The Mother Visits Buckland Abbey, Devon.

I took my elderly Mum to visit Buckland Abbey in Devon as she's the best kind of Travel Blog Advisor you can possibly have. At 88 she's what they would call 'sprightly' but there are some things she can't do and if someone not catering for that that means she doesn't get to see all the sights, she's going to complain loudly and clearly.

There were complaints...

But let's look at the positives first. There's plenty to see with lovely, well-laid-out gardens including a walled kitchen garden; it is well maintained by the National Trust and they have buggies to transport elderly folk from the car park to the Abbey itself (not that Mum would have any of that. "I'm perfectly capable of walking, thank you!").

It looks surprisingly modern given that it started life as a thirteenth century Cistercian monastery—in fact the last one to be built in the UK. However, there was a fairly drastic fire in 1938 so it's what they call "extensively restored" in quite a few places. However, I like that kind of castle; it's like Castle Drogo where you can really imagine what it was like to live there before it got so colossally old.

The monastery was dissolved by Henry VIII (you weren't a proper monk if Our 'Enery didn't grind you down) and became the property of Sir Richard Grenville and his son Roger (who was the captain of the ill-fated Mary Rose). After Roger's death, Sir Richard sold it on and was probably horrified to find that he'd sold it to intermediaries who were working for Sir Francis Drake, whom he loathed.

It stayed in the Drake family until the fire in 1938 and came to the National Trust in 1951.

But enough of the history! Are there any decent shops? And can you get a good cream tea? (Mum's vital criterion for a day out in Devon is a good cream tea*).

The shops are good. They're in what's known as the Ox Yard and haves ome interesting stuff including plants from the gardens for sale, a second-hand bookshop and artisans working on-site including in a shop featuring felt-work which was enchanting. And there's the usual excellent National Trust shop. The cafe is good with home-grown produce (although, Buckland folk, please note that you really do need to offer more than one little pot of strawberry jam as it runs a bit thin on the second half of the scone).

So what's not to like? Two simple little things. When we arrived, we were told that the entrance to the house was shut for some valid reason and we had to walk around the big old barn to get in. The gentleman said, "You can walk round either way; it doesn't matter."

Oh yes it did. Because we walked round The Wrong Way and arrived at a door that clearly went into the house but didn't say anything about entrance or exit. We went in and had a good look round what was there but couldn't find several of the things in the guide, specifically,  the Rembrandt exhibition which was featured in the guide. (They've got a painting that has been identified as a genuine Rembrandt. It's a self-portrait. They're very excited about it. Understandably).

Anyway, we saw the ladies who were working in Elizabethan costume in the kitchen and we climbed some stairs to see some more costumes. But the real exhibition, which shows what it was like inside The Golden Hind and has all sorts of very interesting stuff including Drake's Drum, which we both really wanted to see was on the top floor.

Actually, it isn't Drake's Drum. It's a replica. I suppose that's good enough but... Well, no, it isn't really, is it? It's only the real drum which, if it is played, will  Call Him Back To Save England Again In A National Emergency. Enough with the replicas! The Rembrandt's real for goodness' sake. r

The real point, however, is, that the top floor was by far the most interesting one. And it was too far and too steep for my Mum to get there. That wasn't fair. And she said so.

We went back to the Ox Yard to have our tea and I asked at the entrance about the Rembrandt, only to be told that we had gone The Wrong Way around the barn and not found the main entrance. This was a little annoying. I went to find it the Right Way. The exhibition was certainly interesting but by then Mum was too tired to venture round to see it. A suggestion that she went in a buggy did not go down well.

So, in all, a slightly odd place. Almost very good but not quite. You'll enjoy it very much as long as you Go Round The Right Way and sneak in some extra strawberry jam.

On the way back, we stopped to look at St. Michael's Brentor (from the car). It's a tiny old church right on the top of a granite outcrop and Mum had a picture of it on a calendar and wanted to see it for real. It was covered in plastic over scaffolding. Mum sniffed. It had turned out to be that kind of a day.

* Mum's best ever cream tea (so far) was at Church House, South Tawton on any Sunday afternoon in the summer.


Doing Wet.

Today, for the first time in the six years that we have had her, Biggle refused to go for a walk. She got as far as the front gate and, eyes, half-closed against the slashing rain, looked down the river that was our lane and then ran back to the house.

