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Spring 2005 - Southern England - One Week in Devon

April 29 - May 29, 2005: Four weeks in England

One week just outside Mortonhampstead, in central Devon, on the eastern edge of Dartmoor.

Saturday May 21, Arrival in Devon

Weather: Some rain, some sun. Got caught in a heavy downpour at a rest area (we had stopped for coffee).

On Saturday we packed up at the Minchinhampton cottage, then drove to Devon. It was supposed to be a three hour drive, but took over four hours. We got caught in thick traffic on the M4 going towards Bristol and Cardiff. It was some big football match in Cardiff (Manchester United against Arsenal), and everyone was on the M4 heading there. Once we got on the M5 heading to Somerset and Devon, we made better time (but there were a few slowdowns for construction). It was strange to drive for three hours and get to the Taunton exit, where we stayed the week before. From there to our new location in Devon was only another hour.

I tried to do this trip without backtracking, but we were booking late and the only week we could get at the Cider House in Somerset was the second week of the trip.

About our Cottage - Hayne Cottage

We booked Hayne Cottage - A1 from Helpful Holidays (2bed/2bath house on a farm). 308 ($575) per week, $82/night

3/4 mile from Mortonhampstead, on the edge of Dartmoor in Devon

Vacation Rental Review 1460: My review of Helpful Holidays, Haynes Cottage

This is a large cottage on a farm. The key keeper lives in a house behind the one we rented and then there are the barns (used for dogs) and beyond that the manor house and beautiful gardens. Our cottage looks out to a nice lawn and beautiful fields of sheep beyond. The house was a bit dated, but was clean and comfortable.

The farm is located just outside of Mortonhampstead, a pretty Devon town on the eastern edge of Dartmoor. Mortonhampstead is one of the "Gateway to Dartmoor" towns; the main road across Dartmoor, the B3212, starts from Mortonhampstead.

We did a bit of exploring around our area and even found a Waitrose about 20 minutes away, in Okehampton, on the north edge of Dartmoor. It took a bit of searching and asking for help, but we eventually found the store hidden away on a side street in the center of town. For our next trip, I went to the Waitrose site (www.waitrose.com) and printed off directions for all the stores near us.

Driving in Devon

The last time we were in Devon was October 1988, when we spent a week on a farm somewhere near Totnes. What we remembered from that trip was very narrow roads, as narrow as those in the Cotswolds, but with the addition of very high hedgerows or stone walls right at the edge of the road. This is still the main feature of roads in Devon. Even the "major" roads can narrow unexpectedly and have room for one car only (A roads, like A382 that goes through Mortonhampstead).

Driving in Devon is good exercise for the driver because he keeps moving his foot from gas pedal to brake, back and forth, as you zoom along, then brake because a car is coming straight for you, then pull over to the edge and slowly creep by each other, or, if it is too narrow, one of you reverses, then back to the gas pedal and you zoom off. Good exercise for the passenger who keeps clenched the whole time and gets to do many sharp intakes of breath when you think, "this is it, the car is going to scrape the stone walls on your side and we will have to pay that deductible".

On a typical country road outside Chagford

On a typical country road outside Chagford

I spent most of our first couple of days thinking to myself "the road is one lane wide, why does he drive so close to the edge on my side, why not just drive in the middle?" I was working myself up to say this to Steve (I am a bit of a back seat driver and am currently trying not to be in order to keep peace in the family), when Steve says "I bet you think I drive too close to your side of the road on these narrow lanes". He then proved to me that he is just as close to the edge on his side. And he is. These roads are NARROW!

Sunday May 22, Exploring Dartmoor

Weather: Overcast.

In the morning we got to do a private walk through the estate gardens. The key keeper told us the owner was out of town, so we could wander around the main house and gardens. They had a big outdoor cage with rescued owls, some beautiful flower gardens, including a "hidden" one that you got to through a little path through the trees, then large open fields looking down to a perfect lake, and another lovely flower garden. We spent the morning exploring the gardens.

I made an "online friend", Alan, who lives in Devon. I met him through my tabbyweb site where I have some web design pages. He also does web design and we corresponded about it. We arranged to spend Sunday together. We drove down to his house in Buckfastleigh, a charming town on the edge of the moor, a 40 minute drive. Allan made us a great vegetarian lunch, and his friend Selwyn joined us. Then they took us on a drive around the area, ending up on the moor.

