Saturday, 31 August 2013


Another musical recommendation, in case Ola Gjeilo was too normal. I just ran into Steam Powered Giraffe: a brilliant performance art group popular on the steampunk convention circuit. Their persona is a group of robots, allegedly built in the late 1800s, who perform sketches, improvisation, and music. Check out their official website and YouTube channel.

I just love the above embedded video, one of their handful of singles. It's a cover of Rihanna's Diamonds, which I rate highly anyway, but with an added edge. It's a powerfully-sung version of Diamonds by David Michael Bennett as "The Spine", one of the robot characters who's the 'straight man' in the act. The outro reveals it as The Spine's reverie, which I'm sure many of us can relate to: of expressing his inner lyrical ecstatic self, before he's brought back to reality and his mundane companions, and left only with the regretful thought that "I am a diamond". Ignore the slightly comic presentation and robot giraffe: this is a superb cover, and I think I like it more than the Rihanna original.

- Ray

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Dark Night of the Soul

A musical recommendation: Ola Gjeilo (just found via his piece The Ground on Classic FM). He's a Norwegian-born composer of a rather lyrical repertoire - piano, choral, symphonic, neoclassical, crossover - with considerable inspiration in cinematic music. It's not the kind of weird stuff I usually like, but it's nevertheless quietly powerful. Check out his official site for more background.

On first encounter, I especially like Dark Night of the Soul, Gjeilo's wistfully ecstatic arrangement for choir, string quartet and piano (in a style somewhat akin to Thomas Newman) of the poem Dark Night by Juan de Yepes y Álvarez (1541-1591). This Spanish friar and mystic, better known as St John of the Cross, was heavily involved in religious politics during the Counter-Reformation, and in 1577 was arrested and imprisoned by his opponents; during his incarceration he wrote the poem La noche oscura del alma.

It's rather baffling to analyse. As explained in the Wikipedia article, Dark Night of the Soul, the author later wrote a theological treatise explaining its meaning: a narration in allegorical form of the journey of the soul from its bodily home to its union with God (the treatise is here at the Catholic Treasury) and subsequent critique largely takes this at face value. But I wonder at the psychology behind it. Was John sublimating? Was even he himself falling into the Christian tradition of explaining away overtly erotic texts as allegory (as in the explanation of the Song of Songs as "Christ's declaration of his love for the church")? Go figure - it's pretty well impossible to psychoanalyse a 16th century mystic. But not being religious, I can't understand the intellectual gymnastics required to construe this as anything but a brilliantly intense love poem written from a female viewpoint.
La noche oscura del alma (Dark night of the soul)

One dark night,
fired with love's urgent longings
- ah, the sheer grace! -
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

In darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
- ah, the sheer grace! -
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.

On that glad night
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything
with no other light or guide
than the One that burned in my heart.

This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
- him I knew so well -
there in a place where no one appeared.

O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the Beloved into his Lover.

Upon my flowering breast,
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.

I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased;
I went out from myself,
leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.

- St John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (1991)
- Ray

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Sidmouth to Beer - 'lite' version - #2

View Donkey Sanctuary to Beer in a larger map

Continued from Sidmouth to Beer - 'lite' version - #1.

So I'd just looked at Berry Cliff and the undercliff below it. At this point, as you continue eastward, the South West Coast Path joins a woodland track through quite complicated terrain: a blade of land with steep hillside on the left; sea cliff on the right; and the top comprising weird hummocky woodland whose nature appears to be partly down to geology, and partly to long-bygone lime quarrying. You can see in this old image from the Branscombe Project what it was like before the tree cover.

I didn't take many photos of the woods. I don't know if anyone else finds woodland difficult to photograph; the sheer depth is difficult to convey. I've found stereopairs often do the trick.

Crossed-eye stereopair - click to enlarge
After about three-quarters of mile, the woodland starts to thin out, with views to the left down into Branscombe, and ahead to the Hooken Undercliff, and you descend steeply to Branscombe Mouth. Here's there's a shop, parking, toilets, and a cafe called the Sea Shanty with a pretty little rock garden. The cafe is surprisingly old: check out the Branscombe Project's postcard collection, which has interesting pictures of the building in 1910 in its original incarnation as a lookout and walled coal yard. It was converted into a beach café in the late 1920s by a local pebble merchant Clem Ford (before Branscombe Beach become a National Trust site, its pebbles were extracted for silica and grinding mills). Another document - Working The Stones Of Branscombe: From Flint-Knappers To Pebble-Pickers, by John Torrance - is a brilliant account of how the locale's varied geology was exploited historically, in ways still reflected in its landscape and buildings.

