Chapter 12: Devon and Cornwall – Summer 1960

Exeter. South West Devon. July 1960.

Dear Mum and Dad,

Well, I have made the great escape from the city, more or less as planned, and after completing minor financial negotiations, I packed up and set off down south, or rather south west into Devon County.

I have just arrived in the city of Exeter, and am having a look around before making my way to Buckfastleigh, which isn’t far away, in time to start work at the beginning of the week.

I am writing this from the local youth hostel, but it hasn’t been so easy to concentrate.

The distraction comes in the form of guitar, a very hip young performer, and the remainder of the hostel occupants enthusiastically joining in the singing. Right now, I am happy to sing along too as they launch into of A Pub with No Beer   — It almost brings tears to my eyes — it is an Australian original, you know!

Exeter is just the sort of city that I like to explore, not too big, but with plenty of evidence of an interesting history still standing. In that respect, it has some similarities to the towns just across the English Channel in Brittany and Normandy.

There are still traces of a Celtic presence well   before the Romans arrived about 2000 years ago and built a fortified city including segments of the 2-mile long city wall, built not in the customary greystone, but from the russet red stone mined locally. Stretches of the wall keep popping up here and there, even between shops and other buildings.

I wandered down to Exeter Quay where the canal gives access to the sea and stopped to listen to some open air music,

Here Red stone warehouses line the river, which is navigable river and flows on into an ever-expanding estuary.

From the 1600s onwards there was a busy wool and cloth trade with the West Indies, Spain, France and Italy, at a time when Exeter ranked only second to the city of Bath in importance in this part of England.

The town was originally built along a ridge with a steep hill behind it so that it commands a fine view of the beautiful countryside surrounding it. The landscape is like a patchwork quilt’ of alternating greens, rust, golden and soft pink, with dark lines of neatly clipped hedges separating them.

The splendid Exeter Cathedral

The splendid Exeter Cathedral. The architecture of the church is described as a mix of early English and decorative Gothic.  The west entrance has a fine row of statues along the arch above the doorway which reminds me of Chartres Cathedral.

The magnificent Cathedral Church of St Peter stands out. It is built in warm, honey coloured stone surrounded by expansive lawns, and nearby are the Old Town half timbered style homes.

It has been a Christian site as early as the fifth century – what stands there today is a very graceful Norman cathedral built in the 12th century after William the Conqueror had come by and chased out the Saxons and set up Rougemont Castle – yet another of King Williams grand buildings I have visited on both sides of the Channel.

Rougemont is french for red hill . The castle is built on the red stone cliff nearby, There is little remaining of it – just the the red-stone Barbican – a mediaeval word used to describe a fortress gateway.

The Exeter Guildhall was built in the 14th century — said to be the oldest municipal building in the country, with parts still incorporated in the current building; the mayoral hall still contains a huge throne- like chair from which the Mayor presides over council meetings even today. There is also a mediaeval Customs house.

The museum too was quite interesting — lots of pieces of Roman mosaic excavated from below the Cathedral Green, some local Stone Age flints, and even remains of a 3000-year-old mummy in the Egyptian room.

A postcard of Marble Arch

A side view of Marble Arch. This was a triumphal arch inspired by the Roman Arch of Constantine in Rome and the Arc de Triomphe in Paris It leads to Buckingham Palace.The Queen’s Gold carriage passed through it on the way to her coronation in 1953

Before leaving London, I had a couple of very pleasant outings. On my afternoon off on Thursday, I met with Mrs. Pryor, a friend who is a veteran traveller — she has just returned from her sixth trip though she does do it the luxury way!

We had lunch at her hotel — a splendid place at Marble Arch with a foyer like Central Station, and lots of wealthy Americans in evidence.  We had a lazy afternoon together sharing stories.

I left about five o’clock and went out to Wimbledon on the off chance of being able to see some tennis. I was wonderfully lucky. While I was waiting in line to see if I could get a ticket a young man who was just leaving came up to me and offered me his ticket (worth one pound!) for a seat on the centre court!

Rod Laver winning the semi-finals at Wimbledon 1960

Rod Laver winning the semi-finals at Wimbledon 1960

Probably the most exciting match of the season had just begun — the semi-final of the men’s singles, and who should be playing but our Rod Laver –   And he won it beautifully.

