Alarming times...

So here I am again, back on Exmoor and back to Exford.

As I drove along the road towards Wheddon Cross I spotted banks of snowdrops. They clung to the verge, battling for a glimpse of sky through snow. Yes, there was snow. The fields were clear of it, but where the sun couldn’t reach, by the hedges, the fields were framed in white.

It might be good to visit new areas, but my local knowledge reminded me that a short walk from the hotel would find a small copse, full of snowdrops and that’s where I headed on my first walk.

Exford is one of the lowest villages on the moor, so any walk from the hotel is going to involve a climb. But this stroll is a short, sharp climb and well worth the effort. A few years ago a nearby field had been planted with saplings, of varying types. I try to take a photo of the same view on each visit - it won’t be long before the distant hills are hidden.

Before I wax too lyrical about the views, let me rewind the tape an hour or so. Lunch was enjoyed outside, by the river and of course I accompanied my delicious ham sandwich with a pint of Exmoor’s finest.  From my vantage point I could spy the small garage, offering MOTs and servicing. Oh yes, I thought, no erroneous apostrophes in Exford!


As I returned from that walk I passed the garage. Can you imagine my disappointment as I spotted the sign the garage was displaying from the other side?



Having not walked any good distance recently, I was keen to stretch my legs with a climb towards Dunkery Beacon - the highest point on Exmoor. It was a good climb and as I neared the top I diverted down the road to Porlock before retracing my steps.

The second evening, the restaurant was more like a reunion that a room full of strangers. A couple I’d met at least twice before were excited to see me - who wouldn’t be? Another couple recognised me, despite the false moustache and wig.

Despite high hopes and local assurances that the weather would be good, Wednesday was a very damp and drizzly morning. In the hope that the day might improve, I retreated to the hotel’s lounge and played sardines. A large group of competitive friends monopolised the room, but I managed to divide and conquer.  Why competitive?  Every comment was volleyed back with another, supposedly to amuse but in truth, I cringed.

It was still early, but already one of the party was having a nap. I thought it unlikely he would last the day.

.

My bedroom overlooked the river and the terrace of cottages on the far side of the road. New people had moved into the end house and a lad in another cottage had learned to drive and had his own car. For a nosey-parker-people-watcher the room was almost perfect. Next door was empty but a previous resident had set the radio alarm. From 8 am onwards it bleeped - a visit to reception restored harmony with alarming speed.

Even though the hotel serves the best of everything, I still bring a few home comforts with me, particularly camomile tea. I stuff a few sachets into a Tesco freezer bag and I’m sorted. Not so one of my fellow residents.

At breakfast a wooden suitcase was placed on a table. Etched on the lid was ‘Twinings’ - who could drink a whole suitcase of tea, I wondered.

A young couple appeared at the eleventh hour, just as the buffet was closing. What fine things do you think that case contained? Tea bags. They had brought a wooden case full of teabags. I thought of my Tesco bag and decided that in my case, every little did indeed help. With a suitcase of clothes, a bag of books, magazines, lappy and Kindle to carry, a wooden suitcase for my camomile would certainly be the final straw for my humpless camel’s back.

Having free wi-fi is great, but the moment I clicked on the hotel's Facebook status and 'liked' the idea of a carvery dinner that evening, I knew it was time for a walk.

I set off, creating my own route.  The second half took me on a path that was new to me and I returned to the hotel just as the rain became heavy and my stomach began to rumble.

Larry and Laura
A couple of residents were already installed by the bar, studying the Budget Mime on TV.  It seemed far more entertaining to guess the Chancellor's muted comments.  Pretty soon talk turned to the more important matter of dinner.

The carvery, we were told, would consist of pork and lamb. As we pondered the delight of choosing, the hotel's proprietor shared some shocking news.  Later that day he was to receive training to use a defibrillator. All declined to be guinea pigs and it was suggested that a shot of Grouse to the heart would revive the pair.

As they supped on their liquid lunch my mind was already feasting on dinner...

Fortunately for Larry and Laura, I was drawn to the pork. Sadly Pinky will never know Perky again. By the third and final night, guests have relaxed a little and there was jovial banter and a few indiscretions. I revealed that I lived near the market town of Blandford Forum.  This was pounced upon by one of the Grouse supping chaps from lunch. Not only did he know my town, he lived five minutes away. We both agreed not to sell our stories to the tabloids.

And finally? A journey home, a tin of baked beans and a prayer to the Patron Saint of Stretchy Trousers.


Postcard from...Devon!

It’s no secret that I love Exmoor.  But this autumn I fancied a change.  I adore staying in Exford, but I’ve been so often (twice this year), that there are no surprises.  The delicious menu rarely changes and I could almost plan my diet before I arrive.

This October I decided to embrace the sea and so looked for somewhere new to enjoy, along the coast.

My first choice would have been lovely in the summer, but the owner warned me that it was unlikely the restaurant would be open because it is usually a quiet month.

The Exford hotel is usually busy because it’s a base for the hunting and fishing fraternity.  I’m not used to a quiet hotel, even in the darker months.

A friend suggested renting a cottage.  But I can stay on my own for less money at home.  No, for a few nights at least, I need to embrace the rest of the world and become sociable and more importantly, eavesdrop on some restaurant chat.

And so it is that I found a lovely hotel in Lynmouth.  It’s perched on the edge of the village, literally.  The only sound is the gushing river as it rushes past my bedroom.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  What of my journey, I hear you shout!

The footbridge would be closed during the night of the storm -
and sustained some damage.
During my last visit to the area I had discovered a new tea room with courtyard at Dunster and it was to here that I would take a mid-journey break.

Some of you will know that I’ve spent the past few weeks working for an author who writes for Mills and Boon.  I suppose it was her fault that I spied Simon Masters, senior partner of the local solicitors becoming agitated whilst he ate his grilled teacake.  His crisp shirt covered his firm, but welcoming, chest.  I’ve more to learn about these M & B heroes.  Mr Masters eventually left the establishment hand in hand with Jeremy.  Yes, times have changed but not my imagination.

I’ve visited Lynmouth in the past – most recently with my good friend and Exmoor resident Celia Andrew.  If you’d like to see the photos from that trip, click here.  Suffice to say we had a great time, despite the rain.

But back to now.  The tide did what tides do and began to turn.  Boats that were static on my arrival soon began to bob around and once or twice, at dinner, waves crashed up before me.  In my room I was mesmerised by the movement and the sounds.  It wasn’t just me who was affected.  A group on a nearby table had described how they had spent an evening just watching the sea. 

Despite this being a smaller hotel, the fellow guests were as entertaining as I could have hoped for.  In a space of just a few hours they covered toy boys, gay relationships, early retirement, late retirement and bedrooms painted all in black.  The floor show that accompanied this narration came courtesy of two guests from the hotel on the far side of the quay.  Suffice to say that it would have boosted the sales of any wannabe M & B writer.

My first full day was spent mainly watching the sea - it’s hard to escape it.  Men, and a few women, were hurtling themselves above waves, attempting to glide towards the shore.  Some made it, most didn’t.

Many of the surfers seemed to spend their time running either to or from the sea.  I could possibly do that.  Wearing just my wet suit (or are they dry suits?), I could race along with a strange tippy toe stride, looking like a surf babe.  Or not.  You decide.

As the light began to fade it was time for ‘Tide Watch’.  Better than any reality TV show, this was performed live outside my window.   I wanted to spot the moment the river admitted defeat and became the sea. 

It raced along its bed, crashing over the rocks and boulders, but I knew that within an hour or two it would be sea before me.

I caught that first wave that breached the harbour – it trickled in with a hidden force.  It’s easy, when you witness that change in tide, to appreciate why walkers can suddenly be caught out on a tidal stretch of sand.

An hour or so later, during dinner, I witnessed what I hoped I would see.  Although I’d noticed sandbags along the quayside, it hadn’t occurred to me that these weren’t the norm.

Even the morning after the storm, waves continued to crash
over the defences.
As waves crashed over the windows of the restaurant, the waiter asked if any of the diners were owners of a Peugeot – it was about to float away. 

Across the harbour towards the quay the waves crashed over all the defences.  Foolhardy spectators soon beat a retreat.

“Don’t worry,” said one diner. “Remember how in all disaster movies like the Towering Inferno, some people do survive.”

