SUNDAY morning, I awoke bright and early and, after ablutions, made my way downstairs where the B&B owners fed me a massive full English breakfast. They also reminded me to buy water and snacks from the village shop before setting off, there not being any other refreshments until East Portlemouth in twelve and a half miles’ time. Unless I called in at the Coastwatch station on Prawle Point, apparently, where the volunteer manning it generally appreciates having someone drop by and break the monotony and would thus likely provide a cup of tea.
How can you not love helpful advice such as that? It more than made up for them spelling my name wrongly on the receipt.
The B&B owner’s words of wisdom took on a more ominous tone when he pointed out of the window to a grey sea under a grey, drizzly sky and a small, white shape bobbing on the waves just off shore.
‘Unusual to see a swan on the sea,’ he observed. ‘Round here they say that means a storm is coming.’
A storm? Oh goody. Hooray.
The Only Way is Up
The swan had gone by the time I emerged from the shop, laden with water and chocolate. I turned my back on where it had been and contemplated the beginning of the day’s walk, which naturally began with steps.
The steps led up to a steep road past some houses before turning into a short stretch of leafy woodland path. I was alarmed to note that some of the dapples of light were moving and these turned out to be an excitable Dalmation charging full tilt to greet and investigate me.
Her owner gave an apologetic shrug as his pet – named Daisy – ran excitedly round me, got immediately distracted by an insect, then by a tussock of grass and then by the edge of the cliff. Her attention span was brief to say the least.
Daisy’s owner turned out to be a man who was, unlike Ford Prefect, actually from Guildford, although he seemed to have at least one relative in every village within a twenty mile radius of Torcross. We discussed the weather, as is compulsory, and he opined that, although I would almost certainly get rained on, the weather promised to be much better as the day progressed.
Not being at all certain as to whether it is Dalmatian owners or mute swans that have better meteorological predictive powers, I bade him a cheery good day and carried on. Behind me, I could hear him imploring Daisy to put something or other down.
The path led me onwards, carrying me past a narrow, leafy combe marked on my map as ‘Sunnydale’; despite a mostly overcast sky, there was a distinct absence of vampires.
The path soon dropped me back down to sea level and joined a metalled road that ran between the sea and Beesands Ley, which is similar to, but much smaller than, Slapton Ley. Ahead of me was the venerable fishing village of Beesands, which is strongly associated with crab and lobster fishing.
Old Lady with Dog
As I headed towards Beesands I was accosted by an old lady walking her dog. The woman asked me a billion questions designed, so far as I could tell, to ascertain that I was properly appreciating her part of the world and deriving maximum fun from my visit to the South Hams.
It would have been quite touching, had she not been at least partly deaf, forcing me to shout my every answer at a volume quite unseemly. This in turn was a sombre reminder of the future as the genetic deterioration of the auditory nerve that sent my grandfather deaf and is now affecting my mother has already robbed me of some of the hearing in one ear.
The Perils of Chocolate Cake
I plan to adopt my granddad’s mantra that it is chocolate cake that sends you deaf – a brilliant piece of reasoning, by which someone already deaf can eat chocolate cake because the damage is done, whereas growing children (such as his grandsons for instance) needed to be protected from chocolate cake evil by means of his heroically eating it all to save us. A selfless man indeed.
As I entered Beesands, I found that the absence of refreshments between Torcross and East Portlemouth had been overstated. Sort of.
Beesands boasts the Cricket Inn (1867), famous for its crab sandwiches, which might have been useful at any time not early o’clock on a Sunday. It also boasts St Andrew’s, the self-proclaimed ‘chapel by the sea’ (1883) which, in a cunningly brilliant move, is open for limited refreshments at the price of a small donation for charity.
St Andrew’s Church
In return for a pocketful of change, a very helpful woman fed me barley water and reeled off the titles of a number of books about walking. She also dropped the bombshell that the Sunday bus service I was relying on to get me back to Plymouth was summer only and had been withdrawn that very weekend.
In fact, she said, many Sunday services were being axed as they were only ever used by pensioners, all of whom travelled free on old age bus passes.
This unexpected news threw a whole cloud of uncertainty over my day, though I was vaguely aware of another Sunday service that might possibly still be running. I left St Andrew’s with a small piece of paper on which Refreshments Lady had written down a phone number, with the promise that she or her husband would rescue me if stranded and convey me to a station.
