Exeter Dreaming

Bygone views in the city: this one is already lost to us – the historic Royal Clarence Hotel burnt down in 2016, taking nearly 250 years of history with it. I took my tripod up for a night shot in December 2015, little thinking that it would be my final chance to capture this view.

Exeter dreams of its past, through paintings and photos which capture the romance of years gone by. I love to look at old photographs of the city, but even more I love gazing at the old postcards with softly coloured paintings, bought and were sent in their thousands during the early days of tourism. In the late 19th and early decades of the 20th century, before colour photography became the norm, artists of calibre were commissioned to paint scenes of Exeter’s historic streets, buildings, parks and waterways. I’ve collected a few of these, and share some of the city’s ‘dreamtime’ with you here.

Over the past autumn and winter, I trained as a city guide for Exeter, and tramping the streets with my fellow trainees, learning about their history, and reciting their stories, it’s as if we were walking the ‘songlines’ of the city. I feel that it’s akin to the way that Australian Aborigines walk their ancestral paths across the terrain, in order to recall and enact the old myths of creation, and the history of their people; this is known as ‘the dreamtime’.

Receiving my blazer (actually a borrowed, oversized one while waiting for the bespoke number!) from the Lady Mayor of Exeter in April 2022, at the Red Coat Guides award ceremony

Although much of Exeter has been redeveloped, following the devastating bombing raids of World War Two, there’s still a great deal of its history to be seen. And as well as seeing what’s evident now, I also came, eventually, to experience the city as multi-layered. The city’s past is there, and what is not visible to the naked eye starts to become alivee and vivid to the mind’s eye. Below my feet lies the remains of the Roman bathhouse…here is where Perkin Warbeck besieged the city…and this is the place where lived Gytha, mother of King Harold.

Here are the first four postcards of my collection, three of them with named artists.

Exeter from the Canal

Henry B. Wimbush evokes for us here a stately panorama of the city, with the Cathedral as a luminous landmark on the hill at the horizon. But although everything looks serene, the canal itself has a most contentious history. In 1913, when the postcard was sent, time was fast running out for its use as a shipping canal.

It was first proposed around 1280, when Isabella de Fortibus, Countess of Devon, blocked off most of the river Exe downstream, in order to bring more waterpower to her paper mill. (The area is known today as ‘Countess Wear’.) She left only about nine metres clear, which made it hard for large ships to pass through, and thus caused much complaining in Exeter itself. The city was dependent on its port, for the export trade of its woollen cloth, which is what made the city wealthy and famous from medieval times until the 18th century.

But matters were about to get worse. Around 1330, her descendant and kinsman, Hugh de Courtenay had a falling-out with the mayor over whether he or the bishop was entitled to the last pot of fish in the market! Courtenay swore he would get his own back on Exeter, and completely blocked the river. He set up Topsham, a few miles downriver, as the port where ships would now dock and he could collect the revenues, since he owned the quay there. This lined his coffers nicely. Eventually, in the 1500s, Exeter was granted the rights to remove the weir, but as the river was largely silted up, there was no choice but to dig a canal instead, to bring goods to be landed in the city itself. However, it took until the 1830 to complete the project in its entirety, and although Exeter partly got its port landings back, goods had to be transferred to small lighters (boats) and pulled upriver by horses. The canal now ran to what is known as Turf Locks, just past Topsham on the opposite bank. But it was too late to be of great use. Seagoing ships had become too large to pass up it, trains were shortly to take away much of the trade, and Exeter was no longer a chief centre of wool production.

Exeter quayside as it is today, redeveloped for leisure and outdoor sports

The postcard of 1913 shows one larger ship berthed at the quayside (on the very left), but already the serenity of the scene indicates that its days of glory were in the past. And the little lockkeeper’s cottage on the right would later be demolished – by mistake, as it happens!


The artist was Henry Bowser Wimbush (1858-1943), who was known for postcards and book illustrations, as well as for paintings, which he exhibited at the Royal Academy. He roamed both in Britain and abroad to create his art, but settled in nearby Taunton later in life. (see also The-Postcard-Depot)


The postcard was sent to one Miss Connor in Acton, and the message simply reads: ‘We shall arrive at Padd[ington] at 8.30 tomorrow so expect us home soon after 9.’ In those days, you could confidently send a postcard to announce your imminent arrival!

‘Old House, King Street’


Exeter lost around two thirds of its old buildings in the Blitz of World War Two. Of those that remained, many were demolished later when the Council went on a re-development spree. Some that could have been restored were removed in the name of ‘progress’. (An anonymous website Demolition Exeter sets out to explore this outrage ) Buildings around King St, named in the postcard, and Preston St in the ‘West Quarter’ of the city took direct hits, and are nearly all rebuilt today. At first I thought this was just a charming scene of old houses, in a bygone street where the women are perhaps carrying bales of cloth – the staple of the wool trade. There is what seems to be a pedlar with his basket on the right, a workman with a wheelbarrow, and a family grouped in the distance. The artist Sidney Endacott is well-known for painting scenes on Exeter postcards: his views are both delightful and collectable. (More about Sidney and Worth, the postcard publisher, below.)

But there is more to this ‘old house’ than meets the eye. It was in fact known locally as ‘The Norman House’ and was probably one of the very oldest in the city. The Normans arrived here in 1068 under the banner of William the Conqueror himself, who chased the mother of the defeated King Harold out of the city, seized her lands, and set up a castle for his own soldiers at Rougemont, near the East Gate. Remains from Norman times are rare, though, in domestic buildings. As Exeter Memories put it:
On the corner of Preston and King Street was what appeared to be just another slum property, with a few ancient features. In 1914, the City Council purchased the building with a view to clearing the area. In 1915, they sent a photographer to record the building–the photographs revealed a building far more interesting, than originally thought. It had many Norman mouldings, one over the door, and stone decorative strips at the base of the interior walls. The house had many 16th-Century features, including Tudor plaster work ceilings and a collar-braced roof. It was for the Norman features it became known as the Norman House.
Alas, although it was taken care of for a while, it was eventually allowed to become derelict, and was then finished off by the bombs of 1942.

Here is another image to dream over, therefore.

Mary Mol Wildy and her famous Coffee House

This gorgeous building was built as Exeter’s first Customs House in 1596. Later, in the 1720s, it became Mol’s Coffee House, a place for gentlemen to gather with their business chums and read the latest newspapers from London. It ran for over 100 years – presumably presided over by subsequent hosts to Mol! – but is still known by her name today. In the first part of the 20th century though it became Worth’s Art Gallery, which in the years after it finished business as a more general art gallery, has best known for the series of postcards it produced and printed. This is where the postcard of King St was published, and the man who painted it was Worth’s best-known artist: Sidney Endacott (1873-1913).


