Exploring Exmoor

Sometimes you simply have to drop everything and head for the wilderness – even if just for overnight. Nowadays the buzzword for it is ‘microadventure’; whatever you want to call it, it’s often just the escape needed to reinvigorate the soul and whet your appetite for the next big adventure.

Camping Exmoor National Park Gemma Chilton

Saturday night lodgings

It all started with an email to Paul in the middle of the work day on Thursday. The week had already been wonderfully abbreviated, thanks to a visit on Tuesday from our friends Caitlin and Tim from the USA (who reminded us that we should still be tourists in our own town while we can – and that there’s still so much to see and enjoy). Our tent has also recently been repaired after we killed it in Iceland, and so the one-liner email I sent Paul read: “How does whiskey and cards under the stars in Exmoor National Park sound this weekend?” I really didn’t have to twist his arm.

So, on Saturday morning we packed our bags and drove an hour to Lynton, where we forked out £15 for a good topographical map of the adjacent national park, then set off on foot out of the village of Malmsmead, loaded up with camping gear and food (and of course a deck of cards and a flask of whiskey), with a rough idea of where we wanted to explore and eventually sleep the night (Doone Country sounded pretty apt).

Paul Exmoor National Park Gemma Chilton

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Unfortunately for Paul, I have an almost uncontrollable urge to make Game of Thrones references when exploring the moorlands and the English countryside. The surroundings are such that I keep waiting for Arya Stark and the Hound to round the next corner on horseback.

We made our way past ancient stone walls, gnarly old oak and ash trees, hopped over bubbling streams and climbed rolling green hills until we made it to the open expanse of moorland. Another inspiration for the trip had been Exmoor’s designation as a ‘Dark Sky Reserve’, with minimal light pollution and therefore offering excellent star-gazing potential. As we trudged across the endless heath and grasslands, it was easy to imagine how dark it would get come nightfall.

Eventually we made it to a back road that cuts through the national park, where we were surprised to find about a dozen four-wheel drives and horse trailers and distinctly dressed locals – all of which added up to suggest we’d stumbled across the makings of a fox hunt, as Paul pointed out. Indeed, as we found the next part of our hike back onto the moors, we did see one pretty agitated and flighty looking fox dart across the track and away, in between the disinterested cows chewing their cuds. (The look the cows gave us said, “We won’t tell them he went this way if you don’t.”)

Exmoor National Park Gemma Chilton

More local wildlife

Fierce local wildlife

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The aim of the game, of course, was finding the perfect campsite, and on this front I must say we did pretty well. We were heading towards a more protected valley, and as we crested yet another hill, paradise revealed itself below. A wide, clear freshwater stream, hillsides carpeted with purple heath and golden grasses that shimmered in the breeze, twisted, lichen-covered trees with short green grass around their base, perfect for pitching the tent.

The last time we camped was in the back yard of an old pub when we first arrived in England with nowhere else to stay. Before that, about a year ago now, we spent 35 nights straight in this tent, and so clipping the poles into place again felt a bit like a home-coming.

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And then what we really came for…

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Alas, as the sun set, Doone Country lived up to its name (sorry history buffs and Lorna Doone fans) and appeared to pull a big, soft looking doona of clouds across the sky above us, so star gazing would have to wait until next time. (I always like an excuse to return, anyway).

The cloud hung around the next morning for our hike back, and if anything it made the scenery even more otherworldly; the brilliant greens even richer. This landscape truly is the stuff of fantasy (or even video games, it occurred to me; if this isn’t Game of Thrones country, it could easily be Zelda, and I could almost hear the sound track change with the rising sun of a new day.)

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After all that, we enjoyed a well-earned treat in Lynmouth, and we finally managed to get an action shot of our much-loved Land Rover. We were home in time to spend Sunday afternoon writing this up, now it’s back to work on Monday.

Long live the microadventure!