It is hard to describe what it is like being near the moor. It is similar to being near the ocean. The moor rises up something like a mountain, but really like a big open hill. It has its own climate and the look of the moor is very different than the surrounding countryside. The surrounding countryside is lush, green, wooded, rolling hills. The moor is wide open, some grasses, very few trees. Where the countryside meets the moor you see the dramatic difference.

Alan took us on the very narrow lanes through charming small villages. He drove fast and confidently, stopping instantly when a car was approaching, then reversing to the layby. It was great to see a "pro" driving these roads. Only once did we have a difficult time when the approaching car, a big SUV, refused to backup even though we could see the layby behind them and we had to backup a long way to let them past. Selwyn shouted a "tosser" out the window and we were off again.

(At the end of our trip we had dinner with Wendy and Richard and got them to expain the terms "tosser" and "whanker". Both refer to masturbating. There - your English culture update for the day.)

We drove up to Haytor, a mountain on the moor. This is a popular tourist stop for this area. There was a big parking lot, with some type of food van. You could climb up the tor. We went up part of the way, but it was cold and windy.

Selwyn, Alan and Pauline on Haytor in the cold and wind

Selwyn, Alan and Pauline on Haytor in the cold and wind

After our drive we went looking for a pub. We stopped in Widecombe at The Rugglestone, a well known good country pub, but it was closed. Many pubs close in the afternoon. This one was closed 3:30 - 7:00pm.

We ended up at a pub in Ashburton, another pretty town near Buckfastleigh. Then back to Buckfastleigh and we got our car and headed home.

Tonight we called our house sitter, Kathi. Butch spent the whole weekend not moving much and she was very worried. She thought he was a bit better with the antibiotics, but she wanted to take him back to the vet on Monday morning.

Monday May 23, Butch Died

Weather: Sunny, warm.

Mortonhampstead is a charming town with three tea rooms, restaurants, pubs, several good food shops (butcher with deli, cheese shop, small grocery store). Our favorite tea rooms is Gateway Tea Rooms, on the main street, but Central Stores Coffee Shop was also very good. We had breakfast there a couple of times (breakfast served all day).

Stover Country Park and the River Teign (Pathfinder), 5 miles, 2.5 hours

After breakfast in town we drove down to Stover Country Park, about 20 minutes away, and did a hike from our Pathfinder guide. This was a pleasant and easy walk. At one point in the woods, we came upon a "fairy" area - someone had used rocks and twigs to make decorations in the woods and people had hung things from the trees. We went along a lake, through woods, across fields, along a river and then back into the park. A lovely walk.

We stopped off in Bovey Tracey on the way back for an afternoon tea. This is the largest town close to us with Fish and Chips shops, a pizza place, some tea rooms, and a good visitors center.

At the visitors center we bought four Footloose "hiking cards" for the area. Each lists two hikes, one shorter (2 hours), one longer (4 hours) for Drewsteignton, Mortonhampstead, Merrivale, Chagford. We did two of these hikes and found they took longer than documented, but they were very good hikes. Our Pathfinder book did not have many hikes listed for this area, but the are is filled with public footpaths. Local tourist offices always have lots of local hiking/walking information.

Driving to the Seaside

We thought we would drive down to Torquay. The traffic going down to the coast was very thick. We did not go into Torquay because the traffic was so bad, but continued on to Paignton. We drove through Paignton but did not stop - it just did not seem that nice. It was a busy town with lots of shops and hotels and sprawl. It is probably great in summer, but then the traffic would be even worse. It seemed like a different world from the part of Devon where we were staying, so we headed back home.

We got home in the late afternoon, when it was morning in Santa Fe, and called Kathi. The news was not good. They x-rayed Butch and his intestines were full of tumors. He was dying and the vet wanted to put him to sleep today. Kathi was very upset and I was almost hysterical. Steve called the vet and talked to him. They decided that Butch should be put to sleep that afternoon.

We had hoped we could get home to be with him, but the vet said Butch was in a lot of pain. It would take us two full days to get home. Kathi took the afternoon off work to be with Butch while it happened.

