Sir Francis Drake was born on a farm just a few miles from Buckland Abbey in Devon, a National Trust property that we visited while staying for the weekend at the Moorland Garden Hotel. From modest beginnings, ‘El Draco’ had grown up to become a buccaneer (that’s a polite word for pirate), great Elizabethan naval commander and scourge of the Spanish Empire in Central America where he attacked their ships and stole their gold at every opportunity.
Since Queen Elizabeth I was one of his backers, she was thrilled when Drake returned to England in 1580 with his ship, the Golden Hind, laden with Spanish treasure, of which she would take the lion’s share. Drake was knighted as a reward and bought Buckland Abbey with just a small part of his bounty, adopting as his motto ‘Sic Parvis Magna’ – from small beginnings come great things.
Buckland Abbey’s more recent claim to fame is the Rembrandt self-portrait which came to the property in 2010 as a legacy. Until recently the painting was thought to be a portrait of the artist by one of his pupils or a copy of one of his originals. A visit by the Rembrandt expert, Professor Ernst van de Wetering, prompted a reconsideration of the painting and investigations started to see if it could be a genuine self-portrait.
The now confirmed Rembrandt ‘Selfie’ is housed in a ground floor exhibition room at the abbey, with fascinating information about all the detective work that went into establishing that it was the real thing. The portrait has an element of the dressing up box about it, with the artist in a flamboyant cap with ostrich feather, flowing velvet cape and gold chain, using the ‘Tronie’ style of Dutch painting in which people were portrayed as historic or mythological characters.
We watched a video explaining the reasons that the portrait was agreed by art experts to be genuine, such as the fact that the signature had been made when the rest of the paint was still wet, rather than added afterwards. It also appears to have been written rather carelessly, with the artist running out of space so that he left off the D in his name, something you might not dare do if you were a forger.
Xrays and infra-red photography showed how the shape of the figure was blocked out on the canvas, which was a typical technique Rembrandt used and an analysis of the pigments showed they were consistent for the period.
After painstaking research, analysis and cleaning, the self-portrait was found to be genuine and now takes pride of pace in the centre of the exhibition room, where you can see the back with original labels and markings, as well as the front.
On arrival at Buckland Abbey we walked down into the Ox Yard, where old farm buildings now house craft workshops and a room where you can see a video about Sir Francis Drake. The shop and restaurant are in what was once the old monastic guest house.
Buckland Abbey was, as the name suggests, originally founded in 1273 as a monastery by Amicia, the Countess of Devon, in memory of her son who had been murdered. She endowed the monastery and large estates in Devon to the Cistercian order who divided their time between spiritual devotions and agricultural labours, especially sheep farming.
The Great Barn, which sits right beside the main house, was built at this time and is one of the largest of the period with oak roof beams arching 60 feet above you as you enter. It was built to store the farm produce, its sheer size indicating the wealth and productivity of the abbey estates and is often used for workshops and events like carol singing at Christmas.
Since we were there in the late autumn, we found that apples from the estate were being pressed to make cider, the group of volunteers only taking up a small space of the huge barn.
After King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, the abbey buildings and estate were sold to Sir Richard Grenville whose heirs converted the monastic buildings including the church into a private home. Sir Francis Drake moved to Buckland in 1582, the same year he became Mayor of Plymouth aged 39, already famous for his 3 year circumnavigation of the world and his exploits in the New World.
We enjoyed a look around the various galleries in the house where portraits and objects from the house’s history are on display. Pride of place in the Treasures Gallery on the first floor is taken by Drake’s Drum, which he took on his naval voyages and is said to sound whenever England is in danger. To the side of this main display room was the oak panelled Drake’s Chamber, filled with oak furniture and portraits of the period, just as it might have looked in Drake’s day.
Along the corridor we moved on 200 years as we walked into the Georgian Dining Room, while up the stairs to the top floor was the Long Gallery, dominated by a huge statue of Sir Francis Drake. This long, open space was used in Tudor times for the inhabitants to get some indoor exercise and we found information about life on board the ships that Drake might have sailed and the lives of the Cistercian monks.
Back on the ground floor were the Tudor kitchens, laid out with 18th century cooking utensils and foods as if preparing for the dinner party upstairs. The final part of the tour was through the Great Hall, created in 1576 by Sir Richard Grenville when he converted the monastery into a house. Apparently the nave of the old church where the monks were buried sits under the pink and white tiled floor of the Great Hall.
Our tour finished, we came out of the house and back into the beautiful formal gardens, inspired by Tudor knot hedges filled with roses and a small orchard of apple trees. If we’d had more time, we could also have taken a walk around the Buckland Abbey estate through the great deer park and woodland where wild garlic and bluebells bloom in the spring.
