Monday August 26th 2013
Yesterday we went for a bus ride. This is our latest enthusiasm since we became recipients of our free bus passes on retirement. They are the best bargain in Britain but they mark you out as over the hill and on the way to senility. Before we become too doddery to make our way to the bus stop, or work out the timetable, we have just a few years of completely free bus travel throughout England, So long as you are not in a hurry it can be a fascinating way to spend an hour or two travelling through the Devon countryside or along the coast to one of the popular holiday resorts. With double-decker buses we can sit upstairs with views over the hedgerows and way across the fields, sometimes even into the upstairs windows of the little thatched cottages as we pass through the narrow streets of some of the villages. Frequently the overhanging trees will slap against the widows of the bus or sweep noisily along the roof just above our heads. We are filled with admiration at the way the drivers negotiate these huge monsters through the tiny Devon lanes. It’s amazing the way they edge past the occasional bus coming in the opposite direction without losing their cool!
So yesterday we packed up some sandwiches, filled our flasks with tea and set out to discover how far we could conveniently get on a day trip out. The first bus to pass the top of the road carried us all the way to Paignton and along the palm fronded sea front of Torquay where each evening “Roy Orbison and friends” entertain the holiday makers at the seafront theatre. Paignton bus station didn’t really justify the long journey so we stepped immediately on to the next bus to leave. It followed the coast of the English Riviera along to the centre of Brixham, once a fishing village with pretty cottages climbing up the steep hillside from the fishing harbour. It is still picturesque though no longer quaint. Strolling beside the harbour, crowded with holiday makers from London and Birmingham, we were constantly squawked at or dive-bombed by raucous adolescent sea gulls, eager to profit from the unwary visitors sitting on the quayside grazing on their freshly caught Brixham cockles and mussels, eating their fish and chips out of the wrapping paper or tucking into a pasty. Gulls are a permanent menace during the summer season and can become quite belligerent.
It was at Brixham harbour that William of Orange landed, probably by accident when he was blown off course, as he travelled to England on November 5th 1688 to take up the invitation to become joint monarch here with his wife Mary. There is also a reproduction of Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind moored in the harbour. As far as we are aware it has no connection with the little town but that makes no difference to the kids dragging their parents onto a “real” pirate ship complete with masts, sails, coiled ropes, a figurehead and bunk beds below deck for the crew. They love it!
Just across the bay at Torquay is “Living Coasts”, the maritime section for nearby Paignton Zoo. A huge area of the cliffs has been netted over and beneath there are natural pools, rocks, cliffs and flying areas for all manner of sea creatures from shags to sharks, puffins to penguins and whales to walruses.
We joined the pasty eaters by the harbour as we sat in the sunshine to eat our sandwiches. Behind us was the open sea, with waves breaking onto the harbour wall which protected us. In front were the tiny fishing boats plying in and out of the harbour carrying holiday makers on mackerel fishing trips, or returning with their catch of the day – anything from crabs and whelks to haddock, sole, bream and mullet. We watched as the little ferry boat absorbed the long file of visitors boarding for the bumpy ride across the bay to Torquay. It’s a windy trip I used to make as a child with my parents when we came down to Devon for our own holidays, never dreaming that in the future I would actually be living here.
So far our day had cost us nothing at all! Free bus and own picnic lunch. It was time for a treat. So we walked around the harbour, along the sea wall and climbed up to Berry Head with its stunning coastal views, nesting colonies of sea birds and its powerful defensive fort built against possible invasion from Napoleon’s troops. On the headland too is found the former home of the the Reverend Henry Francis Lyte, writer of various well known English hymns including the still popular Abide with me. written in Brixham on 4th September 1847. Today his home is a very pleasant hotel retaining much of its original charm. It is also open to non-residents and has beautiful flowering gardens overlooking the bay, the tables sheltered by palm trees. Not for nothing does this area claim to be the “English Riviera”! The restaurant was crowded with late diners but the waiter, obviously sensing our affinity with books, showed us in to the library which we had to ourselves. A wedding party was due shortly but as we simply wanted a cream tea and coffee we’d be long gone before they arrived. Seated by the open window we listed to a trio of lady saxophonists playing traditional jazz to the alfresco diners on the terrace while, way off across the bay, the big wheel on Torquay sea front turned slowly round.
For anyone who has never eaten a Devon cream tea you need to come and try one. They are scrumptious and definitely not good for you to eat too often. Not that you could! They are just so filling! A good one has two large freshly baked and still warm floury scones - with or without added dried fruit, a dish of strawberry jam and a bowl of thick clotted cream. Ian and I argue constantly about whether the jam goes on first (me) or the cream (Ian). Clotted cream is not the same as ordinary whipped cream. It is produced by scalding the milk and scooping off the cream that settles on the surface as it cools. It is pure cholesterol while the jam, if you eat it outdoors, will attract wasps for miles around. We always feel overfull and greedy once we’ve finished but cannot resist from time to time.
Our cream tea was surprisingly inexpensive and the pot of coffee strong and ample. Fortunately it was all downhill back to the centre of Brixham where, after exploring the charity shops and discovering a couple of items we never knew we wanted until we bought them, we took the bus to Newton Abbot and on back to Exeter.