• Life in Lavender

    It is twenty-five miles between our house and MrElaineous’ hometown. Due to the “you-can’t-get-there-from-here” phenomenon, it takes us about an hour to drive there on winding country roads, which allows us to avoid the often grid-locked city of Bath, and instead takes us through picturesque towns like Bradford-on-Avon and small villages such as Faulkland.

    I hadn’t paid much attention to Faulkland before, and there were only a few things that stuck in my mind when thinking about it. The first was architectural: one of the first buildings you drive past is the Faulkland Wesleyan Chapel. Although now converted into a private house, the unusual architecture of it is due to its origins as a Nonconformist (i.e. non-Church of England) church. Then there was the small village green, with two signs that I had read but not necessarily registered. One pointed to a lavender farm, the other was hand-written and cautioned drivers to mind their speed: “SLOW DUCKLINGS!!!!!”

    It wasn’t until my Instagram feed began to fill up with shots of gorgeous lavender from across the south of France that it dawned on me that a local lavender farm would be an ideal place to explore. And so this was how I recently found myself standing at the edge of a sea of purple, listening to the deep hum of bees and watching butterflies flit from flower to flower – too fast for me to photograph well, but too beautiful not to at least attempt it.

    The place whose sign I had neglected for too long was Somerset Lavender and it made for a perfect morning out. There are two large lavender fields to circumnavigate, a flower garden that, during my visit at least, was absolutely bursting with colour, and a café and gift shop where you could sample culinary treats and purchase great smelling souvenirs. One of my favourite bits, however, was the lavender garden. Twenty species of lavender are planted side by side, allowing you to easily see the difference in colour and shape … and perhaps pick out a favourite for your own garden.

    What surprised me most was that the lavender fields themselves didn’t have much of a scent. It wasn’t until the flowers were crushed between your fingers to release some of the oil that the classic fragrance wafted out. Despite this, the lavender plants were absolutely mobbed by bees, and if you’re interested in providing food for pollinators, any of the lavender varieties are a good choice.

    At one point MrElaineous and I took an unexpected detour during our visit, accidently ending up outside of the farm at a small pond with adorable ducklings that couldn’t have been more than a few days old. The second sign now made sense and I completely understood the sign-maker’s fondness for exclamation marks. The cuteness of these ducklings was enough to reduce me to a quivering pile of “Awwwww”, and I do hope all drivers in Faulkland take it easy near the pond. [And, in a separate public service announcement, bread is bad for ducks.]

    Duckling, Faulkland, England

    While on our diversion, Tuppence Cottage also caught my eye. I am a collector of fun house names, but have to admit it was the sabre-toothed tigers guarding the gate that were more noticeable than the name itself. I’ve seen statues of lions and dogs, but these were a first for me!

    My view of Faulkland changed over the few hours we spent there, fleshed out by experiencing it as living village rather than a simply a place to drive through while going from A to B. It was a useful reminder about giving places a chance to show you their colourful side and their quirkiness—and how you should stop to smell the lavender whenever you have the chance.

    If you’re interested in stopping to smell the lavender yourself, please check out Somerset Lavender’s website for opening information. And it’s not just lavender … keep scrolling to see the lovely flower garden! ]
    Dahlia, Somerset Lavender Farm

    Delightful Devizes

    Edwardian building in Devizes, Wiltshire (1912)

    Sometimes travel planning can be a hassle: searching for the best price for flights, trying to find accommodation that meets all your criteria, or ensuring that what you want to see is actually open while you’re there. At other times, outings can fall into place at the touch of a button. In this particular case, that button was the Facebook refresh on MrElaineous’ mobile phone—it revealed that a friend was hosting an open garden event in the nearby town of Devizes that afternoon. We could easily squeeze it in after our Community Clean Up and before the England-Sweden match.

