Folk, Friends, Family, Fuzzies & Foliage

Every time we go away, whether for a long weekend or a more significant holiday, I spend a not inconsiderable amount of time planning how best to go about writing up the trip once we're back at home. Despite that, I don't think I've ever actually managed to do so! We tend to come back, spend a bit of time sorting life stuff out, then get swept up in seeing friends, planning new adventures, or just day-to-day work and living. This time, however, I have a full day in hand. Hopefully that means plans get completed (though they'll be in at least two parts so we'll see) 😅

Doing It Folk'ing Right

The first article on our trip to the South West in August already covered the many folk artists we saw, 11 in total. For only really spending three days at the festival proper that feels like a pretty good go of it. Of course, Sidmouth is about more than simply gigs; there's also the buskers and pub sessions covering a broader range of musical traditions (and talent levels), plus the ever present Morris dancers, food stalls, ale tents, hawkers and crafts, and I think we hit a pretty good coverage of all these aspects too.

It was nice to see a more local brewery being touted at the main festival bar, though Wickwar Brewery are still a bit distant when you have such excellent tipples literally down the road in Otterton[1]! Of course the local pubs are free to serve what they like, so there was still plenty of pints going around with less miles on the clock; plus then you can enjoy your drink with a range of musicians in free session, which we managed for a solid hour on the Wednesday afternoon and which remains one of my favourite aspects of the festival.

From a food perspective, our favourite pizza stand (Pizza Bueno) was back and just as delicious as I remembered, but we also discovered some new favourites. A Malaysian/Thai noodle bar did a particularly fine combo of beef noodles and satay chicken, and one of the local permanent fish shops did a great deal on monkfish nuggets that we happily munched our way through on the coast path en route to the Fringe venue. But the star of the show had to be the halloumi fries found near the craft tents, which had a pomegranate molasses and honey glaze as well as being served with a mint and sumac dip. Heavenly 🤤

Whilst the Folk Festival was our excuse for heading down to Devon, of course the main reason to make the trip was to catch up with Alison's family and friends. Amongst many wonderful meals, evenings and general life spent at her parent's house (where we were staying, too), we also managed a day trip to Topsham to meet up with Lorna and her partner, Adrian. Topsham remains one of my favourite towns in the UK, not just because of its incredibly selection of pubs, nor its excellent bird watching and walking options, but also because it was the first place I lived truly independently (and with Alison) when I returned from New Zealand.

The Best Pub

Of course, a visit to Topsham isn't complete without making full use of the aforementioned pubs, particularly the Bridge Inn. That means driving was a less-than-ideal option, so we bargained a lift in via the also excellent Darts Farm, before meeting up with the others and going on a quick loop around the estuary and mouth of the River Clyst. The tide was well in, so bird sightings were low, but there were still plenty around and a fair few dragonflies to boot. It felt a little early for lunch, but the Bridge specialises in true pub fare, so we shared a pork pie and a few pints of excellent local real ale whilst catching up.

Once Lorna and Adrian headed off, we were left with the decision of how to get home. The weather was threatening rain, but we figured it would hold, so picked up a small picnic from Darts and set off along the coast path towards Exmouth. Despite visiting (and, indeed, living in) this part of the world many times I've never done any of the coastal hikes, so it was nice to get one under the belt. It also highlighted just how many pubs still exist along the walking route, which gave us ideas for a more leisurely return trip in the future 😉

We wound through Exton, pushed on through Lympstone Commando marvelling at the ridiculous looking marine training exercises, and stopped on the shore of Lympstone proper to eat our simple packed lunch. Overall, we made good time to Exmouth (blackberry fueled for most of it as the briars were in full fruit) and arrived with bright skies, so decided to give on all the way back to Budleigh. That final stretch of coast is a bit more hilly and varied, with some pleasant woodlands and fascinating cliff falls that have created micro ecosystems, but it also cuts through Sandy Bay, a town made from a single caravan park. I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it, particularly with the active military fort, where squaddies were practicing shooting metres away from families enjoying the British summer. Still, we were lucky enough to spot a sparrowhawk dive past us along the eastern cliff edge, so I'll always remember it for that!

Broken Brakes and British Safari

We had driven down to Devon as Alison was picking up a few bits and pieces, which would have made train travel a bit too restrictive. On the way out, that had meant stopping just outside of London and a perfectly pleasant (but woefully understaffed) pub/hotel, but we wanted to take longer to wind our way back with plans to stop in on some friends near Oxford and make use of my ZSL membership to actually visit Whipsnade Zoo. Luckily, however, we tried to use the car the day before we were due to leave... and discovered both rear brakes had completely seized! I'd noted they were a bit stiff as we were leaving London, but whether just old age or the salty sea air, sitting in Budleigh for a few days had been enough to total them completely. A half hour of hitting the brake drums with hammers, trying to jolt them free, and generally scraping the locked wheels around, we gave up and called a mechanic. Luckily he managed to fit us in the next day and was able to order the parts overnights, meaning we were only delayed a few hours whilst both brake cylinders were replaced (turns out a part of one pad had fallen off an fused onto another, effectively welding the brake into a locked state!).

