Tristram Hunt

How Damien Hirst ruined Devon

[PA Images]

There are few better locations to resist la rentrée than the wilds of Exmoor. The late August heather and gorse. The hidden coves. The bracken and this year’s superb crop of blackberries. Then the rain. So much rain (though of course the reliably incompetent South West Water still has a hosepipe ban in place). The only blot on the landscape remains Damien Hirst’s ill-conceived 65ft statue of ‘Verity’ – a flayed pregnant woman, with her innards on show, standing on a pile of books and holding a sword – which dominates Ilfracombe’s harbour. It exemplifies the worst of public-private art, lacking any meaningful connection to the history or culture of north Devon. Apparently this pointless grotesque is on loan for ten more years, but I think the burghers of Ilfracombe should say enough is enough.

This summer I was lucky enough to take a 100-mile walking safari across Kenya’s Tsavo National Park. The trek started at 7 a.m. each day, and we marched in silence for four hours, past hippos and water buffalo, tracing leopard spoor and spotting giraffes. The legacy of the conservationist Richard Leakey and the Kenya Wildlife Service’s heroic war on poaching means that elephant numbers grow by about 500 per year. Our journey concluded on the Indian Ocean island of Lamu where, from the carved doors to the seafront arcades, the material culture of colonialism – Portuguese, Omani, British – complements the indigenous Swahili design. The collection of the Lamu Old Town museum includes an entire public square which cannot be used ‘without the permission of the curator’.

Lamu’s most celebrated haunt is the Hotel Peponi, which the Kenyan-Danish hotelier Lars Korschen helped his parents turn from a boho guesthouse into an elegant celebration of East African style, culture and cuisine.

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