A few of days ago I started to piece this blog together, starting with a featured image for the top of the page. Today, I’ve changed the image to feature Stokenham, and in particular, the Tradesman’s Arms and the cottages around it because a couple of nights ago the pub and four cottages adjacent to it were destroyed by fire. It’s a devastating blow to anyone who knows it, but particularly to those who have been directly affected. The good news is that nobody suffered any serious physical harm, but what becomes of this picturesque corner of the South Hams now is anybody’s guess.
Stokenham is one of a handful of villages around Start Bay that lie between Dartmouth and Start Point, and although this drive covers an area largely covered by the South-West Coast Path, not everybody has the ability or inclination to don walking boots to enjoy it.
The first village you come to after driving along the A379 out of Dartmouth is Stoke Fleming, and although there’s nothing much to detain you in the village itself, there are some fine views of Start Bay before heading downhill to Blackpool Sands.
Blackpool Sands is not sandy at all, but made up of fine shingle, and is the antithesis of its namesake in North-West England. It’s what I would call a public private beach. By that I mean it’s privately owned but the public are allowed to use it, but at a cost.
The estate is owned by the Newman family who have been in the area since the 1500s and were part of Sir Francis Drake’s fleet at the time of the Spanish Armada. Richard Newman bought Blackpool House and the land around Blackpool Sands in 1797 as a retreat from Dartmouth which was getting a bit too crowded for his liking.
The family included merchants and privateers, and some might say that they’re still robbing people today. Access to the beach is free, but parking the car isn’t, and is a bone of contention for those who only want to spend a short time here. Mind you, for those who want to spend the best part of the day soaking up the sun in this beautiful, spotlessly clean, Blue Flag suntrap, it’s probably worth every penny. The present owner, Sir Geoffrey, has been chairman of the Marine Conservation Society and his aim is to keep the beach as natural and as perfect as possible. To maintain it like that is bound to cost money, and of course he doesn’t have to open the beach to the public at all if he doesn’t want to.
Climbing up the hill out of Blackpool Sands, the road goes through the village of Strete and then descends down to Strete Gate where the beach is popular with those who like to wear sunglasses and nothing else.
The long sweep of Slapton Sands lies ahead and is the topic of a separate post I did called Slapton Sands and Exercise Tiger which is all about preparations for the D-Day Landings that went horribly wrong, and a story I urge you to read about if you don’t know it.
Slapton Sands is even more shingly than Blackpool: In fact, it’s pebbly more than anything, but it depends on where you are along this 2 ½ mile long stretch of beach between Strete Gate and Torcross. The road that separates the beach from the freshwater lake called Slapton Ley is hanging on by a thread. Each time there’s an easterly storm, the road (called Slapton Line by the locals) gets washed away, and it’s happening with increasing regularity. After the last episode in 2018 the council have said that it was the last time it was going to be repaired, but they haven’t said what Plan B is yet, and that’s probably because they haven’t got one.
Despite the storms, Slapton Ley (pronounced Lee) is still the largest freshwater lake in the South-West and is a National Nature Reserve, so when the inevitable happens it won’t just be the road that connects the communities that will disappear, but also this valuable natural asset.
Below is a YouTube video taken at Torcross by TOPCAMERAMAN in 2020, but it has seen worse weather than that.
After driving through Torcross, the road skirts the southern end of the Ley and heads towards Stokenham where we’re going to ignore the fire damage, turn left at the mini roundabout, and drive towards Start Point. In a short distance look for a signpost on the left that points towards Beesands and drive down to the village that suffers similar problems to Torcross.
As we’ve seen, living so close to the sea can have its disadvantages, but hopefully, you’ll arrive on a lovely calm day and be able to enjoy the sea views from the Britannia @ The Beach. This rustic shack is owned and run by a local fishing family and serves up some of the freshest sea food you’ll find anywhere, but if it’s just a drink you want, The Cricket Inn has been enticing people in for I don’t know how many years.
