Theatre on the (L)edge

Standing on the edge of dramatic cliffs near the tiny Cornish village of Porthcurno, it seems inconceivable that anyone would consider trying to create a theatre there.  Yet Rowena Cade, in 1932, not only thought it, she spent that winter moving rocks and boulders. With the help of her gardener she created a stage and, what is now, the lower tier of seating.  Over the years the theatre developed to its current size.Minak Theatre (3)   copyright169   copyright

The evening of my visit, 11th July, a production of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale was performed by Moving Stories Theatre Company.  The coastal backdrop is constantly changing: light, shadow, sea birds feeding and the sounds of the waves smashing onto the rocks below. On rare occasions porpoise have been known to steal the show.172   copyright177   copyright

The interaction between stage setting and ocean can, at times, be used to advantage by the actors.  When Florizel delivered the lines with a vague flourish of an arm

“And so deliver, I am put to sea
With her whom here I cannot hold on shore;

And most opportune to our need I have
A vessel rides fast by

an ad lib came back “it’s over there, actually” for at that moment, by chance, a boat came into view.Minak Theatre (5)   copyright

The Minack Theatre can be visited throughout the summer months for it is impressive to see even when a performance is not taking place.  The intrepid can scramble down the cliff path to the sandy beach below for a swim, the less adventurous can explore the stage and the gardens that are incorporated into the design.Minak Theatre (4)   copyright

The theatre is situated just four miles from Land’s End, the most westerly point of Britain.  As a consequence, snow and frost are rare and many sub-tropical plants that cannot be grown elsewhere in the UK thrive in the benign climate. Minak Theatre (2)   copyright

To find out more about the Minack Theatre and surrounding area take a look at these website:

The Minack Theatre

Visit Cornwall

South West Coast Path  the 630 mile coastal path doesn’t have to be walked all at once!

Purple Haze

Ask those that know Exmoor – England’s smallest National Park – to conjure up just one image of it and you would get a number of different answers.  For some it is the wild ponies, others the rushing streams but mostly the answer would be the sea or the moorland.  On Exmoor you are never very far from either.

At this time of year the moors are, perhaps, at their very best: awash with a purple haze of heather in bloom, speckled with the yellow flowers of furze – the local dialect word for gorse.  During the cooler months, however, the heather looks very different, drab browns and greens giving no hint of the glory to come.

The heather is an important resource for animals whether it is food for the ponies, sheep or cattle that roam the open spaces or the deer.  In the past – they died out in 1969 – black grouse fed here too, the record of their existence recorded in place names such as Heath Poult Cross, heath poult being the dialect word for the grouse. For other birds that nest close to the ground the heather protects them with its cover.
Although at a glance the heather all looks the same, there are three types, quite easily distingushable when in flower.  Cross-leaved Heath (Erica tetralix) has paler flower clusters at the top of the stems; Bell Heather (Erica cinerea) is a rich crimson-purple in flower whereas the true Heather or Ling (Calluna vulgaris) is softer both in colouring and appearance.  Together, they blend to create a colour mix of shadow and light.
To keep the heather moorland in good order, controlled burning is carried out once the plants have become old and woody, an ancient method called swaling.  Only selected areas are burned, usually on a five to ten year cycle between October and early April.   
The fires are watched carefully, not just to prevent their spreading to other areas but to ensure that the rootstock is not damaged from which the new, tender shoots soon grow.  The burning of the moor is both exciting and interesting to watch for the smoke can be seen for many miles.  It is difficult to imagine when the stems are blackened and charred that life will ever return. The photograph below shows the regrowth after four years.

Exmoor has the highest cliffs in England and these are made even more dramatic by the moorland which extends to their edge, the heather even clinging to the steep sides as they tumble to the sea, caring little for the salt-laden winds that continually buffet them.  On a sunny day in August the combination of blue sea, purple heather, yellow gorse and blue sky, combined with Exmoor’s splendid views, is a sight rarely forgotten.

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Heading for the Sky

The west coast of Ireland is renowned for its beauty for the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean, with nothing to slow them down from the shores of America, have created inlets and pools, islands and crumbling rock face.  It is a wild place with mile after empty mile of high cliffs, sandy coves and sheltered bays.  Like the shadows that play on the surface of the water, the weather is forever changing as rain and sun alternate produce the contrast of lush green against granite outcrops.  All along this coast there are ruins of the old crofts, now long deserted as the population left to find work and comfort elsewhere.  Those that remained moved into more modern homes that look as if they have been dropped into the landscape for they sit at all angles, some looking out to sea, some with their backs firmly set to it as if hunkered down waiting for the next battering storm.  
 