My faith in human nature was boosted by this kindness. By contrast, my faith in First Group (the bus company) had never been high to begin with; it didn’t have far to fall at all.
The path out of Beesands climbed up onto the fern-covered rocky headland of Tinsey Head before once again dropping to sea level and the stretch of beach known as the Greenstraight. I paused before making this descent in order to reflect on the village head of me, its name being a watchword for the consequences of political and corporate greed and wilful negligence.
The original Hallsands (now South Hallsands) was a fishing village much like Beesands or Torcross. It boasted a sixteenth century chapel and thirty-seven houses by 1891, shortly before its tragic and unnecessary demise.
All coastal towns face dangers from the elements, from storms and erosion, or conversely from silting and isolation from the sea. But for Hallsands its disaster was made worse by human agency.
Dredging for Devonport
Until the 1890s, Hallsands had a steep shingle beach like those at the other Start Bay villages but then a massive expansion of Devonport Dockyard in Plymouth took place. By amazing ‘coincidence’, Devonport’s Liberal Unionist MP, Sir John Jackson, was also proprietor of the construction company awarded the contract and which began dredging gravel offshore from Hallsands to use as building materials.
This understandably alarmed the locals, who feared that their beach would diminish and leave them at the mercy of the waves. A Board of Trade inquiry found otherwise however and dredging continued. The beach level soon started to drop. By 1901, both Hallsands’ MP and the local council were writing to the Board of Trade to protest as the beach dropped ever lower. Dredging was finally halted in 1902 and the beach started to recover but not fast enough…
In late January 1917, a combination of high tide and storms overwhelmed the sea defences reducing the village to just one habitable dwelling. Mercifully, no one was killed and all the villagers fled to safety.
A subsequent government inquiry was held, and then not released as it unequivocally found that the dredging had stripped Hallsands of its natural defences. It took seven years for the villagers to get some compensation.
Many of the villagers built new houses in North Hallsands (creating it) or in Beesands. One family, the four Trout sisters, used their compensation to build a hotel near to where the viewing platform now stands. The hotel is gone, replaced by holiday apartments but it earned the family a respectable income until 1959.
The Trout Sisters
The Trouts were certainly resourceful: two of them, Ella and Patience, gave up school in their teens to run their father’s fishing boat after he became ill (he died in 1910). In 1917, eight months after their cottage was lost in the storm, Ella won herself an OBE by rowing out with her ten-year old cousin William and helping to rescue nine men from the stricken SS Newholm which had collided with a naval mine one mile south of Start Point.
This was all certainly food for thought as I climbed the path from Hallsands onto the headland of Start Point in the sort of wind-blown drizzle that somehow penetrates all layers of clothing. As I approached the point, however, the drizzle stopped and the sun came out, providing a great view of Start Bay behind me:
Start Point is a jutting headland surrounded by rocks that has claimed dozens of ships over the years; it takes its name from Old English steort meaning ‘tail’, also found in bird names such as redstart.
Start Point Lighthouse
Trinity House maintains a lighthouse, which was built in 1836 and is now a grade II listed building. One of 29 such towers designed by James Walker, it was fully automated in 1993. Long before the lighthouse was built, Start Point served as another kind of warning to mariners: pirate Henry Muge was hanged there in 1581.
In passing Start Point I moved from an east-facing coast to a south-facing one and was immediately buffeted by some seriously gusty winds. I was just thinking that the path was quite narrow and it would be hard to pass someone on it when two lads laden with fishing equipment appeared before me, heading toward Hallsands. I’m still not sure how we squeezed past each other.
When the path widened out again and came to a handy bench, I stopped to eat some of the chocolate and wrestle the wind for active control of my map. Ahead of me was a place labelled as ‘Two Stones’ and I wondered why.
A helpful sign warned to stay right of red markers due to an unstable cliff while on my other side signs warned of an electric fence. The path remained so constrained until Lannacombe Beach.
Lannacombe has just one building, an old farmhouse, which is inevitably now another B&B. It also had a handful of obvious day visitors – a bunch of surfers were out trying to ride the wind driven waves.
