Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Devon's Best? Ferry Cruise on River Dart, Exploring Totnes, Dartmouth and Exeter's Underground Passages

Tuesday, June 27, 2017:
Saving the Best of Devon for the Last--Totnes and Dartmouth and Return to London:

            Although we did not intend to do so, you might say we managed to save the best of Devon’s treats for last. The weather too held out magnificently and we were rewarded by clear, bright days--and although there was no sun for much of the day, overcast skies kept us cool as cucumbers. Today was devoted to exploring two of Devon’s best towns—each has a completely different ambience and character and we were hard-pressed to decide, at the end of the day, which one we preferred.
            We had a lot of ground to cover today and still return to Exeter in time to take our 5.00 pm coach to London. Shahnaz voiced concerns about going so far away for, after taking a look at the map of Exeter, she was afraid we’d never be able to squeeze both locations into a single day and still make our evening’s coach. I managed to persuade her to have faith in me for I felt sure we could do it, if we left early enough. Hence, having packed our bags last night, we set our alarms for 5.30 am and left our hotel at 6.00 am for the walk to the bus station to take the bus to Totnes that was leaving at 6. 30 am. Luckily, Shahnaz is also a morning person and I did not hear any complaints about having to wake up at the crack of dawn—in fact, she said that she enjoyed the early morning hours when the world was less harried and complicated.
There was daylight all around us as the sun rises early in the summer in the UK. We saw a bus come along that took us directly to the bus station—we jumped into it and were at the bus station, pronto! Our Stagecoach bus came along at 6. 25am, we bought ourselves day tickets again (for 5 pounds each) and off we went on the upper deck to enjoy the Devon countryside that was just about waking up to a new day. We arrived at Newton Abbot at exactly 7.00 am and connected to another bus that took us to Totnes, five minutes later.

Exploring Totnes:
            We arrived in Totnes by 7.30 am—while most business establishments were still closed. Life began to stir quietly and slowly as dog walkers got on with their daily routine. We used the facilities at a 700-year old hostelry and then asking questions of early morning walkers, we found our way to the ferry pier as it was our intention to take a cruise on a boat from Totnes to Dartmouth on the River Dart. We discovered that the only ferry for the day went out at 10.00 am and that the return boat from Dartmouth to Totnes left at 5.00 pm—the latter would make us too late for our coach to London, so we decided to do the cruise in one direction only (for 12 pounds per head—the return ticket is 14 pounds per head).   
            With about two hours to spare, we set out on foot to discover Totnes—and a more Elizabethan city it would be hard to find in the UK (well, maybe Stratford on Avon!) However, Totnes has more listed (heritage) buildings than any other town in the UK. And indeed as we discovered on our self-guided walking tour from the ancient stones of Totnes Bridge that spans the River Dart to the very top of the hill on which the town is perched, each building is enthralling and completely different from the next.
            Totnes was a thriving medieval business town and a very important center for wool commerce in the Middle Ages. As merchants made money, they built mansions in Tudor style that cling to the main street that runs like a life-giving artery through the center of town. Using a pamphlet (that we had received from the Tourist Office at Exeter) as our guide, we took a self-guided tour through the inns that were once medieval hostelries, through open squares where weekly markets have been held for the past seven hundred years, through the church yard filled with aged gravestones and to the castle which is a landmark of the town.
One building in particular caught my attention and held it firmly. It is the Tudor mansion of a certain Nicholas Ball (whose initials NB are well represented on the front façade), a wealthy merchant in the 1500s. When he died, his widow inherited his vast fortune. She married Thomas Bodley (yes, the Thomas Bodley of Oxford’s Bodleian Library) and using her money, he founded the famous library in the world’s greatest university. Just imagine! All the world knows Thomas Bodley and no one even knows the name of the widow whose fortune enabled him to create such a stupendous center of learning.
The gorgeous brick Parish Church of St. Mary the Virgin was closed when we reached it (but it would be opened by the time we made our way downhill). We skimmed past it and entered the yard of the medieval guildhall which is still the center of the town’s administration. Greek Doric pillars hold up the old structure with its slate roof and its tiny leaded windows. It was closed at that hour but we received a good idea of its importance in former times as well as now. Having taken a few pictures there, we walked under the atmospheric East Gate Arch (which was destroyed by a devastating fire a few years ago and completely rebuilt) with its lovely clock face, and continued our gentle climb up the hill. Passing by The Butterwalk, a covered arcade of shops that is a peculiar medieval architectural feature, we arrived at a market square, where, once a week on Tuesdays, a colorful open-air market is held. Salespeople don Elizabethan clothing and sell their wares! Shahnaz found a complete set of silver plated fish knives and forks with cream Bakelite handles from a dealer who sold it to her complete in its box for 20 pounds! She was delighted with her buy as she packed it well and we continued on our walk. At the very top of the hill, we found coffee shops just opening for the day. Our rambles had made us hungry and the nectarines on which we had snacked at the market square did not quite cut it We needed something more sustaining before we boarded the ferry for Dartmouth—so we were pleased to find a coffee shop just opening for business. I bought a coffee and a pain au chocolat while Shahnaz bought a pea and mint soup that was quite filling. Indeed, our exploration of Totnes had left us completely enchanted. It is a beautiful little town that wears its age with dignity and prestige. Its residents seem very conscious of its vast history and want to retain it with pride. This is evident in the loving care that they lavish on their historic buildings and the graciousness with which they treat visitors.
On our way downhill, we found the Church open and nipped in for a visit. Like all ancient Christian places of worship in the UK, it has its striking features. A soaring nave that ends in a timbered ceiling decorated with carved stone ‘bosses’, a carved stone rood screen that separates the choir from the congregation, wooden choir stalls, mortuary monuments of the rich and famous of their respective eras, an ornate baptismal font with a wooden crown-like cover. We took it all in as we traversed the interior spaces with their quietness and their pious atmosphere. We were very glad indeed that we had the chance to visit it.
Then we were making our way back past the square that contains an obelisque to remember a local explorer who went off to explore Australia but perished there. Across Totnes Bridge we walked to arrive at the ferry pier at about 9. 45 am just in time to purchase our tickets and board our ferry—the Dart Explorer—that was waiting for us in the dock. As we climbed the top deck to take our seats, we were surrounded by elderly pensioners equipped with cameras and binoculars and their morning cuppas.

