur’s Seat.

Scottish Parliament Building

It’s a striking piece of architecture that I think looks much better in the photos than it does in real life. The Scotland Act of 1998 brought in a devolved Scottish Parliament (the English and Scottish parliaments had been merged in 1707), and this building represents a pride in Scottish representation.

Scottish Parliament council hall

We had happened to arrive in Edinburgh on cousin Alistair’s birthday. Alistair is Victor and Ayleen’s son, a bright young man who had recently run in a bi-election and had an insider’s view of many facets of the Scottish electoral system. (“Alistair Hodgson: A New Voice for Edinburgh”) Although he didn’t win his seat this time, I fully expect he will the next time around. We celebrated his 28th birthday in style at restaurant eating fabulous Scottish beef and “Cullen Skink”, a smoked Haddock chowder.

We had been to Edinburgh briefly before, but I had never been outside the city. We were thrilled when Victor and Ayleen took us out to explore the countryside and some of the historical towns. Our first stop was South Queensferry on the shore of the Firth of Forth.

Looking across the Firth of Forth, from South Queensferry, to the Kingdom of Fife

As the name implies, South Queensferry was the location of the ferry going across the estuary (the firth) of the River Forth.

The main street in South Queensferry

It is a picturesque little village that has a long history of drying herring, bottling whiskey, pirates and smuggling.

South Queensferry

There seem to be castles in every corner of Scotland. On our way toward the Highlands, we passed Doune Castle, a 14th century courtyard castle that looks down protectively on the surrounding countryside. The 100 foot high gatehouse inspired its use as the castle in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”.

Doune Castle

We made a brief pilgrimage around the walls, imagining the Trojan Rabbit.

The back of Duone Castle. Neep-neep.

We lunched in the town of Callander, “a place where Lowland meets Highland”. Just beyond the town are the Tossachs, a beautiful area of locks, mountains and rivers. Dorothy and William Wordsworth stayed in Callander in 1803, and in the centuries since it has been frequented by many writers, taking inspiration from the landscape. Sir Walter Scott set his poem “The Lady of the Lake” in the Loch Katrine in the Trossachs, ensuring the area’s population as a tourist destination.

The main street of Callander, looking toward the Highlands

There is, apparently, the remains of a Roman Fort just outside Callander. Armed with a town map and guidance from the tourist office (“It is hard to see. It’s mostly overgrown”) we set off on a little walk along the River Teith in search of Rome. We found something that might, or might not, be a piece of the wall. But we had to turn back quickly as the weather began to change.

Tim, Ayleen and Victor, atop a Roman wall?

Within moments we were deluged by a downfall of rain and hail and had to race to the car.

Drenched, but invigorated, we headed to “Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park” for  a quick peek at Loch Katrine, the setting of Scott’s poem. This was our first view of the Highlands, and it was exquisite. You can easily tell why it so profoundly affected Scott and others. A century old steamboat can take you around the loch while giving you bits of history and recitations from the poem. “Each purple peak, each flinty spire 
/Was bathed in floods of living fire” Definitely a place we hope to return to and explore in more depth. Perhaps do a bit of fishing…

Loch Katrine and the "Sir Walter Scott" steamship

It was getting late. We were about 50 miles from Edinburgh, yet it felt as though we were in an entirely different world. The sun came out as we headed back toward the Forth and the bustle of Edinburgh, thinking how lucky we were to have family to open up new worlds for us.

Tim & Amanda overlooking the Forth bridges

Feasting on the arts in London

It was a bit of a jolt to come back into the press of people in London after our calm days in Devon. But we had several major events to look forward to, and we dove in, hearts first.

David Hockney has taken London by storm, and tickets for the show at the Royal Academy were being scalped at outrageous prices. Thankfully, we had booked our tickets before we left for Devon, and it was one of the first places that we headed when we got back.

Winter Timber. The painting takes up a whole wall of the gallery.

A Bigger Picture is one of the most vibrant shows I have ever seen. Hockney attacks landscapes. He spends years working on the same view at different seasons, different weathers. His colours are like no one else’s. When this show opened in February, Londoners flocked to it as to a vacation in the sun. You are viserally hit with almost impossible colour juxtapositions. And these pictures are huge. Really, really huge. He does full wall landscapes using grid sections, so that he can paint each section almost life size.

In one room, he displays a series of 51 framed prints of work that he did on an iPad. I hadn’t expected to like these, but I found them totally compelling. The way he uses the iPad is revolutionary. It is a medium that allows him to “work rapidly with a stylus to capture the changing light and conditions of a scene. The effect is significantly different to that achieved with a brush in other mediums.”

Hockney iPad art.

The 51 iPad prints record the transition from winter through to late spring on one small road. The work culminates in “The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011”, a 32 canvas painting that takes over a huge wall of the gallery. “The deliberate sense of theatricality in this gallery reflects Hockney’s many decades of experience designing sets for the opera: the view is placed centre-stage with the drama of the approaching spring played out on all sides.” (copy from the program) I guess it is no wonder that I loved it.

