A sign of the times…

If you live in Devon, you can get a bit obsessed with signposts. We still have lots of lovely old-fashioned white fingerposts at junctions in our narrow lanes displaying what we often refer to as ‘the Devon mile’ – a curious ‘elastic’ measurement. Let me explain. You set off following a fingerpost that says ‘Stokeinteignhead 3¼’ miles and then, after driving a good couple of miles, you’ll find another one that says Stokeinteignhead 2½’ miles. You frown, scratch your head and go on for another two or so until you come to another signpost that says ‘Stokeinteignhead 2¼’. You will get to your destination on the end, but a Devon mile is a funny thing and usually much longer than you expect…

Traditional direction signs, or ‘fingerposts’, are as English as red post boxes and the old-fashioned red telephone box and very much part of the ‘traditional’ English look’ that so many foreign visitors love to see. These days, many fingerposts are falling into disrepair but, where they do still survive, they come in a wide variety of regional and local designs. Some have finials on the top, others have proper pointing ‘hands’ like white gloves, while others even have lanterns on the top. Amazingly, the oldest fingerpost, in the Cotswolds, dates from 1699!

To try and standardise this mishmash of designs, in the 1920s the Ministry of Transport stated that direction signs should use standard black upper case lettering on a white background and specified that the name of the authority should also appear in the design. While following these guidelines, local authorities still had plenty of leeway over the exact design of posts, arms and finials and this led to a wide variety of local styles.

Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall boasted red posts with white lettering (no one is sure why!) while others had finials in the form of discs, rings, balls and pyramids marked with county names and sometimes even a map grid references. Over the years, further reviews have been carried out to try and standardise the signs, and again, local authorities were encouraged, but not forced, to remove traditional fingerposts. But, as is so often the case in this wonderfully eccentric country of ours, they wanted to maintain their regional identities, so did nothing. And that’s why there are still lots of weirdly designed fingerposts pointing all over the country to this day.

Being an old romantic, I think it will be a sad day when fingerposts eventually disappear and all anyone does is listen to their boring old sat nav bossing them about. In the Westountry we have wonderful, romantic place names – as well as some really funny ones. I still get a thrill when I drive past signs in Cornwall to ‘Demelza’, the name of a village borrowed by Winston Graham for the heroin of his Poldark books – and a steamy TV drama from my teens (Robin Ellis in tight breeches!!)! And on a back road way down in the south of Cornwall, you’ll come across one of my absolute favourite signs pointing to ‘Frenchman’s Creek’, the setting for, and name of, the impossibly romantic historical novel by Daphne Du Maurier.

Long may the fingerpost continue to show us the way!

 

 

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Fascinating and fun day out!

When I wrote my ‘My Top 10 days out in the West Country recently, I listed ‘The House of Marbles’ as one of my top choices. I am somewhat biased here as this is run by friends of mine, but it really is a fascinating place to visit and has something to interest visitors of all ages.

They manufacture glass wear in the traditional old pottery buildings on their site and I always find glass blowing absolutely fascinating to watch. There’s a museum with lots of interesting facts and examples of old-fashioned games and marbles of all sizes and antiquity. 

There are lots of nice little touches aimed especially at children throughout The House of Marbles. Hidden in among displays are moving life-size model animals such as gorillas with swivelling eyes or slumbering bears, that ‘breath’ and ‘snore’ as you wander past. Children absolutely adore things like this. There’s also a ‘wobbly’ distorting mirror that both children and adults seem to find endlessly fascinating!

The shop is huge and sells everything from exquisite glass wear to modern games and jewellery. If you are looking for unusual gifts – I’d be amazed if you couldn’t find something – it is packed with original items both fun and educational. 

There’s a whole section full of individual marbles for sale that children cannot resist. They can select their marbles just like we used to ‘pick and mix’ sweets in the old days. It’s a lovely way to get youngsters interested in an old-fashioned game and makes a change from their X-Boxes and wiis

On the way upstairs to the first floor of the shop (I told you it was huge!) is, what I suspect is the most popular attraction in the shop – ‘Snookie’ the largest marble run in the UK and possibly the world! As you reach the top of the stairs you will see a crowd of people, most often the male of the species of all ages, standing mesmerised as they watch the marbles clank and skip and run down through the complicated marble run again and again. It is fun to watch, especially as the route the marbles take seems to vary at random.

The first floor of the shop is full of very tempting clothing and kitchenwear and all sorts of lovely things that you know you absolutely HAVE to own!

And, to cap it all, there’s The Old Pottery Cafe and Restaurant. Serving everything from a full English breakfast to very yummy cakes, coffees and teas to snacks and three-course lunches. The restaurant is always busy – always a sign of good food – and locals eat there just as much as visitors. 

And if the weather is fine, there’s a Games Garden where you can enjoy your lunch outside in the courtyard where skittles, chess, giant Jericho and of course marbles are there to be played.

There’s plenty of free parking and no entry fee. The house of Marble is open Monday to Saturday, 9am – 5pm and Sunday, 10am – 5pm. It is closed on Easter Sunday, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day.

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My Top 10 days out in the West Country

The West Country is a wonderful area to visit, it combines stunning natural beauty with lots and lots of attractions and interesting places to visit. I have picked just ten of some of the thousands of possibilities – seriously I could have done my top 100 and not run out of ideas! – some are days out that I have done with my family over the years, and there’s one I plan to try this year too!

