DM and MM's Britain 2009 Diary

Day 4 - Sherborne to Plymouth

Wednesday, 3 June, 2009

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Ashgrove Hotel, Plymouth, Devon. 22:38

We've had a driving day today, covering a good portion of the distance to Cornwall. The day began with breakfast at the Eastbury Hotel in Sherborne.

We walked down to the hotel restaurant at 08:00. We wanted to grab a table by the windows, looking out on to what turned out to be a croquet lawn, but the tables all turned out to have name tags on them and ours was back against a wall far from the windows. I guess having only a standard room, we weren't granted window privileges like people in deluxe rooms.

The breakfast however was excellent. There was serve-yourself cereal and fruit and yoghurts, with two types of muesli - fruit or nut - plus several other cereals, dried fig chunks, berry compote, poached apricots and prunes, extra seedy things like pumpkin seeds and sunflower seed, bran, plain yoghurt, and pots of yoghurt with fruit in them. M. had nut muesli with seeds and fruit yoghurt, while I had the nut muesli with the fruit compote and poached fruit and plain yoghurt. Then there was the choice of cooked breakfasts, which included the typical full English with choice of trimmings: sausage, bacon, black pudding, fried bread, and some other options including kippers, smoked salmon and scrambled eggs (my choice), and a platter of west country cheese and continental meats. It was awe-inspiring and made us long to have more breakfasts there.

Eastbury Breakfast
Breakfast buffet at Eastbury Hotel

Stuffed to the gills, we returned to our room to collect our things and packed the car ready for departure. We checked out, but left the car in the hotel car park while we walked back down to the High Street (actually called Cheap Street here) and across to Sherborne Abbey. This was a magnificent old church surrounded by nun's cloisters. The church was made of beautiful honey-coloured stone and boasted some decent stained glass and a gorgeous ceiling with purportedly the oldest extant fan-vaulted ceiling in England. Sherborne is clearly off the main tourist trails because when we entered we had the whole place to ourselves, and another couple of tourists only arrived as we were almost leaving.

Sherborne Abbey Aisle
Inside Sherborne Abbey

We briefly looked at the exterior of the cloister buildings, but they didn't seem to be open to the public. Then we went back up the main street with M. browsing some shops while I stopped at a table outside a deli to write some of yesterday's diary.

Sherborne Abbey
Exterior of Sherborne Abbey

A bit further up we stopped at a cafe offering free Wi-Fi. M. had a coffee and I had a home-made lemonade while she fiddled with her iPhone and sent e-mails to her mum and sister. I then sent one to my mum as well. Once done, we left and walked back to the car to begin the day's driving adventure. On the way we picked up a couple of bread rolls from a bakery and slices of cheese from the deli where I'd stopped to write earlier. M. asked for four slices of the mature cheddar from the display cabinet, which confused the lady serving us until M. added, "for sandwiches." The woman gave an "a-ha!" and proceeded to cut off four slices, each about 5mm thick - huge chunky slices fit for a ploughman's lunch type sandwich.

The plan was to head south-west to Exeter and from there into Dartmoor National Park on one of the minor roads that crosses it from east to west. Leaving Sherborne, we soon crossed into Devon.

We drove west on the A30, passing through several towns. At Musbury we stopped to stretch our legs and take in a view across farm fields. We ate one of the bread rolls with a slice of cheese each, under the shade of a tree. I noticed across the road there was a sign indicating a public footpath across the fields, so we walked over to have a look and get a vantage point for a photo. The path crossed a fence at a stile, then vanished quickly with just a couple of arrow markers indicating routes across large grassy fields (it might have been some sort of crop).

