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THE SECTION ANNUAL RALLY - THE WEST COUNTRY
Sunday 7 - Friday 12 September 2014

  When Adam and Eve were dispossess'd
Of the Garden hard by Heaven,
They planted another one down in the West,
'Twas Devon, 'twas Devon, glorious Devon.
                              ( Sir Edward German in 1905).
Preliminaries

John Forrest was invited to be BW2 and I undertook the responsibility of being, for the first time, BW1 (BW = Big Wig). We were both ably assisted by Gloria Forrest and Rosemary, my wife. I first visited our hotel, The Two Bridges Hotel in Dartmoor, over fifty years ago. Since then, having returned on several occasions, I witnessed changes of ownership with varying degrees of success.

The booking process started in June 2013 and I was greatly discouraged by the fact that my top choices were already booked up for September 2014. Narrowing the selection down to four possible venues, Rosemary and I set off to do a 'recci'. Frankly, The Two Bridges was bottom of the list for several reasons. It is remote and extremely old, dating back to 1769 in parts, is a little tired and the décor old fashioned. The alternatives were eliminated one by one for various reasons. One was a hotel not unlike a Premier Inn - nothing wrong with that, but not for a week. It was also a golf club which boasted a gymnasium and swimming pool. However, its resultant popularity gave rise to concerns over noisy evenings and parking problems.


The Two Bridges Hotel
The Two Bridges Hotel.

The Two Bridges Hotel is as remote as it gets on Dartmoor. It is less than two miles from Dartmoor prison in Princetown, the prison built there for its remoteness. The hotel has a large car park and the management agreed to let us have exclusive use of it. We anticipated filling all thirty-two rooms and the agreement, after a delightful meal, was negotiated. Unfortunately, we had several cancellations due to various reasons and then some additional members joining us, culminating with twenty-nine out of thirty-two rooms filled. The Hotel honoured the agreement, and closed the hotel from about 5.30pm each evening, from which time we received their undivided attention.

Our visits out were embellished by what I can only describe as exceptionally fine weather. The hotel was shrouded only once in the hoped-for Dartmoor mist and that dissipated before we left for our day out. The meet and greet together with willing staff to carry our luggage, some quite formidable suitcases, set the scene for the rest of the week.

Day Two - Monday

Our visits included one of the oldest and largest copper mines of its day, at Morwellham Quay. Here we were regaled with tales of the times and shown how many of the day-to-day tasks were done by staff dressed in period costume, the most exciting event being a trip underground into the copper mine on a train. As we started on the trip we were informed that the mine had 400 feet of rock above us, and tunnels several hundred feet below. This was a memorable and interesting trip and well worth the experience. The working conditions in these mines were appalling; children as young as seven years old toiled in the candlelit gloom, dark and wet, water continuously pouring down the rocks. In order to prevent flooding of the lower mine shafts, and the subsequent closing of the mine and drowning of the miners, a waterwheel-driven pump expelled thousands of gallons of water a day. Life expectancy was just over fifty years, if you were not killed beforehand.

We learnt the history of a cargo vessel 'Garlandstone', saw rope making, the blacksmith's forge and the cottage used in the TV documentary 'The Edwardian Farm' hosted by Ruth Goodman. Our party was split into two, the first one into the mine whilst the second enjoyed an excellent ploughman's lunch and they then changed over. A truly glorious day weather wise, and a very relaxing first day out.

Day Three - Tuesday

After a relaxed start to the day there was a visit to Cotehele Manor, a National Trust Tudor house set in a large estate with some well hidden period properties, ninety-five in all, throughout the grounds. A steep walk down to the harbour was rewarded with excellent views and once again the sun shone all day long. The quay was used to make lime, some of the kilns still on the quay, and that was taken by ships moored in the docks close by.


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Cotehele dining room   Cotehele Quay and lime kilns
Armoury in Cotehele dining room.  Cotehele Quay and lime kilns.

Vouchers were handed out towards the cost of lunch and beverages available in a couple of very pleasant restaurants. Minibuses were on hand and much appreciated as the grounds were extremely hilly, in particular up from the quay to the flour mill, which was running, but not actually grinding flour at the time. The house was, in reality, almost as it was left hundreds of years ago, complete with tapestry-covered walls. As expected, there was armoury on the walls and every room occupied by the inevitably enthusiastic NT minder, keen to share their knowledge of the rooms' history and contents.

Day Four - Wednesday

The Eden Project was selected as being the one venue we thought everybody would want to see. Not so, several declined and others had already visited it, so did not want to go again, which was fair enough.


The Eden Project   Bananas
The Eden Project.   Bananas.

Not being a gardener or having any horticultural knowledge, I dutifully followed round until I spotted the zip wire, supposedly the longest zip wire in Europe. Now you're talking! But I needed a partner in crime. The ladies in our lives were none too keen, it has to be said; mine convinced unconditionally I would suffer another heart attack. But those of you who know him will know who volunteered to go along with me, under duress from the 'farm manager', it has to be said. It was, of course, Ted Meachem, our Section Secretary. We made a hasty retreat knowing the ladies would not show us up by issuing a point blank refusal to let us go whilst in company!

