Notes from Devon: The First Ever Bleak House Experience

I have sat down a few times in the last two months to write about the first ever Bleak House Devon Experience. So many enriching things happened in those four days in October and in the time since the seven of us have been home. It was magical, inspiring, uplifting and life-changing and it surpassed all of my expectations. I've found it surprisingly hard to encapsulate quite how wonderful our experience was, but now that I have Lauren’s beautiful photos as a backdrop, I think it's time.

Devon was an alternate world, there’s no other way to describe it really. It’s as if we left real life, not to go back in time as such, but to enter a place where the past and the modern world sit side by side, where the boundaries of time are blurred. We married ancient smugglers’ pubs with Art Deco hotels, Victorian gardens with thatched cottages, steam trains with modern ferries, twentieth century books with twenty-first century readers, Agatha Christie’s evening dresses with Anthropologie jumpsuits, wellies with red lipstick. It was the perfect cocktail of inspiration and escape.

Our Experience started very early on a Monday morning at Heathrow airport where I picked up the first guest, photographer Lauren Keim, fresh from her flight from Washington, DC. We hopped in the car and talked non-stop all the way to the wonderful Ben’s Farm Shop in Devon where we stopped for lunch (homity pie and a pasty, when in Rome) and to do the food shopping for the week. (My Experience guests are’t normally expected to help with grocery shopping, this was a one-off occurrence!).

We spent the afternoon in Salcombe, taking in the views from the little ferry and the famous sea tractor and finally arrived at our cottage, a glorious thatched affair that was unrepentantly modern and sumptuously comfortable inside. Once unpacked we headed off for a sea swim at North Sands and made our way to Totnes to pick up Kelly, the second guest to arrive.

The three of us had a quiet evening and a relaxing morning and waited for everyone else to arrive just in time for tea and obligatory scones. Lauren taught a brilliant photography workshop and we all spent the new few days chasing the light everywhere we went. Lauren is a hugely talented photographer and a generous teacher and I’ve loved seeing what I now call ‘Lauren’s light’ in everyone’s photos since we’ve been back.

These photos of Greenway and Overbecks are by Nat Aubry-Stacey who clearly has a real talent for photographing chairs!

Of course when you go away with six women you’ve never met before there is bound to be a little nervousness but it quickly dissipated when we all realised that we were going to get on marvellously well and that sharing rooms was a chance to fast track new friendships, a bit like being in a very stylish boarding school and not having to do any homework. 

I really loved our mornings sat in the kitchen in our pyjamas chatting and we also developed a lovely night time ritual of drinking what became known as ‘sleepy tea’ (Pukka Night Time tea) in Bleak House Welsh Mugs each night by the fire before bed. Most of us are still doing this now we are home and I just adore having my night time tea by my gas fire and knowing I’m in good company.

I couldn’t talk about Devon without talking about the sea. Lauren and I are both cold water swimmers (she in the wide Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, USA, and me in a small pond on Hampstead Heath) and so I knew that she would swim with me but I wasn't sure anyone else would go for it. I was thrilled therefore when Nat announced she was going to brave the cold and come with us for an early morning swim at Thurlestone Sands. It turns out her Breton roots mean she’s far hardier than I am and she barely even winced at the chill. The three of us bobbed around in the water for a while, chatting and taking photos and I absolutely loved sharing this special moment with them. Kelly came for a walk along the beach and paddled her feet and kindly took photos of us and the four of us rewarded our chilly endeavours with hot chocolate in the cosy Beach House cafe.

Back at the house I ran a workshop on travelling journalling and log-booking, showing some ways for us to make the most of our travels and simple and quick ways to document our lives. It’s been really nice since we’ve been home to see people posting photos of their logbooks on Instagram and I think a few people put a HP Sprocket printer on their Christmas list.

We took a late afternoon walk to Salcombe from North Sands and caught the ferry and sea tractor to Overbecks, a beautiful botanical garden and Victorian house with gorgeous views over the Salcombe estuary. We wandered the little paths and photographed autumn flowers (under Lauren’s expert supervision). We had the gardens to ourselves and it was very easy to imagine it was our own private place.

