I’m travelling to Exeter, in Devon – by coach, which means that first I have to get in to London. Traffic is barely crawling, which I later find out is due to a traffic light failure. I’m worried I’ll arrive too late to make my connection at Victoria coach station – but the connecting coach has been delayed by this as well, so instead of missing it I end up standing for over an hour at the station. Many others are in the same position, and eventually the place becomes too crowded to move.
Luckily, I have a book to read – Raw Spirit, by the late Iain Banks. I’m actually reading it for a friend, who’d tried to read his Use of Weapons, but was struggling with it. Having read Use of Weapons, I can understand – it all makes perfect sense once you get to the end, but if you gave up after three chapters, you’d never know that. But Iain Banks (or Iain M Banks, if he was writing science fiction) wrote some great stuff, so I’m trying to find something my friend might find more enjoyable.
Raw Spirit – In search of the perfect dram is an account of his travels around Scotland in search of the perfect whisky. (Friend is into home brewing, so is likely to appreciate such a quest.) But although that’s what it’s about, and there’s plenty of information about how whisky is made, descriptions of whisky, trips around distilleries – it’s so much more than that. It’s got Scottish travel, childhood memories, social commentary and even science-fiction conventions. It’s a lot of fun, I’m sure my friend will enjoy it – and it’s a very welcome distraction for me.
The coach finally arrives and we board – only to find out there’s been a road traffic accident outside the coach station. By the time the traffic clears, ninety coaches are trying to get out of the station all at once. We’re an hour and half late getting to our first stop – I had originally been scheduled to arrive at 10, but that’s not going to happen. I don’t know if the hotel will still be open, and my phone has decided to stop working.
Then there’s a message from the coach driver – he’s almost over the legal limit of hours he’s allowed to drive. So we have to stop at a service station and wait for a new driver to come and replace him. Finally, we reach Exeter – which is when I discover that although the coach station is near the train station, and my hotel is near the train station – Exeter has more than one train station. It’s not far, but I don’t want to go stumbling around in the dark, so I get a cab. It’s 1am when I reach the hotel. I walk into my room – and straight into a shelf for a DVD player. I’m shattered, so for once I go straight to sleep.
Of course, I oversleep – there’s no clock or phone in my room, and my phone’s still not working. I walk smack into the DVD shelf again on the way to the bathroom – I have to turn sideways to get between it and the end of the bed. I dress hastily as, I need to catch a bus to Totnes, but there’s only one every two hours and, as I found out last night, I’m in the wrong part of town. I’m running late, so I catch another cab. The driver asks me where I’m heading, so I tell him Totnes. “Ah” says he. “Full of hippies.”
I get to the station just in time to see my bus pulling away. Another woman turns up seconds later – she wanted that bus as well, so we find a cafe and commiserate over scones. She asks where I’m going and, when I tell her Totnes, says “Ah – full of hippies”. Hmm…
Scones make two hours fly by. We head back to the station early, to make sure that we don’t miss the bus again. It’s a pretty drive out to Totnes. Is it full of hippies? Well – let’s just say if you want to hear a busker play Hotel California on a mandolin, you’ve come to the right place.
I had meant to have more of a wander around Totnes, but once I step inside the Devon Harp Centre, that’s it. I spend hours sitting on the floor, talking to the owner, trying out musical instruments. An adorable Wee Bonnie harp, like something a fairy would play. A Smartwood harp – assembled from a flat pack, but with a surprisingly bright tone. A mahogany Reverie harp which I would happily hold and strum forever…
I catch the last bus back to Exeter, and start getting ready to go out – which is when I realise just how incredibly annoying this hotel room really is.
I’m staying at the Abode, Exeter – originally called The Royal Clarence Hotel, it was built in 1769, and claims to be the first hotel in England. Normally I prefer to stay in old hotels – they have character, and for that I’m prepared to put up with things like uneven floors and temperamental antique lifts – but this one! I have stayed in worse hotels, and in smaller rooms – but that was reflected in the price. This place is claiming to be a four star hotel, but this is one of the pokiest rooms I’ve ever seen – basically, a single room, but with a double bed crammed into it. It’s a good thing I’m here on my own, as there’s no way two people could share this room for any length of time without wanting to kill each other.
