The Rainbow Holiday

I know, it’s a twee title, but if I’d called it ‘The Haunted Holiday’ or ‘The night of a thousand coughs’ it wouldn’t really sum it up.

We headed off to Dunster on the North Somerset coast for three nights of Halloween flavoured fun. We had booked tickets for the Dunster Castle ‘Ghost Walk’ after seeing it advertised when we were visiting in September. We stayed in a beautiful old house on a hill not far from St Georges church and we made sure we walked through the graveyard every evening to set the atmosphere up for our stay.

Talking to the landlord, it turned out that he had owned Flora’s Barn, one of our favourite holiday cottages, for 25 years and Flora, the horse that originally lived in the barn (before it was converted) was owned by his daughter. Such a coincidence! On out first night we ate in the Luttrell Arms, named after the family who owned Dunster Castle. It’s an old pub with plenty of character. There are several rooms, and we chose one heated by a huge Inglenook and open fire. The food took a while to come and I enjoyed a pint of local cider, Thatchers, which was to be a recurring theme for me. The manager for the night apologised for the delay in bringing us our food and offered us a free round. When it finally came, the meals were gorgeous.

Delicious cooked breakfasts started our mornings off nicely. The weather wasn’t the best and we saw the first of many rainbows from the window of our room. On the 31st and with no real plan in mind, we headed off east to have a look at Crowcombe church. The village is small and typically English and the church nestles beneath the Quantocks, Graham, our landlord, and his wife had explained that it lay at the end of the only road ro cross the Quantocks and had grown up around the potential trade that would generate. But it remained a poor village dominated by the local landowning family until quite recently. They would move tenants around within the village so they didn’t feel as if they owned the homes they rented. Some of the family also insisted on influencing how the villagers voted. It was almost as if we were hearing stories from some period drama.

We drove up onto the Quantocks before heading down to Nether Stowey to visit Coleridge’s cottage. Like every other time we’d been there, it was closed. But there was hope; it would be open later in the week. From there we headed back to Williton and, although neither of us wish to talk about it much, we visited the Bakelite museum there. It’s been a bit of a standing joke with us everytime we’ve stayed in the area. Down a narrow farm track, in a farmhouse outbuilding, there was an amazing collection of old domestic items from the last 100 years or so. Many of them were, indeed, made from Bakelite – the first plastic. But there were other things there and the one that stood out for me was an old dentist’s appliance – a metal stand with several arms coming out of it, each with a mechanically operated tool on the end. It was bizarre and clever and sinister, all at the same time. It reminded me of the torture ‘droid from the original Star Wars film.

Cleeve Abbey, out next stop, was a rather clinical building that would have benefited from some thought to dressing the rooms with period exhibits. Most of the rooms were empty and although they were labelled, it was hard to imagine how, for example, the Abbott’s bedchamber would really have looked. Even an artist’s impression on the wall would have helped. We wandered around the grounds, including the original refectory floor tiles under a giant marquee, before making our way to the nearby pub for a snackette (with chips, of course).

Our final destination of the day was Minehead and by now the weather was closing in. Some abortive attempts to fly a kite on the beach only succeeded in getting us wet. So we retreated to the B&B for a rest and to plan the evening. Neither of us were hungry so we headed off to a pub at the end of the village for a pint and some games of pool. I came second in two games but won the third. Watching over our every shot was Nelson, a large grey parrot who insisted on whistling a lot and occasionally shouting the world ‘w@nkers’ at random. During our last game the pool room had been invaded by a gaggle of local women who seemed to be keen to get us to move on. They were crowding the room and seemed very reluctant to get out of the way if we were playing a shot.

We made our way to Dunster Castle by 9pm and joined the others waiting for the ghost walk. Soon we were off and heading through the medieval gatehouse to the servants hall, where we went through an underground passage (originally for servants to move about without being seen) and had the first of a series of encounters with characters, noises, slamming doors and other eerie sounds and sights. The nightwatchman told us about footsteps with no one around to make them. A cavalier officer explained how he had died in the room we were in. We saw a maid looking for the lady of the house, a child being taken away to be punished and a couple of ghostly figures lit only by candles. Eventually, we survived and made our way past the dungeons, from which unearthly sounds could be heard, and into the stables. It was only then that we found out our guide was, in fact, a ghost herself!