Sidney was a local lad, born in Ashburton, and a pupil at Blundells School, Tiverton. He was capable and talented, but unfortunately suffered from a permanent bone infection (osteomyelitis), which cut short his life. However, he still managed to join his brother in America for a while, where he created wood carvings for a grand mansion in Kansas. After his return to Devon, he taught art but then hit a winning streak by painting postcards for Worth’s. These became very popular, catering for the growing number of tourists in the city. It’s thought that he probably created around 500 designs overall, delightful paintings which create a romantic atmosphere around the city sights.

A postcard from 1933, sent by a college student to his father, with an excellent close-up of how Worth’s gallery used to look

This corner of the Cathedral Close where Mol hangs out still looks much as it did in these postcards – one of which is a painting by A. R. Quinton, and the other a photograph. The Saxon church of St Martin of Tours still sits next to Mol’s and two of the medieval houses on the left in Quinton’s painting, built originally for priests in the 1300s, also survive as Loake’s high quality shoe shop. (They are also famous for having garderobes, which can be described as luxury medieval toilets with ‘a long drop’.)

As for Alfred Robert Quinton (1853-1934), his landscapes and cityscapes were drawn from his annual tours by bicycle around the British Isles. His work routine would be to travel around England and Wales for three months of the year, mostly during the summer months and often by bicycle, during which he would draw sketches and take photographs of locations which he would then work up into paintings in his studio during the winter months. Many of his artworks were also published as postcards by Raphael Tuck and J Salmon Ltd and remain popular with today’s collectors.

Quinton on his sketching tours, equipment strapped to his bicycle

The painting of Mol’s, aka Worth’s Gallery, in Quinton’s postcard is more matter-of-fact than that the other two in this blog post, but enjoyable for its detail, including the little figure poring over Worth’s art prints, and a woman and child about to enter the gallery. The card was posted in 1933, so I suspect the wagon was a bit of an anachronism, although the painting could have been made some years earlier. The message on it, sent to Jersey, begins, ‘Dear Alice – Tell mother that I am anxiously waiting for a letter I sincerely hope that …alright’ and then descends into a scrawl.

The photographic postcard was sent by a young man studying at St Luke’s religious educational college, writing home to his father. By contrast to the other one, it’s a model of neatness. ‘The weather today is summery, with hot sun and no clouds… The church on the left is the oldest in the city about 1050’. (Good try, but not quite! Being more precise, it’s from 1065 but still qualifies as Anglo-Saxon, preceding the Norman Conquest by three years!)

That’s the end of today’s dreams of Exeter! I hope to be sharing some more with you later, when I’ve acquired more old postcards to share with you.

Students in the gardens of Colleton Crescent, dreaming away the afternoon above the river

You may also be interested in:

Posts on nearby Topsham, my home town:

The Tidal Town of Topsham

Hidden Topsham (1)

Hidden Topsham (2)

Hidden Topsham (3)

Hidden Topsham (4)

Topsham at Halloween

Lockdown Topsham

Topsham celebrates

Springtime Stories

It’s springtime! And my blog posts will be likewise springing up again on May 1st, after a three month break. They will then continue as before, at two-weekly intervals.
So, what to expect? The first post will be on Bazaars of the Silk Road, and then there will be stories with my usual eclectic mix of mystery and history, memoir and art.


If you’d like to subscribe, you’ll receive notification each time a new post is published. There’s a link to click on the right hand side of the Home Page, under ‘Subscribe’. It’s all data protected and your info won’t be used in any other way. At present there are about 320 subscribers – thankyou, everyone, for your support!


In the meantime, I wish you all a joyful Easter.

And while you’re waiting, you might enjoy some of my earlier posts:

Summer is a Comin’ in Today! May Day in Padstow

Dartmoor Ponies

Enoch & Eli: The Heroes of Black Country Wit

The Ancestors of Easter Island

Musicians at Padstow May Day

Halliwell’s Bluff – A Game for Christmas and beyond

Here’s a game for the festive season, using some weird and wonderful words sourced from Halliwell’s Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words. The aim is to guess the correct definition of each word, from the three versions given. You can try it on your own, or play it with others in a format similar to the panel game ‘Call My Bluff’. (see below for instructions)

I rustled up this game a few years ago, dipping into my two-volume Halliwell with delight to find tempting words. We then played it at our Exeter Writers Christmas Party, with much mirth. I’ve added a few more words for this version, and may come up with a Part Two in due course, such is the delight of dipping into Halliwell!

Answers are at the end.

Tossicated
To be sexually aroused
To feel restless and perplexed
A term for seasickness, used by seasoned sailors to scorn those with no sea legs

Saturday-stop

A compulsory tea-break halt for train drivers in the early days of Saturday rail excursions

A kind of door-wedge, used in back-to-back houses, to prevent drunken neighbours bursting in after a Saturday night in the pub (Birmingham)

A time unlawful to catch salmon, from evensong on Saturday until sunrise on Monday, in the northern parts of the British Isles

Well, what do you think? Train excursion, life in the back-to-backs, or time to put down the fishing rod?

Owlguller
An owl catcher, who sold live owls for mousing, or to bring good luck to the home.
An ignorant person, who peers like an owl and screeches like a gull. (Kent)
To pry about, be stealthy, and thievish – (Suffolk)

Ninny-nonny
To feel uncertain, especially in Lincolnshire
A dunce or very forgetful person
A pleasing fancy, whim or trifle

Meacock
A silly, effeminate fellow – a term of insult often combined as ‘a meacock and a milksop’
A term for the finest barnyard cockerel, judged by his plumage
A type of spigot used to stop up a barrel, sometimes used as an obscene euphemism

A vain fellow, like a proud cockerel?

