Sunday, 31 January 2010

Sounds of Nashville at Otterton

Otterton's historic mill just a few miles upstream from Budleigh Salterton has arranged a lively series of concerts and exhibitions for 2010. This Thursday 4 February sees American singer-songwriter Robby Hecht performing at 8.00 pm. "A truly original voice of new America with thoughtful songs blended with glorious melodies" is how he is described on the Mill's website.

Raised in Knoxville, Tennessee, Robby Hecht first began writing and performing while attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison, developing and pairing his soulful voice and unique finger-style guitar. After spending time living in Paris and San Francisco, including a period fronting the band AllDay Radio, he eventually returned to his home state, settling in Nashville.

A 2008 Grassy Hill Kerrville New Folk Winner, he has played folk/roots festivals across the country, sharing the stage with such legendary artists as Richie Havens, Greg Brown, and Patty Griffin, and garnering comparisons to early James Taylor, Paul Simon and Amos Lee.

Tickets are £9.50. To book, call 01395 568521 or visit the craft shop in the mill building. For more information see

A serenade with soap at new Budleigh Farmers Market

This banjo-player was giving a musical welcome to Budleigh Farmers' Market when I went to see how it had settled into its new location in the Rolle Mews car park.

Last Friday 29 January marked the town's first Farmers' Market of 2010, and it was fitting that the new decade should begin on an uplifting note for producers and customers, with a change of venue which seemed to be universally approved by everyone I met.

Gerald Sweetland, from Bovey's Down Farm near Colyton, couldn't have been more pleased in the new surroundings. "In the old location at the Brook Road car park we were stuck next to the public lavatories. There's no comparison," he told me.

Clive Gammon, from Tracey Mill trout farm in Honiton, was just as happy. He'd noticed lots of new customers that morning. "In the old location even many of the locals didn't know where we were," he said.

Dave Johnson, who runs Norsworthy Goats dairy products with his wife Marilyn near Crediton, told me a little of the background: "Where we used to be we felt the Budleigh Farmers' Market was going downhill. Many producers were feeling 'If it doesn't buck up we'll have to reconsider our position in the town.'" So he's a lot more optimistic now. "It's taken a long time but it's been well worth it."

At that stage I meant to chat to the banjo-player, but my eye was caught, as was my friend Annie's, by the delicious-looking range of soaps manufactured by Ishbel Ramsay, from nearby Woodbury.

They included these cup-cake soaps that really do look good enough to eat.

Like the other market traders she hadn't been impressed by the former Brook Road location. "The old site wasn't exactly one that you'd stumble across, being rather hidden away. This one's more more user-friendly," she told us. "I've noticed there are more elderly people coming because they can park their cars more easily now." She went on to enthuse about her soaps, marketing ideas pouring out of her like... well, like soap bubbles really. Ideas for Jurassic Coast fossil soaps, for complimetary soaps for B&Bs, for Valentine one-for-two-persons-in-the shower soaps... There was no stopping her. Not only does she use Blogspot like Norsworthy Goats, but omg she's on Facebook!

I was so carried away by Ishbel's enthusiasm for her soaps that when I turned round to check out the banjo-player he'd disappeared along with the soap bubbles. And I saw suddenly that enthusiasm and passion for their products are what drive the Farmers' Market traders and make it such a pleasure to buy their produce. And they obviously enjoy coming here to Budleigh Salterton, some of them from many miles away, just as we enjoy seeing them at the Farmers Market. It would be a shame to lose it.

More information about the producers I spoke to is on the following websites:

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Avoiding clerical errors

I enjoy noting similarities – and the occasional striking difference – between the way things are done here in Budleigh Salterton, and across the Atlantic in our sister-town of Brewster, Massachusetts.

So, knowing that the vicar of St Peter's parish church will be retiring in April this year, I was interested in an item that I came across in the November 2009 newsletter published by Brewster's First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church, part of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).

In Brewster, it seems, they've been looking for a new minister for some time now, and it's a quest which has involved much heart-searching.

Above: Brewster's First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church

"Our survey and small group meetings showed that we are fairly open to our next parish minister being from any category of gender, race, age, class, sexual orientation, religion, or other classifications (with the exception of political conservatives)," state the members of their Ministerial Search Committee.

I'll return to that matter of political conservatives in a few minutes.

I'd say that the field is not just "fairly open", but wide open thanks to the approach taken by the Committee. On November 8, they invited church members to attend a sponsored programme which included the Sunday service, lunch, and an three-hour afternoon workshop. The aim was to persuade the congregation to move "Beyond Categorical Thinking" in the search for a new minister.

For it seems that "a surprising number" of members questioned in the survey had revealed some narrow-mindedness. "One survey respondent honestly reflected, 'Wow – I must say I need to look at some leftover prejudices I still may have...'" noted the Committee.