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A Cornish Christmas getaway

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In hindsight, when ordering a meal to be eaten at a table for one in a large swanky dining room, I should probably have gone for a less messy option than the mussels… Padstow Christmas Festival

As I’d chosen to eat early that evening on my overnight stay at the St Moritz Hotel in Rock, north Cornwall, the restaurant was mostly empty and I couldn’t help but feel the waiters’ eyes on me as I wrestled with the tasty but stubborn mussels in their fragrant coconut and coriander broth… My previous confidence that yes I’m sure you’re supposed to eat these with your hands and use the first shell to extract the rest of the little suckers was fast waning, but I was in too deep by then to reach for the fork, so my only option was to look confident, whilst occasionally smiling reassuringly over at the attentive row of waiters as I attempted to proceed to the next page of my touch-screen e-book using the knuckle of my pinkie finger.

Mussels at St Moritz

The situation brought a scene in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar to mind –when her character Esther Greenwood mistakenly consumes the entire finger bowl at a luncheon “including the crisp little blossoms”. Esther came to learn that when you think you’re doing something incorrect in a dining situation, just do it with “a certain arrogance […] and nobody will think you are bad mannered or poorly brought up. They will think you are original and very witty.” So, in short, that’s the effect I was going for – and after a glass of South African sauv blanc and finished off with a warm, spicy mulled wine, I was starting to feel pretty merry and confident again anyway.

The reason I was down in Cornwall was for a two-day work trip to attend the first half of the annual, four-day Padstow Christmas Festival. My employer was invited by one of their clients, Sharp’s Brewery, who was putting staff up at the St Moritz Hotel – which happens to be another client and one who I work with directly, so I was lucky enough to be sent along.

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It’s a two-hour drive down the coast from North Devon through winding, narrow country lanes (saying that, even the A-roads here feel like narrow lanes to me…), and I arrived at around 11am to check in at the hotel then make my way down to the little ferry that crosses the Camel Estuary between the towns of Rock and Padstow – it will drop you off at different points along the beach or harbour depending on the tide.

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The centrepoint of the festival was a big marquee set up with food stalls and craft and Christmas gifts, and of course beer – Sharp’s Brewery was the main sponsor of the event. Highlights were the Chefs Demonstration Theatre, where some of Padstow’s best chefs – including Rick Stein who many joke more or less owns Padstow (he certainly put it on the map) – cooked meals on stage for the audience to watch and learn. Among my personal favourites was the eccentric moustachioed Hugo Woolley who restored my faith in my own prospects as a home-baker when he’d been given the wrong flour and his granola cookies turned into a buttery mess in the oven – it happens to the best of us!

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The next day I was lucky enough to sit down for coffee at Rick Stein’s The Seafood Restaurant to interview former Michelin-starred chef Paul Ripley (Paul was head chef at The Seafood Restaurant after Rick and now works at The Mariners Rock pub), as well as his sous-chef Zack Hawke and Sharp’s Brewery’s beer sommelier Ed Hughes – Ed is passionately trying to elevate beer to the world of fine dining, which is a noble cause, I say.

Sharp’s Brewery also had a clever marketing trick up their sleeve with something called The Secret Bar that took place inside a closed shipping container at the festival… I can’t say too much about what went on inside, except that it involved beer and food and as a visiting journalist I was fortunate enough to have my ‘secret bar’ experience with a group of VIP chefs…

If anything was going to get me into the spirit for my first ‘cold’ Christmas in the northern hemisphere, then this little getaway to Cornwall’s foodie capital was it. Thanks Padstow and now bring on the home-made minced pies and mulled wine, I’m in a festive mood!

Merry Christmas xx

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Expat update: from Bideford, Devon

So I’ve been slack with blogging, I know, I know. You can put that down to the trials and tribulations (and joys!) of setting up life in a new country.

A room with a view, in Bideford, North Devon

After adjusting to the leisurely pace of life on Paul’s family’s farmhouse in the UK’s idyllic west midlands, we ended up spending our first night in our ‘new’ home of North Devon in a tent in the beer garden of a country pub…

Yes, less than a fortnight after finishing our bike tour around Iceland, we were back to our old ways again, pitching tents in unexpected places.

Paul’s furniture making course had been scheduled to start in about a week’s time, and we still had to solve the minor detail of finding somewhere to live for the year. On that weekend ‘reccy’ to North Devon – timed smack-bang in the middle of school holidays – we couldn’t even find accommodation for a night. Thankfully, the pub owner at the Devil’s Stone Inn in Shebbear overheard our quandary and offered a grassy patch out the back, which we gratefully accepted.

