Starting mileage: 15685 km
Day started: 1o:00
Day ended: 21:00
The last night’s campsite was only a mile away from the sea, so we took the opportunity to eat the breakfast on the beach. Exmouth, on the western edge of Jurassic Coast (you can spot the obelisk marking that on the cliff on the horizon), has several miles of pristine sandy beach, and at Queen’s Road you can park the car just a few feet from the sand. In winter, tens of thousands of wading birds come to the estuary; in summer, sadly, there are only seagulls.
We then drove to Exeter to see the famous cathedral – not because we’re fans of cathedrals, but because this particular one was built of beer stone from the quarries we visited yesterday. There is a small, somewhat continental style old town around the cathedral, with ornamental Tudor houses facing the narrow streets and several churches as ancient as the cathedral, built of peculiar Devon red stone in the corners of the square. The city has well preserved walls, originally Roman, rebuilt by Æthelstan, with an old red stone tower thought to have been built by Æthelstan after driving Britons out of Devon overlooking the city. The local museum in the Royal Albert Memorial (2012 Museum of the Year) is extensive, but all we had time to see was the fossils room.
The cathedral, it turns out, fully deserves its fame, even under the scaffolding. The facade, formed of rows of figures meticulously carved in creamy stone, is one of the most impressive I’ve seen; and the lauded ceiling inside, the longest sculpted vault in the whole of England, is a work of true wonder. Having seen the conditions in which the miners and masons worked to get the stone for the cathedral makes you appreciate the craft a lot more.
None of that Godly splendour, however, had helped the villagers of Devon to face the hardships of the 14th century famines and plagues. Such was the story told by our main destination of the day, set in the middle of the bleak Dartmoor.
True to form, as we entered Dartmoor the weather turned foul, with drizzle and cold wind, and the Sun dimming down beyond the grey clouds. This was our very first English moor; the word is heavily loaded with ever accompanying adjectives: gloomy, bleak, empty, wind-swept. Tall, heath- and fern-covered hills rise conically from the conifer forest below, topped with Tors, giant outcrops of rock which look sometimes like stone-turned trolls, sometimes like Morla the Turtle from Neverending Story, but never like anything of the real world.
Beneath one of the most prominent such outcrops, the massive, castle-like Hound Tor, lie the sad, forgotten remains of Hundatora, a medieval village abandoned in the middle of 14th century, after the climate change, famine and plague decimated the populace of Devon. The stone foundations of the long houses, and the walls enclosing the corn fields are still perfectly visible, a silent testament to the plight of a medieval peasant.
The Hound Tor’s another claim to fame is it being the inspiration for the Hound of Baskervilles story; when they filmed the new BBC Sherlock, they came here to film the Baskerville-derived episode.
The landscape of the moor has a kind of poetic doom about it, but there was a more down to earth doom hanging over us: the state of the car’s engine after braving the narrow serpentine roads of the hills; at this point I grew to hate our GPS, as it led us down yet another “shortcut” through a lane hemmed in between two ancient stone walls which almost cost us the bumpers.
We drove down from the moor at around 4pm, towards the market town of Newton Abbott. The town is perfectly featureless, and would have no reason to stop at whatsoever, except for one very important building: Ye Olde Cider Bar, one of the very few remaining genuine cider houses.
A cider house is a pub which serves no beer or ale – only cider and perry. The reasons for cider house demise elude me, but they seem to have something to do with the tax rate on beverages above a certain percentage, which divided ale-houses from cider-houses for ever. The cider house in Newton looks from outside and inside very much like any old pub in these parts; the only difference being the immense stock of cider and fruit wine kegs and draught taps behind the counter.
From Newton we went to Brixham for the night, bypassing the Victorian resorts of the British Riviera on a heavily crowded A380.
The Upton Manor Farm is a fairly bland site, chosen mainly because of location, on our way to Dartmouth. It is quite close to the coast, but the weather wasn’t very welcoming. The facilities are decent, and the price is £14 without hookup.