From Lannacombe there was a short stint of leafy paths and gentle climbing which suddenly turned into active climbing and a path not so much strewn with rocks as made of them. It was, in fact, a bunch of rocks held together by path; they could have formed steps but their shapes and distribution were too random. Some undignified wobbling followed as my sense of balance was found wanting.
I passed by the magnificent five-bedroom, £3¼m Maelcombe House on the very outskirts of East Prawle (not that you could see the village from the path). This meant that Prawle Point, the southernmost part of Devon, was not far away. But first I had to round Langerstone Point.
Prawle Point & Portlemouth Down
Prawle Point takes its name from Old English præwhyll meaning ‘lookout place’. It too is a graveyard for ships, with the most recent loss being the Demetrios in 1992. She was being towed to the continent to be scrapped when she broke free in a gale. Subsequent efforts to salvage her remains actually sent the salvage company bankrupt. Some remains are still visible.
Appropriately enough, given the meaning of ‘Prawle’, on top of Prawle Point is a lookout station run by the National Coastwatch Institution, a voluntary organisation that mans old, closed coastguard stations. I thought about seeing if the volunteers really would feed me tea in return for company but I was making good time and wanted to press on.
The next bit of headland was Gammon Head although a bit of bad waymarking tried to send me on another path inland. I was too cunning for it though, or too stubborn, and where better to be pig-headed than this?
In making my way around Gammon Head I suddenly found myself getting an excellent view of Bolt Head, which lies on the other side of the Kingsbridge Estuary, which isn’t actually an estuary, being a ria instead. On the map the so-called ‘estuary’ is clearly a sunken valley and completely out of proportion to the size of the streams draining into it. My destination for the day, Salcombe, also lay on the far side of this water.
The wind dropped of significantly now since I was in the lee of Bolt Head. I picked my way along the path past the various porcine-themed outcrops of rock and along Deckler’s Cliff.
I was now approaching Gara Rock, formerly the site of what was apparently a very nice hotel (now turned into apartments). I also passed the tiny, lovely, unspoilt beach of Seacombe Sands.
Soon enough the path turned into the mouth of the estuary, showing me the opposite beach and settlement of South Sands, an outlying part of Salcombe. South Sands is served by a seasonal ferry, which I would later witness chugging back and forth between the beach and Salcombe quay.
The path joined a road and I knew I was in East Portlemouth, one of the most expensive places to live in the South West on account of its popularity with celebrities as a place to buy second homes. Or third or fourth or some other ordinal.
I bought a cold drink in a café from a lad who I saw see me recoil. Judging from the state of his face I’d guess he came off a bike and used his face for braking. It was a mass of grazes and bruises. I wasn’t expecting it and it made me jump. And I would guess from his expression he’d been getting that all day. That can’t be fun; I hope for his sake that it doesn’t scar. Whoever he is.
Salcombe first appears in records in 1244 and, around four hundred years later, would gain brief notoriety as the last Royalist stronghold to surrender in the English Civil War. Unsurprisingly, Parliament ordered that its defences be slighted.
These days, Salcombe is very definitely a tourist town – its first purpose-built holiday home was constructed in 1764. I therefore sought out the tourist information office, half-expecting it to be closed, and was delighted when a very helpful woman not only told me that there was a bus running but also gave me the appropriate timetables and directions to the bus stop.
I was not going to be stranded in Salcombe. I did have two and half hours to kill.
Speaking of both killing and time, Salcombe was the scene for an extraordinary criminal case in which a man was arrested for murder 27 years after the deed was done. John Allen’s wife and their two children disappeared in 1975 and he claimed they had left him. His lover was later to claim that she had seen scratches on his forearms.
Mr Allen presumably thought that he had quite literally gotten away with murder until he unwisely fell out with the lover and she wrote a book about it in 1992. The book was called Presumed Dead and it and its author, Eunice Yabsley, attracted the interest of the police. Ten years later, in 2002, Allen was convicted of the crime.
The only thing I felt like murdering was an ice cream, which was not hard to come by. I sat and watched the boats on the water and generally chilled and rested my feet until my stomach demanded more food. Armed with fish and chips, I made my way back past the tourist information office towards where the bus stop was purported to be.
The bus conveyed me back to Totnes, which I had left by boat the morning before. From there a train ride carried me to Plymouth and, some time later, a coach carried me overnight on my way home to London.
This time: 12½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 521½ miles