I couldn't blame her; I'd not even considered taking Thunderfeet MegaBeagle (Mrs) out for any kind of walk at all but Biggle is a hunt beagle and she will usually go out in all weathers. I did mutter a bit about having to get out of all my waterproofs and boots especially as just the few yards to the gate meant they all had to be dried over the Rayburn.

But an hour later, as the gloaming settled over the hills and crept its mystery between the hedges, the rain stopped. Perhaps only for a short while but it was a window of opportunity and Biggle and I, kitted up in our reflector coats, set forth into the night.

There are very few walks that can be taken without wellington boots right now, as Britain sloshes its way through January and the Golden Triangle as it's known - two miles of lanes beginning at our house - is a Godsend. The gales lash their way up from Dartmoor along the road from East Week but the seven-foot hedges temper them to manageable speeds.

Tonight, the wind wuthered in the hedges, wuthered through the wires of the telegraph pole that keeps our home connected to the world and wuthered around the brim of my hat. Three separate sounds, distinct and eerie but indescribable. I love listening to the lanes; to the rain in the hedges and on my hat and on the tarmac; to the birdsong (in the daytime) and the owls and creatures at night.

Biggle and I are used to walking in the dark; I take her out most nights, either after supper or at 10pm before bed. For only a couple of months of the year, do we go out and return in daylight but the rest of the year, we get to know the stars, the night-creatures and the phases of the moon. We see the International Space Station and comets and hide in the hedges, torch put out, like children playing spies when we hear the army helicopters come over.

Tonight, as we walked down to East Week the sky bathed us in pastel blue and grey. Amazingly there was some pale blue sky (briefly) and white tufts of cumulus amid the darkening layers of threatening cloud. Every day as I walk I can watch the sky change in minutes, from laughter to tears, from rage to triumph; every single incarnation is beautiful and tonight it was a magical blend of blues and greys.

And then the rain fell. I had seen it coming; the black sky ahead over the moor, flowing swiftly towards us and hoped it would not be the slashing rain of most of the day. It began with great droplets of rain that splashed on the already flooded road and then fell faster — slashes of water that hit my anorak noisily and tinkled through the winter twigs of the hedges on each side.

I sighed and decided to 'do wet.' When you 'do wet' you don't resist the water but become a part of it. You are the wet; it doesn't matter where it gets or how soggy your feet become. And tonight there was no chance of unsoggy feet despite my wonderful walking boots. The lane was flooded in five places, two of them up to my ankles. Biggle paddled her way through happily; once she is out, she is out; there was no desire to turn back.

We sloshed down to East Week and turned left, wincing occasionally at the arc of light from a car on another road. Strangely, while nature feels safe, the sight of a car's lights on the night walks always slightly un-nerves me; we are both visible and I carry a torch but they seem alien and slightly threatening. Of course when one comes up the lane before us or down the lane behind us, we move to the side and let them pass; Biggle is totally car-safe. Once, at Christmas time, I felt the desire, suddenly, to burst into song and both this and the light of the torch as we turned a corner, nearly gave a courting couple in a steamed-up car a panic attack.

Tonight, walking towards Gooseford, the rain turned colder and fell harder. The left side of my face, un-sheltered by my hat or collar, felt icy and it was time to turn on the torch as the night fell in earnest and I needed to watch my feet as the stream gurgled up over the road.

At night, my bishop once told me, the dryads and naiads come out of their trees and once you walk with them nightly and start to sense the magic of the night, you can know for sure that it's true; you can feel their presence, their cold curiosity; their desire to be acknowledged and even named. Each tree, each plant, each creature, each spirit desires to experience something of individuality if only through the identification of a passing human. I can't explain it better than that.

I bless as many of them as I can, each and every night when they ask me to; some nights I begin to bless but they inform me in their detached way 'we remain blessed' and I pass on. That will be after I've done some other ritual at home which carries a deeper form of blessing. There is no doubt that the land experiences what we exude. Tonight they were silent; huddled in with their creatures but I blessed them all the same.

