All posts by Phil and Midge

The Hermitage

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Most walkers on the coast path probably do not take much notice of The Hermitage, nestled some way back from the shore at Welcombe Mouth in Devon.  They are, perhaps, more interested in reaching the border with Cornwall, less than half a mile to the west. Indeed, the Hermitage, situated in the far west of the north Devon coast, is probably the last building in Devon they will see.

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This isolated house was built in the late nineteenth century. It was originally used as a retreat for priests from the Brompton Oratory in London, hence the name. It is probably not the sort of place that would be associated with heavy metal music.

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However, it was this farmhouse that the band Deep Purple chose to rent in 1970, in order to work on their fifth studio album, Fireball.

For Deep Purple, this was the start of probably their most creative period. Deep Purple In Rock had been released in June, 1970, and work began on Fireball in September. Having started work on the album in London, the band (Ian Gillan, Roger Glover, Ian Paice, Jon Lord, and Ritchie Blackmore) relocated themselves to the Hermitage in the middle of December.

Several songs from the album are thought to have been written and first played at the Hermitage. Roger Glover later confirmed that the song Strange Kind of Woman (bizarrely omitted from the album but released as a single) was also written here. He describes the period at The Hermitage as

“a mad time . . . lots of hauntings, goings-on, and seances . . . a great period in Purple’s history”.

As well as the seances, and occasional violence, the band also spent much time at the local pub, The Welcombe Inn which, sadly, has since closed.

Fireball went on to become the first of Deep Purple’s three UK Number 1 albums.

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Why visit?

Welcombe Mouth receives fewer visitors than many destinations on this stretch of coast. Lying midway between Hartland Quay and Bude, this is a stormy coastline, with great cliff walking in both directions. Welcombe Mouth has a small car-park, accessible at the end of a long and narrow track , and a pebble beach (below).

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A short walk across the cliff to the south is Marsland Mouth, into which flows Marsland Water, which marks the northern boundary between Devon and Cornwall.

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As well as bracing cliff walks, there are plenty of inland footpaths. The steeply wooded Marsland Valley behind Marsland Mouth has many miles of interesting paths.

A couple of miles further along the cliffs to the south is Morwenstow, notable for its connection with the eccentric Parson Hawker. The hamlet also boasts the Rectory Farm tearooms and the Bush Inn, both highly recommended and dog friendly.

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Getting there

Welcombe is signposted west from the main A39 (Atlantic Highway) about six miles south of Clovelly, and four miles north of Kilkhampton. Welcombe Mouth is about four miles from the main road.

Wansfell Pike

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Height: 482m (1581 feet)

Drop: 25m

Classification: Birkett

In many ways, Wansfell Pike is a more satisfactory summit than Wansfell (the true summit) which lies about a mile to the north-east along the summit ridge. Although it is 5m shorter, Wansfell Pike has much better views, which extend across Ambleside and the length of Windermere. The summit is a rocky outcrop adjacent to a fence.

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Getting there

Wansfell Pike lies about 1½ miles to the east of Ambleside, and it is most commonly ascended from the town. This led to severe erosion problems by the 1990s, and much of the route is now laid with stone blocks. The fell can also be climbed from Troutbeck in the east, following Nanny Lane, an old drovers trail.

Wansfell Pike is one of the most straightforward fells to climb from the centre of any southern Lakeland town.

Circular routes

An excellent circular walk from Ambleside is to ascend Red Screes, cross Kirkstone Pass near the inn, and ascend Stony Cove Pike and Thornthwaite Crag. Troutbeck could be reached either by descending High Street alongside Higg Gill, or more profitably by the upland route across Froswick, Ill Bell, and Yoke. From Troutbeck, the return over Wansfell Pike would complete a fine day’s walk of around 16 miles.

A shorter circular walk from Ambleside would involve ascending Wansfell Pike from Ambleside, and descending into Troutbeck. Turning south to Town End, the return to Ambleside would be via High Skelghyll and Waterhead. This walk is about 6½ miles long, and would be suitable for those less confident in their fellwalking abilities.