Straight afterwards, at about 7.30 a mixed doubles match followed. There was still plenty of light to play by. – the poor fellow was staggering around the court, swallowing painkillers and looking as if he was about to drop;  but they won the match just the same.   It was all very exciting; so proud to be an Aussie!

I did hear later that the Men’s’ Final was won by another Australian – Neal Fraser.  One of the things we are best known for over here is our tennis players, even in Italy!

It is about the only spectator sport that I understand and enjoy, having played a bit at school, and thanks particularly to Auntie Linda, who has taken me to White City in Sydney a couple of times where we watched Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall play.

It was interesting observing the crowd as well. There was a little group of the royals in their own special box causing some interest as well. — And as for the fashions!

I had imagined that society would manage to dress down as smartly for the occasion as Sydney women usually do, but no, they were all there in their silk shantung, wearing cocktail veils and tulle beehives!

On Friday night I was off to the Royal Albert Hall again. It was a great occasion — this time to see the wonderful Bolshoi Ballet Company, which is only here for three weeks.

Since Stalin died the company has been able to do international tours from about 1956.

They are recognised as being the premier world ballet company. They are presenting three different programmes, one a week, consisting of 18 different highlights of their various operas and Russian dances. About a dozen different leading dancers, (though no Corps de Ballet), perform the whole selection. They not only changed their program each week but also their principal dancers, and they really are superb dancers — very vital, beautiful and very athletic with wonderful costuming and variety of performances. The male dancers are such tall, hearty looking, handsome creatures — as much a joy to watch as the ballerinas.

What a way to wind up my London summer season! Every now and then, I am struck by what a privilege it is to be seeing so much of the best of the arts, architecture, entertainment and beautiful scenery, not to mention such a variety of interesting and friendly people.

Well, tomorrow brings a new little chapter. I will be reporting in as soon as I am settled into village life and being a country chemist!

I send lots of love and good wishes to everyone.

P.S. My new address is C/-Bray’s Pharmacy, Fore St., Buckfastleigh. County Devon.

Buckfastleigh, Devon. 12 July 1960.

Dear Mum and Dad,

I was very happy that your newsy letter found me at my new address this morning and that all seems well with you. I am also happy to report that I have fallen on my feet again!

My new pharmacy is a pleasant place to work. It turns out that the manager is not a qualified pharmacist, but is the son- in- law of Mr. Bray, which means that they always need a visiting pharmacist to keep the business operating. He is a happy go lucky fellow, and there are two girls on the staff as well. He took my suggestion to pay towards accommodation as including meals as well, with the result that I am receiving £19 a week, having my luxury bed and breakfast paid for, and also a very nice midday dinner.

With nothing else to spend my money on, I am able to save much more than in London, as well as having a much pleasanter and more leisurely existence into the bargain — in some ways, I wish I had thought to organise something like this a little sooner.

My Land lady, Mrs Saxby,her daughter and grandchildren in her lovely garden in Devon

My Landlady, Mrs Saxby,her daughter and grandchildren in her lovely garden in Buckfastleigh, Devon

I have private board in a very nice little house and my landlady is a widow called Mrs. Saxby. She is a quiet person and gives me the impression that she hasn’t quite come to terms with the death of her husband about four years ago — but she is very motherly and kind to me.

I have a lovely big room with a double bed and four pillows, windows looking out on to the hills, paintings of flowers on the walls with Bible tracts written under them — in fact, just about all a young girl could wish for!

We have a television set to help us fill in the evenings, and sometimes I wander in next door, where her married daughter and young family live.

Buckfastleigh is a small market town of mediaeval origin quite near to Dartmoor National Park, and I believe that Dartmoor prison isn’t all that far away. The town is a little less picturesque than some of the villages around here but it is surrounded by the lovely Devon countryside which is green and hilly, with clear rocky little streams crossed by lovely old stone bridges every here and there.

Each morning Mrs. Saxby prepares me a large English style breakfast, and at lunchtime I wander a little way down the road from the pharmacy to a sweet old private hotel, where I have a large three course meal which consists of a roast — usually lean local beef with baked veggies and delicious Yorkshire pudding – (I must learn how to make it!), followed by a huge serving of juicy home-grown strawberries and the famous Devonshire clotted cream!

