Thursday

The Best Christmas Market...Yet.

The angel of the market watches over the stalls - and may have pole-axed Santa by the look of it.

When I lived in Birmingham, I used to go to the German Christmas Market in Victoria Square; it was an interesting sparkle of an experience but there really never was much that I wanted to buy—or eat, for that matter.

So when we moved here, to Devon, and I discovered that Exeter had a Christmas Market in the Cathedral Square, I wasn’t all that keen...but I do like to get Christmas cards from the cathedral and you don’t have much of an option if you want to visit St. Peter’s in November or December; you can’t get there without encountering the market.

And what a market it is! So far it’s my favourite. Ever. Okay, I’ve only been to about six and I’m going to Italy next week so I’ll report back on the Florence and Lucca Christmas Markets which may be stunningly incredible but, trust me, if I like a Christmas Market, then it’s a good one. I’m a total Christmas shopping cynic.

How much of a cynic? So much so that I don’t agree with the concept of chocolate Advent calendars. Advent is about waiting; about the build-up to Christmas, not about our perennial need for instant gratification. Except for mince pies, of course. You have to have the mince pies. Obviously. 

Actually, I haven't had any yet so I could have held on to that bit of moral high ground. Bother.

But, Bah! Humbug! aside, wandering around Exeter’s Christmas Market on a cold, dark evening, is magical. The range of wares, the scent of freshly-cooked foods, the sparkle of the light, the amiable people snuggled into winter clothes—somehow, this one just works.

It's particularly special this year because of the Great Fire of Exeter which destroyed the Royal Clarence Hotel and seriously damaged several other old buildings. Now the aftermath of that is a lot more important than 'will we be able to have the market this year?' but it feels as if the market is a kind of healing for the shock of destruction. A lot of Devon folk were really moved by the fire—and I'm sure you'll join me in wishing all those directly affected, the best insurance companies and peace and comfort in the aftermath.

The empty space that was the Royal Clarence Hotel.
Incidentally, the body of Queen Victoria's father, the Duke of Kent, who died at Sidmouth, was embalmed in the Royal Clarence Hotel. The doctor was given the option of being paid or a knighthood for his services. Perhaps sensibly, he took the knighthood.

But I digress...

Here are some pictures of the Christmas Market so you can get a flavour of it. And if you're in Devon or Somerset (and don't have an utterly brilliant Christmas Market of your own) see if you can find time to come along. And you get the chance to sit in the beautiful, ancient cathedral too and maybe lisen to rehearsals of Christmas concerts. Those are enchanting.


 As you can see, there are all sorts of hand-made wooden (and metal) objects—fripperies for sure but all beautiful and fun. I forgot to take a photo of the stall that makes woollen egg cosies which was daft as they are incredible—they could all double as finger puppets and there are unicorns and all sorts of wonderful beasts. There are lamps that look like stars and you can't get much more Christmassy than that and stall after stall of sweet treats.



 Astonishingly, all of the items in the pictures below are made from chocolate. I constantly nag The Amazing Chocolate Workshop to make a chocolate teapot. They simply have to, don't they? A chocolate espresso jug is all very well, but a chocolate teapot would be the bee's knees. One of the staff there said he'd seen one that someone else made, which had a ceramic inside so you could make tea in it. Took me a while to figure out why that wouldn't really work...




And as for the food...it's truly international.










And this stall is pretty—real flowers, dried and made into jewellery. Reminded me of the charm bracelet I was given as a child with a real four leafed clover encased in glass.



And finally, you can't really get a more Christmassy picture than this: scarlet background, carved decorations...and a woman huddled in her warm clothing sending a text...


Wednesday

The Mother Visits Buckland Abbey, Devon.


I took my elderly Mum to visit Buckland Abbey in Devon as she's the best kind of Travel Blog Advisor you can possibly have. At 88 she's what they would call 'sprightly' but there are some things she can't do and if someone not catering for that that means she doesn't get to see all the sights, she's going to complain loudly and clearly.

There were complaints...

But let's look at the positives first. There's plenty to see with lovely, well-laid-out gardens including a walled kitchen garden; it is well maintained by the National Trust and they have buggies to transport elderly folk from the car park to the Abbey itself (not that Mum would have any of that. "I'm perfectly capable of walking, thank you!").

