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Sunday, August 29, 2010, in Dartmouth, south coast of England

Hi all. We’re making our way east along the south coast of England, and we just arrived in a harbor town called Dartmouth. Last week, we had just arrived at another harbor city, Plymouth.

Something I needed to learn very quickly: the “mouth” at the end of a city name refers to its location at the mouth of a river. So here we were at the mouth of the Plym River, emptying into Plymouth Sound. Plymouth has been settled since the Bronze Age, and was part of the Roman Empire.

The maritime history of Plymouth is big in historical significance, but uneven in its net effect on the world. It grew as an important merchant port, but it led England into the Atlantic slave trade. Sir Walter Raleigh sent an expedition from here in 1584 to the New World. The ship landed in what’s now North Carolina. Four years later, Sir Francis Drake famously finished his game of bowls on the ridge above town called the Hoe before venturing out to defeat the Spanish Armada, and later became the mayor of Plymouth. In 1620, a group now called the Pilgrim Fathers left this port and sailed to the New World, where they founded Plymouth Colony, the second settlement in America. Captain Cook left to see the world on the Endeavor from Plymouth in 1768, and Charles Darwin left on the Beagle in 1831. Darwin lived nearby for months while the ship was prepared for the long voyage, and while the crew waited for weather that was suitable for sailing.

During World War II, Plymouth served as an important naval port, including as an embarkation point for boats on D-Day. A series of 59 Luftwaffe raids called the Plymouth Blitz killed 1000 civilians and leveled the main part of town, including 3700 houses.

There’s a Beatles photo from the filming of the Magical Mystery Tour where they’re resting on a grassy hill overlooking the sea. That’s the Hoe in Plymouth. I didn’t know about this photo, which surprised me, but I confess that this historical fact meant more to me than did Sir Francis Drake.

Today’s Plymouth isn’t a cute little holiday town. For one thing, it was rebuilt in the 1940s and 1950s, with an eye towards modernity that’s reminiscent of the Jetsons. So it kind of still looks as it did when the Beatles were here. But it has a lively harbor area called the Barbican, and enough commerce and attractions to keep us in motion for the duration of our visit. Facilities for boaters are plentiful and comfortable. We’d been directed to a visitor’s berth next to a fishing boat. At a shallow spot alongside the channel, a dozen swans kept each other company.

On our first day in town, we took a tour of the home of Plymouth Gin, the Black Friars Distillery. The distillery has been in operation since 1793, and parts of the building housing it are from the early 15th century, once a refectory for monks, or the black friars. A local legend asserts that the Pilgrim Fathers awaited favorable weather inside the building before leaving for America, in a variation of the �����Washington slept here” theme that’s ubiquitous in America’s northeast.

Gin began as a distilled spirit made from juniper berries, and the invention of today’s gin is ordinarily credited to the Dutch. Other than the berries themselves, the flavoring ingredients are openly known (though proportions are proprietary) and these flavors give each gin its distinctive taste. We were lucky to tour on one of the days that they were actually making the gin, although that meant that we were constantly warned about anything that might spark and light the omnipresent vapors – cameras, cell phones, and even our own body’s static electricity. We had to touch a metal handle to detox before entering the distilling room.

Gin was the beverage of choice for naval officers, and was found to be a good way to entice sailors to get their anti-scurvy citrus wedge (prompting the nickname “Limey”). The alcohol percentage had to provide “proof” that the onboard explosives would still ignite even if they were as gin-soaked as the crew (sounds so safe, doesn’t it?) Plymouth is the leading gin mentioned in the prestigious Savoy Cocktail book, was named for the first Dry Martini, and is the only local gin to have the equivalent of an appellation controlee (as do wines from various French regions).

Part of the tour took us to a tasting room, where we experienced not only the standard gin, but the sloe gin liqueur made by Plymouth. We also systematically experienced a variety of raw flavorings that give this gin its unique taste: juniper berries, cardamom, lemon and orange rinds, and more. After the tour, we stayed in the building for lunch at a restaurant run by well-known chefs The Tanner Brothers.

Our second day in town was devoted to boat and living tasks. First, though, we walked around the harbor area, stopping to see the many plaques to famous journeys which began or ended in Plymouth. Of course, there’s a nod to the Mayflower. There’s a plaque to commemorate the American seaplane NC4 which made the first transatlantic flight in 1919. There’s another to mark the departure of settlers to the doomed colony of Roanoke.

In the marina, someone had tied a bucket low on the floating dock and filled the bucket with water. Swans were dabbing their beaks into the bucket and lapping up a drink. Our presence nearby didn’t faze them a bit.

Finally, it was time to cross some items off of our list. We replaced the broken boat hook we’d lost to sailing, and tried to convert money from United Kingdom pounds to United Kingdom pounds. Scottish pounds are printed by Scottish banks, and have the bank’s name on them. Northern Ireland has its own bank names and illustrations on the currency.