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Polridmouth Cove

Polridmouth Cove is situated a few miles west of Fowey. Pronounced “Pridmuth”, it consists of a small dog-friendly beach, several footpaths, and a small number of buildings. It is usually quiet even in the height of summer.

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Because the slope of the beach is quite shallow, much of it is hidden at high tide, when the beach is split into two by a rocky outcrop. At low tide, however, an expanse of fine sand is revealed, as well as a series of fine rock pools to the west of the beach. The beach is entirely free of amenities, which may deter some visitors but will attract others.

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An unusual feature of Polridmouth Cove is the series of ornamental lakes behind the beach. These were created in the late 1920s, when a dam was built behind the beach.

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During the Second World War, the lakes formed a decoy site for nearby Fowey harbour. Decoy sites were a diverse group of structures, which were built all over the country under the direction of Colonel John Turner. Borrowing heavily from techniques developed at Shepperton film studios, Colonel Turner supervised the creation of more than 1100 imitation airfields, ports, and towns, each a few miles from the real thing. The aim was to fool enemy bombers into attacking the dummy site, thus protecting the genuine site.

At Polridmouth, dams were built around the lakes, and lighting set up, to imitate, as far as possible, Fowey harbour. The decoy site was considered especially important in 1944, when 2000 US Navy personnel were stationed in Fowey, in preparation for D-day.

Although it is difficult to assess the value of the decoy programme, it has been estimated that 5% of German bombs were diverted by decoys, saving more than 2500 lives. At least one bomb is known to have been dropped near Polridmouth.

The story of the bombing decoys is explained in a fascinating and well-researched book by Colin Dobinson:

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More well-known than the decoy site is the literary connection of Polridmouth with Daphne du Maurier, and the novel Rebecca. Behind the ornamental lake, the wooded valley leads up to Menabilly, a Georgian mansion which was home to Du Maurier from 1943 to 1969.

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Sadly, the house continues to be privately owned and there is no public access. Because of the woodland, very little of the house can be seen from any public road or footpath.

Daphne Du Maurier visited the house, trespassing, in the 1920s, and it is widely recognised as the inspiration for Manderley, the house in Rebecca. The famous opening line of the book:

Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again

was written in Alexandria, Egypt, where her husband was stationed, and is sometimes thought of as expressing the desire of Du Maurier to return to Cornwall. Rebecca was the novel which catapulted Du Maurier to fame, and five years later she was able to use the proceeds from the novel to buy the lease to Menabilly. The house also featured in her 1946 novel, The King’s General.

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The cottage by the beach also plays an important part in the novel Rebecca. It was built on the site of a watermill which once supplied the Menabilly estate with grain.

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Getting there

The quietness of Polridmouth Cove can probably be explained by the fact that no public road reaches it. To get to the beach requires a 10-15 minutes walk from any direction.

There are four ways to walk to Polridmouth Cove:

  • via the coast path from Polkerris in the west, a walk of about 2½ miles
  • via the coast path from Readymoney Cove, on the outskirts of Fowey to the east, a walk of about 1½ miles (or 2½ miles from the centre of Fowey)
  • from the car park at Coombe Farm, about ¾ mile
  • from the car park at Menabilly Barton, also about ¾ mile

All the paths are quite rough, and not suitable for wheelchairs.

Walks around Polridmouth

There are many excellent footpaths around Polridmouth. The two car parks at Coombe Farm and Menabilly Barton can each be the base for circular walks:

From Menabilly Barton car park, head west across two fields to the cliff top, then follow the coast path south around Gribben Head to Polridmouth. From Polridmouth, a footpath (before the lakes are reached) goes uphill and back to the car-park. Total distance is about 3 miles.

It was near Menabilly Barton that Du Maurier saw a flock of seagulls circling and diving around a man ploughing a field, an incident which inspired her story The Birds, later developed into a successful film by Alred Hitchcock. The walk also visits the tower on Gribben Head. This 26-metre stone tower was erected in 1832 to enable sailors to distinguish Gribben Head from other nearby headlands. It is open to visitors during the summer.