Kipe
To nag, whinge and whine in Norfolk
A hearty slab of bread and cheese in Dorset
To be wrong, just plain wrong, in Lancashire

Crap
To snap or crack (Somerset)
Dregs of beer
Money (North)

Three thrum
A weaving pattern, involving a particular rhythm of the loom
The song of a female cat as she purrs (Lincolnshire)
A kind of musing phrase, like ‘ho hum’, said when hesitant

Kissing-crust
Marks left on the face by vigorous kissing
Where two loaves have joined together in the oven
A ridge of icy snow, which girls would try to kiss and melt to improve their luck in love

Giglet
A giddy, romping girl (West Country) May imply wantonness
A small kind of pony trap, popular on the Welsh borders
A shaped cutlet, made out of odds and ends of meat, beans etc

Naughty! (apparently she is holding something rather risque)

Snurle
A delicate snare, to catch stoats and weasels
A cold in the head (Suffolk)
A tangle of sheep’s wool, such as found on thorn bushes (Devon)

Clapperclaw
Part of a type of church bell
A hiding place in a clapper bridge to leave messages, goods etc. (Devon)
To beat, abuse and fight seriously

Does this clapper bridge on Dartmoor conceal a useful hiding place? Painting by Robert Lee-Wade RUA

Bittiwelp
To rush or fall headlong (Bedfordshire)
A small puppy, often the runt of the litter
To holler loudly and in a crazy manner

Nunt
An insult, meaning a small and worthless person
To go nunting is to collect acorns for pigs
To make an effort (North)

Snuffkin
A small muff used by ladies in cold weather
An affectionate term for the youngest child of the family (Yorkshire)
A kind of toadstool, once added to snuff to make up weight cheaply

Wudder
The tail fin of a fish (Somerset)
An indecisive person, who thinks all the time about whether (‘wudder’) to do something
To make a sullen roar

Halliwell’s Answers

The words listed in bold are the correct definitions

Tossicated – To be sexually aroused

Saturday-stop – A time unlawful to catch salmon, from evensong on Saturday until sunrise on Monday, in the northern parts of the British Isles

Owlguller– To pry about, be stealthy, and thievish – (Suffolk)

Ninny-nonny -To feel uncertain, especially in Lincolnshire

Meacock – A silly, effeminate fellow – a term of insult often combined as ‘a meacock and a milksop’

Kipe -To be wrong, just plain wrong, in Lancashire

Crap – All definitions are correct! – To snap or crack (Somerset), Dregs of beer, Money (North)

Three thrum – The song of a female cat as she purrs (Lincolnshire)

Kissing-crust – Where two loaves have joined together in the oven

Giglet – A giddy, romping girl (West) May imply wantonness

Snurle – A cold in the head (Suffolk)

Clapperclaw – To beat, abuse and fight seriously

Bittiwelp – To rush or fall headlong (Bedfordshire)

Nunt – To make an effort (North)

Snuffkin – A small muff used by ladies in cold weather

Wudder – To make a sullen roar

How to play with others

You need three people on the panel, and others to guess the answers. Each person on the panel has a list of the words, with only the definition that they will give. They don’t know if theirs is right or wrong when they plead their cause. Each panellist has the job of convincing the others that their answer is the right one, by giving the definition and explaining a bit more about it. At the end, the master or mistress of ceremonies reads out the correct answers and all the players tot up the number of guesses they’ve got right.

I’ve created play sheets which you can access below as a PDF – one for each panellist, with their list of definitions, and a comprehensive one with the right answers in bold, for the quiz master.

I do hope you enjoy it, and if you have any quarrel with the answers, don’t take it up with me – address them to James Orchard Halliwell; (21 June 1820 – 3 January 1889) – an English Shakespearean scholar, antiquarian, and a collector of English nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Interestingly for me, too, he also edited the Private Diary of Dr. John Dee, magician and astrologer, and the man who helped Queen Elizabeth I to choose an auspicious date for her coronation.

Finding Halliwell

If you fancy consulting Halliwell yourself, you can buy copies second hand, or there are sites where you can find the text online, eg at Open Library. My own two volumes arrived in an interesting fashion. When I was keenly into my folk singing period as a teenager, I took part in the ongoing folk workshop run by radio producer Charles Parker. (You can read more about him and the influence of his Radio Ballads at my post Singing at the Holy Ground.) Charles always ended up with more books than he could ever hope to read – he once said that he would like to be incapacitated for a few months so that he could catch up with all the books waiting for him! Anyway, he had a spare volume of Halliwell K-Z, and gave it to me. It was a kind of talisman and I perused it frequently. But it was only with the advent of online book buying that I suddenly realised I could acquire Vol A-K quite easily! So now my set is complete; even if the glue is giving way and the cover cracking it somehow adds to the charm.

James Orchard Halliwell, antiquarian and lover of curiosities

Happy Christmas to all my readers!

Wishing you and yours a safe and enjoyable celebration. I conclude with a Victorian card from my collection of historic Christmas cards.

To Brixham for a Sailor’s Cap

Brixham, south Devon, our destination with its popular Pirate Ship attraction

I think we’ve just had our summer holiday this year – a day on the sea, sailing with Stuartline Cruises from Exmouth to Brixham. Like most other people, we’re not expecting to travel far afield this summer. But what could be better, on a warm sunny day, than to set sail along the beautiful Devon coast? We saw rocks and coves, beaches and waterfalls that we would never have known were there. We already knew many of the seaside towns individually, but had no idea how the coastline joins them together.

Stuartline is a delightful family firm that takes passengers up and down the River Exe, and along the Jurassic Coast all the way to Sidmouth in one direction, and the ‘English Riviera’ at Torbay in the other. In winter, there are highly-recommended birdwatching trips (booked out months in advance!) with a knowledgeable expert pointing out the extraordinary bird life that we have in the Exe Estuary, of migrants and waders, including the famous flocks of avocets.

Despite being veterans of these and other short cruises, this was the first time we’d been on a full day excursion. So I’ll be delighted to relive this journey, and to share both some snippets of history and some personal memories of this striking landscape too. Would you like to join us?

Our starting point, at Exmouth

We cast off from the little dock at Exmouth, and soon gain a panoramic view of the seafront. The elegant 18th and 19th century terraces show how it once aspired to be a fashionable bathing station for the monied classes. Like several of the other Devon coastal resorts, its very early days were spent in a humbler manner though: ‘Prior to the 1700’s Exmouth was a small fishing town, with a small harbour, from which Sir Walter Raleigh, born just a few miles away in East Budleigh in 1544, sailed on many of his voyages.’ (Visit Exmouth) In earlier centuries, it also acted as the point of entry into the River Exe, from whence trading ships sailed up to the bustling port of Topsham, (our current home), servicing the wool trade and other enterprises.

Exmouth’s new Marina, a highly sought-after spot to live. One of the other StuartLine boats is berthed just at the corner

Now it’s both a popular family holiday resort and a lively town, with a new Marina built in a handsome Norwegian style, to the lamentations of those who loved the ramshackle sheds and cabins that previously existed in the area at the start of the ‘back beach’ stretching up the mouth of the river.

