An early change of plan
Over breakfast in the Crown Inn, I plotted my route to Exeter, where I had arranged to stay with old friends, Jonathan and Penny Harris. From what I had gleaned from the various lighthouse guidebooks and online sources at my disposal, my next light would be in Teignmouth, some sixty miles away. So today would be my first entirely ‘light-less’ cycling day.
Blanche, the owner of the Crown, had other ideas. With my pot of coffee, she handed me an article from the local newspaper, which speculated that an ancient building in nearby Bridport might have once served as a lighthouse. The Chantry is the oldest building in the town, with parts dating to the mid thirteenth century. The article argued that a semi-circular stone sconce on the building’s south wall may have been the support for a torch or fire-basket, leading some historians to suggest that it served partly as a lighthouse or seamark.
I was a little dubious, not least because The Chantry is more than two miles from the sea. However, I imagined returning home triumphantly after successfully conquering every lighthouse around our coast, only to discover that I had left out an important, hitherto unrecognised landmark. So without hesitation I cycled straight into Bridport, located The Chantry, and took at least a dozen pictures. I must admit that it didn’t look much like a lighthouse to me, but I realised that if it ever had functioned as one, then there were several fellow lighthouse enthusiasts whom I could irritate with evidence that I had ‘bagged’ one more lighthouse than they had.
As I freewheeled into the village of Uploders, I passed the entrance to a substantial private house, with tall, meticulously manicured border hedges. A young woman, dressed in what I can only describe as a skimpy French Maid’s outfit, was balanced on the top rung of a step ladder, leaning precariously to reach a few stray wisps of hedge with a pair of garden shears. Unbelievably, the cut of her dress revealed a pair of red, lacy knickers.
For a moment my mind froze. Had I really seen what I thought I had seen? Was my mind starting to play tricks on me? I was freewheeling at such pace that there was no time to pause or go back. Besides, what would I say or do if I did? Down in the village itself, I found my answer. After passing a suffragette, a pirate, Sherlock Holmes and Her Majesty the Queen, I discovered that my visit to Uploaders coincided with their annual Scarecrow Festival.
The forty or so miles to Exeter were ghastly. Although I was using a route-planning app designed specifically for cyclists, I found myself hugging the rumble strip along the side of the busy A35 for nearly ten miles, and by the time I managed to escape onto quieter lanes beyond Wilmington, I was shaking with fear. But at least the ten miles were quick.
Jonathan and Penny live in a gorgeous, leafy part of Exeter, set a couple of streets back from the River Exe. They left London to move here, and it isn’t hard to see why. Jonathan was Managing Director of the children’s education publisher Letts, which had acquired the publisher I worked for. He nurtured my early publishing career, and rewarded me with a decent salary, a directorship and a splendid jet-black Volvo 850 Estate, which my colleagues referred to as ‘the hearse’.
He has always been one of those sickeningly irritating people for whom everything he touches turns to gold. While I eventually left Letts somewhat aimlessly, he did so to set up a new publishing business, as well as his home, down here in Exeter.
Jonathan and Penny are extraordinarily good company. We caught up on nearly two decades’ worth of news over lamb and lentils, washed down first with a pot of tea, then a few bottles of St Austell Brewery’s Proper Job, and finally a bloody good bottle of red. As I lay in bed reminiscing about the stories we had shared, I spent a little too long wondering how much more accomplished my commercial publishing career might have been if I’d hung on to Jonathan’s coattails for just a little longer.