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Maritime icon eyes up the bigger prize published in the Herald Express in May 2014

As Brixham Heritage Sailing Regatta approached this weekend, reporter CAROLINE ABBOTT spent time sailing on Leader, one of the trawlers taking part, to understand why the preservation of these historic vessels is so important.

Sometimes, you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes, in the middle of nowhere, you find yourself. This quote came to mind as I relaxed on the gently rocking deck of the Brixham sailing trawler Leader which, at 105ft in length and having been built in 1892, is the largest and oldest of Trinity Sailing’s boats.

I was facing out to sea, staring at the water glinting in the sunlight, with nothing to disturb my thoughts except the rhythmic creaking of timber, clanking of pulleys, flapping of sails and lapping of waves. Knowing for the next few days I was cut off from my regular life, I had left my day-to-day worries onshore, allowing deeper thoughts to surface.

When I swivelled round I could see we were not, in fact, very far from the Devon coastline, and it was interesting to see some familiar landmarks at Dartmouth, Salcombe, Tor Bay and Babbacombe Bay from a different perspective.

Earlier, I had been chatting to Leader’s 33-year-old skipper, Ben Wheatley, who said: “Sailing a boat like this hasn’t really changed in 100 years. The only difference is we now have an engine, electricity generator and modern navigation system. That’s really special. I love the history and traditions associated with these vessels and it’s important to keep them going. It’s nice to get away from mobile phones and TV and traffic jams.”

He explained Trinity Sailing does a lot of youth work, and adult charters help to fund the vessels’ upkeep. He said: “The change you see in the young people is astounding. They get a sense of responsibility and achievement, and they go away standing a foot taller. They learn about the sea, but also about themselves.”

To say we were not living a modern lifestyle is not to say we were not living well. Leader’s cook worked miracles to produce feasts for the 12 passengers and five crew members in a galley barely large enough to move around. For me, the meals were a highlight of the trip.

Sleeping in bunks and helping the crew with tasks such as hoisting the sails gave us a taste of life as a sailor, especially when one of the crew members was singing sea shanties. When the sea got rougher, the plates and glasses started sliding across the dining table, and a few of us — including myself — succumbed to seasickness, it was all part of the adventure, experienced by many before us. The passengers ranged widely in age, background, home town and sailing knowledge which made for interesting conversations and showed historic sailing vessels have broad appeal.

Leader got a lot of attention wherever she went; people watched her sail past, children waved, and even a seal popped up and said hello. Brixham Heritage Sailing Regatta aims to extend the appreciation of these impressive vessels further. The event is taking place on Saturday as part of Brixfest. Battery Gardens and Brixham Breakwater are the best viewing points for seeing the vessels under full sail as their designers intended. The boats leave for the Parade of Sail around the southern part of Tor Bay at around 11am, with the sail-past off the breakwater until 12.15pm. The regatta starts at 12.45pm and continues, subject to the weather, until around 4.30pm.

Regatta chairman Peter Blanchard said: “This year the regatta will see a special centenary as it will be 100 years since King George V presented the Perpetual Challenge Cup to be raced for by the trawlers of Brixham. We are hoping for up to 30 boats. We expect it to be a spectacular display of large and small heritage and veteran sailing boats.”

Sailing trawler races were first held in Tor Bay in the early 1800s. At the request of Lord Churston, in 1914, King George V presented the Perpetual Challenge Cup also known as the King George V Cup to be raced for by sailing trawlers over 40 tons. This was an annual competition from 1919 until 1939 when the war ended racing, and it was not restarted for 48 years. The regatta in its current format was revived by a group of classic boat enthusiasts in 1997.

Leader is taking part in the race alongside Trinity Sailing’s Provident and Golden Vanity as well as a host of other traditional sailing boats including ones from France. Skipper Ben said: “We ’re in the running to win a prize, but it’s more important the people on board have a good time. The regatta is about getting the vessels seen, making them accessible and getting people involved.”

I’ll be keeping my eye on the results and hoping Leader lives up to her name, but if the outcome of the event is more members of the public support the continuing use of these vessels as working historic icons of our local maritime heritage, then all will be winners.