As we sloshed past Gooseford farm and turned left to walk back up the hill to home the road became a river of grey-brown and Biggle stopped even attempting to get under gates or through fences to follow a particular sniff. This was the long haul home with wet feet and legs where my waterproof trousers had given in but ahead, the sky was brightening slightly and to the left I could just discern the light of a new moon through some slightly whisping cloud cover. I knew that my left bootlace had come undone but laughed at the very thought of taking off my soggy gloves and re-tying them as the water flowed over my toes.

Past Three Fields Corner, the lane became a lane again; the rain receded and ahead the sky began to clear. Two stars from Lyra were visible and my face began to warm up just a little again.

And then we were home to warmth and hot towels. Biggle squeaking with delight as she was dried by her Dad and me slowly peeling off layer after layer and dripping in the kitchen.

I love this land; it is a privilege to 'do wet' here.


Downtown Sedona

'The Spirit of the West' Downtown Sedona.
"It's ruined; nothing but a tourist trap," said some people. "It's fabulous," said others. Downtown Sedona is simultaneously neither and both. Oddly enough, there is even one shop where you could buy groceries, vegetables and fruit although they are rather exclusive groceries, vegetables and fruit.

It's full of shops selling Indian jewellery, teeshirts and sweatshirts, artisan clothing, New Age shops, art galleries, hats, bags, leather goods and restaurants. Nothing is cheap; some of it is tacky; some of it is fabulous. That's exactly how it is in every American 'tourist town' I've ever visited.

But Sedona is different. There are no lights above street level at night to guard against light pollution so if you go for a walk in town in the evening you need a torch; every other building seems to offer healing of some kind; McDonalds had to paint their famous arch green as the yellow one wasn't allowed and there's no Wal-Mart. You can view all of that as lovely or pretentious; it's up to you. There is, of course, light pollution from all the cars driving through but it is reduced.

In layout, downtown Sedona is a typical American Main Street, laid out in one straight line, with some shopping arcades either side and, apart from said groceries shop, pretty much nothing sensible to buy. But hey, who wants to buy sensible in Sedona?

Downtown Sedona is an experience. It's best on a lovely sunny day, of course, but our first visit was in pouring rain during November and it still kept our attention. That first day, there was nothing to see bu the shops and the puddles on the sidewalk but, on your-average-Arizona day you can gaze at the wonderful red rock formations while pottering round the shops which makes it a spectacular event just being there. In that way it's similar to our home on Dartmoor where you only have to look over the gate to have your breath taken away, although I have to admit that, at home, we don't sell Indian jewellery or have a Wild West Movies museum… Perhaps we should.

There's a load of free parking just off the main street (head to the right from the 'Y') and it's on the right at the end of the shopping part of Main Street. If you don't know what the 'Y' is, no worries; you'll soon find out if you come to Sedona. Or, you can stop off while take the trolley bus around town. It's fairly cute (on fine days) and goes to several 'scenic view' spots as well though it's not cheap at at $18 a head.

However, we'd got a kick-ass Dodge Challenger so my petrol-head husband wanted to drive everywhere and I didn't fancy pottering around and waiting for the bus to come round again to pick us up.

So, what's on the street that's interesting? There's the fudge shop… They pummel the fudge to death — sorry make it —in front of your eyes and it is utterly forbidden-fruit irresistible, delicious and indulgent (you don't actually believe that Eve was tempted by a piece of fruit, do you? She was a woman for God's sake! It had to be, at very least, a fudge tree).

Okay, the fudge doesn't look very thrilling just like that but the folks were folding it over like flaky pastry and, trust me, the end result was gorgeous.
I wanted to do an interview with Tudy [sic] the owner of Sedona Fudge Company not only because it's fabulous fudge but because its origin was a glorious mistake and I like stories like that. But Tudy was out on the first day we went in and in hospital (not for anything serious, I'm glad to say) when we went back so that didn't happen.

It all began back in 1887 when a chocolate-maker started his own business in Michigan and made a chocolate fondue which went horribly wrong … and turned into fudge with a really creamy texture that everyone went crazy about. I do that kind of cooking all the time but I've yet to make a business out of it so big kudos to him! It's all natural ingredients without preservatives and they include a diabetic chocolate as well sweetened with a natural plant product that begins with M but I've forgotten it and can't find it on Google (if you know its name, do tell me in the comments and I'll edit this - thanks).