 

We dined that evening at the wonderful Millbrook Inn, one of my favourite pubs for food. With a cosy, fire-lit interior and Michelin star chef John Burton-Race in the kitchen it was bound to be a hit and it didn’t disappoint.

Thursday was our big day, the highlight of the trip. We made our way to Darmouth and caught a little ferry across the Dart to Kingswear where we boarded a fabulous stream train with pink velvet seats to Agatha Christie’s enchanting home, Greenway. Alighting from the train at the request stop in the middle of autumnal beech woods was a treat, as far removed from Waterloo station on a Friday afternoon as you could possibly get.

I have been to Greenway many times, always in the winter and always with my husband Richard. Although he loves it there too, nothing really compares to how it feels to experience that special place in the company of women who are as emotionally attached to it as I am. It’s a gorgeous house, and the real highlights were emerging from the kitchen to find Jenna playing Beethoven on Agatha Christie’s Steinway piano and seeing the delight on Lauren’s face when she saw her hometown of Norfolk, Virginia in the frieze on the wall painted by Lieutenant Marshall Lee who was stationed there when the house was requisitioned by the US Coastguard during the Second World War.

 

The gardens and views over the Dart at Greenway are just wonderful, especially on a particularly sunny October afternoon. We wandered down to the battery, described in such perfect detail in Five Little Pigs, and Lauren took our photos with the Agatha Christie paperbacks I’d sent out in the welcome boxes.

The highlight for me was the visit to the boat house, which has been under renovation on my previous visits. It’s surprising how atmospheric an empty room can be and the windows, the view and the light captivated all of us. We stayed there for a long time and it felt like a very different place to the room where Marlene Tucker met her death in Dead Man’s Folly.

 

I was very glad for the clear skies that evening as I’d arranged for the Plymouth Astronomical Society to come to the cottage with their telescopes for some stargazing. Seeing Saturn’s rings and an incredibly close view of the surface of the moon made us feel quite tearful. I’ve never looked through a telescope at the stars before and now that I can identify Mars it will always make me think of Devon.

Our last day was spent at Burgh Island, the tiny, enigmatic tidal island setting of two of Agatha Christie’s most famous books, ‘And Then There Were None’ and ‘Evil Under The Sun’ and location of the famous 1930s Burgh Island hotel. I particularly love the teeny tiny 14th century Pilchard Inn. After this we drove across the hauntingly strange tidal road to South Milton Sands where we had a goodbye lunch at the marvellous Beach House.

The trip went so fast and I was really sad to wave everyone off to Totnes station for their journey home. Lauren and I drove back to London together and the moment we stopped at a miserable standard motorway service station we released with a jolt that we’d left that enchanting world behind us and rejoined the real world. 

I absolutely love that this first ever Bleak House Experience has not been confined to those four days, really it was the start of things, a catalyst to try new things, make new friends and immerse ourselves in the beauty of the British Isles. We've come home with new, tight friendships and arrangements to meet again, a new classics book club has been born out of our many conversations about literature, we discovered a love for Seedlips and Tonic, journalling and for seeking the light in our photography.

People have booked on to this and my next Experiences for a variety of different reasons, as a Christmas or birthday present to themselves, because they’ve had a difficult year and just need a break, because they want to meet new people, because they want to learn how to find incredible places to visit here in the UK or just because they work hard and want to treat themselves. All of these reasons make me really happy because I love seeing women value their time and prioritise their happiness and I absolutely love being able to show off the very best that this country has to offer.

I couldn’t be happier for how my first Bleak House Experience went and I can’t wait for the next one. THANK YOU to Jenna, Berndaette, Rozzy, Lauren, Kelly and Nat for making this first ever Bleak House Experience so very, very special.

My second Bleak House Experience to Devon has sold out, and my first ever Pembrokeshire Experience has just been released for booking. If you’d like to come, I’d love to meet you! And if you’d like to read about this Devon experience from a guest's perspective, you might like to read Nat’s account on her blog.

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