It looks surprisingly modern given that it started life as a thirteenth century Cistercian monastery—in fact the last one to be built in the UK. However, there was a fairly drastic fire in 1938 so it's what they call "extensively restored" in quite a few places. However, I like that kind of castle; it's like Castle Drogo where you can really imagine what it was like to live there before it got so colossally old.

The monastery was dissolved by Henry VIII (you weren't a proper monk if Our 'Enery didn't grind you down) and became the property of Sir Richard Grenville and his son Roger (who was the captain of the ill-fated Mary Rose). After Roger's death, Sir Richard sold it on and was probably horrified to find that he'd sold it to intermediaries who were working for Sir Francis Drake, whom he loathed.

It stayed in the Drake family until the fire in 1938 and came to the National Trust in 1951.

But enough of the history! Are there any decent shops? And can you get a good cream tea? (Mum's vital criterion for a day out in Devon is a good cream tea*).

The shops are good. They're in what's known as the Ox Yard and haves ome interesting stuff including plants from the gardens for sale, a second-hand bookshop and artisans working on-site including in a shop featuring felt-work which was enchanting. And there's the usual excellent National Trust shop. The cafe is good with home-grown produce (although, Buckland folk, please note that you really do need to offer more than one little pot of strawberry jam as it runs a bit thin on the second half of the scone).

So what's not to like? Two simple little things. When we arrived, we were told that the entrance to the house was shut for some valid reason and we had to walk around the big old barn to get in. The gentleman said, "You can walk round either way; it doesn't matter."

Oh yes it did. Because we walked round The Wrong Way and arrived at a door that clearly went into the house but didn't say anything about entrance or exit. We went in and had a good look round what was there but couldn't find several of the things in the guide, specifically,  the Rembrandt exhibition which was featured in the guide. (They've got a painting that has been identified as a genuine Rembrandt. It's a self-portrait. They're very excited about it. Understandably).

Anyway, we saw the ladies who were working in Elizabethan costume in the kitchen and we climbed some stairs to see some more costumes. But the real exhibition, which shows what it was like inside The Golden Hind and has all sorts of very interesting stuff including Drake's Drum, which we both really wanted to see was on the top floor.

Actually, it isn't Drake's Drum. It's a replica. I suppose that's good enough but... Well, no, it isn't really, is it? It's only the real drum which, if it is played, will  Call Him Back To Save England Again In A National Emergency. Enough with the replicas! The Rembrandt's real for goodness' sake. r

The real point, however, is, that the top floor was by far the most interesting one. And it was too far and too steep for my Mum to get there. That wasn't fair. And she said so.

We went back to the Ox Yard to have our tea and I asked at the entrance about the Rembrandt, only to be told that we had gone The Wrong Way around the barn and not found the main entrance. This was a little annoying. I went to find it the Right Way. The exhibition was certainly interesting but by then Mum was too tired to venture round to see it. A suggestion that she went in a buggy did not go down well.

So, in all, a slightly odd place. Almost very good but not quite. You'll enjoy it very much as long as you Go Round The Right Way and sneak in some extra strawberry jam.

On the way back, we stopped to look at St. Michael's Brentor (from the car). It's a tiny old church right on the top of a granite outcrop and Mum had a picture of it on a calendar and wanted to see it for real. It was covered in plastic over scaffolding. Mum sniffed. It had turned out to be that kind of a day.

* Mum's best ever cream tea (so far) was at Church House, South Tawton on any Sunday afternoon in the summer.

Saturday

Doing Wet.

Today, for the first time in the six years that we have had her, Biggle refused to go for a walk. She got as far as the front gate and, eyes, half-closed against the slashing rain, looked down the river that was our lane and then ran back to the house.

I couldn't blame her; I'd not even considered taking Thunderfeet MegaBeagle (Mrs) out for any kind of walk at all but Biggle is a hunt beagle and she will usually go out in all weathers. I did mutter a bit about having to get out of all my waterproofs and boots especially as just the few yards to the gate meant they all had to be dried over the Rayburn.

But an hour later, as the gloaming settled over the hills and crept its mystery between the hedges, the rain stopped. Perhaps only for a short while but it was a window of opportunity and Biggle and I, kitted up in our reflector coats, set forth into the night.

There are very few walks that can be taken without wellington boots right now, as Britain sloshes its way through January and the Golden Triangle as it's known - two miles of lanes beginning at our house - is a Godsend. The gales lash their way up from Dartmoor along the road from East Week but the seven-foot hedges temper them to manageable speeds.