First, and most irritating – why have a DVD player on a shelf that juts out from the wall, too close to the end of the bed – why not get a combined TV/DVD that can be wall mounted? I’d rather have no DVD player at all than keep bruising myself on it.
The sink in the bathroom is tiny – really tiny – about the size of a sheet of A4 paper. The glasses in the room are much bigger than a usual bathroom tumbler, and barely fit under the faucet. Taps?! Awkward to operate, to say the least. I can barely get my fingers between the tap and the wall to turn it – in fact, the easiest way to use it seems to be whilst sitting on the toilet. Of course, sitting on the toilet means banging your elbows on the sink and the shower…
The shelf above the sink is too small to hold much more than a toothbrush, but still manages to stick out far enough over the tiny sink to make cleaning your teeth difficult – if I lean over to spit into the tiny sink, I bang my head on the damn shelf!
Towels and facecloths – not soft. My towels at home are better, and I never thought I’d be able to say that about hotel towels. The hand towels, strangely, aren’t with the other towels on the rail behind the door, but on a rail tucked tightly underneath the sink, which leads to scraped knuckles – and stops me getting at the bin.
The light above the sink is alarmingly hot and casts huge dark shadows over my face, so I have to use the mirror in the bedroom – inconveniently located half over the desk. I try to stand in front of it, but the chair is in the way. I can’t slide the chair across (it’s too close to the bed in one direction, and the DVD shelf in the other) so I have to physically manoeuvre it up and over the desk to get it out of the way. Don’t even get me started on trying to use the ironing board…
And the bed! The mattress is too soft and saggy, and whenever I try to sit on the edge (because I can’t use the chair), I keep sliding off. Their website raves about the beds – presumably whoever writes it has never tried to sleep here. What sadist designs a hotel room with glass bedside shelves at knee height? Judging by the mended crack in the headboard, I’m not the first to catch myself on the damn things (more bruises). Surely they must realise that people in a hotel room may be moving around in a strange environment, in the dark?
That night I get no sleep whatsoever – and I’d already finished reading my book on the journey down here. I had been planning to get some work done, but cannot get onto the hotel wi-fi, despite repeated attempts. In the morning, I give up and go to find somewhere that can make my phone work again. That’s the one thing the hotel does have going for it – location. It’s directly opposite the cathedral – shame my room has a view of a back alley, covered in pigeon netting.
With my phone restored to working order, I start to explore. On the high street, there’s someone pretending to be a gargoyle (like those people who impersonate statues) but this one has a sign saying it’s coin-operated, so people pay to see it move, in a slow and creepy fashion – most ingenious.
I have a quick look around the cathedral, but cut it short to join a tour group, following what’s left of the old city walls. A lot of Exeter has been redeveloped (some sensitively, like the area down by the river Exe – other areas are less fortunate) but there are still plenty of interesting buildings dating back to medieval times – including The House That Moved, a Tudor building which was moved back in the Sixties to make way for a new road to be built. We also go through a park which has a plaque commemorating Mary, a racing pigeon who received the Animal VC for gallantry during World War Two!
Surprisingly, the tour group isn’t all tourists – some are local ladies, who’ve done the walk before, and afterwards invite me for more scones. When I tell them I’m staying at the Abode Exeter, they think this is hilarious, and suggest that if I want to stay in a good hotel I’d be better off staying at the Magdalen Chapter next time I come.
Some last minute souvenir shopping next, and I settle on a local speciality, saffron buns – like fruit buns but with a yellow tint, and that delicate saffron flavour.
I also buy a book to read on the coach. I can’t find a classic that I fancy, so I treat myself to White Corridor, by Christopher Fowler (an old favourite). In this adventure, detectives Bryant and May of the Peculiar Crimes Unit stumble across a murder while they’re trapped on a motorway by a blizzard. I just hope my trip home is nothing like that…