Friday, 12 April 2019

Colyton by tram.

One of the big attractions round these parts is the Seaton Tramway.  This is a 2 ft 9 in (838 mm) narrow gauge electric tramway.  It starts at a very grand station in Seaton itself and the runs for around three miles through East Devon's Axe Valley, end up at the village of Colyford, and the ancient town of Colyton.

You'll remember from the last post that we had come across Colyton before - we saw the window from the church there which had come from Beer Quarry (and ended up there too!)  So we though it'd be a nice day out to go and see the church and the best way to get there would be the tram, wouldn't it.

Seaton station  is very grand and it has quite a lot to offer, including a little cafe and of course a souvenir shop.  It's still very new and fresh - but they haven't messed with the "feel" of an old-fashioned tram station.  You buy your ticket which comes as a wristband so that you can have unlimited travel, jumping on and off at the various stations.  In fairness, there aren't many intermediate stops but on our journey people did use them.

The line goes through some spectacular scenery and two nature reserves.  They've thoughtfully labelled stuff in the field round about, which is nice.

Now for some advice.  Take heed of the weather.  This was early April and the wind cut across those nature reserves like a knife.  On the way out, we chose an open carriage which would have been lovely in the summer but not today.  We were reasonably well wrapped up but still got cold.

The tram works on a single-line, so there is lots of excitement when two trams pass.  Of course, like in the north of Scotland, they do so at a passing loop, but still go quite close together.

When we got to the end of the line, we went and had an excellent lunch at the cafe there. It's a much nicer cafe than the one at the other end ... very good chips!

We'd expected there to be signposts to guide us to the local landmarks, but there were none.  However, a very helpful member of staff gave us excellent directions to the church, which was just in sight from the platform ... so long as you knew what you were looking for and looked in the right direction!

Colyton is lovely - one of those little picturebook villages that time has passed by. Our mission (which we have chosen to accept, Jim) was to see where the window we'd seen in the caves had been removed from.  We did. 

If you thought that the village was picturesque, the church is even more so.  It's lovely and the inside is SO light.  The church has one of the best wall-window rations around, so it's really nice inside.  We're not sure which of the windows the tracery in the quarry came from, unfortunately.  We'll need another visit!  We really enjoyed our visit here.

We then wandered back for the return journey by tram.  This time, however, we took a closed-in carriage and enjoyed it a whole-lot more!

Even further down!

We’d heard about Beer Quarry Caves from friends and decided to make a visit while we were in the area.   The important thing to understand is that the emphasis on the title is quarry, not caves.  These are not caves that are near a quarry, they are caves that are the quarry.  Or were, anyway, they ceased production a while ago.  So, the cave complex is carved by miners from the limestone.  The quarry started about 2000 years ago and ended in the 1920s.  It was the main source in England for Beer Stone which is known for its fine texture and colour, which was particularly favoured for cathedral and church features such as door and window surrounds because of its colour and workability for carving.  We heard that it's quite soft while underground but, as it dries out, the stone hardens ... with this feature and its fine grain, it's ideal for carving into complex and fine detail.

It's also home to a very large number of bats, mostly horseshoe bats, most of which had left while we were there.

The caves are interesting, made more so by the excellent guide, Viv, who was able to make the place come alive by her descriptions. Don’t expect natural caves, though; this is a quarry and you need to have that mindset as you come in - it's a series of caverns that have been hewn from the rock, rather than those which water has carved out as with natural caves. 

 You enter through a bit of a daunting gateway and first come across a nice little museum - we assumed to allow eye to dark adapt.  There are some interesting facts there.  Torches are frowned upon, presumably for the same reason.

This is a window topping from a church in Colyton - we went to see the church later, it's at the end of the Seaton Tramway, but more of that later.  The church was remodelling, although I don't suppose they called it that then, and chucked the window topping, in pieces, into the graveyard.  It was recovered and brought to the museum.

This is not a comfortable place ... it’s cold and damp, uneven underfoot and inherently quite boring really but our guide was able to include information that would be of interest to all ages, including some quite young people. This was quite a feat since this is not really a zinging place that will “wow” youngsters; however it is somewhere that allows some interesting explorations of “how we were” and Viv’s ability to drop in comments that would appeal to everyone on the tour was super. She had an encyclopaedic knowledge of where the stones from these quarries had gone throughout the country and so could tell just about everyone there, regardless of where they came from, that they had probably seen Beer stone in a building near their home. This is the sort of place where if you get a ropey guide it’ll be boring, but if you get a good one it’ll be really interesting - we had a good one.
Be warned that you need to wrap up, you’ll be underground for over an hour in the cold and damp, and do wear decent footwear. There is an opportunity to “escape” about half way round. Take heed of the warnings about the loos too ... your last chance in is the car park and they’re not very salubrious! The little tearoom is nice and does good coffee.

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

An aside ... Ann Dabbs

While we were here, we wanted to do a photographic copy of a portrait in oils that is part of Lois' family history.  The copy appears below together with a piece of explanatory writing.  It's published here for no reason other than it's quite interesting to us!

