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BOUND FOR BEER (PART 3)

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.]

FIRST!

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I don’t know when or why the tradition began of gracing a website’s comment section with “First”. It’s something that I’ve always found it a bit silly. I mean, it’s not so much a comment as a territorial marker! However, I had my own first moment recently that, while it hasn’t convinced me of the merits of staking a digital claim, has shown me the power of beating the crowds.

After Britain basked in several days of sun and blue skies, I finally had the chance to slip away myself and enjoy it when MrElaineous and I descended on our local National Trust property, the village of Lacock. With its mixture of architecture from across the centuries and historic abbey that served as the location of the first photographic negative (and a few of the Harry Potter films), it is a popular site with locals and tourists alike.

This is a site we know very well, so it was with some surprise that we turned up just before 9:00am to find the visitors’ car park utterly deserted. Considering we usually have to hunt for a spot or head to the overflow parking, this was sheer parking perfection. First indeed!

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Our luck continued as we walked through the village. The coach-loads of tourists that normally fill the streets were absent, and even the residents still seemed to be asleep or, at the very least, were laying low. It was quite magical to have the village to ourselves, with the golden morning light on the old stones and the most prominent sounds being the local birds making their own territorial claims.

The walk around Lacock is a two-mile circuit that takes visitors past picturesque thatched cottages, along the Avon, through fields, and back to stunning views of the abbey. We usually joke about needing to “hit the people button” when taking photos here, a desire to remove the crowds and focus on the scenery, but there was no need. While it is usually overrun with day trippers and dog walkers, this day it felt like we had the entire landscape to ourselves.

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As we returned to the village itself at 10:00 am, our luck ran out. Cars peppered the lot, and the first influx of sightseers began to make their presence known. Although we were no longer the only people there, it felt like we had been let in on a secret: the early bird may get the worm, but the first visitors get something even better.

CARPE TEMPESTAS

The stereotype of British weather goes something like this: it’s cold, it’s grey, and it rains a lot. There may or may not be fog. And I have to admit the last few weeks have fit that description to a T. Constant drizzle, thunderstorms, and the occasional hailstorm have served to keep me inside, daydreaming of warmer temperatures and drier days.

Because of the tendency of the British weather to live up to its reputation, good weather is an excuse to toss out the to-do list—or at least hit pause—and take advantage of every moment of blue sky and sun. And that’s exactly what I did before the recent deluge. Three perfect days beckoned and it was an absolute joy to get out and about, even if a coat, scarf, gloves, woolly hat, and pair of thermals were required.

First, a trip to the Georgian city of Bath. Having once lived here, I feel I can vouch for its seductive charms, from the buttery stone that glows in the light to its rich historic centre, once home to residents ranging from Romans to Jane Austen. Modern Bath is filled with winding side streets and tempting shops, yet one of the things I rarely did as a former resident was just wander. There was always a reason for being out and about, and errands were carried out with military precision. But on this day there was no real plan. MrElaineous and I had a general goal—plastic-free shopping—but for the most part we just let our feet take us where they wanted, popping into the shops that caught our eye. This is why we now own an hourglass made from an industrial bobbin, an artefact from a bygone age that fits perfectly into the living room, where my decorating style can best be described as 21st-century Victorian study.

Pulteney Bridge: A stone bridge crosses a river in the English city of Bath
A red British telephone box is filled with flowers against a yellow stone background

When the next day dawned bright and clear as well, it was off to one of our favourite local walks, the charming Castle Combe. We last visited as part of the birthdaversary celebrations when we completed a nearly six-mile circuit around the village and surrounding countryside. On this particular day the Castle Combe Racing Circuit was in full swing, and the buzz of motorbikes echoed off the hills. It still made for a lovely walk, giving us the opportunity to see the first signs of spring beginning to appear and testing our memory as we set off without a map or guidebook.

A yellow building with four gables in the English village of Castle Combe
Grey stone cottages line a single street in the English village of Castle Combe

Finally, after three days without hardly a cloud in the sky, let alone rain, it was back to Malmesbury. I wanted to overwrite my earlier memories of struggling through the mud, so with a pair of wellies firmly in place we set off on a two-mile jaunt around the outskirts of the town. Despite the dry weather, it was still muddy (and I have been reliably informed by a local that it always is), but enjoying the historic sights and peaceful river walk under a blue sky more than makes up for this minor inconvenience. Indeed, if living in the UK has taught me one thing, it’s that carpe diem is all well and good, but that you should really carpe tempestas: seize the weather.

Malmesbury, England: A stone bridge crosses a river in the forgeound and a mill building with many windows sits in the background
Malmesbury, England: A large stone abbey and graveyard stand out against a blue sky
A male mallard duck with with bright green feathers on his head

THE M-WORD

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The British duo of Flanders and Swann are remembered for their comedic songs such as “The Gnu”, “The Sloth”, and, one of my personal favourites, “The Armadillo”.  Yes, they had a thing for songs about animals, and the best known is probably “The Hippopotamus”, in which the title character sings a chorus of “Mud, mud, glorious mud!”  From my recent experience in the town of Malmesbury, I was left with a very different impression of the sticky substance.

It was, I admit, entirely my fault. After several weeks kept more or less indoors by cold, grey weather, I was completely beguiled by the blue sky, dazzled by the sun, and didn’t even think to throw on a pair of wellies when we decided to investigate a new walk. After all, how bad could a two-mile circuit of the town be on such a gorgeous day? It wasn’t like we were in the middle of the countryside.