With that we waved goodbye to the South West and wound our way up to a small town just outside of Oxford. We stayed the night with Arthur, an old university friend, as well as his partner Emily. Between them they cooked up a delicious meal and we had a fine time hearing about their recent trips and life in a part of the world where two 20-somethings can happily afford to rent somewhere with a whole bedroom just going spare – the dream! They were at work the next morning, so we parted early and headed into the Chilterns, an area of the country I was completely unfamiliar with.

Although I understand that they hold a certain rural idyll compared to the nearby central London, I wasn't all that taken with the pretty flat and extremely over managed hills that make up the Chilterns as we first drove through. Still, we hadn't come here for the hills, but for the animals, as the north end of the Chilterns is home to London Zoo's sister facility, Whipsnade. I still don't know a huge amount about the founding of Whipsnade, but from what I understand it was setup (or taken over) by ZSL to become a home for the larger animals that they didn't really ever have room for in the London enclosures.

Whether to make up for that historic borderline animal abuse, or just because of the huge amount of land they had ended up with, the enclosures in Whipsnade are gigantic. Like all truly modern zoos, ZSL are focused on conservation work as their priority, with public outreach coming in second place; that means the animals at Whipsnade are taken care of before the public, and it shows. The rhino exhibit, in particular, was easily a football pitch or two in size, so much so that I couldn't believe how hard the gigantic inhabitants were to spot at first! You can also tell how well the animals are catered for by how many are successfully breeding, including possibly the only adult Hippos (not the Pygmy kind, which they also have, but the full size variety) I've ever seen in captivity, as well as a beautiful group of critically endangered Scimitar Horned Oryx, a species which would simply be extinct if it weren't for the breeding programmes initiated by forward thinking zoos like ZSL in the late 20th century.

The rest of the zoo was well maintained and managed, though the sheer size made it hard to see everything in a single day (even though we arrived as the gates opened and left after the zoo had officially closed). Interestingly, you can drive into the zoo and there are even some areas which are only accessible by car, but we hadn't realised and had already parked in the main car park a short walk away. Instead, we made use of the short train ride they have, which was good fun and a quick way to see the Asian exhibits.

The weather had been excellent for the whole week, so it was quite a surprise when we found ourselves in the middle of a thunder storm and deluge towards the end of the day! Luckily, it all happened whilst we were in the newly opened aquarium[2], so we only really realised it wasn't sound effects when we noticed how soaked some of those around us were. The rest of the afternoon had drifting showers, but we largely avoided them by dipping into places for lunch[3] or just taking cover under viewing platforms, and did manage to get around pretty much the entire zoo.

Highlights were definitely the penguin enclosures, who must have one of the greatest views of any penguin colony in the world (wild or otherwise), as well as the elephant house which was incredibly well designed, including an elephant drinking fountain that was perfectly made for use with a trunk instead of hands. On the animal front, the red pandas gave a great display, and both the aforementioned hippos and oryx were great to see, but for me the wolverines and lynx were probably the best and most unusual spots, with both groups being much more active (and photogenic) than I could have hoped for.

Palaces & Cathedrals

Once we'd been firmly kicked out, we headed up to the nearby town of Dunstable, where we'd managed to get a room at the four-star Old Palace Lodge for the night for around 70% off! Turns out that the hotel was hosting a bachelorette party, and a big birthday bash, and some other event, so the restaurant was closed (no bother to us, we slipped out and had a fantastic Indian instead) and the remaining rooms had been heavily discounted. Still, the wonderful old fashioned[4] bar was open, which we made use of a couple of times to try out both gin and whisky from their selection.

The next morning was our final day of holiday, so we packed up and began heading back to London. First, though, we wanted to see a little more of the northern Chilterns, so headed back up towards Whipsnade Zoo to the Dunstable Downs Gateway, a National Trust centre for the area. We had hoped this would be a museum or similar information centre, but it's really just a nice cafe and small shop with a great view. Still, we picked up some walking trail leaflets and had already paid for parking, so decided to do a loop back to Whipsnade village to see the tree cathedral there. It was a seriously windy day, with the occasional light shower (and later a few torrents, luckily after the walk), so plenty of people were out flying kites. The walk skirted around the edge of the hill, looking down towards the gliding club, before joining an old country track that cuts right past the zoo car park we'd used the day before (though we didn't realise that until much later, as the track was "proper" and cut into the turf, with trees lining both sides).

It was only a few hours as a round trip, but the tree cathedral was worth visiting. Set up in memorial to some local friends that had died fighting in the Great War by a surviving comrade, the highly regimented arborium has a central cross-shaped "cathedral" flanked by multiple enclaves and encircled areas, each using a different tree species and with a specific purpose, from being linked to the seasons (for example, the winter enclave uses spruce trees as its border) or just specific Christian structures often found at priories, abbeys or cathedrals. It's a fun idea that's well kept and made for a good turning back point.

As the rain hit shortly after we got back to the car, we dipped down to the nearby Old Hunters Lodge for a full meal, hit up a garden centre (in the pouring rain!) as it felt like a good opportunity to get some better containers for the roof terrace, and meandered back to the Big Smoke. All in all, a very relaxing and varied week and a great success!

Footnotes