View across Branscombe valley
Looking across Branscombe Mouth
Distant view over 'plats' to the Hooken Undercliff
Branscombe Mouth and the Sea Shanty
Branscombe Mouth
 From Branscombe Mouth, a short climb takes you up to the small holiday park built on the site of 'plats' (sloping cliffside fields) then along a rambling undercliff path below chalk cliffs. It skirts a couple of fallen blocks, including a large one called Martin's Rock, before hitting a stiff climb through the Hooken Undercliff, site of a 1790 landslip (for history, see the previous Hooken Undercliff and beyond). This is my favourite location on the East Devon coast; on a hot day such as this, its microclimate - the consequence of this densely-vegetated gorge being trapped between cliffs and seaward pinnacles - gave a jungle-like humidity, and it smelled of the profusion of white and purple buddleia.

Martin's Rock

Looking ahead to the Under Hooken landslip
Looking back to Martin's Rock
Climbing out of the 'jungle' ...
... and finally the full vista from Beer Head
I've mentioned before Arthur Clayden's The history of Devonshire scenery; an essay in geographical evolution (Internet Archive ID historyofdevonsh00clayrich), but this time I was really geeky and took a print of this this 1906 view, in order to take a comparison photo from as close to the same viewpoint I could find. Even 200+ years after the landslip, the land was still open pasture, and you can just see one of the plats in the near distance. This pattern of modern overgrowth is a repeated one; it's undoubtedly good for wildlife conservation, but it seems a pity that it hides and makes inaccessible many striking landscapes.

Once at Beer Head, it's an easy descent to Beer village. On the way, there are good views of the western end of the Axmouth-Lyme Undercliff, and even beyond to Golden Cap in Dorset. That's for another day ...

From Beer Head, looking across to Axmouth and the Lyme Undercliff
Lyme Undercliff (Culverhole Point) and Golden Cap beyond
Descending to Beer
- Ray

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Bayan time (20): busy week

Detail from The 'Sham performance
Busy week musically: on Tuesday I played two spots at Matthews Hall for the Topsham Town Fayre Musical Extravaganza (as backing for the singer-guitarist John 'Wafty' Waft, and with The 'Sham, a band put together from regular TOPJAM members) - see the Exeter Express & Echo gallery - and the previous Sunday I was part of a small group providing music for a street picnic in Topsham.

It's a very good feeling. I've been playing bayan for around two-and-a-half years now, and feel I've overcome the performance anxiety that still dogged me a year ago; I can tell it's there at some level (I get very warm, and feel a little hyper after playing), but it doesn't seem to get as far as my fingers. It also feels good to be developing a distinct style and area of specialisation; Ben Beeson, who directed The Mysteries earlier this year, said I was good at "comping" - impromptu and appropriate accompaniment - and I'm enjoying developing this skill as well as solo playing. The 'Sham was an interesting line-up of acoustic guitars, bass, vocals, keyboard, accordion, cello and congas, playing original material by Dan Durdin.

The bayan's compressed right-hand scale enables very rich chord and melody playing, and I've increasingly found that for band work, it's easier to just play the right hand. This is partly because other people are doing bass and bass chords far more audibly, and partly because it's rather difficult to mike up the bass keyboard, which moves with the bellows. I went through a stage of angst, feeling it was an unskilled cop-out to play this way, but I was very encouraged by a spot of Googling and looking at YouTube - it finds plenty of other backing players, far better than me, doing exactly the same (watch the accordionist in Värttinä's Nahkaruoska - below -  who is not using his left hand at all). A static microphone on a stand picks up the right hand pretty well, though I'm investigating the idea of getting a dedicated accordion microphone, a three-element bar microphone that sticks with Velcro next to the grille. They do cost at least £80, however. Decisions ...

I admit, by the way, that it really tickles me being the bald-ish tattooed accordionist at the side of the band. I've never - in life in general - wanted to be at the front of things, but being distinctive and essential in the near background is very satisfying.

Check out the accordionist playing right hand only - clearly I'm not doing it wrong.

