HAVING taken the previous weekend off from walking in order to give my knees a chance to rest, I decided to ease myself back into my perambulatory pastime with a leisurely walk of moderate distance, preceded by a short stint of being an unashamed grockle.
A-Grockling I Will Go
On the Habits of Grockles
The grockle is a curious species, a summer visitor which swarms across Devon in large numbers, generally being noisy and making a pest of itself. It lives on a diet of cream teas and fish & chips and makes its temporary nest in hotels and B&Bs and redeems itself largely through its peculiar habit of spending money hand over fist. In other words, a ‘grockle’ is what Devon calls a ‘tourist’.
Buses and Barbicans
I decided, early on, that if I wasn’t rushing headlong to achieve great distances, I could get to Kingswear for some time just before noon, rather than silly o’clock in the morning. Although, that didn’t stop me catching an overnight coach to Plymouth, in which I arrived shortly before six.
A nostalgic and deliberately dawdling amble took me up onto the Hoe to watch the sky slowly lighten over the sea, then round to Plymouth’s historic Barbican and its magnificent purveyor of heart attacks in a bun, the fast food stall known as Cap’n Jaspers.
A cup of tea and a large bacon and egg roll, smothered with sweetcorn relish set me up for the day, much to the disappointment of a youngish-looking seagull who was waiting in vain for me to drop some of my breakfast goodness. Alas for the seagull, I practically lived off Jaspers’ wares as a student and am well practised in not sharing my cholesterol of choice with opportunistic avians.
The seagull wandered off to stalk the crowd of police officers also breakfasting at Jaspers. It looks like seven thirty is the time to commit crime in Plymouth – most of Devon & Cornwall Police have their hands (and mouths) full.
Train to Totnes
Another slow amble took me up to the railway station, where I jumped on a train to Totnes, a lovely little town at the tidal limit of the River Dart. I hadn’t stepped foot in Totnes in almost twenty years, so I had no trouble in becoming increasingly grocklish with each step as I made my way to the quayside. There, I committed myself to full-on grockledom by purchasing a ticket for the Dart River Cruise from Totnes down to Dartmouth.
Dart River Cruise
The boat trip was delightful despite intermittent showers, with a mildly amusing and informative commentary for much of the hour and a quarter that it took to motor down the Dart.
The river was quite busy with other grockle boats, private yachts, charity swimmers and attractive young female rowing crews all competing for space. We passed various tiny salmon fishing villages, and a number of notable buildings before we eventually arrived at Dartmouth with a final sudden downpour for emphasis.
Now, my walk could begin.
Dartmouth Passenger Ferry
The start of my walk immediately presented me with an important decision. Well, almost immediately — buying an ice cream took precedence — but, when I stood, cone in hand, looking back across the Dart towards Kingswear, I had to ask myself this:
Do I want to be a completist and take the ferry across to exactly where I stopped last time? And then catch the same ferry back to stand exactly here? Or not?
The answer, ably informed by my having missed the Kingswear ferry while buying my ice cream, turned out to be ‘not’. I had already, by roundabout means, crossed to the western side of the Dart and that was good enough for me.
Dartmouth Railway Station
It seemed only right that buying an ice cream led to a delay that made me miss the ferry, thus making up my mind for me, since I bought the ice cream from Dartmouth Railway Station. And if railway stations aren’t associated with delays, then I don’t know what is.
Dartmouth’s railway station is associated with a particularly long delay, insofar as it was built by the Dartmouth and Torbay Railway in 1864 and is still waiting for its first train. Not to mention some actual tracks.
The tracks will be a while in coming, however, as the DTR’s plan to bridge the Dart upset so many locals that an Act of Parliament was passed forbidding the bridging of the Dart south of Totnes. This makes it the only railway station in Britain to have never received a train, ever. It was served directly by the ferry and essentially still is, although these days it is a café. As such, it is no longer owned by the DTR’s ultimate successor, the Paignton & Dartmouth Steam Railway, but they do still own the ferry.
An Important Port
Dartmouth is a town full of history, as befits what was once Devon’s principal port. Unlike many of its neighbours, it isn’t listed in the Domesday Book as it didn’t exist until after the Conquest.
