Devon's Literary Connections

Charles Dickens

Here's an article I wrote for Devon Life magazine about Devon's literary connections:

I am a keen reader and never happier than when I have a book in my hand. So I love to visit places that have a literary connection. Here are just a few of those places, to include all my favourites would fill several columns.

The county has inspired some of the world's most iconic writers, from Charles Dickens to Michael Morpurgo and Agatha Christie to Ted Hughes. Then there are the books based in Devon like Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles or Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.

In a piece of shameless name-dropping, I can tell you I went to university with Michael Morpurgo's wife, Clare. We went on a field trip to their farm at Iddesleigh where the couple had set up Farms for City Children providing children from inner cities with experience of the countryside. Iddesleigh is home to The Duke of York, a delightful pub full of character. 

Still name-dropping… I went to school with Ted Hughes' last wife although she was a few years older than me and I can’t pretend I knew her, and I once worked with Rudyard Kipling's great niece, a really lovely girl.

So let's take an abridged and edited trip around the county. I'll start in North Devon with Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter, which I loved as a teenager. It is set around the Taw-Torridge rivers with the Tarka Trail a fitting monument to a man obsessed by nature and the countryside. You can visit Canal Bridge on the River Torridge near Weare Giffard where Tarka's journey began and ended. Williamson lived in Georgeham and the hut where he did his writing still contains many of his personal effects, coats hung on hooks, boots placed neatly near the door, his spectacles rested on a round writing table and a record still on the gramophone. 

Then there is Westward Ho! named after the novel by Charles Kingsley who was born in Holne on Dartmoor. I must admit I found the novel hard going but I do love Westward Ho!.

Travel south and you reach Tiverton, the setting for Snap by Belinda Bauer, one of my favourite contemporary authors. I loved this book not only because it was a thrilling read but also because it featured so many of the places I got to know well when I worked as a reporter on the town’s newspaper. She has also written psychological thrillers set on Exmoor and around Barnstaple.

Another contemporary writer is Michael Jecks whose wonderful historic mysteries are mostly set in Devon. 

Poet Laureate Ted Hughes was born in Yorkshire but in 1961 bought a house in North Tawton. In 1970 he married farmer’s daughter Carol Orchard.  He later took on Moortown a small farm near Winkleigh and wrote Moortown Diary, which details the everyday life of the farm. 

In the south of the county you are spoilt for choice for literary icons, like Agatha Christie who was born in Torquay and later stayed at Greenway, a house overlooking the River Dart near Galmpton, and now a National Trust property. 

Rudyard Kipling and his wife lived for a time at Rock House, in Rockhouse Lane, Torquay. And poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning stayed for three years in Beacon Terrace, moving to the county for health reasons. I'm not sure she is an appropriate inclusion in a magazine extolling all things Devon as Barrett Browning hated it here. She may have been a brilliant poet but not such a good judge of places! 

The county is a magnet for poetic geniuses. John Keats lived at Teignmouth. There is a plaque on his house at 20 Northumberland Terrace - now called Keats' House. He liked Devon but described it as a "splashy, rainy, misty, snowy, foggy, haily, floody, muddy, slipshod county."

Tennyson described Torquay as "the loveliest sea village in England," and Rupert Brooke is thought to have written Seaside about the resort. Back in North Devon, the Lynmouth area was visited by many of the romantic poets including Shelley, Wordsworth and Coleridge.

Coleridge was born at the vicarage of Ottery St Mary in 1772, the 13th child of the Rev John Coleridge. A plaque honouring the poet is on the churchyard wall. In Frost at Midnight, he remembers the bells of the town.  

Now back to Dartmoor where Arthur Conan Doyle set his most famous Sherlock Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Conan Doyle stayed in Princetown to research the book. It is believed that Fox Tor Mire was the setting for the fictional Great Grimpen Mire. The book could be based on evil squire Richard Cabell. Legend has it that when he died, howling black dogs breathing fire raced across Dartmoor.

After Shakespeare, Charles Dickens must be one of the most famous writers in the world. His parents lived at Mile End Cottage in Alphington. Dickens described the Exeter area as "the most beautiful in this most beautiful of English counties." 

It is believed that in Exeter’s Turk’s Head pub he encountered a plump boot boy who was the inspiration for The Fat Boy in the Pickwick Papers. And Pecksniff in Martin Chuzzlewit was based on a man from Topsham.