Tonight, the wind wuthered in the hedges, wuthered through the wires of the telegraph pole that keeps our home connected to the world and wuthered around the brim of my hat. Three separate sounds, distinct and eerie but indescribable. I love listening to the lanes; to the rain in the hedges and on my hat and on the tarmac; to the birdsong (in the daytime) and the owls and creatures at night.

Biggle and I are used to walking in the dark; I take her out most nights, either after supper or at 10pm before bed. For only a couple of months of the year, do we go out and return in daylight but the rest of the year, we get to know the stars, the night-creatures and the phases of the moon. We see the International Space Station and comets and hide in the hedges, torch put out, like children playing spies when we hear the army helicopters come over.

Tonight, as we walked down to East Week the sky bathed us in pastel blue and grey. Amazingly there was some pale blue sky (briefly) and white tufts of cumulus amid the darkening layers of threatening cloud. Every day as I walk I can watch the sky change in minutes, from laughter to tears, from rage to triumph; every single incarnation is beautiful and tonight it was a magical blend of blues and greys.

And then the rain fell. I had seen it coming; the black sky ahead over the moor, flowing swiftly towards us and hoped it would not be the slashing rain of most of the day. It began with great droplets of rain that splashed on the already flooded road and then fell faster — slashes of water that hit my anorak noisily and tinkled through the winter twigs of the hedges on each side.

I sighed and decided to 'do wet.' When you 'do wet' you don't resist the water but become a part of it. You are the wet; it doesn't matter where it gets or how soggy your feet become. And tonight there was no chance of unsoggy feet despite my wonderful walking boots. The lane was flooded in five places, two of them up to my ankles. Biggle paddled her way through happily; once she is out, she is out; there was no desire to turn back.

We sloshed down to East Week and turned left, wincing occasionally at the arc of light from a car on another road. Strangely, while nature feels safe, the sight of a car's lights on the night walks always slightly un-nerves me; we are both visible and I carry a torch but they seem alien and slightly threatening. Of course when one comes up the lane before us or down the lane behind us, we move to the side and let them pass; Biggle is totally car-safe. Once, at Christmas time, I felt the desire, suddenly, to burst into song and both this and the light of the torch as we turned a corner, nearly gave a courting couple in a steamed-up car a panic attack.

Tonight, walking towards Gooseford, the rain turned colder and fell harder. The left side of my face, un-sheltered by my hat or collar, felt icy and it was time to turn on the torch as the night fell in earnest and I needed to watch my feet as the stream gurgled up over the road.

At night, my bishop once told me, the dryads and naiads come out of their trees and once you walk with them nightly and start to sense the magic of the night, you can know for sure that it's true; you can feel their presence, their cold curiosity; their desire to be acknowledged and even named. Each tree, each plant, each creature, each spirit desires to experience something of individuality if only through the identification of a passing human. I can't explain it better than that.

I bless as many of them as I can, each and every night when they ask me to; some nights I begin to bless but they inform me in their detached way 'we remain blessed' and I pass on. That will be after I've done some other ritual at home which carries a deeper form of blessing. There is no doubt that the land experiences what we exude. Tonight they were silent; huddled in with their creatures but I blessed them all the same.

As we sloshed past Gooseford farm and turned left to walk back up the hill to home the road became a river of grey-brown and Biggle stopped even attempting to get under gates or through fences to follow a particular sniff. This was the long haul home with wet feet and legs where my waterproof trousers had given in but ahead, the sky was brightening slightly and to the left I could just discern the light of a new moon through some slightly whisping cloud cover. I knew that my left bootlace had come undone but laughed at the very thought of taking off my soggy gloves and re-tying them as the water flowed over my toes.

Past Three Fields Corner, the lane became a lane again; the rain receded and ahead the sky began to clear. Two stars from Lyra were visible and my face began to warm up just a little again.

And then we were home to warmth and hot towels. Biggle squeaking with delight as she was dried by her Dad and me slowly peeling off layer after layer and dripping in the kitchen.

I love this land; it is a privilege to 'do wet' here.

Monday

Downtown Sedona


'The Spirit of the West' Downtown Sedona.
"It's ruined; nothing but a tourist trap," said some people. "It's fabulous," said others. Downtown Sedona is simultaneously neither and both. Oddly enough, there is even one shop where you could buy groceries, vegetables and fruit although they are rather exclusive groceries, vegetables and fruit.