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For the second circular walk, starting from the National Trust car park at Coombe Farm, continue along the road and follow the track downhill past the farm. It is signposted to Polridmouth Cove. Follow the coast path east from Polridmouth. This goes past Coombe Haven, and St Catherine’s Castle, built by Henry VIII in 1536 to defend the town of Fowey.

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Just behind Readymoney Cove is another of Daphne Du Maurier’s properties, where she lived for a couple of years before moving into Menabilly. Follow the road round to the left before Readymoney Cottage, then take the footpath on the left to return to the car park. Total distance is about 3 miles.

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If you are interested in learning more about Daphne du Maurier and her connection with Cornwall, I can thoroughly recommend the biography by Margaret Forster:

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The Mermaid of Zennor

Why would a mermaid be depicted in a church?

It’s not really a Christian symbol, and as far as I’m aware there are no mermaids in the Bible. And yet, in the Church of St Senara, in the village of Zennor in West Cornwall, is a bench with the unmistakable carving of a mermaid.

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With long flowing hair, she carries a comb in her left hand, and a mirror in her right.

Mermaids exist in myths far older than Christianity, and in legends from countries as far apart as Brtain, Brazil, and Japan. Older legends associate mermaids with the Sirens of Greek mythology, and are usually omens of bad luck.

What is the legend of the Mermaid of Zennor?

Although there are variations in different tellings of the legend, the essentials are that a mermaid from nearby Pendour Cove was so entranced by the singing in church of a local man, Matthew Trewella, that she would sit in the back of the Church to listen to him. It is said that one day he followed her, even beneath the waves, and was never seen again. According to the legend, a sea-captain came across a mermaid many years later, who told him she still lived with Matthew, and their children, at the bottom of the sea.

When this legend originated, we do not know. The earliest recorded account was by William Bottrell in 1873, in his book Traditions and Hearthside stories of West Cornwall.

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Since the bench dates from the 1500s, it is probable that the story developed from the carving rather than the other way round.

To discover why the image of a mermaid ended up in a church, we need to consider the relationship of pagan myths and Christianity in medieval times. The mermaid was originally associated with Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, and later with the Venus, the Roman goddess associated with love, sex, and fertility. The symbols of Venus included a mirror and a comb.

The early and medieval church frequently borrowed earlier myths and changed them to suit their own purposes. Christmas and Easter are both adaptions of older pagan festivals. In the case of the Venus/mermaid myths, these creatures came to symbolise the sins of vanity and lust. There are, in fact, several carvings of mermaids in medieval churches, such as at Clonfert Cathedral in County Galway. Crowcombe Church, in Somerset, has a mermaid (or merman?) carved on a bench-end similar to that in Zennor.

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To further muddle the myths, Crowcombe Church includes another carving combining the pagan myth of the Green Man with the symbol of the mermaid.

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The mermaid chair is the most well-known artefact within the Church of St Senara. It is not, though, the only thing of interest. In the churchyard are memorials to Vera Atkins, a leading member of the wartime Special Operations Executive, and John Davey, one of the last native speakers of the Cornish language. In a later post, I will look at these individuals in more detail, and explore the fascinating history of the church itself.

Why visit?

I have always found the village of Zennor enchanting. For a village so small, it has a surprising number of interesting historical reminders. Beyond the church and its contents, the Wayside Museum contains a restored waterwheel, the village contains a memorial to the cholera epidemics of the mid-1800s, and there are tangible connections with DH Lawrence and John Wesley.

My first visit to zennor was in 1979, as a teenager. A friend and I had decided to walk part of the South West Coast Path and we started out from St Ives. Zennor was our first refreshment stop. Lunch at the Tinners Arms will always be a special memory.

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It is easy to drive to Zennor; it is just off the B3306 St Ives to Land’s End road. A visit for an hour or two, or longer, or an overnight stay at the Tinners Arms, has much to recommend it. The best way to get to Zennor, though, is to follow the coast path from St Ives, then head inland from Zennor Head. Following the coffin path back to St Ives would give a 12-mile circular walk, and a rewarding day out.

