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
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