On Thursday, we went west to Lynmouth and the cliff railway. The rivers were in full race and although the sun was shining, it was cold. We made our way slowly back along the coast, stopping in Porlock to have a look around the little church there. We parked up at the B&B and went for a look around Dunster. While Em went shopping, I walked down to Dunster beach to see what there was to see. All the way down the muddy lane, I was following a huge rainbow from a storm shower that was passing to the west. The sky was black, making the colours stand out even more.

Dunster beach was a key risk area for invasion during World War 2 and at one time there were a dozen or so pillboxes and other defensive structures built to command the long beach. Most have gone but in the car park was a pill box still wearing its camouflage of pebbles from the beach. It was originally disguised as a large pile of rocks and pebbles. Further inland were two more pillboxes, one in the middle of a field, the other, one of many along the stretch of the West Somerset Railway.

I headed back to rendezvous with Em and after watching a cheesy horror movie (well, it was a Halloween holiday) we headed out for food and a swift half. We ate at Cobblestones, a lovely restaurant on the main street of Dunster. The food was wonderful and the service excellent.

After breakfast and the inevitable rainbow, which seemed to act a s a backdrop to a large crow sitting on the neighbour’s fence, we climbed up to Conygar Tower, a folly built to overlook Dunster from the west by one of the Luttrells. We walked through the woods, risking life and limb as conkers dropped all around with loud thunks. We drove off towards Nether Stowey, driving along the coast and keeping Flat Holm and Steep Holm islands in sight in the Bristol Channel. Again, rainbows kept us company as we headed for Coleridge’s cottage, which was open. It was very atmospheric, having been set out as it would have been when he arrived in 1797. In contrast to Cleeve Abbey, the rooms had character and while many of the items on display hadn’t belonged to Coleridge, they were genuinely contemporary and helped to set the scene.

Then it was time to find the motorway to take us back to the 21st Century and home.

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Barn 4: Pirates, play barns and Paradise Farm

Warning – photo of a hairy spider at the bottom of this page.

Although it was an early start this morning, we took it easy. The plan all along on this holiday was to take it easy. Previous holidays have been quite hectic and usually leave me needing another holiday to recover. This time, thanks to Bruce’s generous offer, we had an extra couple of days so we planned a leisurely itinerary.

Rufus went to Paradise Farm, the kennels we’d found and approved yesterday. He seemed happy enough to go and didn’t look back as he went into the kennel block. Back at the Barn, we took a stroll up to the top field where the pony was waiting for her carrots and some grooming. The hens in the next field down were out and followed us as we went to see if they’d laid any eggs. They looked like a procession following the regent. One hen was straining in the hen house so we didn’t disturb her.

After caffeine, we decided to go to Tropiquaria. It’s a small zoo with lots of other things to see and do. It’s a fallback for wet weather for us as it has a large indoor play barn, with castle and ball pit. What more could I ask for? The tropical room has a number of exotic birds and other creatures including a fine display of spiders, each one of which has been bred to look menacing and just a little too hairy for my liking. Despite the fact that both Em and I have held tarantulas in our hands, these made us nervous.

We  toured the outside grounds, sailed the seven seas on the pirate ships, found the raccoon that had escaped from its cage (and was trying to get back in) and slid on the cable ride. If only I could upload the photos of me being a kid again (and again).

Then it was time to go and pick up Rufus. We got to Paradise Farm and he was waiting. By the time we’d  got back to the Barn, I could see he was tired and not long after we’d settled, he was flat out and snoring by the big side windows. As I type, he has only roused himself because I’m eating a thickly buttered crust, and he knows he’ll get a bit.

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Barn 3: King Charles’ bedroom, secret passages and ghosts

I woke expecting rain this morning, and with a mild headache following a sip or two of cider last night. But it was clear and there was blue sky visible as I chased away the sleep with a strong mug of coffee. Then it was off in the car with Rufus up onto the hills again for our morning stroll.

There were grey clouds by the time we got to the car park, but we’re used to that. We headed off towards Hurley Beacon again but very quickly we spotted a cow making its way slowly along the path towards the trig point – our route. As we got closer, we saw more cows, strung out in a long line with 100 yards or so between them, slowly heading off to the stile that led to the Beacon.

We decided to detour around them. Cows are unpredictable and I’ve been followed by them more than once. On walks in Scotland, I’ve had a whole herd follow me. Once I was taking photos of a stone circle and I turned around to find about 20 cows stood three or four feet behind me, as if they were checking the camera angle. I was surprised and a little nervous as I’d herd (ha ha) stories of them trampling people, albeit accidentally. But this lot were happy to just watch. When I left, they called after me.