Ann Dabbs (c. 1830-32 artist unknown)

Ann was born on 27 June 1811 in Holborn, Middlesex; her parents were Joseph and Mary Dabbs.  She died on 10 February 1854 in Hoxton at 42.  She married James Chiswell on 7 May 1832 when she was 21 having had her only child, Joseph, earlier that year. 

Ann’s father’s occupation is described as a “Plane Maker”.  This was a skilled occupation making woodworking planes of many shapes and sizes.  These were precision tools make up of wooden and metal parts and if not made accurately would make a carpenter's work impossible.

Ann is often described as a hat maker but could have been a milliner.  The terms milliner and hat maker (or hatter) are generally used interchangeably these days, but strictly speaking, a milliner makes women’s hats and a hat maker (or hatter) makes men’s hats.  We don’t know which Ann was; she is often described as a hat maker rather than a milliner but that might be because of the tempting alliteration in “Hat maker from Hoxton”.  The skills and techniques used in each, while overlapping are actually quite different.

James, the son of a butcher, was a chair-maker employing 5 men.  Chair-maker was a specialism of joinery, turning (for the legs and spindles) and basket weaving (for the seat and back).  Thomas Sheraton (one of the “big three furniture makers in 18th century London”) observed:
"Chair-making is a branch generally confined to itself, as those who professedly work at it, seldom engage to make cabinet furniture. In the country manufactories it is otherwise; yet even these pay some regard to keeping their workmen constantly at the chair, or to cabinet work. The two branches seem evidently to require different talents in workmen, in order to become proficients."

James carried out the business in St Pancras, London and died in 1850.

Since Ann’s father was a plane maker, presumably supplying tools to the woodworkers of that part of London, and James was a chair maker, it seems likely that Ann and James met through the woodworking trades.

Ann and James appear to have lived around the Holborn area of London – all the facts we have are based in Middlesex.  We know that after James’ death in 1850, Ann lived in Shoreditch; she is noted as “Head of Household” in the 1851 census.  She is also noted there as having the occupation of “Chair Maker”, so we can assume that she took over the business from her husband James.  She continued to employ 5 men.  Ann and James’ son, Joseph, continued the family vocation and is noted in the 1871 census as a “Master Chair Maker”.

The exact date of the portrait is not clear.  She looks young, perhaps around 19 or 20 when it was painted, which puts it at around 1830-32.  She appears to be wearing a wedding ring, but it is significant that the portrait is “of Ann Dabbs” and not “of Ann Chiswell”.  Ann’s father, as a skilled craftsman, would have been reasonably wealthy so perhaps commissioned the portrait for his daughter on her engagement or marriage.  Alternatively, the commission could have been made by her husband.  In any event the deep lace collar, lace fringed cuffs and her headdress were demonstrations of family wealth that would have been well understood and appreciated in those times.

The original oil painting, from which this photographic copy is taken, is currently held by Michael (Ann’s great-great-great grandson) and Carol Green in Devon.  For the last few generations it has been passed down the eldest female line as far as practicable, although that tradition couldn’t have started with Ann since she had no daughter.  Ann is Hannah Neal’s great-great-great-great grandmother.

Up and down, country and cliffs and cup of tea places.

Exmoor called us.  We were staying in East Devon and Exmoor was between us and North Devon.  Now, that doesn't quite make sense I know, but that's the way they do it here, so it's fine by us.  We had high expectations for Exmoor - a bit like parts of Scotland or the North York Moors, perhaps.  It's not really like that - for a start it's not very big (only about 270 square miles, most of which is in Somerset) and it's got good roads crossing it.  More like Thetford Chase really.  Still, we had got ourselves a very nice picnic from Tesco in Honiton and took it onto the moor to enjoy it and the ponies.  In fairness, most of the horse activity we saw was in horseboxes towed by Range Rovers ... there were lots of those ... but we did see some of the famous Exmoor ponies which were very pretty.

Having eaten and enjoyed the ponies (there's a phrase that needs an Oxford comma if ever I saw one) we continued north and went to Lynton with the plan of taking the funicular railway to Lynmouth.  In practice there was a diversion because of roadworks so we ended up going pretty much via Lynmouth to Lynton, but such is life with roadworks.  Now, the funicular railway is an amazing bit of hydraulic engineering.  The two cars use no electrical energy at all - or any other fuel.  They just use the weight of water in tanks to pull each other up the cliff.  It's water that would otherwise have gone down to the sea anyway, this way the water takes a train ride to get there.

This is the view from the top looking down (left) and the bottom looking up.  It's not vertical, but about 57 degrees or 1:1.75.  Steep!  The carriages are kind of stepped so that you can sit horizontally. Each carriage has a big water tank underneath.  These are both full when it's at rest, but when it's ready to move the brakes are released and the bottom tank releases enough water so that the top carriage is heavier.  Since they're connected with ropes round a pulley at the top, the top carriage pulls the bottom carriage up as it descends.  Clever, eh!  The drivers can adjust the amount of water to allow for more people in one carriage or the other.  It's a very, very neat solution which, as we mentioned, requires no input of additional energy - it's all powered by water.  The two sets of rails are very close together, such that the carriages wouldn't be able to pass each other, so there's a bit at the half way point where the rails ease apart - you can see it in the right picture above - to allow them to pass.

