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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A Great Game?

A series of faded, sepia photographs have always been a mystery to me, just something else put into a cupboard and forgotten.  Handed down through the generations they recently came to light once more and looked at with renewed interest.  Who were these people and what connection might they have to my family? Two of the images were signed and with this name as my starting point the tale of their origin began to emerge.  The story that is unfolding only deepens the mystery for they were part of the ‘Great Game’, a term I hadn’t come across before.  Now, for me, it has two meanings: warmongering and my struggle to seek out the truth behind them.

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Rudyard Kipling brought the ‘Great Game’ into everyday circles by using it in his novel Kim, published in 1901, although the term had been in use for many years before that.  It described the cat and mouse rivalry between the British and Russian Empires that lasted throughout the nineteenth century.

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Britain, alarmed at Russia’s expansion southwards, feared that Afghanistan would be used as the gateway to an invasion of India.  To avoid this, troops were sent to install a puppet government in Kabul but within four years order was breaking down and the garrison was forced to retreat.  Caught in a series of ambushes, Afghan warriors slaughtered all but one of the 4500 troops and 12000 followers. By 1878 the British invaded again following the Afghani’s refusal to allow a diplomatic mission to visit. A treaty was signed and the army withdrew leaving a small staff in Kabul: in the autumn of the following year they were killed leading to full-scale war – the Second Anglo-Afghan War.  Travelling with the British army was a freelance photographer, John Burke, and it is his signature that appears on my photos.

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History, as we all know, has a habit of repeating itself and sadly the rivalry between Russia and the West over Afghanistan has continued.  Inspired by John Burke, the war photographer Simon Norfolk has carried out a new series of images.  Intriguingly, he lists all of Burke’s plate numbers – the two of mine that are numbered are left blank so perhaps this is the first time they have been seen; rather an amazing thought.

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All that is left now – and no mean feat – is to identify the places and the regiments and to find out where (and if) my family fit into all of this. I have been helped along the way by enthusiasts from a Facebook group.  One of them, Arnie Manifold, has an ancestor that fought there and it is his medals that are shown in the image below.  Wouldn’t it be extraordinary if we discovered his face on one of these old photos?

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copyright   Second Afghan War Medals copyright Arnie Manifold

To view Simon Norfolk’s website and more information on John Burke, click here

To find out how a series of colourful postcards, brought back by my father from WWII, led to the discovery of a German fairy-tale castle, a love affair and an epic poem, click here.