Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Magical Mystery Tour!

The English county of Devon has to be one of the most beautiful places on earth. Tucked away in the Southwest corner of England between Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset, it is the only county with two coastlines - the Bristol Channel to the North and the English Channel to the South. On both you'll find numerous fishing villages and seaside towns, popular with tourists. In between are rolling green hills and valleys, dotted with tiny, narrow lanes, lots of sheep and cows, organic farms, interesting, historic towns and villages.

In the middle, stretches the brooding expanse of Dartmoor, 954 square kilometers, populated by wild ponies, a forbidding, early 19th century granite prison for men, deep-sucking bogs and creeks. Myths and legends abound of the howling Hounds of the Baskerville, of fierce winds and dense fogs, of ghosts and smugglers.

My recent visit to Devon was of a much more placid nature, I'm glad to say. Visiting a dear friend of very long standing, who lives in a converted barn on one of those narrow, winding roads, we passed our few days together appreciating the late blooming bluebells and primroses that splashed their bright colors in the woods and along the hedgerows.

Along with all of that, Jill also introduced me to a couple of places that are steeped in history, magic and mystery.

The medieval manor house at Cotehele, just on the very edge of Devon and Cornwall, offers a rare window into the past. One of the least altered medieval houses in England, it came into the Edgecumbe family through marriage in 1353. Apart from improvements made in the late 15th/early 16th centuries, it has remained largely unchanged. Generations of the Edgecumbe family continued to own the estate, all the way until 1947, when, to pay the onerous death duties, the property was given to the Treasury, and became part of the National Trust.

Thanks to the Trust's great devotion to preservation, today, you can visit Cotehele, and entering into the Great Hall -- with its fine displays of arms and armory beneath the high, arched timber roof -- you feel yourself stepping back eight centuries.

Leaving the chilly, stone-floored great hall, we climbed upstairs, where I finally "got" the whole idea of tapestries! Every room, and every door in every room, was hung with original Flemish tapestries, depicting Greek and Roman myths, hunting scenes, etc., all still remarkably vibrantly colored.

What I "got" was the fact that the temperature was many many degrees warmer in all these rooms. With good-sized stone fireplaces everywhere, it wasn't hard to imagine it being quite cozy back there in the 14th/15th centuries!

In a tower that was added in the early 1600s, we found this bedroom where, rumor has it, King Charles I once slept!

If you look carefully toward the back corner of the small chapel, through an archway, you can just make out some cogs and wheels. Installed in 1489, this is a pre-pendulum clock, powered by two 90-lb weights.

At the time the house was built, England was awash with unrest. Manor houses were quite small, compact, fortified with granite walls so they could be defended. Within the house itself, there were clever ways to check on any unwanted intruders getting into the Great Hall, such as this peephole from the second floor!

 Today, those fears are long gone. The grounds of Cotehele stretch all the way down to the banks of the River Tamar.

Making our way down there, we were stopped, breathless, at the beautiful formal gardens...

...and further on, the azaleas and rhodies, just blazing with color...

...till at the bottom we walked past this bank of bluebells, ferns, primroses, wild campion, and other wild flowers, where I would have happily sat for hours, if the bench had not already been occupied!

Our "mystery" outing came a couple of days later, when we drove over to Greenway, another National Trust property, this one the former home of Dame Agatha Christie!

Bought by Christie and her husband, the archeologist, Max Mallowan, in 1938, the Georgian house, set on a promontory overlooking the River Dart, was probably built in the late 18th century. It remained their holiday home and retreat until their deaths in the mid-1970s.  Her daughter and husband continued to live there until 2004.

Restored by the National Trust in 2008, the interior of the house gives off the comfortable feel of a "country home". Hats are left lying on tables, umbrella stands are packed with walking sticks, clocks tick away the hours.

In the morning room, a portrait of Agatha Christie as a child shows a remarkable facial likeness to photos of her as an adult.

The family were avid collectors: china, postage stamp boxes, cigarette cases, silver, Tunbridgeware, chairs and other items made from papier-mâché, etc. This table shows just a few of Christie's collection of pocket watches and snuffboxes.

The library shelves are jammed with Christie's books. The frieze around the ceiling was painted by a US Navy Officer during WWII, when he and others were billeted at Greenway. It follows their voyages around Britain, through the Straits of Gibraltar and on to Salerno and Sicily. After the War, the Navy offered to paint it out, but Christie insisted on keeping it in place, as a memorial to the war and as part of the house's history.

In the spacious drawing room, Agatha Christie played the piano, wrote letters to friends and gave dinner parties. After dinner, she would read excerpts from her latest manuscript and challenge her guests to guess "whodunnit". Christie wrote 80 murder mysteries, and, according to the Guinness Book of Records, she ties Shakespeare as being the best-selling writer of all time! Three of her books are set in or around Greenway: Five Little Pigs, Towards Zero, and Dead Man's Folly.

Outside, this glorious greenhouse forms one side of a walled garden. Again, because everything is so late this year, the wisteria was still in full and splendid bloom. The greenhouse forms part of the Dead Man's Folly mystery, as well as the tennis court, where real clues and red herrings were placed for the murder hunt!

Above and below the house, some 30 acres of gardens wind up from the River Dart through swathes of camellias, rhododendrons and magnolias.

Climbing to the top of the Estate, we looked down onto the river with, way in the distance, the small town of Kingsbridge, from where people take the ferry over to the naval town of Dartmouth. Or they can take the ferry from there to Greenway itself, meandering up the Dart estuary, catching a glimpse of the Georgian house peeking above them through the trees. Getting ready to step into the magical mystery world of Miss Marple and M. Poirot.

With its generally gentle climate, its glorious scenery and stirring history, its dialect that sounds like a pirate's accent, and not forgetting its Devonshire Teas with Clotted Cream, it's no surprise that people fall in love with Devon. Henry Newbolt sums it up pretty well:

Deep-wooded combes, clear-mounded hills of morn,
Red sunset tides against a red sea-wall,
High lonely barrows where the curlews call,

Far moors that echo to the ringing horn, --
Devon! thou spirit of all these beauties born,
All these are thine, but thou art more than all.

À bientôt!


  1. I've always wanted to go to Devon. Thanks for sharing a bit of it with me! Susan

  2. This is gorgeous. Cotehele reminds me of Terice Manor in Cornwall where I spend school holidays with Rick and Francis. A beloved time.
    And the spring flowers, you must have been in heaven.

  3. Love it a blog about Great Britain!!! Sorry for delay in posting sure you will understand x