The newsletter itself contained a questionnaire with the following introduction. "Ministers come in different shapes and sizes and with a variety of characteristics," it explained. "The search process should be as free as possible from biases. However, sometimes we find it difficult to accept or feel comfortable with ministers with certain characteristics."

Respondents were asked to consider the list of characteristics and reflect on their feelings about having a minister with this characteristic, and then to consider what the congregations's response would be.

The characteristics covered just about everything.

How would you feel about having a white male minister aged between 30 and 55? people were asked. Or from a different age group? Or female? Or a male/female of color? Or an individual with a visible physical disability? Or blind/with a speech impediment/deaf/or with hearing impairment? With English as a second language? A married/single/individual who has been or is in therapy/on anti-depressant medication/recovered or recovering from an addiction? A gay or lesbian, partnered or otherwise? With Christian/Humanist/Muslim theological perspective? A smoker or obese individual with long hair and earring(s)/with visible and/or multiple tattoos? From a moneyed/blue collar background? Even "an individual not in UUA ministerial fellowship"?

And, more surprisingly, even a minister with a "conservative political perspective," in spite of the Committee's earlier expressed distaste for such an individual. For it's pretty clear that this church is proud of its open and friendly attitude.

The 'rainbow' flag for gay/bi Americans
Respected by Brewster's UU church
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

It has, according to its website, a Welcoming Congregation Committee (WCC) which is "committed to maintaining First Parish Brewster's unique status as the first church in the Unitarian Universalist denomination to be officially recognized as a congregation intentionally welcoming lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) people."

Seeing the splendid building in which the UUs gather for their services and meetings, you'd be forgiven for thinking that this is a church of neatly ordered theology, conservative outlook and rigidly enforced rules.

I learnt from the Wikipedia article about UUs that this religion is far removed from the rather illiberal Roman Catholicism in which I was brought up, which included suffering at the hands of the Irish Christian Brothers.

"There is no single unifying belief that all Unitarian Universalists (UUs) hold, aside from complete and responsible freedom of speech, thought, belief, faith, and disposition. They believe that each person is free to search for his or her own personal truth on issues, such as the existence, nature, and meaning of life, deities, creation, and afterlife. UUs can come from any religious background, and hold beliefs from a variety of cultures or religions.

Above: The Unitarian Universalist Church logo

Concepts about deity are diverse among UUs. Some believe that there is no god (atheism); others believe in many gods (polytheism). Some believe that God is a metaphor for a transcendent reality. Some believe in a female god (goddess), a passive god (Deism), an Abrahamic god, or a god manifested in nature or the universe (pantheism).

Many UUs reject the idea of deities and instead speak of the "spirit of life" that binds all life on earth. UUs support each person's search for truth and meaning in concepts of spirituality."
I also read that the English clergyman Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), more widely known as the scientist who discovered oxygen, became a leading figure in the founding of the church in the US. That was after he was forced to flee from England when his anti-establishment thinking and support for the American and French Revolutions led to his home being burned down by a mob in 1791.

He settled in Pennsylvania, on America's East Coast, where so many refugees settled after fleeing from prejudice and persecution in Europe, hoping for freedom to practise their various religious beliefs.

The statue of Joseph Priestley in Birmingham UK. The city was obviously trying to make amends for having ill-treated him during the 1791 riots.

Picture credit: Ian Britton - FreeFoto.

Brewster's First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church, with its idealistic desire to leave prejudice behind in its search for a new minister, is clearly inspired by that liberal tradition which was part of the same centuries-old search for freedom.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

A 7,000-mile stroll with the dogs

I spotted him this afternoon following us along the coast path as we stopped to admire the view from near Steamer Steps in Budleigh Salterton. "You look as though you're going a bit further than us," I said as he passed with his two black retrievers. And indeed he was. With that enormous rucksack he couldn't have been just taking the dogs for a walk. So in a way it was no surprise when he told us that he'd been following the coastline of Great Britain for almost a year, on foot.

And then I thought of the savagely hard winter we'd been having and saw the days-old stubble on his face, and realised that there was a bit of a story here. Indeed there was and is.

Ges Laker set out on his mammoth journey from Warsash in Hampshire on 31 January last year. His aims: to raise funds for a rather special charity, as well as to discover the coastal secrets of the UK. And I suppose also to keep fit, along with his two canine companions Phoebe and Sumo, the mother-and-son duo.

An ex-Royal Navy man, 54-year-old Ges was drawn to fund-raise for St Dunstan's, the Sussex-based charity which supports blind ex-service men and women, helping them to become self-sufficient, regain their optimism and make the most of opportunities.

He left the Navy in 1991 to start his own landscaping business, but has taken a break from work to embark on his big adventure. "I have been dreaming of this walk for over 10 years and now is the time for me to give something back," he tells us on his website.

