A Sudden Escape

Sometimes it is good to plan and sometimes it is good to be spontaneous. I certainly have proved the latter in the past few days by surprising my family when announcing that I thought I would spend a couple of days away in Sidmouth. “When are you thinking of coming down?” my sister had asked. “Now,” was my response, “can you provide a bed?” I arrived a few hours later.

Sidmouth, a small, Regency resort on the south coast of Devon lies about 170 miles to the south-west of the Cotswolds. Devon, along with Somerset and Cornwall, are three English counties collectively known as “The West Country” and a prime tourist destination. A long peninsula reaching out into the Atlantic Ocean, it has many spectacular cliffs and sandy beaches and these, combined with a benign climate, make it the place where many Brits go for their summer holidays. Inland, it is a country of traditional farming, fast-flowing streams and open moorland and remains one of the few areas where it is possible to roam freely without too many restrictions. It is also home to several National Parks and long-distance footpaths.

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Sidmouth came to prominence during the 1800s when in 1819 the Duke of Kent came to stay with his young child, Victoria. During this stay he died yet despite this inauspicious start the small fishing village became a fashionable place to visit. Later, after Victoria ascended the throne, she gifted to the church a memorial window which in recent times has been restored, partly funded by a further gift by our present Queen. Much of old Sidmouth is now a conservation area and buildings along the Esplanade, the seafront road, are classic examples of those built during this time.

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The Esplanade

Like many coastal towns, Sidmouth is at the mercy of winter storms and with no natural sheltered harbour to protect it, when the sea batters the town it suffers, although not as badly as might be expected. However, it is the exposed sandstone cliffs that bare the brunt of these storms. Erosion is a real and constant threat and the red cliffs of Salcombe Hill are constantly crumbling. A number of houses are at serious risk of collapse in the forthcoming years. The cliffs form part of the Jurassic Coast, a World Heritage Site, renowned for its rock formations and fossils.

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Not there for much longer…

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Modern fossils!

Away from the crumbling cliff, there are two beaches. The Town Beach is of pebbles, reinstated after a 1990s storm washed it away. It is now protected by manmade rocky outcrops. At the far end of town is Jacob’s Ladder beach, so-named after the series of zig-zag wooden steps that lead down to it from the clifftop. This beach is a combination of sand and shingle. Both beaches are popular in the summer when the water is warmer; now, in February, the sea looks less inviting.

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Jacob’s Ladder Beach in midsummer

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The Town Beach in February

The mild, coastal climate protects many semi-tender plants which further inland would suffer damage from frosts. Connaught Gardens, a public space that date from the 1820s, are a riot of colour during the summer months and each year a number of private gardens also open to the public under the National Gardens Scheme.  Although these can be lovely, for me the jewel in Sidmouth’s crown is the area of natural parkland known as The Byes. A 2km green corridor that follows the course of the Sid river, it has a good path network, some outstanding trees as well as wildflower meadows. It is a good place to spot wild birds such as kingfishers and dippers. Popular with residents, it seems less well-known to visitors.

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The Connaught Gardens in midsummer

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The Byes

During the first week of August, at the height of the tourist season, the Sidmouth Folk Festival takes place. First held in 1955, it attracts some of the top names in the country. Apart from the listed acts, others sit around the seafront playing and busking, greatly adding to the atmosphere. When it all proves too much, there is always the opportunity to sit on a deckchair and take a nap in the summer sun.

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Fiddling on the beach

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Conceived on Exmoor?

There used to be a standing joke between my mother and I that I must have been conceived on Exmoor as it has such a magnetic hold on me.  My parents had honeymooned there, staying at Ye Olde Cottage Inne at Barbrook in the mid-1940s – the fact that I was born in the early 50s and had an older sibling we conveniently overlooked.

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Wedding Day

When I first came across Exmoor, in the summer of ‘68, I thought I had stumbled into a paradise, if not unknown to others, certainly unknown to members of my family.   “Stumbled” is an accurate description. My intention had been to cycle further west into Cornwall before returning south to Exeter for the train journey home.  Poor map reading skills took me instead to the North Devon Coast at Westward Ho!.   During my final term at school we had studied the novel Lorna Doone and now seeing Doone Valley, Exmoor marked on the map it seemed logical to visit despite it being way off to the east.

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Badgworthy Water, Doone Valley

Brought up in the Chiltern Hills, I was used to a hidden landscape of narrow lanes, high beech hedges and dense and extensive beech woodlands.  Rarely, was there an unbroken view of far-distant places and, almost as rarely, large expanses of sky and cloud.  Cycling across Exmoor with its open, rolling landscape ablaze with heather and gorse and views across the sea to the Welsh coast was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.  Sometimes the lanes would pass between high banked hedgerows or descend into well-wooded coombes reminding me of home.  I came across a farm where I pitched my tent intending to stay two days before leaving for Exeter.

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A Chiltern lane winds its way through dense woodland

 

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The open views of Exmoor

Helping on the farm, two days turned into weeks and then into months by which time I had moved into the farmhouse and embraced Exmoor life.  I occasionally telephoned my parents, or sent a postcard, always being evasive about where I was staying and only telling them I was working on a farm and being well cared for.  With the benefit of maturity, I sometimes wonder how they coped with their sixteen-year old son, on his first lone holiday, disappearing for so long in an era of no mobile phones or credit cards for them to track my progress.  They only succeeded in finding me after I foolishly reversed the telephone call charge and soon after arrived on the doorstep to drag me away, kicking and screaming.  It was time to get “a proper job” but Exmoor and the farm had completely changed my outlook on life as well as the direction it would ultimately take.  After twenty years of “a proper job” I finally escaped to agricultural college and a life of outdoor work.

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Brendon Barton 1968

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At agricultural college 1994

I had been surprised and a little disappointed when I first discovered my parents also knew Exmoor.  Despite not having been conceived there, my attachment to Exmoor has never waivered and more than fifty years later I regularly return.  Upon entering the moor the same emotion of discovery, as if seeing it for the first time, remains.  Many of the old friends that I made in those early years and their unique way of life that I was privileged to be part of, albeit in a small way, have gone but the landscape remains remarkably unchanged.  The heather and gorse are still a carpet of purple and gold, the sea (at least, on a fine, sunny day) still blue.

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Countisbury Common, where the moor falls into the sea

Very recently, through researching my family history, I have found that an earlier cousin, at a similar age to myself, had also discovered Exmoor.  He too had never settled in school and life on Exmoor changed him.  He also chose to write about his time on the moor, something else we have in common. Although I was surprised to learn of his life and his book, this time I am delighted!

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PostscriptJust a few years before she died at the age of 93, I spent a few days on Exmoor with my mother and took her to revisit the honeymoon hotel.  Long widowed, the day must have been a mix of emotions.

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At Ye Olde Cottage Inne, renamed The Bridge Inn