Friday, 15 April 2016

Smiling Sidmouth

I spent nearly three hours in Sidmouth yesterday, most of it in sunshine. It struck me yet again that this is a place with great appeal, combining Regency buildings, mostly whimsical but some of them very fine, with a serene pebble-and-sand seafront, high red cliffs, good shopping, and a mild microclimate. I can't think of anything I dislike about the place. It even has a Waitrose!

Of course, Sidmouth does have ordinary houses and bungalows, and the odd bit of tattiness here and there, but the overall impression is of a decidedly special and upmarket seaside town. It's not London-on-Sea, which is Brighton's other name. It's more like a seaside version of Cheltenham, but in miniature, and with a suggestion of the Brighton Lanes at its heart. I said as much to the young lady who served me in Seasalt, Ania, who had herself lived in Brighton, and moved to Sidmouth two years ago. She looked and sounded terribly English. She was surely still in her late twenties, and slim and elegant, able to wear anything, and I felt frumpy in comparison. I wondered that she was here at all - surely her interests and tastes weren't catered for? Wasn't Sidmouth really too much geared to the needs and preferences of the well-heeled retired? - but she said she absolutely loved living and working in the town.

Well, that's exactly what other people said. And I'd met and spoken with quite a few of them since my solo visits to Sidmouth began in 2009. People met in shops. People met in coffee shops. People met on sunny promenade seats. I'd yet to meet anybody bad-tempered or fed up with life in any way. It was clearly a place that was good for one's sense of well-being. It certainly had that effect on me.

And also on a couple I met in the Connaught Gardens, at the west end of the seafront. I was of course snapping away with my camera, and had nearly stepped backwards into a passing woman. Apologising, I saw that a happy-looking older couple had watched the near-collision. We started talking. They were Pat and John from Bristol. They had been married over seventy years, which must place them in their eighties, although neither looked so old. They came to Sidmouth twice a year. The only other holiday they did now was a week in Sorrento. We chatted very amiably for nearly half an hour. We agreed on many things. We shared the same positive outlook. Pat was keenly interested in my rag rug efforts. I showed her my pictures of it. John was keenly interested in my photography. It was yet another of those cheerful casual encounters you depart from with reluctance.

And yet the congenial encounters kept coming. Next, a retired man with his dog, like Ania a recent incomer, but ardent for life in Sidmouth, and speaking of it as the very Garden of Eden. Immediately afterwards, another gentleman, who was passing as I took a photo of the name plate for an apartment building: Sandition. I remarked to him that this was surely the title Jane Austen gave to her last, unfinished book, which was set in a Regency seaside town exactly like Sidmouth, even to the location. It was a tale of intrigues and peccadilloes and local politics and social pretentions. Personally, I wouldn't have thought any real town would really want to be identified with the fictional Sandition, but perhaps the desirable Jane Austen connection was paramount, and not many people would ever have read the story.

My route back to where Fiona was parked took me near the building that housed an arts centre at the front end, and several very posh apartments at the rear. This was where another Fiona, a lady I'd met when visiting Sidmouth last September, lived. I think I described how that encounter went in a post in early October 2015. I wondered whether she was at home. Yes, she probably was: her balcony door was ajar. Briefly, I had been sitting in the sun outside Sidmouth Museum, where it was sheltered from the keen autumn breeze, and she joined me. After chatting away for a while, she invited me to her flat for coffee and more chat. Orkney-born, she was polite and interesting, and I accepted. But the coffee didn't materialise, and the conversation turned into an interrogation. She was very curious to know all about my life and my family. It was too intrusive. I contrived a graceful departure, but although I'd given her almost two hours of my day, it clearly hadn't satisfied her. I sensed she was very lonely. But all those questions were a bit too much. A friend told me later that Orkney people were prone to being inquisitive about their friends and neighbours, and clearly this included casual strangers too. I didn't meet her again this time. I'm not sure how we would have handled coming face-to-face.

Where next? I'd had Bicton Gardens in mind, but it was starting to cloud over. I drove instead to a retail park on the edge of Exeter, to have a look at the selection of laptops in Currys/PC World. I fancied this was a larger shop than the one back at Hove. It was. But they still had nothing in the price range I was currently considering, not even among the Apple stuff. So I have yet to see a laptop with a 4K screen. I had a good look at the 4K televisions, though, and was once again blown away. My goodness, how prices had fallen over the last two years! 4K TVs had been touching £3,000 not so long ago. Now even an eye-popping big-screen UHD Samsung TV could be mine for £1,300 or so. In fact for £300 less than the laptop that was top of my list. (But I would get far more use from a laptop)

Amazingly, although I had a jolly good look at all kinds of gear, I was not approached by a salesman at any point. I marvelled at this, but wasn't sorry, as I intensely dislike being the target for 'assistance' when I'm merely looking. At the Hove shop, you have to keep moving. It's fatal to linger over anything. In fact before I enter the store I always have some credible 'reasons' worked out as to why I won't be buying, so that if targeted I can slide away. Pushy salespeople are the bane of modern life.

It's turned misty and rainy. A day for mooching around the shops and museums. I may go as far as Dorchester - although Taunton is the same distance - and then hope to catch the sunset this evening. (Sunshine is forecast to return in late afternoon)

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