Footpaths Across Devon
Public footpaths across fields near Musbury

Back in the car, we started noticing places by the side of the road advertising cream teas. Being in Devon, the home of Devonshire tea, we decided we had to take advantage. At the town of Sidford, we pulled into the Salty Monk pub, which advertised with a sign on the road. There was a car park beside a floral garden and we walked around to the main entrance, entering a dimly lit interior with several rooms poking off it. A woman appeared and took our order for cream tea, with me opting for peppermint tea, and told us to sit out in the garden. We took a table on the grass beside a koi pond, shaded by a large umbrella. A small statue trickled water into the pond and birds chirped pleasantly while we waited. Tea arrived, brought out by a different woman, who said there would be a short wait for the scones as they baked them fresh for us.

The scones arrived, three for each of us, with large pots of strawberry jam (home made on the premises) and thick clotted Devon cream. The scones werea little smaller than we'd consider normal, slightly crisp on the outside, and yellow and buttery. With the jam and cream laid lavishly on top, they went down a treat. We took our time to enjoy it and take in the richness, washed down with our teas.

Devon cream tea
Cream tea at the Salty Monk

While eating, we noticed some ants crawling on the table. We figured on a diet of buttery scone crumbs, home-made strawberry jam, and thick sweet cream, these must be some of the best-fed ants in the world. Full of delicious cream tea ourselves, we forgot about the remaining bread roll and cheese, being filled up enough to last us right through to dinner.

We continued west towards the city of Exeter, which presented navigational problems given our large-scale road map of Britain with no detailed maps of any of the cities. The street signs are also not very helpful, often omitting any indication of where you are going if you don't take various turns at the intersections. So you end up seeing arrows pointing in all directions for places you don't want to go, and have to trust on faith that if you just go straight ahead that you'll end up where you want to go.

Inevitably, we got hopelessly lost in Exeter, trying to find the small B3212 west into Dartmoor. I tried to navigate by blind luck, but gave up in a small suburban neighbourhood and asked someone for directions. The first lady I stopped confessed to not living in Exeter and having no idea. A young couple were entering their flat nearby and I asked them, thinking if they live here they should at least know their way around. They were not much better though, giving only a vague indication of where we were on the map, a vague indication of which direction we should go, and when I asked which direction was south, the woman had no idea at all! (The sun was hidden by cloud, so I couldn't self-navigate that way.) But by the miracle of blind luck and following the only concrete suggestion (to turn around and go back the way we'd come), we stumbled upon a large roundabout with a sign indicating the B3212 going to Mortonhampstead off one of the exits. A quick check of the map confirmed that was in our intended direction, so we took the exit and thanked the gods of lucky navigation.

The road led quickly into more rural areas and through several villages before entering the brooding semi-wild lands of Dartmoor National Park. This is not a national park in the sense we're familiar with back home. It consists mostly of farmland, with some small smatterings of forest, and what we determined were pine plantations for timber. The setting was rolling hills swept with heather, cut by hedgerows, and populated with a mixture of hardy goat-like sheep, ponies and horses, and camel-coloured cows. In many places the pastures were unfenced and the livestock grazed by the side of the road or crossed the road between slow moving cars.

Dartmoor Sheep
Sheep in Dartmoor

We passed through Moretonhampstead and not far down the road saw a sign indicating "Bovey Castle". Thinking that a castle sounded interesting, we took the indicated left turn and found ourselves passing through a large set of iron gates and into a golf course! We drove along the driveway and a smallish castle appeared through the trees, with what was obviously hotel guests - a family with kids - walking through the car park area that we came to. We pulled up and got out, and a young guy in a hotel uniform rushed up and asked if we'd just arrived in the silver Mercedes. It was cool to be able to answer yes to that question! When he asked if he could help us, we admitted we'd just been attracted by the "Bovey Castle" sign and came in to have a look. He was very pleasant and said we were welcome to have a look around or to come inside and have a drink in the bar.

Bovey Castle
Bovey Castle

Both the exterior and the interior of the building were ornate and interesting. Through the central hall and out the other side was a cascade of stone steps and lawns leading down to practice putting greens, and at the bottom of the valley a lake landscaped with hedges and flowers and with beautiful wooden seats and gazebos around it. Inside there was some sort of business meeting in one of the plushly decorated sitting rooms, with people in power suits discussing Important Stuff over cocktails while sitting in overstuffed leather armchairs. And all around hovered attentive staff in crisp grey uniforms. It was all extremely posh and fascinating. We considered how much it might cost to stay there and shuddered at the thought!