From landscapes we went to portraits. The Lucien Freud show at the National Portrait Gallery changed our focus from the changing colours of landscape to the changing minutiae of skin tone — small brush manipulations that reflect a complex life. “I’ve always wanted to create drama in my pictures, which is why I paint people. It’s people who have brought drama to pictures from the beginning. The simplest human gestures tell stories.” Lucien Freud.

Freud self portrait 1985

These are stories that you dig deeply into. Like our layers of skin, and the layering of our experiences, the paintings pull your eyes through layers of paint to reveal the soul within. These are raw portraits, reminding me of how little we really know of people, of how hard it is to go beneath the layers.

From visuals to sound. I was desperate for complex sounds to wash through me. I wanted to hear music that was as full of contrasting colours as the Hockney show, as personal as the Lucien Freud. It didn’t take long to find a perfect concert. Chick Corea and Gary Burton on their “Hot House” tour. Two brilliant, percussive artists who have been playing together for over 40 years. They come together almost as one. Chick Corea on piano and Gary Burton on vibes, they played a range that included original pieces, Miles, Dizzy, Monk, Mozart, Bartok, Antonio Carlos Joabim and Lennon & McCartney. These are musicians at the top of their game, playing, having fun and sharing that fun with an audience. And because it was so percussive, the sound came into my body just as the light vibrations from the Hockney paintings had.

From sound to words and thought. Lucy Prebble is a young and successful British playwright. She wrote, amongst other things, Enron, about the financial scandal of 2001. “It’s always useful to remember that free market economics – capitalism if you prefer – brought us the slave trade, the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression, as well as more recent events such as the near meltdown of the entire global financial system.” (from the London Theatre review of Enron.) Enron was a big hit on the West End and a magnificent failure on Broadway. “I think Americans don’t like ambiguity,” said Lucy. She gave an entertaining and engaging talk at the Haymarket Theatre as a part of their Masterclass Series. She prefaced the talk by saying that anything that she said about her past was, like all memory, a “retrospective rationalization”. In other words, we all make up our lives as we chose to tell them. Her talk was personal, honest and revealing, much like the Freud portraits. It is good to know that all artists are just working from one project to the next, trying to grow, to find ways of challenging themselves, and sometimes just trying to survive.

From words to movement. One of the most exciting young London dance artists is Maddy Wynne-Jones. While I might have a personal bias, I have to say that it has been a huge thrill to watch Maddy’s work evolve, even in the short time we’ve been here. We went to a scratch performance (a work-in-progress performance that encourages dialogue and discussion) of the new Tempered Body Dance Theatre piece under development. “Stand-By” is a piece about dependency. On people, on substances. It asks the questions, “Are we really saying these two categories of dependence are similarly devastating? When is independence destructive?” The scratch performance featured about 15 minutes of the piece, and we were moved to tears by the work. Big gulping, shaking sobs. But also smiles of self-knowledge.

Tempered Body Dance Theatre in rehearsal

I went to the studio this week to watch further rehearsals and was deeply impressed by the cohesiveness of the company, and by their open and generous exploration of these questions. They are dancers with amazing skill and integrity. Maddy’s choreography and direction guides them to movements that are honest and resonant. We’ll see another scratch performance next month. It is a privilege to watch this work in development.

Tempered Body Dance Theatre in rehearsal for Stand-By.

It is a constant river of inspiration here. Sometimes we need to stand outside, on the banks to catch our breath. But knowing that our time in London is limited, we are diving in as often as we can.

Saying Goodbye to Devon

Yes, all good things must end. Our last week in Salcombe was full of many bittersweet lasts.

We had one last dinner party, with Jan’s nephew and his wife, which included a reprisal of the Umeboshi salad. Jan had to leave the next day, which made all of us sad as we could feel it was the beginning of the end. Jan missed out on our last walk to North Sands beach, which we went on with Tim and Jennifer’s cousin Pip, her husband Steven and wonderful Alfie, the dog (North Sands is the place to walk with dogs, so we were glad to have one with us). When we got back we had a perfect late lunch in the Devon sunshine, the last one out on our picnic table. We had delicious Devon cheeses and made our Salade Nicoise with our last container of hand-picked Salcombe crab. It was exquisite.

Lunch in the Devon sunshine

Tim and I spent most of our last days writing intensively. We wanted to make sure that we were both in solid places with our books, knowing that we were going to have to leave our writing for a while. Jennifer looked after us, cooking us delicious meals while we slaved over hot computers. But we always made sure to head out for walks at the end of the day.

On our very last day we decided to take the afternoon and go to see the gardens at Overbeck’s. Jennifer wanted to treat us to a Devon Cream Tea, and we knew we could get a good one at Overbeck’s.

The entrance to Overbeck's. Otto asked for the sign in his will.

Overbeck’s is a large Edwardian house that sits on 7 acres of terraced gardens high above the Salcombe Estuary. During the First World War, the original owners, having lost their son in the war, offered their home to the Red Cross Society to be used for the treatment of convalescent troops. The “Sharpitor V.A. Hospital” looked after over 1,000 men during the war, 15 of whom ended up marrying local Devon girls. Just like something out of Downton Abbey season 2.