We headed north on the hills today and were treated to a gorgeous view across the Bristol Channel to home.

Back at base Bruce (the cottage owner) suggested a local dog kennel for Rufus, as he had managed to escape from the garden several times. As we had planned to visit Dunster Castle, it seemed the best thing to do. Rufus seemed happy enough to be there and we left feeling better about leaving him there.

Dunster castle was built in the 13th Century and has been lived in by the Luttrel family for 600 years. The current building is more manor house than castle, although the original gate house still exists. We spent some time inside viewing the rooms, including a bedroom in which King Charles spent a night or two. Behind the four poster bed was a secret passage and the room is reputed to be the most haunted room in the building. We didn’t see any spirits but the guide told us that another guide had felt a presence, including a hand on her shoulder, while standing outside the room.

After a stroll around the village, we had food and headed back to Flora’s Barn. A well earned coffee was enjoyed, and we fed the little pony in the top field with some carrots. She loves to be groomed too, so we brushed her coat as she ate grass and posed for my camera. Then it was time to pick up Rufus, and we went from the kennels to Blue Anchor beach to explore and throw stones for Rufus to chase.

As we walked along the pebble beach, a steam train from the nearby West Somerset Railway chuffed past. The engine driver waved and the train sped past on its way to Minehead. We walked back, occasionally eating a blackberry fresh from the bush. A great way to end the day.

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Barn 2: Steam powered Quantocks

It was a gorgeous morning. Sheep were calling in the field next door and there was a low mist in the dip in the field. The sun had just risen, and while the Barn was sheltered by the farmhouse, the fields opposite were golden with the early sunshine.

Rufus and I decided to make our way up to the hills above Crowcombe. The Quantocks run in a line roughly north-south towards the sea. On top, it reminded me a bit of Rhossili Down, with heather and low gorse separated by rough tracks where sheep have wandered over the years.

We reached Hurley Beacon, the site of one of many Bronze Age burial cairns built on the western edge of the hills. From here there was a fantastic view through almost 360 degrees. To the north was Aberthaw power station on the Welsh coast and almost opposite it, nearer me, Hinkley ‘C’ nuclear power station. In between were Flathom and Steepholm islands. To the west was the valley that leads down to Watchet.

Back at the Barn, we paused briefly before heading off to Crowcombe Heathfield railway station, just down the road. There we caught the 10.40am steam train to Minehead. I saw this train several years ago when I was at Blue Anchor chasing pill boxes. Today we steamed along the West Somerset Railway through Stogumber, Williton and all stations to Blue Anchor. There I saw a couple of pill boxes close up and several more well concealed inland of the beach. Blue Anchor beach was considered a threat for invasion during the war and a significant defensive system was built based on the railway line and inland.

Minehead was the final stop and we walked along the platform, past the temporary CAMRA bar and its customers and across the road to the beach. It was closed to dogs, which meant that we couldn’t have our planned picnic as we couldn’t find the parts of the beach we thought might be open. Instead, we walked along the promenade towards the breakwater and sat there for sausage and chips. Oscar and I went off to explore the breakwater and we ended up by three large ships cannons.

Heading back to the station, we were treated to a jazz band playing upbeat songs to entertain the CAMRA customers, supping their real ale. We watched the crew stoking the boiler to get steam up for  the journey back. It seemed quicker on the way home and we were back in the Barn in no time.

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Flora’s Barn 1

Travelling on a Saturday is always to be feared, Shoppers, holiday makers, caravans, people who don’t normally drive on motorways. But for some reason, the roads were clear today.

In what seemed like no time (maybe it wasn’t, maybe time travel is possible) we reached the bridge and after that, apart from a few minutes joining the  M5, the roads were relatively clear. Caravans miraculously stayed in the inside lane, as did the lorries. Everyone else seemed sensible. Continuing the tine travel theme, we arrived at Flora’s Barn before we left home. (Paradox – discuss).

Rufus is with us and it his his mission in life to escape from any confines we impose. The garden of the barn was his latest challenge and he rose to the occasion admirably. Despite seeking and finding his escape route, I was unable to block it sufficiently well to prevent him from getting out – the last time by crawling on his belly under a low wooden beam before leaping from the top of a wall to almost bump his chin on landing.

It’s later now and I’ve just finished a pizza. It’s about time to enjoy the scones and cream that our landlord left us. The sky is dark outside, and the milky way is clear to see even with the naked eye. I think some photography is in order later.

The Milky Way

The Milky Way