Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas In London

MARCELLUS: It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.

HORATIO: So have I heard and do in part believe it.

- Hamlet, Act I, Scene I

PAGE: Therefore they thought it good you hear a play
And frame your mind to mirth and merriment,
Which bars a thousand harms and lengthens life.

SLY: Marry, I will, let them play it. Is not a
comondy a Christmas gambold or a tumbling-trick?

PAGE: No, my good lord; it is more pleasing stuff.

SLY: What, household stuff?

- Taming of the Shrew, Act I, Scene II

The streets were full of people shopping and looking for discount theatre tickets between the Trocadero and Picadilly Circus, and the little Christmas fair didn't tempt me to push through the crowds around the booths, even though they had hot mulled wine and roasted chestnuts. Sometimes I really miss living in France. I went to Fortnum & Mason instead, to see what sorts of treats they had for me, but though I saw several tasty things for sale, there were so many people picking up last-minute Christmas supplies that the lines at the cash registers were daunting. As were the prices; even the discounted gingerbread houses - which were rather small, and quite plainly decorated - had jaw-dropping stickers. I suppose if you've been the go-to London fancy grocery spot for over 300 years you can charge as much as you want. I walked up and down the curving staircases lined with chandeliers and artwork, took advantage of the very nice lady's powder room (as the sign on the door said), and decided to do my Christmas dinner shopping elsewhere. In any event, I still had some wandering around to do, and a train trip back to the suburbs, so I didn't want to worry about groceries.

I'd walked by Buckingham Palace earlier and there were quite a few people there as well, all taking pictures of themselves and each other in front of the tall iron gates. The palace wasn't decorated for the holidays, which is a shame - they could do all sorts of fun things with lights on that massive facade. I did take a picture of the lighted but otherwise undecorated tree at one of the entrances, between the two guards with their tall fur hats.

There were a half dozen street performers in front of the National Gallery, if "perform" is the right word for the way they hang seemingly in midair without doing much of anything else. Santa was hanging around with them.

I opened presents this morning, though not from Santa; Lynne left me a small gift of a blank journal and a cute handwarmer in the shape of a mitten, with one of those chemical packs you activate to generate heat. This one seems to be reusable, with metal buttons that need to be rubbed against each other. I'll probably get quite a bit of use out of it when I go for walks in snowy Scotland and battle the north wind in Norway. The cats had a fresh catnip mouse each, and are now sleeping off their herb hangovers.

It was dark when I arrived back at Kidbrooke station, and the Christmas tree was all lit up. The trains aren't running today, nor are the bus lines, but I'm enjoying a quiet day at home with the intoxicated kitties. Tomorrow, it's back to work - I need to get as much done as possible while I have a reliable internet connection, before heading north.

But tonight, it's the Downton Abbey Christmas special!
Happy holidays to you all.

Monday, December 22, 2014

A Brief Pause: The Smartling Dream Dinner Destination

A virtual postcard appeared in my inbox last week, with a cordial greeting once again from a company I'd never heard of. Smartling provides superfast translation of websites, apps, and any other online text using a cloud-based networking system that lets their translators work on mirrored sites so that they can see the text in context, and keeps those sites automatically updated with any changes made to the originals, so that the translations don't reflect earlier versions of the site or app. Their "dream dinner destination" project is focusing on the way translation tools help facilitate communication while traveling, and how the combination of language and food helps bring people together - or perhaps, with mistranslations and errors, keeps them apart. I'm one of the bloggers they've contacted, and in this post I'm thinking about how website translations help, whether looking for a place to eat or for places to buy ingredients to make my own meals. I've decided to plan a meal in Hungary, since I'll be in Budapest in six weeks(!) and will be both cooking my own food and eating out while I'm there.

Smartling is providing no compensation for this post, and all opinions are my own.

My great-grandparents Kish were from Hungary; great-grandfather Josef was born in Kapuvár, about 100 miles to the east of Budapest, near the Austrian border, and great-grandmother Katherine (née Katalin Karolyi) was, as far as I can tell from the naturalization papers signed in 1913, born in Isaszeg, back then a small village a long day's travel by horse and carriage into the city of Budapest. It appears to still be a fairly small town (about 10,000 people) but it's now part of the Budapest metropolitan area. I'll be close enough that I should be able to go there, and perhaps I'll find someone that speaks English at the mayor's office who can help me to look up the town records for the Karolyi family, to see if I still have relatives there. I'd love to visit Kapuvár as well, but that would be an overnight visit at least, since it's several hours away by train from where I'll be living.

