Devon and Cornwall, England

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August 12th 2015
Published: August 12th 2015
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This last portion of our Scotland/England trip consisted of a five-day guided tour to Devon and Cornwall with Rabbie's Tours. There are twelve of us on the minibus, from the USA, Martinique, Hong Kong, and Italy. My interest in seeing this part of England was sparked by the novels of Rosamund Pilcher and by the beautiful scenery on the TV show Doc Martin, filmed in Port Isaac, Cornwall. It is a part of England known for very mild climate and charming seaside villages.

First project: getting out of London. On a Saturday morning the streets of London itself were quite deserted, but once we hit the major artery heading southwest, it was clear that many other vacationers thought it was a good time to head for the beaches, so we sat in traffic quite a bit, but finally made it to Winchester, our first stop. Remember the Beatles' song, Winchester Cathedral? Well, who knew? It contains a Round Table that some believe was King Arthur's original. It is huge, about 20' across and mounted on the wall out of reach of tourists like us. Camelot may have been located right in this area, but it is not really known.

As we get down near the coast of Dorset we start to see a few reminders that the great DDay invasion was launched from here (memorials, tanks, etc.). It is hard to believe that such a massive force buildup was largely hidden from the Germans. Today the gentle hills are a patchwork of green pastures and golden grain fields bordered by stone walls and hedgerows. But the most spectacular scenery is at the sea's edge, hidden from the roadways. Our driver Barney dropped us off at a very populated campsite and told us to hike downhill for about 20 minutes to see what we might see. It was Durdle Door, a giant stone arch protruding from white chalk cliffs above a turquoise blue sea.

We spent the next two nights in Exeter, mainly for its convenient location rather than for any particular attractions right in the city, although we did enjoy the (free) Prince Albert Museum, especially for its easy-to-understand portrayal of history of the area. We also had a fun dining experience at the oddly named Dinosaur Cafe, a tiny Turkish restaurant. We just happened to go there the night before the friendly couple who owned it were about to leave for a three-week holiday, so they were immediately apologetic for their limited menu, but they seemed to have everything we had been looking to buy, mainly a Dinosaur Mixed Salad, with a scoop of each of seven prepared Middle Eastern salads. They also recommended a lamb-stuffed eggplant dish that turned out to be excellent as well, but what made this meal especially fun was that the woman chef/waitress/owner kept bringing us more food (hummus, tossed salad), dishing it right out of her prep pans in an effort to clear everything out of her fridge before leaving. I think she also got a kick out of our obvious enjoyment!

One other less fond memory of our time in Exeter was the scariest plumbing ever. A sign displayed no less than three places in our bathroom read, "Please, please do not put anything other than toilet paper down the toilet as it is hazardous and causes fire or electric shock." Almost makes you want to try it just to see how something could create a fire in a toilet, eh? It had something to do with a contraption located just behind the bowl that apparently provided flushing power (unimpressively so) and sounded like a jet engine, rattling the floorboards when you pumped the handle enough to work it up to a good flush. The situation was not helped by a fan connected to the light switch, so noisy itself that we opted to stumble around in the dark rather than switch on that racket!

Back to sightseeing: ever read the Hound of the Baskervilles? We visited its setting, Dartmoor, which looms up out of the farmland as a dark mass of heath-covered granite. Farmers let their sheep and ponies run wild on it, so drivers must expect animals in the road at any point! Now the area is a national park and is used for hiking and biking, but it does have a mysterious, barren look, especially in the fog.

In Tavistock we had a traditional Devonshire cream tea for lunch. This was simply one (large) apricot-almond scone, clotted cream (like whipped butter), and jam with a cup of tea. Very yummy but also very heavy - stuck with me all day, you might say. Buckfast Abbey was worth a visit for its herb gardens and homemade products (honey, tonic, soaps).

We left Exeter after two nights to travel up to the northwest side of the Cornish peninsula, stopping first at Boscastle which reminded me of Doc Martin's seaside village. In 2004 a terrible food had washed away much of the town after heavy rains. Today it was peaceful, though, and we got great views from the cliffs that were just a short hike out of town. We started out in rain but ended with blue skies! Nearby Tintagel was our lunch spot (Cornish pasties), and here were gorgeous cliff top ruins of a castle purported to be where King Arthur was conceived. The National Lobster Hatchery in Padstow was cute. For a small fee we could see tiny baby lobsters being prepared for release to boost the lobster fisheries. The village, however, was so jammed with people that I would not recommend visiting if you are trying to drive yourself there.

Two sites not to miss: Minack Theatre, a working outdoor theatre carved into the granite of the cliffside, and the ruins of Botallack Tin Mine, a spot where you can wander along breathtaking cliffs and explore an old tin mine, much less touristy than some other "mines" in the area. A spot you may want to bypass: Lands End, the southwestern most point of land in the UK, but otherwise unremarkable, expensive and overrun with commercialism. Similarly, St. Ives is sometimes called the prettiest town in Cornwall, but in August it is overrun with people crowding the little beaches. If you thrive on activity and crowds, it's a good place, but I'm glad we are using Falmouth instead as our base for the last two nights. It is a large town with good restaurants and B&Bs, but it feels much less overcrowded.

A couple of random observations of Cornwall: no roadside litter, lots of cute dogs everywhere.

Our last day, traveling back to London included two important stops. The first was Glastonbury, place of King Arthur's death (?), where we climbed the Tor, a steep hill to which people have attributed mystical powers. In fact the town reminded me of Salem, Massachusetts for those who have been there, with its magic shops, interest in the occult, etc., not really my thing, but a nice little hike to break up our long ride. The second and last stop was Stonehenge, which hardly needs introduction. Suffice it to say it is very mysterious and impressive and did not disappoint. We found it worthwhile to get the audio tour, although the exhibits at the visitor center are great and cover the same information. We can't wait to return to this beautiful country!

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