We’d been warned not to get too many pounds in Scotland, because English merchants wouldn’t recognize them or accept them. It isn’t as though one country’s currency is tied to that of another country, like Bahamian dollars are to US dollars. It’s more like French merchants not taking Italian euros. We didn’t think that it would be a problem, but we managed to use up our Scottish money in Northern Ireland (also part of the UK) without any trouble. When we had to draw cash in Northern Ireland, we kept it to a minimum, but we left the country with about 60 pounds (or about $100) in cash.

It became obvious right away that the local merchants on the English coast were stupefied by this currency. Maybe the money was more familiar in the northernmost part of the country, but this paper was worthless scrip around here. We decided to go to a bank and ask them to swap the bills for us.

The Royal Bank of Scotland seemed like a good first stop; at least they’d be empathetic. They said that they wouldn’t change the bills for us and suggested, “Why don’t you try the Post Office? They change money.” We went to the Post Office a few doors down. They turned us away, suggesting that we convert the bills at a bank. I was reminded of a commercial where a kid wants a loan. He goes to a bank. The banker says, “I’m not a charity.” He goes to a nun, presumably at a charity of some sort. She says, “I’m not your father.” Finally, dejected, he goes to his father, who says, “I’m not a bank.” I don’t remember where the kid finally got his loan. It might have helped us now.

We tried another bank, HSBC. This was a really foreign bank, so I was optimistic. We learned that we could only change the notes there if we had an account. Art contemplated opening an account just to swap the bills and then closing it again next week. And then we remembered that we actually have an HSBC account that we once needed to open in Malta. Alas, we had no identification, but we could come back tomorrow with some proof of our Maltese identity. The HSBC person suggested that we visit the Thomas Cook travel agency and currency exchange across the street. Luckily, all of these places were steps from one another.

We got to the Thomas Cook window and asked if she’d give us English pounds (that have a picture of the Queen) for our Northern Ireland pounds (some of which show the Bushmills Distillery; who wouldn’t trust that money?) She looked perplexed, as she should, that we’d be interested in converting UK pounds to UK pounds. But she still wouldn’t do it for us. “I wouldn’t know what exchange rate to use,” she told us. Uh, it’s one for one. It’s like people aren’t willing to change a quarter with Arkansas on it for a quarter with North Carolina on it.

The guy in line behind us took pity and asked about our plight. We told him the whole, sad, silly story. He’d just come back from a trip to California. “I have an account at HSBC. Let’s go back there.” And it was done.

I noticed that Plymouth had something else I’d hadn’t seen anywhere else this season. Summer. It wasn’t hot, but it was sunny fairly often, and sometimes it felt like a long-sleeved shirt was too much to wear.

We took advantage of an anchorage just inside Plymouth Bay, but outside of the lock. Upon leaving the marina, we motored through the open lock at high tide and set our anchor just off of the pastel-painted town we’d passed on the way into Plymouth. Some calculation of tides would have been needed to estimate a good time to go ashore and another good time to leave. Lazily, we stayed aboard and read books in the cockpit, warmed by the sun.

Our next destination was Dartmouth, another in the “mith” series of rivers emptying into the sea. We left in the morning to winds behind us, and were pushed gently eastward. Dartmouth is always a popular town for vacationers and boaters. We’d happened upon another three-day-long Bank Holiday Weekend, sort of a near-Labor-Day bookend to the Bank Holiday Weekend that occurred when the US was celebrating Memorial Day. There’s something a little honest about calling a holiday “day off, suckers!” rather than pretending that we’re honoring groups of people that we’re not really thinking about at all.

So Dartmouth was crowded because it always is, and it was crowded because we were in the middle of a big holiday. But this was the last day of a giant festival at Dartmouth, too. And the weather was sparkling.

First, we threaded our way alongside the finish line of a mid-day race. Then we motored by the fragments of castles that once fortified the British Empire, and found ourselves in a maritime traffic jam between two pastel villages. We expected that we’d pick up a mooring for a day, until all the revelers left the area, and then sort out our options. Art had called the harbor authority a few days earlier, and learned that there really aren’t shoreside visitor’s berths in Dartmouth. We’d have to take our chances that they’d find space for us on a mooring.

On the VHF, the harbormaster told us to raft to a sailboat that was rafted to two others and tied to a mooring in the harbor. We did so, to the concern of the owner of our hosting vessel, which was smaller than we were and less than half the weight of our boat. For us to tie to his cleats, in the predicted twenty knots of wind and a spring tide rushing the river up and back, he had a right to some concern. Our line could rip the cleats right out of his deck. Luckily, we were soon reassigned to a floating pontoon in the middle of the river, and we’d get our own space. You could step off the boat, but the pontoon wasn’t connected to shore. We’d have to dinghy in and out. There was no electrical power, either. So it was a lot like being on a mooring, which was fine by us, at least for now.

We’re closing in on the rest of our itinerary for the season. Hope you’re still having great summer weather.

Love, Karen (and Art)