The former "Sharpitor V.A. Hospital", now Overbeck's museum and Youth Hostel

Otto Overbeck took over the property in 1928 and lived there until his death in 1937. Overbeck made his millions on a device called “The Rejuvenator”, a machine that sent small electric currents through your body to restore health. He believed that many ailments could be cured by restoring the body’s electric balance. His “the theory of electric health” was widely read and he marketed the Rejuvenator throughout Europe. He died a bachelor and left his property to the National Trust, on the condition that it have his name on it and that it not be used as a brothel. The gardens and house are open to the public during the day and turned into a Youth Hostel in the evening. Mal and Elspeth said that they used to stay there in the summers because you had the run of the house and gardens for the evening.

The paths through the woods are incredibly calming and meditative.

Tim and Jennifer walking on the paths at Overbeck's

There is a beautiful little sculpture garden, a small maze and acres of unusual trees, shrubs and flowers overlooking stunning views of the Salcombe Estuary.

Looking through the green canopy of Overbeck's to the mouth of the estuary beyond

The huge Magnolia tree, planted over 100 years ago, was in riotous bloom. The banana trees were not yet bearing fruit, but then it was just March.  We were fascinated by unusual cactus trees, birds of paradise and the juxtapositions of colours and textures.

Shaped palm tree in the garden
Jennifer finds an oasis of calm

It was odd to think that we had walked the coastal path just below these gardens two weeks previously. Sharptor is wild and rugged (see “Devon Coastal paths, part 2”, the rocks of Sharp Tor) and sits directly below the Overbeck gardens, which are lush and lovingly maintained.

Looking from behind the house out to the estuary

Half of Overbeck’s house is a museum filled with his collections. The rooms are steeped in the Edwardian fascination with the natural world. There are hundreds of birds eggs catalogued and on display, a practice that was common in his day but contributed to endangering many species in England. There are likewise hundreds of stuffed birds, small mammals, butterflies and shellfish.

Inside Otto Overbeck's house

Overbeck believed in the importance of Natural Science and wanted to make sure that his collections were used for furthering the education of young people. He also had an extensive collection of items about marine history, toys and a Polyphon — a huge Victorian music box.

The Polyphon. The size of a grandfather clock, it turns large, thin metal disks to pluck out a tune.

It is an eccentric and eclectic museum. His love of nature is manifested in his wonderful gardens, lovingly maintained to this day.

A tearoom is connected to the house. We sat outside in the spring sunshine, eating locally made scones with jam and huge dollops of Devon Double Cream, our last chance to enjoy this particular local delicacy. It was peaceful and so very, very English.

Jennifer and Tim and our very English Devon cream tea

After the trip to Overbeck’s there was just enough time for me to have one last late afternoon visit to Snape’s Point. I sat looking out over the harbour, and made sure to leave a small, hidden mark on a bench. Moll assured me that leaving a magic mark will ensure my return. I hope she is right. Being in Devon changed us, and I know we all want that experience again.

The view from my bench at Snape's Point

The Mysteries of Torcross

Travelling without a car has given us very different sense of time and distance. We think nothing of walking for an hour to get somewhere that, back home, we would have hopped into a car to reach. When we decide to take a bus somewhere, it is a thrill. And if it is a double decker bus we race to the top.

The number and variety of beaches within walking distance of Salcombe is amazing. But there are also great beaches and walks that require a bit of extra travel. Jan had a couple of relatives visiting, and we all wanted to take an excursion to Torcross, in Start Bay. Six is too many for most cars, so Tim and I headed out on a local bus and we arranged to rendezvous for a pub lunch.

Getting to Torcross by bus was not difficult, but arriving there felt like stepping into an entirely different world.

The village of Torcross

The village of Torcross is on Slapton Sands in Start Bay, a beautiful long, long pebbly beach, with gently crashing waves.

The long beach at Start Bay

The area is known for its unspoilt beauty, but also for a unique geographical oddity  and an important historical mystery.

Directly beside Slapton Sands is Slapton Ley, the largest freshwater lake in South West England. There is an entirely different ecology on the lake, as freshwater fish inspire different flora and fauna.

Slapton Ley. The largest freshwater lake in South West England

The ocean and the lake are separated by a narrow strip of land, only wide enough for a small road and footpath.  On one side there is crashing surf, on the other, gently paddling swans and ducks.

The strip of land separating Slapton Ley on the right, from Slapton Sands on the left

During WW2, this section of Devon coast was selected as a training ground for Allied Troops to practice for the D-Day invasion. Over 3,000 residents were evacuated and the area was redeveloped to recreate Utah Beach in Normandy. “Exercise Tiger” is credited for the major success of that invasion.

What is less known is that the training runs used live ammunition. As a result, 308 American soldiers were killed here, practicing for the real invasion. Friendly fire. Their numbers were counted among the dead in Normandy until recent information came to light to acknowledge that their deaths actually occurred in England.