Chaucer & Hawley
It was definitely there in 1373, though, which is when Geoffrey Chaucer visited the town, inspiring him to add a Shipman of Dartmouth (or ‘Dertemouthe’ in Chaucerian spelling) to the Canterbury Tales.
It is quite possible, and not too unlikely, that Chaucer may have been specifically inspired by the larger than life John Hawley, who was Mayor of Dartmouth an impressive – and almost ridiculous – fourteen times between 1374 and 1401 before he got fed up with small town politics and became an MP instead.
Remember the name ‘John Hawley’, it will pop up again later.
One of Dartmouth’s most unfortunate visitors was the famed navigator Henry Hudson, after whom the Canadian bay is named and who would doubtless have found the North-West Passage he was searching for, if only it hadn’t been solidly covered in ice.
Hudson called into Dartmouth while in the employ of the Dutch East India Company and was immediately arrested for sailing in the employ of a foreign and hostile power. This was largely a means for the authorities to confiscate his invaluable ship’s log but Hudson managed to smuggle it to the Dutch Ambassador, who in turn sent it to Amsterdam.
With vital New World knowledge still in his head, Hudson managed to escape any serious ramifications and was off again the following year with backing from two English companies — the Virginia Company and the Honourable East India Company. This didn’t work out so well for Hudson as his English crew later mutinied and set him adrift in a boat, never to be seen again — a particularly disruptive strike even by English transport workers’ standards.
Slightly luckier were the Pilgrim Fathers, who put into Bayard’s Cove in 1620 because one of their two ships, Speedwell proved unseaworthy and full of leaks after leaving Southampton.
When they set sail again, Speedwell fared no better and they were eventually forced to abandon her in Plymouth, with only the Mayflower setting off for the colonies and the freedom to practise a different flavour of religious persecution than English Law permitted at the time.
These days, Bayard’s Cove is home to some of Dartmouth’s most expensive properties.
In addition to being fortified, Dartmouth has been associated with the Royal Navy since the reign of Edward III and was twice sacked by the French during the Hundred Years War. About two hundred years previously, it had seen great fleets set sail to embark on the Second and Third Crusades (1147 and 1190 respectively).
In 1863 it received the obsolete HMS Britannia as a training ship and has been a centre for naval officer training ever since.
Coast to Coast Runners
The path out of Dartmouth ran along a road, as — more literally — did several people who passed me, numbers taped to their backs. Eventually, after a dozen or so had jogged past at various points along the path I asked a pair of runners who had stopped for a rest what they were doing. It transpired that they and their competitors were seriously fit and were taking part in the Endurancelife Coast to Coast Challenge.
What this meant was that they had already travelled from the north Devon coast to Princetown in Dartmoor the day before, cycled from Princetown to Dartmouth that morning, paddled 7km in a kayak and were now running from Dartmouth to Prawle Point, which was a place on my schedule for reaching after lunchtime on Sunday.
I was simultaneously struck by awe at their ability, by pity and by fear — the latter in case their madness might be contagious. For the rest of the day whenever a runner jogged past me I wished them good luck. I meanwhile, strolled leisurely on to Warfleet.
From Warfleet the path led me on to Dartmouth Castle and its adjacent Church of St Petrox.
Amusingly, being a Church of England church, St Petrox was flying St George’s Cross and thus one of the few buildings not flying the St Petroc’s Cross flag.
Not much remains of Dartmouth Castle now. It was built about 1400 by Dartmouth’s very own mayoralty addict, John Hawley.
Two hundred years later, it would be swapped back and forth between Royalists and Parliamentarians in the English Civil War and three hundred years after that, it would be full of sixty-four pounder cannon. It last saw use as a gun emplacement in the Second World War. Now what’s left is a tourist attraction.
The path now became all leafy tunnels and steps, which was bad news for some of the endurance runners, who found that however tough they were on the flat they couldn’t endure steps much better than I can. It climbed up on top of the cliff before it finally levelled out.
The weather alternated between glorious scorching sunshine and sudden downpours at approximately eight minute intervals as I made my way around the coast, enjoying the cliff top views. Naturally, that could hardly be allowed to continue.
The path veered sharply inland at Warren Point and then joined the road from Little Dartmouth to Stoke Fleming.