These are just a few of the literary stories of Devon. To include them all would make a novel in itself.

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Counting Your Blessings

Several of my Facebook  friends have been doing that exercise where you count three blessings a day for five days. It doesn't hurt to sit down and realise how blessed  you are. I know how lucky I am to have a great man (even if he's not perfect, see below) and a brilliant family (if slightly mad). I'm healthy (mostly), wealthy (compared to 90% of the world, if not to Bill Gates) and wise (yes, I did say, wise).

However...sometimes petty annoyances jump up and bite me on the bum.

Things that have annoyed me this week:

1 The man is, as I may have mentioned before, the untidiest person in the world. People don't quite believe me when I try to explain just how untidy he is. But now I have proof. I bought a nice big box of PG Tips which I should have put in the larder immediately but foolishly left on the worktop. When I got home he had opened the box. A normal person would have removed the cellophane and run their thumb along the perforations to make a nice flap which you could close again. But not the man, oh no. This is how the box looked when he'd finished with it.

I rest my case.

2 My annoyances seem to be of my own making because, secondly, I stupidly filled in a Conservative party online questionnaire. I thought I may as well make my views known on a variety of subjects, more in hope than expectation.  But since then I have been inundated with emails from Conservative MPs, all seeking my support on a variety of Tory policies. GO AWAY AND LEAVE ME ALONE.

3 I had to phone the Inland Revenue this week about my tax code. After all that "press 1 for this, press 2 for that malarkey,  I was put on hold on a loop  - music, message ("thank you for waiting, one of our advisors will be with you as soon as possible"), music, message, music, message, music, message for what seemed like an eternity. I'm using the word "music" quite loosely. Its plinky plonkiness was so abysmal that I wanted to tear my ears off and transplant them on to a mouse.  Must admit, though, when I finally got through,my query dealt with efficiently and quickly.

4 I live in rural Devon so roads are it is winding with few places where it is safe to overtake. I'm fairly patient behind farm vehicles because I know they will soon turn off  but this week I got stuck behind an old Ford Escort. My heart sinks whenever I arrive behind a car and all you can see are  two fluffy white heads barely peeking above the seats. It's a tricky road and you have to be careful BUT THAT'S NO REASON TO DRIVE AT 20mph AROUND THE BENDS AND BARELY SPEED UP ALONG THE STRAIGHTISH BITS. Then, blow me down, when they finally reached a stretch of road where it was possible to overtake, the driver suddenly found his accelerator and hared along at the rate of knots, before braking violently and taking the next bend at 20mph.

There are several other annoyances I could mention, but I'll leave those for another day.

Goodbye, and don't forget to count your blessings.

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Christmas Decorations

A post on one of my favourites blogs (The Misadventures of Widowhood) reminded me that Christmas is just around the corner. It has, just like every year, crept up on me and here I sit with not a card written, present wrapped or yule log baked. I don't know why - it's the same date this year it has been for the last 2,000 or so years so I can't pretend it has come as a surprise. 

The man is better prepared than I am. He has been practising for Christmas for weeks now by wandering around the kitchen with a bottle of beer in one hand, a box of chocolates in the other and getting in my way.

At least I've got the Christmas decorations down to a fine art. In our first Christmas together in our new house - many, many years ago - I decked our walls with boughs of holly, plus miles of streamers and tinsel. Every surface was covered with some sparkly festive ornament, from bowls of gold pebbles and pine cones to Christmas candles and miniature Santas. The tree was a work of art - a real one, naturally, so covered with gewgaws and baubles that it may as well have been artificial as not a green bough was to be seen.

 I, in my innocence, was delighted with the Santa's grotto ambiance - until January 6 when I had to take the whole blooming lot down again.

 learnt the lesson and now I like to think my house is more minimally and tastefully decorated - a few well-placed candles, the odd festive ornament and a small tree with a colour scheme and only a few bells and whistles. That's always the plan, anyway, until young relatives conspire to throw a spanner in the works of my dream of turning my house into a vision of blue and white loveliness.

They wander in, admire the decorations and then cry out, mortally offended: "Where's that candleholder I made you when I was in Year Two?" So it's back into the decorations box to dig out a misshapen lump of glittery purple plaster with a hole in the middle and the broken candle lying limply at its side. Hence, scattered among the elegant ornaments is a Father Christmas wearing sun-glasses, an angel with two broken wings and a crooked halo and a selection of papier mache tree hangings in various shapes and sizes. 

