North Devon, England


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September 29th 2013
Published: September 29th 2013
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Landed in Bristol under cloudy skies. Dan was there to meet us which was a bonus. Hired a car (Citreon C4 diesel) and off we set for North Devon, Woolacombe, where Dan and Donna had rented a farm cottage for the weekend.

Good to see Dan again. We last met up in NZ when he was out for a week to visit his family but he's pretty permanent in London now so it was good to catch up. Even better, he did all the driving. It took us about three hours to get to Higher Mullacot Farm where the cottage was. To get there we drove through miles and miles of rolling down land with gorse and stone hedges, ending up in high hedged country lanes barely wide enough for a car. There was some delicate manoeuvring when we met something coming in the opposite direction. And then we were there. Donna had already arrived with the kids, Kai and Loula, and we settled in quickly to our quaint olde worlde, low beamed, plastered walls, bedroom. Very picturesque it was.

That first night we fed the kids, fed ourselves, had a couple of glasses of wine and hit the sack. The next day dawned grey and misty. Unfortunate but we set off for Ilfracombe, a renowned English seaside destination. Pardon? We got there, just down the road, and to put it politely, were underwhelmed. It has a harbour with a very wide tidal range, lots of ugly Victorian buildings converted to hotels (apparently the Victorians used to come here for the summer), some boats sitting on the dry harbour floor (the tide was out), ice cream and tacky souvenir shops but the piece de resistance is something you would never think to find in this sleepy, tired looking, seen better days, seaside settlement - a very large Damien Hirst sculpture right at the harbour's edge, called "Verity".

This sculpture is really quite extraordinary. It is about 20 metres high, in bronze, of a naked woman holding a sword erect in her left arm while the right arm holds the scales of justice behind her, tangled, low down on her buttocks. But wait, there's more. She is very pregnant and from the right side of viewing she is rather beautiful but when you move around to the left side the skin has been stripped off exposing her muscles, sinews, tendons, guts and includes the exposed womb and baby also stripped of skin etc. at first I thought she was wearing high boots with hang down tops but realised that was the skin hanging down. OK, the sculpture is very Hirst - he likes to shock and has made a career out of stripping skin off things, but why in Ilfracombe? It seems totally out of place. What were the town councillers thinking? They must have paid a mint for it and I can't see what the relevance is unless it was a cunning plan to get people to come to Ilfracombe to gawp at it. We gawped, I thought it was bloody awful but I wouldn't have made a special trip to see it. We just happened to be there.

Enough of Hirst. The kids played, we walked the town and explored the old Welsh miners tunnels that accessed old Victorian swimming pools on the beach (ladies and men segregated), then went back to the farm where Lyn cooked us a very nice dinner.

The next day, Sunday, was still grey and misty. We had a slow get up then set off for Woolacombe Bay, rated as one of the 10 best beaches in England in a recent Guardian readers poll. It was pretty damn good! Three miles of flat sandy beach, surfers sprinkled throughout, body boarders in there, people swimming, families picnicking, and plenty of room for all to enjoy. Admittedly this was not the best of days; it wasn't cold but when I tested the temperature of the water with my big toe it was like Petone Beach temperature. That is not warm. But hundreds were out in their wetsuits enjoying the small surf. As Lyn and I remarked, you wouldn't see a New Zealand beach crowded on an overcast day in early autumn so big ups to the Brits for making the most of it.

Kai and Loula had a ball making sandcastles, playing in the water, eating the sand (Loula), chasing each other and us on the wide expanses and generally, doing what kids do best on a beach.

We left Woolacombe and drove a short distance through quintessential country lanes to the little seaside town of Croyd which was again alive with surfers and families enjoying the beach. We had a cuppa there and after a while we drove on to Georgeham where there is a renowned country pub called the Rock, which offers trad English meals and ale. We had trad Yorkshire pud, beef, gravy etc and ale and it was very tasty. Well worth the effort to find it. And so back to Higher Mullacot Farm for the evening and a small meal and wine later.

This was our last night and Dan was heading back to London the next day for work while Donna was back to Torquay where she lives with the kids. (The work is in London for Dan's specialty so he goes down to Devon on Friday nights for the weekend to see the family). We drove through to Twickenham, four hours, where Dan dropped us off and returned the rental.

It was about here that I decided I should do something about a problem that had been bothering me for a couple of weeks, mainly because we were flying to Tokyo the next day and I couldn't face the thought of going to see a Japanese doctor to explain my symptoms. So, off I went to a walk-in medical centre in Teddington. They told me there was quite a wait. Naively I said, oh, an hour? No, they said, more like two hours. However, after a test the nurse came and whispered in my ear that they couldn't deal with me there and I'd have to go to hospital. So off I went to West Middlesex Hospital and sat in the waiting room there surrounded by Muslims, Indians, Africans, Europeans, Brits, and me, a Kiwi for two hours. When I did see a doctor he was charming, professional, thorough and understanding. I was impressed with the NHS in the long run as here was I, a stranger, a tourist, with no official standing in the country and I was dealt with the same as everyone else. They didn't even ask to see my passport or any other ID.

Eventually I found my way back to Twickenham to Daniel's place and all was well. We went out to dinner that night the three of us and had a memorable meal in Twickers. Not far from the rugby stadium where the All Blacks are going to thump England in November. It was a good way to finish our short stay in England and really good to have a decent chat with Dan on his own. He had been exceptionally hospitable and generous during our short time there and we were very grateful to him for it. We'll see him in NZ in January.

The next day it was on a BA flight to Tokyo where we were going to spend five days and Lyn was going to do some work.

For some reason the iPad is refusing to download any photos off my memory card so I can't show Damien Hirst's sculpture or anything else.

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4th October 2013

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Great to read yer bloggs Robin and looking 4ward to having chats about your travels - we are just starting to think about our trip next year. Golf starts next week - so leave your ills in Japan so you are on to your game. Pete

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