In the evenings, I am thoroughly content to settle for a modest sandwich!

Last Tuesday a woman burst into the dispensary and said that she had heard that I was an Australian, that she is too, and would I like to visit them?

She turned out to be a Mrs. Lawrence, a quiet pleasant person about 40 years old, married to one Peter Lawrence who is quite a bit older. It transpires that he is quite a well-known artist in photography and etching. He lived in Australia for about 25 years, from the age of 40 to 65

I had the next afternoon free, (this makes up for working on Saturday afternoons), so Marie called in for me, and we drove to their home, which is a little way out of town.

It is a delightful long, whitewashed cottage with a thatched roof and a garden brimming with magnificent roses — just the sort of place you read about in English novels.

Mr. Lawrence proved a wonderful character to meet, seeming exceptionally young for his years, and a fascinating personality.

The living room in the home of Lawrence on the edge of P Petersfield Devon

The peaceful living room in the home of Marie and Peter Lawrence on the edge of Buckfastleigh in County Devon

The interior of the house has a warm, welcoming feel to it. It has heavy beamed low ceilings and lots of solid old furniture, and much of the walls are decorated with Australian landscapes — all original paintings given to him by some of our best-known Australian artists who are all friends of his.

He is also an amateur flautist and is a friend of Clive Amadio — the one with a quintet that we hear on radio!

He had lots of interesting tales to tell about his time in Australia, and was very interested in whatever I was able to recount to bring him up to date. They have been over here in England for 13 years now, and I think that his wife misses Australia quite a bit and will return one day.

They have asked me to spend next Sunday with them — I had intended going sightseeing but I think I shall enjoy this much more.


The mysterious wilds of  Dartmoor spreading out in all directions

On Wednesday, on my afternoon off, Marie drove me up on to the Dart moor plateau, which is not far away. In fact, Buckfastleigh and a couple of other villages nearby are within the vast Dartmoor National Park, which covers about 1000 km².    Dartmoor itself spreads out about 30 km in all directions. We were able to stroll along the paths through the purple heather, avoiding the boggy marshes and floating mists. It is quite wild and beautiful in an eerie sort of way.

Birch Tor on the Dartmoor plateau Devon

Birch Tor on the Dartmoor plateau

We drove through the uplands, winding through the granite tors and occasionally coming across mysterious rows and circles of ancient standing stones, also remnants of Bronze Age houses and mediaeval long houses – a few still standing, as well as remains of the tin mining industry.

These days it is basically uninhabitable –  too cold during the winter and with winds that are too strong for the growth of anything useful. Sheep graze up there and  beautiful shaggy Dartmoor ponies run wild. We saw the famous isolated Dartmoor prison in the distance, a grim looking place about 7 miles along the road.

Lots of myths and legends have grown about the moorland — plenty of stories of ghosts and other strange happenings. They are helped along by such writers as Arthur Conan Doyle who was inspired to write The Hound of the Baskervilles, and many well-known artists have been drawn there to paint stunning landscapes.

I’m starting to get rather sleepy so I will save other bits of news till I write again shortly.

Bye for now & lots of love

Buckfastleigh 19th of July 1960

Dear family,

Letter time again! — It always seems just a couple of days since I last wrote — Time flies by so quickly. I’m beginning to feel much fitter and rested, and I admit to putting on a little bit of weight as a result of my healthy country existence, not to mention my hotel lunches!

The only downside has been the weather, which has been fairly miserable. It was quite dry for a month or two before I arrived, but the day I hit town the showers began and have been part of the daily programme ever since. The weather report on the telly every day is always the same — ‘ showers with brighter periods, thunder in places’.  No wonder the jolly country is always so green.

It is fascinating to watch the sky here. I can’t remember ever seeing it changing so rapidly. The sun pops in and out (mainly in) between the great big beautiful puffy clouds, and quick bursts of rain can shoot down unexpectedly whether it is shining or not, though I have noticed that you can usually count on a good shower at about two o’clock in the afternoon!