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Car Sharing Dilemma

Wouldn't mind sharing my car with this little dude!

I have heard all the dire warnings about global warming so to complain about car sharing seems inappropriate.

But I’m going to anyway.

For a start, you can’t do any of those antisocial things like spit, fart and chew baccy. I don’t particularly want to spit, fart and chew baccy – but I want to feel I can if the mood takes me. And I’m never sure of the etiquette . Radio on or radio off? My passenger might not like my choice of Gran Radio – the channel that puts glamour into incontinence pads. But give them the choice, and you can bet your life you'll be subjected to some dire 60s country and western channel. There’s only so many times you can hear a mountain gal sing about her love for poor old dying Yeller without tossing her the humane killer.

So the radio is off and I have to, horror of horrors, make conversation. For some of these people I would feign unconsciousness to get away from at a party, but here I am trapped inside this metal tube with some gormless idiot chuntering on beside me for 20 miles.

I used to give a teenager from my village a lift to college. I'm not sure what she was studying - I'm not sure she knew what she was studying - but her area of expertise was relationships. I'd nod sagely at pearls of wisdom like, "Well Kelly thinks that Tyler fancies her but I could tell her for nothing that actually he thinks she's a total minger and I know for an absolute fact that he fancies Chantelle but I saw her snogging Dazza in the bus shelter and he's supposed to be going out with Mimi but I don't know what he sees in her, she's such a total scuzz-bucket and not fussy with it either, if you know what I mean, just ask Bruno, he chucked her because he was fed up of finding her with her tongue down other lads' throats and when he caught her with Simon - yes, that Simon - who's totally ancient and must be nearly 30, well he had no choice but to give her the elbow. "


I'm not sure who was worse, her or the young lad who in a year of lifts never said one word apart from the occasional grunt which I took was either a yes or no answer to the odd question I'd throw his way. Then there was the trainee hairdresser who had no conversation at all unless it related to hair and all its associated products.

That's the trouble with living in a village with only an intermittent bus service, mums knock on your door and ask if you can ferry their little darlings to town.

I think I might trade my car in for an old taxi cab and make sure the interconnecting window is well and truly shut. Then I can sit back, turn on Gran Radio and spit out the window.

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Don't Fall For The Spammers' Tricks

I get very depressed when I start thinking about all those villains spread across the globe who only want to con me and part me from my cash.

Recently I was contacted by a "police officer" telling me he had arrested a woman who had fraudulently tried to use a credit card registered to my address. He sounded very realistic - gave me his police number, contact details etc etc.

Then he told me to dial 999 (equivalent to 911 in many countries) to get a crime number etc for insurance purposes.

So far, so plausible. I was getting really worried that someone had cloned my credit card until he said to dial 999 while he was still on the phone. Alarm bells started to ring in my head. I told him I wouldn't dial 999 until he had hung up, at which point he terminated the call. A quick check on the internet revealed this is a well-known scam.

Practically every day I encounter spam emails and telephone calls from crooks trying to part me from my hard-earned money.

I get emails from "friends" who have been stranded while on holiday and only need me to transfer £2,000 to a bank account so they can get back home to dear old Britain. My friends must be a dopey lot - because they're ALWAYS getting into trouble somewhere in the world!

There's the African president who would like to send me billions of pounds because he can't get the money out of his country after his father died of beri-beri and there was a military a coup. I'm puzzled why he picked on the bank account of an old Devon maid like me into which to deposit millions of £s - but soooo honoured. Must remember to send him all my bank details a.s.a.p.

I've lost count of the number of competitions and lotteries I've won, which is a miracle because I haven't entered any competitions or lotteries.

Then there are this blog's spam comments that, thankfully, my blog provider usually intercepts. Some slip through, though. Yesterday I got this one but I'm not sure that it's spam. What do you think?

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I think it's genuine. I must click through....

Here's another:

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What is even more depressing than the snake oil salesmen and the con artists thinking you just might fall for their spiel is that there must be people out there who actually do get conned or the crooks would be out of business.

Who in their right mind thinks they have won $1,000,000 in the Louisiana state lottery when they've never bought a ticket or visited the place? Why would Prince Mtobobo choose an ordinary person who's never been further than Sorrento in Italy as a conduit through which to send billions of Djiboutian francs, or whatever? Or that a website which advertises itself as "the go-get premier agency for lucid collaring" is genuine?