So it wasn't just the view over the sea that was inspiring today. He didn't ask us for a donation, but it seemed only right to help him on his way.

Below: Heading east. Ges Laker on the last stretch of his 7,000-mile walk, from Budleigh to Southampton. With Phoebe and Suo of course.

A corps issue in election year

As I mentioned elsewhere winter storms have ravaged the east coast of America, including beaches at Budleigh Salterton's sister-town of Brewster on Cape Cod.

At Paines Creek Landing they've set to work to repair the damage, led by Brewster's Natural Resources Department. A group made up of the Department's staff and volunteers filled 1,500 sandbags, stacking them around the boulders to protect the landing.

I learnt that they were joined by a crew of AmeriCorps. Much appreciated no doubt: "1500 bags at 50 pounds a bag is 75,000 pounds, or a good 25 yards of sand. Makes for a long day..." as the Department's blog reflects.

Picture credit: Brewster's Department of Natural Resources blog site. See below.

And what an apt name for an organisation that prides itself on tackling jobs like this, defending America.

For AmeriCorps members take the following pledge:

"I will get things done for America - to make our people safer, smarter, and healthier.
I will bring Americans together to strengthen our communities.
Faced with apathy, I will take action.
Faced with conflict, I will seek common ground.
Faced with adversity, I will persevere.
I will carry this commitment with me this year and beyond.
I am an AmeriCorps member, and I will get things done."

AmeriCorps is a network of national service programmes that offers more than 75,000 opportunities for Americans each year in volunteer service to meet critical needs in education, public safety, health, and the environment. Full-time members receive an education award of $4,725 to pay for college, graduate school, or to pay back student loans.

With a General Election looming for the UK in 2010, we're going to hear a lot more about the concept. Politicians, notably Labour and Conservative, have been looking across the Atlantic in recent years to see how it works. Just before Christmas, the UK think-tank Demos published a pamphlet which suggests how a British equivalent might operate. "In recent years the idea of civic service has won support from across the political spectrum as a cure to a range of social ills including increasing social fragmentation, the rise of celebrity culture and the breakdown of community," as they explain.

Not everyone in Britain welcomes the idea of course. The news that the Higher Education minister David Lammy has called for Labour's Election Manifesto to include a plan which will require university students to complete 100 hours of Compulsory Civic Service has provoked squeals of protest, notably from student groups concerned about rumours that the Government is "planning on paying for the organisation of the scheme by hiking student loan interest rates on past and present students."

And somehow, even if the scheme goes ahead, I can't see it being bolstered by a members' pledge similar to the proud boast of AmeriCorps.

Our notion of Britishness is weak compared with the sense of national identity experienced by other countries. The decline of our Empire, regional devolution within the UK with its various Assemblies, the problems within our Established Church of England, the globalisation or collapse of many of our industries, even perhaps the impact of mass immigration and our cynical view of politicians... these are just some of the factors involved. "People have more allegiance to football teams than they have to Great Britain," has commented one observer. "What is the glue that is going to hold society together?"

It's a sad sign of the times that perhaps the strongest manifestation of patriotism in the UK during recent years has been on the streets of Wootton Bassett, the small town in Wiltshire, known for the dignified respect with which it greets the seemingly endless funeral cortèges of returning service men and women.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

A coastly affair

Our sister-town of Brewster on Cape Cod and Budleigh Salterton on the East Devon coast share many natural beauties common to seaside communities, with their unspoilt shorelines and their estuary landscapes, havens for wildlife. This stretch of peaceful coastline to the west of Budleigh may look like a dream beach, with that calm, incredibly blue sea lapping gently at the pebbles beneath wonderful red cliffs.

It's relatively empty, even in high summer. No wonder it's supposed to be one of the places where Diana, Princess of Wales, sought happiness during secret walks here with her lover James Hewitt.

And there's even a secluded section designated as a naturist beach where sun-worshippers can lie contentedly on the pebbles.

Diana, Princess of Wales, during a visit to Peterborough
Photo credit: Chris White

But the latest news from the US eastern seaboard and Brewster's coastline reveals a less happy resemblance with Budleigh Salterton's. I read that a massive storm combined with surging tides this month has ravaged beaches along Cape Cod Bay from Provincetown to Brewster, decimating protective dunes, ruining paved parking lots, and endangering coastal homes.

In Brewster, areas like Paine’s Creek Landing, Breakwater Landing, and Ellis Landing have particularly suffered, with sand removed by the force of the tides.

At Paines Creek landing, popular with dog walkers and beach strollers large sections of asphalt were torn from about a third of the parking area.
Above: Sunset at Paines Creek, Brewster Photo credit: Byron Cain

Here in Budleigh that beautiful stretch of the shoreline along which the South West Coast Path runs has been regularly falling victim to natural erosion for many years. Walkers are warned to keep away from the cliff edge, and I feel just a little bit nervous as I stand there to take my amazing photos.