 
One of the most picturesque towns on the coast is Clifden in Connemara whose population swells threefold during the busy summer months to 6000 or so.  The region described as Connemara is undefined, being part of County Galway, but is generally accepted to be the remote, westernmost area, where mountain, bog and sea all jostle for space and attention.  This remoteness has helped to save the Irish lannguage and Connemara has the highest percentage of Gaelic speakers in Ireland.
 
 
 
 We – my partner, myself and some friends – had come to stay high on the cliffs outside Clifden specifically to visit the annual Connemara Pony Show, where the native ponies are put through their paces over three days.  I have written of this in my last post (click here) and also mentioned how we came expecting rain and cool temperatures only to be blessed with such hot weather that we actually swam in the sea.   The fine weather meant that we were treated to some spectacular sunsets.
 
There are two roads that lead west out of Clifden, the Beach road and the Sky road.  The first only goes a short distance but the Sky Road is an 11km loop that is a popular destination for both tourist and local alike on a clear evening.
 
 

  
As the light begins to fade there is little to prepare you for the spectacle that will come later.  A greying of the sky with just the merest hint of colour as if an artist has slashed the palest of pink washes in a quick ‘Z’ shaped stroke. 
 

 
 
As the sky darkens further it would appear that the sunsets we have been promised will not materialise.  The sea changes in appearance at this point and becomes almost glassy or mirror like.  The dark line stretching across the water in the photo below is made by fishing nets stretched across the bay, invisible at any other time of day.  Trees, too, standing on the edge of the water cast their reflection in the stillness.
 
 
 
 
 
A shaft of light suddenly appears along the horizon, lightening up the landscape once again only to be hidden by a bank of seafog rolling in, determined to spoil our evening display, leaving just a hint of gold cloud rising above it.  But, just as quickly it disappears again to reveal the sun disappearing over the horizon beyond the islands.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
We stay until the sun disappears completely and drive on imagining that the show is over  but nothing has prepared us for this last finale seen as the road rounds a bend.  The combination of cloud, light and darkness, of navy blue, black and pink, mirror imaged in the still water is quite breath taking.  It seems unreal, as if it should be the backdrop to a Wagnerian opera; we stand on the sand speechless for no words are adequate.

 

 
I had to share the sunset with others but waking early the next morning I stepped outside to be greeted by an almost equally spectacular dawn.  And what phenomenon created this vertical shaft of colour coming straight up from the sea? 
 


      

     

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Ireland’s Connemara Ponies

Rugged and beautiful, Connemara is situated on Ireland’s west coast.  It’s a wild place: a rock strewn landscape softened by the lush green of field and bog; of purple heather interwoven with the golden flowers of gorse; of towering scarlet and purple fuchsia hedges; of blue sea and empty, sandy beaches and of vast skies.  On a warm, summer’s day there can be no more benign a place yet when the gales and driving rain arrive, you are reminded that there is nothing but open Atlantic until you reach the shores of America. It is here that the Connemara pony, as enigmatic as the land that produced it – gentle but tough – developed.

The origins of the ponies are lost in time.  Some believe that they date back to the Vikings, others that the local breed crossbred with shipwrecked Spanish Armada horses.  What is known with certainty is that during the 19th century they were crossbred with Hackneys, Thoroughbreds and Arabians until by the early 1900’s the pony bloodlines were being lost.  In 1923 the Connemara Pony Breeders Society was set up to preserve the breed, the result being that the Connemara is now thriving with societies, clubs and shows worldwide. 

The most important of all of these shows – and rightly so – is the one of its birthplace, the Connemara Pony Festival at Clifden, held each year during August.  It is to the Festival that I was lucky enough to be invited last week.

 
My interest in horses, I have to admit, is somewhat limited.  I ride and (even if I say so myself) am quite good at it, despite only learning ten years ago but I do find the prospect of sitting watching horses for three days going around a ring rather daunting.  But this is Ireland and the craic is as good as you would expect it to be – here you can wander in and out of the showground, the locals are happy to chat to you about anything and everything and the setting is superb: a small showground in the centre of a pretty, brightly coloured town bounded by a dark brown, peaty watered river and backed by mountains.  And of course, there is Guinness!  A bonus was the weather – hot and sunny, every day.

I stayed and watched some of the jumping competitions before my attention waned.  The standard of the riding was very mixed but fun was had by all and it was interesting to see how the children just climbed back on board and carried on without, it seems, a second thought.  Perhaps that is why so many of the top jockeys are Irish ….

However, when it comes to ‘loose’ jumping, I can stay all day.  To watch the ponies move without the restraints of rider and tack, I find fascinating.  Here, the atmosphere is very much more relaxed and the banter never ending.

