I love visiting my home country to appreciate our varied landscapes, history and traditions. I am proud of my English heritage.
Somerset, Devon & Dorset
I live in Somerset, a county of England in the southwest which embraces a wondrous variety of nature as well as marvellous engineering innovation. Willows, gentle rolling hills, stunning sea-scapes and buzzards soaring on the thermals await you. Swoop down to below sea-level and you’ll find, criss-crossing the Somerset Levels, the rhynes and sluice gates of the irrigation system to keep the flats and levels from flooding, as happened regularly in the times of King Arthur. You are entering a land steeped in history and myth, close to Glastonbury, the Isle of Avalon.
Go further south and you will enter Devon, on the western edge of Dorset. Much of that stretch of coastline is labelled ‘The Jurassic Coast’, with rich-red cliffs and round-pebbled beaches, revealing ammonites and other delights such as, though more rare, the bones of dinosaurs. It’s a compelling search once you delve into the smooth, tactile stones.
Four Days based in Seaton
For a celebration of two significant birthdays 2021, we decided to grab four days away. We live a mere hour or so from the English Channel coast, so a sojourn in Devon beckoned.
Our base was Seaton, a small, pretty town on the Jurassic Coast. The cliffs are of Red Sandstone, formed from wind-blown sand, much of which is unstable. Land-slips are common so walking directly below the cliffs is not advised! However, the pastime of fossil searching is compelling. Once you start, you can’t resist the pull of a possible ammonite or dinosaur fragment! Now and then, a significant find of dinosaur bones excites the palaeontologists.
The pebbles of this beach are smooth and rounded, occasionally with holes in, and they vary in colour, size and texture. Old boats are used as flower beds and sculptures evoke the atmosphere of this area.
We parked the car at the hotel and there it stayed until we went home; bus passes are wonderful things, one of the few perks of being ‘old’! The weather was better than expected with plenty of sunshine to see both coast and countryside at their best.
Seaton Town: Beach, Boats & Sculpture by the Sea
This small coastal resort is stately yet pretty. It has a charm of its own, understated. The cliffs form a gentle bay around, this time, a calm mirror of sea and charming, colourful beach huts decorate the edge of the prom. As in many resorts around Britain, the promenade (or ‘prom’) is the essential broad walking area between beach and town, a space to stroll and take the sea air. There are sculptures and old small boats pretend to be flower beds. An unusual clock tower sits amongst shrubbery in a small park and a short walk up on the cliffs affords one of the many sweeping panoramas along the coast and out to sea.
Close to shore, the water boils with a hundred whitebait, forming their own dark mini-waves at the surface, bubbling this way and that. Further out, the sea holds more surges of tiny fish, seemingly begging to be caught in absent fishermen’s nets.
At the base of the russet cliff soil, each private beach hut sits on a hired space, though they have to be moved for the winter, on a low-loader, or they get blown away! Most owners were packing up ready for the off.
Seaton has plenty of pubs and fish and chip shops, so we took advantage of one of the latter and ordered two ‘senior specials’ (another advantage of age!). Another night, we ate at the Indian restaurant ‘Monsoon’, taking our own bottle of red wine, as there was no corkage charge.
A saunter along the beach, fresh sea air and a vast, wondrous sunset relaxed us, heralding our enjoyment of the next few days.
Trams by the Axe Estuary
Seaton also boasts a tramway. There are several trams, originally used as public transport from far and near, all colourful, most with upper decks, and all of course run on electricity, their poles reaching to grab the overhead cables, with occasional sparks and spits! The squeak of metal wheels on the narrow gauge lines adds to the atmosphere of olden-day travel. Yes, we have modern trams in some cities but they don’t evoke such industrial and social history.
Armed with all-day tickets, we sat on the upper deck and travelled through the top of town towards marshes aside the estuary of the River Axe; wide open grasslands next to a sandy river bed on the ebbing tide. A lively seaside breeze accompanied us but the views and fresh air were worth it. Plenty of wildlife met our gaze, mostly birds such as the local curlews, terns, ducks, snow-white egrets and the occasional grey heron. Being used to the noise of the tram, they’re not frightened off. A few sheep and cattle graze inland. Swans preen in the sheltered pastures, their roost when evening falls. The estuary sky is a vast arena of scudding clouds, accompanied by the curlews’ cries and the seagulls’ raucous replies.
A single track, there are passing places for returning trams. We wait and nobody minds, no one’s in a hurry. Why would we be when there is so much to take in, to mull over, to entertain, to learn from. Indeed, I hope we do learn from nature, about life’s cycle, creatures’ habits, all of us integrating with the world around us, taking what we need, adding something to benefit others. Sadly, we humans are the worst at doing that most of the time, but isn’t it wondrous when we get it right?
Go to the end of the line, at Colyton, have a cream tea, wander round the village, frequent a shop or two, sit by the small Coly river and watch the water-boatmen, the fish and the clear water bubbling over rocks in its hurry to reach the sea.
Beer and Sidmouth
Beer is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, as part of the Colyton hundred (an administrative division of a county). The name comes from the Old English ‘bearu’ meaning ‘grove’ and referring to the original forestation around the village.
This coastal village grew round a smugglers' cove where caves were used to store contraband. Many of the buildings are faced with flint, a hard glassy stone found in the local chalk rock; flint appears in any area of limestone or chalk.
Back in the day, this charming village lived on fishing and lace production. Fishing boats are simply winched up the beach, with fresh fish sold nearby. Small electrically driven winches using steel cables or tractors can be seen on the beach to haul boats in. This used to be done using an old manual capstan, at the top end of the beach and now disused.
