Tuesday, 3 December 2013

The Thirties Era, with a Polish Twist

Since the National Trust opened Agatha Christie's home at Greenway, on the left bank of the Dart Estuary, we had promised ourselves a visit there, and browsing through the NT handbook revealed two other interesting houses nearby, both twentieth century, all of which could be reached from a walking holiday based at Paignton or Dartmouth. We had visited Dartmouth in the past and decided to make that our base, and the first requirement was to book the bed & breakfast to ensure that we could stay there, the second to set up an alert to tell us when the cheapest tickets for the trains would become available. As a fan of Agatha Christie our daughter Celia was to join us for the first couple of days, meeting us in London for the start of the adventure!

For us, the trip started with the usual train to Peterborough and then to London, and we made our way to Paddington where we had arranged to meet Celia at the First Class Lounge on platform 1. (A little tip if you're travelling from Kings Cross to Paddington by Underground: change at Edgware Road to the District Line because the District platforms at Paddington are much better placed for the main line concourse than the Circle/Hammersmith & City platforms are, and it's an easy change.) In the lounge we had our coffee and snack as we waited to be called to our train. We had been here once before when we had travelled to Cornwall on the Night Riviera, but this was the first time we'd caught a day train here. The deep blue livery of First Great Western's High Speed Trains is very striking, and their First Class cars have comfortable leather seats. It was a nice ride, but their catering is not like that of East Coast. We were offered a variety of drinks, biscuits, nuts etc but for a meal we had brought our picnic, bought from the M&S at Paddington before boarding, including "le Froglet" wine in plastic "wine glasses". The catering offer on board was not advertised well on Great Western's website and we had not known that there was a "Pullman" (so they call it) restaurant car, or we may well have budgetted for a special meal on this special trip rather than our M&S picnic. The line took us through Exeter and along the Exe estuary and the south coast via Dawlish and Teignmouth, a stretch which is now becoming familiar to us.

There are though trains from London to Paignton but not at the time we needed to travel in order to meet Celia and to make our connection to Kingswear, so we hd to change at Newton Abbot. This was a simple matter of getting off one train, waiting at the platform and getting on the next. Our little train from Newton Abbot to Paignton was a fairly full local train full of shoppers, workers and just a few other holidaymakers (most using the earlier through trains, I expect), and we found ourselves chatting to some local people which is always a bit of a bonus on these trains. The sun was shining and Torquay looked lovely. And so into Paignton. Here we had to leave the main line station and cross the line to the preserved railway's station next-door where we acquired our "Jubilee Passes" which would give us our travel around the area for the time we were staying. I had bought these in advance via the Dartmouth Steam Railway and Riverboat Company's website for collection at Paignton booking office and they entitled us to travel on any of the company' train or regular passenger boat services for five days (three in Celia's case as she was leaving early). This is a huge bargain, saving on the cost of the train to Kingswear on arrival and from Kingswear on departure with all other travel effectively free! We had allowed plenty of time for the connection to the steam railway in case the main line train were delayed but all had been on time so we had a little while to look around the gift shop and wait in the sun for our train. Our pre-war fantasy holiday had begun!

As those who've seen Michael Portillo in Dartmouth will know, Dartmouth has a station but no railway: the railway terminates across the river at Kingswear and passengers for Dartmouth cross by ferry. Arriving by steam railway and ferry would add to the inter-war era feel of the holiday.


We waited in the sun on the steam railway platform with its timber buildings and mock period posters and boarded our train when it came, the first of several steam train rides that would be taken on this trip. We were efficiently delivered to Kingswear and queued for the ferry across to Dartmouth where we arrived early for our check-in and whiled away half an hour at a pavement table outside waterfront bar surrounded by our luggage! There is always plenty of movement to see on this stretch of the river. We stayed at the unusual and excellent Anzac Street B&Bistro run by an Anglo-Polish couple with a Polish chef and would recommend it to anyone. We had dinner at a first-floor restaurant, in the yacht club overlooking the estuary.

