Intrepid Exe-plorer

Freshly armed with a degree from one of Devon’s top universities I decided to test the waters of the real world. After consulting a map I found the river Exe to be closest. My motivation came in part from a thought: what would Dr Livingstone have done if he had had a lot less imagination and was on a budget? This trip might be shorter and less complex than the Nile but it is by no means less challenging. So I present the river Exe, all 60 miles of it.

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River Exe: small beginnings

It was 7am one recent morning and I stepped out onto a moor and straight into a bog. I looked up to see a herd of big red deer watching me curiously. Well this is nice, I thought, and squelched up the hill in search of the river Exe, looking forward to spending the day in the presence of wet feet and inquisitive wildlife.

Down hill, up hill, through ford, into field with bull and hurriedly out of field with bull; Exmoor challenged me to the full. In my excitement on reaching the village of Dulverton I broke into a run thinking I could make the sea in a day. It took a few falls and bleeding palms to quell these aspirations. Now out of Exmoor I was walking along small lanes, through farms and over tiny stone bridges next to burnt-out cottages.

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After a while I realised I had not seen a single soul for several hours. The surrounding trees and lingering smell of burnt wood were beginning to play with my mind. And it was in this state of mild, Devon terror that I was confronted with two geese.

In the brief standoff that followed I commanded them to “away geese!”, waving my map with authority. Unperturbed, they charged with necks outstretched and an almighty battle hiss. There was nothing for it but to scurry down the lane.

I rounded the bend at full tilt and went headlong into the arms of a farmer, ‘hold up there chappy, run all the way from Exe Head have yer?’

“Er, sort of, my feet are a bit sore”, I said.

“I’ve heard that’s what happens. Still, you decided to do it didn’t yer.’ He chuckled and ambled off back into the field with his sheepdog. By now it was getting dark so after the next bend I ducked into a field and went to sleep under a tree. I awoke the following day at 5.30am to find an army of ticks doing their morning manoeuvres on my legs. I beat a hasty retreat to the lane and was on my way before the farmer came on his rounds.

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Luckily I had a stone-free night

I headed straight for Tiverton Morrisons. At 7am sharp the doors opened and the morning rush swept in to fight over the fresh produce. I went straight for coffee and the toilet.

Soon back on the road I followed the trail past the local sewage treatment centre before breaking lose onto the vast badlands of southern Devon. Specifically the wide rolling hills and farms of the the Exe valley. Beautiful, if it were not for the miles of country lane that now lay between me and Exeter. My jar of peanut butter and bag of raisins to keep me company.

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After a few hours I came across a bright blue peacock perched atop a brick wall. Its beauty was somewhat outweighed by flashbacks of the geese and I recoiled in horror. I suddenly remembered something I’d read about Charles Darwin having a disdain for peacocks.

“What a waste of good protein”, he would tut. It turns out too much hair/feathers is dangerous for the intellect, evolutionarily speaking. Hair/feathers need protein to grow. So do brains. This thought consoled me as I glared at the glorious bird.

The remainder of the journey was an uninteresting slog against train departure times, feet and my stock of raisins. I awoke briefly with seven miles to go to see the hairs on my legs swirling and shimmering in odd shapes. With one mile left I had to contend with the sympathetic expressions from passers by.

I eventually stumbled onto a train at Dawlish Warren and announced: “ah, the ticket inspector I presume.” The blank stare vanished as soon as I waved a five pound note in her face. I remember motioning apologetically to my feet.

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I sympathise with ewe

You could argue my trip was worthless. Yet, it turns out that after all those years struggling against the hostile climate and suffering from various tropical diseases, Livingstone was wrong about the source of the Nile.

As for my two-day expedition during which I fought off geese, tackled with ticks and got a blister on my big toe, I am able to confirm that the river Exe begins where the map says it does and that it reaches the sea at Exmouth/Dawlish Warren. I can also confirm that it is, at times, interesting to walk along. At others it is downright dangerous and feet-numbingly dull. Stay tuned for my next adventure: locating the mouth of the river Dart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Graduand

I have spent four years learning how to read and write again. But it took a night on a hill to really grasp the implications. Though all I got was a bad night’s sleep and a rude awakening from some labradors.

