As a Christmas and birthday pressie my other half had organised a very special treat. I wasn’t allowed to know what it was until my birthday but I was assured that it would foot the bill of a microadventure.
On the day of my birthday I was told that we would be heading to the Burgh Island Hotel at the end of the month.
Now, a hotel stay would not normally really be a microadventure but the Burgh Island Hotel is an experience all of its own. But I refer you to what microadventures are all about (well, Alastair Humphreys thoughts on the matter anyway) as outlined in my “about” page.
Burgh Island is closely linked to Agatha Christie as it served as the inspirational setting for both Ten Little Niggers and the Hercule Poirot mystery Evil Under the Sun. The hotel, with its eloquent Art Deco styling, was also a bolt hole in the 1930s for some of London’s rich and famous, including Noël Coward. The island is approximately 250m from the mainland at Bigbury-on-Sea and is approachable on foot at low tide.
At high tide, the sea tractor, which is operated by the hotel, transports passengers back and forth. The original vehicle was constructed in 1930; the current third generation tractor dates from 1969. The vehicle drives across the beach with its wheels underwater on the sandy bottom while its driver and passengers sit on a platform high above. That is where we found a little adventure.
The invitation to the hotel was cloaked in secrecy. Stop at a village and phone them and they’d guide us in to the garages where we could leave the car on the mainland. We had to be there before 11.15am or after 5.30pm. We realised later that these times were the last guaranteed time to get to the island. We were hastily met by the Land Rover driver who was keen to get us back to the island before the “waters met”. We drove through roughly 6 inches of water and didn’t really understand at that time that the waters swiftly met!
The view from the room was awesome and we had a great view of the Mermaid Pool. A true microadventurer would have donned cossie and skipped down to this salt water lagoon and swam out to the deck. But you have already read that I don’t like being cold! Even the prospect of a dip in the slipper bath or a stint in the steam room afterwards was not going to persuade me that a dip in the Mermaid Pool was a good idea.
A little yomp around the island resulted in a visit to the Pilchard Inn. A welcoming fire, awesome cider and cauliflower cheese soup settled us in for a chat with the barmaid who was off to Franz Joseph in NZ to work. We reminisced about our individual trips to the islands over little half pints of the most glorious cider.
Cocktails and dinner were a black tie affair in glorious surrounds with a howling gale outside. The metal windows sometimes didn’t close all the way, so the January gale blowing over the island created a beastly howl. We ate dinner listening to this lament until the table of 12 left their cocktails alone and sat down for dinner.
Having spent breakfast looking out over the bright, sunny but windy beach, we checked out to have a game of “interesting” table tennis. Neither of us knew the rules properly. My beginner’s luck gave me a competitive edge until I lost a few matches and it all started to go downhill from there. My hideously muddy walking boots dried as I dived for shots that apparently legitimately can ricochet off the ceiling and walls, leaving a plethora of tread-shaped mud torpedoes all over the floor at my end of the table.
We then went out to walk that lovely beach. And so the adventure really began. I wanted to see if we could walk to the mouth of the River Avon (not the famous one but the one that rises in Dartmoor). We strode out, mindful of the pushing waters. Backward glances reassured me that we could still see beach and were therefore not cut off from the island. I dallied a little taking iPhone photos of rockpools and the hotel on the way back only to find that the waters had met! Sure, no problem! It can’t be that deep, we’ll wade it. Ah, no. Can’t see the bottom and we have an audience standing beside the sea tractor watching (smirking??) at us. So we pretend that we are just looking at the meeting waters and turn purposely back towards the mainland. I heard plenty I told you so’s as I decided that, discovering we had no phone signal or a number to call for the hotel to send the tractor, we should explore Bigbury now rather than later. Climbing up from the beach we paused on the road to look back longingly at the Pilchard Inn on the island. I noticed a couple striding towards the met waters and realised that they were with the group that was safely standing island side by the sea tractor. There was a lot of gesticulating and shrugging of shoulders and I bet quite a few I told you so’s too. They hovered for ages while their party watched from the verandah of the pub. Eventually we saw movement towards the tractor – rescue was being sent! We sauntered out across the beach trying to look as casual as possible. Was the tractor going to stop at the couple and pick them up? Was the tractor for guests only? Was it going to come all the way across the beach? It stopped and picked up the couple, by which stage we had lengthened our stride to catch a ride too. A young family of rockpoolers joined us for the tractor ride through the still meeting waters to the island. We sat under the verandah in the sunshine and out of the wind enjoying the view back to the mainland and enjoying the peaceful silence than comes from knowing each other and no phone/wifi signal! The rockpool family lost interest quite quickly and couldn’t work out how to get the sea tractor driver to come to take them back. Really, neither did we and we were just on the verge of heading back to the hotel when 2 guests appeared with driver. All of a sudden the pub emptied! It was like there was silent dog whistle. The trundle back through the waves was exciting. The waters had just about met and only a tiny proportion of beach was left. We made it back to the car before a squall passed over, soaking surfers and landlubbers alike.
Alastair says adventure is stretching yourself, mentally, physically or culturally. It is about doing something you do not normally do. I can’t say I have ever been on a sea tractor. The hotel, its décor, its personality and its ways, certainly was a cultural experience. What we also found interesting is how nice it was to be phone and wifi free for more than 24 hours. Having escaped work at 9:45am on a Friday, it was really relaxing to know that no one could call or email during the working day. I could take pictures on the iPhone without worrying that I would see a notification that I have 9 unread emails and be affected by the anxiety that that raises. So, our experience here has led to the idea of “Media free Mondays”. Time spent talking, reading or listening to music. Now that would be a microadventure in itself!