Though it might seem so to the casual visitor of this blog (or at least the casual visitor who has managed to slog through all this stuff about last month’s trip, which I imagine cannot be all that casual – it takes a certain amount of dedication to work your way through someone else’s vacation that way. What can I say? It’s my blog, and I write what interests me), our time in England was not spent entirely on historical sites. Just as we spent several days in rural Sweden, so too did we spend a few days in rural England.
Granted, much of that was spent at historical sites – Muchelny, Okehampton, Tintagel – because we enjoy such things immensely. But not all of it.
Our destination out in the countryside was Dartmoor, a huge expanse of incredibly lovely and largely empty land in the southwest of England.
We stayed at the Bellever Youth Hostel, a comfortable little place that was built in the 1930s if I recall correctly and which was surprisingly busy the whole time we were there – it’s genuinely in the middle of nowhere, about as far from anything as you can get in a place as densely populated as England, but it was full to the rafters both nights we stayed there, mostly with Dutch tourists. But it was clean and well maintained, the common room had tables where we could play cards at night, and they had comfortable beds, decent hot breakfasts, and good hard cider for sale in the commissary. If that meant putting up with a thundering herd of morons in the hall at 7am one morning, well that’s the price you pay for such things. We were planning to get up around that time anyway. It was almost as if they did us a service.
On our first morning there, we decided to go for a walk. There were a few maps of the surrounding country that we could borrow from the main office (which was also the commissary, strangely enough), and the trails seemed fairly clearly marked. There were a couple of options, and we decided to take the medium-length one, which promised to be about an hour.
From this we learned not to trust such promises.
The hike started off quite well. We headed down the road the hostel was on (yes, that is considered a two-way road in England) and then up the hill along the horse path.
The flowers were in full bloom and the greenery was thick and lush, probably a result of the monsoon rains that had been drenching England for weeks at that point. Fortunately for us, the weather was mostly clear on our walk. Unfortunately, the ground was saturated.
We didn’t get too bothered by this until we broke out into the clear and headed toward our target: Bellever Tor.
That’s it in the background of the first two photos, and it’s behind me in the last one. It’s an ancient landmark, and the path leading up to it is wide and well worn. It’s also seriously, seriously muddy. Every horizontal stripe you see on that path is a stretch of mud that goes from side to side and is anywhere up to ten feet from front to back. You could minimize the mud by going around on the grass or trying to pick your way through on the rocks, but even these were only marginal improvements. By the time we got to the top, our shoes, socks, and pants were soaked and muddy.
But it was so worth it. The rock formations are spectacular, even if climbing up on them was complicated by wind that was gusting to near gale force.
And the view from the top was even more spectacular.
We hung out at the top for a while, soaking it all in. You can see why this site would be an attraction, the sort of place that would draw human attention over the millennia. Ginny declared it “the most impressive thing ever.” But even so, eventually we had to head back.
It was a long walk back to the hostel. The whole thing took about double what the original estimates had said and the wet shoes took their toll on morale.
But we persevered, eventually finding ourselves in a dense pine forest. The needles were a foot thick under our feet and there was no light coming through the branches, but the whole forest was maybe fifty yards wide – it had been planted in the early 20th century and we could see the other end from where we started – so we bounced our way through and back to the hostel, where we found some dry clothing to put on and comfortable chairs to sit in for a while. Thus were our spirits restored.
Later that day we headed out to Tintagel, but we took a short detour a mile or two up the road from Bellever to go to Postbridge, where they have a clapper bridge.
It’s an interesting bit of engineering, really, and well worth the half hour out of our way to go see it. It is apparently a form of architecture native to the area (though independently developed in other parts of the world as well), and this particular example dates back at least to 1380.
The next day we left Dartmoor and went to Lyme Regis.
Lyme Regis is a small town at the bottom of a large hill on the southern coast of England. It is famous for two things, one of which is the Cobb.
The Cobb is a long, curving seawall that extends out into Lyme Bay that dates back in one form or another to at least the early 1300s and features in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, a book I have not read and, having slogged through Pride and Prejudice, don't really plan on reading. The current version, from what I could find out, mostly dates back to 1824 which makes it practically still shiny out of the box by English historical standards. You can see it in the center of this photo.
One of the things that one does in Lyme Regis is take a walk on the Cobb.
Two things make such walks complicated. First, you will note that the Cobb slopes rather sharply to the seaward side. In keeping with standard British safety regulations, there are no rails or barriers of any sort at the seaward edge, just a few small signs warning you that the Cobb can be slippery when wet (next to the ocean! who knew?) and that one should therefore take due care when walking on it. And second, the day we visited was very, very windy, which should also be fairly obvious in these photos. Which just complicates point one, really.
But it is, after all, terribly scenic, and if you go to Lyme Regis without walking on the Cobb then you have definitely missed out.
The clouds in the above photo were typical of our day. There was blue sky out about a quarter mile to sea and inland about a quarter mile, but along the actual beach it alternated between brilliant sunshine and driving rain roughly every fifteen minutes or so. We therefore stopped for lunch, in the fond hopes that this would stabilize in a more sunny direction.
Eventually it did, and after a brief detour into a coffee shop and several places that sold rocks (more on that below), we worked our way back to the beach.
The other thing Lyme Regis is famous for besides the Cobb is that it has a beach full of fossils for you to find. You can do this one of two ways. The easy way is to head toward one of the many fine establishments that sell rocks (vide supra), because most of the rocks for sale contain fossils – ammonites, mostly, but others as well.
The more interesting way is to find them yourself on the beach. If you head up the beach a bit from the Cobb the rocks get bigger, and inside those rocks are just millions of fossils. They’re pretty much everywhere. There is a reason this is called the Jurassic Coast.
You can try to chisel them out if you want. Sometimes you can just pick up a rock and break it, either with a hammer (which the rock stores will gladly sell you) or by pounding it against another rock, and often there will be more fossils inside. They just hive off the cliffside facing the beach, so every day and especially after every storm there is a fresh supply of the things. You can spend a happy afternoon at Lyme Regis doing nothing but breaking rocks. No chain gang required.
My favorite relic on the beach, however, was man-made.
This is what is left of a narrow-gauge hand-powered railroad that at one time ran along the coast. You can see the Cobb off to the right, jutting out into the sea. Apparently the railcars were used for mining at one point, but the whole thing fell into disuse and was left to decay.
And decay it has done.