IMG_0940I spent April reading and re-reading notepads I had read and re-read a hundred times before. I wrote thousands of words trying to define just two. Even some of the footnotes had footnotes. This caused much despair and flooding:

Scan 2In May, when paper was running out, I took to writing outside and discovered the benefits of sun and poetry:

Scan 2By this time I was getting cocky and went to the park to read another notepad:

Scan 4And in a moment of madness I threw caution to the wind and played ping pong:

Scan 3The exam period came and went like a pungent fart. The initial shock accompanied by a feeling of unpleasantness and a strong urge to punch those responsible. But before long it had passed. Then came the annual ironing in preparation for a night of dancing with my teachers:

Scan 9It was rather enjoyable:

Scan 1But now I am faced with endings where some only see new beginnings:

Scan 6Even the Wurzels were sad to see us go:

IMG_0009.jpgI might have to spend another night on a hill to understand what this all means. Until then, more ping pong:

Scan 4

 

Postcode Man

I know 48 postcodes off by heart. There are others like me, we are an elite group. They call us Royal Mail “Christmas Casuals”. But there is nothing casual about fiercely sorting through thousands of mis-addressed packages at 2am in a warehouse filled with the repetitive splurgings of Heart FM.

Outside the Royal Mail sorting office I am like any regular non-mag. But give me a high-vis tabard and a confusingly labeled return-to-sender package and magic happens. I am Postcode Man with powers of TQ4-sight and EX-ray vision. I probably know where you live (if it’s in Devon, unless you live in Plymouth, I didn’t get that far. I mean come on).

You may be thinking, what is a student of Arabic and Persian at one of the UK’s top sporting universities doing working night shifts for the Royal Mail. Well, we all need money. Besides, honey you should see me in a tabard. I wanted to go to Australia for Christmas but lacking the funds I compromised by staying at home but living by Australian time. Anyway, that’s my excuse for claiming jet lag after my last shift.

I had a delightful time. It can be summed up in five words: York, bullrings, and red sleeves. No, not a bloody, Spanish sports-themed night out in the northeast of England. In Royal Mail speak, a “York” is a trolley over which fits a red “sleeve”, a spring-loaded sack for storing mail. As for “bullring”, the collective noun for a group of empty and be-sleeved Yorks (each representing a postcode) formed into a U formation, ready to be filled with carefully thrown placed fragile packages (ehem). Fascinating stuff indeed. Just think of the transferable skills.

What did I learn from the experience? That Chris Rea’s “Driving home for Christmas” is still my all-time favourite song no matter the time of year; and that I actually quite like Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself”. Can’t help it, just got to me. Beliebers gonna beliebe.

I also learnt that not having cigarette breaks every hour is against human rights; at least according to the Royal Mail temp (possibly) known as Shadwell (name unconfirmed, but this is the best guess due to insistent mumbling on Shadwell’s part), but variously referred to as Captain Conversation, Catweazle, Smokey Joe, Worzle Gummidge, or Stevo by fellow “casuals”). He had a peculiar musk that was notable in its presence, and a sense of humour notable in its absence. We inefficiently shared a bullring for two weeks before a voluntary redistribution of manpower.

It was a month of forgetting which meal was supposed to be breakfast, lunch or supper. Many confusing plates of pasta at 6.30 am before heading to the library for a confusing session of trying to read about something confusing in an all-too confusing language. Anyhow, I earned some dollar and you can thank me later for your Exeter-sorted Christmas presents. I still got 99 problems but EX1-39 and TQ1-14 definitely ain’t 48 of them (before you count, EX25-EX30 don’t exist, suckers). Merry Crimble.

The Bideford Witches

It was 30th July 2016 and crowds were flocking to see a play. Sorcery, suspicion, darkness and death, interspersed with gymnastic twirls and archaic words. The world premiere of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Palace Theatre, London? No, the Bideford Witches at the Barnfield Theatre, Exeter.

This play concerns the accusing, trial and eventual hanging of Mary Trembles and Susannah Edwards. Charged with witchcraft, they were executed in Heavitree, Exeter in 1682. Along with Temperance Lloyd (hanged 1682) and Alice Molland (hanged 1685) they were the last people to be executed for witchcraft in England.

