Beer, Bats & Donkeys

I suddenly realised that thanks to a hectic few weeks and lots of gardening, it’s been ages since my last blog, so as the dog needed a walk and I needed a change of scene I thought I’d treat us both to a jolly this morning and go exploring.

We headed west, as I thought the Donkey Sanctuary at Sidmouth would be a great Easter Holidays idea for families, but as I know it’s dogs on leads there, we popped into Beer on the way past so that she could let off steam on the beach first.

Beach huts at Beer

Of all the days to choose! As I drove down into the middle of Beer, a very picturesque fishing village on the coast between Lyme Regis & Sidmouth, there seemed to be a lot of people on the street, and the car park was almost full already, despite the early hour. It soon became apparent why – half the car park was full of massive trucks with ‘Movie Makers’ emblazoned down the side. I decided to carry on anyway, and see if I could see what all the excitement was about. The village centre was a throng of cameras, tracks, sound equipment and what looked like tonnes of cables, equipment cases and kit, and hordes of people, all there shooting some scenes for ‘Melody’, a musical which will be set on the East Devon coast. (There was recently a call on Facebook for extras for this, which I told one of our neighbours about and she got a part!) They were not using the beach though, so we headed down there, and I had a real ‘Eureka’ moment. Why have I never discovered Beer before?! Admittedly it helped that just as we arrived the sun came out and transformed a dull day into one of those bright, sparkling, bubbly mornings you only seem to get at the seaside, but the beach with its backdrop of craggy cliffs, rim of beach huts and rows of working boats pulled up on the shingle was just magic. Beer has such a lot of character, and life – the working fishing boats and little beach cafes etc means it doesn’t have the ‘Just for tourists’ fake feel that some seaside villages now have, and everyone, in the street, on the boats or in the village, was in such a good mood! I’m sure it’s not much of a stretch of the imagination to insert some song & dance numbers and there’s the perfect setting and mood for a musical, almost ready-made!

‘Melody’ in production

Once the dog had had a run and a swim we carried on towards the Donkey Sanctuary, accidentally cutting through Branscombe on the way. What an amazingly pretty village. ‘Pretty’ is a quite underwhelming word, but with blossom in every garden, thatched cottages,  quirky little architectural flourishes, cottage gardens full of colour and flowers absolutely everywhere, I can’t think of a better description. I get lots of views on the blog now from the USA, and I was very aware that if it was that charming to me, as a life-long West Country native, just how fantastic it would be for a visitor from abroad. We went to the western USA a few years ago and were awed by the epic scale of everything, from vast deserts and canyons to the endless cities and infinite straight roads, and it struck me how West Dorset and East Devon are all about the nooks & crannies; hidden valleys, little brooks, secret gardens, cosy cottages and tiny bays and beaches. It’s all about slowing down and exploring, and discovering what’s through the gate, over the stile or behind the hedge bank.

Anyway, we finally reached the Donkey Sanctuary. We came here a few times when the children were little, but I haven’t been for, well, donkey’s years! It is being expanded, but still revolves around the main yard with its wonderfully friendly and endlessly patient donkeys, waiting to be loved. The visitor facilities are great – I won’t go into it in detail as there is a very good website, but for accessibility, food & drink, kids play, quiet areas etc everything is well provided for, and there are lots of options if you fancy a walk, including a maze and a walk down to the sea. It was the walk to the sea that I’d planned, but I have to admit, we got halfway and I turned around and came back, as it was SO slippery it was almost impassable. I was wearing wellies, but they are worn to what amounts to the welly equivalent of bald tyres, and with an slope of wet shiny clay, it was no fun! A man I met fell over and struggled to get up again it was so slippery. I’m sure when it’s been less wet, or with better footwear, it’s a good walk though – it was certainly scenic.

I did investigate the woods, the hermitage and the wildlife centre, where you can learn a bit about the bats who live on the estate. The Donkey Sanctuary owns 1200 acres of land in the East Devon AONB, and it is all managed with wildlife as a priority. There is a population of Greater Horseshoe Bats (which also use nearby Beer Quarry Caves) , as well as other bat species, and management aims to encourage dormice, invertebrates and all manner of native species. There is evidence of this everywhere, with hedge-laying and restoration, tree-planting etc going on constantly. There are some great walks to see the woods etc, and if you get inspired you can get hands-on with their volunteer programme, helping with things such as hedge-laying, wildflower management, balsam-bashing etc. They also need volunteers in the gardens (which were very well kept, with some very impressive espaliers!)

As a day out, the Donkey Sanctuary is a must for animal lovers, as the donkeys are irresistibly sweet, but even if you never pat a donkey, there is still a nice time to be had. It is free entry, too, which is very rare in this day & age, when a day out for a family of four will easily cost you £25, and up to £100 if you want to eat, have a coffee, buy a souvenir etc. Obviously donations are gratefully received, however, as the donkeys need an awful lot of care and maintenance.

The Donkey Sanctuary is obviously first and foremost about offering a safe life to donkeys which have often seen some horrific treatment, but they also use the donkeys as a force for good, with all sorts of education programmes, outreach and therapies offered. The therapy originally began as riding therapy for children with special needs, but the calm, gentle presence of the donkeys is now being used to facilitate therapy for a whole range of ages, physical, mental and emotional problems and needs.

The dog & I both enjoyed the Donkey Santuary, but I am equally glad to have stumbled upon Beer; my fellow blogger Clare covered it last year in a Flip Flops or Wellies post, but I never really realised how lovely it is – I will definitely be back to ‘do’ it properly, especially as you can rent boats from the beach and go sea fishing, so I will be able to persuade my husband to come too! If you haven’t been, don’t put it off, and if you have, please let me know where to find the ultimate Beer lunch!

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