Following on from my post about the Cornish Coast the other day, we also spent time exploring the South Devon coastline too. Our first sight of the Devon coast (apart from when we took the train to Exeter) was at the end of the day we’d spent exploring the towns of Dartmouth and Totnes. From my teenage years holidaying in this area, I remembered the coast around here well and remembered that the stretch of coast from the Dart to the Kingsbridge Estuary has a coast road famed for it’s stunning views. As my husband hadn’t been on this road before and the late afternoon sun was shining, we decided to take the long way back to the campsite and take in the stunning views.
The route goes through the pretty villages of Stoke Fleming, Blackpool and Strete, way up at ‘cliff level’ for wont of a better phrase, before heading down to sea level before the long stretch of beach at Slapton (more about Slapton shortly) along to Torcross. The road then heads slightly inland (no less beautiful) across to Kingsbridge at the top of the Kingsbridge Estuary. We enjoyed the stunning views and had already planned a day on the coast later in the holiday so headed back inland from Kingsbridge, having enjoyed the lovely end to a brilliant day on the Dart river.
A few days later we headed back out on the same route and again, in the sunshine, enjoyed the commanding sea views as we drove out along the coastal road. This time though, we made a stop at Slapton. I love Slapton, if you walk about half a mile inland you’ll come to the pretty village itself, full of cute cottages laden with Wysteria, two (I hope still two!) lovely pubs and as you walk through the village at dusk you’ll be treated to an acrobatics display by all the bats that live in the eaves of the old houses. This was something I was lucky enough to experience when I came to the Field Studies centre at Slapton for a Uni trip in 2011.
The beach itself is about 3 miles long from the northern most point, Pilchard Cove near Strete to Torcross at the southern end. The beach a shingle bar that separates the bay from the freshwater lake, Slapton Ley, that sits just on the other side of the road at the top of the shingle ridge. Beyond the lake as you head inland you’ll find rolling fields of beautiful Devonshire farmland and these days you’d have no idea of the beaches’ history or importance if it wasn’t for the Sherman tank and Memorial you’ll find there.
In late 1943, the inhabitants of Slapton, Torcross and other surrounding villages and farmlands were evacuated and relocated to other areas as the army took control of the whole area. The area had been selected as practice area for the D-Day Landings that were due to take place the following summer, as the topography of the area was deemed to be similar to that of Utah beach, especially with the lake being located directly behind it.
Unfortunately, as part of the exercises known as Exercise Tiger, as many as 450 men were killed in a friendly fire incident that was due to miscommunication within a training exercise. Added to that, the following day, 28th April 1944, a convoy of 8 landing craft were attacked by German e-boats out in nearby Lyme Bay, causing a loss of 749 men from the US Army and Navy (the exercise was mainly carried out by American troops). The incidents were not disclosed by Allied forces until well after the war was over for fear of damaging moral and admitting weakness.
The memorial and Sherman Tank on the beach now commemorate the lives lost here and the co-operation of local people who gave up their farmland and livelihoods for the cause.
As a teenager, I read a book by one of my favourite authors Michael Morpurgo, who wrote a book about the evacuation of the residents of Slapton. The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips is a wonderful book and I highly recommend it to everyone, not just teenagers as the story is told through the eyes of a young girl who’s cat tries to go back! It’s a beautifully written book and both entertaining and thought-provoking in equal measure, another fabulous wartime tale by Morpurgo, probably not as well known as Private Peaceful and War Horse.
After reading about the operation on the panels near the tank and having a look out over the Ley from the bird hide for a while, we got back in the car and made our way past the village of Torcross and continued on towards Kingsbridge, this time though we were headed for Salcombe. The pretty town situated part way down the Kingsbridge Estuary is a wonderful place to explore. Parking at the out of town parking (don’t drive through Salcombe, speaking from accidental experience, it’s awful!) we walked past the boat yard and boat sheds into the town itself.
Its narrow high street is lined with whitewashed and pastel coloured cottages and a whole host of shops. As we walked into the town, we stopped at the Lifeboat House which has a small museum and learnt more about Salcombe’s intricate relationship with the coastline. We’d bought lunch with us and ate it looking out over the harbour before exploring the art gallery and gift shop near by and then headed along the high street exploring the shops, stopping for coffee and cake at The Salcombe Coffee Company’s coffee shop. There’s something I can’t quite describe about Salcombe and it’s enticing nautical feel, but it’s wonderful. During the summer there are loads of people crabbing off the harbour, you can head out to some of the little estuary beaches (make sure you know the tide times!) and there are plenty of boat trips you can take up and down the estuary. It’s a really lovely place to explore.
Our final stop for the day once we’d had our fill of cute shops and coffee was a little further around the coast, back on the coast itself rather than the estuary. A place I had only visited once before, Aidan had never been although his Dad was trying to tell him about ‘the place where the sea goes in two directions’ and it turns out he was on about Bigbury-on-Sea. The tiny village is situated just in land from this point where the sea does indeed come from both directions as it comes around Burgh Island just out to sea and floods across the sand causeway between the island and the main land.
Unlike at St. Michael’s Mount where there is a purpose built causeway across to the Island, those crossing on foot at Bigbury just walk straight across the golden sand that makes up the two beaches on either side of the headland. During high tide though, there is an alternative mode of transport to cross to the island, the sea tractor! Yep, sea tractor. The enormous contraption costs £2 each way to take and drives to and from the island most days. The huge wheels keep the ‘cage’ structure above them above the waves and provide a very novel way to cross to the little island!
The island itself is only tiny, but has a range of footpaths and is a great place for seeing seabirds and walking. There are a small number of buildings on the island, the most notable being the 1930s Art Deco hotel and the Pilchard Inn, which is run by the hotel. I still remember eating wonderful crab baguettes from the pub on the benches outside it when I visited as a teenager. This time, we popped inside and felt like we’d stepped back in time thanks to it’s wonderful décor and for the first time this holiday, ordered a pint of Otter. This Devon beer is one I really like and no holiday is complete without drinking a pint of it somewhere! This time, I went for Tarka.
After our pint, we headed back on the sea tractor to the main land and enjoyed a bit of time with our toes in the sand and I even had time for a quick paddle (phone died before I was able to get photographic evidence!) before our time on the car park was due to run out. A wonderful end to our last full day in Devon!