With the audience seated in-the-round, it begins with three women sat on the floor staring at a screen. Through this we witness the silhouetted hanging of Temperance Lloyd. The characters then introduce themselves through a series of short monologues, accompanied by the sorts of limb movement that can best be described as contemporary. Thereby setting the tone for the remainder of the show.

Mary and Susannah, the two beggar girls. Grace Thomas, the incessantly coughing victim of Temperance Lloyd. Joan Jones, the rabble-rousing villager, forever stirring suspicion through gossip. And William Herbert, a farmer whose crop failed after Mary was seen on his land.

In an early scene Grace collapses when talking to Mary and rumours quickly spread that she has been cursed. It is assumed that as Mary’s friend, and friend of the witch Temperance, Susannah is also responsible and so both are taken to Exeter for trial. Here they are variously accused of ‘giving gossip to the moths’, having an inordinate number of teats, conjuring magpies, having something living behind their teeth, as well as causing illness in Grace.

Naturally, these accusations are cast through the medium of dance: “I accuse you of being a witch!”, balletic leap and dramatic flick of the hand. Not to be outdone, when stood in the docks Mary responds with a flurry of inspired arm movements. “That ought to prove I ain’t a witch,” she seems to think.

There is hope they might be let off due to their impoverished state. However, fate and ‘the greater good’ intervene, and it was decided they would be executed anyway to prevent civil unrest. The play ends with the hanging of Mary and Susannah, and the final heartbeat being one last coughing fit from Grace. Proof that the witches were not the cause of her illness.

For this adaptation of the Bideford witches’ tale we can thank High Wall Theatre company, the self-declared specialists in telling stories through movement. Pointed hats off to them and their movements. The actors would stride across the stage exchanging pointed toes and dialogue, before leaping gaily into each others’ arms and exiting stage left. I found this somewhat distracting but perhaps I need to get out more.

On a set with no stage props the actors themselves became the props. Without the pirouettes it probably would have been oddly staccato and dull. And despite the overall bizarre feel, the story was ever grounded in a dark human reality. Albeit a reality in which people are prone to link hands and dance a spontaneous waltz when saying something profound. Just to be more, you know, compelling.

The shortness of the play and the intimacy of the setting enhanced the audience’s horror for these poor women dragged to their deaths by scapegoating.  I recommend it to anyone with the ability to go back in time and see it.

 

The Exortercist

To coincide with the release of the new Ghostbusters film I thought I’d embark on a bit of busting myself. Albeit locally, on foot, and without a vacuum cleaner on my back.

And so after consulting the extensive literature on the subject I packed a bag (water bottle, cheese sandwich, camera and crucifix) and headed off to Summer Lane pedestrian tunnel (Tunnel 14a to locals). Known to at least dozens of people as Exeter’s most haunted pedestrian tunnel.

Indeed, according to Exeter: Not a Guide:

“Loud banging noises, accompanied by groaning and screaming as if there is a fight going on, have been heard coming from the tunnel. When locals investigate there is nothing there, though the smell of blood has been reported.”

Sounds suspicious to me, so I lay in wait with my camera, crucifix at the ready. Some of my photos may shed fresh evidence on the source of the disturbing noises:

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I don’t wish to put the tunnel’s haunted status into question but even the national Paranormal Database doesn’t mention it. Rather, it lists 29 other haunted locations in Exeter. Most notably Marks & Spencer, where “phantom heavy breathing and light, poltergeist-like behaviour has been reported.” Not to mention the apparent ethereal coughing of the ghost of sir Walter Raleigh at the Royal Clarence Hotel. Exeter, it seems, is plagued by a host of mildly ill ghosts.

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Take that A.E. Bennet Town Clerk

The tunnel’s poltergeist obviously takes offense at the local council’s incessant interfering in what are clearly the personal affairs of an eternally restless soul. When smashing something up doesn’t quiet satisfy you, go ahead and mark a large cross through it. Job done.

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If you look closely it is impossible to disprove that this car is not being driven by a ghost

Blood famously smells like rusty iron. This tunnel is beneath a railway line. So obviously perfect cover for spooky haunting and spiritual bloody letting. So overt it’s covert.