Just across the water is the sand spit of Dawlish Warren nature reserve – oddly enough with a golf course in its midst. This fragile ecosystem is being preserved as best it can with groynes and techniques to bolster up the sandy banks, but it’s a tough fight against tides and storms.
Nearly high tide – we need the extra water level to sail over this way from Exmouth. The skipper says that there is only a metre of sea below the hull of the ship!
A puzzling warning sign, regarding the ongoing attempts to prevent sand erosion from the Warren

Dawlish Warren is a weird juxtaposition. If you come here by road or train you’ll start by passing under the railway bridge and stroll (or hasten) through a panoply of fairground rides, candy floss stalls, gaudy souvenirs and hot dog stalls. But once through this area, fringed with brightly painted beach huts, you’re in a wonderful, windswept area of nature which stretches for over a mile to the end of the spit. It has a bird hide at the far end, and it was here, about 30 years ago, that I saw my first ever white egret in the UK. The beach which borders it is also wonderful, and if you don’t mind hopping through the groynes you can enjoy a long walk on an unspoilt and usually uncrowded stretch of sand.

The ‘fun’ end of Dawlish Warren

After the Warren comes the town of Dawlish itself, with its famous stretch of railway line running along the edge of the sea. Famous because a) it’s officially listed as one of the great railway trips of the world – and at times the trains keep running while spray from the waves breaks over the carriages! But also b) because every now and then a bit of the track falls into the sea. See the tale of recent disaster and recovery here.

Caught on camera from our boat! The train running past the more modern seafront flats at Dawlish – it will then go right in front of the original terraces seen below.

Dawlish is also famous for its black swans, Australian natives which grace the brook that flows through the town centre. Sadly, their numbers have been decimated by bird flu in the last year or so, but not before two escapees found their way up the River Exe to Topsham. Here they are feted and fed by admiring townsfolk and tourists; these birds know a good thing when they see it.

The Topsham Two – a flyaway pair from Dawlish?

When I was at primary school, we were asked to paint a picture of our summer holidays, and I was very puzzled when one of my classmates painted a seaside with red cliffs. Surely that couldn’t be right? I had spent my early years near the white cliffs of Dover. But I had to adjust my expectations when we moved down to East Devon and the Jurassic coast. I still find them a touch unnatural, but they are certainly dramatic. The rock stacks rise up out of the water in gnarled, looming shapes, like giant heads. But they are also shape-shifters, as sandstone erodes over time.

Below: some of the dramatic sandstone rocks near Teignmouth, and a local fisherman hauling in a lobster pot nearby

Now we’re arriving at Teignmouth – one of our favourite seaside towns. It has plenty of character, a place of different faces. The seafront terraces, as in Exmouth, speak of past grandeur. The pier, the cafes, the play park are from a different narrative, of jolly seaside family holidays. Once when we turned up in the town they were filming ‘The Mercy’, the story of the disastrous sailing challenge taken on by Donald Crowhurst, and the company had reconstructed a perfect 1950s holiday setting along the front, which gave an entertaining sense of time-slip.

A photo that I took in Teignmouth during the filming of ‘The Mercy’, a 1950s true-life tale of one man’s madness in an attempt to pretend he was winning the Golden Globe sailing challenge.

Behind the sea front, there’s a newly-labelled ‘artists’ quarter’ with quirky shops and a little theatre. And also just around the corner is the ‘back beach’, where the river Teign flows into the sea. It’s flanked by fishermen’s shacks, boats pulled up onto the sand, and the ferry which takes you over the water to the very cute village of Shaldon. In Victorian times, Teignmouth was eagerly sought after as a painter’s resort since the sunshine comes from two directions, off both beaches of sea and river, and bathes the town in glorious light. Oh, and by the way, it’s the River ‘Teen’ which flows through ‘Tinmouth’. (But if you’re on Dartmoor, then ‘Drewstaynton’ for Drewsteignton.) Got that?

We sail around the corner of the cliff, where just beyond is the hidden beach of The Ness. This is reached, surprisingly, by a foot tunnel on the Shaldon side. (Shaldon itself also has the surprise of a little zoo with a fine population of meerkats and lemurs, a conservation centre for endangered species. ) Descending the steep, dank set of stairs in near-darkness, you begin to hear the waves pounding below. Suddenly, you emerge into daylight and there is the little beach spread out before you. (Not possible, I warn you, at high tide.)

Ness Beach – only reached by a steep climb up the hill and down through a tunnel

The cliffs ascend steeply here; I know this from experience, as we once walked up the coast path from Shaldon and nearly collapsed before we finally got to the top. It felt as if crampons and a rope might have been sensible equipment to take. Perched a little way further along the clifftop is a modern white house, said to be the plaything of a Russian oligarch.

And now it’s a changing scene – we are in Agatha Christie country! The hills are rounder and more wooded. There are hidden coves, rocks to swim towards, steep tree-filled valleys to clamber up, and every now and then, a splendid house fit for a murder mystery.

Houses fit for an old-fashioned murder story perch proudly on the wooded hilltops

Agatha grew up in the area, and returned in later life to live at Greenway House, set high above the Dart River. You can discover her favourite haunts here and visit Greenway House (now National Trust). Strange to think that when I came to the area in my teens, my friends pointed out the house to me, and told me that Agatha was still in residence. Could I have tried to meet her? I’ll never know. She died in 1976.

The charm of Maidencombe Beach, with its very own waterfall

We pass the beach below Maidencombe. Robert and I have been to this quaint village once, in the autumn months, which is a snatch of old Devon (especially out of season), but didn’t follow the signed walking route to the beach, out of sight below. Now, from the boat, we can see what a charming spot it is, with its very own waterfall. Did Agatha come here too? I expect so.

The skipper points out a pile of debris on the cliff top nearby, and tells us the story of the woman who bought a house up there, sight unseen, for a bargain sum of £154,000. However, it wasn’t long before the house started toppling down the cliff. I looked up the story, and the argey-bargey she had with the auctioneers. Read it here. Buyer beware!

The house that fell down the hill

Then we sail under the cliffs below Babbacombe village, an outlier of Torquay now. I have been here several times, to visit the extraordinary, Stone-Age inhabited Kent’s Cavern (see my earlier post, Following the Female Line). Walk through a wooden door in a modern visitor’s centre, and you plunge into another era, of ancient man, and cave-dwelling bears as well. Taking my granddaughters round here was a delight.

At Hope Nose, the geology switches abruptly from sandstone to much older limestone, which is some 350 million years old.

And look, do I spy the Famous Five and Timmy having a naughty camp-out where they shouldn’t? We are in story book country, after all.

As for stories, the cruise ships moored around Torbay and Teignmouth have provided us with a ghostly presence during the pandemic. Sometimes they look like spectres from a haunted tale, half lost in the mist. Our skipper tells us how they seek out sheltered bays and drop anchor there, leaving a skeleton (ha!) crew on board, so as to avoid paying berthing charges. We’ve had various royally-named ships within these waters in the last year and a half, from the Queen Mary to the Queen Victoria who is currently here.

