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Bars and cars, moors and tors, coast paths and wild swimming
and more travel drama!
Here's the third and final post about our summer travels.
The last part of the trip was to Devon, England - the country, but not the county, of my birth - to visit family and also to see Dartmoor and the South West Coast Path. We left Finland on a Wednesday, changing planes in Stockholm, arriving at London's Heathrow Airport and were dealt an instant dose of culture shock. Heathrow airport essentially barely functions. There were three lifts down to the rental car shuttle bus stand, and a huge queue in front of just one of them. It seems the old British maxim "if you see a queue, join it" has lived on well past its origin during wartime rationing. The shuttle bus turned up, already almost full. Just as we were about to board, a middle-aged couple (yes, my age) came running up from completely the wrong place.
"We were here before you. We've been waiting half an hour. It's our turn."
Whatever. The next shuttle came in 5 minutes and was empty.
Google maps had us take a windy, at times single lane, road past wild ponies and sheep to our AirBnB in the heart of Dartmoor. We noticed a great looking country pub just down the road, so after checking in we walked on down for a pint and some dinner. A motor coach had pulled up, and about 50 seniors (yes, yes, I know, I'm the same age as old people) were eating in the coach house. It turns out the pub was now a farm-to-table gastro pub. As we walked through the door, we were greeted with a blast of heat from a roaring fire over which were cooking enormous slabs of regeneratively farmed meat. An admirable idea, but hardly sustainable in those quantities. The bartender, who turned out to be a New Zealander, was great. He let us know we'd be able to order food in while, and that there were vegan options. I opted for a pint of cask-conditioned bitter. Now, I know Brits like their beer warm, but there are limits. The cask was set on the bar not six feet from the fire, and the wet rag on top was not doing much to keep it cool. Ah well.
We sat outside. A number of the coach party wandered out to escape the heat. One couple made a beeline for us, wanting to talk to a couple of what they presumed to be locals. They were Jim and Renee from Minnesota. The whole coach party was American, covering the whole of the British Isles by bus in three weeks. We chatted with them for a while, and then turned to a younger couple next to us. They were from Montreal. We managed an entire evening in a British pub without talking to a single Brit!
The following day, Thursday, we drove down through some more narrow roads to Hope Cove on Devon's south coast. From there, we hiked a chunk of the South West Coast Path, the path featured in Raynor Winn's The Salt Path and's The Electricity of Every Living Thing. We hiked out to Bolberry Down and back. The scenery was stunning. Afterwards we went for a swim at the cove where the water temperature was an acceptable 64 degrees.
On the way back we stopped at a decent pub for a couple of beers and a vegan meal which featured a lot of potatoes. Traditional British pubs are getting hard to find. Jill oftalks about one reason why.
We were able to hike right out of the door of our AirBnB, so Friday we chose to visit Middle Staple Tor, Great Staple Tor and Cox Tor. Tors are granite outcrops at the top of some of the moors, and are characteristic of Dartmoor, as are the wild ponies, sheep, and cattle.
On the way back from a grocery run, we ran over an unavoidable rock on a narrow road. The low-profile tire didn't stand a chance and was soon flat. We found a safe place to pull off the road and change the tire. I opened the trunk and lifted the panel. No spare. We called rental car company recovery line which connected to the AA. They old us a driver would not reach us until 7:30, two hours later. Apparently new cars don't come with spares, allegedly to safe weight and improve economy. It seems more likely that it's to improve the manufacturer's bottom line. In the end, a driver was with us within the hour. Paul was great. He too ranted about lack of spare tires on new cars. He fitted a temporary wheel that he carries for these occasions. We followed him to two tire shops in Tavistock before settling on the third, the one he preferred anyway. He swapped the wheel back, and we left the car and a key. Paul gave us a ride home and then dropped us off down the hill at the gastropub. Unfortunately it was a busy Friday night and the place was full of weekenders with their Range Rovers parked in front. They would not be able to serve us a meal, so dinner was another warm beer and a bag of crisps.
We called the tire place at 8:30 the following morning. They could replace the tire and have the car ready by 9:30. The took the earliest taxi we book at 1:20. The tire guy, Ian, was pleasant and helpful. I told him the AA guy recommended him.
He said, "I bet I know which one that was."
The new tire was a different make than the original but didn’t stand out. The rental company shouldn't notice the difference. We were relieved to close out the car drama.
Or so we thought.