The second part of this story took place on April 28, 1944. A convoy of ships was travelling from the Isle of Portland to Slapton Sands as part of the training exercise. They were unexpectedly intercepted by German E-boats, who bombed two Tank Landing Ships, killing 749 American servicemen. They were ill-prepared, as their focus was on practicing the invasion, not on meeting other ships at sea, and many of the servicemen drowned. The story was kept secret, either as a direct cover-up or just “conveniently forgotten” until an amphibious tank was found in the bay in the early 1970s, by Devon resident Ken Small. He spearheaded the creation of a memorial to honour those men killed in Exercise Tiger. In actual fact, many more men died in Devon, in Exercise Tiger, than in the actual D-Day invasion in Normandy.

The tank and memorial sit just beside Slapton Ley.

The tank from Exercise Tiger

On the day that we were on Slapton Sands, there was a light Devon mist and peace in the air. The beach is filled with beautifully polished rocks, which made walking a bit more work than usual but allowed us to find some of the most exquisite rocks we have seen on our journey.

Tim choosing rocks on Slapton Sands

By the time we rendezvoused for lunch, our pockets were weighing us down with rock ballast.

The tourist area of Torcross is right on the beach. There are a few cottages, a post office and a couple of places to eat. It was surprisingly uncluttered and free of tourist marketing, although there was a hefty line up for Salcombe dairy ice cream cones. Local fish is the specialty of the Start Bay Inn, and we sat outside with full plates of crab, monkfish, plaice and cod. There were also sandwiches of exquisite local ham and cheese. And most importantly some very good local ales.

Lunch at the Start Bay Inn

Lunch inspired a further walk. Tim and I headed up over the hill to the next bay and the village of Beesands. Beesands sits on a long shingle beach and has a small collection of cottages and, by the look of it, some good places to eat.

Looking down to the beach at Beesands

Beesands was a prominent fishing village in its day, but in 1979 it was almost wiped out by a violent storm. A large retaining wall was constructed in the late 1980s, separating the cottages from the view of the ocean. The wall clearly saves and protects the tiny village, but detracts from the beauty of the environment.

It was time to head back to catch our bus. We didn’t have enough time to travel any further on the coastal path. We had wanted to push on to the deserted village Hallsands, a village that was completely wiped out by a storm in 1917. Next time.

There are stories around ever corner. But there is never enough time to get to all of the corners.

Jennifer at Torcross

The Spice Trail

Our Salcombe home

Tim, Jennifer, Jan and I all love to cook. We love to eat, to talk about food and laugh around the table together. Early on in our stay here in Salcombe, we developed a wonderful companionship around the making of meals. Someone would usually announce, at some point in the morning, “I’ll make lunch today.” “Great,” someone else would say, “I’ll make dinner.”

And so we managed to rotate the cooking and planning. It all seemed to be based on our own private work schedule. Writing might be going really well, and you might not want to break your rhythm. Magically, someone else is cooking. Or perhaps you find you need a break, need distraction, need time to think while chopping vegetables. Everyone else is happy to give you space and time in the kitchen.

Salcombe fulfills our grocery needs incredibly well. There is only one little grocer, Cranch’s, run by two lovely sisters. It is filled with local produce. Gorgeous fresh vegetables, different varieties of apples, fresh herbs. There are packaged local condiments from the Devon chili farm. There is local hand picked crab. The store also caters to exotic tastes. We are able to get Nam Pla and coconut milk, arborio rice and polenta. But Cranch’s is, at heart, a wonderful neighbourhood store. There is a wall of dried spices behind the counter and one day I asked if they had any bay leaves.  The owner looked up and said, “Yes, but there’s a huge bay tree around the corner. You can just go pick what you need there. I’ve got lots in my back yard too, but the tree around the corner is closer.”

Aside from the grocer’s, there is one butcher in Salcombe. It is a beautiful store, filled with local Devon pork, lamb, chicken and beef. The meat is exquisite, and the butcher is knowledgeable and helpful, supplying great cooking ideas. He also carries some of the finest Devon cheeses I have ever tasted.

Down the road is a beautiful bakery. The breads and buns are lovely and fluffy and fresh. The bakery also makes perfect little squares called Flap Jacks that we sometime indulge in for our afternoon tea. And next store to the bakery is a wine and liquor merchant where we can find wines from all over the world, in various price brackets.

All of these wonders are on the main street, two blocks from our cottage. We look for excuses to go down to the shops.

Salcombe, from the back

Entertaining company is a great excuse for shopping and cooking. And this week, we’ve had some very entertaining company to cook for.

Jan has a couple of friends in Canada who, on hearing she was going to be in Salcombe said “Oh, you must meet Denise Coffey.” Denise is a former actor and director, who spent time working in Canada. She is quite a legend in the UK, having acted in such classic films as “Waltz of the Toreadors” and “Georgie Girl”. In fact she discovered Salcombe when she was in Devon filming “Far From the Madding Crowd”. She has lived here for over 30 years and now spends most of her time painting and rescuing damaged seagulls and cats.