When we pass one later, crew members wave to us in excitement – or is it despair? At Christmas, the inhabitants of Teignmouth knitted gifts and sent out seasonal food parcel to the seamen who had to spend the holidays on board.

And it’s time for Torquay. Pine trees herald our arrival, a symbol of its title as ‘Queen of the English Riviera’. When I first came to Torquay in the 1960s, the promenade was dominated by palm trees, and I always thought of these as the iconic image of the town. But apparently these were decimated by a severe frost, and have never been replaced. Hmm – on searching for more about their demise, I discovered that Torquay is home to a number of dreadful environmental errors.

But I am fond of this town, remembering how I worked here in the Grand Hotel for a summer after leaving school. It was primarily for friends and folk clubs that I came down here from Birmingham – there have always been close links between Brum and Devon. (see my blog ‘Singing at the Holy Ground’ ) I was hired as a ‘still room’ maid, toiling under the supervision of Hungarian John, a kindly, middle-aged man, who fought our cause fiercely when we were bullied by arrogant chefs. I think I was paid around £8 a week, and my job was primarily to make toast using an eyebrow-singeing machine, make up sandwiches, and prepare trays of tea and coffee. Oh, and put cakes on plates. (John didn’t mind if we helped ourselves to a few.) It was a hazardous workplace, apart from the singed eyebrows. Italian waiters tried to grope us girls in the service lifts, and the manager swept down in a temper, saying that we had to pour any undrunk coffee out of the pots back into the coffee machine, stewed or not. I got my revenge by making up his afternoon tea tray with sandwiches composed of other people’s chicken leftovers.

The Grand Hotel, Torquay, framed up through our boat’s window. In my earlier times there, it was painted a drab gunmetal grey.

And the room I was given had been inhabited by an alcoholic woman, who had left piles of empty booze and meths bottles in every corner and cupboard. I was young and inexperienced, and I felt that because they had done me a favour by offering me a room, I shouldn’t complain, but simply grit my teeth and clear it out. I can still remember the stink, and sense of horror on confronting it. Having said that, it was nevertheless quite a happy time! I met up with my mates, sang in the folk clubs and learnt the joys of crab sandwiches.

Indeed, I retain a fondness for Torquay, and would like to get to know it better again.

Below: Modern Torquay contrasting with the 18th century, elegant Hesketh Crescent, now a hotel and apartments

Here we let the Torquay trippers off the boat to enjoy their three hours ashore. The rest of us travel on to the fishing ‘village’ of Brixham about eight miles further along the coast, past Paignton en route.

First, though, we pass a real storybook house, set in at least two acres of beautifully mown and diamond-patterned lawns. Oh, I wish that this were mine! I learnt later, through the ‘Devon Where Am I?’ Facebook group that it’s called Thatcher House. It’s the epitome of what we might think of as a 1930s English Riviera house, with unbroken views to the cliff tops and sea, all ready for a sunset gin and tonic on the terrace.

Paignton passes by without much comment – I worked here, too, as a chambermaid in a stuffy boarding house frequented by elderly spinsters, whose chamber pots I had to empty. That era has gone, and so has my interest in the town. Perhaps I am failing to see its charms.

Thatcher House – perhaps my dream home on the English Riviera?

And then it’s round into Brixham harbour. It’s a lovely entrance to the fishing port, with colourful houses stacked up in handfuls on the steep hillsides which surround it. The fishing fleet and industry here is apparently the third largest in the UK, and we often buy delicious fresh fish landed at Brixham. (You can read about the story of one Brixham trawler, now aground in Topsham, at Hidden Topsham Part One.) ) I used to come here too on my days off from being a still room or chamber maid. But there are two other Brixham associations for me.

Brixham Harbour, little changed in general appearance from when my great grandfather worked here in 1873

First of all, it’s where my great grandfather, David Owen arrived in 1873 at the age of 30 to be the town’s Baptist Minister. He’d come from the hills of mid-Wales, first to a post in Hemyock, Devon, where he met his future wife Mary Masey Walker, and then to try a pastorate in Brixham. After only six months, though, he upped sticks hastily for reasons unknown, (not thought to be scandalous!), married his sweetheart, and set sail for America. Here he joined his brother John in Ohio, and spent 15 years as a minister before he and Mary returned, settling in Northamptonshire, where their brood increased to twelve children. How I’d like to know more about his Brixham story! Family folklore says that he found the Devon mindset too constrained – which might sound strange for one who came from mid-Wales, but he’d had an astonishingly good education at the Baptist College in Haverfordwest, specialising in Hebrew and Ancient Greek. Or maybe it was the lure of the open seas? His grandfather had also left the Radnorshire hills, to set sail from Plymouth and subsequently fight at the Battle of Corunna in Wellington’s army.

Brixton has a sizeable fishing fleet, and all over our Devon area you can buy delicious fresh fish landed here.

The second reason for coming to Brixham is that it’s where I bought Robert his favourite seaman’s cap seven years ago, and which he has been welded to ever since. Time has taken its toll on the cap though, and now’s the chance to try and buy him a new one.

First, though, it’s the moment to find a crab sandwich – our favourite seafront fare. We serendipitously find a spare waterfront table in a delightful shady café, to do just that.

And then, can we find the right shop? Or another one selling the same merchandise? The chances look slim; many shops have changed hands since we were here last. I walk straight past a small shop front crowded with sea shells and souvenirs. But Robert looks more closely and spots one of these caps, lying dusty and folded flat at the bottom of a display basket. He tries it on. Alas, it’s too big. The stooped elderly man behind the counter tells us that he has been running this business for 60 years, and he’s sold Breton sailor’s caps (ah, so this is what they are!) for all this time. But now he can’t get hold of any more. ‘So this is the last one?,’ we ask. ‘I might just have another one,’ he says. And he does, and it’s the right size. Mission accomplished.

‘Twas a good day out on the English Riviera! Whether you come by train, as this poster suggests, or as we did, by boat.

What’s Coming Up

I usually leave the next blog post as a surprise – a nice one, I hope! But I think it’s worthwhile giving a heads up as to what’s on the menu for the next month, given that summer is a scattered kind of time, when we often ditch our usual routines and reading habits.

We’ll be staying in the South West, next time. On August 22nd, I’ll be inviting you to climb on Old Uncle Tom Cobleigh’s horse, and take a ride to Widecombe Fair. The Fair is a great joy, and one of Dartmoor’s finest traditions, but alas has been cancelled for this year. So I thought we could enjoy it virtually.

