The Sunny Side of Oxford – the Cowley Road Carnival

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I rarely write about my home town but I thought that should end, especially when I have the wondrous Cowley Road Carnival on my doorstep. It seems this is the second largest street carnival after Notting Hill in the UK. So let’s take the day as it unfolds.

The street is shut to traffic first thing in the morning and local and visiting organisations set up their stalls and start to assemble. The Cowley Road area is home to a diverse, eclectic mix of families from all over the world. A harmonious community most of the time, families live and work and play alongside each other in schools, restaurants and places of worship. The Carnival happens every year in July and is a celebration of diversity and culture.

Local restaurants and visiting vendors set up their stalls, selling street food to the 30,000 who will join us for the day. Places in the parade are proudly taken by community and cultural groups and from mid morning they begin to assemble at their allocated postion. As well as folk in traditional costumes with a host of unfamiliar instruments, generations of family members lean against walls to give their support to their musicians and dancers. The Nepalese community are no exception.

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The grills get hot and start to sizzle their barbed aromas across the road. Food from everywhere you can imagine.IMG_2058a

The beat increases with huge sound systems winding up their sounds outside bars, pubs and restaurants. The atmosphere is good-natured. Crowds start to gather on each side of the road and local bands and groups as well as excited visitees start to limber up and tune in their drums and tambors and trumpets, waiting to move off.

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And then the parade begins its tortuous, tip toe shuffle up the road in a clangour and a clammer of bangs and clashes and sambas and salsas. Schools follow community groups who follow samba bands from home and abroad who follow street bands and local artists and businesses. Smiles on everyone’s faces.

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The end is reached 500 metres or so further on – St Mary & St John’s Churchyard. Here the participants collapse in the shade. Frequently groups join together in a jam sessions that brings together a new fusion of culture and sound.

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Back on the street food is consumed and crowds wander. Folk find places to chill – on a wall, in front of a stage and absorb the practised performances of dance and music or appreciate the impromptu expression of feeling and creativity.

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Most things come to a halt at 6.00pm. People accept it, however reluctantly. The street cleaning vehicles start their work very punctually, sweeping through the still packed streets. Everyone knows that if there’s no fuss it will be the same next year.

A homage to Lynmouth

I forget how divine this length of coast is. I spent the night at Minehead and drive to Porlock Weir, a delight in its own right.

I then drove up the hill out of the village and out onto the wide open spaces of Exmoor – a real ‘awe & wonder’ moment, a cry out loud celebration of all that is good about this world and about life – the sea on one side with lines of white horses snuffling the bays and headlands , the stretching moorland cut by deep valleys on the other. Free air above in a cloudless sky and the open road ahead with the roof down. If only I had hair to blow free in the breeze. I stop to overlook Lynmouth before driving down into the village.

1952. The year the rains came, the East and West Lyn rivers roared off the moors bringing boulders & earth & trees and taking cars & vans & sheds on a dreadful journey of devastation through the village. 34 people died in the resulting chaos.

I forget how charming the village now is, both up the two rivers to the moors and downstream to the sea. It’s Victorian splendour has been recaptured from its wrought iron balconies to the Rhenish Tower.

The waterpowered Cliff Railway toils up & down, filling its top water tanks after each journey linking Lynmouth with its high neighbour on the cliffs


I have to leave you with two bathing places on the Kennet & Avon Canal which I included on my way home. The first is on the River Avon, not the canal itself, at Bathampton, by the tall bridge.

The other is at Clavendon Pumping Station. To get to it you have to walk down a narrow track, over the canal bridge, over the pedestrian gate across the main line to Bath and into the meadows where the Avon smoothes over a weir. Both places are glorious in weather like this, even if the locals have claimed them already. There is space for all.

From Watchet to Porlock Weir

Two days of hot, sunny weather is forecasted so the routine goes out the window and out comes the camera. I have two legs I want to complete – past of the coast in Somerset/Devon and a small section of the Kennet & Avon Canal. They are in the same direction so I decide to do the former first and complete most of it today leaving the other for the way home.

So I head for Steart on a peninsula, west of Barnstable, sticking out into the Bristol Channel. There’s not a lot here.

It’s not called Steart Marshes for nothing even if some small settlements hug any firm land they can find. Sheep and cattle graze the lush grasses, rushes line the vast expanse of clinging mud and large pebbles form an impossibly hard beach to manoeuvre. Hartland Point Power Station is the main, man-made feature on this part of the coast.

The first real settlement is Watchet. A delightful harbour town which is also on the West Somerset Railway line. You can almost feel the history ooze its way out of the Flag stones around the harbour.

 

Blue Anchor is a long, wide strip of pebbles backed by a road, backed by a line of static caravans. Each end is stapled to the ground by a group of more permanent detached houses.

Dunster Beach is the coast side of Dunster Castle and of Dunster medieval village. There is a refreshment van and then a wide strip of parked cars and vans with their owners sitting out on camping chairs devouring the Sun or the Mail. The other end consists of a never-ending crescent of large, almost bungalow-sized beach huts which line the heart of the bay.

Minehead had its glory days in Victorian times when it’s rather remote location only allowed the wealthy to make the journey to its glam hotels and bathing huts. When the railway arrived the hoy poloy were able to holiday here. This was exaggerated further when Butlins established a holiday camp here in the 50s, which now has an almost permanent presence in the town, swamping any history the harbour might try to show off.

Porlock Weir is delightful. A fishing and trading centre for the Porlock Estate, the harbour still provides shelter for private boats while the bars and hotels refresh the crews and the more up-market souvenir shops like Exeter Glass satisfy the shopping visitors.