I don't suppose you get much warning if a thundering noise suddenly emerges from those cracks in the ground, sweeping soil and vegetation along with any rash photographers in a matter of seconds down to the beach hundreds of yards below, and marking a new line in Britain's failing defences against the sea.

At the magnificently situated East Devon Golf Club they're already making plans to deal with the likelihood that the parts of the South West Coast Path, which runs alongside the golf course, will soon be too dangerous for walkers to use. The path, following 630 miles of coastline is Britain's longest national trail, running from Minehead in Somerset to Poole in Dorset. It's been calculated that a total of 19 miles of the path is at risk to regular coastal slippage.

"The section of the coast path at the top of the 16th fairway is eroding very quickly,"
say Club spokesmen. "One more landslide and the coast path will have to be re-routed to a safer position."

A plan has been drawn up which, the Club feels, maintains what it believes to be the ethos of the course, namely "to use the natural contours and flora of the land to provide a great golfing experience." The three-stage plan, involving protection of the course's heather beds and some judicious movement of plants, consists of constructing a new 13th hole along with new 14th and 17th tees, creating a new fairway and altering the route of the 16th hole away from the cliff. A total expenditure of £92,500 is involved, but the Club is confident that all stages of the plan, recently approved by its members, will be completed through the annual cash surplus.

And in Brewster too they're talking about the cash burden of ravages caused by the sea. The town's Natural Resources Departments estimated that long-term repairs in the area would cost as much as $500,000.

On both sides of 'the pond' there's a price to be paid for living in an area of outstanding natural beauty.

More green shoots, including some moss

I received a copy of a great little 12-page community newsletter the other day. It's in French of course, so I'll have to get the dictionary out.

More to the point it's got an article by that Jeremy Light with the Budleigh Salterton connection I mentioned the other day, all about the transition group that he helped to set up in his village in South-East France.

Pictured above is the Trièves region where Jeremy lives, situated high in the mountains near Grenoble. It's noted for its spectacularly beautiful scenery as well as for the variety of its wildlife, which includes many plants with medicinal properties.

And by coincidence I noticed that Mossin' Annie from across the Atlantic in the US had commented on the timeliness of the above post which mentioned Transition Towns.

"We just had our first T-Town meeting in Brevard, NC, USA this week," she says, following the Green Drinks gathering that she helped to organize. "We had about 40 people turn out. Brevard is a small mountain town where kids still walk to school and I rarely lock my door." Like Budleigh, really.

"First action task: Local realtor offered space for a community vegetable garden this Spring/Summer," she reports. "Let's hope the synergy continues and the movement materializes into an improved quality of life."

Above: Triple Falls in Dupont State Forest in Transylvania County, NC.

Picture credit: Kathy Hardy

Annie Martin, seen here, is CEO of Mountain Moss Enterprises, based in Pisgah Forest, North Carolina. She designs and creates innovative moss focal features in sustainable landscapes for environmentally-concerned individuals and corporate entities. Her website should offer encouragement to those of us in Budleigh who might otherwise battle hopelessly against weeds and moss on our lawns with chemicals that we know in our hearts are bad for the environment.

She shows that moss can be used for interior design projects as well, at

Picture credit: Annie Martin, Mountain Moss Enterprises

But back to France, where Trièves Après-pétrole, the group in which Jeremy is involved, was set up in September 2008 on the lines of the Transition Town movement, its name spelling out clearly that the world can no longer rely on a cheap and plentiful supply of oil. 2010, he writes in Les Nouvelles Du Pays, marks the start of a new economic era and the end of an increasingly destructive period of consumerism.

Far from delivering a message of doom and gloom however, Jeremy sees the coming decade as a time of opportunity. Society, he believes, is coming more and more to realise that consumerism does not guarantee happiness. The future should lie in developing human relationships rather than in flaunting materialism. New and important employment opportunities will come in areas such as renewable energy, agriculture and construction, where environmental factors will play a greater part.

On 4 February, Jeremy's group will welcome Danielle Grunberg, of the UK Transition movement, and on 17-18 April Jeremy and fellow-scientist Pierre Bertrand, co-founder of Trièves Après-pétrole, will be at Totnes in Devon for a conference on Transition initiatives. They're hoping to be accompanied by a crew from French TV channel Canal+ which is filming a programme about Transition Towns.

So there we are. Transition towns started in Devon but are sprouting all over the world. For more information see

Above: The world can no longer rely on a cheap and plentiful supply of oil, says the Transition Town movement. Picture credit: 450 Images

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Devon Reds are really green

A herd of Devon Red cattle have been introduced to graze an area of the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths near Budleigh Salterton. Picture courtesy of Devon Clinton Estates. For the full story, read on...

