Michelle Huneven

Webpage of Michelle Huneven, novelist.  Author of Round Rock, Jamesland, Blame, and Off Course.

Dahlias and Donkeys

            We could have stayed in Bath much longer—so much left unseen, so many miles unwalked --but we’d booked ahead.  On Tuesday morning, we handed our eighty pence to the toll-taker, crossed the Avon, and we headed south toward Devonshire.

            The terror of driving was mitigated to a small degree by the beauty of narrow roads where trees in the hedgerows grew up and over the road on either side, forming leaf tunnels of hallucinatory green: “kissing trees,” we’d heard them called. The countryside is protected and subsidized, its beauty vital to the country’s sense of self, and so far as we can see, the scourges of strip malls and shopping centers have not metastasized here. The hegemonic Starbucks strive for a woodsy look, and one MacDonalds had a faintly Tudor style.  

            Coming into Wells, it was hard to miss the cathedral. Built in the 12th Century (replacing a church from the 8thCentury), the Gothic extravaganza dominates the town and even those of us not fascinated by cathedrals had to admit its grandeur. We’d parked and were walking toward it, when we looked into the adjacent Bishop’s Palace—Jim had heard that the garden, was superb.

And there was a wide, serene moat. We adore a moat. 

            To enter the garden, and the palace, we’d have to buy tickets…and then there was the cathedral…and the long drive ahead to Devonshire. What to do? A quick dash through, we decided, bought the tickets and split up, Jim to the Bishop’s house, Michelle, with her close-focusing binoculars, to his gardens.

Ah, the gardens. And through the binoculars: the organic symmetries in a dahlia’s florets, the radiant gleam of petals under magnification; industrious bees gathering golden pollen, their heads fully dusted with the stuff, pollen forming into pads like tiny saddlebags on their legs. Also examined: leaves changing color—a last effusion before winter, and all stages of flowers on a single plant—small demonstrations of the fleeting, ever-changing nature of life: no sooner does the bud burst and bloom than it is beset by insects. Michelle, who had been so balky about even buying a ticket, tarried so long in the flower and vegetable beds, Jim obligingly re-parked the car and hiked back to get her.

Meanwhile, inside the Bishop’s Palace, Jim was thrilled to be in a building built in the twelfth or thirteenth century (not realizing we would soon be sleeping in a room built in the fourteenth). Though just a few hundred yards from the magnificent cathedral, the Bishop’s Palace had its own quite lovely chapel, with pews built by craftsman from all around the area, each invited to carve the name of his town into the pew. Though ancient, the Palace strove to be modern as well, with more fantastical, contemporary portraits hung among the those of the ancient Bishops.

            We did make a quick dash through the cathedral—the vaulted nave downright spinal, the stained glass, in countless long narrow shafts, glittered, profuse and intricate—and then it was back on the road.

            Our destination for the next two nights was Records Place, a BnB out in the country near the Devon Coast “an area of outstanding beauty” according to the map.  Our hosts, Beryl and Malcolm, have created a small no-waste, self-sufficient estate with chickens and a dozen or so sheep, a large garden with greenhouses and a “poly tunnel” now full of leeks. The house was a Seventeenth Century cottage with add-ons and amendments, all tastefully resolved; we had a sweet bedroom with sloping plank floors (the bed was leveled with blocks of wood), and again, a private, cosy sitting room--so civilized, this set up.  In the late late afternoon Michelle went with Beryl to feed the baaah-ing sheep: five or six ewes and their offspring.  The ewes ate feed pellets out of her hands, with much eagerness and licking.  The lambs—now seven and eight months old—were too shy. 

In the morning, we took a walk along the misty coast from the teeny town of Salcome Regis west toward the larger beach town of Sidmouth.  The path led us through forest and cow pasture and kissing gates, with only rare glimpses the sea. Hedgerows! They hide at least half of England. When we did come to view spots, we saw the high white bluffs of the Devon coast and the crinkled sea through soft billows of incoming mist

            Next stop, the donkey sanctuary, a sprawling operation that houses several hundred rescued donkeys, most of them older: some had outlived their usefulness, others their owners. One donkey there died recently at 54 years old.  Donkeys are a commitment not always honored.  The more outgoing donkeys crowded at fences hoping for a scratch. This was encouraged by the folks in charge. “Donkeys like to be made a fuss of,” a volunteer told us. In various large fenced pastures were burros and shaggy French Poitou donkeys, standard donkeys and mini donks. Every few minutes, a great guttural braying broke out, a sound that’s mostly honk, but sometimes part squeak, and altogether a noise that made Michelle instantly happy. 

            Why can’t we have a donkey (or two) in Altadena? Wouldn’t that great guttural braying make our neighbors (and Jim) happy as well?

            On we went, eager to see Lyme Regis because of how it figures in Persuasion, the book AND the movie.  And there it was, the old stone town clustered in a bay, and the Cobb, that great stone breakwater which extends far out into the water.  In the movie, there is a lovely long shot of a little boy chasing a hoop along the Cobb. (Given the actual, vertiginous slant of the top, this is even more impressive than it first appears.) And who can forget Louisa Musgrove’s insistence of jumping into Captain Wentworth’s arms from too high up on the Cobb’s stone steps?  And, if you’ve seen the movie, who can forget the awful sound as she hits the paving stones below?

            In reality, the Cobb is a stretch of uneven stove pavement about fifteen to twenty feet wide, at least fifteen feet high—no railings—and 870 feet long. You would never find an attraction like that in the States, where safety is such a public issue.  And yet people still stroll clear to the end and back—families, with kids, and babies, and older folks. We walked to the end of it and looked out across the bay to white cliffs, the town of Charmouth and beyond that, the long sandy blur of Chesil Beach.

            The day was cool in the shade and warm in the sun. The atmosphere was strictly festive. The beachfront was not crowded the way it would be in the dead of summer—the little attached, pastel-colored beach cabanas you can rent by the week, were mostly unoccupied. (The ones in use were tiny snapshots of domesticity: only about six by six feet square, some have whole little kitchens with tea things, while others have bars, or are miniature dens with lounge chairs and a low table for drinks…) Even on this fall day, people of all ages strolled along the strand and sat on the seawall meditatively licking ice cream cones. Dogs—terriers, labs, border collies, poodle mixes--dashed deliriously in and out of the water, chasing balls and sticks and each other. So many dogs! And so many that looked like our beloved Piper—wirehaired, with pricked ears, stubby tails, hairy elbows.

            We walked and walked, now away from town along the new sea path, where the tide was so high—unusually high, said a young boy walking his terrier—that the many stairways to the shingle went straight into the water, like something out of a dream, stairways to the unconscious.

 We got a little lost trying to find our carpark, but maybe we just didn’t want to leave.