- Ray

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Sidmouth to Beer - 'lite' version - #1

View Donkey Sanctuary to Beer in a larger map

An opportunity to try out the Google Maps customisation interface (above): I took a day off on Monday for this walk along the East Devon coast between Sidmouth and Beer (unfortunately minus Clare, who isn't at all keen on the heat). I've walked this section several times before, but never in full summer. Also, as I had uncertain exploration plans en route, I took a 'lite' version that starts at the Donkey Sanctuary - bypassing the initial 500ft ascent from Sidmouth and the two equally high descents-ascents at Salcombe Mouth and Weston Mouth - and follows inland lanes through the hamlet of Weston, before heading south to join the South West Coast Path.

Sidmouth, looking toward Peak Hill
Sidmouth, looking eastward
At half-past nine it was fresh and breezy in Sidmouth. In summer, there's a free minibus, the Sidmouth Hopper, that goes hourly to the Donkey Sanctuary, which is at the head of Weston Combe, one of the major valleys cutting to sea level. Heading east across the building complex takes you to Slade Lane, which leads through Weston, and on to Grammar Lane.

Donkey Sanctuary, looking down Weston Combe
Donkey Sanctuary
Weston House - I've written a bit more about its history in
Weston House: a ruined Devon villa
Weston is one of those 'pseudomorph' hamlets largely composed of agricultural cottage and barns converted to upmarket homes. The most interesting feature I could see from the road was this ruined façade, the remains of Weston House, a mansion that was destroyed by fire in the early 1800s.
It is necessary for a carriage to go round the head of the valley by Slade, in order to reach Weston House, the ruins of which are seen at a distance. This mansion, when' the property of Stuckey Bartlett, Esq., was consumed by fire, and has never been rebuilt. The author went over with some school-fellows the next day, and burnt the soles of his shoes among the still smouldering ruins. He brought back a mass of lead, which had run off the roof in a moulten state, and had formed itself into a heap on the ground, where the drops had cooled as they fell. The marble mantel pieces, burnt into lime, could be easily broken with the hands, like a biscuit.
p.89, A new guide to Sidmouth and the neighbourhood, Peter Orlando Hutchinson, 1857
About a mile from the Donkey Sanctuary, a side road signposted "Weston Cliffs" leads south, turning into a track across a field that meets the clifftop coast path.

The track south to Weston Cliffs
... across a field ...
... and to the Coast Path, with views back to Sidmouth
Sidmouth far below
A trifle hazy, but the Isle of Portland, 30 miles away, was visible
Littlecombe Shoot, looking south-east
Today I particularly wanted to check out the coastal section a short walk eastward, from where the Coast Path skirts a shallow combe, Littlecombe. Here, in the section called Berry Cliff, Cretaceous crags overly Triassic rocks, and their interface has created a bench of sloping land half-way up the cliff, that was used historically as farmland ("plats" - see, previously, Dunscombe: Spring is in the air). The Branscombe Project has a nice annotated series of old postcards of the area, including this one of the plats:

Cliffside "plats" to the west of Branscombe Mouth
Nowadays, this land is completely overgrown, creating the characteristic undercliff terrain of steep temperate 'jungle' interspersed with fallen blocks - but, unusually for such complicated land, this undercliff is dotted with small buildings used as holiday chalets and retreats. Some are clearly newly-made, others are converted farmers' sheds ("linhays"). See Google Maps:

View Larger Map

View down to Littlecombe Shoot
The Devon County Council rights of way map shows a couple of rights of way down through this undercliff, as well as a number of unofficial paths; there are also a number of blind alleys that either lead to impenetrable undergrowth or end at locked gates. It's a fascinating labyrinth; I could spend days exploring this.

Probably the easiest access routes are the clearly signposted descent to Littlecombe Shoot, and the very obvious foliage 'tunnel' at the point where the Coast Path joins woodland track.

Dead end
A glimpse seaward

Path got too overgrown here
Almost hidden house
I had hoped to follow one of these low-level undercliff paths and rejoin the Coast Path further east, but I ran into so many dead ends that, time being limited, I eventually decided to return to the clifftop. I did, however, explore some of the descending paths from the other entry point where the woodland starts. As I've said before, these places give me a strange sensation of continuity, both geographically and in time: the geology, terrain, vegetation, even the smell and feel of the air, are so like the Isle of Wight undercliffs of my childhood.

As you reach the end of this section, the view back toward Sidmouth is a delight. These green-cloaked trii-coloured cliffs are among the most beautiful in the country; I have come to love living in Devon.

Continued in Sidmouth to Beer - 'lite' version - #2.