Then on September 5th, we move just a little over the border into Cornwall, to meet the Pixie of Bude – no, not a post about fairies, but about Pamela Colman Smith, nicknamed Pixie. Pamela is the artist who painted the world’s most famous Tarot pack, usually known as the Rider-Waite pack. And yet her own life and art is little known. She spent the final part of her life in Bude, where at last the Museum has recognised her work. It was a little info board in the museum which sparked my interest to look into her further – those of you who are regular readers will know that the Tarot is one of my themes.

I could tell you what will happen after that – but plans may change, so I’ll keep it under wraps for the time being!

You may also be interested in:

Seduction, Sin and Sidmouth: An Ancestor’s Scandal

Summer is a’Coming Today! May Day in Padstow

Refugee Ancestors: A Huguenot Family in Devon

Golden oldies and classic posts

Those of you who read my blog regularly will know that I’m on a two-weekly schedule at the moment, for new posts. However, now and then I may slip something in on intervening weeks as I’m doing today. And this particular post may tempt you in to read a story or two which you haven’t come across before!

My author’s website at www.cherrygilchrist.co.uk hosted my original blog, which ran from 2012 to 2020. I rounded it off and archived it when I started Cherry’s Cache. However, I’ve now combed through all the eight years of posts and have re-published some of my blog ‘classics’. I invite you to travel along the Silk Road, meet the lunatic cast of Marat Sade in 1968, or ride the white horses to the sea…

You can click on each title below to go straight to the blog you’re looking for, or visit the website blog page

Images from the Silk Road – Rainbow Silk

Choosing Your Ancestors

Isle of Wight Festival 1969

Cambridge goes mad for Marat Sade

Marat Sade Revisited, with a Touch of Downton Abbey

The Serendipities of Family History

Riding the White Horses of the Camargue

Haiku for the White Horses

When is a Short Story like a Russian Box?

Everyone has a Laurie Lee Story

New Poem for a New Day

The Waistcoat from Waziristan

Struan – Sublime Harvest Bread








Cherry’s Cache – A Guide to the First Year

After this post, I will be having a break from Cherry’s Cache for a few weeks. I expect to resume in early May, and will post here when there’s an exact date fixed. If you are subscribed to the email notifications you’ll automatically be alerted when a new post goes up. And in the meantime, you can continue to access all the posts already on the site. To find topics of interest, use the search button, browse the archives, or – better still! – use the guide posted below.

New season under way!

I’m now uploading new posts for the second year run of Cherry’s Cache – among other things, there will be Tales of Tigerlily, the vintage clothes shop that I ran in Cambridge. The first of these is scheduled for Sunday May 2nd and I expect to be posting every two weeks in the coming season.

The Journey

I began writing Cherry’s Cache a year ago, and launched the first three posts in April 2020. I’ve now uploaded fifty-four posts, including this one. These come to over 115,000 words collectively, which is about half as long again as most of the books that I write! (Any offers to publish a Cherry’s Cache book??) Anyroad up, as we would say in Brum, it’s time for a round-up of what’s now stored in the Cache, which you’ll find below.

It’s been an incredible, if sometimes exhausting, journey preparing all these posts, and I’ve been heartened by reader feedback. Thank you! t’s been a wonderful experience to research and write weekly, especially during the difficult days of lockdown.

If you’d like to get in touch in the meantime, there’s a Contact Form on this site, or at http://www.cherrygilchrist.co.uk, and you’re still welcome to add comments to the posts. (Allow a day or two for a comment to be ‘approved’, if you’re not already on the contributor list.)

Just before I get onto today’s theme, I have an update on Cosmo the Topsham Cat of Character. (You’ll find his story at the end of the post this link leads to.) Cosmo has no fixed abode, but likes to enter homes as he pleases and receive food graciously from chosen hosts. He is our very own ‘Six Dinner Sid’, as per the well-known children’s story.

Recently, I noticed that two people had posted separately on the Topsham Facebook page, asking if anyone could identify a stray black cat who had begged his way into their homes, in a confident and friendly manner. I supplied a photo of Cosmo: ‘Yes, that’s him!’ they each replied. I advised them to feed him if they wished, then invite him to step out again, to continue on his rambles; no need to worry about Cosmo! He has been carving out a living in the town for years. And anyone who tries to adopt him permanently will be sadly disappointed.

Here’s my latest encounter with Cosmo, as I came down Monmouth Street on a walk around the town. Typically, he is sitting on the doorstep of a pleasing-looking house, where the owner might be prevailed upon to give him a snack.

A Year of Cherry’s Cache: my guide to the posts

So here’s a thumbnail guide to each post, in the order they were published, except for the different series, which are grouped together. You can use the link given to take you straight to the individual posts. I apologise for any vagaries of formatting pictures and text alongside each other, which at times defeated me here!

Seduction, Sin and Sidmouth – An Ancestor’s Scandal

My wicked great uncle from Hemyock in the Blackdown Hills, who seduced a young lady from the village, and disowned her as he climbed higher in the world.

Suzani from the Silk Road

Beautiful embroidered hangings from Central Asia, with a history stretching back to pre-historic times. You’ll see suzani motifs decorating some of the pages on Cherry’s Cache too.

The Tidal Town of Topsham

The first of my posts about the town of Topsham where I live, on the River Exe. Follow the circuit of an early morning walk, and also discover the historic houses, the town ferry and a path known as the Goat Walk.

Alchemy and Cooking

This post combines two of my interests – alchemy, and food! In my view, cooking is alchemy and I’ve added a recipe for Bara Brith to the description of historical alchemy.

Summer is a-Coming Today! – May Day in Padstow

The glorious festival of the ‘Old ‘Oss and welcoming in May Day in Padstow, Cornwall. The streets are alive with music, rhythm, dance, flowers, gallivanting…We took part a few years ago, and long to go again

Anna Zinkeisen and the Zodiac Calendar

The story of a little-known but highly-accomplished artist called Anna Zinkeisen, who worked as a war artist, portrait painter, and creator of the Whitbread Zodiac Calendar, a treasure which I have in my possession.

‘Just Ordinary Girls’ – Noel Leadbeater and the Secret Army

Noel Leadbeater was the mother of a close friend of mine at school, and she never told us what she did in the war until the ban on secrecy was lifted. She worked as a morse code operator, supplying vital information to the Enigma Code Breakers, and her story is put together here for the first time.

The Unusual Exhibition

How my husband, artist Robert Lee-Wade, put on an exhibition in some stables in the south of France, with the assistance of two fine Shakesperian actors and a few horses.