A view across the city from the Citadel in PLymouth

A view from the Citadel in Plymouth,the city where the Plymouth Brethren came from. The Royal Citadel is an impressive fort built in the 1600s to ward off the Dutch and is still a military establishment even today.

I don’t mind it during the week because if it were too fine I wouldn’t want to be working, but it is a nuisance at the weekends, when I like to be exploring a bit of the surrounding countryside.

Last weekend I set off under a thundery sky for Plymouth, which is only an hour by bus from here. As you can imagine, it is a large and important port city with a long history.

It is built on the border between Devon and Cornwall at the mouth of the Plym and Tamar Rivers with the hills of Dartmoor in the background, and expands out around Plymouth Sound.

The first of the Lidos started to appear along here in the 30’s when it became popular to search for sunshine specifically  for their health.

The waterfront in Plymouth taken across from the Barbican

The waterfront in Sutton harbour in Plymouth taken across from the Barbican – a fortress gateway at the entrance of the old medieval walled town of Sutton, some of which had escaped  destruction during the Blitz.

Dad, you will be interested to know that back some centuries ago its name was actually Sutton!   It would be interesting to find out how that might fit into our family tree .

It was an important port even back in the Bronze Age and the Romans traded from there.

The Mayflower Steps where the pilgrims had departed from were nearby, and also the Plym Gin Distillery still in business since 1793!   And of course, the fish markets

I only had a chance to look around a little bit before the rain set in. I was interested to notice a tall public statue of the goddess Britannia which had been erected as a national Armada Memorial, and to remember that the native

An old Elizabeth timbered home in the city of Plymouth

An old Elizabeth timbered home in the older part of  Plymouth.

Celts, who of course were here as well before the Romans, were called Britons in Roman times, and that from this came the Roman goddess Britannia standing astride with her Trident, shield and helmet.

Many centuries later she came to be identified as a symbol of British national identity, especially at the beginning of the 18th century when the kingdoms of England and Scotland were joined to become Great Britain, (and ultimately that we ‘colonials’ came to see ourselves as part of the British Empire).

There was one particularly interesting church, originally the parish church of Sutton, dedicated to St. Andrew and in the 15th century was replaced by a fine stone church.

This was badly damaged in the Blitz in 1941, but by 1943 was in use again, roofless but surrounded by lawns and flower beds and became  known as the Garden Church for some years. Plans to completely restore it began  just a couple of years ago.

The ruins of ST.Andrews Plymouth

The Garden Church of St . Andrews in
Plymouth – partially restored from bombed ruins.

The history lesson had to end there, as the rain started to get heavier, though I did have time to check the memorial –  the exact spot where  the Plymouth Brethren set out on the Mayflower  for America – the beginning of yet another major story!

Instead of hanging around in the wet, I caught another bus, crossed the Royal Albert Bridge and headed west for Cornwall. By the time we had travelled to Polperro, about 25 km from Plymouth, the weather had eased a little, and I was able to spend a few happy hours exploring this beautiful little fishing village in its idyllic setting on the River Pol.

From the bus stop I wandered down through the narrows winding streets to the tiny harbour, passing the tightly packed, whitewashed fishermen’s houses on the way.

There are lots of caves and rocky headlands around and it became famous around the 12th century for smuggling and buccaneering – a good spot where the pirates could slip in for cover when they needed to.

This reminded me of the smuggling stories from just opposite across the Channel along the Normandy coast that I picked up when exploring in the north of France.

Later on the village had to rely for survival on the richness of its fishing industry, particularly pilchards, though today they say the supply is beginning to dry up a little.

The Cornish women are often found sitting outside knitting great, thick guernseys (or Jerseys) for their men-folk. Apparently lots of knitting expressions come out of the fishing tradition.=, e.g. ‘casting off’.

For lunch I ate a traditional triangular Cornish pasty at a pirates pub, as you do when you come to Cornwall, accompanied by a small beer!

Here the Cornish pasty is regarded as a national dish. One shop specialises in providing a great number of varieties of it, but the traditional one has a filling of meat, potato and swedes, and perhaps a few other vegetables.   It is the swede that gives it its particular flavour.

The next little village I stopped at is called Looe, which is also known for its delicious fresh fish and for its boat building industry, and particularly as a tourist resort.