I wondered the other day whether Budleigh Salterton was beginning to follow a 'green' trend set by many environmentally-aware Devon towns who've embraced the 'transition' movement. But you could argue that our town has in fact been setting the trend for a caring approach to the natural world with its largely Budleigh-based Otter Valley Association, and - dare I say it? - its conservative outlook on matters such as beach-side development.

And of course, just a few miles inland, we've a convincing example of caring conservation in action in the shape of Devon Clinton Estates, a family-run business headed by the 23rd Baron Clinton, which is one of the major private landowners in the UK.

With interests in three business parks and residential property as well as a number of small businesses, along with its traditional farming and forestry operations, the Estates include 2,800 acres of the East Devon Pebblebed heaths. The East Devon Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust is a charity set up by Devon Clinton Estates which employs full time wardens to look after the heaths and implement their Heathland Management Plan, developed in conjunction with Natural England.

Clinton cows could soon be generating electricity

Devon Clinton Estates' links to the county go back to 1550, when the 9th Baron Edward Clinton acquired land near Exeter.

The links may be ancient, but the business prides itself on its conservation credentials. It's currently engaged in a number of renewable energy projects on the Estate in terms of displacing fossil fuel use and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These include examining the potential for collection of methane from the two dairy herds on the Estate in order to produce energy, either in the form of heat or to generate electricity to feed back into the grid.

The Devon Red cattle on the Pebblebed Heaths are part of a year-long trial into sustainable land management. Their hardiness and ability to graze on the heathland vegetation mean that the thirteen cattle will naturally open up important wet areas and reduce the height and density of scrub and new growth of birch and willow.

A Dartford Warbler Photo by Peter Beesley
The lowland heaths a few miles to the north-west of Budleigh are among just a few remaining in Britain, making them rarer than tropical rainforests. They are home to a number of rare birds such as Dartford Warblers and Nightjars and special flora and fauna such as the insectivorous Butterwort and Sundew plants. However, preserving the unique characteristics of the heathland depends on the continued management of the land, stopping trees re-establishing themselves and preventing gorses and bracken from taking over.

The twelve-month trial at the Dalditch Plantation has been initiated by the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths Trust in conjunction with Natural England under the Higher Level Stewardship Scheme.

Commons Warden Bungy Williams said: "Until now we have mechanically managed the area with spraying and with machinery including tractors and cutters. Not only is this incredibly difficult in a wetland area, it is not as environmentally friendly as we would like which is why we are testing more sustainable methods, that are environmentally friendly and equally, if not more, effective. In just a few weeks, these heavy footed cattle have already opened up some of the wet areas."

Above: Dalditch Plantation, looking south towards the sea

Devon Reds or Red Ruby Devons are a traditional breed which are recognised by conservation organisations as a preferred breed of cattle for grazing land with conservation value. According to the Devon Cattle Breeders Association, they are gentle, docile grazers.

On the Dalditch plantation, the animals are fenced in but walkers and horse-riders still have full access to the area, which has been made rider-friendly with the introduction of special bridleway gates.

Bungy Williams said: "We are very keen that people have free use of the area, as before, and at the same time they can see our grazing scheme at work."

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Misterious insect on beach

A thick sea-fog was drifting in from the English Channel yesterday. This creature and I were alone on an otherwise deserted Budleigh beach.

"The robins must be getting desperate!"

[More bird stories following my posting about the golden plover on the beach, as well as the horrid story of birdcrime and cannibalism in Budleigh Salterton down on the banks of the River Otter as featured on the BBC's 'Snow Watch.'

The big freeze seems like a bad dream now that the first signs of spring are here, but the memories of weird bird behaviour during the cold spell will remain.

My Budleigh correspondent Janet Parrish sent me this one, with these two great photos of an unusual garden visitor]

Yesterday morning I looked out of the bedroom window to see something with a red breast diving into the pond. I thought, "Heavens! I have never seen a robin dive before. It is going in after the fish. This must have been a hard winter indeed!"

It emerged and sat on the heron sculpture. "That's a funny looking robin," thought I. "Better put my glasses on... and get the binoculars out."

Imagine my surprise and delight to see it was no robin, but a kingfisher. I have never in my life seen a real live kingfisher before, let alone in my own back yard. It must have come all the way from Otterton, where I know they are regularly seen.

It stayed for the rest of the day, alternately watching from the 'heron' and then from the bird feeding station, between fishing sorties. It was getting quite dark before it finally left. Sadly it has not been back today, having presumably finished the fish available. Maybe someone else is benefiting from the sight as it plunders pond after pond.