- Ray

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

A Devonshire tragedy

An out-take from writing up a walk I did on Monday: I ran into this story in the Universal Magazine.
Shocking catastropheThe following tale of woe should serve as a caution to parents not to permit their children to witness scenes of cruelty of any description whatever: Mr Hall, a miller at King's Bridge, having employed a butcher to kill some pigs for him, during the absence of the latter to get some refreshment, having left his kinfe behind, four young children, who had been witnessing the operation, agreed to play at kill-pig; the youngest was to play the pig, when one of the others, who acted the part of the butcher, stuck him in the throat and killed him on the spot: the other three alarmed at what they had done, ran into the adjoining mill, and hid themselves under the wheel, which was not working at the time, but was set going almost immediately afterwards, and crushed them all to death!
- Universal Magazine, February 1810, page 166.
"King's Bridge" is an old name of the market town of Kingsbridge. A quick look in the British Library newspaper archive finds that the story is ripped off verbatim from The Morning Post of Saturday, February 17, 1810, which says it happened "Monday last" (i.e. February 12th 1810), and much the same text was syndicated around regional papers (though it's peculiar that I can't find any sign of it in West Country papers such as Trewman's Flying Post). While children do kill other children on occasion, this story has a bit of an urban myth flavour, especially in its moral message and instant retribution. Also, since all concerned were dead, how is the course of events and motivation known? My immediate thought is - even assuming the basics are true - that the miller ought to be a suspect. We'll never know.

- Ray

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Wigzell's Spiral Fluted Nails

I just collated a spot of geeky history behind the buildings omnipresent in Topsham river views: the gabled riverside cottage called Wixels (above left), and the building opposite, which is divided into residences call Nail House and Nail Cellars. The connection is pretty well-known locally, but it might be of interest to readers.
Beyond the Church steps is the Nail House, the nailworks owned by the brothers Wigzell in 1850-60 but it was not a success and only had a short life. The nails were a patent, spiral-fluted type used for securing the copper sheathing of ships and a few were found when the premises were converted into a dwelling house. In one Guide to the Town the  closing of the nailworks is given as a contributory cause of its decline but it is doubtful whether this small enterprise employed very many.
- Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature and Art, Volumes 84-86, 1952
Spiral fluted nail, Widebeam Boat Build Blog
I don't know the precise design of the Wigzell version - they vary in pitch - but this is a spiral-fluted nail. As it's hammered in, the spiral rifling screws it into the wood, giving a very secure hold (often too secure - the things are fearsome to remove); a contemporary account describes both the pros and the cons.
Spiral Fluted Nails.
From the London Builder, No. 969.