After a long day, what better way can there be than to end it with a stroll through the town, visiting a bar or two along the way?  Clifden is also a stronghold of traditional Irish music and from every open doorway the sound of the fiddle eminates.  Traditional music has been a lifelong interest of mine and I have had all the elements of a terrific day out – horses, Guinness, Ireland, song and warmth.  I walk back to my house, twenty-five minutes outside the town, set high up on the cliffs, as the sun begins to set.  The perfect end to a perfect day.

This seems an opportunity to talk of my own horse, Barney.  A giant of a horse (who, by coincidence, also came over from Ireland), gentle, wicked and a lot of fun, he helped teach me to ride by ensuring, I like to think, that the saddle was safely underneath me when I landed after a jump.  After months of treatment for lameness, he was ‘put down’ – a very sad day.  However, I now have Bart who compared to Barney goes like a Ferrari.  An ex-eventing horse, he is beautifully schooled and very disciplined, it has taken me a while to feel comfortable with his power and speed.  More of all this on a later post – below is an image of him and Ernie, our other horse, as a taster!

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Exmoor: The Blue Ball Inn

Autumn has been at its best the last week or so with blue skies and warm sunshine by day, the perfect weather for long walks. And afterwards, as the evening chill sets in, what can be better than to laze contentedly in front of a blazing log fire, losing your thoughts in the flickering flames? This is what I have been doing the past ten days.
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And where better than to do this than on Exmoor, the 270 square mile national park in England’s West Country? I have known this place for over 40 years and it’s dramatic scenery never tires with the passing years. The coastal area between Lynmouth and Porlock, where the open moorland meets clifftop and plunges 800 feet to the sea is the most dramatic of all. And the tiny village of Countisbury can lay claim, in my opinion, to have the best views on Exmoor.
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I made a decision when I started this blog that I would not go commercial – either for my own garden based business or for anyone else. Somehow, it just seems to put a different slant on your writing. However, I am always being asked where I stay on my Exmoor visits and I am more than happy to break the rule on this occasion. There can be no better place to spend your time than at the Blue Ball Inn, situated in the heart of the village.

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The Blue Ball Inn, which dates back to the 13th century, was originally a coaching inn where horses and travellers rested after the exhausting 1 in 4 climb up Countisbury Hill from Lynmouth. Today it still welcomes travellers, whether it is for just a drink, a meal or to stay in one of their sixteen bedrooms.

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The building both inside and out is dominated by a vast and ancient inglenook fireplace and chimney, so big that you can look up it and see daylight. It is a great place to relax and unwind with a pint of locally brewed ale and is the hub of the inn.
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The bar, with its low ceilings, blackened beams and loads of character, is a busy area but there are also several other places to sit. Each has its own fireplace and comfortable chairs, ideal if you want to find a quieter space to read or plan the next day’s walks.
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It is not just the beer that is produced locally. The restaurant, which serves food all day, is committed to offering a wide choice of menu, much of it sourced from the area – they even rear their own rare breed pork. During my stay, I never once had the same meal twice (although I wish it would have been possible to have forced down a second helping of their spare ribs they were so delicious). The chips are the best in Britain. By the time dinner was over, I was usually too tired to continue drinking in the bar and would disappear to bed. The bedrooms, which have all the usual facilities, are comfortable and clean and, after so much exercise and fresh air, sleep guaranteed.

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Awake and refreshed and after a hearty breakfast, walks can start from the door and can vary in both their length and the steepness of hill. Ours varied from twenty minutes to five or six hours. With instant access to heather moorland, ancient woodlands, rushing rivers and the spectacular clifftop walks with its views across the sea to Wales, you are spoilt for choice. (Exmoor is, of course, great dog walking country and the Blue Ball welcomes them too). If you are lucky and walk quietly, there is a very good chance that you will see the wild Exmoor ponies or the herds of Red Deer – we saw both within a mile of the pub.
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But it is not just good food and drink, comfortable rooms or amazing views that make a good holiday. It is people. Phil, Jackie and son Nick, the owners of the Blue Ball, and all of their staff without exception, do everything possible to ensure that your stay is memorable. The ‘locals’ too, for this is still very much the village pub, are very welcoming and friendly – where else would you meet someone who lends you a book to return “when you next come down”? And I have never spent such a riotous evening as with them all at the Harvest auction, held in the pub. Apart from bidding for a crate of the local beer, I also have managed to get a days hawking on neighbouring Dartmoor. I was too slow to get a day’s salmon fishing on the local Lyn river – but that, of course, gives me an excuse to visit again next year. I have already booked!
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