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 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

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.

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.