Steve and I were total wrecks. We had been upset all weekend knowing Butch was very ill, but we never thought he was this close to dying. We had Butch and Spike from when they were six weeks old and were very close to them. Butch was the sweetest little cat. Monday night was horrible for us. I posted on the message board because I needed to talk to someone, other than Steve, about it and I got great support from the people there. It really helped.

Tuesday May 24, On the Moor

Weather: Some rain, windy and cold on the moor, sunny in the afternoon. Still wearing a sweatshirt and polartec vest. Wish I had a spring jacket.

I woke up still in tears from Butch's death. Steve had hardly slept. I wanted to go home right away, but we decided to think about it during the day and decide that night. If flights were available, the earliest we could get home would have been Thursday and we were scheduled to be home on the following Monday. In the end we decided to continue the trip.

Our water in the cottage was being turned off from 10:00am to 4:00pm for some local repairs, so we went out for breakfast. We drove to the small town of Chagford and parked. There was only one tea room, but it was a good one - The Old Forge Tea Rooms. They did not have breakfast things so we had coffee and toast. The first cup of coffee we had was drip and was pretty good, but we overheard the owner telling someone that he trained in Italy with the Illy company for making espresso drinks, so we tried an espresso and it was excellent.

We went into a pharmacy and bought some English hot water bottles and covers. We don't really need them (we have good ones at home), but you can never have too many hot water bottles, and they make such good ones here.

Walk to Scorhill Stone Circle

From my "Discovering Prehistoric England" book. "Among the finest and most accessible of the free-standing stone circles on Dartmoor, 26 meters in diameter, 23 stones standing and seven fallen, originally may have contained 65-70 stones, tallest stone 2.4 meters high."

We had planned to do a hike from Chagford, but it was sprinkling rain on and off, so we decided to find a nearby stone circle (Scorhill in Gidleigh). We drove out on the narrow lanes, got lost, then finally found the place to park on the edge of the moor. We walked up onto the moor and the weather immediately changed to cold and very windy. Steve bent down to retie a shoelace and was almost blown over - that is how strong the wind was. We did not put on our hiking boots, thinking this was just a short walk up a hill, but we should have. Once you step on the moor, it is cold and wet. The grass is like a sponge; very wet. My ears were so cold I thought my eardrums would burst! But we walked on, over the hill and down the other side to a valley, but we did not find the circle. I checked the map again and sited off a forest on the other hill and then we found it.

Scorhill is a good circle; only one large standing stone, but the others are about waist height and the circle is big. It is from prehistoric times, thousands of years old. For us, this is as close to religion as we get. We decided to spend a few minutes talking and thinking about Butch, to make it a sort of goodbye ceremony. This felt good and was a turnaround point for us. I was finished my crying jag and it all settled into just sadness.

Scorhill Stone Circle on Dartmoor

Scorhill Stone Circle on Dartmoor

After the stone circle we happily left the cold and windy moor and drove back to Mortonhampstead. They have a good Butcher shop that is also a deli. We got a turkey sandwich for Steve and a couple of vegetarian pasties for me. Funny to think that a good place for vegetarian things is at the Butcher! We went back to the house for lunch and the water was already back on (we had filled the tub just in case - so we could use the toilets).

Steve was pretty tired from his sleepless night, but I had made arrangements earlier to spend a few hours with Alan, working on his website and message board. We drove down to Buckfastleigh to Alan's house. Steve brought his computer and had some good high speed online time while Alan and I worked. We got his message board configured and his website uploaded. He is setting up a community at for people making a big change in their lives, but last time I checked the site and board, not much had changed - I think Alan has not had the time recently to work on it. It is a fabulous idea for an online community, and Alan is the perfect person to run this - I hope he has the time this year to get it going (I will call him on our next trip!).

As usual for me working on websites, the time flew by. We left around 7pm and went home. I made a nice rice and vegetables dinner at home and watched the conclusion of the show "Life is not all Ha-Ha, Hee-Hee". It was a very good program and the timing of it was perfect for our trip (we watched all three episodes).

Wednesday May 25, Hiking in Drewsteignton

Weather: Overcast until noon, then the weather changed to warmer and a light overcast. By late in the day, it was sunny. At 7:30 in the evening, it was bright sunshine, as if it were noon.

We went into Mortonhampstead for breakfast again at the Central Stores Coffee Shop. We were going to spend the day in Exeter because it was overcast and looked like rain, and I wanted to see the Exeter Cathedral, but it brightened while we were in the tea room, so we decided to do a hike instead.