How the horrors of the Holocaust have lessons for all of us today published in the Herald Express in March 2014

Witnessing the horrors of Auschwitz, reporter CAROLINE ABBOTT joined almost 200 students from across the south west on a one-day visit to Poland to find out why learning about the Holocaust is relevant today.

I was looking out of the watchtower at the extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. The site, containing barracks, gas chambers and crematoria, stretched as far as the eye could see. Seventy years ago, the area held more than 90,000 prisoners.

Just beneath the watchtower, the train tracks came to a stop. For the prisoners who were deported from all over Europe and transported in cattle wagons to the Nazi camp in occupied Poland, this was the end of the line. A quarter of the Jews who arrived at the camp were set to work until they dropped, and the rest were killed in the gas chambers straight away.

I was standing alongside a group of students from South Devon on an unforgettable one-day visit to Auschwitz, the network of concentration camps built and operated by the Third Reich. We were getting our heads around the scale of the horrors which took place there during the Second World War, in a way which couldn’t be achieved by reading books or watching films on the subject. “It’s so vast,” gasped Kirsty Pritchard, a 17-year-old student from Newton Abbot College.

The day had begun with a brief visit to Oswiecim, the town where, before the war, 58 percent of the population was Jewish. It was given the name Auschwitz when the Nazis invaded Poland. Before we visited Birkenau, we toured Auschwitz One, the base camp 3km away which held 15,000 to 20,000 prisoners and has now been turned into a museum. The entrance still bears the German slogan ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ meaning ‘work makes you free’.

At Auschwitz One, we saw the piles of belongings the Nazis valued more highly than their owners’ humanity and seized from the prisoners upon their arrival. There were breath-taking mountains of suitcases, shoes, brushes, spectacles, crutches, pots and pans, and even a room filled with hair shaved off the prisoners in a cruel act of dehumanisation. Kirsty said: “The suitcases really got me. People took their suitcases to Auschwitz with the promise of a new life. They had their whole lives in those suitcases. It was sad.” Coombeshead Academy student Rachel Duncan, 17, was moved most by the tons of hair. She said: “What women love most is their hair, and it was shocking to see it had been taken off them — and there was so much of it.”

Seeing these items helped us to think of the victims as individuals and families, and not just statistics. Auschwitz was the largest Nazi German concentration camp and death camp. Between 1940 and 1945, the Nazis deported at least 1.3million people to Auschwitz including 1.1million Jews, 140,000 to 150,000 Poles, 23,000 gypsies, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and 25,000 prisoners of other groups. Around 1.1million of these men, women and children died at Auschwitz, and 90 per cent of the victims were Jews. Alex Rae, a 17-year-old from Coombeshead Academy, said: “We studied the Holocaust for our GCSE, but it involved lots of numbers we couldn’t make sense of and personalise, and I wanted to understand it more. Seeing all those shoes and glasses helped make it all real.”

The corridor walls were covered with rows of photographs of some of the prisoners, taken after their hair had been shaved off and they had been issued with their striped prison uniform. Beneath each grim face was the prisoner’s name, prisoner number, nationality, occupation, date of birth, date of deportation and date of death, which in most cases was just a few months later. These images were in stark contrast to the pictures which prisoners had brought with them to Auschwitz; photos of happier times such as weddings and fun days in the sun with family and friends.

The tour also included a gas chamber, which could kill hundreds of people in 20 minutes, and a wall which prisoners stood against to be shot. Like many other visitors had done before her, Kirsty left some flowers at the ‘shooting wall’ out of respect for the dead. We also looked around the barracks where the prisoners lived in cramped conditions, rife with disease. “They were treated worse than animals,” said our guide. “Most of them did not realise what was going to happen to them.”

Some of the students were moved to tears by what they saw on the harrowing visit. It was the history lesson of a lifetime, but part of the aim of the visit, organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust as part of the Lessons From Auschwitz project, was to take away lessons for the future.

