Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Like Wales, but poorer.

It was slow going between Wiltshire and the West Country. A few miles west of Stonehenge a minibus had broken down on a narrow section of the A303 resulting in five mile tailbacks in both directions. We had plenty of time to admire Stonehenge from the cab as we inched along, an hour or more of stop and start.

By the time we reached our destination it was late afternoon. The site is on a dairy farm in the village of Weare Gifford, a few miles inland from Bideford. We chose it because the place is less than half a mile from the Tarka Trail, a bike track that follows the Taw estuary and Torridge valley for twenty miles or so through the North Devon countryside.

The village of Weare Gifford centres around a fortified manor house.

The small site is on The Barton Dairy farm

A herd of 70 or so of these were cajoled into the yard twice a day, yards from where were staying 

Next to us in the paddock - a mare and foal - all very pastoral.
It was a pleasant evening so we unloaded the bikes and rode down the trail for a few miles. The track follows the meandering river Torridge which surprisingly is still tidal, though here we are four or five miles from the sea. We wended our way through the trees which overhung the track, it was pretty, but difficult at times to see the landscape beyond the screen of foliage. I was not expecting quite so much evidence of early nineteenth century industrialization, not just the railway, but remains of a canal, aquaduct, tidal locks, a waterdriven canal incline and kilns. We tend to forget that the industrial revolution transformed rural, as well as urban England. 

Access to the Tarka Trail cycleway is about half a mile from the site

Next day we explored the trail in the opposite direction towards the sea. It runs all the way to Barnstaple, we managed to reach Framlington Quay, a ride of about 12 miles or so. The old station has been converted into a café. Time for lunch! We had a great view across the wide estuary and we swapped initial impressions of the area as we munched our way through baked potatoes - the portions were huge. We really don't know the West Country too well at all. This is our first visit to the North Devon coast. The thing that surprised us was how much the place resembled the south Wales coast - particularly the whitewashed coastal villages and the green hills running down to the sea. The coast itself is a mix of narrow inlets and broad estuaries. The resemblance is hardly surprising as Kidwelly and Carmarthen are only twenty miles north or so across the Bristol Channel.

Lunch stop at the cafe at Fremlington Station
On the return leg we locked the bikes at Bideford Station and walked across the long stone bridge to the town centre. The structure rests on the foundations of the first bridge built in the mid thirteenth century. It must have been an engineering marvel at the time and underlines the former significance of the place. At the time of the early colonisation of America Bideford was England's third deep water port, after Bristol and Plymouth, I presume. Sir Richard Grenville, the first Governor of the Virginia colony haled from hereabout. He returned with a native American, the first to arrive in England, though less famous than Pocohontas, As well as a port, Bideford built fast medium sized warships for the Royal Navy and was famous for the production of a black pigment called, somewhat unimaginatively, Bideford black. 

Bideford has a lovely setting - but seems in decline

The town's rich heritage makes its present decline even more lamentable. We were not expecting the levels of impoverishment we found. The first building to greet you as you cross the bridge is a large hotel, it is boarded-up and falling to bits. The waterfront, which could be lovely, consists of a row of betting shops and a discount convenience store. From here old steep streets slither upwards towards a Victorian market hall. Again, it could be delightful, but charity shops prevail, and the market hall only operates twice a week and its permanent shops consist of craft shops and galleries full of what Gill terms 'heartfelt junk'. It was all a bit depressing. 

The old Pannier Market has been converted into small craft studios. Most were closed.

The West Country has a bit of an alternative vibe - apparently the stone helps us seek angelic guidance...

Concrete cube of mysterious purpose

Abandoned old workshop, rusting fishing boats - a sad state of affairs.
Our trip so far has been very thought provoking, underlying the sense that we have become a nation of stark divides, and this is palpable simply by looking at places and people. Marlborough and Bideford are probably similar in size, the former has become preposterously wealthy, the latter disgracefully impoverished. Collectively we let this happen by making a series of bad electoral choices believing promises of short term gain. For three decades we have embraced the rhetoric of national renewal, hoping that a boom in London and the south might 'trickle down, wheresas in reality it resulted in bust for many other places. Even more fantastical, the mismanagement of this has shifted from Westminster to Brussels and Strasbourg. According to the Wikipedia article about the town, Bideford's two county councilors are members of UKIP. It is truly remarkable that blame for failures in English regional development are blamed on the EU when much of the funding that flowed into regional development over the past 25 years originated in Brussels. The real question is, why was it not utilised more effectively? I have some experience that  provides a partial answer. As a former bidder and deliverer of European projects, often the focus was to manipulate the funding so the 'matched' element was notional. The  EU money was used to massage the figures so the additional funds were utilised to mask the effects of reductions in UK public funding. In truth the overt 'austerity' of Mr. Osborne was built on decades of covert reductions to public spending and investment. No wonder the country is looking worse for wear. 

Our whistle-stop tour has confronted us with starkly different images of England - Hackney, Felixstowe​, Alderborough, Marlborough, Bideford. I am not at all sure it has helped in our original quest to explore places we might consider moving to. If anything it has confused the issue. Right now our exploration has been brought to a temporary halt as a 24 hour monsoon has trapped us in the van - not so much cabin fever as, in-cab fever. The result, too much time on 'Simple Notepad' not enough mooching about. Tomorrow is forecast to be sunny, Barnstaple beckons.....

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