The Moon Meditation of Kuan Yin

An exploration of a little-known, but highly effective meditation allied to the Chinese ‘lady of compassion’, Kuan Yin

Mick Jagger and the Cigarette Butt

I was certainly a fan and follower of the Rolling Stones in my early teenage years. But did I really hoard the cigarette butt that Mick Jagger threw away? Of course not! Or maybe….

Meeting Walter Lassally – Cinematographer and Kabbalist

I was privileged to meet Walter Lassally, famous for his work on the film ‘Zorba the Greek’, who was a true seeker all his life. Much is known about his professional achievements, but far less about his interest in the I-Ching, astrology and Kabbala. This account opens up that significant side of his life.

Hidden Topsham – a series

Following on from my first Topsham post, ‘The Tidal Town of Topsham’, I decided to write a series about the hidden nooks and crannies of the town, and elements of its forgotten history, both disreputable and glorious. You can find them here:

Hidden Topsham Part One

Hidden Topsham Part Two

Hidden Topsham Part Three

Hidden Topsham Part Four

Enoch and Eli: The Heroes of Black Country Wit

Wry, sardonic, and very funny – the dry humour of Enoch and Eli and the Black Country is something I had a great time investigating! All based on the original story of two dogs locked in a room, which I recalled from my Brummie years. What happened? Find out here….

The Cosmic Zero – Getting something from Nothing

This is – unfortunately! – the true story of how my car was wrecked by a nasty neighbour who never owned up. But justice caught up with him in the end, thanks to the power of the Cosmic Zero. I also take an excursion to look at the history of this strange non-number.

A Tale of Two Samplers

This is a tale about two old needlework samplers that I have on the wall at home. I decided to try and find out the identity of the two little girls who stitched them nearly 200 years ago. To my sorrow, one child had died young, but to my joy, I was able to trace the story of Amey Ross, and her life in Lincolnshire as a miller’s wife.

Strange Signs – a Miscellany from around the World

Writing this was a personal treat, as I’ve been collecting crazy signs for years now. ‘Seat for Bored Husbands’, ‘Enjoy Christmas at the Airport’, ‘No Scratching’, advertisements for ‘Wife Cake’ and Thai massage to relieve ‘Wata in Scrotum’, they are all there for you to enjoy.

Finding Brummagem

A journey through present-day Birmingham mixes with memories of the ‘Brum’ I knew in my schooldays, in the 1960s. Will I ever sort them out in my mind? Current Brummagem is shining with fabulous new buildings, but glimpses of the old corners of the city and its canals are still there to be found.

Glimpses of the Tarot – A series exploring the 22 cards of the traditional Tarot pack

For seven of these posts, I took trios of cards, drawn at random, and reflected upon both their individual meaning and the significance they have as a triad, rather like ‘three guests at a dinner party’. And for one post I took the single card of the unnumbered Fool, and his position in our own calendar customs.

Glimpses of the Tarot 1 Glimpses of the Tarot 2Glimpses of the Tarot 3

Glimpses of the Tarot 4Glimpses of the Tarot 5Glimpses of the Tarot 6

Glimpses of the Tarot 7The Fool and his Feast

Russian Month – August 2020

‘The Russian Diaries’ describes how I bought a traditional Russian wooden house in the village of Kholui, in the 1990s. This was in pursuit of my interest in lacquer miniature boxes, and the old way of life of the Russian countryside. Encounters both heart-warming and hilarious followed.

Baba Yaga – the story of the infamous Russian witch, who lives in a house which stands on hens’ feet, who flies through the air in a mortar with pestle, who challenges young men to grow up and ‘do something’! What are her hidden attributes and origins?

The Legendary Art of the Russian Lacquer Miniature – I studied and bought these little marvels of miniature painting directly from artists and workshops over a 12 year period, and they became one of my specialist subjects as a lecturer. This is a concise introduction to how they’re made, and the stories they tell.

The Red Corner and the Symbolism of the Russian Home – From the mischievous house spirit, the ‘domavoi’ to the sacred Red Corner for the family icon, the Russian Home is a place where myth and family life mix in what is almost a sacred space.

The Perils of Publishing – What happens when an author’s attic gets clogged up with unsold books? Well, a trip to the local waste depot is more of a challenge than you might imagine. This was the first of my series ‘A Writer’s Life’.

Writing for Jackie Magazine – While still at school, three of us plotted to get published in Jackie, the ultimate in teenage trend. We pooled our memories for this blog. I’m proud to say that my co-conspirators went on to become acclaimed script-writers for the Archers! The second in ‘A Writer’s Life’ series.

Golden Quinces – A fruit loved in ancient times, and almost neglected in our current era. However, this ‘apple of love’ can be transformed into delicacies which will delight you, as I reveal with our supply of garden quinces.

Venetia, the Woman who Named Pluto – I met Venetia Phair, nee Burney, to ask her about how she came to name a newly-discovered planet. This is her story, of how she came to suggest the name Pluto one morning over breakfast, as a bright 11-year-old schoolgirl back in 1930. It was a race against time, to beat the other candidates…

Meeting the Shaman in Siberia – A memorable encounter with Herel, a traditional Siberian shaman from Tuva. I sat through a private session with him in his ‘clinic’, and later he and his wife came to bless our camp with a ceremony of fire, drums, chanting and – possibly! – eagles.

The Soho Coffee Bars – Why was there a sudden blossoming of the coffee bar scene in Soho in the 1950s? And what actually went on there? Historical research plus memoirs from those who there tell the story of juke boxes and espresso on the streets of London.

Keeping it Simple with Princess Diana – A Writer’s Life 3 – It fell to my lot to write books in simplified English, for students of the language. I never expected to write the biography of Princess Diana this way, though!

Following the Female Line – the significance of investigating the mother’s line of ancestors, and the stories they can connect us to. Plus a visit to a Stone Age cavern, to discover what life was like in the really early days!

The Abduction of Mary Max – How my 4 x great grandmother was abducted at the age of 13, by her cousin Samuel Phillps, mainly for the sake of acquiring this very nice house in County Tipperary. The runaway couple were pursued by the law from Ireland to France, and the racy story was reported by practically every newspaper in Britain.

Topsham Celebrates! – Our local town knows how to dress itself up for all the special occasions it hosts in ‘normal’ times, from the historic Charter Day to Secret Gardens, Wassailing and beautifully-decorated windows.

The Twelve Days of Christmas – Why they are so special both in the astronomical calendar and in or lives. ‘Time out’ for games and feasting, with a quick trip to Russia for their celebrations, and a wonderful Twelfth Night Cake – or possibly Bread – for which I provide the recipe.