It was after nearly ten minutes stood leaning against the wall of the tunnel, waiting to be violated by a spectral creature, that my prayers were answered and the Dementors came. Like all frustrated muggles, I have repeatedly watched the documentary film: ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’. But never did I expect to star in my very own scene.

I walked home sullen, pale and with all hope of ever feeling happy again gone. Although, on second thoughts, that could’ve been because I was hungry. And it was raining. I think I’ll leave the ghost hunting to the experts. Or someone with a bigger crucifix and a more imposing hoover.

 

 

 

Rowling with my Witches

-2 (1)It’s fitting that J K Rowling would gain inspiration from a City known as the site of the last Witchcraft executions in England. Probably more a coincidence actually, but let’s stick with fitting. Otherwise what else would students have to tell their parents as they drag them eagerly down Gandy Street: “Look dad this is Diagon Alley!” On the way pointing out the Freemasons Provincial Grand Lodge, and possibly a subtle mention of the Phoenix theatre ( you know just to heighten the mystery and give fuel to the imagination).

Then into the Firehouse to gawp at the wooden tables and dripping candlesticks: “Mum I promise you this is what she based the Leaky Cauldron on.” Oh, hang on a second, wasn’t it the Black Horse? Come on let’s pop in for a mid-afternoon snakebite to soak up the magical ambience…

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In 1682 Temperance Lloyd, Susannah Edwards and Mary Trembles were accused of causing death and sickness through the black arts and subsequently hanged for witchcraft. After being tried for their crimes at Rougement Castle, the women were hanged in Heavitree. Lest we forget what real witches look like, these poor women (known as ‘the Bideford Three’) have been immortalised in a mural behind Exeter library.

However, their plight continues in the form of a petition calling on the government to pardon the women for their ‘crime’.

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The keen-eyed will notice that the deadline for the petition has already expired. Although it does mention in passing an intriguing tale of how King James I believed his cousin had tried to assassinate him with witchcraft. Who knows, maybe Guy Fawkes was a wizard.

But the witches’ memory is alive and well, with an upcoming play about them at Exeter’s Barnfield Theatre. Stay tuned for a review.

 

 

 

Jordan More

What a fun year, off back to Jordan then.

What’s happened in between? Well, it all began with a few medieval Arabic spells (in grammar class of course) and then, after Christmas, it descended on a path of intensive Turkish tuition towards the ultimate goal of Divine Union with Persian literature; culminating in my complete annihilation in the aforementioned, due to a combination of essay-induced stress, and far too much compensation wine.

I have learnt many important things. Like if you want to properly volunteer with refugees then you’d better get yourself some dreadlocks, all-weather Dr. Martens, camel cigarettes, and trousers so baggy they are at risk of becoming a bag with leg holes. I have also discovered that in the Iranian version of TinTin, Captain Haddock still drinks like a fish and that his famous exclamation ‘blistering barnacles’, is, somewhat disappointingly, merely translated as ‘dam the devil’. Still, for both his traits I consider the Captain a kindred spirit, who has helped me through the usual bewilderment and frustration of a year studying Arabic in the heart of Devon.

Unfortunately due to the nature of Arabic degrees at Exeter, only the first two years are language-focussed. In the final two years the language part takes a backseat and eventually counts for only a quarter of the eventual degree. Thereby producing graduates who have a beautiful, shiny Arabic degree, but would be more at ease boring you on the history of 19th Century Iraq than on how to tell a Jordanian taxi driver to cough up the change.

I do, of course, understand the necessity of having a piece of paper to wave in the face of employers as proof of my parent’s ability to support me through a four-year degree.

However, there exists a group of us such students furiously opposing this. I say furiously, but I take the burry-my-head-in-the-sand-like-a-good-ostrich-studying-Arabic approach, only coming up to graciously receive funding from Exeter’s friendly neighborhood Saudi Prince, thereby enabling me to study in Jordan for a month.

The plan is to stay with my friend Ali (of Jordan Valley fame) at our old flat near the University. I have laid this out to him in advance, bearing in mind my stay spans the whole of Ramadan and I assume he will want to spend time at home. But, possibly naively (but I like to think trustingly), I have taken his ever insistent ‘Inshallahs’ as concrete proof that I will have a roof to sleep under this Tuesday evening.

