A week at Sidmouth – Sept. 2021

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Although it had only been two weeks since I arrived home with the caravan from Staffordshire, last Saturday, my two daughters and I were packed and ready to set off for Sidmouth in Devon. This time we were going to a rented property which I’d booked early in the year. And what a beautiful place it was. A huge, oak-beamed, open-plan bungalow, divided into three sections for kitchen, dining area and lounge. A bathroom, a laundry room and the three bedrooms, two with en-suite shower rooms, filled the remaining space. Beyond the boundary wall and through the orchard was a Caravan Club CL.

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Sunday – How lovely to sit having breakfast looking out over the patio and field beyond, bathed in morning sunshine.

Once we had packed a picnic lunch and loaded my bike on the rear rack, we set off in the car for the sea-front at Budleigh Salterton. I dropped off the girls on the promenade and left them to walk the coastal footpath across the headland, and later to meet me on the marine drive further down the coast. Once I’d found a parking bay at Exmouth, I sent them the coordinates, then unloaded my bike and set off to explore the harbour area and estuary.

The weather was perfect, and benches along the prom were in great demand. When the one in front of my parked car became free, I grabbed it. I hadn’t been sitting for long when a young woman came along and asked if she could also sit on the seat. How can you refuse? She sat – then explained that it was her parents’ seat, put there several years ago to commemorate the premature death of her brother. By this time my daughters had joined me, and eventually when we realized her parents were sitting on the next bench along, we arranged a hurried swap, then got down to enjoying our late lunch.

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Now that Bicton Park Botanical Gardens no longer require bookings to be made in advance and online, we decided to use our Tesco voucher on Monday because the weather forecast for that day was looking good. The Bicton Estate was originally given by Henry I to one of his courtiers during the 1100s. Over the years it passed through several families before being sold to Sir Robert Denys who enclosed the deer park and re-built the house. His daughter married into the Rolle family, and the property became part of the marriage settlement.

It was during the period that the Rolle family owned Bicton that many of the features that are there today were developed. In later years the farm and parts of the estate were sold and they become an agricultural college. What remains are gardens and greenhouses filled with tropical plants from around the world, and woodland walks leading to a church, an ornamental lake and a shell museum. A small railway runs around the estate.

On our return, it was still pleasant enough to sit out for tea.

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After yesterday’s sunshine, Tuesday looked bleak with lots of rain for later in the day. At around 11am we all set off, the girls walking and me riding my bike. The track we had chosen turned out to be too steep, rutted and muddy for safe biking, so after a short distance I decided to make my way back. Which was fortunate, because as I got back to the road, the rain started. The girls arrived back later in need of a shower and a change of dry clothing.

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Using Google Street view I’d found a small car park located on the western bank of the River Exe, so on Wednesday I loaded up my bike, and the three of us set off for the drive to Exeter and beyond. GPS coordinates led us to an area big enough for ten or so cars on the river bank where presumably there had once been a railway station since the narrow, winding lane was known as Station Road. The plan we had decided on was that the girls would follow the river bank for four miles to the railway station at Starcross where I would later meet up with them. Meanwhile, I unloaded my bike and set off in the opposite direction on the cycle track towards the City. It was a beautiful day with lots of photographic opportunities.

After sitting for a while overlooking the Quay at Exeter, I returned along the same route back to the car, loaded up and set off for Starcross. We arrived within minutes of each other and quickly found a bench overlooking the estuary to have a picnic lunch. Later we drove the short distance into Dawlish.

All our family have fond memories of Dawlish. Our first visit was in 1975 when we brought our Sprite Musketeer to stay at Lady’s Mile Caravan site. We have been back to the town on many occasions since then. The main railway line from Cornwall passes through the town and the scenery along that stretch of line is just superb as it first journeys along the seashore, across the estuary, then along the river bank, all the way up to Exeter. During the February storms in 2014 a large section of the seawall was breached and a long length of railway line was left suspended without any support. Rail service was disrupted for months as repair work was carried out. Even now work is on-going to strengthen the sea defences along the mile or so of coastline. I dropped the girls off at the Warren to walk along the sea wall into the town. Meanwhile I took a stroll along Dawlish Water which flows through the town. Many water-fowl live on the water including the famous black swans.

On our return to Sidmouth, we drove the couple of miles up the hill which is situated behind our bungalow. Fire Beacon Hill is reputed to be one of the sites chosen during Tudor times, by which by lighting beacons on a chain of hill tops, a warning could be quickly signalled from Plymouth to London that the Spanish Armada had been sighted. From the top of the hill there are some wonderful views.

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Today’s forecast was for a reasonable morning – but with rain sweeping in later in the day. We decided to drive the four miles to the Donkey Sanctuary at Sidmouth. We found there have been improvements since our last visit a few years ago. Several new stables and a visitors’ centre had been built. The Sanctuary covers a large area of ground which has been laid out with walk-ways around the various stables and paddocks. Since it is run as a charity they do more than look after hundreds of abandoned animals. They support the training of vets and administer help around the world where donkeys are essential for day to day living. Several donkeys had appointments to see the dentist.

After we left, we drove to the sea front at Sidmouth for lunch by the sea but the weather had already started it’s decline. The wet afternoon was profitably spent by a visit to Sainsbury’s to restock the fridge..

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Overnight the skies cleared and it looked set for a good day. We prepared a packed lunch and set off on the thirteen mile drive to Exeter. I’d already explored on Google Street view the possibility of parking on the Quay and fortunately, on arrival, I found a space.

We agreed to meet again in two hours then went our separate ways. The girls to walk the river banks and me to make my way up to the Cathedral.

Exeter’s growth began in the 1300’s as a centre for the wool trade which at the time was England’s main industry. Every land owner and hundreds of monasteries kept huge flocks of sheep. Exeter became an important city and its port was one of the busiest in the Country. Buyers came from the rich Flanders towns of Bruges, Ghent and Ypres to purchase vast quantities of English wool, where it was woven into fine cloth. In England, wool was treated in the fulling mills where raw wool was soaked in the City’s plentiful supply of human urine, then pounded by the feet of many workers. The resulting fabric was similar to felt. Some of the converted warehouses at Exeter Quay are former fulling mills. The port’s Custom House is now a museum.

After ten minutes I’d reached the precincts of the Cathedral. I donned my mask and went in. High up in the roof vaulting is a boss bearing the coat of arms of John de Grandisson who was bishop of Exeter in the 1300’s so we may assume that the Cathedral was nearing completion by that time.

But not everything in the Cathedral dates from the medieval. An altar, a lectern and a credence table have some pleasing, flowing lines, cleverly crafted from laminated, bent and glued plywood.

On the other hand the beautifully carved and decorated organ case dates from 1665, although the manual and pipes are of a later date.

In the Cathedral library, they have an original letter dated 1686 and addressed to the Dean written by Henry Purcell. Apparently, the Dean had an arrangement with him whereby Cathedral scholars were sometimes sent up to London to be tutored. One particular student (a Mr Hodge) failed to pay his fees for many weeks, whilst at the same time, running up debts with several London merchants. Purcell’s claim was for £27 plus an additional £7 – today’s equivalent being around £3000. We are told that Mr Hodge was recalled and Purcell’s bill was finally settled.

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The rain started again during the night and continued throughout the day. Sadly, it was also the day for me to return home. By 10.30 I was ready to head eastward along the A30/A303 and the girls to head westward to continue down into Cornwall. The rain not only made it difficult for packing the cars, but also made for some unpleasant driving conditions.

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