Text and photos © Janet Parrish

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Malcolm Wells (1926-2009) - a great and inspiring citizen of Brewster

Having just posted a few green-tinged items on my blog, I came across an obituary for one of Cape Cod's most respected 'green' thinkers and artists, the architect Malcolm Wells, who died on 27 November last year. A resident of Brewster, our sister-town, perhaps he may inspire people living in Budleigh Salterton to explore some of his ideas on underground living.

With the participation of many thousands of his admirers worldwide, the website was set up with Malcolm Wells' permission, although he denied taking any part in this endeavour, other than being an amused bystander.

The following material is taken from that source, where many examples of Malcolm Wells' work can be seen at

Malcolm Wells, or 'Mac' as he was known, is arguably the father of modern earth-sheltered architecture. He has done more to promote gentle building, energy conservation, and treading lightly on this earth, than any other proponent of geotecture, terratecture, or whatever you want to call earth-sheltered architecture. Almost every book you read about building underground will mention Mac as the author's inspiration.

His writings and illustrations are filled with a dry, self-deprecating humor. His wisdom and perception, though often tinged with the bitter taste of difficult-to-swallow truths, tenderly challenges the way we think about how we live. You'll see the world differently after encountering Mac.

Briefly his autobiography ran like this:

"In 1964, after 10 years spent spreading corporate asphalt on America in the name of architecture, I woke up one day to the fact that the earth's surface was made for living plants, not industrial plants. I've been an underground architect ever since."

He'd considered the question of an obituary, and decided to write his own, as follows:

"A few years before her death I asked my sister Mimi if she’d ever thought about her own obituary. She hadn’t, but it took her only a second or two to come up with one:

“I was born, I went to school, I grew up, I got married, I had two kids, and I died.”

Her response clearly illustrated our differences. Mimi didn’t need to tell you about her life. I had to tell you about mine. That’s why the obituary that follows will probably run to several pages.

My original name was Malcolm Bramley Wells. A great-grandmother in Cleveland was a woman who’d never heard of me. She was Mary Bramley, and she died not long after I was born. So my middle name was soon dropped. I have been just plain Malcolm Wells or Mac ever since.

My big brother, Jack, was killed on a motor scooter in 1950 at age 29. Mimi died of lung cancer at 58. She’d been a heavy smoker. Full of fun, she practically wisecracked her way to the cemetery. I, too, smoked – for 30 years – (till I was 47) but have gotten away with it so far (as I sit here coughing my way toward a third year of pneumonia) My whole life, in fact, has been one of getting away with it. I’m a lucky man.

My mother was an artist. She taught me to draw, to understand perspective, and to see land forms. My father, “a mere appliance salesman”, as he put it, taught me to be dependable, to look people in the eye, and to smile. Those characteristics have always opened many doors for me, although the “smile” part gets pretty well lost in my beard.

I married Shirley Holmes in 1947. She was just a month past her 19th birthday, It was she who opened my eyes to subjects like race in America, subjects I’d had till then taken little time for, dazzled as I’d been with the wonder of myself. Later, it was Karen who continued that eye-opening process, making me aware of conditions beyond the world of architecture.

My big brother, Jack, had been one of those guys who could do anything: pick up a musical instrument and play it almost by instinct. Artist, musician, cartoonist, gymnast – you name it. And there I was, his klutzy kid brother, standing by his drawing board, trying to absorb everything I saw. I was never able to do things quite right. So even though I fell into a life of good luck later on, it all came to me slowly, as I tried in vain to be Jack redux. I was too shy to go out for sports in high school, and I didn’t even have a date till the end of my senior year.
I don’t have a degree of any kind but as I neared 60 I was asked to teach an environmental design course at Harvard. If nothing else, teaching taught me that I was no teacher. Then, for 10 to 15 years, mostly in the 80s, I lectured on my favorite subject, underground architecture, at schools all across the continent.

Eight or ten books later, I’d moved to Cape Cod, built another well-publicized house, and done the usual “successful architect” thing: gotten divorced and remarried.

Karen North Wells, the landscape painter, has now been my wife since 1984. Her two kids, Jonathan Kelly (1970) and Kirsten Engstrom (l972) seemed to have survived, even thrived, in spite of having inherited a geezer. Each is now married and a parent of two children.
My three kids, Kappy (1949), John (1951), and Sam(1955), have made me a three-time grandfather. My kids, as you might guess, are wonderful. My luck in life continues.

I am an atheist, a Democrat, a skinny old bearded guy, and an owner, with Karen, of the Underground Art Gallery at 673 Satucket Road in Brewster. My former wife, Shirley, down in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, remained and is a better person andbetter sport than I would have been if she’d left me. (My luck continues.) And Karen’s art is more widely appreciated every year, thank goodness, for she now supports me. She, like Shirley, is a wonderful woman. Sunshine and roses.

I have so many old-age health problems, Karen must devote even more of her time to caring for me, which she does not only without complaint but with enthusiasm!

