Ahhh… Devon in the summer. Seagulls cry overhead in a blue sky wisped with white and I’m instantly transported to childhood holidays by the sea.
Grockles* crowd outside the cake shop window drooling as they peer in at the homemade Victoria sandwich cake and the giant date slices. The rounded peaks of the Lemon Meringue pie make me think of Ena Sharples’ hat circa 1970. My stomach is groaning after the huge English breakfast I’ve just wolfed down but we agree to return for that most English of afternoon snacks: a Devon cream tea of scones and clotted cream. I wipe the imaginary dribble from the shop window as we head uphill.
I admire the order in Totnes Public Library; I breathe a deep sigh of satisfaction at the chronological placing of each and every book, the dust-free environment, the sense of certainty and purpose: a place for everything and everything in its place.
We pass the day walking up and down Fore Street. I’m happy to just window-shop. After so long in Uganda, it’s reassuring to see favourite knick-knacks still on sale. (At the same time though, I do wonder whether I will ever be able to afford to live in the UK again).
Every Tuesday Totnes, in south Devon, holds an Elizabethan market and I swoop on the second-hand book stall (you don’t have that much choice in Kampala). “There are travel books this side of the table” the lady says. I ask if she has any books about Africa and she replies: “There’s nothing to write about Africa.”
“You’ve obviously never been there then,” I spit back at her.
“Yes I have, I’ve travelled the world,” she says indignantly.
Reeling, I explain that there are many books about Africa but that there is a lack of awareness, and that I am in fact thinking of writing a book about Uganda.
The bookseller has been to Kenya and Zanzibar, beautiful and popular tourist destinations where it is possible (I imagine) to pass a holiday without meeting any Africans. (This woman’s narrow-mindedness has made me as judgemental as her). Amazing how you can ‘travel the world’ but still return home with exactly the same attitudes intact.
“I wouldn’t travel to that country on my own if you paid me” she said, oblivious to the fact that Africa is a continent of many countries not just one homogeneous fearful country. “Actually I feel safer in Uganda than I did in London,” I tell her “and they say Ethiopia is one of the safest countries for a woman to travel on her own.” “Oh no, no, no ….” she wouldn’t let me finish her sentence. She’s having none of it.
There are things about the UK I miss, and I love coming home to get my British ‘fix’ but I can’t bear this particular type of ignorance.
It’s after 4 o’clock when Ana and I walk into the teashop but alas! – just as we take our seats, the last two fluffy fat scones are whisked away to the neighbouring table. So near but yet so far. We settle for a pot of Earl Grey tea and an enormous slab of fresh moist Bakewell Tart. The almond taste reminds me of my first ever cross-country road trip, many moons ago, with my Socialist Worker friend Phil. We travelled in my Morris Minor along all the B roads, through the Peak District from Warwick to Sheffield ‘to see how the other half lives’ as he said. I have fond memories of that trip: the driving, the Derbyshire bakeries, my stay in his mum’s ‘two up, two down’ terraced house overlooking the redundant colliery.
Back in Totnes, our “Ghosts of Totnes” walking tour takes us onto the walled ramparts, past the Guildhall, up Lepers’ Walk and down to the wells. Few history books hold my attention but our guide Bob gives us a very human and comical introduction to local history. His stories make it easy to imagine the tin merchants and pilchard fishermen inhabiting the Elizabethan houses, the humiliation of petty thieves in the stocks – and worse.
Whether the Trojans really set foot in Totnes, who’s to say? But we enjoyed the story.
I was reassured to hear that the ghost that frequented the rooms above the ‘King Bill’ pub (the King William IV) where I am staying has moved on! If there were any ‘bumps in the night’, I certainly didn’t hear any, nor did I notice any flying furniture (although Dave the landlord very kindly offered to make some spooky sound effects for me).
Back on the train, I can’t help but stare at the first black man I’ve seen in several days.
The train clings to the edge of the River Teign, and I gaze across the water at the jetty and the pastel painted fishing cottages lining the waterfront. The river is mooring point for hundreds of pleasure boats, redundant on a weekday. It’s a beautiful sunny day.
As the river joins the sea, I’m mesmerised by the wide expanse of water that is Babbacombe Bay. I miss the sea.
At Teignmouth, a black Labrador swims out from the beach. Yellow buoys mark the safe swimming area and a boy walks along the sea edge with a metal detector. Girls in sunhats walk along the cliff’s edge as the train heads towards Dawlish. What a treat to enjoy the sea and the sand for a few minutes as we whizz onto Exeter.