It was just a touch too touristy for my taste. I love little whitewashed cottages, but here they were also pink-washed and blue-washed, and even one that was turquoise-washed – its proud owners had called ‘TUC-TIN’!   How is that for cute!

There hasn’t been enough time today to go further down into Cornwall, so I’m hoping to come down again and explore St Michael’s Mount, which has connections to Mont St. Michel on the other side of the Channel, and then go on to Land’s End

.Looking back over my travels in Europe so far, I have become aware, that, without consciously planning to do so, I have been touching into all the main areas inhabited by the Celtic people. This came home to me particularly as I travelled through Brittany, when I learnt that their language, Breton, was very widely spoken up until recently when it was discouraged by the French government to be spoken in schools, and that it was very strongly linked to the Celtic or Gaelic languages spoken by the Welsh, Scots and Irish and Cornish. Together, these areas are still referred to by scholars as the six Celtic nations.

This has stirred a desire in me to learn more, not just for historical reasons — it feels as if it goes much deeper when I think that our family lines go back not just to the Irish of recent centuries, but to a fine race of people who were spread over much of Europe up to about 2000 years ago until the Romans pushed them ever further west, where their traits and culture are still very much alive today.

What I have been able to glean so far is that back then they lived very close to nature, and that their spirituality was very nature oriented. They built no temples and left no written history.

The Druids were their wise men, with a great knowledge of astronomy –their story is in the mysterious standing stones which are scattered throughout the lands as far north as the Hebrides and the famous Callanish standing stones, and all the way down to Carnac in Brittany, the largest megalithic site in Europe.

And their poets were the keepers of knowledge. Ireland and Wales hold a rich store of their poetry and legal literature,

They were mainly agrarian people and fine craftsman, and family life and ties were very important to them, women had a strong influence in upholding values of honour, courage and responsibility, and their songs and poetry are full of stories of heroes.

They seemed to have been an extrovert people with a love of beautiful jewellery and colourful woven garments, often in plaid designs as we see in the kilts, and today you will find bagpipes and marching bands in Brittany as well is in Scotland and Ireland. A most of this is missing from our school history books.

While I have loved the time that I have spent in England, I have not had the feeling as many do, that I have ‘come home’, but I have certainly felt a heart connection particularly to Ireland, and also when I have travelled through these other countries.

Only a couple of weeks to go now before I will be saying goodbye to Merry old England,

However, quite a lot needs to fall into place before I can say exactly when and what I’ll be doing next.   There have been two big developments. Firstly, I’ve just had word from the Bank in London of the possibility of a berth on the new Oriana, which will be leaving Southampton on her maiden voyage on December 3rd. I would probably be able to board it at Naples – I would already be in Italy by then. That sounds very exciting.

I have also had word from my Italian friend, Peppino, who has finally graduated in Law and is about to have his first holiday ever outside of Italy – he would like to join up with me in London before I leave, so that still needs to be sorted out as well.

I hope to be able to write next week and give you more details.

Please send any further mail to the bank.  I am always looking out for news from everyone back home.

Till then, much love to all.

Buckfastleigh. July 1960.

Dear Mum and dad,

Well, my stay in beautiful Devon is fast drawing to a close, and I will return to London in a few days to pack up all my belongings, vacate my little flat in St John’s Wood and head off to Europe.

In the meantime, I’m waiting for news of Frank’s shoulder operation. It sounded very painful – hopefully it will restore the use of his arm completely. Tell him I’ve been thinking of him and imagine him recuperating rapidly.

 Marie and Peter Lawrence

Marie and Peter Lawrence

On Sunday I spent a very happy day with Marie and Peter Lawrence — a farewell visit and also helping the old boy to celebrate his 78th birthday!  He was kind enough to say that my being there made the day for him. I have taken a lovely photo of them both standing out in the garden among the roses.

He was looking very dapper and quite youthful, wearing a fine tweed jacket and a very smart bow tie, with Marie standing smiling beside him. I have really enjoyed their company and appreciated getting to know them.

I have just received a very newsy letter from Ivonne, my Dutch friend from Amsterdam, who is now back in Perugia completing her Italian studies. She arrived just in time to be part of the celebrations for Peppino’s graduation. It seems that I missed the party of all parties and I was very envious.