The project, which receives government funding, enables pairs of students from every school and college in the country to have the opportunity to experience Auschwitz first-hand. On this particular trip, there were nearly 200 sixth-formers from across the south west, and around 25 teachers, split into groups. Students from Torquay Boys’ Grammar School, South Devon College, Churston Ferrers Grammar School, Coombeshead Academy, Newton Abbot College, Stover School, South Dartmoor Community College and Kingsbridge Community College were among those on the trip.

The emotional and educational day concluded with a ceremony led by Rabbi Andrew Shaw. There was a period of reflection to remember the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust and other victims of Nazi persecution. The Rabbi urged the students to learn from the Holocaust and not let prejudice remain unchallenged. Evangeline Bailey, a 16-year-old Newton Abbot College student, said later: “I expected Auschwitz to be really traumatic and depressing, but I left with a feeling of optimism. These people won’t be forgotten. It’s important to spread the message to make sure it never happens again.” All the students who went on the trip will soon undertake a project of their own choosing to share their experiences with their schools and the wider community.

As the sun went down, we lit memorial candles and placed them on the railway line before following the tracks out of Birkenau and back towards our coaches. We were starting to get a bit chilly, and our feet were starting to get weary, but we could not complain when we thought about what the prisoners had gone through on the very same spot. As we headed home to our warm, comfortable beds, we felt grateful for our lives and our freedom. Rachel said: “The visit made me feel really appreciative of what I’ve got. I’ve got a lot compared to some people.” We flew from Krakow back to Exeter with the Rabbi’s words on our minds, determined to do what we could to ensure other people enjoy life and freedom in the future — and don’t take it for granted.

You have to taste Big Apple for yourself published in the Herald Express in March 2014

Sometimes when you travel to a new place that’s totally different to your home, you feel excited and inspired. And sometimes you’re not keen on it, and it makes you appreciate your home more than you did before you left your home behind. Either way, you’re a winner.

There’s no arguing with the fact that New York City and Devon couldn’t be much more different. In the American city, the dawn chorus comes in the form of yellow taxi cabs beeping their horns.

Whether or not people have ever been to the ‘capital of the world’, they feel like they know it, as they have seen and heard so much about it in countless movies, television programmes and songs. But to really know what the Big Apple is like, you have to taste it for yourself. That is the only way you can know just how far back you have to crane your neck to see the tops of the skyscrapers all around you, how dazzling the illuminated signs are in Times Square, how listening to a youngster singing the national anthem to almost 20,000 patriotic Americans before a sports match can give you goose bumps, and how full a meal at one of the city’s restaurants leaves you feeling.

Of course, journeys across the Atlantic Ocean aren’t cheap. Hotels in New York City aren’t cheap either. But bear this in mind when booking your accommodation: when you’re in the ‘city that never sleeps’, how much time are you going to spend in your hotel room?

There are plenty of ways you can save a few dollars here and there if you’re on a budget. For example, if you want to soak up jaw-dropping aerial views of the city, you could visit the iconic Empire State Building, or if you want your views to include this landmark, you could head to the Rockefeller Center for the same price. However, you could visit a rooftop bar such as 230 Fifth and get a skyline view that takes your breath away for the price of your refreshments.

Central Park is much larger than it seems from the top of the Rockefeller Center — in fact it covers more than 840 acres. If you fancy a break from the ‘concrete jungle’ you could easily spend a couple of hours wandering around this pleasant part of the city, or enjoying an ice cream while you watch people rowing on the lake, or tossing a Frisbee or American football to each other.

If you want to visit a gallery while you’re in the cultural ‘melting pot’, remember that the Museum of Modern Art, which is widely considered to have the best collection of modern Western masterpieces in the world, opens its doors free of charge from 4pm to 8pm on Fridays. Unsurprisingly, this means you have to jostle to get close-up views of the famous works by Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol, Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne and others, but on the plus side, people-watching there is almost as interesting as the art — it’s almost as if the crowds are living art exhibits.

If you want some entertainment on Broadway, but don’t have the money or time for a show, you could head to Ellen’s Stardust Diner, the retro 1950s-themed restaurant where the waiters and waitresses take turns to sing. They’re all qualified in the performing arts; they’re just waiting until they get their big break on a Broadway stage.