If you are on the western edge of Dartmoor visiting Tavistock or Plymouth, do stop in to Buckland Abbey for a big slice of Devon’s history and to find more about Sir Francis Drake and the Rembrandt selfie.
If you go: Buckland Abbey, Yelverton, Devon, PL20 6EY, Tel: 01822 853607
Closed in January, re-opens 14 February 2015. Open daily 11-4 in winter, 10:30-5:30 in spring/summer. Admission Adult £11, Child £5.50. (check website for more details) Follow on Social Media: Twitter @BucklandAbbeyNT | Facebook | Instagram |Thanks to the National Trust who gave Heather and Guy complimentary admission to Buckland Abbey.
Where to stay:
Heather and Guy stayed at Moorland Garden Hotel which is close by at Yelverton – read my review here. The hotel is an ideal base for those wanting to explore the area for walking on Dartmoor or to visit the Ocean City of Plymouth. The rooms are all decorated in colourful style using a garden and moorland theme and the award winning Wildflower restaurant is highly recommend for lunch, dinner or cream teas overlooking the lawns.
You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey
If you are visiting Tallinn for a short time or perhaps as part of a cruise excursion, you’ll want to use your limited time to make the most of the wonderful attractions available in Tallinn. This guide from our guest author, Brian Schweitzer will give a rundown of the best way to see Tallinn to make the most of your precious time.
What to See in Tallinn
Old Town – This is the best place to start your day in Tallinn as there are many different attractions located inside Old Town. Tallinn’s Old Town belongs to UNESCO’s World Heritage list since 1997 and is a medieval fantasy land that will take you back in time to the 11th – 15th century.
Town Hall Square – Also called Raekoja plats, the Town Hall Square has been in existence since 1322. The square is famous for an open air market for souvenirs and the Christmas tree display, which is over 570 years old. This is a great place to buy traditional Estonian souvenirs.
Town Hall Pharmacy – Also called Raeapteek, it is one of the oldest pharmacies in Europe and has been in operation since the 15th century. The strange array of medicines available throughout history includes mummy juice, unicorn horn powder, bat powder, and hedgehog powder. Inside there is a museum displaying medieval medical instruments and chemist tools. This is another place to buy interesting souvenirs.
Toompea Hill & Castle – The Estonian parliament is located here and the hill offers visitors several viewing platforms for taking amazing photos with Tallinn in the background. This was one of the first inhabited areas that is now known as Tallinn and the natural hill offered a stronghold that would be used throughout the history of the city.
St Mary’s Church – Located on Toompea Hill, the church is also known as Dome Church and is the oldest church in Estonia. The original wood church was built in 1219 and numerous famous people throughout history have been buried here. It was originally a Roman Catholic Church but in 1561 it became a Lutheran Church.
Kiek in de Kök & Bastion Tunnels – Kiek in de Kök was the Baltic’s most powerful cannon tower defense and construction lasted from 1475 to 1483. The name literally means “peek into the kitchen” as the guards could actually peer into the kitchens of the houses below. After viewing the tower defense you can head underground into Bastion Tunnels. Construction started in the 1630’s and with a purpose to secretly flank any enemy trying to take the city. These secret underground passages helped guard the city during the time of Swedish rule.
St Nicholas’ Church – This church was dedicated to St Nicholas, the saint of sailors and fishermen. Inside the church is a branch of the Art Museum of Estonia which focuses on medieval artwork. The church is also used as a concert hall because of the excellent acoustics inside.
Town Wall – Also known as the Margaret Wall, it was ordered to be constructed by Queen Margaret Sambiria in 1265. Walking along the walls visitors will have another great chance for memorable photos.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral – This is a beautiful Orthodox church built in Russia style between 1894 and 1900. It is Tallinn’s largest orthodox cupola cathedral and was dedicated to Saint Alexander Nevsky, who was the prince of medieval Rus.
Kadriorg Park & Palace – After leaving Old Town, head out to Kadriorg Park on the outskirts of Tallinn, Kadriorg Park and Kadriorg Palace was founded in the beginning of the 18th by the order of Peter the Great of Russia. The park is a great place to walk in the fresh air and includes several interesting buildings including the Presidential Palace, Kadriorg art Museum, KUMU (one of the largest art museums in the Baltics), and the Peter the Great museum. Kadriorg Park also includes Kadriorg Palace, which was built in baroque style by Peter the Great for Catherine I in 1718.
