Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Thoughts out of the blue

Seeing this recently erected blue plaque outside Simcoe House, the summer residence of General John Graves Simcoe (1752-1806) on Budleigh Salterton's Fore Street Hill, reminded me of my early blogging days here and the excitement I felt on discovering that a resident of our town may well have shaped the history of the USA.

True, the story of how Simcoe saved the life of America's first President may be apocryphal but in my enthusiasm for reviving Budleigh's somewhat low-key transatlantic link with a small town on Cape Cod I was happy to accept the incident as genuine when I came across it at http://schools.tdsb.on.ca/jarvisci/history/rangers.htm

Anyway, even if it's not, the story of a British soldier's sense of decency and honour in refusing to shoot an enemy in the back is a kind of reassurance that even in wartime human beings can be shown as not totally savage.

And so the legend took its place at http://budleighbrewsterunited.blogspot.com/2009/05/cape-cod-and-otter-valley-closer-than.html among the other curiosities that I've come across since living in Budleigh Salterton.

Since then I see that it's been given even greater credence by Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Graves_Simcoe

But back to blue plaques. Exmouth and Sidmouth are full of them, all looking more or less identical in shape and size.

Exmouth's have been erected by the Exmouth Society: this one marks the last remaining thatched cottage in the town centre.

Situated on North Street it stands in sad contrast to the
architectural blot of the town's police station,a few hundred yards further up.

The Royal Glen Hotel, Sidmouth, dates originally from around 1700, but was rebuilt in the early 19th century in Regency style with Gothic features such as the casement windows

Sidmouth's blue plaques adorn some very grand and striking buildings, thanks to the Sid Vale Association.

Here is the Royal Glen Hotel's, marking the residence of the Duke and Duchess of Kent and their daughter, the future Queen Victoria. I'm sure she would not have been amused by the text's mangled grammar.

And what about Budleigh Salterton? It certainly has some interesting houses where notable residents settled, and in some cases it's the Otter Valley Association which has taken the initiative in marking the building with a blue plaque. But as for uniformity, forget it. Budleigh's done its own thing, in its own individualistic way.

Here's the Otter Valley Association plaque on Umbrella Cottage off Fore Street Hill, the home of Dr H.J. Carter (1813-95), Fellow of the Royal Society, a British army physician and authority on sponges.

And it was the Otter Valley Association which marked the Raleigh Wall down near the beach, where Sir John Millais is supposed to have painted 'The Boyhood of Raleigh.' Not oval, not round, but rectangular this time. 

But on with my plaque survey... Opposite the Raleigh Wall is The Octagon, where Sir John Millais stayed. A round plaque this time, but no indication of who was responsible.

Nor do we know who provided the sign on Cliff House, where Thomas Adolphus Trollope (1810-1892) lived with his wife Frances Eleanor until his death. And I think she deserves a bit more of a mention, being an author in her own right.

It does look as if it might have been part of a job lot ordered by either the Exmouth Society or the Sid Vale Association.

They were certainly trying to economise by noting the fact on the same plaque that another Budleigh worthy, Dr Thomas Brushfield lived opposite. Or perhaps they were aware that not everyone would be able to understand the Latin inscription on that rather splendid stone slab underneath.

But surely Dr Brushfield's eye-catching house, The Cliff, on Cliff Road, with its Alpine appendages complete with stained glass windows deserves its own blue plaque with a reminder of what he achieved as a highly respected local historian.

And finally my tour of Budleigh's places historic places - commemorated with stone, plastic, or metal - ends near 16, High Street, where an informative round plaque - metal on a wooden base - tells us about the Osgood family and the well-restored little building which is apparently the oldest surviving in the street.

There are of course other buildings in Budleigh Salterton which deserve to be marked: Park House, the home of Vice-Admiral Preedy which you can see at http://budleighbrewsterunited.blogspot.com/2009/07/another-link-across-pond.html , now a residential home.

There's the Temple Methodist church which replaced the original chapel built by the bookseller John Lackington as I mentioned at http://budleighbrewsterunited.blogspot.com/2009/08/temple-is-apt-setting-for-literary.html

And Greyfriars, the home of the children's author George Mills, who will be familiar to those who have followed the quest for him, starting with http://budleighbrewsterunited.blogspot.com/2011/01/who-was-george-mills.html

And the Northview Road home of the archaeologist George Carter (1886-1974) whose achievements I wrote about at http://budleighbrewsterunited.blogspot.com/2009/07/george-carter-and-archaeology-of-east.html

And what about the house in Dark Lane which was the home of the actor Reg Varney (1916-2008), star of the television comedy show On the Buses?

I've yet to find the house in Budleigh where the poet Meg Peacocke was born in 1930; the home of the artist Joyce Dennys (1893-1991) and that of her niece the children's book author Jean Blathwayt who settled here in 1953; the prolific author Ronald F. Delderfield, (1912-1972); the book illustrator Cecil Elgee; the author George Gissing, (1857-1903); the novel-writing clergyman Headon Hill also known as Francis Edward Grainger (1857-1927) who lived on Marine Parade; Ethel Larcombe (1879-1965) the champion tennis and badminton player; and the film actress Belinda Lee (1935-1961). The answers to where they lived are probably in the excellent local history files at Fairlynch Museum.

I'm sure there are others who are worthy of memory. Our town has attracted some interesting characters over the years. But if it's clearly a complex business to decide who should be commemorated, it's perhaps even more difficult, at least in Budleigh, to decide how.

"It is a bit of a free for all, even in London, and probably not a good thing in the long run," I was told by Jane Biro, Blue Plaques Coordinator at English Heritage, which limits its efforts to mark buildings associated with the famous to the capital.

"We did run a pilot scheme aiming to branch our activities out nationally but it was withdrawn not only due to lack of resources but also because we ended up treading on the toes of other schemes. It’s a tricky one!" she admitted.

The Royal Overseas League, responsible for the Simcoe House blue plaque, put much thought into the issue. Their Ewan MacLeod pointed out that in spite of English Heritage's efforts at coordination heritage plaques in London come in 28 assorted versions. "Most are with white lettering on blue, but there are examples also with yellow, brown, olive and green background. Most are circular, but some are square and one rectangular."

"Many towns and cities now promote 'Heritage Trails' as a tourist attraction and so I suppose there is some merit in having a common design easily spotted by those 'taking the walk'," he told me. "Otherwise it seems to me that the variety is itself of interest and, as things stand, would provide a collector with a lifetime of pleasant activity and study."

So maybe on that basis, Budleigh's apparently chaotic system of plaques is more enjoyable for visitors than that of its more disciplined neighbours in Exmouth and Sidmouth.

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