There are plenty of other well-known city features that you can see without spending much, or any, money, such as Grand Central Station. The moving 9/11 memorial is well worth a visit and entry is by a suggested donation of $5 or $10. Seeing the pools in the footprints of the former Twin Towers, and seeing all the victims’ names around the edges, is the best way to get a sense of the scale of what happened there on September 11, 2001. The site stands in the shadow of the recently-built, gleaming One World Trade Center, the tallest building in the Western hemisphere. Its spire reaches a symbolic height of 1,776ft (541m) in reference to the year of the United States Declaration of Independence.

No visit to New York City would be complete without at least a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty. The Staten Island Ferry, which runs between Manhattan and Staten Island, is free of charge and offers good views of the iconic monument. The best views of lower Manhattan are obtained by walking over the famous Brooklyn Bridge, one of the oldest suspension bridges in the United States.

Go shopping — or at least browse — in Macy’s, which until 2009 was the world’s largest store. It has no fewer than four Starbucks coffee shops within its 11 floors. To most people, it is either their idea of heaven or hell, but it’s fascinating all the same.

If you’ve got enough money left to treat yourself to a quintessential American experience, catch a New York Knicks basketball game at Madison Square Garden, and perhaps rub shoulders with a Hollywood star or two. The fact that the duration of the match is four 12-minute quarters but the whole experience lasts for around two-and-a-half hours goes to show that it’s not just for sports fans — it’s entertainment, from the spectator actions shown on the big screens to the cheerleaders dancing around the court while the players are having a team-talk.

You think you know New York City already. But even if you’ve been there before, there is still so much to discover. You’re the central character of your own life story. Experience New York City for yourself and see how your story unfolds.

Smokehouse and grill offers five-star taste of America published in the Herald Express in 2017

The opening of the restaurant On the Rocks in the summer was warmly welcomed by Brixham residents who described it as ‘just what the port needed’ to complement what was already on offer and fill a prominent empty unit on the harbourside.

It was also greeted with much excitement by people who had dined at the well established and successful restaurant of the same name across the Bay in Torquay. Expectations were therefore high on our visit – and, fortunately, they were matched, if not exceeded.

This branch isn’t simply a replica of the first; the creation of a chain. It’s a smokehouse and grill, offering a different menu, specialising in barbecued meats, American-style dishes and seafood, and a different atmosphere, with warm industrial interior design but with the same high standards of food, cooking, presentation and service, which represent good value for money.

Situated in the former Smugglers and Pirates Experience building in King Street, it’s even closer to the water than its three-year-old sister venue in Torquay’s Abbey Crescent, and it takes advantage of its location by having a huge window allowing customers to gaze out at the ships in the harbour.

Once again, the menu is packed with a range of delicious, generously-sized and uncommon choices, including the maple bacon doughnut; 12-hour smoked brisket with macaroni and cheese sauce; ‘pork butt bap’ involving smoked and pulled pork with toffee apple compote and crackling; bone marrow mash; and hanger steak.

Five continents are represented on the wine list and there’s also a decent selection of other drinks including cocktails. The desserts are also special; make sure you still have an appetite if you want to do justice to the knickerbocker glory, the dessert of childhood dreams featuring candy floss, toasted marshmallow, salted caramel and popcorn.

As the evening progressed and the restaurant got busier, the personal touch was lost slightly as we had a second and then third member of staff serve us, but this was better than being kept waiting too long and it was good to see the staff working well as a team and helping each other out. While they were all very polite and friendly, it was clear they were not all equally well trained, knowledgeable about the food and confident about making recommendations – which might help to explain the occasional inconsistent review. No doubt it’s something that a bit more time in the job will fix.

I gave On the Rocks in Torquay five stars when I reviewed it last year and the Brixham branch is different but just as good. Opening the second restaurant as a smokehouse and grill was a gamble for the owners but, as shown by the fact that it remains consistently busy even now the novelty has begun to wear off, it was a gamble that has deservedly paid off.