A sign on the wall behind the bar proclaimed the pub to be ‘officially haunted’ (as decided by some sort of independent auditor of those kinds of things, apparently). However the only haunting we experienced was from the Rottweiler with which we shared the beer garden, and which left several landmines for us to dodge. There was also the Wifi that didn’t work when the jukebox was plugged in, and vice versa (those ghosts can be oddballs, sometimes). Boat at Instow beach

Eventually, houseshare.co.uk led us to a terrace just outside the town centre of Bideford, in which we now rent a, let’s say… cosy bedroom. That is to say, we’ve had to customise a double futon to make it fit, still leaving really only standing room for one.

Our new home is, however, just a cobble stone’s throw from the high street and the River Torridge, to which we have found ourselves gravitating on these balmy summer evenings to watch the local rowing teams, as well as carefree kids in wetsuits jumping off the ‘old bridge’ at high tide. (At low tide, the boats lean over on their keels on the exposed mudflats.) Our room also has a window looking out on all this, which makes up for the lack of space. We leave the curtains open overnight and are awoken every morning with the walls painted pink from the rising sun.

Accommodation, tick. Next up was to find a job. Paul started his course on the 1st of September, and since then drives the 10 miles there through country lanes in our ‘new’ 1995 Land Rover Discovery. The hedged lanes are so narrow (and the Disco so wide) that he has to fold in the side mirrors.

That left me with the place to myself during the day as I continued the process of becoming established in Bideford and in the UK in general (even grocery shopping was a learning curve – aubergines not eggplants, courgettes not zucchinis, gammon shank not bacon hock, and I made a spinach pie out of something called ‘spring greens’…). I had a couple of freelance jobs to tide me over – including working on a feature article for Australian Geographic Outdoor magazine about our Iceland bike tour – but otherwise I was emailing and phoning anyone and everyone I could to look for work opportunities.Boat on the River Torridge

With several irons in media/publishing-related fires, I still became impatient. It turns out I don’t ‘do’ idle well, so after about a week I responded to an ad in a local cafe, called Cafe Collective, and found myself making coffees and waiting tables for the locals (the Australian accent always made for a great ice-breaker with customers). As a Sydney-sider, I was a little aghast when the cafe owners let me operate the espresso machine without a PhD in latte art, but I got the hang of it and even learnt what the hell an ‘Americano’ is. (If you’re interested, it was invented in Europe during WWII to resemble the filter coffee that American soldiers were used to. It is also what you give someone when they ask for simply a ‘coffee’ and you can tell very clearly that they do not want to be hassled with any further options.)

Alas, however, my days in hospitality were numbered. I am pleased to say instead that I’ve started in a permanent role at a very groovy little boutique publisher and marketing agency called Salt Media, which specialises in gorgeous food publications. I take a double decker bus to work, and always nab the front, top-level seats to enjoy the view. (As these are always empty, and I share the bus with mostly high school kids, I gather this isn’t a particularly cool place to sit – which works out perfectly.)Blackberries

Bideford is starting to feel like home (or home-away-from-home, at least) and Paul and I are diligently conducting our own local research – that is, gradually working our way around all of the local pubs for our Friday night ales. Most of them were built in the 15th/16th centuries, and for a town with a population of about 10,000, there’s plenty to choose from. Most recently, it was the Joiners’ Arms, with old woodworking tools hung on the walls, which felt extremely fitting given the circumstances of our relocation here. It might just become our regular haunt (although we have a few to work through yet).

Another highlight has been taking weekend walks along the Tarka Trail, which covers a total distance of 180 miles through North Devon. We’ve walked about 14 of those miles (~22km) over various weekends – passing under old stone bridges, by unused canal locks and rail lines, and picking blackberries from hedges that are fat with them this time of year. The Tarka Trail might just have to become a future blog post of its own, once we’ve explored a bit more.

It’s all just a bit ridiculously quaint, really. I thought England was supposed to be grey and dreary? We’ve even been swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. Without wetsuits. Twice.

Now, I’ll leave you with a few shots from the Bideford Carnival, which took us by surprise when the carnies started rolling in with their amusement rides and fast food vans, and when for one entire evening the town came to life to the soundtrack of the local pipes ‘n’ drums bands. It was a perfect welcoming. Thanks Bideford!

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