Postcards from Across the Pond

Big photo, short text: It’s practically the definition of a postcard. This blog post is taking a lesson from them to provide a wrap up of my trip to Devon with some views that I didn’t have a chance to share in the Bound for Beer series. Click on any of them to enlarge, and scroll to the end for a special offer.

Welcome to Beer: A few glimpses of the distinguishing features of Beer, from the Barrel of Beer to the picturesque cliffs and working beachfront. The Old Lace Shop is an interesting part of the village’s history: much of the lace for Queen Victoria’s wedding dress was made in Beer.

Castle Drogo: I used the construction at Castle Drogo as the spark for me to redo the MissElaineous Blog, but if you look closely you can see what the castle looks like without scaffolding, courtesy of a well placed sign at the site.

Painting of Frances Richardson Drew, wife of Julius Drewe (Castle Drogo)

Storage: Much of the interior of Castle Drogo was packed away or moved to a different location to deal with the construction, but the parts that were on display provided a glimpse of what life was like during the first half of the 20th century.

Garden Views: While Castle Drogo itself was under construction, its garden was in prime condition and the perfect place to explore. Flowers ranged from irises to lupins and everything in between.

All About Alliums: These gorgeous purple globes are one flower I can readily identify: alliums. They are also known as ornamental onions being in the same family as the edible variety, and they were absolutely swarming with bees during my visit to Castle Drogo. For those who are familiar with Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, it reminded me a bit of the titular prince exploring his home planet.

Thatched house, Devon, England

A Bit of Randomness: As we live in a modern house with a rather unusual roof, I made MrElaineous pull over on a country lane so I could photograph its thatched counterpart. Then there’s the red cliffs of Dawlish Warren, a favourite spot as we raced the sunset to get here for wedding photographs many birthdaversaries ago. After our visit to Seaton Jurassic, I had a better understanding of the geologic processes behind these cliffs: they used to be a desert.

Country views from Castle Drogo

Bound for Beer: [ PART 1 ] [ PART 2 ] [ PART 3 ] [ PART 4 ]

Next week I’ll be looking a little closer to home with a town that still manages to have a few surprises. Please consider signing up to the mailing list to get it delivered directly to your inbox (and get a free eBook as a bonus!).

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Elaine Massung Off the Beaten Track
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Bound for Beer (Part 4)

Beer Beach in Devon on a beautiful clear day

PART 1 ][ PART 2 ][ PART 3 ]

My final morning in Beer dawned as one of those late spring/early summer days that seemed absolutely perfect, the type you wish would go on forever. The mist of the past few days had completely vanished, leaving blue skies in its wake, and the colours along the waterfront transformed from drained and muted to bold and vibrant. It was hypnotic to watch and listen to the gentle waves against the cobbled shore, and I couldn’t resist recording a minute of calm to revisit once I returned to the real world.

I wasn’t the only one enjoying this picture perfect view. The seafront came to life with people out enjoying the water, from kayaking to fishing, and I had a suspicion that every deck chair would be filled by noon. But MrElaineous and I had a journey home to contend with. So we bid a very fond farewell to Beer and began the long drive north.

A collection of photographs showing beautiful weather at Beer Beach, Devon.

Collection of photos showing buildings around Beer, Devon.

Okay, so long is relative, but we couldn’t resist in fitting in just one more National Trust property to score a holiday hat trick: there was the Coleridge Cottage, Castle Drogo, and, finally, we finished off with a visit to Lytes Cary Manor, a medieval manor house with a modern twist.

It was owned by the Lytes family from the 13th until the 18th century. Let me repeat that: the same family lived in the house for nearly 500 years. During that time the Black Death struck England (many times, but quite badly in 1348), the printing press was invented (c. 1439), Columbus sailed the ocean blue (1492), monasteries across England were dissolved (1536-1541), Shakespeare jotted down a few lines (1590-1612), England had a Civil War (1642-1651), London burned down (1666), and the Kingdom of Great Britain came into being through the Acts of Union (1707).

Zooming in along the path at National Trust's Lytes Cary Manor, SomersetWhile all of this was going on, the Lytes family were gradually expanding their home in Somerset and carrying out a bit of academic research. Henry Lyte published the Niewe Herbal, a book about plants, and dedicated it to Queen Elizabeth I in 1578. His son, Thomas Lyte, went one step better and produced a family tree for James I that showed that the king was a direct descendent of Brutus, the founder of the Roman Republic. While this may have been slightly less than accurate, James I rewarded him handsomely for the endeavour.