Where to Eat in Tallinn
No day in Tallinn is complete without a medieval feast. Old Hansa restaurant in Old Town offers traditional medieval Estonian cuisine that makes you feel that you have gone back to medieval times. The atmosphere, attendants, music, and menu are all meticulously created to showcase the “Golden Age of Tallinn.”
Souvenirs to Buy in Tallinn
Take something home to remember your Tallinn shore excursion with these recommended souvenirs:
Vana Tallinn – Based on a traditional Estonian recipe this liquor is based on Jamaican rum and includes natural spices including citrus oil, vanilla, and cinnamon.
Juniper – Kitchen items crafted from juniper trees can be found inside the Church of the Holy Spirit and around Old Town. When cooking they emit a sweet, aromatic smell.
Kalev Chocolate – This is the largest chocolate maker in Estonia and includes a large variety of chocolates including some stranger variants such as white chocolate with blueberries.
Wool Clothing – The traditional choice of clothing in medieval Estonia, you will find wool clothing available throughout Old Town with a large selection of items from socks, sweaters, and hats.
About the author: Brian Schweitzer is a travel writer for Travel Guru – A smart travel community dedicated to connecting travelers and saving them time and money on their travels.
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What a night for a drive down to Devon! With rain pelting down on the windscreen and leaves blowing across the road, any thoughts we had of stopping at a country pub on the way were abandoned in the hope of just arriving safely at the Moorland Garden Hotel.
We’ve arrived at the Moorland Garden Hotel!
Just north of Plymouth we turned off the main road and down a secluded drive to reach the gates of the hotel, a long two-storey building with all the bedrooms overlooking the lawned gardens. Parking the car and running inside to escape the downpour, we were soothed by the warm welcome at reception and the sounds of music and celebration coming from the room at the other end of the corridor. This being rural Devon, the Young Farmers’ annual dinner dance was in full swing with lads in DJs and lasses in full-on evening glamour and tottering heels, wandering in and out of the bar, not a wellie or barbour jacket to be seen.
I hope you enjoy my video below of the Moorland Garden Hotel
Harking back to the hotel’s glamourous heyday
The hotel was built in the 1930s, originally named the Moorland Links Hotel because of the nearby golf club and enjoyed a glamourous reputation in its heyday, attracting celebrities such as David Niven and Rex Harrison. With a large ballroom complete with sprung dance floor and resident orchestra, guests flocked to attend tea dances and balls, while in the 1940s the hotel was popular with army and naval officers stationed at nearby Plymouth. In 2011 the hotel was bought by the current owners Brian and Sonia Meaden who have gradually put the hotel through a complete refurbishment of the 44 bedrooms and public areas. While the swimming pool and tennis courts of the 1930s are no longer there, the hotel has taken on a new character as a welcoming place for guests wanting to combine the wild walks of Dartmoor with the Waterfront attractions of the Ocean City of Plymouth. To celebrate its 80th anniversary this year, the hotel has been drawing on its heritage, with a 1940s themed tea dance, Agatha Christie inspired afternoon teas and summer picnics in the wildflower meadow that adjoins the gardens.
Relaxing the Dartmoor Bar and Lounge
Having left the cases in our bedroom (more about that later) we settled into the comfortable Dartmoor lounge for a warming bowl of haddock and sweetcorn chowder and chilli Exe river mussels from the bar menu. The decor was cosy and traditional with some modern touches and looked as if it had benefited from the recent refurbishment with an inviting air of fresh paint and new carpets. We settled into the oversized patchwork armchairs by the fireplace, which would be a favourite spot in winter when the fire is lit, admiring the striped tapestry, brocade and velvet fabrics with gilt mirrors and glowing red glass lamps. The walls were covered with artistic photos of Dartmoor, reminding us of the wild landscapes, granite tors and mossy covered river boulders that we had explored on previous visits to Devon. In one corner was a desk covered with useful information leaflets of local attractions and on the shelves were games and jigsaws to while away an autumn evening.
The adjoining Dartmoor bar had been similarly refurbished with plenty of comfortable seating areas, leather sofas and velvet banquettes by the wall. The wild landscapes of nearby Dartmoor were referenced in the black and white photos of moorland miniature ponies and twisted oaks, with metal stag heads on the wall and stag motifs on the cushions. Guy was keen to try a pint of the Dartmoor Best ale although we discovered from the barman that it actually comes from St Austell in Cornwall.
Settling into the Lily of the Valley Suite
After recovering from our windswept Friday night drive, we were able to enjoy our spacious Lily of the Valley Suite on the first floor, where home-made biscuits had been laid out for us. All the rooms in the hotel have been individually redecorated with the help of West Country designer Nadine Judd, drawing on a garden theme to bring the natural beauty of the moor into the hotel. Like all the bedrooms, ours overlooked the garden and so when we awoke we had delightful views over the lawns and down to the Tamar valley beyond.
