Our Close County Neighbours

Last week I described some of the features of Dorset’s iconic landscapes and seascapes and it’s easy to see why visitors to our lovely county flock here, not only in the summer but throughout the year.

Our neighbouring county to the west, Devon is also a popular tourist destination and we’d booked a few nights just over our county border, in tiny Axmouth, where we’ve stayed before. The site is in the heart of the village, facing the River Axe as it becomes an estuary flowing out to sea at the small town of Seaton. It’s easy to walk into Seaton from the campsite, by walking along the river and across a bridge. A new, road bridge has replaced a much older one, notable for being the first one constructed of concrete!

The site is much busier than it was the first time we came. It is in a wonderful position- not only having interesting views but also near to the two village pubs and bus stops. Across the other side of the River Axe we can see the cute, Seaton trams trundling backwards and forwards around the ‘Axmouth Loop’. I’m a sucker for a tram at any time, but these are restored, vintage vehicles, dinky, colourful and fun.

We head into Seaton and to the tram station. It’s a large, imposing building for such a small tram network! But of course it houses the ticket office, gift shop and is a station. A tram is about to leave, luckily an ‘open-top’, which gives a good view of the estuary mud flats and Seaton marshes. So we clamber up the narrow, winding steps and bag seats on top; soon we’re off, rumbling along a track that winds out of Seaton, past the old tram shed and along the river, where the tide is out and there are flocks of waders congregated on the muddy shores.

An occasional tram passes on the other side, sometimes waiting on a siding. There is one station along the way, in a wooded section, then we roll along to Colyton, where the track ends. The station here capitalises with [another] gift shop and a cafe. After a short turn around the gift shop there’s little to do except wait for the return tram to Seaton, which we do, rattling back the way we came.

We’ve booked to have dinner at the pub which adjoins our site, which is a result! Next day we take advantage of the bus service and go off to Lyme Regis, famous for ‘The Cobb’ and featured in John Fauld’s well known novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman [also a film]. The Cobb is merely a part of the sea wall surrounding the harbour, but from the end there is a fine view of Lyme Bay. It’s a quaint, characterful town and although it’s crammed with visitors on this sunny afternoon I get a pang of nostalgia as it’s here we stayed 25 years or so ago when Husband and I first got together, taking a room and ‘The Red Lion’ in the High Street and striding out for one of our first SW Coast Path walks.

It’s heartening to see that The Red Lion still exists! For some reason our room’s en suite bathroom had a mysterious, bogus door. Stepping out of the bath, I wrapped a towel around myself and, curious to see where the door led, I opened it, just as people were walking along the corridor it accessed. I wonder who was more surprised?

Later, after dinner I remember we gatecrashed a disco being held by a group called The Buffaloes’, distinguished by hefty chains around their necks, but not by their dancing, as we were the only revellers gyrating on the dance floor. Some of them must have been passing our bathroom when, towel-clad, I opened the door. If they recognised me with my clothes on they gave no sign…

But we aren’t staying in the hotel this time, so it’s back to the bus stop and home to our lovely van-

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my website: janedeans.com or my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook

Short and Sweet in Dorset

We don’t always travel long distance with the van. We’ve just returned from spending some time in a very scenic and beautiful part of our own lovely county of Dorset.

To the west of Dorset, near where it joins the neighbouring county of Devon, a rocky peninsula protrudes into the English Channel. This is called the Isle of Purbeck, not actually an island as it can be accessed by road, but a far more interesting route is via a small chain ferry from the popular beach resort of Sandbanks, near Poole. The ferry queue is often long in the summer months, but if you are lucky it’s only a short wait for the ferry, which crosses the entrance to Poole Harbour.

On the other side there is a flat road across the heathland-a backdrop to some wonderful beaches- and then it’s hilly farmland dotted with characterful villages, their cottages of yellow, Purbeck Stone from one of the quarries here.