What else? Ah, yes, returning to the beautiful original picture of 'the Spirit of the West', Sedona is filled with just glorious bronze statues, mostly of horses. You just want to climb up onto 'the Spirit of the West' and urge him into a gallop. And there's the lovely pony with a puppy trotting at its feet as well… This used to be in a separate shopping area called Tlaquepaque but is now in the main stretch, inside a small mall.

Not to mention the dancing couple that are on a wheel and swing round and round if you push them...

Probably the only really disappointing shop/place was Sedona Motion Picture Museum which has dozens of black and white photos of all the movies that have beens shot in the area (and there were a lot). However, it is only one room and the staff were grumpy and unhelpful on that particular day. One of them half-heartedly tried to offer us a horse-ride at a very cheap price in return for our seeing a time-share presentation. As we'd already been round that loop (of which, more later) we weren't interested.

It is a lovely town centre. Even Lion, who doesn't enjoy shopping, was happy to go around it twice. And if it is a tourist trap, so what? These tourists enjoyed it.

'Fear not,' said the Angel...

It was a beautiful night with a New Moon in South Tawton, Devon, England. And the world was about to change forever…

An angel stood outside the magnificent 15th century granite and thatch, Church House, which has been at the heart of the South Tawton community for more than 500 years.

Okay, she was there a bit earlier than the moon because it's still daylight, but that was a lovely picture to start off with. And, anyway, she was deep in prayer before our story started, wondering exactly what words to use when she spoke to a young lady later that evening. Did you know that the most common phrase in the Bible is 'fear not?' There are 365 mentions of the phrase — one for every day of the year. So, the angel thought to herself, 'let's go with the flow. "Fear not" is as good as it gets.'

Now this was not just any old angel, it was the Archangel Gabriel, the messenger between God and humanity. Wisely, she went up the steps so she could be seen properly and checked her microphone before she delivered her message.

Below her, a young girl called Mary, was sweeping the porch together with two narrators. One was called Beth and the other was wearing reindeer horns. Those narrators got everywhere in those days.

Gabriel told Mary that she was very highly favoured and was going to have God's baby, whom she would call Jesus. Mary wasn't sure about that to start with because she wasn't married, but she was a brave girl and, let's face it, when an angel turns up, you tend to believe it. The 'fear not' bit certainly seemed to have worked.

There were lots of folks in Nazareth that evening so it's surprising they didn't see or hear the angel but God's good at keeping things secret when He needs to. The words 'secret' and 'sacred' come from the same root, which makes a lot of sense.

Ah! Hang on … all the people were there because the Emperor Augustus had turned up out of the blue. That's him in the lych gate in front of the church.

He told all the villagers that they would have to return to their home-towns in order for there to be a census so they could all be taxed correctly.  Emperor Augustus got a big boo and hiss from the crowd.

Mary's betrothed husband Joseph saw an angel too — in fact he saw at least two, one of whom was wearing tinsel — so he knew that it was all okay about Mary being pregnant. He saw some incredibly early Wise Men from the East too but he told them to go home because they'd got the timing wrong. But he said they'd be very welcome later, when the baby was born.

 Joseph and Mary had to go to Bethlehem, where Joseph's family came from for the census. Bethlehem was a long way away, and Mary was pregnant when they had to go, but luckily, there were some friendly shepherds nearby — and some friendly musicians too so people could sing along with the events as they unfolded — and the shepherds thought, 'She'll need a donkey to ride on!'

Incidentally, there's no mention of a donkey in the Nativity story in the Gospel of St. Luke. That bit, and the whole idea of the Nativity scene, complete with cattle and a donkey, was invented by St. Francis of Assisi in the twelfth century. Way-to-go St. Francis! It's been fun ever since.

So some pretty fierce negotiations went on over purchasing the donkey for Mary (the donkey's name is Nazareth which is an amazing coincidence, when you think about it). But the shepherds got a good deal in the end.

But Mary was a bit of a softy so she didn't ride the donkey after all. In fact, she got a nice lady to lead Nazareth all the way to Bethlehem. But there's no truth in the rumour about their driving there in a  Peugeot…

If you look closely, you can see that Mary took her broom with her, which actually turned out to be a very good idea.

After a long, long walk, they arrived in Bethlehem. But it was even fuller of people than South Tawton/Nazareth and they couldn't find anywhere to stay.