But wait: don’t cut me off here. I haven’t told you about my two years in the Marine Corps – World War II – studying engineering at Georgia Tech and carrying a wooden rifle, of working with the Seneca’s, or doing a World’s Fair building, or designing a quilt, or never having touched a computer or a cell phone, or having done dozens, probably hundreds, of incredible designs and…"

Budleigh's 'green shoots'?

Some people have suggested that Budleigh's first ever science festival is a case of jumping on the global warming bandwagon.

But could it be simply that Budleigh is following a 'green' trend set by many of its neighbouring towns?
Picture credit: Environmental protection agency

In 2006 Totnes in Devon became the first English town to officially align itself with the 'Transition' movement.

Followers of the movement base their thinking on the concept of 'peak oil', whereby they assume that the world has reached the point in time of maximum rate of global petroleum extraction, and that we now live in a period where the rate of production has entered terminal decline. Unhappily, they point out, the world is also facing the problem of climate change caused by carbon pollution of the atmosphere.

One answer, they believe, is for communities to develop in a spirit of self-sufficiency a coordinated range of projects across all their areas of life that "strives to rebuild the resilience we've lost as a result of cheap oil and reduce the community's carbon emissions drastically."

'Resilience' seems to be a keyword in transition thinking. I read, for example, that "A 'transition initiative' occurs when a community aims to rebuild the resilience that it has lost as a result of cheap oil, and to reduce drastically its carbon emissions," while a cheery message from the Exmouth Transition Town people hopes that we've had "a low carbon Christmas and resilient New Year."

It's hard for someone of the 60s generation not to think of all this as a resurgence of a sort of tougher version of hippy flower power. And you could go back even further in time by suggesting that it's a nostalgia for the good old days of 'make do and mend' and of wartime resilience.

Totnes, the hometown of Rob Hopkins whose work on permaculture inspired the 'Transition' concept, went so far in resilience and in its own form of self-sufficiency as to invent its own currency, the 'Totnes pound.'

Sidmouth, Exmouth, Seaton, Exeter... they all seem to have their own 'transition' websites.

Ottery seems to have especially strong links with the local churches where its 'green' shoots are sprouting.
Picture: The parish church of St Mary in Ottery St Mary, where meetings to develop the town's 'sustainability' have been held. See

And Budleigh? Well, the idea was floated a year or so ago, with a meeting arranged in July 2008, but it doesn't seem to have come to anything.

A recent visitor to Budleigh whose family moved here in the 1980s would be overjoyed to see the town taking steps to emphasise its environmental awareness.

Jeremy Light, former biological coordinator at the Centre for Alternative Technology at Machynlleth in Mid-Wales from 1976 to 1993, was then involved with Centre Terre Vivante, an ecological research and education initiative located in Mens, S.E. France.
Terre Vivante hosts courses on regenerative gardening and farming, renewable energy, and ecological building

Recently Jeremy Light has been in contact with Transition Towns Totnes and is developing the movement in the French alpine village where he now lives. The British Antarctic Survey veteran, whose father Stanley lived in Vales Road, is a specialist in reed bed alternative sewerage systems and natural gardening, having published books on these subjects while based at Machynlleth.

"Transition Towns," he says, "are a radical new way of creating a better lifestyle that takes into account declining oil supplies, while putting the planet and all its people first".

But perhaps Budleigh Salterton already has its environmental champion in the excellent Otter Valley Association
OVA organise walks, talks and other events among other activities, and has a membership of over 1,100 according to its website.

Picture: The Otter estuary, a wildlife haven on our doorstep
Yet OVA also has an interest in climate change.

"Our climate is changing. High summer temperatures are becoming more frequent and very cold winters are becoming less frequent," I read with mixed feelings considering that 2009/10 has brought us one of the coldest winters that Budleigh has experienced in recent years.

And OVA goes on to make a promise. "Where appropriate, we will help to create flexibility and opportunities for habitats and species in the face of climate change."

It surely goes without saying that the species should include the most important, human, variety.

The scarlet lady of Stoneborough Court

Having just seen the beautifully acted and filmed version of The Painted Veil, based on Somerset Maughan's story of an unhappily married couple of ex-pats in the1920s, I was intrigued to see a request published in the local press which evoked a real-life marital scandal of that period involving a former Budleigh resident.

According to one of her neighbours in Stoneborough Court on East Budleigh Road, Gwendoline Croysdale (1898-1985), known by her friends as Gwen, was "still tall, elegant and well dressed in her later years." As one would only expect on seeing portraits of this beautiful socialite by fashionable 1920s painters and photographers. I found myself comparing them with Naomi Watts' screen performance of the unfaithful wife in The Painted Veil, forced by her husband as a punishment for her infidelity to accompany him to a cholera-struck backwater of British colonial China.