A company has been formed for bringing into practical use the spiral fluted nails, an invention of Mr. W. [sic] Wigzell, of Exeter. Mr. Wigzell recently exhibited these nails at Devonport. Mr. John Weary, builder, Mr. Ash, surveyor of the manor, and several other gentlemen, says the Devonport Independent, were present. The inventor proved the advantages of the nail in a variety of ways; he first drove one of about 2½ inches long into a piece of 2½-inch deal to within a space little more than the diameter of the nail of the "end-grain," to show that the nail so successfully cleared its way as in no case to cause the wood to split; he next drove a nail into a piece of hard, knotty oak; he nailed two pieces of 1½-inch board together by one nail at one end, and, with a leverage of 2 feet, a strong man present had great difficulty in separating the two pieces; with a nail at each end, a wedge and several powerful blows with a heavy hammer were necessary to get them asunder. The holding qualities of the nail were exemplified by the several tests. The nails, however large they may be, or however hard the Mod on which they may be used, require no holes to be made before driving; the spiral point causes the nail to revolve as it advances. Perhaps the tenacity with which they hold in wood would be one disadvantage against their use in all purposes, especially in the nailing of floors where removal is frequently necessary for laying on gas; but this inconvenience the inventor has obviated by the manufacture of another nail, with a slot or screw head, by which it can be turned out with a screw-driver even more readily than a screw, whilst it could be driven into the flooring with less than a quarter of the labor caused by the use of screws. All present, adds our authority, seemed to concur in the great superiority of the nails over those ordinarily in use. They can be manufactured as cheaply, if not cheaper than common nails. The nails are manufactured by machines invented by Mr. Wigzell, each of which will twist at least 4000 per hour; and the plain nails now in use can be twisted by other machines, also invented by Mr. Wigzell, at the rate of 16,000 per hour. Premises have been taken at Topsham for the purpose of manufacturing these nails.
- Journal of the Franklin Institute, pp105-106, Vol XLIV, 1862
Wigzell sounds an interesting chap:
.... born in the City of London in 1831, the son of Eustace Wigzell. He was an artist and inventor. He came to Exeter in 1854 as the first headmaster of the Exeter School of Art and in 1866 became the first headmaster of the Croydon School of Art. In 1861 he formed the Patent Spiral Fluted Nail Company and manufactured this in Topsham, near Exeter. In 1866 he was declared bankrupt. In his bankruptcy examination it was stated that he had seven 'ventilators', another of his inventions, at the Greenwich works. From 1859 he had invented a gun battery, various types of nails, a double ventilator and a candle-making machine. There is evidence that he was making candles and ventilators as well as his spiral fluted nails at Topsham, but he must have had a family connection or perhaps a manufactory in Greenwich. He had a brother called Atwood who described himself as a 'practical engineer',
- Gill Selley, Woodbury Local History Society, Greenwich Industrial History, Volume 8, Issue 3, June 2005
He took out a number of patents:
  • "For an improved form of nail or driving article" (1st January 1859).
  • Montague Wigzell, of Friars' Green, Exeter ... and Eustace Wigzell, of 14 Morden Terrace, Lewisham Road, Greenwich ... Brothers, for an invention for "An improved form of land battery for coast and other fortifications (30th January 1860
  • "An improvement in the form of iron, steel, brass, copper and other metallic alloy, for making nails, spikes, bolts, screws and other similar driving articles both plain and twisted" (1st June 1861).
  • "A machine or apparatus for twisting ordinary nails and all other similar driving articles of a parallel or tapered form and of a plain, fluted, grooved or indented section throughout or in part" (10th August 1861)
  • "Machinery or apparatus for making plain twisted nails, spiral fluted nails and other similar driving articles of a twisted or spiral fluted form throughout or in part" (10th August 1861).
  •  "Machinery or apparatus to be used in moulding and casting twisted nails, spiral fluted nails, bolts and screws for sheathing vessels, ship-building, building and other purposes" (14th November 1861).
  • "An improved double-acting ventilator, for railway carriages and other carriages and compartments" (9th January 1862).
  • "Improvements in machinery or apparatus and method to be used in the manufacture of every description of candles, tapers and other lights" (10th February 1863)
 Assuming this is not some unlikely coincidence of names, and the artist, school headmaster, and inventor were the same Montague Wigzell, he was quite a polymath - but perhaps one who spread his interests too thin. He was declared bankrupt - described as "late manager of the Spiral Fluted Nail Company, (limited) and now manufacturer of the patent double action ventilator" - at Exeter Bankruptcy Court on 10th April 1866, after which it seems he went back to London and subsequently headed the Croydon School of Art, and continued inventing.
  • "A new or improved drawing-board for the purpose of stretching drawing paper (or other materials for drawing, tracing, or painting upon) on one or both of its sides (31st January 1872).
I haven't read it, but there's an article on him in the journal of the Devon History Society: Montague Wigzell: Victorian artist and inventor, Selley, G., The Devon Historian, issue 73, 2006, pp10-17. As to the subsequent history of the location of his factory:
Wixels is the large dutch gabled house along Ferry Road on your way to the Passage House Inn. It was originally a sail loft and later a coal shed, In 1920 it was converted into a house, the gables added and re-named "Wixels". The name actually comes from the building on the other side of the road. 
The Topsham Ten...continued, Exeter through the bottom of your beer glass
Addendum, Thursday 6th February: Linda Wigzell Cress kindly contacted me with some further background on the Wigzell family's achievements:
Hi, Just read your potted history of Montague Wigzell, an ancestor umpteen times removed of mine. You might be interested to know the brothers Montague and Atwood also had another brother, called Eustace like their father.  This brother was an inventor of steam engines, he actually equipped the Russian navy with his engines, and his Greenwich company eventually joined with Messrs Pollitt to form the Pollitt and Wigzell company.  Their steam engines powered many mills and mines in UK, one or two still exist and can still be seen under steam occasionally.   
Thanks, Linda! A quick Google finds that one of the locations with a Pollitt and Wigzell steam engine is Coldharbour Mill, the working textile museum in Uffculme, Devon.

- Ray

Friday, 9 August 2013

Fêtes champêtre at Watcombe

Torquay, The Giant Rock at Watcombe, Francis Bedford, c.1880
National Media Museum Collection, Inventory no: 1990-5037_B1_0068
copyright-free image reproduced under conditions of The Commons, Flickr
Expanding on an aside in the previous post Ice cold in Shaldon (if you missed it, read it for context) I just collated some further detail on what sounds a brilliant event in the Valley of Rocks, Watcombe, Devon, in the days before its overgrowth with woodland. This was an open air concert party - a fête champêtre organised by the Torquay Choral Society in the early 1850s - that made use of the Valley as a natural amphitheatre.