I had a peep in a few of the other bedrooms and found the decorative style was colourful and modern, often using patterned feature walls, bright floral prints and striking pieces of furniture. Our Lily of the Valley suite took up the fresh floral theme, with leaf green walls, pretty cream linen curtains with a delicate floral sprig and a feature wall covered with hand-printed lily of the valley paper on a dark background. We sat eating our warm biscuits on the green crushed velvet sofa with pastel floral cushions and flicked through the books and magazines that had been thoughtfully left under the glass of the coffee table. The overall effect was very pleasing although there was the odd item that seemed more high street than high end – a metal garden chair at the desk and a strange IKEA style metal shelf on the wall beside the bed. The en suite bathroom was clean and fresh with pale grey tiles and a shower above the bath although I suspect that this was one of the few remaining bathrooms in the hotel that was due for refurbishment, since I saw other rooms with more modern bathrooms.
Elegant Dining in the Wildflower Restaurant
On Saturday night we planned to eat in the Wildflower restaurant, having heard great things about the restaurant which won a Gold in the 2013 West Country Taste of the West awards and was named Best Restaurant in the South West. The Head Chef, Bruce Cole has been at the hotel for 18 months now and has created new menus that feature locally sourced and seasonal produce from nearby farms and food producers. After dinner we had a chance to chat with Bruce and he told us “When I arrived much of the food came from the freezer and the menu changed twice a year. Now everything is freshly made including the bread and pastries, we use the best local produce and we change the menu every 4 to 6 weeks with the seasons”
The Wildflower restaurant has large French windows that overlook the gardens which open in summer leading out onto the terrace. There is an elegant silver and turquoise theme with patterned turquoise velvet chairs, silver leaf wall decorations and a striking private dining area with silver and turquoise floral wallpaper and silver mirrors. I’d love to visit the restaurant in summer to enjoy a cream tea overlooking the gardens or to be there in September when the hotel hosts the Delicious Drake’s trail that ends on those lawns.
We had invited a friend who lives in Plymouth to join us for dinner and we were all wow’ed by the dishes which were beautifully presented and above all delicious. I started with a crab mille feille, a soft crab pate piled into a tower with crispy biscuits and a piquant mango garnish. To follow I ordered the sliced breast of duck which was well cooked with a ring of crispy fat, served with vegetables and a prune puree that gave a fruity piquancy. My desert was a perfectly creamy crème brullee with a crisp caramel topping and ball of lemon sorbet in a brandy snap basket. Guy tried a board of delicious West Country cheeses and our friend had the Langage Farm lemon and lime sorbet on a creamy jelly with pretty edible pansies. I thought that the three course dinner which included coffee was incredible value at £28.95 considering the elegant surroundings, friendly and attentive service and of course the delicious food.
The next morning we were back at our window table for breakfast to enjoy the garden views in daylight and of course I had to have the English cooked breakfast while Guy ordered a kipper from the breakfast menu. There was the usual range of hot toast with jam and marmalade, croissants, fruit and yoghurts, a choice of packet cereals, although the selection was fairly limited and I thought the breakfast didn’t quite live up to the magnificence of the dinner the previous evening.
You can get married here too!
After the Young Farmers’ party on Friday night I noticed that the ballroom was being laid out for a wedding on Saturday and went to have a nose around while the staff were setting out the tables. The large Crystal room at the far end of the hotel is on two levels, the first of which was being set out with chairs for the marriage ceremony while the ballroom area was arranged with tables for the dinner-dance that followed. The room lived up to its name, with sparkling chandeliers and mirrors, and would be the perfect setting for a summer wedding when guests can walk out onto the lawn. In the gardens I spotted the wrought iron rose arbour which was designed and made by local blacksmith Matt Dingle and is popular for wedding photos or even for the wedding ceremony itself. Although the wedding reception was in full swing on the Saturday night when we were dining in the Wildflower restaurant, I was impressed that the staff managed to keep everything running very smoothly, accommodating both groups of guests, although I probably wouldn’t want to be sleeping in the bedrooms immediately above the ballroom when a major event like this is being held in the hotel.
The morning market at Tavistock
On Saturday morning we ventured out from the Moorland Garden Hotel to explore the nearby market town of Tavistock, which sits on the western edge of Dartmoor. The town became prosperous in the Middle Ages from the wool trade and was one of the “Stannary Towns” around Dartmoor that controlled the local tin mining that took place on the moor.