Between Beesands and Start Point lies the village of Hallsands, or at least what’s left of it. There’s a beach and a ruined village, with one lane leading to the beach at North Hallsands and another one that leads to the ruined village at South Hallsands. The two lanes don’t connect with each other, but it’s only a short walk between the two.
The lanes around the South Hams can drive you and your car around in circles, so from a practical point of view I would suggest that you drive out of Beesands the way you came in and turn left towards Start Point. Ignore the signpost to North Hallsands, and instead look for the signpost at Hollowcombe Head that points left towards South Hallsands.
Having already explained how the weather can affect this coastline, you’re probably thinking that this is what happened to the ruined village at Hallsands – but you would only be half right, because although the weather played its part, there was another reason why this tiny fishing village fell into the sea.
In the 1890s plans were being made by the Admiralty to expand Devonport Dockyard, and part of those plans included dredging the seabed between Beesands and Hallsands for sand and gravel that would be used in the new construction. The locals, knowing only too well what the consequences could be objected, and even though there was an enquiry, they were overruled and permission was granted for the dredging to continue.
For years afterwards the sea continued to batter the village as it always had done, but more than that, the dredging had left the beach between seven and twelve feet lower, leaving the village extremely vulnerable. On 26th January 1917 a strong south-easterly gale coupled with very high tides, shook the foundations of the houses, and then swept most of them into the sea. None of the 150 inhabitants lost their lives, but they did lose their homes and livelihoods.
Most of the village now lies under the sea but until fairly recently it was still possible to explore what was left, but time, weather, and health and safety regulations have now prevented visitors from gaining access. What perplexes me though is there appears to be a couple of properties still being occupied. Somewhere in my photographic archive I have some pictures of when it was possible to wander around the remains, but like the fishermen’s cottages, they seem to have disappeared into the abyss somewhere. Those below were taken from a viewing platform installed by the local council, but even that came under threat a couple of years ago when there was a landslip.
Our final destination is Start Point which means driving back to Hollowcombe Head and turning left. At the end of the public road is a car park where you can leave the car and go for a walk or just sit and admire the views.
I think Start Point has to be my favourite part of the South Devon coastline. This exposed peninsula that juts almost a mile out to sea has seen its fair share of shipwrecks, which is why it was decided to build a lighthouse here back in 1836. Normally, the lighthouse is open to visitors but the pandemic has closed it for the time being.
The natural temptation is to walk down the access road towards the lighthouse, but I’m going to recommend a circular walk around the headland for those who can manage it. From the car park there’s a footpath that leads down to Mattiscombe Sands which is usually deserted. It’s a place I often came to with Rosie, our border collie: she departed this earth a few years ago now, but I still miss her.
The path continues alongside the sea where seals and dolphins can often be spotted, and just offshore is The Skerries sandbank, a haven for marine life and a popular area for sea anglers to catch fish such as Plaice. You won’t be able to see the sandbank but if it’s low tide when you’re here you may well see the tidal race that occurs when the outgoing tide from Start Bay meets the water from the other side of Start Point.
The path ends up back near the lighthouse where, up until 1989 there used to be a fog signal building, but due to coastal erosion ended up in the same place as Hallsands village. I used to have some pictures of it falling into the sea but they appear to have gone the same way as my Hallsands pictures.
This walk around Start Point is a real favourite of mine and an appropriate place to finish this post about Start Bay. In many ways this is a beautiful part of the South Devon coastline, but it has also suffered from a series of events that have left it battered and bruised. Operation Tiger was a human tragedy that needn’t have happened, but what was done can’t be undone, and the same goes for the Hallsands disaster.
This coastline will continue to be under threat from the elements whether humans have a hand in things or not, but it’s more than likely that climate change will help speed up the process. Just like the lighthouse and Slapton Line, the communities around Start Bay are holding on by a thread, and the last thing they need is a fire that destroys the heart of a village like Stokenham.
POSTED – SEPTEMBER 2021