A visit to Buckfast Abbey, the wilds of Dartmoor and the Mayflower Pilgrims Steps at Plymouth.
We left Exmouth soon after 10am and headed towards Dartmoor. When we planned this trip we would travel along the south coast stopping wherever we fancied in seaside towns. Realising that we had seen enough fishing harbours and sandy beaches for the week, pretty as they were, we craved a change of scenery. And you don’t get much different than a windswept desolate moor.
We were passing Buckfast Abbey so stopped for a quick look round. I was vaguely aware they made tonic wine and things with honey, but didn’t know much else.
The abbey forms part of an active Benedictine monastery. They started the current abbey building in 1906 but only finished it in 2013. You need to sell a lot of jars of honey and tonic wine to pay for an abbey.
Having seen a lot of different cathedrals and abbeys over the years I am used to seeing stone steps and floors worn down by thousands of feet over centuries. It was nice to see something that new. The stonework was immaculate. The carvings looked like they were completed yesterday. They were, in cathedral age terms.
There was a small exhibition, nicely done, about the lives of the monks living at the abbey. I got the, probably accurate, impression that it was mostly praying and keeping silent. Since we had no desire to pray and Madam does not have the ability to be silent, we returned to the car and set the SatNav for the Dartmoor Visitor Centre.
We climbed winding steep lanes heading inland. The lanes got narrower. One car wide with only occasional passing places. Ferns where whipping against the sides of the car. I tightened my seatbelt. My ears straining, listening for the sound of any car coming the other way. My eyes bulging as I tried to peer around corners. Perspiration glistened on my brow. I gripped the steering wheel tighter and tighter, my knuckles white.
“Let go of the steering wheel Honey,” said Madam, “I can manage the driving on my own.”
We climbed higher still.
Finally the road opened up and it presented us with the most amazing views of the moor. Gorse dotted the hillsides with bright yellow flowers. Dry stone walls enclosed neat fields. A few intrepid walkers were silhouetted on top of one peak. Cattle and sheep were wandering unhindered in the road and along the verges.
We parked in a small car park near the top of a hill and stood and gazed out over the moor. Serious looking hikers with Gore Tex coats, backpacks and poles were heading in all directions. Rocky outcrops were dotted on the hillsides. Craggy granite peaks topped the hills. The hills were green and every shade of gold and brown. It was wild, desolate and jaw-droppingly beautiful.
Madam walked for a while up a steep incline following the hikers while I sat and kept the car company. I was concerned it might be frightened out there all alone.
The visitor centre had an exhibition based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story ‘Hound of the Baskervilles.’ The visitor centre was formerly the Old Dutchy Hotel where Conan Doyle stayed and was inspired to write his novel. Many of the locations featured in his book are nearby: Great Grimpen Mire, where the hound was kept; the tomb of Squire Cabell, reputedly the inspiration for Hugo Baskerville; and Hexworthy, the village of Grimpen in the novel.
Dartmoor is the largest area of upland and open space in southern Britain with peaks rising to 2,000 feet. Mostly granite (or more specifically adamellite for any geologists reading) covered by a layer of peat. Far more interesting is that the area is home to the world’s largest slug, the ash black slug, which grows up to eight inches long. You can only find it in dense woodlands in remote valleys, otherwise I would have insisted we go search for one to take home as a pet. Much easier to care for than a Norwegian Blue.
Many places we visited on this trip left only vague and hazy memories. Others were just “Bleh,” no need to ever come again. Some, like Dartmoor, left a lasting impression and vivid memories. Definitely a place to re-visit and spend more time. But time was pressing and we had a hotel booking for tonight so we headed to Plymouth as Madam was keen to see the Mayflower Steps.
We had booked into a budget hotel in Plymouth which turned out to be in a grim semi-industrial area. A tyre and exhaust centre was opposite with a car crushing plant next door. The map showed a long walk via busy roads and roundabouts to the city centre but I noticed on the satellite view of Google Maps there was a cobbled path hugging the side of the docks. After some exploratory wandering in backyards and car parks, vaulting walls and studiously ignoring ‘Private’ signs, we found the path and reached the old harbour and Pilgrim Mayflower Steps away from the busy roads.
Madam rushed to the steps which may, or may not, be the departure point of the Mayflower to America.
“Take my picture… take my picture … take my picture,” she shouted as she pushed a couple of Japanese tourists aside.
The steps are commemorated with a stone arch with a Union Flag and USA flag flying either side. There is a small museum above the tourist information office which gave a brief history of the Mayflower and her passengers.
The Mayflower was an English ship that transported the first English Puritans, now known as the Pilgrims, from Plymouth to America in 1620. There were 102 passengers, with a crew of about 30.
Some cargo choices were odd. You would think that a ship bound for a colony would focus on seeds, farming and hunting equipment. A few sacks of dried foods. A return ticket in a back pocket.
One passenger, William Mullins brought 126 pairs of shoes, 13 pairs of boots, hose, stockings, haberdashery and stuff breeches amongst other items.
It must have been a miserable experience. The cabins were cramped – the total area was only 25 ft by 15 ft. Each person had a space less than the size of a modern single bed. The headroom below decks was less that 5 ft. The cargo included pigs, goats, and poultry. Some passengers brought family pets such as dogs, cats and birds. They were at sea for 65 days, much of it in rough weather, so add in seasickness for extra fun.
After arrival in America the harsh winter climate and lack of fresh food caused more problems. Several of the colonists developed scurvy and the cramped conditions led to other contagious diseases. Between the landing and the following March only 47 colonists and half the crew had survived.
Not the best start for a new country.
We wandered around the harbour for a while, had dinner and helped fish the Japanese tourists out of the harbour, then headed back to the hotel for an early night.
You can read about the rest of our trip at The Journey West.