Okay, there might have been a Peugeot outside the Inn, but it belonged to the Landlord, not to Mary and Joseph, honest. And although the landlord at the Inn in Bethlehem is usually a bit of a baddie and turns the Holy Couple away, this time, the landlord — whose name was Tony — had a good reason to be full. His Inn was stuffed with Syrian refugees.

Still, he said they could sleep in the stable and gave them the keys. So Mary and Joseph went to the stable, which looked a bit like the altar at St. Andrew's…although that's obviously only a coincidence. And Mary was very grateful that she'd brought her broom because she could make sure the stable was clean and tidy for the baby to be born in.

 It's a good thing that it was a very large stable because lots and lots of people came along to see them and to sing about them. And the whole church sorry! stable was full of Christmas trees from the Christmas tree festival earlier that day so it looked just lovely.

You can't see it very well (because it was too dark for my camera) but the donkey's certainly there too on the right. And here's a bit of an innovation. The baby Jesus was born just as Mary and Joseph got to the altar sorry! STABLE and, instead of a manger, he's sleeping in a state-of-the-art baby stroller. Very sensible too because it's a genuine four-week-old baby in there and if Paul Seaton-Burn, the Rector, had tried to put him in a manger full of straw, you probably wouldn't have heard the congregation singing for the yelling of a baby covered in straw prickles.

Not all babies are as good as the baby Jesus. But then he did have swaddling bands so that would probably have protected him from the tickly straw.

Then lots more angels turned up — and a sheep. Which was fortunate because the shepherds came too, though I don't have a picture of that. And it was the very same shepherds who'd bought Mary the donkey so wasn't it nice that they got to see the baby? The Wise Men came back too with their lovely gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

And don't forget the Christmas chickens. They're in a cage to the left. But there definitely would have been chickens. And very well-behaved chickens they were too.

So it all ended very happily, and the people sang a few more songs, accompanied by the minstrels, and then there was tea and cake and mulled wine and mince pies in Church House and we all went home happily.


"About as Much Use as a Chocolate Teapot" — Exeter Christmas Market no. 2

So realistic!
Being a chocoholic, I've never quite understood that phrase. It might not do as a teapot but it's still chocolate and that's always useful.

Of course, it's the time of year for chocolate Santas, snowmen and reindeer — although the latter look rather worryingly like ear-amputated leftover chocolate bunny rabbits at Easter with different wrapping. We're fairly used to chocolate in odd shapes and sizes by now.

But a chocolate monkey wrench? A chocolate paintbrush? A chocolate slice of mousetrap cheese? A chocolate salami? Why? Why? Why?

I don't know why, but I know this stall from The Amazing Chocolate Workshop  stopped me in my tracks at Exeter Christmas market. It was almost impossible to believe that they were selling chocolate. Luckily, one of them gave me a morsel to prove it and it was delicious chocolate. Gluten-free, 65% delicious chocolate.

Oh, and if you look carefully at the picture above, you'll see they actually do sell chocolate teapots. Dammit, if I'd just noticed that when I was there, I'd have bought a couple of those. What a fabulous Christmas present!

I'm not sure whether they were doing a roaring trade because the chocolate spanners were stealing the show and there was a part of a few people's psyches going 'you'll hurt your teeth on those.' Quite how that works out when our teeth are quite happy to sink into a chocolate Santa, I don't know, but the brain is weird in its wiring until it's used to stuff.

But I do know that now I've looked at the pictures and had a browse on their website, I want to go back and buy stuff.

Unfortunately, they don't sell online yet, but there's a form on the site that you can fill in and they'll tell you when they do.

But if you're near Exeter and you're looking for a genuinely unusual chocolate Christmas present (and one for you too), you simply have to visit this stall.


Exeter Christmas Market (1)

Exeter Cathedral behind the market.
I only went into Exeter to get a late Advent calendar and some Christmas cards from the cathedral. Shopping per se wasn't on my mind but hanging out in St. Peter's is one of my favourite pastimes and any excuse will do. I've always loved their Christmas cards.

Not this year, however. Three really dull designs and not one Advent calendar left by 3rd December. But there was St. Gabriel's chapel to sit and pray in, as well as the lovely lady chapel and no visit to the cathedral is ever other than a delight.

Even better, a school choir was rehearsing I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day which, oddly, I'd never heard before and which took my breath away. You can listen to it here. Particularly apposite with the government's decision to bomb Syria.