Denise, who now goes by the name of Moll, is a vegetarian and we’ve wanted to have her over for dinner. We had gone to see the new movie “The Most Exotic Marigold Hotel” and that put us in mind of Indian cooking. “Indian Ratatouille” requires a good supply of spices and patience to chop lots of veggies. But it is worth finding the ingredients. It’s a fabulous recipe.

We’ve learned from previous experience to bring spices with us when we travel. Otherwise we are buying new boxes and jars in every place we stay. Also, you can’t always expect to find Panch Phoran in your neighbourhood store, no matter how wonderful it is. You can’t always count on a neighbourhood Bay Laurel. So we came prepared, travelling with some of the more exotic spices.

Thank goodness we had packed our Panch Phoran. Moll was, I think, very impressed.

Tim, Moll, Jan and Jennifer in our Salcombe home

The other visitors that we had this week were Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham, the wonderful writer friends who we met last fall in Exmouth. It was really exciting to see them again and to take them on one of our favourite local walks to Snapes Point, through gently wooded areas and fields of gamboling lambs. The point overlooks one of the arms of the Salcombe Estuary and the millionaire’s cottages across the harbour. The church bells can still be heard chiming in the distance.

Snapes Point. Elspeth, Amanda, Mal and Tim

Jan, Jennifer, Tim and I all had a hand in putting together the dinner for Mal and Elspeth. The new tastes for us were Jan and Jennifer’s contributions. Jan made her fabulous Umeboshi salad. Umeboshi is a dried, pickled plum from Japan. Ume vinegar is salty and sour and Jan uses it in a Kale salad that we are all crazy for.

Jennifer made a delicious Pear and Ginger Crumble and served it with Salcombe Dairy ice cream. It was a fabulous night of eating, drinking, and sitting by the fire to talk about books, art and, of all things, the Canadian constitution.

We have been thrilled to discover the tastes and sounds, smells and sights of Devon, as well as to share some of our own favourite recipes with new friends.

Tim and gamboling lambs

Devon Coastal Paths, Part Two

On a recent Saturday walk we decided that we had sufficiently built up our thigh muscles to face  a tougher walk. The Hope Cove to Salcombe walk is on the south west side of the peninsula and we were told it had some rugged paths, with some degree of difficulty. The gauntlet was thrown.

There are very few busses in or out of Salcombe, so we had to coordinate our time carefully, taking a bus to the tiny nearby town of Malborough and then transferring to a bus to take us to Hope Cove.

At the heart of Malborough is the parish church, founded around 1200 AD. With its 13thcentury stone vaulted roof and a perfectly preserved pointed spire sitting atop a hill, it can been seen throughout the countryside. We waited outside the post office beside the church for our bus.

Tim waiting outside the Post Office for the bus.

Hope Cove sits nestled between Inner Hope and Outer Hope. (I am not making these names up. We had quite a debate as to where one would rather live – in Inner Hope or in Outer Hope.) Hope Cove was a favourite among smuggles, and the tiny cob cottages with thatched roofs made us feel we were in the midst of a novel.

The cob cottages of Inner Hope
A cottage being re-thatched in Inner Hope

Just off the cove is Burgh Island where there is a complete Art Deco hotel. The site is associated with Agatha Christie’s book “And Then There Were None” as well as the Hercule Poirot mystery “Evil Under the Sun” and many celebrities have stayed in the hotel over the years. We could only view it through a telephoto lens, unfortunately.

The Art Deco Burgh Island Hotel, "The Great White Palace"

We made our way out of Inner Hope and headed up toward the cliff, only to discover a group of 25 hikers, most a bit older than us, on the path. We raced ahead, knowing that it would be best to be in front, rather than behind the pack. They were stopping from time to time for guided information, but they were keeping a fair clip. The nation of walkers was showing us some of their best.

We burned our thighs up toward Wolf Rock and Bolt Tail, high above the water, crossing an Iron Age Fort embankment.

Amanda and Jan on Bolt Tail

We passed by lines of pre-historic standing stones, stretching out into the distance.

Standing rocks stretching into the distance

The path took us through Bolberry Down, a beautiful grazed area filled with sheep and new spring lambs. In 1760 a Spanish ship went down off the coast of Bolberry Down, killing 700 men. Another wreck. More lost hopes.

We made a pit stop at the one habitation on our route, Port Light, which is a small collection of buildings formerly a part of RAF Hope Cove. Asking about the road ahead, we were told that it was rough in places, that we had a section coming up with a lot of highs and lows but that after that things got flat. “Should take you about 3 hours,” the proprietor of the Port Light restaurant told us, eying our greying hair. “I do it in about 2 ½”.

After a few bites of apple and lovely Devon cheese, we set out with will and determination. From the high cliffs, the path led us down to the tiny beach at Soar Mill. Isolated and perfectly proportioned, it is a place to come back and spend a day lazing.

The beach at Soar Mill Cove

The path led us up again. The way was very steep and Jan was glad of her walking poles.

Jan hiking up the cliff
Jan, a bit foot sore

The high path took us through a field of lovely, friendly Shetland ponies with whom we shared the last bit of our apple. (I think they may have been “Sharptor Shetlands”)

Tim making a new friend

We huffed and puffed our way up to Bolt Head, the most southerly point of Devon. I clamboured out as far as I could go, well beyond Jan and Tim’s comfort level. I managed to take a picture of myself, on the edge.