Musical Fête Champêtre at Watcombe, near Torquay
Colebrooke Stockdale, 1852
The Torquay Choral Society's Fete at Watcombe

This picturesque fete took place on Wednesday, the 28th ult, in the neighbourhood of Torquay, Devon. The site may be described as a grand amphitheatre, formed by a gigantic land-slip. On the north stands a towering precipice of conglomerate, like a bold sea-worn promontory, fissured by the storms of centuries. Beneath and around, the green-sward clothes the debris of the rocky avalanche which has rolled downward to the beach, between a second range of precipices and bold swelling hills.

The company included not only the elite and a vast assemblage of all classes from the immediate neighbourhood, but nearly an equal number from distant tows. A special train from Plymouth and Exeter brought more than seven hundred persons, whilst great numbers arrived by later trains.

For the performance of music in the open air the form of the ground was admirable. "Here," says the programme, "has Nature in her mighty workings displayed a sylvan dell, whose rocky sides faintly echo the tones which float upon the air." Ably did the Choral Society avail themselves of these advantages. Vocal or instrumental - whether in glee or madrigal or the full-toned choruses - the whole was admirable. "Foresters sound the cheerful Horn" and the "Huntsman's Chorus" were especially effective, and in character with the scene. "Hail, smiling Morn" and "Now is the month for Maying" rolled back the hours, and made the season young again. At sunset, the choir performed in admirable style the bold characteristic music of the Witches in "Macbeth," by Locke; followed by "God save the Queen," in full and enthusiastic chorus. "Good Night" formed the finale.

The scene was truly exhilarating; there were between 6000 and 7000 persons present: hosts of lovely children, with garlands on their heads, joined in the merry dance; others tripped it round the Maypole; and beneath a rock was formed the al fresco orchestra; whilst aloft upon the rocky point were performed hundreds around a gay flag.

Our Illustration is from a Sketch by Mr. Colebrooke Stockdale, who obligingly acted as honorary secretary to the Choral Society; the musical performances being ably conducted by Mr. Melhuish.
- The Illustrated London News, Aug 14, 1852, Volume 12, page 108
The next year, a repeat event was advertised in the Trewman's Flying Post of August 25, 1853. They knew how to do anouncements in those days ...


CHORAL SOCIETY in Anniversary of Last Year's
Fete have the honour to announce that a
will be held at WATCOMBE, near TORQUAY, on
THURSDAY, the 1st SEPTEMBER, 1853, commencing
at Half-past One o'clock precisely.
(By the kind permission of Col. Coryton) and the
will attend and perform choice selections of appropriate
and popular Music.
after which
will take place, for which Prizes will be given.
Around the GARLANDED MAY-POLE Children will
At Half-past Four o'clock precisely, Choice Refreshments
consisting of Tea, &c., will be provided by Mrs. GRIFFITH'S
of Torquay, under the Superintendence of appointed
Stewards. At 7 o'clock
None but those who have visited this locality can imagine
the surpassing beauty which nature has here displayed.
In this wild and romantic Coombe, gigantic Rocks
raise their bold heads high into the air, while at their feet
large masses lie scattered in strange fantastic forms-
the verdant slopes descending to the pebble'd shore
"where ebbing waters musically roll."
How beautiful this will appear when thousands are
assembled, studding the vale in picturesque groupes-
listening to the rise and fall of sweet harmony as the
echoes reverberate through this unrivalled Coombe- the
merry children, as in olden times, sportively gamboling in
the mazy dance - in the distance beholding the azure
bosom of the ocean, dotted with white sails, all combining
to form a scene of rare beauty and sublimity.
Tickets for the Fete, 1s. each; Children and Schools
half-price; ditto ditto with Refreshment, 2s. each; to be
obtained of the principal Book and Music-Sellers in
Exeter, Plymouth, Teignmouth, Totnes and Torquay.
Torquay, 18th August, 1853.
Excursion Trains will run. Conveyances to and from
the Station.
N.B. Parties intending to be present are urgently
requested [in consequence of the large attendance
anticipated] to procure their Tickets on or before Tuesday
30th inst., which will materially assist the arrangements
and prevent any disappointment.
By order of the Proprietors, no Booths or Stalls of any 
kind will be permitted on the ground.