It certainly started well enough. A pair of juvenile swans had staked out their territory along the river, and we spent some time watching them before heading off on a (mud-free) path through the Conigre Mead Nature Reserve. This provided some lovely views of the back of the Abbey House and a peaceful walk until we crossed a road and climbed over a stile.

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From there it was into a field pockmarked with the footprints of previous walkers who I imagine were shod better than we were. At this point the mud was still semi-frozen, more slushy soil than anything found along the banks of the Shalimar. We navigated it to the best of our ability, coming out on a quiet side street with 18th and 19th century houses. Once back on solid land we performed the dance of the ill-prepared, scraping our shoes against the pavement and clean grass before continuing on our way.

We enjoyed taking in the sights that we never had the chance to appreciate when driving through the town, like a 17th century engraving and an old mill building perched in the perfect location over the river. However, our guidebook soon led us to more fields, where the ice had melted and we were left to carefully pick our way through ankle deep mud. It could not in any way, shape, or form be considered glorious.

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However, upon emerging from the fields we were rewarded with a different perspective over Malmesbury, a view we had all to ourselves before pressing on back to civilization and paved roads. We finished off the trip by popping into the Norman abbey, which was a first for us despite a number of visits to the town centre. Although it is now partially in ruins, this 12th century building still dominates the middle of town and is well worth a visit.

One of the great things about a walk like this is that it changes with every season, from the stark landscape of winter, the blooming of spring flowers, the many shades of green in summer, and autumn’s fiery colours. I am looking forward to doing it at different times of the year, and with different footwear.

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BIRTHDAVERSARY

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Forty years ago, my mother made the decision to get married on her birthday. Four years later, I decided that it would be a good date to make my own appearance into the world. When it came time for my fiancé and I to pick a day for our wedding, there was only one obvious choice. It means the chances of either of us forgetting the date are slim to none, and I literally get to celebrate the anniversary of turning 29; indeed, I much prefer to give my age as 29 and 7 anniversaries!

The double celebration also invites us to get out and about to do something special. Last year we ventured down to the charming town of Shaftesbury, location of the picturesque Gold Hill and a fascinating, if rather windy, place to explore. This year we stayed closer to home and decided to take our country walks to the next level. For much of this year we’ve done short walks of 2 to 4 miles, but the one we had our eye on was nearly 6 … and there were hills.

It started in Wiltshire’s own picturesque village of Castle Combe, a favourite of film makers and day trippers alike. Residents have great forbearance in dealing with both, especially the tourists who peer in windows and fill the street during the height of summer. As for us, we quickly walked through the main street of the village and beyond our existing knowledge.

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The first unexpected sight came as we turned off the main road and ventured onto a route our map called Macmillan Way.  As we walked over a stone bridge, we caught sight of a pair of swans cruising down the By Brook. This seemingly romantic start had a touch of the surreal as one had a leaf plastered to its front; perhaps an autumn accessory for the avian set?

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As we climbed Macmillan Way, we enjoyed the crunch of walking through ankle deep leaves that covered the path, and at this time of year the bare trees allow walkers to get fantastic views of the valley below. A field full of donkeys was another unexpected sight we stopped to photograph, although they seemed much less interested in us.

The walk then descended into the village of Long Dean and its smattering of traditional houses. Everywhere we looked there seemed to be signs warning of bulls in the field, so we stayed on the path until reaching the village of Ford. The guide recommended stopping at a local pub for a break but we had other plans and pressed on.

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The next part of the walk can best be described as the messy middle. It took us through ankle deep mud, flooded streams, and up an incredibly steep hill that conveniently had a bench at the halfway point. Once we found our way to the crest of the hill and out of the woodland, we came out onto a road. We realised we had a choice: we could take the low road, which would lead us directly back to Castle Combe, or the high road, which climbed further up the hill and would complete the full circuit of the walk.  After some debate, we went high.

This took us through even more mud, but also took us along the lovely and alliterative Broadmead Brook, which ended up on the Manor House Golf Course. This brought us back into the very heart of Castle Combe, and the next part of the birthdaversary celebrations.

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To commemorate our accomplishment of completing the walk, as well as mark the day itself, we had afternoon tea at the Manor House Hotel. It’s a wonderful place to visit at any time of the year, but with Christmas decorations up and a fire roaring in the foyer, it’s positively magical. This wasn’t the first time we had afternoon tea here.  Every other time we left incredibly full and unable to finish, but this time we thought we had it sussed: a Spartan breakfast followed by a 5.5 mile hike should be enough work up an appetite and leave plenty of room for three courses of treats.

The first part was certainly true. Sitting down to a selection of scones, sandwiches, and cakes, I felt I would be able to eat everything on the table. The scones were excellent. Soft and warm, the combination of one traditional clotted cream and jam scone with a cheese scone and Dijon mustard were simply delicious. Next up was the sandwiches. There were four crustless triangles, the equivalent of one full sandwich, and each quite tasty. Finally, the cakes. They were beautiful to look at and each had a different combination of flavours. We worked our way through three out of four, but somehow found ourselves running out of space. We called for a box to take the last slice home. Foiled again.

I could finish off this post by writing something saccharine, like how the walk was a perfect metaphor for marriage itself: there are ups and downs, unexpected moments and difficult decisions, bullish situations to watch out for, and sometimes it can all get rather messy, but the important thing is that you enjoy who you’re with. But instead, I’ll simply say that it was a wonderful way to prepare for the walking we did the following week in the historic and beautiful city of Chester—stay tuned!

MissElaineous Blog: Escape & Explore & Discover & Enjoy