Some people almost deserve everything they get.

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My Life With Kale

I was reading one of my favourite blogs when the poster mentioned kale! It brought back memories of "my life with kale" which I posted about back in the year dot. So here's the post again, just in case you'd like to read it! I've shortened it slightly from the original - it seemed a bit wordy!

My Life With Kale

He doesn't say them often, but I love it when the better half utters those three little words guaranteed to warm a woman's heart: "Let's eat out."

Invariably these days, there it is on the menu. Kale. It's everywhere you look, on every cookery programme, in all the top chefs' recipe books and practically every Sunday supplement extols its virtues . 

Not that I have anything against kale. I like kale. I was brought up on kale. It grew like a weed and was one of the things that we fed to the cows on our farm in the winter. Then my mother boiled it to death and fed it to us. If there was any left over, it went into bubble and squeak.

But now it's not so much a food as a fashion accessory. Kale is cool.

In restaurants it is tarted up and served with a flourish. No waiter has ever said to me: "Eat it up, it'll give you curly hair," like my mother used to say. Come to think of it, there was a variety of food she claimed would give you curly hair, from crusts on your bread to liver. I swallowed the line along with the kale, crusts and liver and have to report that left to its own devices my hair is straight as a pound of candles.

On one menu I spotted kale served as a salad with pancetta, parmesan and lemon juice. I gave that a miss. Raw kale, I thought, was a step too far until I was further into the whole gussied up kale experience. But then I really enjoyed a dish that included braised kale with bacon and cider so I thought I would look on the internet for kale inspiration. What an eye-opener that was.

There was potato, kale and fennel hash, sauted kale with broccoli and feta (kale AND broccoli? I feel healthier just reading that) and curried kale with coconut. Even as a reborn kale gourmet I thought currying it sounded a bit too far out - but I might give it a go one day. 

I wish my mother had known that boiling wasn’t the only option. You can steam it, cream it, butter it and braise it.

 I even came across a video: How to Make Wilted Kale with Bacon and Vinegar and watched a woman doing exactly what it said, wilting kale and adding bacon and vinegar. I learnt nothing and that was one minute and thirty-seven seconds of my life I am never going to get back. 

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Michael Caine's New Film

Michael Caine the day he was knighted, with his wife Shakira

I was reading an interview with the wonderful Michael Caine in the Sunday papers. Michael, who is an astonishing 90 years old, has just made a new film called The Great Escaper.

It's about Bernard Jordan (played by Caine), an 89-year-old Navy veteran who absconded from a care home to go to the D-Day anniversary events in France in 2014.

Reading the article I remembered had written about Jordan at the time. Here's the original post below:

Bernard Jordan

I have a new hero.

He's not a handsome Clooney clone, dishing out the charm with the derring-do.

He's 89, somewhat bereft of teeth, with a white stubble which in no way could be construed as "designer".

The object of my affections is a Royal Navy veteran living in a care home in Hove, East Sussex, who when told he was not allowed to join the D-Day anniversary events in France, thought "bugger that for a game of soldiers" and set off anyway. Bernard Jordan hid his medals under his coat, told staff he was going for a walk and got on a coach that was Normandy-bound.

He checked into a hotel in Oustrelham, near Arromanches, and by the time anyone realised he was missing he was chatting to old soldiers on the beaches, no doubt moaning about the "younger generation" of 70 year olds.

Bernard is obviously compos mentis, physically capable and knows his own mind.

What struck me most about this story was not Bernard's ingenuity and sheer bloody-mindedness but what on earth gives anyone the right to ban a British person with freedoms that people of  his generation fought and died for to "ban" them from going on a journey, whether it is down the shops or to Timbuctoo.

At what age do people start treating you as a child again? If anyone said to me, "No, dear, you can't have another Cadbury's Creme Egg," that egg would soon be lodged where the sun don't shine still covered in its silver foil.

I appreciate he's in a care home and you can't have residents stripping down a motorbike in the bath or playing Vera Lynn records at full blast on the Dansette into the early hours of the morning, but to be refused to join old comrades on the Normandy beaches for a landmark anniversary? What kind of regime is that?

It's  the kind that Bernard risked his life to prevent.

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