A brook burbles its way in a narrow open conduit between pavement and main road, down to the sea.
The shape of the coastline means that local fishermen could go out in weather conditions when others could not, because it is protected from the prevailing westerly winds by Beer Head and the chalk cliffs.
Present day sources of income are tourism and fishing. Beer offers a model railway, pleasure gardens and the Beer Heights Light Railway.
Another attraction are the Quarry Caves, resulting from the quarrying of Beer stone, prized since Roman times, because of its workability for carving and for its soft yellow colour on exposure to air. It has been used in the construction of 24 cathedrals around the UK including Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s in London, and also in the building of Christchurch Cathedral, St.Louis, Missouri.
Beer, Bus, and Sidmouth
The bus to Sidmouth goes via Beer enabling those who live in this ancient seaside village to easily reach local towns. Devon’s country lanes are renowned for being high-hedged with grass down the middle and having small, though adequate, passing places; this assumes that most people know the dimensions of their car and are au fait with reverse gear. Locals are used to it, tourists aren’t. What a patient bus driver we had, and the entertainment added to the journey! Now and then, the bus just fit between the hedges. It was a highlight of our visit!
We were looking for some ‘rock’ to take back for my grandchildren. Straight off the bus in Beer, we saw a traditional sweet shop and bought our quota of the English seaside tradition. Rock, for those of you who haven’t come across it, is a stick of pure sugar with sticky colouring, usually pink, on the outside and the name of the village or town where you buy it is ‘printed’ all the way through in black. Everyone should try it at least once!
Once more, beach huts are a-plenty, pastel coloured boxes sitting on the pebbles, minding their own business and offering shelter for those lucky enough to have one - if you can afford it. Some cost more than your average small bungalow. They are each a good 6’ x 10’, a small shed, and can be acquired for upwards of £30,000!
Before leaving, it would have been rude not to sample some local ale. So, socially distanced on the pub patio with views to take your breath away, we had a beer in a beer garden in Beer. Cool, eh?!
We walked the beach, contemplated climbing round the rocks to get back to Seaton but weren’t sure of the tide so took the cliff path instead - a relatively easy walk with dizzying views over sea to the south and gentle pastures to the north, east and west. Squirrels came out to play as did rabbits and pheasant. Now and then, the path came worryingly close to the cliff edge, so my saunter became a trot. What a wuss!
An unusual sight for me was a group of crows which had obviously built nests in the cliffs; great for their safety and makes a change from the high tree-tops!
Slightly bigger than Seaton, Sidmouth has a more modern vibe, with cafés, bars and outside seating to make the most of the sunshine which bathed us, disputing that it was mid-October. We each chose a tasty cheese and onion pasty – as in Cornish Pasty but Devon have their own which are just as good, to my mind – and shared a millionaire’s flapjack, a sticky oat biscuit with a layer of sweet caramel topped by a thick layer of solid chocolate; decadent or what?!
To walk it off, we negotiated slides of pebbles in petrified waves by the water; great exercise, a bit like a treadmill where you go through the motions but don’t get far.
The prom was humming with activity as so many wanted to cherish the last rays of sunshine before winter really set in.
A short bus journey from Seaton will take you to Lyme Regis, eastward just over the county border into Dorset. A charming old fishing port, Lyme Regis (or Lyme) is popular with tourists and has many literary connections, notably Jane Austen’s last novel, ‘Persuasion’ and the film ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’, based on John Fowles’ novel, both with scenes on The Cobb, the old harbour sea wall. The town was a favourite of Austen’s though she only visited twice. She took notes which would add to the detail of her story.
Austen’s description of the main street, which runs down close to the sea at its lowest point, is ‘almost hurrying into the water’. The Cobb is one of the most striking areas, being high, worn, sloping with age and challenging the walker with hewn steps, like bowls, and a curve angled against the sea. It’s not easy walking but the view across the harbour and away out to sea is wonderful.
We started with the fortress-looking east end of the prom, leading round to the curved sea wall below the cliffs, an area where seals can be seen, though sadly we weren’t afforded the privilege. From the higher walkway, there’s a great view of the sweeping beach round to the old harbour and the Cobb.
An open beach, with more sand further to the west, sits between the prom with its restaurants and ice cream parlours, pretty original houses and the sheltered bay. The atmosphere becomes authentic and homely the closer one gets to the harbour, a large inner area protected by the Cobb and the inner harbour wall. Fishing boats of varied colours, smaller tourist boats here and there, and a brief visitor in the shape of a clipper-type boat, there for use as a film set, provided much to interest everyone.
To end the afternoon, we had a yummy cream tea and watched the world go by around the harbour.
This coastal part of the south-west of England takes us back in time to quieter, rural times. It hides quiet country lanes, shows off dramatic cliffs and sometimes reveals secrets which help us learn more about dinosaurs, ammonites and the fascinating geology of this area.
It is beautiful, has kept its character, its deep history, and its hills and cliffs welcome wildlife of varied sizes, most of which are happy to come out to play when they feel like it. The coastal path leads us round corners, beside fields, farms and houses, as well as close to the cliffs, sometimes too close for me! Views to lift your soul and catch your breath, await you.
The sea will not hesitate to reveal its moods on a whim, with a beauty to dazzle, or tides and swirling currents to delight then sometimes a foreboding darkness, broody, stirring deep, even disturbing, emotions.
Back to Seaton
© 2022 Ann Carr