It was held at Tito’s wonderful big farm house near Assisi, which I have described before, and reminded me of the wonderful Christmas and New Year celebrations I had been a part of there only six months ago.

There were about 60 people present, including his parents and all his family, who travelled over from Abruzzo. Even the Rector of the University was there and made a speech.

Tables covered with delicious food were spread throughout the gardens and Ivonne said there was even a large vat of wine with a hose attached to quench people’s thirst!

She was able to confirm that Peppe is preparing to come to London, and that they are both making enquiries about purchasing tickets for the Olympic Games in Rome for us.

Yesterday I had my last sightseeing day thanks to my landlady’s daughter and their friends.

They wanted me to see a bit more of their part of the coast and some of the famous resorts before I leave.

It is not very far east of here and we stopped off first of all at Totnes, which is an attractive market town at the head of the River Dart, which flows into an estuary south of Exeter.

The town’s buildings are all built in that russet red Devonian sandstone just like Exeter, and include a number of well preserved Elizabethan merchants houses, and St Mary’s Church and tower which stand out above the skyline.

A postcard of post-war Torquay showing the Imperial Hotel in the fore-ground

A postcard from Aunty Linda’s collection of post-war Torquay
showing the Imperial Hotel in the fore-ground

From Totnes, we continued through very picturesque countryside and soon arrived at an area of the coastline known as the English Riviera, including the well-known resorts of Torquay, Paignton and Brixham — all very popular seaside destinations very close to one another.

I still have not become accustomed to the difference between the English sense of distance and ours. When I was first in London, I would be considering making a little sortie out of the city but would let myself be put off by being cautioned that it was really quite a distance away — the same thing would have happened here in Devon if I had let it.

A closer view of the Imperial Hotel at Toquay

A closer view of the grand Imperial Hotel up on the cliff top at Torquay

Torquay has a fine harbour and beaches with quite a Mediterranean feel to it — it has quite a mild climate with lots of beautiful trees — pines, cabbage trees and palms thrive there and create quite a different environment to the countryside just a little way inland.

On the main promenade a handsome, white Victorian pavilion and a beautiful fountain stand out amongst fine homes.

We had time to have a very quick look at an interesting little museum, which has a display of very ancient Stone Age artefacts that have been unearthed from caves deep within the local area.

By way of contrast, there was also a display of paraphernalia commemorating Agatha Christie’s life — she lived in these parts — and then in another room were some little treasures from ancient Egypt!

A gentle walk up the Oddicombe slopes to catch a glimpse across the bay of the Barbacombe

A gentle walk up the Oddicombe slopes provides a glimpse across the bay  to Babbacombe where its famous theatre can be seen in the distance

The Babbacombe Theatre which has been going since 1935 provides a great season of entertainment over the summer– a very handsome white building with green lawn surrounds.

Richard Tauber gets a mention as having sung there many years ago.

The whole area reminded me very much of Manly writ large as we made our way from one town to the next. There are lots of private hotels and flats and caravan sites, brilliantly lit amusement piers and all the usual forms of entertainment that holidaymakers love — and of course lots of great eating places — especially seafood..

This is Anstay's Cove at Torquay

This is Anstay’s Cove at Torquay between Torquay and Babbacombe, a truly beautiful and tranquil inlet with a shingle beach – one of the most treasured spots along the this part of the coastline!

One main difference — like many of the coastlines around Europe — is the absence of good waves. The water just ripples quietly into the shore unless there is a storm, and the beaches are often stony rather than sandy.

In July and August these places are packed with thousands of holidaymakers.

They pour out of London and other inland areas, anticipating lots of sun baking and swimming, but it often rains so then they resort to sightseeing by car – often resulting in coastal traffic jams!

Luckily we had chosen a nice bright sunny day and had a great time together just cruising around and stopping occasionally for fish and chips and a stroll on the beach.

It was a very pleasant finale to my Devon experience.

When we got back, I had to concentrate on packing up and preparing to go up to London, with the hope that everything would come together for a smooth transition back into Europe.

I will get word to you from there as soon as I can confirm my plans.

So wish me well — and I send lots of love to all of you