Ferry Cruise on the River Dart:
            Our ferry cruise on the River Dart from Totnes to Dartmouth could well be the highlight of our travels. Nothing can quite describe the atmosphere of the region—its peaceful serenity, the vivid shades of green that cling to its banks that gently rise and dip with every curve in the river, the softness of the air under overcast skies, the gentle ripples made on the water as birds skimmed its surface at the start of a new day. It was incredibly tranquil that morning as only the soft chugging of the boat’s motor broke the silence. There was also a very good commentary from the pilot who navigated the bends in the river with expertise. He told us about the role of the river in the economy of the region, its use as a roadway as well as a source of leisure. He pointed out bird life on the banks, cute cottages perched on the downs, some no more than wooden fishing shacks. He drew our attention to a salmon village comprising three shacks and three local families. He showed us the homes of wealthy magnates who had famous architects like John Nash design mansions for them. The highlight of these mansions was Greenaways, a house that had belonged to the writer Agatha Christie who wrote her novel Dead Man’s Folly in its interior and made it the very setting of her plot. Greenaways is managed today by the National Trust and regular tours of the mansion can be taken from Dartmouth. Sadly, we did not have the time for it, but I enjoyed clicking pictures of the villa as we sailed past. We also passed by picturesque villages like Dittysham that dot the river and offer wonderful photo ops. River craft of every size and hue dotted the blue waves and added to the loveliness of the area. 
            It was not long before our truly delightful cruise came to a quiet end. The town of Dartmouth came into view with its Royal Maritime College seated high on its cliffs. This was the training ground for both Prince Andrew (son of the Queen) and Prince Harry (her grandson) who were trained here. It is a grand building, very impressive in its size and architectural beauty. We continued gliding our way to what is known as the Dartmouth Pontoon and simply marveled at the glorious Elizabethan buildings that lined the dock for they were built in grand Tudor style and sported the exposed black beams, small leaded windows and white-washed facades that make this style distinctive. When I exclaimed, “My goodness! What a charming town!”, one of my fellow-cruisers smiled and said, “And what an expensive one too! Everything here is costly.” Indeed, arrival by boat is the best way to enter Dartmouth and we were very glad we chose this unusual mode of transport.