Miles Dock

One of the delights of coastal walking is coming across places that seem, initially, not to be worth a second look; but which turn out, on closer inspection, to have a unique and special history. Such a place is Miles Dock.

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At first, this small indentation in the riverbank looks as though it could be the natural outlet of the stream coming down the hillside. However, there are a enough signs of stonework to indicate that this was once part of a man-made structure, a small harbour.

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Why would anyone build a harbour here, seemingly in the middle of nowhere?

Although now silted up, Miles Dock has a varied and fascinating history. It takes its name from the Miles family, who made their fortune during the eighteenth century, importing sugar into Bristol from the West Indies. In the 1790s, William Miles was one of the largest importers of sugar in England, a position sadly built on the transatlantic slave trade. In 1812, his son, Philip Miles, commissioned the re-building of Leigh Court, a mansion high on the east bank of the river, above Leigh Woods. The original Leigh Court, dating from 1558, was demolished and replaced by a much larger Palladian structure. Miles Dock was constructed to receive the the large quantities of Bath Stone needed for its construction.

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A small kiln (above) was also built near to the dock, which was fired by anthracite brought by barge from South Wales. Leigh Court was completed in 1814. It would remain the Miles’ family home until 1917, but now it is a conference centre and wedding venue.

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In 1829, a competition was held to design a bridge to span the River Avon at Clifton. Two years later, work on Brunel’s Clifton suspension bridge began. Red sandstone from the Leigh Court estate was used to build the two great piers at either end of the bridge. Miles Dock was used to ferry this stone down the river to the construction sites.

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Following the building of the supporting pillars, construction of the bridge was halted in 1843 due to funding difficulties. The bridge was not completed until 1864, five years after Brunel’s death. Miles Dock, meanwhile, fell into disrepair. It must have seemed unlikely that this little dock would ever be used again.

That changed in 1880, however, when Henry Miles began to mine celestine on his estate.

Celestine is a form of strontium. During the last century, the main use of strontium was in the refining of sugar beet. For a few years at the end of the nineteenth century, Leigh Court was an important international supplier of celestine, all of which was exported through Miles Dock. A tramline was built from the quarries in Leigh Woods to the dock, and it is still possible to trace the incline down which it ran.

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With the development of radiography and cathode ray tubes (both of which use strontium) in the early twentieth century, the demand for celestine increased and larger producers – notably the Bristol Mineral and Land Company – began to dominate the industry. Production at Leigh Court was abandoned in 1912, and Miles Dock has not been used since. Other mines in south Gloucestershire, however, continued to supply 90% of the world’s strontium until the Second World War.

Why visit?

Mies Dock is a few minutes walk from the National Trust car park at Leigh Woods. Leigh Woods is a great destination for a day out, and contains some lovely forest trails. The woods stretch southwards as far as Clifton suspension bridge, and include Stokeleigh Camp, an Iron age fort. So much of historical interest in such a small area!

Miles Dock also lies on the River Avon Trail, which runs for 23 miles from Pill (near the mouth of the river) to Pulteney Bridge in Bath. This is a excellent trail, and fairly easy to complete in stages thanks to good bus services (services X39/338/339). We walked it in one go, but it could easily be split at Bristol, Keynsham and Saltford.

A interesting circular walk is to follow the River Avon north to the Avonmouth motorway bridge. A footway and cyclepath crosses the river adjacent to the motorway, and footpaths follow the river south on the opposite bank. Crossing the river via the Clifton suspension bridge, or continuing to Bristol, give an 11 or 14 mile circular walk. Highlights include the historic village of Pill and the remains of a Roman harbour near Sea Mills.

Devon’s parliament

Sometimes, just a word on an Ordnance Survey map can ignite curiosity, especially when that word is written in a fancy Old English font. An example is Parliament, marked on the map a few miles from Brixham, in South Devon. To what “Parliament” does that refer?

On the ground, Parliament is made up of a couple of cottages called, not surprisingly, Parliament Cottages.

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The proximity of Parliament to Brixham should have been a clue. For it was at Brixham Harbour, in 1688, that William of Orange landed in the so-called “Glorious Revolution”.

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A stone (above) in the garden of the cottages reveals the origin of the name of the cottages. The inscription is not easy to read, but says:

William Prince of Orange is said to have held his first Parliament here in November 1688

That may answer the initial query about the place name, but it raises more questions about the historical background to all this.

What was happening in this quiet corner of Devon in 1688, and why?

The historical background

In 1685, James II ascended to the throne of England, Scotland, and Ireland (James VII of Scotland). Crucially for the events that would follow, he was a Catholic.

Initially, this did not create a problem for the English Parliament. Despite earlier attempts to exclude James from the succession, Parliament tolerated the new monarch. The English Civil War had ended only 34 years earlier and its horrors were probably still fresh in people’s memories. Despite James making frequent use of the dispensing powers of the monarch and promoting Roman Catholics in numerous institutions, such as the Army and Oxford University, no moves were made against him. Even when the Duke of Monmouth, an illegitimate son of Charles I and a Protestant, landed at Lyme Regis in 1685, the population did not turn against James, and the Duke was easily defeated.

The uneasy status quo changed in 1688. Parliament, and the hierarchy of the Anglican Church, may have been willing to put up with a Catholic monarch until his death, but they baulked at the idea of a Catholic succession. On 10th June, 1688, James’ wife, Mary, gave birth to a son. This was unacceptable to the Establishment. A rumour, probably unfounded, quickly spread that the baby was a changeling, smuggled into the Queen’s apartments in a warming-pan. He was christened James Edward Stuart, later to become better known as the Old Pretender, and father of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

It was in this atmosphere that leading Parliamentarians and Anglicans invited the Dutch Prince William of Orange to invade. As a grandson of Charles I, William had only a tenuous link to the throne; his wife, Mary, daughter of James II, had a much stronger claim to the succession.

So it was that William of Orange landed at Brixham Harbour on 5th November, 1688, accompanied by an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 troops. The date was propitious: the 83rd anniversary of the discovery of Catholic conspirators attempting to blow up a Protestant king in the Gunpowder Plot.

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The stone on which William supposedly first set foot on English ground is encased in a monument (above) on Brixham seafront.

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Why Brixham? It’s difficult to say; there is evidence that the English suspected he might land at Hull, or Sole Bay in Suffolk. In reality, William may have been unconcerned about where he might land. Unlike the Duke of Monmouth, who relied on garnering local support and thus chose the West Country deliberately, William of Orange had 15,000 experienced troops, and was not dependent on the English to swell his ranks. It may, though, have been his plan to land some distance away from the capital, in the hope that James’ position might collapse during a slow advance towards London.

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Following his landing, William headed inland. There is a cottage at Yalberton, some six miles from Brixham, called King William’s Cottage, and it is thought that William of Orange may have stopped here to take refreshment.

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William continued along the narrow Devon lanes for a further three miles, which brought him to a farmhouse near the hamlet of Aish. Here, he met up with Sir Edward Seymour, an influential privy counsellor and opponent of James II, together with a number of unnamed “Gentlemen of the West”. This meeting has been termed his first Parliament on English soil.

Thus, a farm in rural South Devon wrote itself into the fabric of the history of England.

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Why visit?

If the historical value is not enough, Brixham has much to offer as a harbour and seaside resort. The harbour contains a replica of Drake’s Golden Hind, and the long outer breakwater is an exhilarating walk. The steeply-set cottages of the town are much photographed, and the vicar of All Saints’ Church composed the hymn Abide With Me. I will certainly be returning to Brixham in future posts.

Getting there

Although it is not easy to park near Parliament Cottages, they are within walking distance, along quiet lanes, of both Totnes and Stoke Gabriel. All the places mentioned also lie on the Orange Way, an unofficial 350 mile long distance footpath which follows the route of William of Orange from Brixham to London.

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For those who would like to learn more about William III and the Glorious Revolution, I can thoroughly recommend the book by Edward Vallance below.

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