We head for ‘Tom’s Field’, a rustic site on a farm in the village of Langton Matravers, just outside the seaside town of Swanage. Tom’s Field is well known, although we generally prefer a site a little farther out, Acton Field, which we believe, on this occasion is closed. In matters of sites we like to seek out places close to communities that offer pubs, restaurants and similar amenities and Langton Matravers is perfect.

Early September is offering a few days of warm sunshine. We get a bus from the village down into Swanage, which is archetypal British seaside at its best, with a beautiful curving beach, plethora of fish and chip shops, cafes, arcades, candy floss, a handsome pier and, best of all, a tiny Punch and Judy theatre on the sand.

Like pantomime, Punch and Judy is peculiar to British culture. While it’s been around for about 300 years it’s as entertaining as it ever was, un-PC, violent slapstick by florid puppets. some of the jokes are as old as Punch and Judy itself- the crocodile and the sausages, the whacking by naughty Mr Punch, the ill-treatment of the baby. Other jokes are topical. Swanage Punch and Judy is one of only 3 left in the country, 2 of which are in Dorset!

After watching the show [all of 10 minutes], we wander on to the pier, magnificent in Victorian glory and with a view of Old Harry Rocks. It is beautifully maintained, although you must purchase a ticket for the privelege of walking on it. Then of course it’s tea [we are British, after all] at a seafront cafe before we stroll back to the station to get a bus back to our site.

In the evening there are the pleasures of The Kings Arms- Langton Matravers’ pub, all old beams, flagstones and local banter. We once enjoyed a ‘lock-in’ here, many years ago when we visited with a singer-guitarist friend. There is a good selection of beers [most important].

Next day we loll about a bit then set off from our site and up across the fields to the Priests’ Way, a footpath which will take us to an even more ancient and iconic hostelry called ‘The Square and Compass’, in another village- Worth Matravers. We’ve been here many times. It sits up in an imposing position above the sea. From here you can walk down to the whimsically named Dancing Ledge, popular with climbers. An almost perfect rectangle of rocks forms a natural swimming pool.

But it’s not for us, this time. We make for the pub, a long, whitewashed building, stone tables and stools outside and dark, glossy, wood panelled rooms inside. The drinks and food are served from cubby holes, rather than a bar and an annexe contains glass boxes full of fossils. There is no haute cuisine here, rather a pasty and a bag of crisps, but this has not deterred the dozens of visitors who queue up for a pie and a pint today.

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my website: janedeans.com or my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook

When the High Tide of Expectation Drops to a Catastrophic Low

The research took some time. It was tricky finding a suitable date, near enough to the actual big day plus an itinerary that would be acceptable. It had been impossible to find a Rhine cruise that allowed us to drive overland to the embarkation point, so I’d had to select flights then change them [at a cost] because they were at some obscene hour of the morning like 6.30am. A 6.30am flight, as I pointed out to the lady on the phone hardly constituted a birthday treat, especially as airports these days require you to be there two hours before take-off. This would be 4.30am. 4.30am!
Then there was the complimentary taxi to the airport, which would need to collect us at 2.30am. 2.30am! How would anyone manage this? Would you sleep beforehand, retiring at a ridiculous hour then getting up at 1.30? Or would you stay up and be almost comatose for the first couple of days of the trip?
No. I changed the flights. I reserved a room at the Heathrow Hilton. The taxi would take us to Heathrow at a respectable hour of the afternoon, we’d check in to the hotel and enjoy a leisurely meal, get a decent night’s sleep and be at terminal 5 at around 8.30am for a 10.30am flight. Sorted.
Husband had chosen a Rhine cruise as his birthday treat. These days there is precious little ‘stuff’ that he wants or needs, and being a man, if he wants or needs something he gets it. As regular readers know, Husband, that character who features in many posts, had a particular milestone birthday two weeks ago and as a result had an entire post written about him…
I’d been startled by his choice of a cruise, as we are great avoiders of such holidays [this, reader has also been much documented on Anecdotage], but river cruises are as unlike sea cruises as cycling is to motor bikes. The boats are not vast, floating monstrosities and passengers must not endure days and days at sea getting stuffed with gargantuan meals, enduring endless, tedious cabarets, ‘dressing’ for dinners and making small talk with those with whom they are incarcerated. The modest cruise boat makes frequent stops at places you can walk around and the ambience is casual. There would always be something to see, even from the cabin. We’d have begun at Amsterdam and finished at Basle. I was frustrated that we’d had to fly such a short distance [Amsterdam is a city that can be driven to in a day from Dunkirk] but when the detailed itinerary arrived in the post it looked thrilling. We’d be stopping each day at beautiful, historic places and get walking tours, as well as travelling through the beautiful Rhine gorge and seeing the Lorelei rock.