The South Hams
All I know about Stoke Fleming is that it was recorded in Domesday as ‘Stoch’ — a stoke is a secondary settlement — and that it has a pub called the Green Dragon where I almost stopped for a drink but changed my mind at the last moment.
The winding road led down to a junction with the A379 and there I was able to peer over low wall and see Blackpool Sands.
The path soon veered off from the A379, got difficult to follow for a while (I helpfully put about a dozen confused runners back on the correct path) and then headed down a steep slope into a valley called Landcombe. Names with ‘combe’ just promise a bucketload of up.
Naturally, the heavens gave another quick downpour at this point to ensure that the way onwards was now made entirely of wet grass and slippery mud. How hard could it be?
Somehow, I scrambled my way up out of Landcombe but discovered soon thereafter that my water bottle, which had been jammed into the top of my bag but not secured, had presumably succumbed to gravity as I no longer had it.
I assuaged my guilt at accidental littering by accosting the next group of walkers heading in the opposite direction and asking them to throw it way should they find it. In retrospect, I should probably have warned them that the path was about to turn into a grassy mudslide too.
I now entered the village of Strete, which only really appeared on maps in about the 1780s, when the nearby village of Strete-Undercliffe vanished into the sea, claimed by storms. Strete, sitting safely on top of the cliff, was very much still there and I was glad to visit its village shop, where I could acquire a new bottle of water.
Strete’s main claim to fame — apart from being the presumable refuge of those who fled from Strete-Undercliffe — appears to be that nearby Pilchard Cove is apparently a very attractive nudist beach. That’s an attractive beach for nudists; while one might hope that nudists will be attractive, generally that’s not so much the case.
After Strete, the path joined the A379 again, running either on it or alongside it depending on space. It dropped rapidly down from about 100 m down to sea level and passed Strete Gate, which is now just a car park but was once the location for long-vanished Strete-Undercliff.
Strete-Undercliff had done well to survive the Great Storm of 1703 but succumbed to the waves in 1787 and these days no trace of it remains.
From there on in the road ran along a bar of tiny pebbles — more like rounded gravel — that separated the sea from Slapton Ley. The Higher Ley near Strete Gate was all reeds but as I passed Slapton Sands it become open water. The visual effect was not unlike that of Chesil Beach and the Fleet in Dorset but where the Fleet is saline and tidal, the Ley is sufficiently well fed by its streams, and protected enough by the bar that although it formed as a lagoon, it is now Devon’s largest natural freshwater lake.
Slapton Sands, meanwhile, bears a memorial to its unfortunate history…
The ‘sands’ — which again are not sand but small pebbles — were used for Exercise Tiger, one of the many rehearsals for D-Day. In this case, however, a squadron of German motor torpedo boats happened across the tank-laden landing craft and opened fire, killing 638 US servicemen.
In theory, two Royal Navy warships were providing an escort but one, HMS Azalea was clearly commanded by idiots as she led the landing craft in line astern, making them ridiculously easy targets. The other, the larger HMS Scimitar had actually managed to collide with one of the landing craft and had to return to Plymouth for repairs.
Making it Worse
As if this wasn’t bad enough, General Eisenhower proved keen to make sure it was everyone’s cock-up by ordering that the navy should shell the beaches with live ammunition to harden the troops against the experience. The area to be hit with live shells was marked with tape but no one seems to have told this to the troops. End result – another 308 deaths as US soldiers walked straight through the tape into a live naval artillery barrage.
I arrived in Torcross at about five-ish and made my way to the B&B in which I was staying, which turned out to be lovely and owned by some very helpful people indeed. They armed me with recommendations on where and what to eat in the village – fish and chips at the Start Bay Inn is excellent although I’m terrified as to how large the ‘large’ portion might be as the ‘medium’ one did not fit on the plate.
I sat on the beach for a bit and looked back the way I came, trying to spot where I’d started although I knew it wasn’t really that far.
Torcross seems like a nice place. In fact even its first recorded mention — in manorial court rolls from 1602 — comprise a representative reporting that things were ‘all well’ in the new village. All was well with me too as the sun slipped slowly behind the hills.
This time: 9½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 509 miles