There's not a huge amount to do in Lynmouth, but it is small enough to wander around and enjoy the feeling of relaxation.  There are lots of "cup of tea places" to choose from, each claiming its own USP.  As an aside, we asked the lady who took our fare on the funicular whether there were "cup of tea places" around and she looked at us as though we were speaking Swahili and responded that there were plenty of cafes!  Surely "cup of tea place" is universally understood, isn't it?   We chose the Lynmouth Bay Cafe and what a splendid choice it was.  Tea served the way it's supposed to be, with extra hot water in a jug and all in matching crockery ... and soya milk too.  And they had plastic tablecloths which were a bit of a blast from the past.  Oh, and the scones ... my word what scones!  Made (we found by our rigorous interrogation technique) without bicarbonate of soda and so they tasted amazing.  We couldn't remember whether you're supposed to put the jam on before the cream or afterwards in Devon (it being the other way around in Cornwall) and didn't dare ask, so tried both.  We'll need to try that experiment again!

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

How to Predict an Eclipse

So how DO you predict an eclipse?  Simples!  You buy a field - a medium size one will do - and some stones.  You then stand the stones up in a particular way so that they will predict eclipses.  Easy innit!  Well, that's how Mike and Carol Green did it, and it was maybe how our Neolithic ancestors did it too.

OK, there are a couple of questions left hanging there.  Who are Mike and Carol Green and what is the "particular way"?  Let's see if we can answer those, shall we?

First, Mike Green and his wife Carol are lovely people who are pretty visible in and around the village of Beer in Devon.  They do all sorts of things, from making sure that tourists have plenty to do when they come here to running voluntary organisations.  And they do interesting things too ... like building a stone circle, sailing across the Atlantic three times, twice in a home-built catamaran and once with their children, that kind of thing.  They are very nice people and we're very proud to call them relations (Mike is Lois' cousin - and Carol and Ian are Mike and Lois' spouses, so I guess that makes us some sort of relation!)

Now the second question ... what is that "particular way" that the stones have to be arranged to make them into a kind of prediction engine?  Best to read Mike's excellent book Eclipse Prediction in Stone-Age Britain: An inquiry into British Neolithic Astronomy & Eclipse Prediction (Green, M. 2015, Twelve Acre Publishing) which you can get via Lulu. Mike's book explains the background to the project - the whys and hows - in a way that we can't possibly do here, so please have a look if you're interested.

We, however, were lucky enough to be taken to the actual field and therefore the actual circle, by the author!

Here are a few pics of the circle and of Mike telling Lois all about it:

  So, in brief, the circle is of 19 stones.  The book goes into a lot of detail about why 19 is an important number to use ... but put simply "it works".  There's a load of maths behind it - and a load of astronomy too - but we'll leave you to discover those for yourselves as you read the book.  As the author puts it, "All in all, I still think the 19-stone circle is the magic one."

Lois (left - looking a little cold) standing at the circle and (right) taking in Mike's explanation of the layout and how it works in practice.  Sadly the day was overcast and we couldn't see the sun, let alone take any measurements using the circle, but we were convinced.   

This shot, which is not very good, shows how one can align the notches on the stones to get a starting point.  It's not easy and getting it right shows a remarkable accuracy.

All in all, then, a day that was enlightening and remarkably sprirtual ... spiritual in our preferred meaning of the word (instilling a sense of awe and wonderment).  Do we think that this stone circle has magical powers?  No, but we could quite undertand how those without a knowledge of maths would find it so.  Similarly, do we believe that this is something special?  Absolutely we do ... and we fully intend to be back here for the Solstace to see how it works then!

And finally, if you're in any doubt about the spirituality of this special place have a look at this photograph, taken by Mike very recently, of the circle in the mist:

Monday, 8 April 2019

Devon revisited - and how to be grumpy

Regular readers will remember that last year we visited Devon and came away wanting more.  Now, if there's anything we've learned during our first year of retirement, it's "if you want to do something, just do it" ... so we did.  This time we allocated a week to this stunning part of the country.  We were a little wiser on travel this time, not breaking our journey - there's no need since Devon is an easy day away from Durham.  Mind you, the plethora of roadworks on the M6 did their best to make it a difficult day - why, for example, does it take a whole lane blockage and tens of miles of 50 mph speed limit monitored by average speed cameras to turn a perfectly adequate motorway into a "Smart Motorway"?  And why are there miles of lane closure with NOTHING happening?  There really wasn't much traffic on them, but by introducing the works, the powers that be ensured that the motorway was no longer perfectly adequate, thus requiring an upgrade to smartness and justifying the spend.  Oh yes, while I'm here, the other thing we've learned during our first year of retirement is how to become grumpy ... but being grumpy is excellent sport and good for the heart, we're told.