It’s one unique addition to the mug collection in my family home that I’m oddly fond of. The grotesque tea and coffee coloured smears aren’t the stains of long-term use: they’re part of the design. The mug has always looked this tragically ugly. It was originally purchased as an ironic joke for my father’s birthday. But it was the place it came from that truly still reeks of nostalgia for me.
When me and my younger sister were pre-teens, our parents would take us on an annual summer holiday trip to Braunton in Devon. With two demanding brats in tow, it was a daily puzzle for my parents to try and find something to entertain two kids who were too young to understand the pleasures of quiet relaxation. After days out to the beach had run their course in terms of keeping me and my sister satisfied, my parents would dig up some old leaflets that advertised attractions in the local area.
Very quickly we ended up putting a line through most of the available sources of entertainment, until very few options remained. We were a little sceptical of the vibrant enthusiasm with which it was advertised in the leaflet, but we finally selected an attraction.
So what was the final decision?
Watermouth Castle. One of Devon’s ‘Top Family Attractions’ apparently.
The day already looked miserable, with grey clouds clustered overhead and only the faintest glow of light filtering in-between. It looked perpetually poised to drizzle in a most miserable and disheartening fashion. Such is the nature of British weather. We all piled into the car, and my mother drove us through the endlessly meandering roads, framed by jewel-green, rain-soaked hedges and fields.
We finally arrived. The castle was modest in size, lacking any of the imposing majesty of the castles in my imagination. Once inside, I was awed to discover that the whole attraction invariably aped the atmosphere of a bona fide ghost-town. There was not another soul to be found, anywhere. For once, me and my sister weren’t tempted to tear about a new environment like a pair of animals, chasing one another and screeching loudly. We were both rather subdued by the strange, musty aura of the castle. It felt poised on a state normally attributed to post-apocalyptic scenarios: the brink of disrepair and abandonment.
Misshapen, eerie dolls and sculptures were dotted throughout Watermouth both inside and out, as though the creator had envisioned a creepy treasure trail. The slightly frightening exhibits attempted to charm, but instead invited confusion and an unnerving of the senses. I felt sorry for the little creatures. My immature mind imagined them twitching to life and studying us, just at the moment we looked away. After all, we were strangers and trespassers into their world.
Eventually exhausted by taking in such oddity at every turn, we fell upon the advertised ‘courtyard cafe’ with relief. Finally some normality, surely. My sister opted for a simple snack: chips with cheese. What arrived at our little wooden picnic bench was cardboard-like and weirdly lukewarm. My sister was appropriately disgusted. Strangely, I can barely remember what any of the staff looked like, they didn’t seem to make much eye contact or talk very much.
After the cafe, the last leg of the journey through Watermouth was inevitably the gift shop. This is where my mother, sister and I discovered the ugly brown mug, adorned with the phrase ‘GRUMPY OLD MAN’, available for purchase as a present for a loved one presumably. My mother chuckled at its hideous appeal, deciding it was the perfect irksome gift for my father; a man who is wont to occasionally lapse into amusing moods of grumpiness, when he’s particularly stressed, tired or hungry. He found the mug hilariously disgusting, when it was finally presented to him.
The gift shop itself was filtered in bizarre hues of yellow and amber, with uneven dark wood shelves jutting straight from the swollen walls. I guess it was attempting to resemble the cottage interior of some form of cutesy magical creature, but it instead only succeeded in invading my bones with a pervasive, damp, chillness that didn’t dissipate until we had driven off the premises.
I’m quite an intuitive individual. I quite quickly feel and make a judgement about the atmosphere of a place, and even of individual people, and my judgments usually turn out to be accurate over time. The aura exuded by Watermouth Castle was decidedly one of vaguely other-worldly origins, my childlike mind concluded. Perhaps it was one of those places where the veils between this world and any potential, shadowy neighbouring worlds are thin… perhaps bizarre energy was leaking through and permeating the castle environment with a pervasive eeriness.
I was suitably fascinated by such a strange, warped environment, where everything was accidentally skewed towards ugliness. Overall, I realised that it’s important to always be alert and keep your eyes open, for inspiration lies everywhere. This atrocious little mug serves as a reminder that oddities are dotted across the world, in hidden places, lying in wait for discovery for an open-minded soul.
What I’ve been trying to say, in a long-winded, pretentious fashion, is to never quite switch off when exploring a new environment, as you could stumble across something memorable and even inspiring. In it’s way, Watermouth makes me think of how so many historical areas of Britain are being left behind, and gently crumbling and eroding with the passage of time. Falling back into the shadows and natural embrace of the land itself, and transforming into oddities to be uncovered. I hope to come across more of these environments in future, and document how they make me feel.
Keep your curiosity alive, and keep exploring.
Photograph credit goes to http://www.watermouthcastle.com