I bought new suitcases [ours hailing from a bygone era], bought shoes, organised, laundered, ironed, primed the neighbours.

‘You should see this’ Husband informed me as I returned from shopping. It was an email from the river cruise holiday company to the effect that they were changing the itinerary to mostly coach travel. This was due to a lack of water in the Rhine. He [and I] never at any point wished to embark on a coach tour. I cancelled.

I must admit to feeling slightly nauseous [yes, yes I realise it is a ‘first world’ issue].

We packed our camper van and drove off to the beautiful Isle of Purbeck, 30 miles away from our home and parked in the sunshine overlooking the hillside at Corfe Castle. We strode out over the hills and enjoyed the breath-taking views of our lovely Dorset coast. I stopped feeling bereaved.

Out in the van, we are never disappointed. Yes, there are sometimes challenges or difficulties. Yes, we must make the odd meal, wash up, empty various tanks. But we are not dependent on flights, hotels, plans others have made.

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Next week Fiction Month begins! Check in to Anecdotage for fresh, new fiction…

A Four Part Story-Part 1 of ‘A Neighbourly Manor’

The remainder of fiction month consists of a longer short story, ‘A Neighbourly Manor’, in which Lena and Richard encounter a complex and not entirely conventional household.

A Neighbourly Manor

‘I wonder what she sees in him?’ I kept saying.
‘Leave it alone, can’t you?’ Richard grumbled, or he would shake out a new page of his newspaper in a crackling signal of finality. But one month on the events following that afternoon dogged me as I weeded the border or strolled along the lane to the farm for eggs.
After we’d received the invitation I’d been full of excited zeal, wanting to make a reciprocal gesture before we’d even taken a step along the wide sweep of their driveway, but Richard had curbed my ambitions by frowning,
‘Let’s wait and see how it goes. We haven’t met them yet. We are only neighbours, nothing more. By all accounts they are society people so I don’t suppose we will be of any interest to them except as a kind of ‘country bumpkin’ story for their London friends.’
Despite my husband’s dashing of cold water I continued to harbour fanciful thoughts of what might transpire. I knew that the manor house next door received a constant flow of visitors despite the seedy state of its accommodation. Some were well known figures in publishing, the media or the arts, invoking thrilling fantasies of meeting someone famous. Who knew what might transpire? This could be the beginning of a series of gatherings to which we were part. I began to run a mental inventory of the contents of my wardrobe and concluded it was lacking in some areas.
The previous occupant’s attempt to run Chiddlehampton Manor as a hotel had failed in a gurgling whirlpool of bankruptcy, depression and alcohol dependency. Villagers who had worked there told of stained carpets and mouldy en suites in the twenty three bedrooms, slimy, brown grease covering kitchen surfaces, dwindling bottles in the wine cellar, failed initiatives such as ‘poker breaks’ or ‘murder mystery weekends’ attracting a desultory handful of revellers and resulting in increasing event cancellations.
The parlous nature of the building lent even more urgency to my desire to see it and to meet the latest occupants, who wanted it for a country retreat, no less. A country retreat! Twenty three bedrooms and bathrooms, a ballroom, eight acres of grounds containing stables and seven cottages for staff plus a vast, walled garden with endless greenhouses-all now fallen into disrepair; disintegrating into the chalky, Dorset soil from which it had risen.
There was a blustery March wind gusting across the fields as we walked through the open gate into the driveway; gaps in the two rows of elegant beeches that bordered the sweeping drive, and fallen branches. Weeds punctuated the centre of the crumbling tarmac as it curled around to reveal the yellow stone manor house nestling in a dip below.
I stopped for a moment to admire it, tucking the box of homemade shortbread under my arm. Richard had scoffed.
‘They won’t want that. Their sort is used to posh nosh; Fortnum and Mason, Harrods, all that sort of thing’. I’d ignored him of course, as only one who is shackled to a curmudgeon for thirty two years can.
Even in a decadent state the manor is beautiful, a graceful old house whose romantic symmetry complements the rustic setting of rolling Dorset countryside. As we approached the columns of the grand portico I shivered, hanging back as Richard strode up to the vast, oak door and pressed the bell in his no-nonsense way.
In the ensuing hiatus my misgivings expanded. ‘Do you think they’ve forgotten?’
Richard snorted. ‘Let’s hope so! Then we can go home and have a cup of tea.’ But steps could be heard echoing inside.

