Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Best Pasty Filling - Worst Festival (Devon and Cornwall, Part 1)

The West Country has always been associated with four things in my mind: pasties, cider, festivals and dangerous driving on inadequate roads. As this pair of pre-Chrimbo posts will reveal, nothing has changed. We’re approaching the final stages of our adventure (at least the part that involves driving around in a van every day), and this leg, out to the far reaches of Cornwall and back to Suffolk in time for Christmas, means we have been just about everywhere we need to go before deciding where home and shop will be. That said, this travel thing is damn good fun and we are keeping the van (I might even sell some records out of it one day) with lots of the British Isles still to explore.


"Okay. Get the pasty if you must, but just
DON'T LOOK INSIDE IT." The year is 1992 and I am visiting Seale-Hayne agricultural college in Newton Abbot, Devon. We've just walked through the union bar, where preparations are being made for tonight's Christmas meeting of the college's Drinking Society - bins have been moved to the middle of the room and the floor is covered in plastic sheeting. My friend, who is over six and a half feet tall and, folded carefully, drives a Peugeot 205 at consistently dangerous speeds, has warned me that either the drinking culture or the isolated location of the college (or perhaps a function of both) has made it possible for the canteen to prepare and sell the worst food that he has ever had the misfortune to eat. Intrigued, I have picked out what appears to be a perfectly appetising (and quaintly local) meal and, sitting down, have just been shown a metaphorical Big Red Button with the words DO NOT PRESS stencilled above it. 

I take my fork and lever the armour-plated top sheet of pastry away from What Lies Beneath - a mangled, twisted mass of gelatinous grey material, it resembles edible food in no way whatsoever. In fact, in line with popular Urban Myths of the time, it looks very much like the mutilated carcass of a rat. Anybody who has ever known me will understand just how unpleasant this food looked when I say that I could not eat any of it.

This experience of South-Western cuisine stayed with me to the extent that I have rarely been drawn to the pasties one sees on sale everywhere else, and it was with gastronomic expectations very much in check that I drove Vanny into
Devon for the second time on this tour. M had set the controls for the heart of Newton Abbot because there was a house I liked the look of there.

I’m sure pasties are okay. Even M likes them. I’ve eaten enough in the last fortnight to exorcise the ghosts of the Worst of All Possible-Rats and Seale-Hayne College (which closed down just a few years later, although it’s still not clear whether the food had anything to do with it.) But I’d still say the best pasty is the one you're eating right now, if you are hungry enough. It helps if it is still warm, and if you can penetrate the pastry casing with a normal set of teeth. There should be chunks of steak in the filling, not minced beef, and it should be abundantly peppery. Yes, there should be some vegetables in there too, but frankly I couldn’t give a rat’s ass what they are. I’ve had some very nice ones from a chain called The Cornish Bakery in Bude and Tintagel. Pasties, not rat’s asses.

I wasn’t, however, expecting to be blown away by the very first place we visited in Newton Abbot at the beginning of December 2017. Teign Cellars is the kind of pub most localities (including cool areas of
South London) can only dream of - a proper pub with all sorts of (all right, local) people drinking in it, that sells some incredible beers at excellent prices. Okay, it smelled a little funny and the music was awful, but both these factors could be integral parts of being a proper local instead of a poncey beer bar. We drank pints of Deya's Steady Rolling Man at £5.20 a go (still can’t quite believe that) and asked the nice man if the town got much tourist trade nowadays. He shook his head and shrugged.

Teign Cellars deserves some kind of award for its brilliance, and its cheesy chilli chips that were probably better than those of the much-vaunted Red's True Barbecue in Sheffield and Leeds. “Just in case you're worried, that is chilli on there, just with chunks of steak, not mince” said the nice young man, presumably accustomed to people complaining if it doesn’t look like a tin of Old El Paso Chilli con Carne. So I'm going to say their chilli was the best pasty filling. Because it's my blog, so there.


If there were ever two reasons to believe in a place, it's what Newton Abbot has right now - a great place to drink beer (another bar showed up on my standard iOS Maps search – “craft beer [name of town],” but we didn’t feel the need to go there) and a great place to buy records. In a music shop called Phoenix Sound M told me I had to stop spending money on myself, as she was not able to. This, I felt, was unfair. She can spend money (up to a certain amount) on herself any time she wants to (up to a maximum of about, erm, twice), because we are not Santander’s pigs any more, and the records are really nice.

We stopped in at
Plymouth, where the boys and I traded knowledge of Sir Francis Drake, his game of bowls and his Golden Behinde, before eating lunch in McDonalds, losing patience with a Limbo Dancer and picking up the next instalment of Super Diaper Baby for H's edumacation and headification. We also discussed whether the sea splashing around at Plymouth Hoe was, in fact, the Atlantic Ocean, after noting the smart new signs declaring PlymouthBritain’s Ocean City.” I then discovered that these signs have cost the city council seventeen thousand pounds each, and am still trying to work out how.

Okehampton suffers from a shoddy reputation, but deserves better. It's on the edge of
Dartmoor, near the middle of Devon, and some of its cashpoints still work. Why it has three supermarkets on the same narrow spur off the Main Street is beyond me, but the car park at the other end of town provided us with a quiet spot by a noisy river to pass another night, en route to visiting the beautiful people in Langtree again. I can recommend eating in The Black Horse in Great Torrington, especially if you are skint, or greedy, or it is Christmas, or all of the above. The town car park actually makes proper provision for motorhomes to stay overnight, too.


Things are different over the border in Bude. The technicalities and semanticsof the rules that hope to forbid it elsewhere aren't strong enough for
England's campervanishest county, so they have their own rule to prevent them from being overrun - campervans and motorhomes are simply not allowed in council car parks between eleven o'clock at night and six in the morning. (I expect they only pay a little ticket man to work nights in peak season though.) A quick bit of research from Undaunted M (she's better at it than I am) found that the King Arthur's Arms (great pub) car park in Tintagel allows motorhomes overnight for a very reasonable four quid, so we went there, had a look around the castle (as far as we could when the island was closed) and I did a little internet-finding-out of my own.

As unconventional as our curriculum and angle of approach has been through our Van Ed so far, the boys are very quick to hang a subject label off of everything we do. E says he doesn't like history, for which I blame Michael Gove, colonialism and class teachers' tendencies to ask their cover teacher to do the history when they're on PPA, in roughly that order. But when we begin a session with the question "What can we find out about King Arthur?" and quickly establish that the most important fact about him is that he did not necessarily exist, all the retrospective planning or curricular fluidity in the world is not going to help us – once again, NOBODY KNOWS.

In fairness, we were mildly interested in whether it could possibly be true that he once slew, personally, almost a thousand men in a battle somewhere. We like a story about a place, but we're not that arsed about a place about a story, so the tide being too far in for us to enter Merlin's Cave was no real (or even legendary) disappointment. In conclusion, we quite enjoyed the walk around an interesting bit of coast, but it seems King Arthur's greatest contribution to the world we were exploring was having a reasonably priced car park that allows motorhomes overnight named after him.

The Lanivet Inn is a really good, busy local that does excellent food. I had the monkfish and several pints of a sweet but sneakily strong cider called Rattler that seems hugely popular down here. It reminded me of the effects of the Glastonbury Festival Brothers Bar cider, back before it started to appear in cans in your local Londis. Even when ordering my fifth pint, I still couldn’t drop the double T central to pronouncing it as the locals do.

The following night, we economized by staying at the very friendly DoubletreesFarm caravan site in Parr. At twenty-five quid it was cheaper than parking for free behind a pub and provided us with the facilities we don’t absolutely need to hand, but definitely appreciate from time to time. It was only a mile from the Eden Project, another of the top five things to do in
Britain checked off our list, and almost worth the money.

I say almost because the Rainforest Biome is tremendous, while the rest of it is predictably low-key in December. Also, tickets allow free entry for a year, so we were able to return the next evening for their winter Festival of Sound and Light. This was seemingly as atmospheric for the boys as the Blackpool Illuminations were for me, back when they weregood. However, it would have taken eight pints of Rattler and some peyote buttons harvested in the dark for me to get into this festival. The lasers weren’t moving and neither was the music. Still… like I say, the kids enjoyed it.

The next day I took them to a trampoline park, which is the sort of thing I was promising them while explaining that they were going to have to leave all they had ever known behind. Bodmin is home to iBounce, which is a good one as far as I can tell. As they bounced, I checked my emails. And found I had to pay a £500 FINE for entering something called the fucking
LOW EMISSION ZONE, which is basically the whole of Greater London inside the M25. I had absolutely no idea this was in effect already, even though I’d been driving a small petrol vehicle past a sign that said something about it on the A12 for years.

Unfortunately, ignorance is no excuse when it comes to this kind of thing.

Fortunately, the fine is halved if you can pay it quickly.

Unfortunately, even though I’m aware that I have to pay a charge to drive Vanny in London now, that charge is A HUNDRED POUNDS. EVERY DAY

Fortunately, there only seem to be cameras recording when you go in and when you go out, and they can’t charge you for going out, or assume that you spent the In Between Days driving around, poisoning the millions of children who get driven half a mile to school every day.

Unfortunately, I don’t know that for sure. I was wondering why London wasn’t full of people living in motorhomes, smirking at the system. But now I know.

Eventually EVEN I get bored of the LEZ and start talking to the bloke. Turns out he used to be the manager of Peckham Pulse for a while. We discuss our respective muggings at the ends of our South East London working lives in good humour, as if being victims of crimes and dangerous behaviour were all in our pasts. I’m not suspecting for a moment that within a week I will be watching M get mugged (okay, by a seagull) and get so close to a Hollywood-worthy high-speed car crash, I will be delighted not to shit my trousers. For once.

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