Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Dinosaurs, Sir Walter Raleigh & The Simcoes

Budleigh  Salterton from the Jurassic Coast

UK TOUR DAY TEN (BUDLEIGH SALTERTON): The tenth day of The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour took me to a small, seaside town with an awesome name: Budleigh Salterton. It's probably most famous for being the site of a super-important painting called The Boyhood of Raleigh. Sir Walter Raleigh grew up in these parts; the painting shows him and his brother sitting on the beach as children, listening intently as a sailor tells them tales of life at sea. Raleigh would go on to become one the giants of the Elizabethan age — "aristocrat, writer, poet, soldier, politician, courtier, spy, and explorer..." He searched in vain for El Dorado, popularized tobacco in England, and spent two separate stints in the Tower of London before finally being executed. (Clive Owen played him in the second Elizabeth movie.) According to Wikipedia, the painting — by the famous Victorian artist Sir John Everett Millais, who made the trip to Budleigh Salterton to do it — "came to epitomise the culture of heroic imperialism" all the way from the height of the British Empire in the 1800s to its final days after the Second World War.

Here it is:

 
Off in the corner of the painting, you can see just a little bit of Budleigh Salterton's iconic red cliffs. They tower over the beach on either side of the town, stretching off into the distance as far as you can see. And they're incredibly important, too. In fact, they're a World Heritage Site. It starts a few kilometers to the west and continues east along the cliffs for 150 more — an enormous stretch of the southern coastline of England. There's a footpath you can walk the whole way. I did about 8 kilometers of it, and it was spectacular; from the top of those cliffs, you can see the whole enormous stretch of coastline spreading out around you.

They call it "The Jurassic Coast". And that's because this is the only place in the world where you can see the entire archeological history of the dinosaurs from start to finish: from the strange, reptilian beasts that came before them all the way through to their final days. The record spans 185 million years. That's about a third of the entire evolution of animal life on our planet.

The way it works is that the further west you go, the further back in time. And since Budleigh Salterton is near the western edge of the Jurassic Coast, the cliffs here are the oldest. This red earth is from nearly 250 million years ago: The Triassic Period. Back then, this spot was part of the super-continent Pangaea — not that far, actually, from what would one day become Toronto. Budleigh Salterton was in the middle of a desert region; that's why the dirt is so red with iron. It was roamed by the bizarre reptile ancestors of dinosaurs, crocodiles and birds. Creatures like rhynchosaurs (squat, mammal-like plant-eaters with sharp beaks), thecodonts (kind of like tall alligators), labyrinthodonts (huge carnivorous amphibians) and bromsgroveia (relatives of the ancestors of crocodiles).

They've even found footprints from those beasts in the rocks around here. I got to see some of them at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter. They have rhynchosaur fossils on display, too.

The beach at Budleigh Salterton
But the region wasn't completely dry back then. When it did rain, nearby mountains fed rivers that swept through the desert. Big pebbles from those riverbeds are still here. In fact, they're everywhere. You can see them in the cliffs; they erode out onto the beach. That's what Budleigh Salterton's beach is made of: big, prehistoric pebbles instead of sand. You can see some of them in the Raleigh painting, too.

And of course, those ancient pebbles were here 200 years ago — which is when the history of Budleigh Salterton overlapped with the history of Toronto. Pretty much as soon as the Simcoes got back from founding our city in the very late 1700s, they bought a summer home in the seaside town. Today, it's still there — though very much renovated and modernized — on a hill overlooking the beach. It's even called "Simcoe House". There's a plaque and everything.

On my first night in town, I headed to the Sir Walter Raleigh pub, where I got to meet a bunch of people from the local Fairlynch Museum. We talked about the Simcoes, The Toronto Dreams Project and the connections between the history of Budleigh Salterton and the history of North America. There are quite a few people in England with a passionate interest in the Simcoes — I'll write more about that in a future post — and the Fairlynch is planning to embrace the connection. They'll be incorporating the Simcoes and the founding of Toronto in a new room dedicated to the ways the history of their town has overlapped with the history of North America. And it looks like among the very first things to go on display will be copies of the three dreams I've written for members of the Simcoe family.

The Jurassic Coast
The Jurassic Coast, looking east to Sidmouth
RAF WWII base on top of the Jurassic Coast cliffs
The South West Coast Path
The mouth of the Otter at Budleigh Salterton
The mouth of the Otter at Budleigh Salterton
Across the Otter from Budleigh Salterton
The red cliffs of Budleigh Salterton
The beach at Budleigh Salterton
The beach at Budleigh Salterton
The Sir Walter Raleigh Inn in East Budleigh
A dream for John Graves Simcoe at Simcoe House
The plaque at Simcoe House
A dream for Elizabeth Simcoe at Simcoe House
A dream for Francis "Castle Frank" Simcoe at Simcoe House
Old-timey Budleigh Satlerton, via Fairlynch Museum
Michael Downes shows me around the Fairlynch Museum
Michael Downes shows me around the Fairlynch Museum
My dreams for the Simcoes at the Fairlynch Museum

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Read more posts about The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour and the connections between the history of Toronto and the United Kingdom here.

You can learn lots more about the red cliffs here and the prehistory of the region here.

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