Castle Drogo, England, Opens To Public

Castle Drogo
The last castle to be built in England is opening to the pubic, BBC reports.

Castle Drogo is more of a stately home than a castle, since it was built long after artillery made castles obsolete. It was started in 1910 by Julius Drewe, founder of the Home and Colonial Stores, near Exeter in Devon. World War I and the Depression slowed down construction and it wasn’t completed until 1930. The architecture shows a variety of styles, with a faux medieval granite facade on the exterior. Inside there’s a library in the Norman style, a drawing room in the Georgian style, and many Victorian touches.

Now owned by the National Trust, the castle is undergoing an £11 million ($16.4 million) refurbishment to repair structural faults. The original design was flawed and allowed water to seep in, a problem that started even before the castle was finished. Now the building is seriously threatened by leakage and specialists are busy preserving the castle for future generations.

Visitors will be able to see the work in progress and also visit many of the historic rooms still in their original condition to get an insight into life in an English stately home. Tour guides point out odd little details such as marks on the floor that showed the butlers where to stand while waiting table in the dining room.

On the grounds there’s a formal garden and a path leading down to the still-wild Teign Valley, a good place for birdwatching. Several other trails in the area offer hikes through Dartmoor, a large area of protected moorland.

There’s also a cafe where you can get tea and scones. How very English!

The castle is open every day until November 3.

[Photo courtesy Philip Halling]

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Totnes: South Devon’s Alternative Village

Totnes

Totnes, an Elizabethan town in the South West English county of Devon, isn’t your average West Country village. Totnes is what is increasingly known as a Transition Town – in fact, it is a model Transition Town.

What is a Transition Town, you ask? A Transition Town is a municipality focused on sustainable local economic growth by encouraging the use of local resources and local businesses. One expression of this philosophy is the circulation of a superlocal currency, the Totnes Pound, which is accepted by scores of shops in Totnes. This currency is an impressive innovation for a town of just 8,000 residents.

totnesNot surprisingly, Totnes can be said to possess a definite crunchiness, especially in the form of new age shops and the Friday and Saturday markets at the town’s Civic Hall Square. But if visitors come expecting Santa Cruz in the English countryside, they’ll be terribly disappointed. Totnes feels like a typical English market town, albeit one with a particularly dynamic local retail environment.

There are many ways to gauge this retail dynamism. The sheer range of shops and relative lack of empty storefronts is one. Here’s another: Aromatika, a highly respected, organic, vegan-friendly skin care products company, is headquartered in Totnes. Clearly, the town is a good motor for at least some sorts of entrepreneurial activity.

It is the plethora of small shops selling crafts, niche products and home furnishings that really help the town make a claim to retail excitement. Several home furnishings shops sell a range of well-curated products, both new and vintage. My favorite of these is a place called Inspired Buys (see above), whimsically stocked with a number of beautifully upcycled items, including old maps, hand-painted posters and signage. During my visit last week I fell in love with an old vintage canvas school map of Britain on sale there, the chalk markings of a teacher still visible. At £40 ($64) the map might not have been cheap, but it is also easy to imagine the vast mark-up that the map would command at a big city hipster design den.

There are other reasons to visit Totnes: the magnificent East Gate Arch on Fore Street, which makes the town feel cozy and contained, its 16th-century wooden houses, Totnes Castle, its rambling lanes, its many cafes (of which the best is probably The Curator Cafe and Store), and the South Devon countryside all around. But the retail is a serious draw, and not just for people who like to shop. Totnes is trailblazing a kind of economic future for towns focused on nurturing small local businesses.

Totnes is three hours from London by train. The least expensive advance roundtrip fare found during recent research: £43.50 ($70).

[Images: Alex Robertson Textor]

Will Christopher Robin’s bookshop be saved?

Christopher Robin, Pooh
A couple of days ago we reported that a bookshop once owned by the real Christopher Robin was closing.

The Harbour Bookshop in Dartmouth, England, was opened in 1951 by Christopher Robin Milne, son of Winnie-the-Pooh author A.A. Milne. The author used his son as a character in his books. Christopher Robin died in 1996, and rising rents and a slump in sales are forcing the current owners to close in September.

Now the local paper Dartmouth Chronicle reports that people are rallying to save the shop. The Dartmouth and Kingswear Society, a heritage preservation group, is suggesting the bookshop be continued as a nonprofit community enterprise. Considering the shop’s historical significance, they might be able to get some government funding, although with the current fiscal situation that will be a tough fight.

TV personality Jonathan Dimbleby has also joined the growing call for the shop to be saved.

I hope they succeed. Independent bookshops are places for readers to mingle and discover titles they didn’t know they were looking for. They add character to their neighborhoods and can be a significant tourist draw, as The Harbour Bookshop was. I’ve seen way too many beloved bookshops close. New York City in the 1980s was filled with funky little independents, now mostly gone due to the Big Apple’s soaring rents. Here in Oxford, Waterfield’s closed. They still have an online presence but it’s not the same as popping in before a day’s work at the university. It’s been replaced by Ye Olde Sweet Shoppe. I wonder if the tourists who swarm in there realize this “Ye Olde Shoppe” is less than two years old!

It’s not just bookshops that are affected. Small businesses on English High Streets are dying and being replaced with chains, homogenizing and depersonalizing the places where people live and shop. Here’s hoping the campaigners can preserve some of Dartmouth’s character.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Christopher Robin’s bookshop closing

A bookshop opened by the original Christopher Robin of Winnie the Pooh fame will close, the BBC reports.

The Harbour Bookshop in Dartmouth, England, was opened in 1951 by Christopher Robin Milne, son of Pooh author A.A. Milne. The bookshop became a destination for Pooh fans, even though Christopher Robin often hid from visitors. He died in 1996, and the current owners say that a slump in sales and a rise in rent has led them to close.

This sad story is being repeated in bookshops all over Europe and North America. As sales move online, bookstores are having a tougher time dealing with the economic crisis than most businesses. Many towns are being left without an independent bookshop, as indeed Dartmouth will be once The Harbour Bookshop shuts its doors. Some towns don’t have any bookstores left at all. Earlier this year, Laredo, Texas, with a population of a quarter of a million, saw its last bookstore close.

That’s sad. Bookstores add to the cultural value of their neighborhood and can even be tourist attractions. Gadling’s own David Farley has written about why bookstore tourism matters. Books make great souvenirs or gifts. Looking through my own shelves I often recall the trips where I bought certain titles.

So the next time you hit the road, please, drop into the local bookshop. You’ll be doing good for the local economy and you’ll bring home a nice memento of your trip.

[Photo of courtesy Celine Nadeau]

Solar powered theme park planned for the United Kingdom

Devon England’s Crealy Great Adventure Park has unveiled plans to be the United Kingdom’s first solar powered theme park. The plans involve the installation of 200,000 square feet of solar photovoltaic panels on the roofs of the park’s main buildings. In addition, panels will cover carports providing the dual purpose of sheltering guests’ cars while generating electricity.

The energy generated by the solar panels is expected to meet around 90% of the park’s needs during the peak summer months when sunlight is the brightest. The panels will power both buildings and rides like the park’s family roller coaster, Maximus. Surplus power will be fed into the National Grid.

While the news will likely generate some buzz for the park and increase the small park’s profile, I have to wonder if adding the panels will result in an increase in attendance. At the end of the day, an amusement park’s success is decided by its attractions and the experience it provides. Regardless, it is good to see someone leading sustainability efforts in the amusement industry. Crealy Great Adventure Park can already boast a green track record as it uses bio diesel oil for its vehicles, extracts water from a borehole, and uses local suppliers.