I went to college in Exeter, studying A-level English in a building just steps from the WHSmith door. In fact my former tutor popped down to say 'hello' - I hadn't seen her in maybe 14 years. We reminisced about sitting in class watching Colin Firth emerge dripping from the Pemberley pond, all in the name of the study of literature. The Bloody Chamber, Hamlet, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof... such happy memories of A-Level English. I loved studying in Exeter; visit it now and even with its cathedral, university and new shopping centres, it has the feeling of a quiet country town - to me at sixteen though, it was a heaving metropolis, and way before the high-street coffee chains rolled in I used to frequent its cafés, with a novel or notebook usually in hand. I used to hang out at The American Diner (now gone), making a butterscotch milkshake last all afternoon and playing 'Young Hearts Run Free' on the jukebox (Baz Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet had just come out). Or the French café (also gone) in the concrete precinct, where I first tasted a Cappuccino to the strains of accordion music, and fancied myself in Paris. And in later years when I was home for the holidays from university and worked in a café-bar just off the Cathedral Green - spending my tips afterwards in a place called Number Five (gone? yes, gone), where giant leather armchairs swallowed you up and the waitresses' footsteps clattered across the uneven flagstones. It always feels like winter when I think of Number Five - low lamplight inside and frosted cobbles outside; rushing the last of my coffee before I dashed to catch the country bus home, hoping it'd make it through Haldon Forest without skittering on ice.
Ah, the country bus. Unlike my favourite cafés, nothing's changed there; it still runs infrequently, bumping along the green-tunnel lanes, gears complaining on the steep hills, often slowed by clusters of wandering sheep. I caught the bus after my signing, just as I had when I was a teenager, for as much as Exeter feels like home it isn't really. I come from a place where you can cross the River Teign on one good swing of a tattered rope and where on a clear day you can see all the way to the blue-grey hills of Dartmoor. One day I'd like to try and paint this place with words but for now my father's brush is better. Here's one of his pictures. Here's home.
Teign Valley, by Alwyn Hall
Thank you to WHSmith, and to everyone who came along, for making Saturday's signing so memorable.