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Our first full day was the day at Greenway and it began, following the usual guest-house breakfast, with the ferry over to Kingswear and the train to Greenway Halt. This is a new station, with a very short platform requiring travel in a specific coach and it is on a very steep gradient just through Greenway Tunnel. As we made our way off the platform the locomotive struggled to haul its coaches away towards Paignton with about two seconds between exhaust blasts: those who know about steam traction will realise how hard this engine was having to work. Meanwhile dense smoke continued to pour out of the tunnel mouth, testament to how hard it had been working to get us this far. By railway standards this is a very steep hill!


Then began the first country walk of the holiday, through the woods to Greenway House, and the first of three National Trust house visits, with both coffee and lunch taken at the NT catering facilities at Greenway and a thorough tour of the gardens, the boathouse and the house itself, all seen on TV recently in the Poirot episode Dead Man’s Folly. Back through the woods to Greenway Halt and our train back to Kingswear. We were in plenty of time and while waiting were treated to the dramatic sight of a Paignton-bound train thundering up the grade without stopping. We had anticipated a pint at the hotel at Kingswear before crossing to Dartmouth, but it had unfortunately closed permanently a short while before. So home to sample the “menu with a Polish twist” at Anzac Street.




The second full day entailed the longest walk, to Coleton Fishacre, the home of the D’Oyly Carte family of Savoy fame, an Arts & Crafts style home with fabulous Art Deco interior and a wonderful garden. There was a well-worthwhile cross-country walk to get there, although we did not take the rather longer walk via the coastal footpath. Celia was to travel back to London this day and so we took her luggage and although there is not an official left-luggage facility at Kingswear station the staff kindly took in her case for us so that we did not have to lug that to the house and back.



After the walking and the visit to Coleton Fishacre we took the steam train again and saw Celia off at Paignton, then returned to Dartmouth: our steam train back had the Devon Belle Pullman Observation Car marshalled at the back and for a small additional fare we were able to travel in that and had a wonderful view of the coast and of the countryside. Unfortunately the champagne bar in the coach was not open … More of our Polish “home cooking” that night and a good sleep after all the exercise.




No train rides the third day, but a splendid river cruise to to Totnes, again included in our Jubilee pass. It was warm and reasonably sunny and we sat out on deck all the way. We were on our way to Dartington to see High Cross, the modernist house built for the headmaster of Dartington School and now a design museum managed and opened by the National Trust. It was a long walk across the farmland of the Dartington Estate, the opposite side of the town from the riverboat quay so we saw quite a bit of Totnes, too. An alternative way to travel to Dartmouth would be by train to Totnes and then riverboat, but it would be a long walk with a week’s luggage, so I think our route via Paignton was better.


From High Cross we walked down to the main road at the Shops at Dartington and caught a bus back to Totnes, then after tea and cake in a café in the town went to get our boat back to Dartmouth. This was when we had the only rain of the entire holiday but the late boat back was not crowded and everyone managed to travel in comfort under cover.

By the time we arrived in Dartmouth the rain had stopped and we were able to enjoy an evening out, fish and chip dinner to celebrate our wedding anniversary (!) and then a walk on the riverside. We popped over on the ferry to experience the crossing at night and on the way back over to Dartmouth were the only passengers. The ferry crew kindly switched off all but the navigation lights so that we could better enjoy the view of Dartmouth and Kingswear lit up at night. This simple pleasure was one of the highlights of a fantastic week.

All that remained after one last night at the B&Bistro was the trip home. We were going via Cheltenham and Birmingham, partly because were were to stay with friends near Cheltenham on the way, as we have done before, but in any case it is part of the experience on these tours to go back by a different route if it is convenient. Cross Country Trains run services to and from Paignton so after a final ferry and steam train ride (this time in the observation car behind the locomotive which was an amazing experience as it blasted through Greenway Tunnel with fire-lit smoke and steam all around us and pouring in through the windows!) we  had a picnic on the beach at Paignton and boarded our through train to Cheltenham, returning home from there two days later via the usual change at Birmingham New Street. We have already determined that we must return to Dartmouth and the English Riviera, and I am working out which way we might take next time. There is a lot more available from the Jubilee Pass which we did not fit in this time and now that we have visited all those NT houses, we may do a bit more exploring of the sea and the beaches on a future visit.

If you would like to see all the photographs of this adventure, they are available at http://www.flickr.com/photos/frmark/

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