“And what about the Perfect Storm?” I couldn’t resist adding.  There’s nothing like panic to feed a good appetite.

From my bedroom I tried to take some photos.  None were great, but they did capture the moment. 

Patrons of the Rising Sun stood upon the raised path, spectators to the mirror image of my scene.

It was the stuff of nightmares and the stuff of my dreams!

The next morning, as a precaution, the road that runs along the seafront was closed and a BBC team were busy filming.  I think my piece was cut.

As much as I love the freedom of travelling solo, I never want to be the woman who ‘disappears during waddle back from tearoom’.  So, as I strolled back from the Flood Disaster Memorial Display I was pleased to happen upon the number 300 bus, about to depart for Minehead.

To many, Minehead holds little charm – they fail to see beyond Butlin’s and the burger bars.  The old part of town, towards the North Hill holds a village atmosphere, complete with tiny cottages and cobbled lanes.
The quay at Minehead
A welcome brew was taken on the quay – in between shots of rainbows which had become this visit’s sheep.  In fact most of my photos seem to be of either rainbows or waves – but that’s the coast for you.

Back at the hotel and the BBC were still in town.  The hotel’s owner was being interviewed, although it was a little late in the day for that – surely we weren’t to expect more floods…?  But it was a quiet night, the ballast of a Belgium chocolate sponge in my belly kept me firmly moored. 

As sad as I was to finish my short break, there was still something to look forward to.  I was to divert my route to Bridport and meet up with Liz Brownlee.  Liz has recently had published an anthology of her poetry.  Click here to read more about it.  Liz grew up in the area and had returned to visit a school and give a brief talk, with poems, to children.

Liz, Lola and me!

Liz and her OH were joined by the famous Medical Alert Dog, Lola – click to read about Lola's charity.  Later in the year an anthology of flash fiction and poetry by a group of writers (including me!) is being published and some of the proceeds will be donated to Lola’s charity.



I have no idea what that sheep is doing!



Postcard from Exmoor!


The trickle of a river...
I probably don’t need to tell you we’ve had some rain, but I will. We’ve had some rain. Before I set off for Exford, I was cautioned by friends and family. Is it safe to go? Has the hotel been flooded?
Well I live life on the edge and decided to brave the elements, come what may.

Three hours later I sat beside the river Exe - the one that runs in front of the hotel - supping my pint of Exmoor Ale and eating my ham sandwich. The river, not much more than a stream that day, trickled past.

A duck messed around like ducks do. But I like to be responsible. So I tethered myself to the picnic bench with a sturdy rope, tied in a knot known only to nifty sailors. No torrents were going to wash this brave heart away.

Like all good daughters, I rang home. I described the river. There was no hiding the disappointment in Mum’s voice. No tales of bravery, no stories of storms. All was calm on Exmoor.

Pigs are very popular here. Well the dead sort are. After feasting on my ham sandwich I chose gammon for dinner. It was a quiet meal. The wet weather had drowned the passing trade and for the first 40 minutes or so it was just me and the dead pig.

The next day I took it slowly. I had a book to finish and spent an hour reading in the hotel’s lounge. A young couple were deliberating over which walk to choose. From their kit you might have assumed they were seasoned walkers. Not so. They eventually opted for Dunkery Beacon - four miles there and four miles back, usually.

They selected their maps, checked their mobiles, checked they had the hotel’s number and even let the hotel know where they were going. Most of the walk is on tarmac. The rest is along the edges of a couple of fields. Yes, you do touch open moor - but the beacon is always visible. As Mr Walker nipped off for a pre-walk pee, I whispered to his partner that they really couldn’t get lost on that walk. “I won’t, but he probably will” she said with a defeated sigh.


Blue Anchor
Tuesday’s weather was reckoned to be a little iffy. That’s somewhere between wet and wetter. Fortunately they got it wrong and I was able to nip along the coast to Blue Anchor. This huddle of homes and holiday chalets sits between Watchet and Dunster. Apart from the little cafĂ© the only selling point is the beach. But that’s plastered with warning signs - dangerous sands, loose rocks - everything you need for the perfect seaside trip.

Despite all those negatives, I like it there. Along its prom smart railings are painted a beautiful shade of blue. Whatever the weather, Blue Anchor is always bright, in a British seaside kind of way.