This is the first time in a very long time that I'll be spending more than just a few days in a country where I don't speak the language, and that's a weird feeling. I don't know if Hungary will be more like France, where most people I met spoke little or no English, or more like Norway, where pretty much everyone I met spoke it quite well. Noémi, the woman I'll be making cheese with, is fairly fluent in English, but I'll be on my own if I do any traveling into Budapest or elsewhere. I don't have a smartphone (and won't even have a stupidphone like I do now, unless I pick up a cheap prepaid one over there) so I won't have access to any of the multilingual websites that Smartling's translation software helped to facilitate, or even machine translations from Google. I'll have to get some notecards and jot down words and pronunciations to help me on my shopping trips.

There's going to be a lot of meat in Hungary, but I can eat that without a problem. There's fish, too, from Lake Balaton; my high school boyfriend Walter brought me back a cookbook from his semester abroad, and I remember seeing lots of recipes for "pike-perch." And lots of recipes that used sour cream. Dairy is going to be hard to avoid, I think, but that definitely needs to go on my notecards - as well as "where is the nearest toilet?" for those times when I haven't been able to avoid it. In February and March I'm not sure what seasonal vegetables will be available, but I'm sure there will be the usual cold-weather staples of potatoes (burgonya), cabbage (káposzta), beets (cékla), and turnips (fehérrépa).

Midsummer dinner from the Portland Farmer's Market vendors, July 2009.

I hope to get to one of the year-round farmer's markets in Budapest, like the organic market on Saturday mornings at the giant shopping center called MOM Park, or the Sunday market at Szimpla Kert, next to a popular bar. I think I could navigate my way around the stalls fairly easily, unless I came across a vegetable I'd never seen before, like the crosnes I found in Tours. Then I'd have to get help, whether from a human on the spot, or from a machine afterwards - I'd take a picture and try to do a Google image match to find out what it is, and what to do with it.

Looking up where to buy food in a foreign country is difficult if the website is not in English, so I'd either have to get a local to translate it for me, or look for a different site. Which option I'd take would depend on where I was at the time, I think. Since I don't have an easily-portable web-enabled device, any searches would be done at an internet café or at Noémi's house, and if the latter, I'd definitely ask her if she had a minute to help. If I were out working at a café in Budapest, drinking some of the strong local coffee and eyeing the cases full of forbidden pastries, it would depend on whether I spotted someone who looked as if he or she had both the time and the inclination to help. The waiter, perhaps, if the café wasn't too busy; the person at the table next to me, if they looked approachable (and especially if he looked as delicious as one of the pastries). Were I to rely just on the internet, I would definitely look at multiple sites, but I'd also try the machine translations provided by Google on the website itself, or by cutting and pasting into the translator. When doing shopping for ingredients, simply using an online translator for individual words is a good place to start. Although this can lead to difficulty as well, if there are multiple options: édesnemes paprikák means "sweet peppers" but might specifically only mean the ones used to make the spice called paprika; zöldpaprika means "green pepper" but one main variety is actually white or light yellow; and the term paprika is used for both the seasoning and the peppers used to make it, though if you want pepper to season your dish, you'll need to ask for bors.

Translation software can definitely help websites that aren't already translated, because it gives more people access to that information. And a key component of translation is accuracy, in the interest of saving both business owner and customer time and money. Even the top-end expensive restaurant I was researching in Budapest had a few interesting errors on its website. When I think of "dream dinner destinations" I generally think of "places I'd go if I didn't have to worry about money" and the eponymous restaurant Károly Gundel opened in 1894 is definitely on that list. Gundel has been getting awards for decades for the quality of the food, a sophisticated blend of traditional dishes and international influences. Their Chef's Table menu will set you back about $135 including wine (which is actually not expensive at all, so I just might go there, budget be damned) and features smoked salmon and caviar, pheasant and truffles and morels, duck breast and Tokaji wine. Unfortunately it also promises "lukewarm potato fritters." That's the problem with translation, isn't it? Context is everything. "Lukewarm" is a perfectly fine word, and accurately gives you the sense of temperature required, but it's not the sort of thing a chef should allow next to a word like "caviar." One word promises luxury, the other conjures up images of reheated leftovers. This is the sort of problem that Smartling's team prevents, because they've got native speakers on their translation team, who see the word in context, and who (I hope) would choose to use "warm" or "warmed" instead. I'd like to go to Gundel on a Tuesday night for their folklore menu, with gypsy violin accompaniment. Csárdás!

Another restaurant I found while doing this research is Kéhli Vendéglő, which also offers live gypsy music on Saturdays. There wouldn't be a problem with translation there, at least as far as the menu goes, because they offer menu cards in five different languages. I'd still need someone there to help me with phrases like "do you use wheat flour to thicken this sauce?" and "would you please serve this without sour cream?" but while Kéhli's website doesn't cater to gluten- or dairy-free diners, they do offer a fairly robust translation in English. Again, though, there are little oddities. The cheese plate contains "rouge cheese with horse raddish salad" which isn't really Engrish enough to qualify, except for the "rouge" part. The German version of the website says this is Pálpusztai, which turns out to be the actual name of the washed-rind cow's milk cheese that's been made in Budapest since 1890. The B. linens used to wash the cheese does give it a reddish tinge, so I suppose that's where the "rouge" comes in. I'll have to take my own gluten-free bread to enjoy their signature dish of forró fazék, or hot pot, served with a roasted marrowbone.

Noémi has promised to teach me some traditional Hungarian recipes, but my dream is to find an equivalent to the chicken paprikash (paprikáscsirke) Grandma McHugh (née Kish) used to make, which in its traditional form is not something I can eat any more. Unfortunately, a lot of the flavor and tenderness comes from the sour cream used in the dish; my hand-written recipe (that I am reading in my mind, since I left my one remaining cookbook in a box which is now in Mom and John's attic) calls for browning the chicken and cooking it with the onions and paprika, then adding the sour cream and letting it sit off the heat for an hour or two, before finishing it up as a piping-hot stew served over fresh egg noodles, or packaged ones if you don't make your own pasta (as who does these days?), or the traditional egg noodles from the Hungarian vendor at the farmer's market in South Bend, Indiana. I'll do some research into dairy-free sour cream alternatives; replacing the wheat flour for the roux is easy, because cornstarch or potato starch or rice flour work well. It's harder to find a substitute for dairy. Lemon juice would work for the acid that tenderizes the chicken, but getting that unctuous creaminess without the cream - that's going to take some work. I'll let you know how it goes, and whether I found a local to help me (likely), or managed to find a dairy-free recipe site in Hungarian that also has an English translation toolbar (not so likely). And I'll also let you know if this post leads to anything more in the way of fame and fortune (not likely at all, but a girl can dream).

Köszönöm, hogy elolvasta!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Wolcum Yole!

If I'd been in Portland last night, I would have been at the annual Sing-Along Messiah at Central Lutheran. Singing that work with 700 other people puts me in the Christmas mood, and the final high note from the sopranos brings tears to my eyes (in a good way). It just doesn't seem like Christmas without the music, somehow.

Since I'm in London, I went to St. Paul's Cathedral instead, and listened to the Vicars Choral sing medieval plainchant and a William Byrd motet. It wasn't a complete service, but there was a short reflection by the Canon in Residence at the cathedral, the text of which I honestly can't remember. But I'm sure it was inspirational. I had an hour or so of reflection while waiting in line to get in to the cathedral; it was free, and I thought it would be a good idea to get there early, so I arrived shortly before 4pm for the 5pm service, and joined the line that had already stretched halfway down the side of the building.

Jesus showed up about fifteen minutes later, but he acted according to Matthew 20:16 and took his place in line. He left his spot a while later, and walked up to the front of the church and then back, his hand raised, but not in blessing - he was taking a video of the people in line with his iPhone camera, which undoubtedly had a direct high-speed connection to the great iAm.

After the the Canon spoke, the Choristers of St. Paul's Cathedral processed in from the darkness at the far end of the apse, chanting "Hodie, Christus natus est," their silvery voices spiraling up into the gold-reflected glitter under the central dome. They performed Britten's "A Ceremony of Carols" and did a good job of it, too. I'm glad I got there early because I had a seat at the front of the nave (the seats in the central space were reserved for ticketholders) and could hear the harp and the singers even in the softer sections, and I was close enough to the dome to hear how the sound looped up and back down and up again, where it rolled along the Whispering Gallery for several seconds before fading away. I remember being up there, in the Gallery, on that long-ago high school field trip, and being amazed by the fact that I could hear one of my classmates speaking softly on the other side of the dome, as clearly as if she were standing next to me speaking directly into my ear.

The echoes were a little problematic in the already-echoey "This Little Babe" but the final triumphant major chord sent shivers down my spine (in a good way). I remember singing that, too, as one of the Manitou Singers at St. Olaf College back in 1981, at the annual Christmas concert. And I remember getting teary-eyed at our last choral practice session, when we sang "May the Road Rise Up to Meet You," which they're still singing today.

I miss singing.

