Tuesday, 9 February 2016

West Country Tour … a brief call in at Minehead … part 18 …

Minehead’s situation as a port is slightly different from the others along the coast of north Devon or Cornwall – in that it sits in a wide bay … yet over the centuries has nestled up close to its western land neighbour – Exmoor – hiding from the storms in the Bristol Channel.

Looking east across Minehead
from Exmoor

There aren’t the harsh boat-wrecking rock-combs of Hartland turbidites, or the tiny coves making a hiding place for early fishermen, or marauders … the quay and thus harbour were tucked right into the protection of rising land …

… which gave Minehead an advantage for a while – and by Good Queen Bess’ reign (1558 – 1603) was ‘ennobled’ as a Royal port, similar in standing to Bristol.

Plaque depiction of boats sheltering from
a major storm in the 1700s
In spite of constant problems with the harbour walls and silting – requiring the harbour ‘to often be moved’ - trade developed rapidly during the 16th and 17th centuries … with some forty vessels plying their way between Minehead and Ireland, South Wales, Bristol and Bridgwater (further up the coast).

And once the trade routes with Virginia and the West Indies opened up … the cargoes included wool (an important export), linen, yarn, coal, salt, hides and livestock, as well as wines from France and Spain.

Daniel Defoe
By the 18th century … Minehead, as with other small harbours, could not compete with the expansion in size of ships, cargoes, and developing world markets.

Just before the Age of the Romantics came in … and ‘tourism’ commenced – an early traveller was Daniel Defoe (of Robinson Crusoe fame) in 1722 he stayed at the Plume of Feathers Inn a much loved beautiful old coaching inn … 

Plume of Feathers hotel at
the turn of the century

… then a couple of years later returned to Watchet up the coast a little, and was impressed by the fossils he found.  The Plume of Feathers was demolished in 1965 – to the disgust of the town.  

As a side note: It’s interesting in the 1960s there was little control as to destruction – we’ve lost quite a lot of archaeology here in Eastbourne due to the 1960s ‘demolishers’!

From the harbour side - Exmoor rising behind, with
The Ship Aground  hugging the harbour ... before the lane
along Exmoor waned, with the Coastal Path continuing on
The creatives … poets came to be inspired, authors to be entrapped by the scenery with its hidden bowers, artists to draw and paint landscapes only heard of, scientists to explore and learn … medical doctors were soon advocating sea-bathing as a remedy for ailments … tourism really settled in …

Quay cottages at the turn of the 1900s

... gradually the image changed, here as elsewhere … and with the growth of transport links, visitors increased during the 19th century, as did their desire for new places to visit and things to do … 

Early morning sun lighting up
The Old Ship Aground
Tourism as we know it today had started in the late 1800s … and would have called Emily to check the area out in the first years of the 1900s.  Jenny thinks she stayed in the cottages near the harbour, where our hotel was situated … 

The Old Ship Aground – now an inn – originally The Pier Hotel of Edwardian times (1901 – 1911) … has given the refurbished building in the historic quarter of The Quay a new lease of life.

Rabbit faggots, with bubble and squeak with bacon,
fresh savoy cabbage and a cider jus - my choice

The hotel/pub/inn has taken advantage of today's market - they have a farm nearby and locally source other produce ... so offer good pub grub, often with entertainment, local beers, ciders etc.  It is frequented by locals and is perfectly positioned at the start of the South Coast Path

Jenny's desert choice - treacle tart with custard

At the harbour are some plaques – but unfortunately I didn’t take photos of them all, as I’d assumed (wrongly!) I’d be able to find out once I got home … 

Since the Millennium, the Minehead community have been creating ways of telling the town’s story to visitors and locals alike … there are various walks with audio accompaniment …

… six hidden histories and secret stories about the town – tales that are designed to be read out loud to families and groups and … then these historical plaques covering the 7 eras of maritime history: I regret not taking photos of them all …

Detail re this plaque - in italics within the post:
it is believed to be Saint Carantoc from South Wales
The First Millennium and the Currach – it was a light and durable sea going vessel much favoured by the Celts.  A construction of hide and wicker made repair simple no matter where it was landed and vessels of up to 60 feet with a beam of 15 feet were capable of ocean voyages.

This plaque depicts a wandering saint landing here in such a vessel searching for an unspoilt, secluded location in which to devote his life to solitude, prayer and learning.  His final destination is where St Michael’s Church now stands.  It is believed to be St Carantoc from South Wales.

Minehead after World War Two - showing the harbour and
the Lifeboat Station - under the lea of the hill.  The Ship
Aground is on the corner of the harbour - about where the
black splodge is!  St Michael's Church is marked with the
Ordinance Survey church symbol (between Higher Town
and the shoreline).

