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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Visiting Canyon de Chelley

For most people living outside the United States – and perhaps a large number of Americans too – the word ‘canyon’ sums up the deep and stunningly beautiful chasms of the Grand Canyon.  Certainly, for me, so familiar with those dramatic images from my earliest schooldays, television documentaries and travel journals, I had never considered that there might be any others.  Or that they could be very different in character.  Then I visited the Canyon de Chelly (pronounced ‘dee shay’).

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The Canyon de Chelly National Monument is located in the north-east of the state of Arizona and fully within the Navajo Nation.  Today about forty Navajo families live there.

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Unique amongst the National Parks, the Canyon de Chelly is privately owned by the Navajo Nations Trust and is jointly managed by them and the National Parks Service.  This arrangement was agreed after many years of negotiation in 1931.

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Strict controls on entry are enforced to preserve the floor of the canyon with most parts  accessible only when accompanied by a Navajo guide.  One trail, the White House Ruin Trail, is an exception and it is the one that I explored, now a number of years ago, hence the rather poor quality of the images.

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Long before the Navajo came to the canyon it was occupied first by the Anasazi and then the Hopi peoples making the canyons one of the longest continuous inhabited places on the continent.  These early peoples built their homes not just along the valley floor but also in niches hundreds of feet up in the sheer rock face, reached by toeholds in the rock.  The ruins are now preserved.

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Sadly, I had very little time to explore the canyon but for my visit the weather was perfect, warm and sunny.  On the drive leaving Arizona, we were caught in a duststorm – another new experience for an Englishman used to the benign British climate where extreme weather of any kind is virtually unknown.

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For further information:
Canyon de Chelly National Monument

History of the Canyon de Chelly

Visiting Canyon de Chelly