Fisherman’s friends in Port Isaac

Before leaving Bude there’s time to explore its two beaches. I like Bude. It feels like a town with a special character of its own and not just a holiday destination for visitors. It is early. The beach is empty. The lifeguards are setting up and the first dog walkers are out. The first activity on both beaches is from the surfing schools who have done their warm ups and force their way through the surf to begin a day on the water.

Down the coast the view from Widemouth is amazing.

Crackington Haven is a great name. A few people are having tea in the shop which doesn’t stop the surfing school from assembling down by the spray.


Boscastle feels a little bit precious. However it did not back in 2004 when the river flooded and caused havoc and chaos all the way down the valley. Now it feels fresh and sparkling and full of visitors.

Real people do live and work here.

Tintagel Castle was a fortified port between 2/500AD and the place Arthur was said to have been born. Ruins are all that remain but it is enough to appreciate the footprint it makes on the landscape and the extent of the defences of this old castle.

Port Isaac is such a gem. Quaint, atmospheric, historic…a lovely place to explore.

Clovelly, My Precious

The weather takes a downturn, today, with layers of grey gloom hiding the sun. The surfers are out in force across the vast expanse that is Saunton Sands. It has a special atmosphere in the dull drizzle but our wet-suited heroes don’t give a fan – they’re going to get wet anyway. They only come out when noses, feet & hands have turned the colour of unripened blueberries.

Westward Ho! (The exclamation mark is an official part of the town’s name) mixes up together the elements of this north Devon coast. So surfers attack the waves in front of the static caravans and apartments blocks and beach huts that look out from their cliff locations.

Families and school groups explore the craggy rocks pools and wait for the sands to dry out before cavorting around in disorganised games. I love it. Nothing is too precious. Everything just mixes in together and the empty beach shows it has the space for every background and class to do their own thing when the sun comes out to play.

Now Clovelly is precious. First of all you have to pay £7.50 per person entrance fee. The village has been owned by one family for hundreds of years and none of the 250 inhabitants own their own home. In the blurb they call themselves ‘one of the world’s most beautiful villages’.

It is amazing. The steep descent down cobbled streets between old cottages is half a mile or so in length. The old harbour beside the old pub opens up at the bottom. Thankfully there is a Landrover services from the bottom to take you back up to the top for £2.50 – cheap at 10 times the price.

Hartland Quay, like Clovelly, is a port used to take agricultural produce and to bring in heavy goods like lime and coal and manufactured goods. Just one bar and a few fishermans’s homes line the approach to the beach and the quay itself. The coastline is very stark here. Dragons’ tails mingle with crocodiles’ scales to create a coast line doing impressions of sharp, sharks’ teeth cutting out to sea. It really is an angry place on a drizzly day like today.

 

Surfer-dudes in North Devon

I cross over into England and start today from Weston-super-Mare. Now this resort town has three things, in particular, going for it. The first is the vast stretch of beautiful, soft sand that cries out for sand castles or jogging or picnics. The second is the pier which looks great whatever the light although it is closed between 4 and 10 so can only stand to be admired from a distance. The third are the beach donkeys – sadly they were not there although there was evidence of their presence in the hitching posts, the blowing hay and the neat baskets of poo.

Burnham-on-Sea is a few miles down the coast. Now here must be the UK’s smallest pier, if it even conforms to the definition of a pier. I call it the Thomas the Tank Engine of piers. Compared with its piers around the coast (you see what I did there?) its name pulls well above its weight.

There is not much else in the town, not even a place for a decent espresso. However at the top end of the beach a white-washed watch tower poses historical questions.

Now isn’t this the saddest of images. Some poor child’s bicycle abandoned in the sinking sands of the beach.

So many questions – did they forget it? Did the tide snatch it and return it in some guilty moment? Did they stomp off after a tantrum abandoning it to the elements? We’ll never know.

Hele is one side of a headland.

Ilfracombe is the other side. The harbour is framed by terraces of elegant houses along with working buildings and overlooked by Damian Hirst’s overwhelming statue of Verity.

Lee is my new favourite. A small cove hides a few well maintained houses with names like Shell Cottage, that cluster around a large abandoned hotel which awaits the developer to spoil the character of the place which, at least at the moment, remains isolated, peaceful, harmonious.

Woolacombe and Putsborough are the anchors that tie each end of the world-famous surfing beach to the land. A host of those black leeches wait in the water, horizontal & patient, until thrown into a frenzy by the build up of waves. The call is out that the surf is up and the surfer-dudes are out in full searching as a pack to find the right wave. It is quite a spectacle. Shame about the modern beach huts.

The class of Swanage Pier takes a lot of beating

I leave Weymouth and its soft sands and head to Lulworth Cove where the pebbles reappear. If you ever pictured a typical cove on our long & varied coastline then Lulworth Cove fits the bill in every way. You can see where the waves have forced their way through the hard rim of the coastline and eroded the softer rock behind to create a crystal clear bay, fred by a trickling stream.

Swanage is my next stop. I wasn’t really looking forward to my visit, remembering from past experiences nothing of particular interest. I must never have passed the bend because when I did,  there, in front of me, is the prettiest pier I’ve seen on the UK coastline so far. It is built in wrought iron, painted white and blue. It is quite small with good lines and a kink in the middle. The white limestone cliffs give it a wonderful backdrop. A small, well maintained, classic pier that just oozes class.

I take the longer route via Studland and its wonderful, long, duned sands.

and catch the ferry across to Sandbanks.

Did you know that Sandbanks has by area the fourth highest land value in the world? I know Harry Rednap lives there but we don’t all want him as a neighbour. Hey, they may some posh, two-tiered, 60s beach huts but they don’t have a pier of any description.

Now home. A great trip in with blue skies and brilliant weather.