Then there’s:

 the quaint chapel in a cellar

an 'obby ’orse  

and the ghost … a whistling ghost … 

then the start or finish of the South West Coastal Path – 

these await you in the next post!
… all this set on a bay, perfect for a family seaside holiday, with its long flat sandy beach, great for picnics, games, paddling, or swimming, while the sand of the Strand is wonderful for sandcastle building …

One of the few Butlin's Holiday Camps
left in Britain

… life has developed since Emily’s day (1860 – 1926) [that post really is coming!] … but our ability and ease of reference now to moving around, to learning about the area has only been facilitated since the turn of the 20th Century.

Now we have the opportunity to vicariously travel as we wish … to be tempted to areas unknown, to be beguiled by photos of those places … and then to be left up in the air!:  tomorrow I will wrap up Minehead with those remaining tales before we head off to the Vale of Taunton on our last leg.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Thursday, 4 February 2016

West Country Tour … Countisbury and Porlock Hills, Culbone Church … part 17 …

Now we’re off along the coast going north-east from Lynton and Lynmouth towards Minehead … vaguely following the track taken by the men and horses hauling the “Louisa” – the lifeboat that the Lynmouth men in 1899 took over the coombes and declivities to Porlock Weir to rescue shipwrecked sailors – a journey of 13 miles.

Early postcard: Porlock Bay, Countisbury Hill, Tarr Steps in Exmoor and
Culbone Church

To get a feel of their 1899 rescue journey and what was required to widen the track, avoid obstacles … learn about gradients … up the 1 in 4 ½ Countisbury Hill, then hold the lifeboat back from careening down the 1 in 4 Porlock Hill … please read the article.  (Men and horses hanging on for dear life - I reckon that's probably an understatement!).

Devil's Staircase, Powys, Wales

Gradients – these measurements are steep … I remember them from our holidays in the Lake District … this photo here is the Devil’s Staircase, Powys, Wales … which is a 1 in 4 climb or ride.

The A 39 coast road is a delight (except for the traffic) … wonderful scenery with gorgeous views of Exmoor on one side, the coast and sea on the other – when the driver has a chance to look!

Countisbury Hill -
now the South West
Coastal Path
Roads twisting and turning up the ‘reasonable’ Countisbury Hill … across the moorland dotted with heather, gorse, and whortleberry bushes, we go from Devon to Somerset crossing the Doone Valley until the sight of Porlock Hill wakes me bolt upright as we think about ‘tumbling down’ that chasm with its hairpin bends, decision time …

A hairpin decision making bend

… ah ha !!! there’s a scenic route with a toll … we’ll enjoy this detour of 4.2 mile, which was built in the 1840s (before cars) to offer a gentle alternative to the infamously steep Porlock Hill: which we, in the end, never drove!!

Porlock Toll Road

The road was dug out manually to provide work for the local people following the Napoleonic Wars.  This scenic route twists through idyllic woodland with glimpses of Porlock Bay coming into view.

We enjoyed this side road – used by various car and cycling rallies – when it would be closed off to normal traffic … it has a place in the history of motor sport.

Looking south-west to Lynmouth

Sadly we had to keep going … but Porlock is a place I must at some stage get back to visit … and includes Porlock Weir – an idyllic harbour-side village – from where the Lifeboat “Louisa” was eventually launched.

Porlock Weir Harbour
Porlock Bay gives us another example of how our coastline has and has not changed over the millennia … the little fishing harbour played an important part in the sea route to Wales … exchanging timber for coal and limestone … similar to the other tiny inlets along this coast.

The sea level has remained at its present level since the Roman times (2,000 years ago) … it still rising a little, but for 8,000 years after the end of the last Ice Age the melting ice caps caused the Bristol Channel to rise about 40 metres (131 feet). It also has one of the highest tidal ranges in the world, which shows itself here at Porlock Weir with a rise of 15 m or 50 feet … second only to the Bay of Fundy in eastern Canada.

Porlock Bay

What is now Porlock Beach would have been about five miles inland … Mesolithic peoples (10,000 years ago – as the last glacial period ended) would be living in the area, hunting aurochs, an ancient species of wild cattle, and living off the rich food supplies of the warming glacial marshlands.

A submerged forest can be seen at very low tide … while the coastline includes shingle ridges, salt marshes … in 1052 AD, the Saxon King Harold, landed at Porlock Bay from Ireland, burnt the town … before marching on London.  I have no idea why!

Culbone Church

Mel from A Heron’s View asked if we’d been to Culbone Church, which was on our way from Lynmouth to Porlock … I had to advise that we hadn’t had a chance to see it … but obviously my curiosity needed to be satisfied.

Sorbus Vexans
The Church is only accessible on foot, with the South West Coast Path going nearby and through the hamlet … the woods surrounding the area are home to the Sorbus Vexans (bloody whitebeam) one of the rarest trees in Britain … the Sorbuses include the Whitebeam and Rowan species in the Rosaceae family.