Yet in 1755 the Lytes were forced to sell the house due to financial problems, and it was lived in by a series of farmers who used it more for agricultural storage than a family home. The manor was purchased in 1907 by Sir Walter Jenner, and it was his family who restored it to its 17th century heyday (and added a new wing—you can book it for your next holiday). He and his wife scoured the country, purchasing furniture and paintings from different time periods to recreate the appearance of a house that had been lived in for so many generations. It is down to their hard work that Lytes Cary now feels like a time capsule that showcases centuries of English domesticity.

The National Trust's Lytes Cary Manor, Somerset, England

Today, Lytes Cary is also known for its stunning gardens and they were in full bloom during my visit, turning a patch of the green English countryside into a multi-coloured oasis. There was an oasis of a different sort to be found just outside the garden, where a flock of house martins had discovered a puddle and were happily bathing, drinking, and collecting mud to repair and build their nests along the eaves. I was touched to see that a National Trust employee later added more water to ensure the birds had plenty of mud for their home improvement projects.

Although not as grand as the nearby Montacute House or Barrington Court, Lytes Cary is well worth a visit. Besides its beautiful garden, historic architecture, and incredible grounds, it’s a property with a great deal of heart and soul.

Close up of a house martin at the National Trust's Lytes Cary Manor in Somerset

[ There is one more part of the Bound for Beer series; check in next week for photos that I haven’t been able to include so far, or sign up to have the next instalment delivered directly to your inbox. And don’t forget to follow me on Facebook or Instagram for new photos each day. ]

 

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BOUND FOR BEER (PART 3)

Along a woodland path between Beer and Seaton

PART 1 ] [ PART 2 ]

Rather than the antiquated local museum I was expecting, from the moment you step inside Seaton Jurassic it is clear that time, money, and passion have gone into creating an engaging and educational experience for visitors of all ages. You start off by exploring a Victorian study to learn about the quirks of the local landscape, such as the landslip of 1839 that sent 20 acres of farmland crashing into the sea, forming what became known as Goat Island. In addition to becoming a 19th-century tourist attraction (even Queen Victoria herself paid a visit), this was the first landslip to be scientifically studied.

From there, a holographic projection of a 19th-century time traveller pops up to help set the scene, with infectious enthusiasm that propels the visitor onward to the “library of time”. This alone was worth the cost of admission. Starting with the origins of life some 4 billion years ago, the exhibition designers created hundreds of mock books, each with titles and subtitles that showed what was happening on the planet at the time, moving closer and closer to our own time period (humankind take up only one or two books in the grand scheme of things). Yet they did this with such a sense of humour that we couldn’t help but read each one. For example, during the time of “Snowball Earth”, one of the books was subtitled “Do you want to build a snowman?”, and later, once life had taken hold on the planet, each new evolutionary wave got its own volume.

Cliffside signs and books at Seaton Jurassic exhibition

The exhibition didn’t shy away from difficult topics either, showing the mass extinctions that have plagued the planet from the very beginning, and asking if we might be contributing to the next one. From the serious to the slightly silly (in a good way), there was a mock time machine and a pseudo rock pool to explore before heading out into a coastal garden. My expectations were well and truly exceeded, and it was a good reminder that local museums can have the power to wow.

View looking towards sea and village of Beer

After a walk back to Beer, we decided to head off in the other direction along the coast to the nearby village of Branscombe. This is when I made an unfortunate discovery: my country walks had failed to prepare me for coastal paths.

Country walks, at least the ones I do, tend to be on level, wide pathways. Coastal paths, however, go up and down over very uneven terrain that seem more suitable for a mountain goat than a former Floridian. I would prefer to enjoy the beauty of what’s around me—and the Devon coastline is truly spectacular—rather than worry about where I was putting my feet.

Views along the Devon seaside from Beer to Branscombe

Yet we eventually made it to Branscombe, where my FitBit said I had walked ten miles and the equivalent of over 100 flights of stairs over the course of the day. My body was feeling every inch of the journey, and the three miles back to Beer just didn’t seem in the cards. There had to be another way back, right? Yet dining that evening at a Branscombe pub brought us some light entertainment that bordered on farce or something out of Fawlty Towers.

We asked the waiter if there was a bus back to Beer.

“Of course, just turn right when you leave and look for the benches. That’s the bus stop. You have to wave him down or he might pass you.”

We thanked him for his information and continued to wait for our meal.

A few minutes later he came to the table again. “Are you wanting to travel to Beer today?”

We nodded in the affirmative.

“Oh, you can’t do that. The last bus leaves at ten to six.” It was now well over an hour past that time. He wandered off.

We flagged down another waiter and asked for details for a taxi. He disappeared and returned with a business card and said to give the driver a call; she would sort us out.

