Europe » United Kingdom » England » Devon » Topsham Monday 7 June to Thursday 10 June 2010 Topsham - Coleton Fishacre - Kingswear - Dartmouth - Greenway - Totnes
07.06.2010 - 10.06.2010 20 °C
It’s strange what you notice on a motorway car journey, isn’t it?
Somewhere on the M5, we saw a naked man and a camel.
The man was about six metres high and made of wicker. The camel was made of concrete.
Now I have your attention, let me bore you with what we’ve been doing for the past few days...
The first part of our short break to Devon and Cornwall was to see some very good friends. I resist the temptation to call them very old friends for fear of upsetting them, but they’re also retired and we’ve known them for over thirty years, so perhaps “old” is correct after all. Sorry!
Maureen and Peter live in an historic house almost on the banks of the River Exe in the pretty little town of Topsham in Devon. The house is almost unrecognisable from when we last saw it just a couple of years ago; they've transformed it from a rundown shell, after only minor scuffles with the local authority’s conservation dragons, into a charming and characterful home with all mod-cons. They’re an extremely hospitable couple - fortunately, as we’re just two of their many friends vying for a few nights’ bed and breakfast and Maureen’s great cooking in this lovely part of the country!
There’s a superb view from their first-floor lounge towards the river and the hills beyond. They have a lovely courtyard garden at the back of the house and a pretty pocket-handkerchief garden right on the riverbank, where the scent of old-fashioned pinks filled the air while we enjoyed drinks and watched the wildlife and boats.
One of those boats was Peter’s and a jaunt downstream on a sunny evening made for a very enjoyable excursion. Once upon a time, the wide River Exe was navigable to large cargo vessels - indeed, their front garden was once part of a quay - but now it would have been easy to run aground if the green and red buoys marking the narrow, meandering channel between the sandbanks hadn’t been pointed out to me by Peter as I steered the boat home.
Topsham’s narrow streets are filled with attractive old houses, some with lovingly manicured gardens that would be open for charity during the coming weekend. Alas, we would then be in the neighbouring county of Cornwall so we had to make do with some National Trust gardens in the locality.
We'd planned to spend time in Exeter but Maureen highly recommended a visit to Coleton Fishacre instead - and we'll be forever grateful that she did. It would have been tragic to have missed such a delightful place.
This house and garden by the sea were built in 1923-6 for Rupert D’Oyly Carte, son of Richard - the impresario behind Gilbert and Sullivan operettas like The Pirates of Penzance, whose business empire included Claridge’s and the Savoy Hotel and Theatre in London. This fabulous Art Deco house was the scene of much entertaining, particularly at weekends when Rupert came down from London to join his wife, Dorothy. Then, they’d go shooting and fishing, sailing their yacht to gardens in south Cornwall in search of inspiration for their own, or simply hosting bridge parties attended by the likes of conductor Sir Malcolm Sargent and painter (and designer of the 1926 Mikado costumes) Charles Ricketts.
As the house has changed hands over the years, it contains only a few items of its original furniture but decorative bathroom tiles, light-fittings and a huge pictorial map in the library do remain from the Jazz Age. The rest of the interior has been carefully and cleverly restored to those times and it certainly evokes its former happy style.
The vast gardens, starting formally with terraces and a walled Rill Garden, descend through increasingly wild vegetation to the sea at Pudcombe Bay. We walked right down, discovering a bird-watcher with his telescope fixed to a view of a Peregrine Falcon perched on the cliff, before struggling back up with frequent rest stops at some of the stunning viewpoints. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to this atmospheric and well-maintained property.
Afterwards, we drove down into the nearby town of Kingswear, where Pat had spent childhood holidays.
We couldn’t identify precisely where her great-uncle had lived but suffice to say that the house had a super view across the wide river to Dartmouth.
We parked up and took the passenger ferry across to the town of Dartmouth, spent a couple of hours browsing its shops and enjoying a memorable afternoon tea - real leaf tea, complete with an egg timer to tell us when it had brewed, all gaily served in beautiful silver pots by two very cheerful gentlemen. The German couple at the next table thought their tea was worthy of a photo, and so did we!
On a less happy note, the neighbouring heart of the old town was recently the site of a devastating fire that seems to have started in a Thai restaurant then spread to other old buildings, leaving many of them in an unsafe condition; it's likely to be many years before the historic houses can be rebuilt or restored.
Another day, we drove down to Dittisham on the River Dart and took the little ferry across to Greenway the former holiday home of Agatha Christie. We might have driven but, as there’s not much car parking there (in common with most places hereabouts), one has to book in advance and we’d discovered that it was full for several days - hence the ferry. We could have taken the ferry from Dartmouth, but parking is bad there too!
It’s fair to say that we were a little disappointed with Greenway. It’s a pleasant place but the house (claimed by the National Trust to be “the jewel of the estate”) was actually a bit ordinary and had very little atmosphere. Although it contained some bits of Agatha Christie memorabilia and quirky collections, it lacked a certain something - a good murder mystery perhaps! The gardens were attractive with very pleasant glimpses of the river, however. We’re glad we saw it, but wouldn’t hurry back.
On our return journey to Topsham, we called into Totnes. This is a busy, somewhat New Age, town with lots of interesting small shops, particularly if you’re looking for health foods or art and craft materials. We’ll stay a bit longer next time.
After just three very happy days, we had to bid farewell to our friends to start the next chapter of our West Country break - to Castle Drogo and across Dartmoor into Cornwall.
Oh, I nearly forgot to mention the weather. We left home in sunshine and it got progressively wetter the further west we went. Then, the next day, nearly all the clouds disappeared and we’ve had glorious sunny days ever since.