I’d heard plenty about him from villagers, in the pub or at the community shop but I was still unprepared for the experience of meeting Jackson Agnew. That he was ‘upper class’, ‘stinking rich’and ‘ponsy’ was circulating the public bar of The Cuckoo, with ‘a bleeding, towny nob’ thrown in by Noah Barnes, Bendick Farm’s cowman, who was not known for holding back on his opinions. Little had been expressed about Dr Agnew’s companion; whether she was partner or wife or daughter no one knew, only that she was ‘posh totty’ [Noah Barnes again] and thought by some to be a model or an actress.
The door was not so much opened as flung wide and filled with him; with Jackson Agnew. His frame crammed the doorway, everything broad, everything extended, from his lengthy arm and thin fingers reaching out to shake Richard’s to his gaping grin and booming ‘Hello hello-Welcome to my humble abode!’
Once I’d followed my husband into the hallway my own hand was enveloped and squeezed. ‘We meet at last!’ he said and his voice was like a deep, mellow gong echoing around the cavern of a hall with its bare walls and floorboards. After I’d glanced around the barren space I noticed he was scrutinising our faces, hungry for our reactions.
‘I expect you’ve been in here hundreds of times, haven’t you?’
Richard was peering up at the ceiling, eager for a sign of damp, death watch or woodworm. He avoided Jackson’s gaze as he replied.
‘We haven’t lived in the village all that long ourselves; retired here from Bristol eighteen months ago. We had no cause to come to the hotel. If we want a drink we go to the pub.’
‘We met the Judds, of course, out and about, you know, when walking the dog,’ I added.
Jackson grinned. ‘Yes. Pour souls. What a state they got into. Shall we move into the lounge and we can rustle up a cup of tea, or something stronger if you like?’ He looked beyond us to an open doorway, calling, ‘Darling, our neighbours are here.’
We walked through into what had been the hotel bar but was now being used as a makeshift kitchen and dining room. Here, overhead the ceiling was adorned in an ornate series of murals decorated in gold leaf portraying rotund cherubs cavorting with plump maidens in diaphanous robes. Jackson caught me scrutinising it and barked in noisy mirth.
‘What do you think of that? Someone went to town, didn’t they? Are you familiar with the Baroque style at all? Ah, there she is! Darling! These are our nearest neighbours, Richard and er…’
I broke in. ‘Lena’
‘Lena, of course. Richard and Lena.’
She was standing behind the bar, motionless, an almost smile on her lips; eyes that had been fixed upon him moving in a slow turn towards Richard and myself. In that moment I understood why all of the descriptions of her had been correct and at the same time wrong, because while she was young and undeniably beautiful there was no element of Hollywood style; no trappings that could be considered cosmetic enhancement. And one thing was clear. She could not in any way be mistaken for his daughter, since no daughter in the world would ever look at her father like that.
She moved around to join us, extending a hand, first to me.
‘Imogen.’