I picked up my mobile to do just that, but found it had no reception. MrElaineous left the pub and tried to get through on his phone without any luck. It was time to throw ourselves on their mercy again. “We tried to call the number you gave us on our mobile and couldn’t get a signal. Is it possible to borrow a phone?”

“Oh, Branscombe doesn’t get any mobile reception. You’ll have to use the phone next door.”

Which we did and returned safely to Beer. Yet it wasn’t until later that I realised why this exchange seemed so familiar. In the film Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character asks the landlady at his B&B if there is any hot water. The response? “Oh no, there wouldn’t be today.” What may be obvious to a local can leave the tourist quite befuddled!

Yet on the subject of Groundhog Day, this wouldn’t have been a bad day to repeat. There aren’t many things I would do differently, except perhaps have checked the bus timetable before setting off!

[ Check back next week for Part 4, or sign up for the mailing list to have the latest blog post delivered directly to your inbox (and get a free eBook as a bonus!). You can follow these links to see Part 1 and Part 2 of the Bound for Beer series.]

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Elaine Massung Off the Beaten Track
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BOUND FOR BEER (PART 2)

Clear sea and cobbles along Beer's harbour

[ PART 1 ]

Arriving in Beer in the evening, MrElaineous and I only had a brief moment to look around before settling into the B&B for the night. What we saw certainly seemed picturesque. There was a stream running along the village’s main road so you were never far from the burble of running water, and tidy stone cottages lined the roadways. It was a promising start.

We set an alarm to propel us out of bed early the next day and it felt like we had the sleeping village all to ourselves to explore. We headed straight for Beer’s natural harbour, where the first thing that caught my eye was that there was no horizon. Silver water merged with grey clouds, and the perfectly still water looked more like a mirror than the sea. The second was the cobbles: rather than sand, the beach was composed of perfectly round stones that were both beautiful to look at and difficult to walk on as they shifted easily underfoot.

Photographs of deck chairs, beach huts, and fishing boats along Beer's harbour

The wave action was non-existent and looking at the crystal clear water against the shore made me feel like I was standing on the edge of a lake rather than the Atlantic. Yet there’s no escaping that the beach at Beer combines both seaside work and play, mixing fishing boats and coastal cruisers with deck chairs and beach huts. It’s possible to buy seafood fresh from local fisherman, or fish and chips at a standard beachside café; the local and the tourist are both catered for, and it was easy to see how this helped get Beer on the Village of the Year shortlist.

From the beach we climbed to a nearby park that overlooks the sweep of the harbour and cliffs, and it was obvious why there were so many benches along the route—the views were still stunning, even as the mist began to roll in—and why each bench had its own dedication. While pausing at one I spotted a stone painted with what looked like the universe. On the back it read “If you like me, keep me”. So I did.

Heading back to the B&B for breakfast and we were in for another treat. A hamper full of breakfast goodies had been delivered to our door, and we could settle in at our own table overlooking the High Street and dig in after working up an appetite during the walk. After a brief pause to rest and digest, it was time to head back out to explore further along the coast.

Beer was well and truly awake now, with shops open and tourists following our previous footsteps down to the beach. But we were surprised to see that the weather had gotten worse since our earlier jaunt: the cliffs had disappeared in the mist and although we could walk to the nearby town of Seaton, we couldn’t actually see much of coast itself.

Mist completely covering the harbour at Beer in the course of the morning.

This stretch of English shoreline is actually quite special: Beer sits within the 95-mile long Jurassic coast, where you can find three geologic time periods on the surface: the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous period cover 185 million years of the earth’s history. The shifting geology shows how England changed from red sand desert to shallow sea, leaving a mark on the landscape that can still be read today. It is no wonder that this was England’s first natural World Heritage Site and is a site of international scientific interest.

We were familiar with what is perhaps the coast’s best known location, the fossil-rich town of Lyme Regis, where ammonites can be found along the shore and the 19th-century fossil-hunter Mary Anning is rightly lionised for her role in palaeontology. [Fun fact: It is said that Mary was the inspiration for the tongue twister “She sells seashells by the seashore” as she was known for selling fossils to visitors to help support her family.]  But I was curious to learn more.

We decided to visit the Seaton Jurassic exhibition. I have to admit my expectations were low; I thought it would be a little local museum with a few rocks and shells, maybe some posters of the local geology. How wrong I was.

[Check back next week for Part 3, or sign up for the mailing list to have the latest blog post delivered directly to your inbox (and get a free eBook as a bonus!). Click here for Part 1 of the Bound for Beer series. ]

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Elaine Massung Off the Beaten Track
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BOUND FOR BEER (PART 1)

Garden at the National Trust Coleridge Cottage

MrElaineous and I are teetotal or, as I like to put it, totally about tea. This means that there was a degree of irony in our recent trip to the Devon village of Beer as we wouldn’t be partaking in the eponymous beverage, but we did hope to enjoy everything this coastal hamlet had to offer.