Stay tuned for more saucy thrills, boisterous banter and other unrelated descriptive words that shall surely capture and needlessly exaggerate my journey over the next few weeks.

Bring on the hummus.

Jordan Shore? More like Exeter Bore

They say when revising it is good to change location every now and again. Breathe in fresh air, let the recently learned grammar rules sink to the depths of the subconscious, to be summoned at the fifth hour of the coming exam. Although I am not sure they would agree with an afternoon down the pub.

I am waiting for my final exam. It happens to be a Turkish exam. My 3rd year is at serious risk of turning into my 4th year. There is nothing, it seems, I can do about this.

Well no, but that doesn’t mean I can’t treat myself to a few hours pacing the mean streets, gawping at the tops of buildings and taking skewed, artistic photos, all to escape the relentless onslaught of Turkish suffixes.

So, to where does the everyday, intrepid, get-me-out-of-the-bloody-house-or-I-swear-I-will-drown-in-the-amount-of-tea-I-am-drinking explorer of Exeter head?

The Cathedral perhaps? Well yes I suppose that would make sense, but I went to WH Smith. Though before I dismiss the Cathedral completely it does deserve a special mention for containing the “Exeter Book”, the oldest example of English literature, dating from the 10th Century. Amongst other things, it contains one of the first known examples of obscene riddles (that most treasured of genres).

A short excerpt from one such riddle:

I am a wondrous creature for women in expectation, a service for neighbors.
I harm none of the citizens except my slayer alone.
My stem is erect, I stand up in bed, hairy somewhere down below.

The answer? An Onion.

What were those Anglo-Saxons like.

So, after passing through WH Smith, stealing a surreptitious glance at the local tourist literature on the way, I headed to nearby Parliament Street (supposedly the narrowest street in the world). This street was in fact created as a sort of optical ramp for Jack Wills customers. As you walk along it the ever-narrowing walls and cleverly focussed perspective guide you, with a foreboding inevitability, towards a treasure trove of gilets and designer socks. Of course this system is only necessary for plebs. The gentry can walk straight in from the high-street entrance without a run-up.

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It has been rumored that Stanley Kubrick helped design this feature. Jack Wills deny this. They haven’t heard of Stanley Kubrick. But as you walk along the cracked paving, losing all idea of what a street really is, it is impossible to ignore the encroaching sense of overly-priced tracksuits.

Other theories maintain that Parliament Street used to be called “Small Lane” until the middle of the 19th century and was changed to its current name as a way of mocking the Government. But enough, once I had disentangled myself from the claustrophobia and the impending Jack Wills (managing to just miss it by almost being run over by a bus), I fancied myself some culture.

It has been said by someone (probably wearing a woolen jumper over their shoulders and cradling a glass of vintage truffle wine) that it’s all well and good having an impressive cathedral, and some tight lanes, but a real city is defined by its art. Museums, galleries, exhibitions, I hear you cry. Weren’t you listening? I said the mean streets:

Graffiti. No, not what mathematicians throw over each other at weddings, though nice try. Think Berlin, and maybe Bristol, cities so adorned with this art form that it has become intertwined with the character of the place itself. But what of Exeter? The following specimens give you a taster of what the capital of Devon has to say on the matter.

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Apparently this Devonshire graffiti artist either owns a canoe, or is very good at treading water
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It’s nice to be warned

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A very Exeter riot

Now with a head positively brimming with culture, if a little puzzled and prone to existential gazing, what left is there to do?  Why, hop on a bike and ride along the canal to the Double Locks pub, naturally. Not before stopping off at Natwest (other banks are available) to take out a loan first, I’ll need it to buy a drink.

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Will get onto the Turkish…I’ll just read one more story about local farmers with inexplicable healing powers

Fully-refreshed, I took a moment to reflect on the glory of Exeter through the words of its football club’s honorary director, the late Michael Jackson, who said famously in 2002:

“Hello you wonderful people of Exeter. It’s great to be here in this beautiful city. I love Exeter!”

To be fair there are 17 places called Exeter in the US alone (as well as one in Canada and three in Australia), so it was a safe bet for him. A case of: “If in doubt go for Exeter”.

And with that vaguely in mind I zipped up my duck skin gilet and pedaled home with a new found sense of urgency.