It was six forty-five in the morning as our plane touched down at Gatwick airport. This was the start of our one week's vacation in Southern England. As we drew up to the disembarkation gate the captain told us the weather forecast for the next few days was warm and sunny. What a bonus - no rain.
After clearing customs we located our hire car which, as luck would have it, had a diesel engine. What a great reward, considering the cost of gas is so extortionate in the UK. So off we set off on our journey down to the glorious county of Devon, where the rolling hills and lush green valleys are a sheer delight.
When we turned off the highways (after an hour) and on to the county roads the scenery started out quite level, with the odd hill scattered here and there. All of a sudden I began to see parts of Stonehenge straight ahead, then we got closer and my heart began to sense a bygone age of ancient rituals associated with the age-old stone. I slowed down to a crawl (much to the disgust of the impatient drivers behind) and could envision sacred blessing being bestowed to faithful worshipers. A time gone by that holds many mysteries and conjures up mystical thoughts that spark the soul. All to soon the unexplainable stones disappeared in the rear view mirror as the car picked up speed and headed towards Devon.
As the scenery began to change to rolling hills there was no need to look at the map to know we were approaching Somerset and then Devon. Originating from Florida where everything is flat, the rolling hills were a truly a refreshing pleasure to behold. After four hours driving and one rest stop for toasted tea cakes and tea, we arrived at our Devon cottage in the countryside where we were to spend the first week of our vacation. Longcombe Cottages is a delightful series of eight individual cottages catering to all tastes in size. We lodged in a one bedroom cottage that was the home of two horses before the conversion to a holiday home. It was tiny but very comfortable. The owners of Longcombe Cottages are Vanessa and Chris Lewis. They are a wonderful couple who go out of their way to make every guest's stay a pure pleasure. With a heated indoor swimming pool and children's play area the secluded cottages are an idyllic setting for a peaceful holiday. Magnificent rolling hills encircle the cottages that accommodate a farm with sheep, cows, a rooster and an angry farmer who will not allow anyone on his land. We discovered the latter one day when we tried to walk over to the cows, only to be told to 'Bugger off' in no uncertain manner. Gee! it's great to be back in the UK and be greeted with such frank honesty. When I blew the farmer a kiss his face turned to beetroot; nice to see county folks with color in their cheeks.
Chris's father was MP for a north eastern town in England for many years. One evening he brought over his father's memorabilia, which contained amongst other things, a collection of letters Chris's dad receive from Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan and the infamous Enoch Powell. Every letter told a story and there was even some correspondence from a minster at the center of the Profumo affair in the early sixties. What? you don't remember the call-girl scandal that brought down the defense minister? Of course you do! Surely the more recent fall of another defence minister by the name of David Blunkett, brings it all back. (What is it about defence?) They made a movie called Scandal and I was reading a letter that was part of all the Hoo-Har. Fascinating stuff.
The cottages are very close to the sea side towns of Paignton (Famous for its great zoo), and Torquay. Both are well worth a day visit and the zoo is a real nature reserve in natural settings. But, be warned ... very hilly. Torquay takes first prize for magnificent Gardens and superb seafront promenade. No wonder they call it the 'English Riviera'. It even has palm trees swaying in the light balmy breezes.
As we walked along the promenade we came to a large grassed area that was holding a festival in aid of a charity. The site was filled with many Marques that had children's gifts and there was a large stage for children's entertainment. A little further down the line was a marquee with a large sign 'Free Men's Health Check'. It has been twenty years since I had a health check so what a golden opportunity to get an examination. 'What do you do?' I enquired. 'Cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and testicle test' came the reply from a young, good looking nurse. 'Really? Where do I sign up?' was my prompt response. We exchanged knowing grins. But it turned out she knew more than I did.
All my blood levels were perfect, then it came to the more intimate aspect of the tests although, in the event, it was merely instruction, not the physical I imagined. I would have to be satisfied with the thrill of the seaside. But i did gain an important piece of information on a do-it yourself health check that can save a life. I had learnt something new and I thanked all the staff kindly for their great work in preventing illness.
Meanwhile, back at the cottages, Vanessa and Chris had organized a get-together with all the other guests. It turned out to be a great party with many interesting English folks who all had stories to tell. Another lovely place close by is the ancient town of Totnes. It is a town steeped in English history. 'Steeped' is an appropriate word, for the town is built on an extremely steep hill and walking up is not for the unfit. Thank goodness I'd been checked out! We had a lovely guide to show us around and tell us of the local history. Medieval legend has it that, Brutus of Troy (based on myths), is the originator of the British Race and this would be the place early settlers would have arrived along the South West coast in the 10th century. Totnes, which means 'The Fort', originated from the Saxon kingdom of Wessex. In 1206 people secured their charter of independence from King John, and sent their first MP to Parliament in 1295. The list of Mayors in the Guildhall begins in 1359. Many houses in the town depict the wealth of rich merchants from the 16th century, several with lavishly carved ceilings. Throughout the Civil War, both sides used the town as a base, with Sir Thomas Fairfax, Charles the Second and Oliver Cromwell visiting the town and leaving their mark in the history books.
Today the ancient character of the town is still in felt, with the clock tower in the center to chronicle the ambiance of a past era. Shoppers will enjoy strolling around some unique and diverse shops in the town. It also boasts a great old fashioned fishmonger with very fresh fish. There are so many day trips in the local area we would have needed a month to see them all. One of the places we did visit was a working farm called Pennywell. It is filled with an assortment of half-hourly events and various cute animals that make for a very enjoyable day out. The highlight for us was the bird of prey display that was truly amazing.
Some of the other places to visit in the area, which the locals told me were great fun are: Canonteign Falls , Cardew Teapottery, Coleton Fishacre House and Garden, Dartington Ciderpress Centre, the Hedgehog Hospital, Paignton and Dartmouth Steam Railway, Quaywest Waterpark, River Dart Country Park, Sharpham Vineyard, Sorley Tunnel Adventure Farm, South Devon Railway, Totnes Rare Breeds Centre, Woodlands Leisure Park. Numerous choices and with our week's visit bathed in sunshine, we visited as many places as we could.