Exploring Dartmouth:
            Dartmouth grew around the harbor that dominates all commercial life in the town. As soon as we disembarked, we walked around the Boat Basin to the shops. We gave ourselves about two hours in the town but we also wanted to make sure we feasted on the much-touted fish and chips that chef Mitch Tonks of The Rockfish Grill had put on the gastronomic map. Hence we had to hurry through our shopping for souvenirs and our browsing through the many art galleries and shops that crowd the pretty streets. I wished to find the book shop that was once owned by the real Christopher Robin whom A.A. Milne had made famous in his Winnie the Pooh stories. But alas, the bookstore has closed down and another establishment had taken its place. We did also walk in The Butterwalk, a similar row of arcaded shops that we had found in Totnes, and then, without losing any further time, we made our way for our long-awaited lunch.

Fish and Chips at The Rockfish Grill:
            Mitch Tonks uses beer to lighten the batter he uses to coat his fish (cod or haddock). Large slabs of it were presented to us together with crisp chips, tartar sauce and ketchup. Everything was served piping hot, straight from the fire as fried fish and chips ought to be, plus the service was wonderful.  Sadly, we had to hurry through the treat that both of us thought was quite outstanding indeed. And then it was time to race back to our bus to get the one that would take us back to Exeter in time.
Heading Back to Exeter:
            We were lucky to find a bus that took us directly from Dartmouth to Exeter. Once again, we gave ourselves up to the sheer pleasure of enjoying the English countryside from the top decker of a bus—I have seen much of Cornwall and Dorset in like manner and it remains one of the high points of my travels.

Tour of the Underground Passages of Exeter:
            Lonely Planet says that we should not miss a tour of the Underground Passages in Exeter. Since we arrived in Exeter while there was still time to get to our B&B and pick up our backpacks, we decided to check out a tour and see what it would offer. Luckily for us, they are offered every hour and we got one at 3. 30 pm. Since it lasted till 4.30, we would have enough time to check out and catch our bus at 6.00 pm.
            The tour of the Underground Passages starts with a short film that explains its history. We missed the beginning of it as we arrived late. However, I gathered that the passages were designed in the 1400s to bring clean drinking water from natural springs outside the walled city, through lead pipes into the heart of Exeter. The pipes sometimes leaked and repairs to buried pipes could only be carried out by digging them up. These are the only underground passages in the entire country that are open to visitors and a visit is certainly an unusual experience.
            When the film ended, we were given hard hats (mine stank horribly of body odor and left me feeling deeply disgusted by the end of it) and led into the passages themselves by the tour guide who explained why and how they were created. Most of the passages are so narrow that only one person can pass through at a time. They are lined with stone that is plentifully quarried in the region. The lead pipes that were used to transport water for centuries were then covered with plaster. Few people have any idea when they are walking through the streets of Exeter that these passages exist below them and that they can actually be traversed. As far as I can tell, the passages are no longer in use although they were used as recently as World War II as bomb shelters.
            So there you have it—we managed to get in the interesting tour of the underground passages as well and all of this made for a very fine visit indeed.
We had enough time to make our way to Melbury House from where we picked up our backpacks, checked out, thanked our hosts Graham and Leon for their great hospitality and walked by a short cut to the bus station. Our National Express coach to London arrived on time and whisked us off in a constant drizzle to the capital. How fortunate we felt that we had experienced no rain whatsoever on our travels! Also, luckily, by the time we arrived in London, it had stopped raining although the city was still very wet indeed.

Looking for our Next B&B in Battersea:
         Once at London’s Victoria, it was a simple matter of finding the bus stop that would take us to Battersea where we had made Air B&B bookings. Having arrived in London at 10.20 pm, I hoped we would not have to wait too long for a bus. A 44 did come along in just ten minutes and within half an hour, we were on Queenstown Road and ringing the bell of a home owned by a lady name Jane who showed us to our room in the basement of her house. She stayed around for about half an hour explaining all the rules of the house to us and as soon as she left, we crashed on the pull-out sofa which became a double bed.                     

             Devon had been a brilliant experience overall but we were ready to unwind and relax once again in London.
             Until tomorrow, cheerio.

1 comment:

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Rochelle - now I must do that cruise too ...and the fish and chips sound excellent ... and you do see a lot ... Totnes is a 'transition town' - a way of revitalising towns around the world ... giving life to the community - I wrote about them in 2010 and must now re-look.

Don't fancy the hard had - think I'd have to have a man's kerchief to put inside ... but I'd like to see the passages ... cheers Hilary