Two Walks In & Around Drewsteignton (Footloose), Walk One, 5 miles, 2 hours

We drove up to the village of Drewsteignton, about 10 minutes away, and parked in the town lot. This is a very small town; two pubs, one small shop and post office. We had almost booked a house in this village. It would not have been a mistake; the village is small, but the houses are mostly thatched and very pretty, plus the area is beautiful.

The hike was 3.5 hours, not 2 hours as described on the booklet, but it was a lovely hike. We started out from the town, going down into a valley and then up the other side to a high hilltop and then down again and by Castle Drogo, then down to walk along the river in the valley. This was the most beautiful part of the walk, with the river, fields of bluebells and wild rhododendrons. It ended at an historic bridge - Fingle Bridge (16th century packhorse bridge). There is a pub there, but we did not feel like stopping.

View from Drewsteignton hike, looking towards Chagford with the moor in the distance

View from Drewsteignton hike, looking towards Chagford with the moor in the distance

Lots more up and down on the way back. There were a lot of cars and people at the bridge and the pub (plus there is a park there) and we saw a few people on the trail, but not that many.

After the hike we drove back to Mortonhampstead for tea. Then we decided to drive across the moor. It takes about an hour to cross the moor. The speed limit is low and there are ponies and sheep on the road, so you can't go too fast. We stopped at one of the famous stone bridges (there were tour buses stopped there too). Then we tried to fine the Merrivale Stone Row. It was not easily visible from the road. I had my detailed Ordnance Survey map and we figured out where it was, parked and walked out onto the moor looking for it. We found one small stone circle first, but the stones were very small. Then we did find the row of stones, but they were very small too - easy to miss.

From there we went to the town of Tavistock, walked around town, asked someone for a good fish and chip shop and then went to it to get takeout. We ate our dinner on a bench in the main square.

Towns in England pretty much close up at 6pm. Shops close, the streets empty. The action is in the restaurants, pubs and fish and chips shops. These long days make such a difference traveling at this time of year. It was still light at 7pm when we headed back across the moor (which was good because it is strange driving on roads where ponies are walking).

The Vacation is Almost Over!

For the first part of the trip, Steve had to work most evenings. While he was working, I did my journal and photos, then updated the blog. Now he has finished his project and we can stay out later - and I have not been updating my blog! Plus this whole thing with Butch made me feel like not writing.

We both had a bad couple of days, but seem to be coping okay now and are back having a great time.

Thursday May 26, Totnes

Weather: Overcast but no rain.

Today we drove into Totnes to explore the town and have lunch in a lovely old tea room on the main street. We spent a week near Totnes in 1987 and it was somewhat familiar, but not real familiar. Totnes is a "new age" center, so there are some vegetarian restaurants and natural foods stores. We found a good natural foods store and I bought some natural soaps to take home.

In the afternoon, we went back to Buckfastleigh and I spent a few hours working with Alan on his site and message board while Steve did some online things. Then we went out for a nice dinner at a pub near Totnes and drove home.

Friday May 27, Hiking in Mortonhampstead

Weather: Sunny and warm.

We did an excellent hike today near where we are staying in Devon. This area is a hiker's paradise! Also very good tea rooms and delis and food shops! I really like this part of Devon. The towns are charming, the hiking is beautiful and the moor is an interesting presence always nearby.

Two Walks In & Around Mortonhampstead (Footloose), Walk One, 4.5 miles, 2 hours

We drove to Mortonhampstead and parked in the free lot so we could start the hike right from town. We picked up lunch things at the deli and started out. The hike went through town and then onto the narrow lanes and up into the fields and hills. Some bikers (motorbike bikers) were setting up some kind of music festival in a field that we walked by. The rock music accompanied us for part of the walk. We found a standing stone on a lovely hill top, had our lunch in a farmer's field, walked through beautiful fields full of flowers, walked right by another standing stone and missed it (some hikers we met mentioned it to us), and ended up back in town after a 2 or 3 hour delightful walk.

This was our last real vacation day. We packed up and got organized to leave.

>> continued - last night and going home

Resources

Vacation Rental Review 1460: My review of Helpful Holidays, Haynes Cottage

Slow Travel Photos: My photos of our cottage in Devon and the gardens on the estate

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