Inside Bovey Castle
Bovey Castle interior

Leaving the castle, we decided we'd try taking a more minor road south to the village of Widecombe-in-the-Moor, which the Lonely Planet suggested was the most worthwhile place to visit in Dartmoor. The minor road turned out to be barely one land wide in most places, wedged tight between enclosing hedges, and with only the occasional place wide enough to allow two cars to pass. Several times we played passing games with oncoming traffic, giving friendly waves to other drivers as we negotiated who would stop to let the other pass. At one point we did this with a tractor, which caused some worry as we had almost no clearance between the vehicles and were scraping against the hedges on the left.

Dartmoor Pony
Pony in Dartmoor

After a while, the road opened out and gave us expansive views across the moors. At several places there were small parking areas, many with cars in them and people standing around admiring the views. In one spot there was an extensive green grassy stretch along the road where three or four cars were pulled over and the occupants were admiring the herd of ponies that were grazing peacefully there, some right next to the cars. We also stopped to take in the idyllic rural scene.

Churchyard crosses, Widecombe-in-the-moor

Soon we reached Widecombe. It was about 17:00 and the tourist shops had closed for the day, and we had the tiny village basically to ourselves. it was only really a crossroads with a church on one side, a green square on another, and two or three shops down the other side of the street. Since we were in a bit of a rush to get on out of the moors, we didn't dawdle and did a quick circuit fo the sights. The old Church of St Pancras was small and not really impressive inside, making a much more picturesque scene from the outside, where it was set amongst a yard full of old gravestones.

Church of St Pancras
Church of St Pancras, Widecombe-in-the-Moor

Navigating out of Widecombe and back to a more major road was interesting. We took the wrong road out of the village and were turned around by a helpful local after I stopped to ask him where we were going. We ended up backtracking on the road we came in on, past the grazing horses until we hit a junction and turned towards Princetown. Eventually we got on to a wider road and passed out of Dartmoor and into the port city of Plymouth.

Plymouth was tricky to navigate, given only the maps we had, but after stopping once in a shopping centre car park just to get off the street (it's impossible to just pull over anywhere to check a map), we figured it out pretty quickly. M. picked out a cheap hotel amongst the accommodation strip on Citadel Road and we managed to find a parking spot on the street just around the corner. They turned out to have no vacancies, but the Ashgrove Hotel right next door had one for £55 and we took it.

Plymouth Hotel View
View from our room at Ashgrove Hotel, Plymouth

The room was on the third floor, up three flights of stairs. We dragged some of the luggage up, but left my large bag in the car. The woman who checked us in told us the best place for dinner was to walk down the hill to the Barbican. Following this advice, we passed the large park known as The Hoe, and found ourselves in a picturesque historical district littered with pubs and restaurants in buildings ranging back to Tudor era. The pubs were busy with British holiday-makers; it seemed to be a rather happening night scene. To one end of the area there was the waterfront, overlooking an enclosed harbour full of expensive yachts, over to buildings across the water. The screeching of seagulls filled the air and fish and chip shops were in abundance.

Plymouth Harbour
Plymouth Harbour

We found a pasta place and secured a table in the quieter upstairs dining room. Being in a port town, I ordered the seafood marinara with penne pasta. M. got a vegetable soup with a bread roll, and we had some garlic bread for starters. The garlic bread was thickly cut slices from a normal square loaf of bread - nice, but the first time I'd ever seen it done that way! The pasta was good, with some spicy kick to the tomato sauce.

After eating, we walked along the waterfront to the bridge across the harbour, where a monument to the Mayflower pilgrims to America commemorated this event - the ship of course departed from Plymouth. Then we walked back up the hill to our room for the night and ended another busy day.

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