The Domesday Book (1086 AD) has records of the hamlet of Culbone, while the Culbone Stone points to an earlier significance from medieval times … possibly as far back as the Saxon period …

Culbone Stone with its incised cross:
 made from Hangman Sandstones
 - see my part 12

… though the Stone itself may have been moved from a nearby Bronze Age (2,500 BC – 700 BC) site known as the Culbone Stone Row … where 21 other stones stand …

… indicating an earlier connection long before Christianity reached these shores, Culbone was a centre for pagan worship … a community of monks was established in the fifth century …

Oak woodland in Exmoor
The church is tiny but still operates today – it seats about 30 people.  Walkers can easily get to the church, but drivers must park nearby and walk through the fairy tale tunnels of woodland – oak, walnut, whitebeam and rowan … with the sunlight dappling through, the sea glinting in the distance …

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

… evoking Coleridge’s Kubla Khan – written in the area – where he was rudely interrupted by a “Person from Porlock” … perhaps his doctor with more opium … who knows … so the poem remained unfinished … and the tale one of fiction …

Red Deer on Porlock Hill

… but the stunning landscape of Exmoor exudes literary talent … artists, poets, authors … while they all expounded the virtues of this amazing coastline spreading their legacy far and wide … bringing us back to that moorland of Romance, Myth, Murder and fairy tales.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Sunday, 31 January 2016

West Country Tour … a Rising Sun lunch and characteristics of a 14th C Inn … part 16 …

Before we left Lynmouth … we stopped for lunch at the Rising Sun – a 14th C thatched smugglers inn overlooking the harbour and bay – lots of history here too.

Rising Sun pub sign

There’s oak panelling, crooked ceilings, thick beach-stone walls and creaking uneven floorboards … roaring fires, a healthily stocked bar, fireplaces warming weary bones or drying damp bodies … a typical ancient pub … that has changed very little in 700 years.

The actual Rising Sun Pub and Hotel

History rings out at us too – displays, old signs, authors’ time spent here, old tars’ stories … chapters of Lorna Doone being written here … Shelley honeymooned here – his cottage now forming part of the hotel.

From the Rising Sun site - a view up the rivers' valley
of the two Lyn rivers

Crooked staircases, narrow passageways, sloping floors and low beams are still here – but modern facilities have been introduced …

The Board says it all:
West Country fish delivered daily

… utterly delicious food gives the Inn that extra luxurious touch to an ancient fishing and mining area … locally landed lobsters, Exmoor game and fresh fish … quality feasting with a European twist bringing it all up to date.

Jenny's Devon BLue

Jenny and I had West Country Plates … Jenny had the Devon Blue with roasted tomato chutney, pickled onions, poached fig and homemade bread … 

My Chicken Liver Parfait

... I had the Chicken Liver Parfait with homemade chutney, cornichons, mixed salad and warm toast.

The lifeboat "Louisa" and details
of the two models from the framed data -
which I note in the post itself.
The Lynton and Lynmouth Lifeboat – an exact replica, scale 1:18, of the lifeboat, "Louisa", I mentioned in my previous post – which was the lifeboat involved in the epic overland journey to Porlock Weir to rescue 18 men, in January 1899.

The "Louisa" was specially built in 1887, at a cost of £298 and 14 shillings.  It had all the modern technology available at the time and was the latest type of self-righting lifeboat.

Details at right as per story in the frame.

The 17th Century Statenjacht - this is also an exact replica, scale 1:30, of the 17th century Dutch Statenjacht “Mary”.

The Dutch admiralty purchased a “jacht” (meaning swift craft or hunter) and presented it to Charles II on his re-accession to the English throne in 1660.  We changed the name to ‘yacht’ but it is said that Charles II originated the sport of yachting with this particular boat.

I don't have the details re this and it might have been
a 'Barquentine' ... the island depicted on the right is
labelled 'New Britain' and is part of Papua New Guinea

More history here to explore at another time … and perhaps one day to spend a couple of nights here … just enjoying the ambience and relishing being in a tiny harbour village with a connecting funicular to its town above.

The bar at the Rising Sun

I think this will have whetted your appetite to see the hills that that lifeboat was hauled and pushed up … and to join Jenny and I as we really do now move on to Minehead in Somerset – our last formal stop.  Not quite the end … a few more posts to go …

Shelley's History:  This is an interesting read with some pictures … reference is made to the Shelley’s life, George Ley is mentioned: the Pack O’ Cards pub owner … Mary Godwin – Shelley’s second wife.  Also the history of the area over the 100 years and reminds us of Shelley’s seditious paper “Declaration of Rights” – which was written here.   See my previous Combe Martin post ... 

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories