Tag Archives: Castle Drogo

Underground, Overground

Journey Date

3-Nighter – Early June 2011


Exeter– Beer – Buckfastleigh


“Great!  A blog about the Wombles!” I hear you cry.  Well, with such a title, you’d be forgiven for thinking so…  But I’m afraid this blog is “wombling free”.  However, although there is no mention of furry litter-pickers, we will be going underground on our travels – as well as overground.  [Apologies to readers who are too young to know what I’m on about!]


Having set off in good time, we took a detour off the A30 and had lunch at Spinster’s Rock and visited nearby Castle Drogo.  This National Trust property is an early 1900s structure designed by the famous Lutyens.  Drewe, the original owner, wanted to recreate the look of a castle, but unfortunately rejected advice to have a pitched roof which would drain off rainwater.  Years on, this has become a bit of an expensive problem to fix, so if you know anyone who has a spare £11.5 million…?

Despite its rather austere exterior, Castle Drogo is rather homely inside.  Drewe seemed ahead of his time with a few nifty gadgets about the place, including candlesticks that were ingeniously rigged up to work on electricity; and his daughter’s dolls’ house, which had working lights and running water – no thirsty dolls there!

Our first night’s stay was a little shy of Exeter.  Another basic Caravan Club CL site, it was quiet, took in views over Dartmoor, and was frequented by woodpeckers as well as blackbirds playing tug-of-war with the worms after the evening rain.


Next day, we went on one of Exeter’s free Red Coat tours entitled Churches, Cemeteries & the Catacomb.  (Warning to very squeamish readers: skip down to ‘a happier place’ further on in the blog.)

Intermittent rain accompanied us on the tour and, although I’m no historian, some of the info did actually sink in.  For example, the Romans originally occupied the area; and where Exeter Cathedral now stands there used to be an almighty burial site, with bodies laid to rest with their feet facing east – towards Jerusalem.


Personally, I found the catacombs more interesting than the churches.  And, it seems, I’m not alone.  The first ever Red Coat tour to the catacombs had thousands of folk lining up for it.  Unfortunately, the tour guide is only supposed to take a maximum of fifteen tourists!


Grave-robbing was once rife (doctors needed fresh bodies to examine for medical purposes) and it was hoped the catacombs, consecrated in 1837, would be immune to this problem and thereby attract many ‘clients’.  However, the fees were considered too high and only fifteen bodies ever ended up being interred there.

Still, one body was stolen from there and the authorities got it back by letting it be known that it was diseased with cholera.  The robbers returned the body and, hoping to lessen their punishment, said they’d looked after it really well – even going to the trouble of cleaning its teeth…  Hmm!


By morning, the rainy uncertainty of the previous day had cleared, leaving only fluffy cotton-clouds and hopeful blue skies.  Bit of a shame, though, as our itinerary meant that we’d be underground for most of the day!


We headed off to do a tour of the Beer Quarry Caves near Seaton.  Now, in this case, ‘Beer’ is a place not an alcoholic beverage.  The caves were prized for their creamy-coloured, chalk rock which is soft to work when first quarried and later hardens off; and they were worked by the Romans, Saxons and Normans (but not at the same time!)

Lowly-paid quarry-folk worked long, hard hours beneath the light of tallow-fat candles which they had to buy themselves.  As well as being used for local buildings, the renowned Beer stone has gone to build churches as far afield as Westminster Abbey, where Prince William just got hitched, and America.


If Beer Caves were some of the largest underground spaces we’ve ever visited, surely Exeter’s Underground Passages must be on the list of the smallest.

The medieval passages were created by digging a ditch, lining it with cut stone, covering it with a large stone to create a roof and backfilling with soil.  They were then lined with lead pipes(!) and this allowed clean water to be channelled into town for use by two main parties: Exeter residents and the clergy.  Water for the locals came from the river and helped prevent further cholera outbreaks; and water from Sidwell’s Well was fed directly to the cathedral, so they could have holy water on tap!

Pipe leaks were frequent and tallow-soaked cloths were used to repair them.  However, the rats took a fancy to the cloths (or was it the tallow? – or both?) and workers had to continually check on repairs.

During the Blitz, about 300 people used the passages as shelters; and I can only imagine how horribly claustrophobic it must have been.


The glorious evening sunset had transformed into heavy rain by morning and it was obvious that Steve wouldn’t be doing his planned cycle racing, all such events being cancelled in bad weather.

We usually stay on the same site near Buckfastleigh when Steve does his time trials; and if you read our last blog, you might remember the site owner’s dog who we decided to name ‘Bostik’ because of her ‘friendly’ nature.  Well, it turns out she’s called ‘Rosie’ – and, despite the weather, she was still eager to come and hover round the van.  We wondered how long she would hang about, given the bucketing rain and lack of attention.


As we sat there in the warmth of the van drinking our tea, we reflected on Steve’s washout of a day race-wise.  There’s one thing about having a campervan, we thought: you can pretty much do what you like.  We had nowhere else to be and no‑one else to please…  So we made another cuppa, chilled out as we watched the rain pouring down, and slowly made our way home in time to cook up a lovely roast meal.


  • Watch out for height restrictions on town car parks.  The Exeter Park & Ride we went to had no parking for motorhomes.  In the end, we drove into town and chanced upon an appropriate car park.  Contacting the Tourist Information Centre before travelling might have been wiser.
  • Make sure you have plenty of change to pay for your parking ticket beforehand.
  • To avoid disappointment, book tours in advance if you have your heart set on them.  The Exeter Underground Passages were fully booked up with school tours on the Friday, but we managed to secure a place the following day.

As you have probably guessed, there won’t be a Steve’s Cycle Shorts entry for this trip, so fans will have to wait till another time, I’m afraid.


Having done quite a few trips lately, it’s time for us to go over our diaries again and plan the next batch of mini campervan adventures.  So it’s just a case of ‘watch this space’ or, if you haven’t yet subscribed to the blog, why not let the blog come to you by popping your email address in the box to the right of the blog and click on “I’m keen!  Sign me up!”  It’ll then be emailed to you by a digital postal worker.

In the meantime…

As we haven’t any immediate trips planned, there’ll be a bit of a gap till the next blog.  So if any readers are interested in me posting a collection of photographs from previous trips, let me know.  Otherwise, I’ll see you again whenever our next travel tale is posted…


You can also read about our adventures in my book Campervan Capers. Available at all major outlets online. Click here for more info.



Filed under Devon, Our Campervan Capers