    Devizes is a charming Wiltshire market town, one of many that we are fortunate to have in our neck of the woods. One of its claims to fame is being on the Kennet and Avon Canal. Which doesn’t seem to require that much fame, until you realise that the canal has to climb over 230 feet to take it to Devizes. As I’m sure you’re aware, water doesn’t flow uphill and a series of 29 locks were required to allow boats to climb to the appropriate level. At Caen Hill, this was taken to extremes and 16 locks can be found in a row.

    Caen Hill Locks, Devizes

    The railways put an end to industrial canal transportation and this incredible feat of engineering fell into disuse for over a century. It took three decades of restoration to get it running again, but it is now possible to travel the Kennet and Avon Canal in a narrowboat. However, if you wish to do so to get to Devizes, consider yourself duly warned: it can take up to six hours to travel all 29 locks. [And, while I was in the middle of writing this post, someone had a little accident with the lock gates.]

    We skipped the boat and went by car. While our initial plan was to have a walk along the canalside, we got slightly distracted in our exploration around the town centre. MrElaineous is quite familiar with Devizes since he performs there on a regular basis, but even he was stunned when we stumbled across the oldest part of the town, a row of 15th century buildings just off the main road. We intentionally drove to Ledbury in the Malverns to soak up history like this, and it was a pleasant surprise to find it in the very heart of our local patch.

    This led to catching sight of a sign advertising an art trail, which in turn led us into one of the 15th century buildings and up to an incredible display of local photography by Stephen Davis. While some of the places featured in the artwork were familiar from my own Wiltshire wanderings, like the bluebells of West Wood or Japanese maples in Westonbirt, Stephen uses early morning light to turn Wiltshire into a wonderland. I admit that I felt equal parts admiration for his photographs and jealous of the incredible scenes he managed to capture.

    From there we visited a second venue on the arts trail, one that happened to be run by a friend of MrElaineous. This is the multi-talented Bryony Cox, who not only treads the boards with White Horse Opera, but also paints stunning images from her travels around the world (as well as the ever-changing Wiltshire weather!). Her Unguarded Moment series in particular was a lovely look at people as they went about their day-to-day lives. Although the activities she depicts take place a world away from what we are familiar with, she captures the subject’s emotions and shared humanity in a touching way.

    Bryony Cox Artist

    Then it was on to the garden that kicked off this whole excursion, a participant in the National Garden Scheme.  This programme raises money for nursing charities through private gardens opening their gates to the public. People pay a donation, but get two things in return: the chance to experience lovely gardens that are otherwise hidden away and, potentially, to be inspired to do a bit of gardening themselves.

    In many ways the National Garden Scheme is a prime example of peer-to-peer learning. National Trust gardens are beautiful to look at and explore, but can feel out of reach of the ordinary gardener. Open gardens, however, can belong to friends, neighbours, and otherwise regular people with a passion for plants. It’s easy to see their work and think, “If they can do that, so can I!”

    National Garden Scheme Devizes

    This particular back garden has been turned into a paradise for humans and wildlife alike. It’s the type of place you walk into and find yourself saying “Wow!” – not just because of the sheer riot of flowers, but because you feel like you’ve stepped from an ordinary suburban street into another world. During our visit everything was set off beautifully by the cloudless blue sky, and several types of butterflies made themselves at home flitting between the plants. One of my favourite spots was the pond with its pale yellow waterlilies and dainty blue forget-me-nots, where I caught sight of my first frog of the year as it quite sensibly retreated into the cool water. The trickling of a stream completed the picture and I didn’t want to leave.

    But it was nearing kick-off time and so we headed back the way we came, leaving the canal to explore another time. The day that had started off with rubbish ended with an English victory … and was filled with some pretty remarkable sights in between.


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    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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    Bound for Beer (Part 4)

    Beer Beach in Devon on a beautiful clear day

    PART 1 ][ PART 2 ][ PART 3 ][ PART 4 ][ POSTCARDS ]

    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. ]



    Along a woodland path between Beer and Seaton

    PART 1 ][ PART 2 ][ PART 3 ][ PART 4 ][ POSTCARDS ]

    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.]

    MissElaineous Blog: Escape & Explore & Discover & Enjoy