Pangur Ban and the Old Irish Cats – An Irish monk sat up late at night, writing in his cell, in the far off days of the 9th century. Instead of continuing with his philosophical discourse, he wrote a timeless and touching ode to his cat, Pangur Ban. In fact, cats were highly valued in old Ireland, and protected by special laws. This post has been by far the most popular on Cherry’s Cache over the year, attracting around 2,000 views.

Checking in for the New Year – The tale of how I came to be writing this blog, after a memorable weekend in Spitalfields. Plus updates on posts, with further news on the Cosmo, the Topsham rascal cat, and a report on my Twelfth Night cake.

The Company of Nine – This is an investigation into the symbol of ‘Nine Ladies’ as represented in myth, landscape features such as the stone circle pictured here, and in real-life ‘companies’ of nine priestesses or seeresses.

Singing at the Holy Ground – My teenage years were full of passion for folk music, once I’d given up on Mick Jagger. Our then home city of Birmingham witnessed a great expansion of folk clubs in the 1960s, especially of Irish-led sessions. My path then led me to study with BBC producer Charles Parker, of the Radio Ballads.

The Ancestors of Easter Island describes how we found our way to a stone circle at the heart of Easter Island, traditionally used to make contact with female ancestors. Along with the cult of the Moai, the famous ‘stone heads’, this remote island is a place to understand ancestry and the importance it has in our lives. A visit to Bali also showed us a wonderful ceremony to bring the departed relatives back into the family home.

A Poem in the Albert Hall – Where does it lead when you start writing poetry? Most of the time, nowhere! But I’ve had a few surprises along the way, including, improbably, a famous singer reciting one of my poems in the Royal Albert Hall. And tracing another one in Australia, many years later.

A Coventry Quest – On the trail of a 3 x great grandfather, I tracked down his old haunts in Spon Street, Coventry, where he worked as a watchmaker. It was a day of discovering Coventry too, with its history, both rich and tragic, of ribbon weavers and clock makers, war-time bombs and scattered ancient buildings. I ended with a race against time to find my grandfather’s grave before darkness closed in.

Topsham Lockdown – a time for early morning walks, and discovering how nature took over from human noise and traffic. As well as snapping some stunning views, I also observed moments like the first day the barber’s shop re-opened their doors!

The Dartmoor Ponies – images of these beautiful, half-wild ponies, which I’ve taken over time on my visits to Dartmoor, along with some notes on the breed and the life they live on the moor.

Refugees Ancestors – a Huguenot family in Devon How my Huguenot ancestors fled from France and found a new home in Devon. After a perilous sea crossing, they were taken in by the inhabitants of Barnstaple.

Thank you for scrolling through this! I’m amazed to see how much I did manage to write and upload during the last twelve months. I’m grateful to readers, whether it’s a quick drop-in to read a single post, or regular subscribers who’ve started their Sunday mornings with Cherry’s Cache. For years, I’ve written books on commission for publishers, mostly on subjects close to my heart. But Cherry’s Cache gives me the chance to explore themes which wouldn’t form a book, or don’t necessarily have a place in commercial publishing. I’ve enjoyed it thus far, and I hope you have too!

Early plum blossom in our garden in Devon

The Unusual Exhibition

‘Vines and olives groves, Fressac’ – All paintings on this page are by Robert Lee-Wade, RUA

Robert is sweeping out the dust and straw from the long, covered alley where the horses come to be groomed and fed. Bill, the chief horseman around here, removes the last saddles and bridles from their pegs, while the dogs sniff around eagerly, aware that something unusual is happening. It’s the day of the art exhibition. My husband, Robert Lee-Wade, is a painter in the impressionist style, a member of the Royal Ulster Academy and widely exhibited in various countries abroad. But never before in a stable block in the South of France.

Robert cleaning the alleyway ready for the exhibition.

Robert and I have been at Mas la Chevalerie for several weeks now. We’re staying in a gite on a ranch owned by retired actors Bill Homewood and Estelle Kohler on an extended stay to paint (Robert), write (Cherry) and enjoy the landscape of the Languedoc and the Camargue. It’s September in the South of France, and the grape harvest is coming along, in this idyllic spot. And so is Robert’s art – Bill has helped him to set up a makeshift studio in his capacious office, where he (Bill) also records audio books for Naxos.

Estelle, I should say, was my heroine when I was sixteen and she was a very young actress with the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford. At that time, newly arrived from South Africa, she was playing Ophelia to David Warner’s Hamlet. The innovative production by Peter Hall captured my teenage imagination, and with friends from school in Birmingham, we saw the play several times, usually on cheap stand-by tickets. I never imagined that I might become friends with Estelle so many years later.

Robert Lee-Wade, Estelle Kohler and Bill Homewood
Bill organising the logistics. Camargue pony arrived for schooling. Interested bystanders.

‘Let’s have an exhibition!’ said Bill, after Robert had been painting for several weeks. He and Estelle have been here for decades, and know practically everyone in the Fressac area. They count up who they might invite – the mayor (of course), the baker, the restaurant owner, the dressage specialist, the Danish sculptor, the ex-rock drummer and a whole long list of others. We are to provide the refreshments; being France this must be wine, and being near the Camargue, this must include brandade, a paste made of salted cod. And definitely some baguettes. So be it.

The alleyway is nearly clear now, except that another friend of Bill’s has chosen to bring his exquisite white Camargue stallion for some extra training in Bill’s manège. We’ve had our own exciting encounter with Camargue horses on this trip, taking a three day break down in the marshes to ‘ride the white horses to the sea’.

‘The White Horses of the Carmargue’

The pictures are up, the guests arrive. ‘Everyone will come,’ we’re told. ‘They love a chance to socialise and have an apéro.’ They do, and they mingle, looking carefully at the paintings first– some sales are made – and then it’s time to get down to the serious business of eating and drinking. The party grows merry – why not let the horses join in the fun?

The horses on the lawn, in art and real life

Several hours later, it’s quiet again. Bill and Estelle choose a painting as a gift for their help – it’s ‘Where the Nightingales Sing’, which captures the essence of this magical place. We have also seen golden orioles here, and once, a bee-eater in technicolour glory.

We’ll soon be packing our hatchback car and making the long drive back to the UK. We all talk of doing the same thing another year, but although Robert and I will come back for shorter visits, this exhibition is one of those delightful comings-together that can only happen once. And it’s probably all the more memorable for that reason.

The castle from the horse manege at Mas La Chevalerie

Paintings from the Camargue, by Robert Lee-Wade RUA

You can see more of Robert’s artwork here