It still doesn't feel like Christmas; there aren't any decorations up in the house here, and none on the street either in this suburb-y section of southeast London, though some people have lights in their windows, and there's a big decorated tree near Kidbrooke Station. I'm going to walk from Westminster Cathedral to Picadilly next Tuesday after lunch with my friend Pascoe, to see the Christmas decorations at Fortnum & Mason (and to buy myself a holiday treat) and since the sun goes down at about 3:50pm I'll have a chance to see the holiday lights sparkling in the streets of downtown London before I come back here to feed the ever-hungry cats.

Wolcum alle and make good cheer
Wolcum alle another year.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Whole Night Through

It's nearly fifty times as distant, but it looked so close last night, closer than you are now, looking at the same moon - if you're up at midnight, that is, and the skies are clear in Oregon, in the Midwest, in Maine. Vous êtes beaucoup plus proche, mes amis en France, mais encore trop loin. There are some old friends to visit in the months ahead (des anciens amis, et non l'inverse, Bea, Sebastien, Florence [et peut-être Eric?]), and first cousins twice removed; new friends to make of people I've never met, in places where I've never been. It will be good to be staying with people again, for a while. I think I've been alone too long in these housesits, with only the dogs and cats to talk to. Sometimes I don't even talk to them, and when I do say something out loud, it startles me a bit. There are so many words that I need to squeeze out of my fingers each day that I forget how to make the words come out of my mouth instead.

Georgina and Chris come back in four days, and a week later I'll leave for London. It will be nice to be in the city for Christmas, and I plan on doing a little sightseeing to look at lights and decorations, and maybe go back to the British Museum to get through more of the rooms, or try to fight the lines at the Natural History museum and do more musing on the amazing fact of this existence, a tiny spark in the unimaginable span of space and time that surrounds me. It's so inspiring that we're still trying to get off this planet to explore the vastness, that machines are communicating with us from so far away I can't even wrap my head around the numbers. And it's so depressing that there are people who are being pushed off this planet daily by their fellow human beings who are acting out of fear, cruelty, ignorance, hatred, spite, and racism. I read a short story once, though I don't remember who wrote it - Harlan Ellison is the name that comes to mind, but it could have been anyone; I read a lot when I was in my teens. It was about a young man who could destroy metal just by thinking about it, I think? Or being near it, perhaps. I believe he was a soldier who decided that there should be no more killing, and he crumbles all of the weapons on the army base before telling his commanding officer that he's leaving. When the soldier walks out of the door, the officer looks in his desk drawer for his gun, but when all he sees is a pile of dust, he smashes his chair (if I remember correctly) to make a club, and chases after the soldier to kill him. I wish I could turn weapons into dust. I wish there weren't so many people who would immediately smash their chairs.

We are so small.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

You Can Hear It In My Accent When I Talk

Holidays are hard when I'm so far from family, but are marginally easier when there are no social cues to make me feel left out. I remember the first time I was in another country for a major holiday, when I was in Tokyo at Christmas. I was there at Thanksgiving too, but I don't remember feeling any particular sense of dislocation at the end of November; however, by the end of December things were really weird, all of the commercial excess without any hint of religion, which makes sense, of course. The over the top Christmas displays were all that is bright, though there was no hint of calm in the streets.

Here in this corner of Devon it's very quiet. The decorations are up over the High Street of Kingsbridge, and I hear they'll be lit tomorrow. I think there's a Christmas parade going to Modbury on the other side of the hill here, but I doubt they'll be going down the road at the end of the upper field, so I think I'll give that a miss.

I do miss being with everyone at Thanksgiving, our yearly dairy-free soy-free gluten-free feast (now with more vegetarians!), but there are so many things going on with work and travel planning that today sort of snuck up on me. Christmas will be harder, so it's a good thing I'll have two cats to snuggle, and Skype on my computer.

I never celebrated Thanksgiving while I was in France, and it's not a holiday here either. In fact, I couldn't find any turkey at the local butcher shops. They're taking orders for Christmas, however. I think English cooks might stuff their turkeys with chestnuts as they traditionally do in France, because I'm seeing boxes of vacuum-packed chestnuts for sale in Tesco. There are shelves full of nuts and dried fruit for baking, and fresh cranberries in the produce aisle, though I'm not sure what people are doing with them a month in advance. I bought another pint of them yesterday for my Thanksgiving feast, and went to the butcher shop for chicken legs and a bit of streaky bacon to wrap them in. Herbs were on sale, three packets for two pounds, and I bought fresh chives to go with the chicken, plus garlic and parsley for more cooking this weekend.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! I hope you're having a delicious day.

Roasted Chicken Stuffed With Mushrooms And Chives

two largish chicken legs, skin on
a dozen or so large mushrooms
one large bunch of fresh chives
one pint fresh cranberries
four slices bacon (smoked streaky bacon in the UK)
a bit of olive oil and some Cornish sea salt flakes

Pulse the mushrooms in a food processor until chopped fine. Heat a splash of olive oil in a skillet and dump in the mushroom bits with a pinch of salt. Cook over medium-high heat until the liquid has evaporated. Mince the chives and add most of them to the mushrooms; stir for a minute or so, and remove from the heat to cool. Carefully loosen the skin from the chicken legs to make a pocket between skin and meat, and stuff half the mushrooms in each pocket. Wrap each chicken leg in two slices of bacon, pour the cranberries into a roasting pan just large enough for the chicken, put the bacon-wrapped chicken on top, and put the roasting pan in a preheated 400F/200C oven for an hour, or until the chicken is completely cooked. Baste with the pan juices a few times in the last 20 minutes. Serve with something healthy like steamed green beans to offset all the yummy fat and crispy skin.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Catching Up In Chillaton

The house is huge, a great barn of a place, though it wasn't actually the barn before. It's the main farmhouse (now with additions), and there are two other stone buildings flanking it, separate properties that used to be barns, I think. Another smaller farmhouse complex is across the road, built by the original owner of this place back in the 17th century, if I remember what Chris told me correctly. It's two-thirds of the way up one of the many rolling hills in this part of southwest England, in Devon, where the fields are stitched together by hedgerows bordering narrow lanes, lanes that weren't designed for anything larger than a horse-drawn cart, which makes driving interesting, to say the least. And they're tall hedgerows, and often curvy lanes, so I keep one foot on the clutch as I edge forward, trying to peer around the corner, the more experienced locals piling up behind me impatiently. That doesn't happen often, however, as there's not a lot of traffic, or at least I'm able to time my driving into Kingsbridge and back when everyone else is at work or eating lunch at home. The nearest village is over two miles away, but I don't feel isolated. There are friendly neighbors in the home to the right, and more across the lane. But I have been working - and vegging out in front of the television in the evenings - and I haven't been missing company. Missing family, yes, but my weekly visits to Kingsbridge fulfill my people quota nicely.
Every morning, noon, and evening I take the two dogs up to the top of the hill, past the upper lawn (whose chair I haven't been relaxing on in the sunshine, as there has been very little of that lately) and into the field full of mouse runs and rabbit holes and multicolored mushrooms, where the dogs wander around and try to catch mice, and eat rabbit poop, and roll in the grass making funny noises, even when the grass is wet. Which it is, mostly, either from the dew in the morning or the daily drizzle (or torrential downpour) that keeps Devon green in November. I think the day I took these pictures two weeks ago was one of the last really nice days. Lately the cold wind has been rushing down from the moors and up and over the field.

I'm usually able to find a rain-free window to take the dogs up to the field, or even on a longer walk around the lanes. I don't take them on the long walks often because they both have arthritis. The younger dog, Hebe, is on a slimming regime that I should be following myself; I'm giving her grated raw carrots mixed with canned food in the evening, rather than the dry food/wet food mix that her mother Clover gets. The vet said that most of Hebe's joint problems come from the fact that she's overweight. Well, she's less so than she was, and is now bounding around the field each day instead of plodding and panting along. Hmmm ... where are the rest of the carrots?

I make sure the ducks and geese have fresh water, and feed them when I let them out of their house in the mornings. There's usually one duck egg waiting for me, and sometimes two. I'm living on duck eggs, what's left of the produce in the garden (not much now), and cheap things like oatmeal and beans and rice and past-its-sticker-date produce from Tesco. And the occasional treat of smoked mackerel from the fishmonger, or lamb neck filet from one of the butchers in town. England is expensive. I've been cooking a lot more, in the huge kitchen (everything in this house is huge). There are all sizes of Le Creuset ovenware, and decent knives, and a good spice rack. I've made lamb neck tagine, baked beans in tomato sauce, roasted root vegetables, squash and cauliflower stew, and lots of salads with the bitter greens from the garden mixed with romaine from the store.

For breakfast this morning I'm going to make kedgeree: curry-spiced basmati rice I'm going to bake in the oven to warm up the stone-floored kitchen, mixed with flaked smoked mackerel (scraps to the cat) and caramelized onions. Normally that's mixed in a creamy sauce with hard-boiled eggs, but I think I'll fry an egg instead to put on top, after I take the onions out of the skillet. Then it will be back into the study here, the little room off the huge dark-beamed wooden room that I never use, to do more paid writing. Unpaid blogging is done! For now, at least. I've finally caught up with myself in space and time.

Dog-walking and duck-watering and the odd garden job - I had to plant two beds of garlic and onion bulbs that arrived the week after Georgina and Chris left for Italy - plus keeping the cat happy and her litterbox clean (I've learned my lesson, believe me), and checking the dehumidifier in the shed, and watering the plants, and feeding the goldfish in the pond below the garden (I forgot to mention the pond) occupies about two hours a day, on average. But! I don't have to clean the house. There's a lovely woman who comes twice a week and does all that. As long as I keep the areas I use reasonably tidy - which is just the kitchen, the small toilet off the entryway, this study, and my rooms upstairs - she takes care of the rest.
Did I mention I have rooms, as well? I don't even go up to the top floor, a converted loft where Chris and Georgina have their desks, or the two-thirds of the second floor where their suite is, plus two other bedrooms. I'm in a bedroom with my own bathroom (and there is yet another bedroom on the other side), just off a large family room. When I was staying here the week before they left, I hung out in that family room to work and watch television, but now that I have the house to myself I spend most of my time in this study, where there's also a television, a good desk and chair to work at, and a poofy sofa that I can lounge on in the evenings, after bedding all the animals down for the night and building a nice fire in the wood stove.

Well, it's 8am now, and finally light outside. Time to take the dogs for their morning constitutional, feed the birds, and get the rice baking. Then it's back to work (I'm hoping I have the mental energy to write three articles today) until it gets dark at 4pm, when the ducks and geese go back inside, the dogs settle down in front of the heaters, and I stretch my shoulders out before tuning into "Pointless."

Life is good.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

South West Coast Path: Paignton To Brixham

The beach at Paignton, looking north to Torquay.

Everyone had told me to go to Brixham for fresh fish, and since I really wanted to take a long walk along the coast, I decided to follow the South West Coast Path along the edge of the inlet. There are 630 miles of path in all, starting at Poole, near Bournemouth. Ferries run between this port almost due south to Cherbourg, in France, which is on another hiking path, one of the many Grandes Randonnées that crisscross the country. This one is GR-223 (the "Tour de Cotentin"), which runs for 270 miles along the northwest jut of land from Isigny-sur-Mer to Cherbourg to Mont St-Michel, a place I still want to visit some day. Kingsbridge, where I go once a week for a session of manual lymph drainage and a new supply of discounted produce from the local Tesco, is twinned with Isigny-sur-Mer.

Or I suppose you could say the South West Coast Path starts on the other side of the peninsula here, beyond both Dartmoor and Exmoor National Parks, at Minehead on the Bristol Channel. The two end points meet up at Land's End, in Penzance, Cornwall, the westmost point of mainland Britain, full of sea cliffs and surfers and offshore wind turbines, meat pasties and kittiwakes and people dressed as pirates.

Paignton to Torquay northward is a shorter walk, but much less interesting, and you have to follow roads more than paths. Scenic views plus fresh seafood drew me towards the southern route instead, out along the seafront past the Victorian colonnaded splendor of the Paignton Club, built in 1881 and still very popular for weddings and events. They're offering a Christmas Day lunch this year including Stilton and broccoli soup, smoked mackerel mousse on toast, roast turkey or beef (or a "nut roast" for vegetarians), and a traditional Christmas pudding for afters. Roundham Road rises up over the headland that shelters the harbor, and I walked up and over to look out over the next beachy cove at Goodrington Sands. I could have jogged left just off Roundham Road above the harbor along Cliff Road for a better view and the official start of the South West Coast Path out of Paignton, but I had heard there were some slippy areas after all the rain. The road continues down for those who are driving, but there's also a zig-zaggy paved path running down the cliffs to the beach.

When the tide's out, you can walk along the beach from north to south, but there's also a nice promenade, undoubtedly crowded on sunny summer Sundays but nearly deserted that day, except for the forklift trucks moving the now-emptied storage cabanas from their long lines along the shore into close-packed ranks in a parking lot on the other side of the railroad tracks. The path starts up again at the end of the beach. I walked under the railway line and started up and over the next headland.

There were several little rocky coves along the way to my left, and I saw more adventurous people with dogs hiking back up from them, but I didn't go down to explore. I stayed on the path, which climbs up through clearings and down into wooded areas and then up again, with the railway line to the left and houses to the right, then no houses at all, just fields and a few golf courses. One of the coves I didn't explore is Saltern Cove, which Wikipedia now informs me contains "a greatly disturbed Devonian sequence" (geology humor, Mom?). Another website mentions its "slump bed" and "coarse Permian fluvial breccias resting unconformably on Devonian slates and sandstones" which I read as "resting uncomfortably," which makes sense if the bed is slumping. It's also a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and the only nature reserve in Britain that lies both above and below the water.

Once up and over the high ground, the path descends again down a long steep slippery staircased slope that first parallels and then crosses under the Broadsands viaduct where the trains run. This arched stone bridge was built in 1860. I can't find any information on who built the viaduct, but all agree that it was built according to a design by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a man the BBC History site describes as "one of the most versatile and audacious engineers of the 19th century." He designed all of the viaducts and tunnels for the Great Western Railway network; the Dartmouth Steam Railway runs along a now-unconnected spur of the larger line system, from Paignton to Kingswear.

Broadsands beach looks like a good family beach, and there were indeed families there, enjoying what had turned into a somewhat less overcast day by that point. There was even an open concessions stand at the south end of the promenade, selling sodas and ice cream. I walked to the end of the beach, and then up to the top of Churston Point, another fairly steep climb - though only a gentle incline by the standards of the hardy souls who hike les Pyrénées Béarnaises, n'est-ce pas, Florence? From the top of the cliffs, I could look over to the entrance to Brixham harbour. I noticed odd black lines in the water, and took a photo of what I believe are the ropes for the mussel farms run by Brixham Sea Farms.

Churston Court has been sitting comfortably back from the edge of the cliffs since the 12th century, and the manor house is now the clubhouse for the Churston Golf Course. Baron Churston and his family haven't been peers nearly as long as that, though; the title was only created in 1858 (or 1790, if you're talking about the earlier Baronets of Churston Court). Through the magnetic forces that bring rich people together, the current Baron is now first cousin to His Highness Prince Shah Karim Al Hussaini Aga Khan, who is unimaginably wealthy and is the religious head of the Nizari Shi'ites, all 15 million of them worldwide, being a direct descendant of Mohammed. Or so it is said - I don't want to add to the millenia-old conflict between Shi'a and Sunni on this blog, so please avoid bloodshed in any discussions about the validity of his claim.

Speaking of bloodshed, Agatha Christie used to spend time in this area, at Greenway House about two miles further inland, on the River Dart. Some of her stories are set in and around this property, including at pretty little woods-encircled Elberry Cove, which is where the path took me next. Lord Churston built a bathing-house in the cove, and Ms. Christie enjoyed the quiet waters there. In "The A.B.C. Murders" someone meets his end there, though I won't say who, in case you've just started the book. There was a family there when I walked around the edge over the flat stones of the shingle beach; the man had a Geiger counter, and was perhaps looking for clues. The woman and the child were searching for pretty stones and shells and bits of whatever it is that children are interested in, or that women who are hoping to keep children entertained while men play with machines that go 'ping' are having those children look for.

And up again, through another stretch of woodland that runs almost level along the edge of Churston Golf Course, across the top neck of Fishcombe Point, and down to Churston Cove. That would have been a nice place to stop and look for pretty stones (as another family of three was doing by the water line) or - if the weather had been warmer - paddle about in the shallows, but my water bottle was empty, as was my stomach, and I knew that Brixham Harbour was just around the bend.

"And here must be noticed, what is certainly a special feature in our sins this day. I do not say exclusively of this day, but certainly more than ordinarily apparent amongst us; - I mean, our making religion itself a matter of dissension; - our spending our zeal and our strength in disputes with each other, instead of in the great work of advancing God's kingdom, first in our own hearts, and then in the hearts of others. While we are disputing who is right and who is wrong; about this person or that; what is such an one's tendencies, and what he will do; souls are perishing around us, and our own are in imminent danger. Look at the fact as it is. Our religion, instead of binding us together, is the most fruitful source of our dissensions."

- from "National Sins and National Judgements" (1847) by William Dodsworth, a Church of England minister who converted to Catholicism but was not able to become a priest, being married to Elizabeth, sister of the first Baron Churston

The concrete steps added on the south end of the cove by which I went down turned into steps carved into the rocks themselves leading out again, up one last steep (truly steep this time) trail leading to the first houses of the town, and what used to be a large parking lot that was full of construction workers and what looked like half-built apartment blocks.

Brixham has always been a busy place. There are traces of settlements dating back to Celtic and Roman times, and it was probably one of the major trading posts along this stretch of coastline. Fishing has naturally been a large part of the economy, and up until 1870 it was the largest center of commercial fishing in Devon, until it was overtaken by Plymouth. Wagons and later trains took the some of the catch inland to Exeter and Bath, and hundreds of ships took the rest to Portsmouth, where boatloads of seafood were shipped up to London.

All of the people in the industries that supported the fishermen - boat builders, sailmakers, woodworkers and chandlers and ropemakers - made a good living directly or indirectly from the sea. Smugglers and pirates found less acceptable, if often easier, ways to bring in money.

On land, people worked in the limestone quarries and in mining ochre. Powdered ochre was used to waterproof the sails of fishing vessels, and in 1845 a local Brixham chemist discovered that adding ochre to paint made a rustproof coating for iron; production of that paint employed people for the next hundred years.

At the beginning of the 19th century Brixham had about 3,500 inhabitants and was the largest town in Torbay. The fishing industry went into a decline entre-deux-guerres, and the population went with it. Tourism and fishing have both picked up since then, and at the beginning of the 21st century there were over 17,000 people living there. Much money is being put into redevelopment of the fisheries and into making Brixham the place for plaice, as it were. UK chef Mitch Tonks, who lives in Brixham, will be opening a branch of his Rockfish restaurant chain there next year. There are already several good places to eat fresh fish in town, as the Paigntonites know. The town is at the crossroads of several popular trails, including the South West Coast Path.

Note to Torbay Council PR team - I'm available for writing brochures and other publicity. Have your people call my people.

There is a replica of Sir Francis Drake's ship The Golden Hind moored in Brixham harbor. Or at least it's a replica of the original replica used to film the single-season 1961 TV series "The Adventures of Sir Francis Drake," which apparently aired in the US in the summer of 1962 while "Car 54, Where Are You?" was on a break. The TV prop was bashed up by a storm in 1987, but the current replica, one with a galley to make it more authentic, has been at Brixham ever since. This is not to be confused with the truly authentic and seaworthy replica called The Golden Hinde II, which can generally be found moored just off the Thames near London Bridge.

Drake's first cousin Sir John Hawkins went with him on many voyages, generally to raid and plunder and capture slaves, but he didn't go on the globe-trotting (-splashing?) one from 1577-1580, as he was too busy doing counterespionage against the Spanish, whom he had previously riled up by said raiding and plundering and slave-capturing from Africa to Venezuela, which the Spanish felt was their department. As many of the ships he raided and plundered were Spanish, that just cheesed them off more. Eventually all this led to the invasion of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and fortifications can still be seen on Berry Head, the headland just north of Brixham harbor.

The other famous figure associated with Brixham harbor is Prince William of Orange. He landed here on November 5, 1688 with 500 ships, a Protestant Dutch invasion force sponsored by the wealth of those members of the English church and state who did not want the Roman Catholic James II and his newborn son reestablishing the Papists on the throne. James II's oldest daughter Mary had married William 11 years earlier; William himself was the grandson of Charles I, who had married his daughter Mary at the age of 9 to William II of Orange, ruler of the Netherlands. After James II abdicated and fled to France, William and Mary co-ruled England, both having what William thought were equal claims to the throne - an enlightened attitude on his part, given the fact that the "boyz rule" order of succession laws wouldn't be changed for another 322 years.

There are a lot of good restaurants along the Quay, I was informed. Unfortunately they all close after lunch at 2:30pm and don't reopen until about 6:00pm for the dinner service. Guess when I arrived in Brixham? If you said "2:31pm" you would be correct. So I can't tell you about any of the fine dining, or any other dining, options in Brixham, after all.

I had hoped to take the steam train back to Paignton, but discovered that it swerves to the west after a stop at Churston, going on to Greenway (for the Christie fans) and then south to the end of the line at Kingswear, next to Dartmouth. There's an 1864 train station at Dartmouth that sells train tickets, but you can't get there by train - the railway line was never extended across the River Dart, and passengers still have to take a ferry across.

The steam train has as special cargo in July: a giant gooseberry pie. They may not hold the Galmpton Gooseberry Pie Fair every year, but they did in 2007, and I was there with friends from Totnes. The pie procession stops at the Churston station, and goes down the lane to the village green. I could have walked from Brixham harbor to get the train back at Churston, but it would have been another 2.5 miles and 50 minutes, and the bus stop was right there, with a #12 just getting ready to leave. I traded six dollars for a seat on the upper deck, right at the front so that I could see out over the landscape whose eastern edge I'd just spent 2.3 hours walking. After 23 minutes of driving by fields of sheep and cows and mangel-wurzel (actually I don't know what was growing in those fields, I just like saying mangel-wurzel) I arrived back in Paignton.

I ate a late lunch at the Shoreline, which does a very nice pot of moules-frites with Brixham mussels, I must say.

"There must be a beginning of any great matter, but the continuing unto the end until it be thoroughly finished yields the true glory." - Sir Francis Drake (1587)