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Sunday, September 5, 2010, in Weymouth, on the south coast of England

Hi everyone. We’re still working our way east along the coast of England, and expect to sail for another week or so before the boat gets to its winter harbor. Last week, we had just arrived in Dartmouth.

Art was happy to see the sailboat “British Steel”, which made a noteworthy circumnavigation in the early 1970s. It was believed at the time that this voyage couldn’t be done, because it was “the wrong way round”, meaning that it would be sailing against the prevailing winds and currents. Not only did Chay Blyth make this voyage in 292 days, he did it single-handed. Sponsored, of course, by then state-owned British Steel, the voyage used state-of-the-art technologies at the time. Not surprisingly, the vessel is of steel construction.

In the evening, we visited with another Hallberg-Rassy owner we’d spotted in the harbor. There’s an unwritten understanding that we’re part of some sort of family, like Prius owners who honk at each other when they pass in the street. We’re just as friendly, if a little less noisy.

My favorite part of the conversation with this couple was the part where they were describing their transatlantic voyage (just the two of them) in waves so steep that the boat was perpendicular to the way it’s supposed to stand. The wife was describing how she’d stand on the side cabinets, parallel to the floor.

She: “And then we lost the instruments.”

Losing the instruments in a three-week voyage is a very big deal. It’s true that Cook and Drake and all of those seamen you read about got by without the meter that tells you the strength and direction of the wind. Sure, it can be done. But there are lots of squiggles on every sea chart and waterfront statues honoring captain’s widows and fatherless families to remind you that the sea is not kind, and you need all of the tools that you can possibly find.

Me: “All of the instruments stopped working? In the middle of a transatlantic crossing?”

She: “Yes. It was such a shame.”

So that is the difference between the British and, say, me. “It was such a shame,” she said. If we’d lost our electronics in the middle of the ocean, you’d hear my expletives from both shores.

Dartmouth commands one side of the Dart River; on the other side is an equally charming town called Kingswear. Ships sailed out to the Crusades in 1147 and 1190, and the town was the home of the Royal Navy since Edward III in the early 14th century. Today, the Britannia Royal Naval College trains the officers of the Royal Navy as well as some foreign navies.

Geoffrey Chaucer visited the town in 1373 and wrote about it in The Canterbury Tales (alas, not the racy Miller’s Tale.) Henry Hudson came into Dartmouth from America, and was promptly arrested for flying a foreign flag. (It’s a good thing that people aren’t quite this strict anymore; we often straggle into harbor after an overnight sail with our departure port’s courtesy flag still on the stay. It really wouldn’t be wise to swap flags while we’re bouncing around at sea.)

Ahoy, the Founding Fathers left from this port for America, too! How could this have happened? Didn’t we just learn that they left from Plymouth? Isn’t there a plaque?

Apparently, they left from both places. They left Dartmouth and got as far as the western edge of England, but one of the ships was deemed unseaworthy and they both went back to Plymouth. Then the Mayflower left without the Speedwell. Speedwell? History being cruel to second-place finishers, I’d never heard a thing about the Speedwell, the Pete Best of the Founding Fathers. (For those of you who don’t obsess over Beatles history, Pete Best was the drummer before Ringo. Pete who?)

The quay was crowded with summer tourists. Kids lying on their stomachs were in a fringe alongside the quay, dangling mesh pouches of chicken into the harbor and retrieving them with tiny crabs grasping, or maybe stuck. The parents would then carefully detach the crab from the pouch and drop the little critter into a transparent bucket filled with water. Most of the buckets boasted about a half dozen crabs, barely enough to cover a cracker. Later in the day, no doubt, they’d take the bucket and dump it back into the harbor. The tourist information center is located next to the Atmospheric Pump invented by homeboy Thomas Newcomen. In 1710, he invented an engine that would condense steam, creating a vacuum, which would draw down a piston and draw dangerous water from the bottom of a mine. Or power a ship or a train, as it worked out, because Newcomen’s invention of the steam engine was improved in around 1775 by James Watt and others. Newcomen was one of the forefathers, or at least a fore-great-grandfather, of the Industrial Revolution.