Morwellham Quay1.  Paignton Zoo 
If you enjoy zoos, I think Paignton tries really hard and has some excellent exhibits – my favourites being the red panda, giraffes and the meerkats!

2. Buckfast Abbey
There’s a monastery shop here that sells products entirely from other monasteries – great Belgian beer and lovely perfumes etc. There’s also the most amazing stained glass window and a great cream tea!

3. Morwellham Quay
Both my girls loved visits here, it really brings history to life – it was a great copper ore port in Victorian times and there’s so much to see.

Cornwall’s Eden Project4. Eden Project
Interesting plant displays and environments, it’s internationally famous for its groundbreaking exhibits and even has concerts down there now!

5. House of Marbles, Bovey Tracey
I am somewhat biased here as this is run by friends of mine, but the glass blowing is fascinating to watch, the restaurant does a great lunch and the shop is very tempting – the marble displays were adored by my daughters and nephews alike!

6. Miniature Pony Centre, Dartmoor  
I just love this place, the ponies are adorable and make you want to take them home and I think I remember Pippa crying just because she couldn’t! Nice picnic area too.

Steaming through the countryside…7. Steam Trains from Buckfastleigh
Travel back in time… and rekindle your memories of steam trains! A lovely few hours reminiscing as you travel close to the River Dart from Buckfastleigh to Totnes – huge thumbs up from me. Have a browse round Totnes while you are there too – a lovely town.

8. Kent’s Cavern, Torquay
I have been here many times with visiting family and the stalactites and stalagmites are always fascinating and the cream tea is fun too!

9. Babbacombe Model Village
The detail in the work is great to see and when the village is illuminated at night it looks very pretty – lots to see including a fire breathing dragon on the model castle!

Kent’s Cavern10. Greenway House
Agatha Christie is one of my heroines and there’s a new trip for 2013 – departing from either Torquay or Brixham and travel on a river boat to her former home Greenway House and then return on Barnaby, a vintage bus. The garden is amazing and I have bought many plants from the nursery section in the past – so I am definitely planning this as a day out this year!

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Murder & mystery in deepest Devon…

The west country, with its dramatic coastline, brooding moors and secluded hideaways is a pretty perfect place for writers to escape to – well that’s what I keep telling myself whenever myAgatha Christie enthusiasm flags! Over the years, this corner of England has been home to some of our most popular authors of the 20th century. Two female literary giants – Daphne Du Maurier and Agatha Christie – both spent many happy years in this part of the world.

South Cornwall was the home of Daphne Du Maurier, writer of the haunting classics Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel and Frenchman’s Creek, among many other excellent novels. She lived a reclusive life down on the wild south Cornish coast and nowadays there is an annual Daphne Du Maurier Literary Festival (now called the Fowey Festival or Words & music) which I keep promising myself I must go to! 

In Devon, we lay claim to Agatha Christie. The undisputed queen of crime was born on 15 September 1890 in Torquay, just a couple of miles away from where I live. Once her fame was established and money no object, there was nothing she loved more than escaping with her family to Greenway, their Devon holiday home.

The National Trust opened Greenway House to the public in 2009 and for the first time, visitors had the opportunity to view the many personal collections and mementoes of this much-loved mystery writer and her family. It’s well worth a visit.

Greenway is an imposing house, sitting high on the slopes of the valley running down to the beautiful riverGreenway House Dart, near Dartmouth – one of my favourite Devon towns. If you take the Dart River Boat trip from Totnes to Dartmouth – wonderful in itself – you get superb views of Greenway from the river and can appreciate what a lovely place it was for her to escape to. 

Outside you can explore the large and romantic woodland garden, with a restored vinery, wild edges and rare plantings, which drifts down the hillside towards the sparkling Dart estuary. Lovely!!

I keep saying to Richard, all we need is a nice mansion by the sea where I can sit and muse while sipping a gin sling and I’ll have no trouble writing all my murder mysteries!! Somehow, I don’t think he is taking me seriously…

 

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Secret gardens just waiting for you…

Spring is so slow to get going this year that I am trying to convince myself it will be doubly good when it finally does arrive!

In eager anticipation of this, I thought that I’d mention the National Garden Scheme in this week’s blog. Some of you may already know it – it’s often referred to as ‘The Yellow Book’ scheme – if not, you are missing out on a real gardening treat. The National Garden Scheme (NGS) is a wonderful idea that not only raises lots of money for charity, but also allows you to visit some absolutely stunning private gardens.

Most gardens that open for the NGS are privately owned and open just a few times each year. Some gardens open as part of a group with the whole community involved. The gardens give all the money raised directly to us (including from the sale of teas and plants); the only exceptions being in some cases they ask that a small proportion goes to a nominated local charity.

When a garden is open, it puts out a distinctive yellow poster – look out for these! A few years ago, I had a wonderful afternoon wandering round a garden that was right next to somewhere I’d lived as a child. It had been home to Enid Blyton many years before and the current owners had done a fantastic job restoring the garden. I had been visiting the area and drove past the end of the road and saw the sign – pure chance. Sadly, that particular garden isn’t open this year, but there are no less than 3,700 across England and Wales that are, and some of them are bound to be near you. 

Buy a copy of their ‘Yellow Book’ Guide and it will tell you all the gardens that open, and when. There are some absolute gems! Their website is also very useful and includes details of when you can stay near particular gardens, details of plant fairs and nurseries etc.

 

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