What a palaver it was! But well worth it. Firstly the jumping off location was on the far side of the site and definitely a bus ride and not a walk away. Upon our arrival there were flyers on the launch platform ready to go. In front were about eight people preparing to tog up and then, waiting patiently, Ted and I. Having signed a blood sheet (disclaimer) it was time to be weighed and then our turn to be togged up. This comprised of wearing a jacket, with numerous straps, a metal bar, several carabinas, a wheeled cradle/trolley which sat eventually on the zip wire, a hard hat and pair of goggles.

I watched as Ted was unceremoniously nipped and tucked into his canvas cradle, giggling away to myself as the young lady fed the straps between his legs and tightened up the buckles. Now my turn, a similar undignified experience and then we were ushered up onto the scaffold tower which forms the launch pad. A little tricky carrying the trolley, and a handful of carabinas up a scaffold stairway. After watching the earlier arrivals preparing to launch, the shrieks of several young ladies as the first and most disconcerting act of stepping off the launch platform was performed, restrained by a holding wire. Quite literally, launching yourself into oblivion over the edge, looking down a 100 foot plus drop is quite the most unnatural of acts. Then another indignity; one has to draw up one's knees while the metal bar mentioned earlier is fitted under your feet. You are then instructed to straighten your legs, not an easy operation suspended 100 feet up in the air. This act tightens the 'jacket' and it becomes almost a canvas stretcher that you are lying on. A few last minute checks, “enjoy your flight”, and the safety pin is pulled out on the count to three, and you are off.


Chris on thezip wire   ted on the zip wire
Chris the Chairman and Ted the Secretary flying high!

Ted is bigger than me so I concluded if he did not break the cable I would be fine. Ted descended with the grace of a falcon, his shriek one of pleasure, not fear. All too soon I was prepared, clipped on, swung out into oblivion, my kit checked and then loosened and the release pin removed! Wow! What an experience, plummeting head first out across the site, over the Bio Domes and barrelling towards a dome with spikes sticking off the roof. We had to spread our arms out due to body weight and the wind, prevailing wind that is, otherwise our speed would be too high on landing. Suddenly you reach the bottom of the cable arc and begin to ascend up a slope which terminates at another tower supporting the cable. This means that you are travelling at speed very close to the ground until grabbed by two instructors, remembering to fold your arms back before you reach them. Regrettably, no time for a second go.

Day Five - Thursday

The round robin trip; bus, boat, ferry, train and then bus again. Unfortunately, our timing was not too clever. Tides dictate sailing times and we had to be in Torquay by 10am. This required an early breakfast, for departure just after 8am. That went down like a lead balloon as you can imagine! But we all got there in time despite a road closure and heavy traffic. The trip consisted of driving to Torquay and parking our cars in a reserved section of the Torquay MDL marina car park. From here we were to meet our private bus which would take us to Totnes where we would pick up the river boat to Dartmouth. Once in Dartmouth we had just over an hour to lunch and shop before taking the ferry over the river to Kingswear. Things got a little fraught as we were only issued one ticket for all fifty-eight people, but it appears they are trusting and relied on our word that we were a prepaid group and members of the RREC. Going over the river on the ferry was equally worrying but again RREC got all the members over without any problems, and eventually we boarded the train, occupying our reserved carriages. There was a slight hiccup at the bus station, but eventually we boarded the bus and headed back to Torquay. The boat trip was really great, the captain pointing out places of interest including the former home of Agatha Christie and the wreck of the original Kingswear Castle paddle steamer. The story that she was a fever isolation hospital in the Great War and subsequently burned, to destroy any traces of the fever are, it appears, a Devonshire myth!

Day Six - Friday

This was our free day, a time to explore the region. Some, like me, headed back to villages I knew as a teenager.

Friday night was our gala night. The hotel laid on a feast for our gala night. We used the second dining room for this event, one that the hotel had decorated and laid out specifically for our special night. All members arrived in their evening wear and most, although it was a tad on the warm side, stayed properly dressed all evening! A few braved my sarcasm and gentlemen removed their jackets - it was pretty warm! During dinner we had hired a local folk group, 'Blue Jewel', based in nearby Plymouth, who set our feet and hands tapping. It was once again a brilliant night and I, as Chair and rally organiser, asked the staff, represented by Julien Wilkinson, the Manager, Leanne Wells, Simon Tozer and our extremely talented Executive Chef, Mike Palmer, to join us for a thank you from the membership.


Members in their evening wear
Members in their evening wear, all dressed up for the gala night.

The overwhelming opinion was that the hotel was indeed comfortable, all the staff were first class, being willing, polite and extremely helpful. The food was unsurpassable in my and many other members' opinions. Well worth a visit if you like good food and something a little quirky. One email from a member said, and I quote, "The standard of food was exceptional, far outweighed the food we had at the 5 star Hotel Savoy in Florence. Congratulations to you on choosing the venue plus all the other attractions." Several other cards and letters of thanks in a similar vein were gratefully received.

Chris Tween - Section Chairman

Photos: Chris Tween