Amanda on Bolt Head, the edge of Devon

The rocks were right behind my head. There was nothing between me and the ocean far below. I turned around to realize that I was alone and mildly terrified of going back down. I slide down gingerly on my backside.

We rounded the corner, dodging sheep, to look down on the green blue waters of Starehole Bay and the dramatic rocks of Sharp Tor. These are “metamorphic rocks”, rocks that have changed their nature through pressure or heat. They are incredibly dramatic formations that look like they have been squeezed out of the earth and are ready to fall on unsuspecting hikers below.

The rocks of Sharp Tor

We continued on toward Salcombe, past the small luxury hotels in South Sands, the enthusiastic dog beach at North Sands, past the million pound homes and cottages along the coast.

It had been a good 9 mile walk, and yes, took us about 3 hours to complete from Port Light. We ended the adventure with a bowl of crab bisque and a pint, in front of the fire at our favourite Salcombe pub, The Victoria Inn. The perfect place to massage weary feet.

A sheep blocks our path to Starehole Bay

Devon Coastal Paths, Part One

This is a nation of walkers. And the coastal paths of the National Trust are wonderful. They are varied, well marked and well used. Apparently between 50 – 100 million people visit the National Trust coast and countryside properties each year. The coastal paths circumnavigate the country, inspiring people of all capacities to get out and marvel at the beauty of “this scepter’d isle, This earth of majesty”.

We’ve been going on walks every day.  There are a number of good 4 – 5 mile hikes that we can take right from our doorstep. On Saturdays, we try to choose longer paths of 5 – 10 miles.

The Salcombe to Gara Rock hike began with a ferry ride across the harbor to the East Portlemouth side of the estuary. A paved road led us to the sandy beach of Mill Bay, a perfect, fine sand beach with a few bouncing dogs and children out enjoying the spring weather.

Mill Cove Bay

The path then began its ascent, taking us past Biddlehead Point, Sunny Cove and the Hipples until the headland turned and we faced the full force of the Atlantic. Historically, vigorous sea trade moved through these waters. For centuries, the mariner’s existence both contrasted and complimented the tranquil rural existence of the farmers. Unlike other rocky shores, the soil here is rich and arable. On the headland opposite, Deckler’s Cliff, we could see Bronze age field systems, clearly visible as earthworks under the soil. It is humbling to think that this land has been under cultivation for thousands of years, and it still retains its rural roots.

The Atlantic meets the green hills of Devon. If you look closely, you can see the lines of earthworks under the soil.

We negotiated paths up and down the cliff face past Great Abraham’s Hole and Little Abraham’s Hole to the lookout at Gara Rock. (Sometimes I think the best thing about these walks are the names.)

Gara Rock lookout

Just beyond Gara Rock is Moor Sand, where, in 1977, a cache of Bronze Age weapons was found. Archeologists believe that a ship want down here about 3,000 years ago. There has only ever been one other pre-historic wreck found in England.

The waters off these shores are treacherous. The Salcombe Canon wreck, also in this area, found coins and jewels from the 16th and 17th centuries, helping archeologists trace trade between England and Morocco. They think there is probably still a lot more to be found.

From Gara Rock we went down to the beach at Seacombe Sand, a perfect place for our packed picnic of delicious Salcombe Crab sandwiches.

Tim and Jan on Seacombe sand, looking for a perfect place to picnic.

But we didn’t dawdle, as it looked like a storm might be blowing up. We headed back through deep green leafy woods, a less steep, less dramatic path but one that offered an entirely different flora.

Huge trees on the inland path. Quite a contrast to the coastal path.

The path spilled us back at Mill Bay. The rain held off. I curled up with a rock for a back rest, Tim paddled about in barefeet at the water’s edge and Jan searched for perfect shells. The perfect end to a dramatic day.

The Rocks of Mill Bay.

Retreating to Devon

The View of the harbour from my window

As I write this, I am looking out over a quiet estuary, dotted with small fishing boats and sail boats. The lush green hills on the opposite shore slope down to meet the water’s edge. Gulls are swooping and calling as the tide comes in.

We’ve come to Salcombe, in Devon, for a month of writing and walking. We’ve rented a house, inviting our friend Janet and Tim’s sister Jennifer to share in our retreat.

Jennifer's nook
My writing nook, overlooking the water
Our cottage home

We have each staked our claim to a work area, and spend days working on different projects. But we make sure to take time for long rambles in the Devon countryside, challenging our thigh muscles on the hills.

The Salcombe and Kingsbridge Estuary is in the South Devon “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty”. It is also a “Site of Specific Scientific Interest”. The estuary is not, strictly speaking an estuary. It is a “ria”, a drowned river valley that is fed by the sea rather than by a large river. It is tidal all of the way up to Kingsbridge, 5 miles inland. As the tides go in and out, they leave long mud flats, shallow along the shoreline at low tide. These flats provide rare and important habitats to a host of marine species. It is a paradise for wading birds and otters, crabs, clams, seahorses and mussels.