The Tourist Information Center sold us a brochure (for a pittance) that would direct us around town and tell us what we were seeing. We learned about entrepreneur and sometime pirate John Hawley, who was mayor, Member of Parliament, and merchant. Geoffrey Chaucer probably used Hawley as the inspiration for his “shipman” in the Canterbury Tales, even with his extra-legal activities. I was reminded of the Pirates of Penzance, from nearby Cornwall, when the Pirate King said, “I don’t think much of our profession, but, contrasted with respectability, it is comparatively honest.”

We wandered through the tiny alley that was once the red-light district, and by fourteenth-century warehouses. There was a view from the cliff that showed clearly the reclaimed land that is now the commercial part of the town. The Harbour Bookshop in town was once owned by the author Christopher (Robin) Milne, son of A. A. Milne and the inspiration for the eponymous character Christopher Robin. Sadly, the younger Milne grew to resent his unsought celebrity, and blamed his father for exploiting his childhood. Apparently, in his zeal to escape his past, he didn’t think it through too well. Opening a bookshop probably wasn’t the wisest way to stop being hounded by his fans.

The harbormaster came to our pontoon for a visit, to collect our fees and to inform us that our pontoon was only temporarily installed for the completed regatta and was to be dismantled in the morning. He pointed to another, more permanent, untethered pontoon with a fishing boat out at sea, and suggested that we move there. We complied, and were rewarded with electricity, if not shoreside access.

The next morning, we embarked on the Dartmouth Steam Railway, which in truth originates from Kingswear, not Dartmouth. Looking at the houses lining the hills alongside the river, I was reminded of the movie “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”, although I remember virtually nothing else about the movie, and it took this scene to remind me that this movie existed at all. Someone pointed out that the movie was filmed in Lyme Regis, not far away, where the story takes place. But it turns out that some of the film was indeed filmed in Kingswear, and I wondered if I actually remembered a street scene in detail from a movie I barely remembered at all.

The Dartmouth Steam Railway opened in the mid-1860s, and takes people from Dartmouth to Paignton and other sea towns and vice versa. I’d guess that when the railway opened, it took people to their seaside retreats from their homes in Dartmouth; it was clear from our trip that historic Dartmouth is a day trip for people who have finally had enough of the beach.

The train is more about the journey than the destination, and there was always a crowd around the locomotive, where coal was aflame in a pit under the engineer, and a puff of steam rose even as the train was awaiting our transit. A woman in a railway uniform stopped us to make sure we knew where to meet the train, and we asked her for a recommendation for lunch at our destination, Paignton. She told us that the train folk always visited a tea room just off of the main street in town.

We sat in the “first class” car the Devon Belle (wouldn’t it be great to upgrade to first class on a transatlantic flight for £1.50 a person?), which had large windows and was furnished in upholstered chairs and banquettes. The train threaded its way between the river Dart and the seaside, and soon red-sand beaches were in view, bordered by colorful tiny cabanas, and overlooked by large but generally nondescript houses.

Paignton was about a half hour away, and we left the station and turned in the direction of the beach. For the first time in a long time, I felt surrounded by a beach community. Shops overflowed with plastic merchandise meant for temporary amusement: shovels and buckets, clogs and beach balls, and paddles and swimming toys. The street burst with the color of hanging flower baskets and resort wear on burnt visitors licking ice cream cones.

Our walk along the beach took us by seaside hotels in the Victorian style of Cape May (but unlike Cape May, this was real Victorian architecture), and kitchy amusement sites more reminiscent of tackier venues like Wildwood and yes, South Florida. Passing by the fish and chips and burger places along the shopping street, we took the advice of the woman we’d met in Kingswear and walked across the town to the tearoom.

It was a fine lunch (I had a version of Welsh rarebit that included two poached eggs), but every person in the place was the same age as the elderly woman who had sent us there. The sidewalk outside the window where we sat was filled with the motorized wheelchairs of the people surrounding us. So we felt very young, at least.