Trewman's Flying Post carried a review on September the 8th, 1853. It was generally complimentary about the event, but with the odd sour note. One was a problem with the SPLENDID BALLOON:
The inflation of a large balloon commenced, but before it was completed the "monster" broke from its fastenings and was destroyed.
The other, more significant, was that:
The number of persons present cannot have been far short of 8,000, although, we hear, scarcely one-third of them paid for admission to the fete, the rest, to their discredit, taking advantage of a misunderstanding which exists as to the ownership of the ground, and refusing to "fork out" their "siller". We regret to state that the consequence of this disgracefully mean conduct has been that the society will sustain a loss from the undertaking.
Even without making a loss, the infrastructure for running such an event in a out-of-the-way location must have been daunting - not least, how to arrange toilet facilities for several thousand people. The Torquay Choral Society seems to have been stung by the whole experience, and didn't try this location again. A quick skin of news archives shows they moved future fetes to Luscombe Park, private grounds where presumably questions of admission fee were clear-cut.

Here's another nice image of the Valley of Rocks, from Besley's Views in Devonshire (c.1861).

Footnote: the quotation in the advertisement - "where ebbing waters musically roll" - comes from "To Miss Talbot" (in various later anthologies rebadged as "A Calm Evening" and "An Evening Walk") a now-obscure poem by the bluestocking and probably lesbian writer, poet and translator Elizabeth Carter, from her 1776 collection Poems on Several Occasions (page 70).
How ſweet the Calm of this ſequeſter'd Shore,
Where ebbing Waters muſically roll:
And Solitude, and ſilent Eve reſtore
The philoſophic Temper of the Soul.
- Ray

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Ice cold in Shaldon

Google Earth image: right = north. Torquay (left) to Teign estuary (right)

View Babbacombe to Shaldon walk in a larger map  

As I decided at the end of Teignmouth and Shaldon: revisit, yesterday I walked the 6-mile section of the South West Coast Path from Babbacombe to Shaldon. It's extremely handy for access from here: Torquay, Teignmouth and Topsham are all on the same direct train route. A promenade walk and quick bus ride at the Torquay end gets you to Babbacombe, and the ferry across the Teign connects Shaldon to Teignmouth. The forecast said warm but not intolerably so (20°C), with a bit of a breeze and some showers likely, so it looked just the day for it.

The walk starts along the clifftop promenade at Babbacombe Downs; on a clear day there's a fine view of the walk ahead, and right across Lyme Bay to Branscombe (as well as of the landslip and semi-demolished Ridgemont House - see An afternoon in Torquay #1). At the northern end, a small service road takes you to the upper depot of the Babbacombe Cliff Railway, and you join the South West Coast Path there.

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Babbacombe Downs
Oddicombe Beach below
Babbacombe Cliff Railway
Babbacombe Cliff Railway
A short section along suburban roads - via the Model Village, St Marychurch Road and Petitor Road - takes you to the Coast Path proper. An initial section by Torquay Golf Course leads to the first main segment of the walk, a winding (both horizontally and vertically) woodland path that passes the tops of two popular coves with red Permian cliffs, Watcombe and Maidencombe. It's lovely and (to me) very familar terrain typical of English south coast clifftop/landslip: a tumbling woodland of sycamore, elder, ferns, the odd Buddleia, and a lot else I don't recognise (Clare's better at botany, but she doesn't like the heat, and - it turned out sensibly - declined this walk). As the path rises, you get good views back to Babbacombe Beach and the headlands of the Torquay peninsula.

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Ridgemont House
Torquay Golf Course, St Marychurch beyond
The start of the woodland section
View back to Babbacombe Beach
Torquay peninsula: (from nearest)
Long Quarry Point, Black Head,
Hope's Nose, and Ore Stone
approaching Watcombe
Shortly, you get a glimpse of Watcombe Head, the promontory above Watcombe Beach, before the path crosses the metalled road down to Watcombe Beach. The next ascent takes you over to the well-known 'Valley of Rocks'. This is a remarkable place, and one hard to do justice in photographs: a deep and wide glade with steep walls in places, and strange ivy-covered rock formations. On its northern side, the Coast Path follows a railed ascent - the Goat Path - to a viewpoint where you can see across the sea of treetops to a crag, Giant Rock, above the valley.