It's full of shops selling Indian jewellery, teeshirts and sweatshirts, artisan clothing, New Age shops, art galleries, hats, bags, leather goods and restaurants. Nothing is cheap; some of it is tacky; some of it is fabulous. That's exactly how it is in every American 'tourist town' I've ever visited.

But Sedona is different. There are no lights above street level at night to guard against light pollution so if you go for a walk in town in the evening you need a torch; every other building seems to offer healing of some kind; McDonalds had to paint their famous arch green as the yellow one wasn't allowed and there's no Wal-Mart. You can view all of that as lovely or pretentious; it's up to you. There is, of course, light pollution from all the cars driving through but it is reduced.

In layout, downtown Sedona is a typical American Main Street, laid out in one straight line, with some shopping arcades either side and, apart from said groceries shop, pretty much nothing sensible to buy. But hey, who wants to buy sensible in Sedona?

Downtown Sedona is an experience. It's best on a lovely sunny day, of course, but our first visit was in pouring rain during November and it still kept our attention. That first day, there was nothing to see bu the shops and the puddles on the sidewalk but, on your-average-Arizona day you can gaze at the wonderful red rock formations while pottering round the shops which makes it a spectacular event just being there. In that way it's similar to our home on Dartmoor where you only have to look over the gate to have your breath taken away, although I have to admit that, at home, we don't sell Indian jewellery or have a Wild West Movies museum… Perhaps we should.


There's a load of free parking just off the main street (head to the right from the 'Y') and it's on the right at the end of the shopping part of Main Street. If you don't know what the 'Y' is, no worries; you'll soon find out if you come to Sedona. Or, you can stop off while take the trolley bus around town. It's fairly cute (on fine days) and goes to several 'scenic view' spots as well though it's not cheap at at $18 a head.




However, we'd got a kick-ass Dodge Challenger so my petrol-head husband wanted to drive everywhere and I didn't fancy pottering around and waiting for the bus to come round again to pick us up.

So, what's on the street that's interesting? There's the fudge shop… They pummel the fudge to death — sorry make it —in front of your eyes and it is utterly forbidden-fruit irresistible, delicious and indulgent (you don't actually believe that Eve was tempted by a piece of fruit, do you? She was a woman for God's sake! It had to be, at very least, a fudge tree).

Okay, the fudge doesn't look very thrilling just like that but the folks were folding it over like flaky pastry and, trust me, the end result was gorgeous.
I wanted to do an interview with Tudy [sic] the owner of Sedona Fudge Company not only because it's fabulous fudge but because its origin was a glorious mistake and I like stories like that. But Tudy was out on the first day we went in and in hospital (not for anything serious, I'm glad to say) when we went back so that didn't happen.



It all began back in 1887 when a chocolate-maker started his own business in Michigan and made a chocolate fondue which went horribly wrong … and turned into fudge with a really creamy texture that everyone went crazy about. I do that kind of cooking all the time but I've yet to make a business out of it so big kudos to him! It's all natural ingredients without preservatives and they include a diabetic chocolate as well sweetened with a natural plant product that begins with M but I've forgotten it and can't find it on Google (if you know its name, do tell me in the comments and I'll edit this - thanks).

What else? Ah, yes, returning to the beautiful original picture of 'the Spirit of the West', Sedona is filled with just glorious bronze statues, mostly of horses. You just want to climb up onto 'the Spirit of the West' and urge him into a gallop. And there's the lovely pony with a puppy trotting at its feet as well… This used to be in a separate shopping area called Tlaquepaque but is now in the main stretch, inside a small mall.



Not to mention the dancing couple that are on a wheel and swing round and round if you push them...



Probably the only really disappointing shop/place was Sedona Motion Picture Museum which has dozens of black and white photos of all the movies that have beens shot in the area (and there were a lot). However, it is only one room and the staff were grumpy and unhelpful on that particular day. One of them half-heartedly tried to offer us a horse-ride at a very cheap price in return for our seeing a time-share presentation. As we'd already been round that loop (of which, more later) we weren't interested.

It is a lovely town centre. Even Lion, who doesn't enjoy shopping, was happy to go around it twice. And if it is a tourist trap, so what? These tourists enjoyed it.