Steam Train heading for Minehead with Dunster in the background
There’s another delight to the place - the Steam Railway runs along the edge and that’s how I first found the place. The scenic railway, popular with boys and girls of all ages, chugs along slowly and is the best waste of an hour you can buy. I nearly never completed that first trip.

As I sat in a carriage, I commented to some fellow passengers that once inside, you didn’t really know it was a steam engine. I almost witnessed grown men cry.

After a blast along the seafront I was in need of refreshment and found just the place in Dunster. A new tearoom with cobbled yard had popped up between two shops and I snatched a few rays of sun, together with a toasted tea cake. I wasn’t hungry - still full from breakfast - but all that fresh air…

Sheep
Back at Exford I met up with local writer, Celia Andrew. Over a platter of scones, cream and jam we chewed over some gossip and washed it all down with cups of tea.

It wasn’t long before another dinner beckoned. The special was a Gammon, basted in a Pepsi Cola, treacle and mustard glaze. It was a bad week for pigs.

The forecast for day two warned of showers. I’m not one for trudging around towns in the rain, trails yes - towns no.


Towards the rain
Kitted out with waterproofs I headed for the hills. I’m not sure about miracles, but I did seem to be walking on water. It was a strange sensation. The ground was hard but there was a layer of water that seemed destined to soak into my boots and trousers.

I meandered along, making up my own route before returning to the haven of the hotel for a late morning coffee. Before long I was out in search of new adventure and I climbed another hill. This time I’d chosen well and I remained relatively dry.

Towards more rain
The route I took was a familiar one. I usually do it just to stretch my legs, it takes barely an hour. I love noticing the changes and this time I wasn’t disappointed. A field had been planted with young trees - I’m not sure how long ago. This time those saplings were definitely small trees and a view I’m used to was almost obscured. 
Trees
Back at base and I resisted lunch and a cream tea. Roast beef was on the menu later and I was determined to do it justice. A poor pig had also been sacrificed, but I was committed to the beef.

The next morning I raced home, chased by heavy rain and bad weather. For those that demand fine weather, it wasn’t a good break. But for me, someone who takes what comes along, it was a brilliant, bellyful of memories.
 
 
 

Z - A Challenge - O

The Isle of Purbeck has its place in history.  It's a little known fact that Radar was first developed at a military base near Worth Matravers.  The work was top secret and eventually moved to a more secure establishment.  But for a time, during the 2nd World War, top scientists created something that would change the world for ever.

On the cliffs, just along from St Aldhelm's Head, Worth Parish Council have erected a memorial to that work.  The Orb-like dish is an unusual structure to find on a cliff, but so fitting to that work.

More importantly, without Radar I wouldn't be here.  The station existed for a number of years into the 1950s and my father was stationed there for his National Service in the RAF.  That brought him south from the Midlands, he met my mother and that was it - birth of the Baggster (after their courtship, marriage and the arrival of my sister, of course!).

Z - A Challenge - P

I grew up in Swanage.  My family moved there when I was just a few months old.  But Mum was born there, so she was returning home.

Our first house was in Princess Road.  It was on the corner with Kings Road.  Swanage also has a Queens Road - and a High Street.  But it also has some unusual names - De Moulham Road is a version of Mowlem - John Mowlem was responsible, with others, for the development of the town in the 19th century.  There was a Mowlem Institute, built in his name and with his money, that provided entertainment and a library for the locals.  It's long since been replaced with the Mowlem Theatre - built in the 1960s.

History is around every corner, you just have to know where to look!

Z - A Challenge - Q

Swanage and the Purbecks are famous for quarries.  Purbeck Stone is exported far and wide, but it never looks quite so spectacular as in its natural surroundings.

This beautifully crafted wall is a proud example dry stone walling.  The photo was taken between Worth Matravers and Langton Matravers, along the coastal path.  Both those villages have a rich heritage of quarrying.

If you look at the photo carefully you might spot two deer.

The beauty of walking alone is that it allows me to come across these scenes without disturbing or scaring.

Both deer stood and watched me for some time.  Even after I walked away, I could see them moving slightly to get a better view.  Beautiful!