In front of the impressive stone Guildhall we chatted to the owner of the fruit and veg stall and wandered through the covered craft market. Through an archway we found the Pannier Market, a historic covered market that was given its charter 900 years ago and houses an eclectic mix of different stalls that change daily, with antiques, crafts and daily necessities. On the Saturday it seemed to be a bustling general market of everything you could hope to find in a Devon town, from birdseed to fishing bait, tweed hats to moleskin trousers and country fudge to old books and antique costume jewellery.
Around the courtyard that enclosed the Pannier market there were a number of small specialist shops, including de la Torre’s selling a huge variety of olives and Mediterranean foods like houmous, olive oils and jars of condiments. Right next door was the Country Cheese shop where the staff were only too happy to let us try a sliver of this or that before we decided which of the many West Country cheeses to buy, deliberating between the delightfully named Miss Muffett, Tilly Whim and other Devon specialities.
The Garden House at Buckland Monachorum
On the way back from Tavistock that afternoon we stopped in at The Garden House, a privately owned gardens in a secluded Devon valley, set around a Georgian vicarage. The garden was bought in the 1940s by Lionel and Katharine Fortescue who moved to live in the vicarage and started planting the 10 acres of garden which was further developed in the 1960s by head gardener Keith Wiley who introduced the naturalistic landscapes of the cottage garden, wildflower meadow and Acer glade.
Walking past the house where I made a mental note of the tea-room, we started our tour of the garden at the small lake where the water lilies and sculptural gunnera made a picturesque setting with the half submerged blue rowing boat that was moored to the bank, but not going anywhere. Most beautiful at the end of summer was the walled garden where the long herbaceous borders were filled with hostas turning to yellow and decaying brown, with fraying silver thistles and the bright spots of dahlias blazing pink and pumpkin orange. In the middle of the walled garden was a small stone thatched cottage, perhaps the gardner’s cottage making a backdrop for the dusty pink hydrangeas and pink penstomen.
At the furthest end of the garden we enjoyed the rhododendron walk which was now full of autumn colour with golden maples and acers lighting up the dark rhododendron foliage. The path led us gradually up hill through the Acer glade beside a small stream trickling over shale which had been cut into the grassy bank. Having completed the circuit of the garden we hurried back to the tea-room in the house before it closed, to have a Devon Cream tea and a slice of home-made fruit cake. Please note the Garden House is now closed for the winter and will re-open again in March.
Buckland Abbey, home of Sir Frances Drake and a Rembrandt self-portrait
On Sunday before we headed for home, we drove the short distance to Buckland Abbey, a medieval abbey which later became home to the Elizabethan sailor, Sir Francis Drake and is now run by the National Trust. We spent a few hours here, enjoying the great barn, medieval house, the Rembrandt exhibition and had lunch at the cafe before driving back to Bristol, although it would be very easy to stay a whole day here if the weather was fine. Read about our visit to Buckland Abbey.
The Cistercian Abbey was founded here in the 13th century, but after Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, the abbey was sold to Sir Richard Grenville who demolished some of the monastic buildings and converted it to a family home. In 1582 Sir Francis Drake bought the property with the proceeds of his bucaneering raids on the Spanish fleet in the Americas and it remained in the hands of his heirs until earlier this century. This year Buckland was in the news due the Rembrandt Portrait which came to Buckland Abbey in 2010 and after a 2 year investigation by art experts has now been confirmed as a genuine painting by the master himself. We enjoyed looking around the special Rembrandt exhibition within the house showing the portrait and details of all the ways they had confirmed it was genuine, as well as other museum exhibits such as Drake’s Drum which accompanied him on his voyages and is said to sound when England is in danger.
There are no shortage of things to see in this part of Devon and another time we might enjoy a walk up to one of the Tors on the moor or drive into Plymouth where the waterfront is being developed with new restaurants and museums. If you’re looking for a comfortable and welcoming hotel with an excellent restaurant to use as a base for exploring the area I’d certainly recommend the Moorland Garden Hotel and would love to come back in summer to enjoy the gardens and sit out on the terrace, perhaps enjoying a Devon cream tea.
The Moorland Garden Hotel, Yelverton, Devon. Rooms for a weekend stay range from £100-125 based on B & B for 2 people sharing or £125-155 for a suite. Check the hotel website for information on special breaks such as 3 nights for the price of 2, Sunday night stays or breaks that include dinner and afternoon tea. Dogs are welcome in the hotel and can stay in certain rooms. My tip would be to check whether there is a wedding or function taking place in the hotel when you book and if so request a room at the opposite end of the hotel where you won’t be disturbed.
You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey