Monday, September 01, 2003

Gone West

We took the Smart car to the west country and Wales for a summer tour of historical sights. After lunching in Guildford, Surrey with good friends Richard and Karan we headed west to start our holiday. First stop was at Goodwood for the Festival of Speed where we planned to arrive at seven o'clock on the Friday morning. We hunted around for a camp site and after exploring Chichester and the coast we wound up at Slindon for the night. We found a pub, the Newburgh Arms, for supper in the village and called it a day.
The Festival was celebrating its tenth anniversary and Ford was the featured marque with the Le Mans-winning Mk IIs as the centrepiece, brought from the United States for the occasion. The weather was kind and we hooked up with radio-colleague Peter Flanagan to tour the various paddocks. The downhill soapbox racers caught my eye - in fact most were anything but 'soapbox' rather high-tech cars without engines. I also enjoyed the Ford model collection in one of the pavilions. For me the whole event was rather expensive and lacked the buzz of a real race meeting - nostalgia is not what it used to be. Good to hear Ian Titchmarsh "on the tannoy," sadly missed on Radio Le Mans this year.
Around midday we headed off into Hampshire to find the birthplace of 'Mad Jack' Fuller at North Stoneham - now subsumed into Eastleigh. We found the church where his father was the vicar, the Rev Henry Fuller, and the rectory where he was born. The rectory is now on a gated trading estate but I managed to take a reasonable photograph through the railings round the back.
We headed for Dorset for the next night stop - we thought better of Blandford Forum and carried on to Dorchester. A check with tourist information pinpointed a campsite out in the hills near Cerne Abbas. We stocked up with provisions at Waitrose and camped with spectacular views toward the Dorset coast. Next morning to Yarcombe to photograph the Belfry Hotel, formerly Yarcombe School erected by Sir Francis Eliott Drake in 1870. Then to Killerton House and Gardens, historic home of the Acland family; the arboretum with its giant Redwoods being the highlight for me.
We drove across Dartmoor, getting gas at Postbridge before turning south, with the ponies and sheep up close to the road. We camped at Ashburton in Devon, deciding to buy a takeaway pizza in town for supper and while waiting for it to cook a lengthy parade of WW2 vehicles with folk in period dress went past. We discovered that they were billeted at the South Devon Railway - our destination next morning. The railway runs from Buckfastleigh to Totnes (or vice-versa) in the valley of the River Dart. It should be called the friendly line as one of the volunteers remarked - everyone at this scenic railway were bending over backwards to make it a worthwhile visit, all in forties garb and happy to tell the story of the line.
After our morning steam along the Dart Valley we headed to Buckland Abbey north of Plymouth, home of Sir Francis Drake and later inherited by Lord Heathfield from Sussex. A quick look also in the church in Buckland Monochorum where Lord Heathfield is commemorated.
Across the Tamar and into Cornwall for the first time and on to Padstow to research the shipbuilding branch of the Willmett family - my mother's maiden name being Willmett. Found a bed and breakfast place on the outskirts of town, Penjoly Cottage, comfortable at a reasonable price.
Next day to Dennis Cove on the Camel estuary where James Willmett built ships. The railway later connected Padstow to Bodmin, the final section Wadebridge to Padstow opening on 27 March 1899. Dennis Cove yard, upstream of Padstow, was drastically altered as the railway embankment ran across the mouth of the cove almost cutting it off from the Camel estuary save for a single arch span.
All in all it was hard to envisage the shipbuilding industry as it once was but still worth the effort to visit the place where the pioneering "Pomaron" was launched in 1865, built to Henzell's patent. The Upper Docks in Padstow were also drastically altered as the railway station was sited there.
We met up next day with John Buckingham of the Padstow Museum who very kindly showed us round. We bought a copy of "Ships of North Cornwall" by John Bartlett, on his recommendation, at The Strand Bookshop on The Strand by the harbour. This proved to be invaluable with details of the ships built by the Willmett brothers.
We headed south to Falmouth to visit the National Maritime Museum. Access to the John Bartlett library here is free so we spent the afternoon researching Willmett shipbuilding activities in Padstow and at Newport in South Wales. We also got lucky in the car park when the parking attendant, a young lad in a woolly hat said "There is no charge as your car is so cool." The Smart car was making friends everywhere we went.
Next to Redruth for two nights at the Tehidy Campground and a day and a half at the Cornish Studies Library in town - it may not be everybody's idea of a fun holiday searching through microfilmed newspapers from the 1860's but the weather had turned wet and we were glad to be out of it. We found much to interest us about the bankruptcy of James Willmett in 1865.
We decided to head for Devon and Barnstaple but not before a quick return to Padstow to photograph St Edmund's Lane, formerly Horse Mill Lane, where we had discovered John Henry Willmett once resided. Today Rick Stein's trendy fish restaurant is at the bottom of the lane and property prices are going through the roof.
An overnight stop at the Park Hotel in Barnstaple and a visit next morning to the Barnstaple Museum. A sign saying "Huguenot refugees came to Barnstaple from La Rochelle in 1685" got my attention, still wondering when and why the Willmett family might have fled France. Perhaps the Protestant uprising in 1745 in France or further risings in eastern and southern France in 1754 had got them on the move - the mystery remains.
We motored on next morning via Ilfracombe to a campground near Lynton. By chance we passed the Lynton and Barnstaple narrow-gauge railway and stopped by to talk with the folks who have heroically restored Woody Bay station and a short section of track - they plan to restore as much of the 19½ miles linking the two North Devon towns as possible, offering rides to the public soon.
We were nosing around Lynton and Lynmouth by car and on foot, checking out the Cliff Railway built by Sir George Newnes. We noticed an advertisement for the Thai-Lyn Restaurant at the Waterloo House Hotel. Good Thai food in North Devon we thought - not likely - how wrong can you be as we were served the best Thai meal I've had in a long while. Highly recommended, best to book.
Next morning on the road to Minehead we found ourselves at Holnicote, an Acland estate once used for stag hunting. Another old estate which has fallen into the clutches of the National Trust.
We checked into the Castle Hotel for two nights in Dunster. We climbed the hill to the Conygar Tower built by Henry Fownes Luttrell in 1775. It has no strategic or military significance and was designed as a "mock ruin" simply for its aesthetic value.
We drove to Stogursey, West Quantoxhead, and St Audries to see the haunts of the Palmer Fuller Acland family. Next day we rode on the West Somerset Railway, founded by Jack Fuller's nephew, Peregrine Fuller Palmer Acland, the first Chairman of the line. This railway at twenty miles in length is an extraordinary survivor from the sixties, when there were wholesale railway closures, with great sea views on the approach to Minehead.
After a night in Taunton we drove via Cheddar gorge over The Severn Bridge to Newport in Wales. Newport is a town of contrasts still struggling to find a role after the prosperity of past times. We photographed the dock where my relatives once built ships at Jack's Pill, now with an old car shoved into the water. The town centre car park was an urban hell, broken lifts and grafitti, yet the Ridgeway a short distance away has delightful views of the Bristol Channel and to Twmbalwm in the north.
I was intrigued by a surviving section of 'pre-fab' housing nearby built as a temporary measure after WW2. The reference library in town was a credit and in keeping with the Welsh tradition of valuing education - they were most helpful.
Next day we drove north to Pontypool, stopping for lunch at Pontymoile canal basin by the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal. There was a splendid cafe in a boat, now on dry land by the cut, where egg and chips and tea are dispensed to hungry boatmen. The banter was good too.
Largely by mistake we ended up at the folly tower high above Pontypool. Built around 1765 by local worthy, John Hanbury, the tower was demolished during the second world war by order of the Ministry of Defence. In the 1980s a group called CROFT (campaign for the reconstruction of the folly tower) was formed and the rebuilt tower reopened in 1994. I love the stubborness of restorers - they say stop messing with my world - I like it the way it is.
We stopped in at the Pontypool Museum in search of the Hanbury Hotel in Griffithstown, a large redbrick pile once run by my great-grandmother. After much driving round in circles we finally located this former traveller's hotel which has seen better days. We returned to Newport via Abercarn where my grandfather once lived.
Next morning it was back to England across the bridge to Bath. We wanted to visit the William Herschel museum but it was closed so we consoled ourselves with a visit to the excellent Building of Bath museum, a monument to Georgian architecture, and to Beckford's Tower, a folly overlooking the town.
After lunching at Bradford-on-Avon by the Kennet and Avon Canal we headed east to Caen Hill Locks at Devizes which date from 1810. I once walked the towpath of this waterway from Bath to Reading, about 80 miles, when much of it was in a derelict state.
We spent the last night at a campsite at Orcheston not far from Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain. I was mindful my father had been at Larkhill nearby when in the Royal Artillery, his wartime experience curing him of camping for life. The site had an adjacent pub which had Wadworth's in cans and a welcome roast dinner on a wet night. The weather made this the worst night of the trip and we pulled out early in search of a cooked breakfast before pointing the Smart car in the direction of Sussex.

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