Yesterday was an absolutely gorgeous sunny early-autumn Devon day. I headed for Exmoor. On the way I had an early lunch, a really good baked potato with tuna and mayo, washed down by a gin and tonic, at The White Hart in Bratton Fleming. It was accompanied by a pleasant exchange with two girls from up north, one of whom was now living in Manchester. She thought I had 'a really nice English accent'. I'm getting pretty good at chinwagging with people who might 'see through my disguise' but I passed this test easily. However, that's not the encounter that meant most to me, of which more anon.
The colours of the moor were still lush green on the grazing land, but on the wilder parts the bracken was turning orange, and - as you might guess - the little Leica had plenty to do. From the pub I headed eastwards to a lonely spot deep in the moor, to see the 'Sloley Stone', which turned out to be a kind of county-boundary marker with an 18th century inscription on it. Then I took a road along a high ridge to the crossroads at Kinsford Gate, turning northeast now towards Simonsbath. Then it was north on the B3223. If you want a stretch of road with fabulous Exmoor scenery, including deep valleys, rivers, great swathes of open bracken moor, semi-wild sheep with horns, and cairns, all seen from an easy road that offers so many roadside photo opportunities that it might take an hour to travel only a few miles, then this is the road to take! And all in sunshine. Wow.
Exmoor is unusual because it goes all the way to the coast on its northern edge, literally ending in monster cliffs that offer a sweeping view of the silver Bristol Channel, with Lundy off westwards, and South Wales not so far away to the north. Trees prevail near the coast, especially in the deep valleys that cut into the plateau, each with its own rock-strewn river. As I went further north on the B3223, I began to descend into one of these heavily-wooded gorges. There was a sudden hairpin bend to negotiate. and then I joined the A39 on its tortuous route into Lynmouth. It didn't seem at all like an A road at this point, more like a narrow, twisting, minor road with passing places, that anything larger than a car would avoid. No way would I attempt it with a caravan in tow! It was in fact worse than the B road on the open moor. I don't know what two lorries or two buses would do if they met - how to get past each other, with a rock face on one side, and a drop to the river on the other? Of course, they must manage it, otherwise Lynmouth could have no food or fuel deliveries. But this is the 'easy' road into the town: the alternatives both involve 1 in 4 hills.
Parking at Lynmouth, I walked along the riverbank into the town centre. It was of course full of late-season tourists and holidaymakers, all strolling about, and all the shops and cafés and hotels were open for trade. If I'd not already lunched, I'd have tucked into a hot pasty at this point! The town may be a little too touristy, but its setting at the mouth of two deep valleys, with high cliffs each side, with that rocky river, and the harbour, is terribly impressive. But this super-scenic setting was its undoing in August 1952, the year I was born, when, after heavy rain, the local rivers filled those narrow valleys and tore the town to pieces, with 34 dying. A flash flood, nationally infamous, and still remembered.
Along the seafront, there was a memorial museum devoted to the event. I went in. It was full of pictures and contemporary newspaper reports, and sundry little artifacts. And there was a short video to watch. I sat down. I was joined by an older lady. We fell into conversation. She was a grandmother, of course, born in 1938, and she lived in Newtown in Mid-Wales. But in 1952 she and her family were living on the Isle of Sheppey, off the north coast of Kent. Shortly after the Lynmouth disaster she personally experienced similar (though not quite so devastating) flooding, this time caused by a combination of wild weather and a tidal surge in the North Sea, made worse by the funnelling effect of the Thames Estuary. She was 14 at the time, and well remembered both locals and holidaymakers, clad only in their nightwear, being left with all their belongings ruined or lost. And how the entire community had dug into their wardrobes to find outer garments and shoes for them, for the children especially, and how they had taken them iknto their houses, and tided them over with meals and shelter till proper help got through. And that didn't happen straight away, because the bridges were down and the roads all under water.
She said to me that the community had pulled together in a way that was hard to imagine now. Yes, people nowadays could still respond to an occasion, but not necessarily in useful or unselfish ways. The old dogged determination to pitch in and offer unlimited personal help to a stranger, your very clothes even, and do it without thought of recognition, was absent. There was too much reliance on helicopters magically arriving, too much inclination to feel despair and give in, too much inclination to look after one's own concerns and not put other people's immediate needs first. I ventured that people nowadays were also too ready to feel traumatised, and that there was a culture of pushing counselling at anyone who might have been in any way close to an upsetting event. She agreed.
Then she paid me a wonderful compliment. Although I'd already confessed to being only 60, and therefore not really of her generation, she said that I was just like her. She could tell. I was one of the gritty brave unselfish ones who would do their best in any disaster.
This was hardly deserved, but before I could deny it, her daughter came in looking for her. I was introduced. 'This lady is here on holiday too, and we've been talking about what to do in floods. She's got what it takes.' I paraphrase, of course. We all left the museum together. My older companion wanted to go up in the cliff railway, as I did, but her daughter said she hated heights. We parted with best wishes on both sides.
You know, I felt such a glow after that. Someone - who ought to know - had spoken with me and had detected that in a crisis I would show steadiness, and altruism, even bravery. This made being complimented on my looks, or what a nice house or car I had, seem as nothing. Yes, it was true: what counts is not what you have, but what you can offer others. And it didn't matter that I'd never actually been caught up in a situation like the Lynmouth or Sheppey floods. Someone's belief in me was the thing that made me feel strong and capable: their perception that I could be relied on not to buckle and go under.
The cliff lift was very exciting. The views were wonderful. The Victorian ingenuity of the whole setup intriguing. The daughter didn't know what she was missing!