Depending on your point of view, Gwen Croysdale, also known at various stages of her life as Mrs Gunn and Lady Whinney, could be described  as unlucky rather than unfaithful. Some might call her predatory, with an appetite for wealthy husbands of whom she notched up four. Yet both women may be seen to have gained a kind of redemption by the end of their lives. While the Painted Veil wife finds an inner peace by working with nuns to help poor Chinese children Mrs Croysdale apparently became the benefactress of a local convent. She even persuaded its curate, Fr Ralph Gardner, to become her spiritual adviser and live-in companion, making him follow her in her 70th year by converting from Christianity to Buddhism.

The daughter of a gunboat captain, she was born Mary Gwendoline Charlotte Hillman and brought up in China - another echo of the film. Her first husband was Guy Stafford Thorne (1882-1917). A solicitor's son from Wolverhampton, he worked as an engineer for the Kwang Tung Electric Supply Company under the Chinese Government; it may well have been in China that he first met Gwen. They married in 1916 and later that year he joined the Royal Flying Corps and was sent to France. Described as a pilot of exceptional skill and technical knowledge he was mentioned in despatches. On 18 March 1917, charged with a special mission, he was flying over Arras when he was attacked by five enemy aeroplanes. Severely wounded, he managed to land his aircraft with his observer behind enemy lines but was captured and died a few hours later. 

Following his death Gwen married the Glaswegian painter Herbert James Gunn (1893-1964), with whom she had three daughters, Pauline, Elizabeth and Diana. It's likely that Gunn was dazzled by his wife's beauty, judging by his portrait of her.

Knighted in 1963 for services to art, her husband would find fame and fortune with his portraits of the Royal Family, including Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, Prince Philip and the present Queen. He would be elected to the Royal Academy as President of The Society of Portrait Painters.
But Gunn's early life had been blighted by his experience of the First World War in which he had been badly gassed, and the marriage was not a happy one. In 1925, Gwen abandoned him for one of her husband's sitters. Aged 60, her new lover Sir Arthur Whinney (1865-1927) was older but considerably richer than Herbert Gunn.
The Gunns' separation led to a bitter divorce the following year in which Gwen took her children with her and insisted that they adopt the surname of her new lover. Not only that but she denied her husband access to the children for three years. It was only by chance one day in Regent's Park that Herbert Gunn came across Pauline, Elizabeth and Diana accompanied by their nurse. The meeting inspired one of his most poignant paintings, for with the secret agreement of the nurse, Gunn made a study of his three daughters at play in the park which, a work which he regarded as his greatest and the one which he treasured most. The girls were soon stopped from going to the park by their mother and did not see their father again until they were adults. Not surprisingly Gwen has been accused of "vindictiveness" by art historians who have commented on the painting, which was simple titled The Design for a Portrait Group
Her third marriage meant that Gwen was now Lady Whinney. Sir Arthur was a successful chartered accountant whose business would later become the internationally known accountancy firm of Ernst & Young. But the relationship was short-lived, for Sir Arthur died in 1927.
Gwen, a wealthy widow by this stage, had lost none of her attractiveness. The portraits of her, taken on 8 August 1929 at the fashionable London studio of Bassano Ltd, Royal Photographers, are proof of that.

At around this time she married for the fourth time, settling in Maidenhead in Berkshire. Thomas Perceval Croysdale, known as Percy, was as wealthy as her previous husband.

In the 1930s Gwen earned herself a reputation in the world of dog-shows, specialising naturally enough in the fashionable Pembroke Welsh Corgis. By 1936 the breed had become personal pets of the Royal Family, and is famed today for being the preferred breed of Queen Elizabeth II.

A page from the December 1936 issue of the magazine Our Dogs featured Mrs Percy Croysdale's Pembroke Corgis. Gwen was instrumental in the setting up of the Welsh Corgi League, attending its first meeting on 21 June 1938 and underwriting the costs of its first breed show on 20 April the following year as one of the new organisation's vice-presidents.

Its first AGM, attended by twenty members, was held at her house in Maidenhead.

This large solid silver "The Champion Aureate of Cays medal" for 1938 is inscribed with the words "Presented by Mrs Percy Croysdale To Breeders of a Champion.

Later in life, Gwen moved from the Home Counties to Axminster, Devon.

Then, in the 1960s she settled in Budleigh Salterton where she spent the last twenty years of her life.

Gwen Croysdale died on 12 March 1985. Her grave is in St Peter's Burial Ground in Budleigh.

American author Emily Benz is seeking information from Budleigh people about this former resident of the town, who settled here after her colourful and eventful life. People with memories of Gwen are invited to contact Mrs Benz's researcher Simone Apel, 17 Coldstream Lane, Hardingstone, Northampton, NN4 6DB.
Telephone 01604 763628 or email