And, all around the Cathedral, Exeter's Christmas Market glittered and assailed my senses. That was something else I'd not come across before, simply because we've only been here for three years and I managed to be sick at Christmas time for two of them. But oh, what a delight! I'm used to Birmingham's German Christmas Market but, frankly, this knocked that into a cocked hat.

I'll do a separate blog on a few more stalls including the aptly-named Amazing Chocolate Shop but here are some market photos and a few highlights. If you're anywhere in the area and can get down there, go, go, go!

Yummy non-seafood paella from Jences. Inspired me to go home and make more.
Don't go and look for Jences Paella on the internet however; their website has been compromised and I've just had a fun ten minutes comforting and reassuring my browser. It's nothing actually dangerous but I'm not risking it and I can't find a page for them on Facebook. So, it's the market or nothing for these guys right now which is a shame because the website says 'recipes' in the tabs and I'd sure like some of those.

Bush Farm Bison Centre's website is perfectly safe but ridiculously out-of-date (makes mine look efficient) so I've linked to their Facebook page instead. Not that that has a lot on it either. But they raise organic bison and elk and other tasty stuff and look like a fabulous place to visit. They have annual pow wows as well. The guys on the stall were really friendly and the meat both looked and smelt delicious. Unfortunately, I was already stuffed with paella.

Now this stuff, not even I can eat but it's a terrific idea even if it's not entirely photogenic and it's also a lousy photograph and I've cut someone in half. Devon Reclaimed is a company that beautifully restores all kinds of old, salvaged goods — mostly wooden and electrical stuff — and sells them. As well as the Christmas market, you can find them at Dartmouth Market on Fridays and Taunton Market on Saturdays during the winter months. 

This is just a picture of a sweater shop for Christmas. I didn't go in and I don't want one, thank you. Please, please don't get me a Christmas jumper.

To my shame, I can't remember the name of this stall but it's a lovely angel and what looks like a Santa with a serious hangover.


Weirdest — and Sweetest — Car Park Ever.

There was a time, and not so long ago either, when, if you were a vegan, you couldn't have the treats that the rest of us take for granted. Maybe that's what made so many vegans so cross with the rest of the world?

It's always interested me why those who care so much for the planet and its creatures are often willing to psychologically attack humans who don't share their beliefs. Obviously, they believe that we are all wrong but there are good ways and means of educating us and blaming and shaming isn't one of them.

I once had a former student tell me I was the personification of evil and she was recycling all my books because she had found out that I ate meat. She added that she would have burnt them but she was a good woman and wasn't going to add that pollution to the planet.

She may well have been a good woman although I'm always suspicious of those who actually tell me that, just as I'm suspicious of those who say 'I'm coming from the heart' which is so often egoic passive aggression for 'and you're not.'

I know she's right in a way — at least in that it would be better for the world if we ate much more vegetarian food and much less meat and I hope I'll get there in my own time. But not when I'm exposed to hatred. She was full of the Biblical commandment 'thou shalt not kill,' but what she didn't realise was that the Hebrew commandment is actually  'thou shalt not commit murder' — it's nearly always mistranslated — and to the mystic that includes psychological murder: the attacking and shaming of another.

And the world is changing. I am delighted to see that. Chocola Tree in Sedona is a herald of the (I'm sure gratefully received) New Age belief that it's okay to have yummy stuff including chocolate if you're vegan and wear purple clothes with too many buttons. Or even if you're not.

It's a fascinating rabbit-warren of a shop with fabulous ginger, lemon and honey lemonade, fresh juices and a delicious menu that's all vegan, gluten-free, organic or locally-sourced, GM-free — and it has a whole counter of chocolate. Have a look at their fabulous range of treats here. They made my mouth water.

Lion, who's an archetypical bloke and into his Sunday roast and sausages wasn't all that keen but I know that if I lived in Sedona, this would be my (alternative) coffee shop of choice.

Chocola Tree is  the kind of thing that's going to inspire people to change — it is filled with good feelings, good food and friendly staff.

They also have a very amusing, weird and loving car park. Here are some of the signs in it.

And finally, they sell tee-shirts with lovely life-affirming messages such as this:

You change the world with love, not hatred. You promote peace by being peace. Chocola Tree rocks!