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Looking down to Watcombe Head
Road down to Watcombe Beach
Woods - what I imagine as "tulgey"
More up
Strange excavation - Valley of Rocks
Rock tump - Valley of Rocks
Valley of Rocks
Ascent out of Valley of Rocks ...
... and up Goat Path
Looking back from viewpoint
View over Valley of Rocks
Close-up of Giant Rock

The Valley of Rocks interested me as a very odd landscape; I couldn't work out its origins, which vaguely recalled landslip, but didn't seem quite right. Googling when I got back revealed that it's in part down to quarrying of stone and terracotta. The Torquay Pottery website explains the detail - GP Allen's discovery in 1865 of terracotta in the grounds of the nearby Watcombe House, that led to a century of Watcombe Pottery (rather pleasant and distinctive work quite unlike the stereotypical knick-knacks you associate with seaside resorts). But, contrary to some accounts, the great majority of its striking terrain is natural, pre-dating any quarrying; Watcombe was one of the Devon locations regularly described as "sublime" (that is, beautiful but scary, within aesthetic classifications), and a popular venue for strolls and carriage drives; it was the venue for a couple of fêtes champêtre organised by the Torquay Choral Society (see the following post, Fêtes champêtre at Watcombe, for more on this).

You can find old prints and the occasional photo of the Valley of Rocks before the woodland cover obscured the view, and it looks amazing. (It seems quite a common phenomenon in southern England for change of land use, such as urbanisation or end of grazing, to bury scenic locations as has happened here - I've previously mentioned Pulpit Rock and Hadfield's Lookout in the Isle of Wight, and Sherbrook Chine near Budleigh).

Giants Rock, Watcombe - Valley of Rocks, c.1850
Devon Local Studies collection P&D08515
Torquay, The Giant Rock at Watcombe, Francis Bedford, c.1880
National Media Museum Collection, Inventory no: 1990-5037_B1_0068
copyright-free image reproduced under conditions of The Commons, Flickr
A later aerial photo shows considerably more forest cover, though the underlying landscape is still clearer than nowadays.

Watcombe Head, Watcombe Beach and Smugglers' Hole, Watcombe, 1930
EPW033421, Britain from Above - permitted weblog use
From the viewpoint above the Valley of Rocks, the Coastal Path continues toward a second cove, Maidencombe. The woodland thins out, and there are two options - a higher route following the John Musgrave Heritage Trail, or the more strenuous Coast Path proper that skirts the cliff edge. Maidencombe Cove I didn't think much of: the huge display boasting of good water quality has a tiny disclaimer about this declining under certain conditions when there was urban runoff. It must have been such a day, because right next to the cafe steps there was a damp cascade with horsetails, that was giving off a strong smell of sewage. I got a quick ice cream and carried on toward the final stretch, which goes through the Labrador Bay RSPB Reserve.

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Out of the woods ...
... the path runs between cllifftop and fields
Looking back Bell Rock arch
Maidencombe Beach
2.5 miles to Teignmouth

Did I mention that it was hot? It had been distinctly close in the woodland section, but once out into the full sunshine, I become well aware that the forecast was well off the mark with 20°C. It must have been 25°C or more; there wen't many other walkers on this section, and most of them looked very uncomfortable. What had looked like a gentle home stroll rapidly turned into a succession of slow climbs - five paces, rest, five paces, rest - and descents, with Shaldon Ness getting no closer. On the third exhausting ascent up the side of a parched field, down to my last inch of tepid water and starting to get thigh cramps, I had a strong twinge of worry as it occurred to me that it's perfectly possible to get heat stroke even on an English coast walk only half a mile from the main road. Fortunately I spotted a sheep trough with a ball-valve inlet that dispensed clean-looking water. I didn't risk drinking it, but I filled my empty water bottles and doused it over myself at intervals. It was a relief to come over the final rise and see Shaldon Approach Golf Course, the Ness and Teignmouth below, and the J2O with ice at the Ness hotel was bliss.

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Maybe 2 miles to go
Another ascent ...
Looking back and down
The final climb, I hope
Teignmouth in sight
View down to Ness Cove
Teignmouth from Ness summit viewpoint
J2O with ice and a slice of orange
The official South West Coast Path site is inconsistent on the matter of this section, which took me about 4.5 hours. One page calls the Babbacombe to Exmouth walk as "easy", though with "tiring ascents and descents" between between Torquay and Shaldon;  another calls the Labrador Bay section "challenging". I'd call it challenging, especially at 25°C. It wasn't as difficult as the Lyme Regis Undercliff or the Beer to Sidmouth sections, but it's still hard work for the occasional walker. A very interesting section of the coast, though.

- Ray