Only days before it was time for kids to go back to school, this place was filled to the brim. Paignton (and other local resorts such as Torquay, Brixton, and other places in the Torbay area) are part of what’s called the English Riviera by people who have never been to the Mediterranean Riviera. The day was sunny and breezy, so only the very young were inclined to swim, and others sat hopefully on the beach in shorts and sweatshirts. At 20 degrees (68 Fahrenheit), this was about as good as it gets in the summer.

On our last day in town, we toured the Britannia Royal Naval College, the official training center for naval officers. The college has been around since 1863, but for its first five decades was confined to one or two hulking ships in the harbor. The building dates from 1905, and would be a commanding shoreside site from the River Dart if not for a row of trees that shroud it in leafy shyness. The original building, grand and constructed of white stone and bright bricks, was apparently too bright for community sensibilities, and the trees were planted to soften the view. Once in the ground, tradition keeps them there permanently, even though the building’s exposure to the outdoors has softened the colors considerably.

Inside, every room and corridor reveals the discipline and rigor of the naval studies that take place. Unlike Annapolis (the US version of naval officer training), these students do not combine this part of their education with their university studies. Most students arrive after they have their degrees. Twenty percent of the students are foreigners, including many from the Middle East. One of the cadets in 1939 was an exiled Greek and Danish prince, who was asked to serve as escort to the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. Through that royal maze of marriages, this cadet was third cousins and second cousins to the princesses through different branches of the family tree. He and Elizabeth got along famously, and after quite a long courtship (it was 1939 when they met and 1947 when she turned 21), they became engaged. He’s the Duke of Edinburgh and the oldest serving spouse of a reigning monarch.

But the big star of the college is Lord Nelson. There he is in the gun room, noted for three separate defining battles. And there he is again among the bronze statues. And look over there, a painting of the Battle of Trafalgar, with a larger-than-life portrait on the other side of a great staircase.

The bus dropped us off at the waterfront, and we stopped for tea at the Butterwalk, a building that was once four merchants’ houses, built around 1635. The building is striking, with its half-timbered exterior with lavish carvings, using images from around the world to boast of the merchants’ inventory. It’s called the Butterwalk because farmer’s wives once sold dairy produce there. The room on the top floor, accurately called the Sloping Deck, is festooned in wood paneling. A plaster relief over the fireplace recreates a Pentecostal scene. The room once hosted King Charles II. Today, people sit, awkwardly rebalancing their chairs on the sloped floor, and have Devon cream tea, in Devon.

The trip out of Dartmouth was supposed to be a boring motor through relatively calm waters, but turned out to be a boring motor through lumpy seas. I spent a good amount of it lying down below, and realized that most of my experience in the English Channel had been fighting off seasickness. The culprit this time was the Portland Bill, a peninsula that had wreaked havoc not only on me, but the Spanish Armada, and no doubt many others, judging from the squiggly wrecks designated nearby on the nautical chart.

We pulled into our next “mouth”, this time Weymouth, on the Wey River, where we were instructed to tie up on a floating dock right on the harbor. With the sunniest climate in the whole United Kingdom, this is primarily a resort town, and will host the sailing events for the 2012 Olympics. Our dockage on the north shore of the harbor meant that we were in Melcombe Regis, which is probably the place that the Black Death came to England in 1348. The town became a tourist destination after King George III visited fourteen times between 1789 and 1805. There’s a white horse that represents the King carved into the chalk hills of Osmington four miles away, but good intentions aren’t always rewarded. A legend tells that the horse faces away from the town, and the King took offense, concluding that the townspeople didn’t welcome him, which drove the designer to suicide.

The seaside street sweeps along a large crescent of a beach, pristine and groomed, and adorned with kiosks and colorful cabanas. There’s a Punch & Judy kiosk on the beach, a seaside tradition since the nineteenth century. The stand at Weymouth is probably the oldest continuing show at any resort (not counting the war years, of course.) The buildings on the street include a once-grand hotel and many century-old residences painted brightly. On the sunny day we walked along the street, the scene had the look of a painting in primary colors. Art remarked that he half-expected to see 1920s-era bathers to emerge from the cubicles in striped outfits and bathing bonnets.

It’s nearly the end of the season here, just like at home. Hope you’re all having a great Labor Day weekend. We miss you all.

Love, Karen (and Art)