This was, I admit, another trip inspired by a television programme. Earlier in the year we caught Penelope Keith’s Village of the Year, in which 76 villages from across the United Kingdom squared off against each other for the coveted title. It was an oddly addicting programme as the presenters travelled across the country to showcase picture-perfect rows of houses, local cooking and crafts, and a few unique traditions (pie tossing festival anyone?), all of which are thriving thanks to a large dose of community spirit and civic pride. Beer was one of the four finalists and the one closest to us—a visit seemed an ideal way to kick off the summer season.

Yet one unfortunate trend of our travels this year has been the tendency for sunshine and blue skies to only appear when we stay close to home. A room booked at a B&B? I can almost guarantee rain. This trip was no exception, with rain showers following us as we travelled south.

However, we didn’t let that stop us from stopping at a small National Trust property as we headed towards Devon. We had visited the large stately homes in the area previously—Killerton and Knightshayes are both lovely, grand, and the type of place you need a full day to explore—and with only a few hours to kill we decided to give the Coleridge Cottage a try.

The National Trust’s Coleridge Cottage and a local pub, named after Samuel Taylor Coleridge best known poem, the Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

As the name implies, this cottage once belonged to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of the founders of the British romantic poetry movement. Other members included William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, William Blake, and John Keats. Rather than “romantic” in the sense of love and relationships, the practitioners of this movement championed imagination, being in touch with nature, and expressing emotions through poetry.

As we approached the cottage, I used my phone to find the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” online and recited it to MrElaineous. I hadn’t looked at it since high school, and yes, the rhymes are a bit dodgy and he does go on a bit (surely a few of the repeating stanzas could have been cut?), but I had forgotten how cinematic it was, which isn’t too shabby for a verse written in 1798. The ship of the dead calls to mind the Black Pearl from Pirates of the Caribbean, and his descriptions of Antarctic ice and the southern lights are familiar to anyone who has ever picked up a National Geographic. It has also entered popular culture through the phrase “water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink” and, of course, to have an albatross around one’s neck.

Arriving at the house, we were greeted with one of those fantastic National Trust volunteers who seemed to know everything about the person and the property. Her introduction to Coleridge helped set the scene: his friendship with leading poets like Wordsworth, his fondness for walking holidays, family tragedy, the breakdown of his marriage, his opium addiction. He and fellow poet Robert Southey even hatched a plan to go to America and start a commune where they would grow their own food and revolutionise poetry. While the latter came to pass in its own way, it became clear throughout the visit that Coleridge would have made a poor farmer!

Samuel Taylor Coleridge quote: "This is my botanical garden ... the weeds you see have taken liberty to grow, and I thought it unfair of me to prejudice the soil towards roses and strawberries."

While Coleridge only lived in the cottage for three years, it was here that he wrote some of his best known poems, including “Rime”, “Christabel”, and “Kubla Khan”. His live-and-let-live philosophy, which comes across in the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (“He prayeth well, who loveth well, Both man and bird and beast”), was on display during his time in the country. He allowed mice to run about freely, much to the disapproval of his wife, and his desire to keep a garden was scuppered by allowing weeds to grow equally with the fruits, vegetables, and flowers.

As a property, there is very little that is original as the traditional two-up-two-down thatched cottage (literally two rooms downstairs and two upstairs) was enlarged and enclosed in the Victorian period. Yet it serves as a fantastic introduction to the man and the period, with reconstructions and more modern interpretation harmoniously living side by side. Bits of Coleridge’s poems and letters are used throughout, the literature breathing life into what could have been just another period piece.

Three reconstructed rooms at the National Trust's Coleridge Cottage in Nether Stowey.

The garden of the cottage was lovely, bursting with flowers and abuzz with bees. Much of it was turned over to wildflowers and, at the very end, sat a small woven bower that had pride of place. While at the cottage, Coleridge wrote the poem “The lime-tree bower my prison” about sitting there while missing a walking trip with his friends; with a bit of National Trust magic and the press of a button, we could listen to the poem read aloud while in the place that inspired it. The bower turned into our prison for a time as well—what had been a drizzle began to come down harder and we had a decision to make: stay within or make a dash for the car.

We chose the latter and it turned out to be the right choice because, soon after, the first wave of torrential rain that was to hit the UK that evening descended on us. A garden bower wouldn’t have been enough to keep us dry, but now we were safely on the road to Beer and an even further leap back in time.

Check back next week for Part 2, or sign up to the mailing list to have it delivered directly to your inbox.

Flowers at the National Trust’s Coleridge Cottage.