Salcombe has been known for shipbuilding, smuggling and crab fishing. The estuary is treacherous with sandbars and jutting rocks that have caused a number of spectacular shipwrecks over the centuries. Recently they discovered a Bronze Age sea wreck off the coast. Henry VIII built a castle here to defend the estuary again the French and Spanish pirates.

Historically the town’s claim to fame is as the last stronghold of the Royalist forces during the English civil war. During the civil war, Sir Edward Fortesque held the castle, called Fort Charles, defending the Royalist town of Salcombe until it was clear that the rest of the country had conceded to Oliver Cromwell. Parliament ordered the castle destroyed, siting that it was “too dangerous” to leave it standing.

Remains of Fort Charles.

In the days of sailing vessels, Salcombe was an important shipping port, with the specially designed Salcombe Schooners sailing to Iberia, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the Azores and Newfoundland. They returned with exotic fruits, sugar, coconut, rum and wood for ship building. But with the advent of steam ships, shipping moved to deeper waters elsewhere along the coast.

During the Second World War, Salcombe became an “Advance Amphibian Base” for the US Navy. On June 4, 1944, 66 ships sailed from Salcombe to the DD invasion at Normandy. There is a plaque dedicated to the American men who lost their lives in that battle, and one of the docks has been named the Normandy Dock. Even in little Salcombe, the impact of war is a fact of life.

Now, however, the town is primarily known as a place for pleasure boating and holiday-making. The houses and cottages in the old part of town are immaculately kept.

Looking down on the town of Salcombe

The steep hills hold the village in, encouraging it to remain tiny and perfect. The main street is about 5 blocks long. The population is around 2,000, although our landlord says that increases 100 fold in the summer. Interestingly, the real estate prices are the second highest in England outside of London. The “townies” who were born here, or who have family property, would never be able to afford the prices that the people from away are willing to pay for this piece of paradise.

But we are here in the off-season. The village is just beginning to gear up for its busy summer. Some shops will remain closed until Easter, and the few that are open are painting trim and washing windows. We get to mix and mingle with the folks who actually live here.

From my writing window, I can see the tiny village of East Portlemouth across the harbour. We decide to make it our first “major” outing from Salcombe.

East Portlemouth from across the harbour in Salcombe

For £1.50 each, Jan and I took a ferry across, to see things from the other side. The ferry takes less than 5 minutes, and is simply an open boat with seats for about 10. There are other ferries in the high season connecting to other places on the estuary, but at this time of year there is just the one and it runs across every half hour.

East Portlemouth used to be a thriving port in the 14th century, but in the 19th century the Duke and Duchess of Cleveland, who owned all of the land, dispossessed the tenant farmers to amalgamate all of their lands. All of the cottages were destroyed. Today, there are probably on 20 people who live in East Portlemouth. That’s just a guess. It is known for its extreme beauty and isolation, and for having a few very wealthy second home-owners sparking an interesting political struggle. A local landowner who has lived in East Portlemouth all of her life wants to build some cottage homes for low-income families. She feels that it will keep the village alive if there are ordinary people can still afford to live there. However, the millionaire second home-owners are not in favour. A large excavation is taking place. I am not sure who is winning the battle.

Janet hiking up to East Portlemouth

We walked up to the ancient church on the hill, the church of St. Winwaloe. The church was built in the 12th century on the site of a 10th century church, under the reign of King Athelstan. King Athelstan (the great grandson of King Alfred) had come from Brittany, the birthplace of the Celt St. Winwaloe (462-532 AD). After St. Winwaloe’s death, monks travelled throughout Devon and Cornwall founding monasteries and churches.

St. Winwaloe’s was locked on the day that we were there, but we were treated to ravens calling from the tower.

The town of the church of St. Winwaloe

The church graveyard includes 17th and 18th century tombstones of sailors and smugglers.

From the church we had a choice of several footpaths and decided that we’d head along the high path, so that we could take in a larger view. Salcombe is nestled into the hills, down by the water’s edge, and it has been hard to figure out exactly what the coast looks like. And this way, we can enjoy the million-pound view for free. We walked along the top of the hill toward High House Farm and the ocean opened out in front of us.

Looking out to the ocean

An area of outstanding beauty. Indeed. Thank goodness we have a month to explore. The walks are just beginning.

A Quick Trip to the North Sea

In mid February, you can feel a bit blue no matter where you are. So when our friends Geoff and Carolee said that they were coming to visit from Canada, it was just the lift we needed. Together we planned a quick trip to the north east coast of England, in search of perfect places.

Years ago, Carolee and Geoff had been to Whitby. They had loved it and wanted to go back so we took a train from London to Leeds, picked up a rental car and headed out to coast of North Yorkshire.

Whitby is a quiet fishing village surrounded by the North York Moors.

Looking down on Whitby, with the North York Moors beyond

It is remote and isolated by the moors so it never became a major trading centre. However, its natural geography, a wide estuary between two cliffs, made it a valuable port.