Sunday, we went down to Tavistock. On the way back, on a narrow section of road, we scraped a wheel on the curb, leaving a bright silver scratch on the black paint on the same wheel. We also noticed a stone chip in the windshield. We filled in the scratch on the wheel with a black sharpie. At this point we were just counting down the days until we could hand the car in!
In the afternoon we liked out to the Merrivale stone rows, standing stones, and stone circles. The rows and standing stones are late neolithic, from 3000-2300 BCE. The hut circles are bronze age and so newer, 2300-1500 BCE. They're really impressive. We felt our spirits lift.
We met a lady who turned out to be a Reiki master. Turned out she was really into the energy of water. I told her about Mostly Water and gave her my name. She was in bare feet to absorb the energy from the ground. The grass is soft and kept trimmed by the sheep. You just have to be careful where you step. There were a handful of Instagram influencers in long flowy dresses accompanied by friends with phones, and a couple of ladies looking for energy with dowsing rods while their rather sceptical husbands looked on.
Many people are looking for meaning here. Perhaps the builders were too, those 5000 years ago. It has the feel of what Irish poet John O'Donohue calls a thin place, where the veil between the material and spirit worlds is thin.
The whole area used to be forested. It was gradually cleared for agriculture, crops and livestock, by the people who placed the stones. The soil eventually became so depleted that it turned to moorland, and people moved on. Our generation is not the first to cause environmental degradation, but the first to have the understanding to do something about it and the first to be running out of time and options.
Monday, we headed back to London, avoiding narrow roads as much as possible. Once on the motorway, we’d finally put the car drama behind us.
Or so we thought.
Halfway there, the low tire pressure light came on. Dreading the possibility that our run in with the curb had somehow damaged the new tire, and the attention it would draw when we turned the car in, we pulled off the highway and found a gas station. Sorry, no air. We got back on the highway and tried another one. It had air, but it cost a pound for 5 minutes, coins only. I had a single one-pound coin. We looked in vain for a tire pressure label on the car. I guessed 40 psi. The tire was at 35, so we added 5. We checked the other front tire and found 39. We got back in the car, confident that we'd fixed the problem.
Or so we thought.
The low-pressure light was still on. There was a message saying it needed to be reset, but not how. So, we headed down the highway with Brenda driving and me Googling how to reset the indicator. It turned out the rest button was staring me in the face. I pressed it. Nothing. But there was a message: "Can't do that while driving." If it had prefaced that with "I'm sorry, Dave, I'm afraid I..." it would not have seemed out of character for this car.
We made it to Heathrow, dropped our bags at the hotel, and headed to rental car return a couple of minutes away.
“How was the car?” the attendant asked.
She walked around the car. She hesitated at the left front wheel. My heart skipped a beat. She moved on. Finally, she gave us the receipt. We breathed a sigh of relief and walked back to the hotel. We waited to share a high five until we were safely in the rooftop bar, so glad that our travel drama was over.
Or so we thought.
The hotel told us to book a taxi, as the Hotel Hoppa bus service is "unreliable". Just one more example of what seems to be the crapification of everything. We did as we were told. Because of new noise rules at Heathrow, the plane was an hour late coming in and consequently going out, leaving us with a tight connection in Reykjavik. On arrival there, we hustled onto the bus, then into the terminal. They have a boarding pass scanner and automatic gate for transfer passengers. I placed my boarding card on the scanner, the light turned green, the gate opened, and I walked through. Brenda placed her boarding card on the scanner. There was a red light and an alarm. She tried again. Same thing. A lady in uniform grabbed her by the arm and told her she had been picked for a random special security screening. They told me to go to the Seattle gate and wait for her.
"Don't get on the plane without me!" she said, as they hauled her off. I shuffled forward in the line to the gate and plane, looking over my shoulder and craning my neck to see if I could see her.
"Do you remember your instructions?" said an older gentleman behind me.
"Yes. Don't get on the plane without her!"
I checked in at the gate and waited. The line was dwindling, and still no sign of Brenda. When the line was down to the last few, she made it. We were the last ones on the plane. She'd had to surrender her race nutrition powder, but at least she was on the plane.
The rest of the trip was uneventful. We even arrived a little early and made a shuttle two hours earlier than we had booked. On the ferry home, this sunset welcomed us back.
Thanks for reading! We left Washington in summer and returned to beautiful early fall weather. Labor Day has passed, the summer folk are packing up, and the tourists have gone and taken the ferry lines with them. A new weather season means a new season of writing. Please stick around as I figure out what that's going to look like.
For non-UK readers, the AA (not “AA”) is not Alcoholics Anonymous, but The Automobile Association, the rough equivalent of the USA’s AAA.