The fishing boats of Whitby

By the end of the 18th century Whitby was renowned for shipbuilding and whaling. Captain Cook and William Scoresby (an Arctic navigator who began on the whaling ships) both learned their sailing skills here. Whaling in particular brought money into the town, and the wealth eventually encouraged Whitby’s development as a spa tourist destination.

The area is also a primary source of the mineral Jet, and the streets are lined with jewelers’ creations. The village has lovely quiet cobbled streets, spectacular views, and a terrific selection of good restaurants. Even in the dreary days of February there were a fair number of tourists – it must be packed in the high season.

High above the town sits the ghostly ruin of Whitby Abbey.

The ruined abbey above the town of Whitby

The first abbey was built in Whitby in 656. Called Streoneshalh (the old Norse name), it was a “double-monastery” for men and women and became a great centre of learning. It was here, in the 7th century, that Caedmon, first English poet whose name is actually known, wrote his poems in praise of God. This first abbey was ruined by the Danes and a second was built on the site in the 11th century. However, it was destroyed under the reign of Henry VIII and left to crumble and to suffer additional damage during the Second World War.

Whitby Abbey and cemetery

The Whitby Abbey ruin has been an inspiration for people throughout the centuries. It formed part of the setting of Dracula, by Bram Stoker so it is a contemporary Goth pilgrimage. We didn’t don our black garb, but we did huddle in the cemetery, battling in fierce winds that threatened to blow us off the cliff.

Most tourists would not chose the North Sea as a destination in February.

The cold waves of February along the coast at Whitby

A walk along the coastal path was invigorating, exhilarating and damp, just the kind of thing to spark a good appetite for a pint of local ale and an order of fish and chips. Whitby also specializes in smoked kippers, which has got to be the best breakfast in the world if you are planning a journey out on the Moors.

Just across the Moors from Whitby is the town of Goathland. Goathland (the “h” is slient) known all over the world as the fictional town of Aidensfield, the setting for the BBC series “Heartbeat”. Carolee has been researching her family tree for years and she had traced a distant cousin to Goathland, so off we went.

The main street of Goatland

Goathland is a tiny village of about 400 people. There are lovely stone paths and access points to footpaths on the Moors. The area is owned by the Duchy of Lancaster (basically, the Queen) and her Scottish Blackface sheep have a right to graze anywhere. There are no fences and the sheep roam everywhere, very much in ownership of the village. You have to watch carefully where you walk.

Little has changed in the 3 centuries since Carolee’s cousin Richard Middleton lived in Goathland, although he wouldn’t have seen the North Yorkshire Moors steam train station that was certainly a highlight of our visit.

Goathland Train station

It is the station that was used in the Harry Potter movies for the Hogsmeade stop. With Dracula, Heartbeat and Harry Potter, I was beginning to wonder if the entire area was real or imagined.

One of Tim’s preoccupations on this trip has been to try to find “the perfect seaside village”. So while in this part of England, we decided to take a day trip north to Alnmouth, which Tim thought he had seen from the window of a train many years ago. We wanted to find out if it was real, or imagined.

To get to Alnmouth, you need to go through Alnwick, a medieval market town dating from 600 AD. In 2002 Alnwick (pronounced Annick) was voted by Country Life as “the most picturesque market town in Northumberland, and the best place to live in Britain.” It has thrived as an agricultural centre and its history is intimately linked to the castle that rises above it.

Alnwick castle is still privately owned. It has been in the possession of the Percy family since 1309, making it the oldest continuous family-owned castle in the UK, other than Windsor Castle. Perhaps the most famous Percy was Sir Henry, known as Harry Hotspur, who lived there from 1364-1403.

Statue of Harry Hotspur

“… and by his light did all the chivalry of England move to do brave acts” Shakespeare, Henry IV part 2

The Castle is picture perfect.

Alnwick Castle

It, too, has been used as a film set (Harry Potter, Black Adder, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves). The Percy family was at home, so we were not able to go in to visit. Instead, we walked through the town and found a surprisingly good place to eat a light tapas lunch before heading out to the seaside town of Alnmouth.

Alnmouth was an important trading port at the mouth of the river Aln.

Alnmouth dunes at the mouth of the river Aln

The town was very prosperous in the 18th century when the river was used as a major shipping route for grain and smuggling. In 1748, John Wesley described it as “A small seaport town famous for all kinds of wickedness”.  But a huge storm in 1806 destroyed much and diverted the river, changing the fortunes of the town. Today, there is a population of only about 600, none of whom seemed particularly wicked.

It surprised me to find sandy dunes in England. The beach was dotted with winkle and clam shells, and smoothly polished natural coal.

The beach at Alnmouth

The wind was fierce, throwing a spray of fine sand in our faces. There is a reason why tourists are not out picnicking on the beach in February.

Alnmouth is on St. Oswald’s Way, a 97-mile walking route in Northumberland that stretches from Holy Island to Heavenfield. It sounds like the route that we might take another time, as we continue the search for the perfect place.

Amanda, Carolee and Geoff on the beach at Alnmouth with a brisk North Sea wind
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