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Although it was only ten days since I’d towed back along the A303/M3 from Devizes, on Saturday we set off back down the same roads to our rented cottage in Devon. I’d booked this stay back in November when I was feeling sorry for myself at the prospect of an English winter. Before Covid came along, my winters had for many years been spent in Southern Spain.
We were loaded and ready to leave by 10.30 and in spite of Google’s prediction of a snarled up M25, we found it flowing well. In no time, we were on the M3 heading west. As usual, we stopped at Soltice Services where there’s a Coop supermarket, filling station and toilets, together with the usual Kentucky, MacD and Costa. Amazingly, traffic was very light passing Stonehenge and we didn’t stop again till we reached the “diner” where the A303 becomes the A30. Our journey progressed smoothly around Exeter on the M5 and eventually, I took the A38. From the turn to Totnes, there are a dozen or so miles of twisting A-roads, then finally a nightmarish five miles of high hedged, country lanes, with local traffic and white vans hurtling along much faster than what’s good for them.
But finally, we arrived and let ourselves in. What could one say, other than WOW. The accommodation was once an 18thC barn, so it still has the beamed roof, however, the beams are in the bedrooms, having had a ceiling put in to give two floors. The downstairs is made up of two huge rooms, a lounge and a massive kitchen which has recently been refitted to a high standard with every appliance imaginable. Upstairs are three large bedrooms, two of which have en-suite bathrooms.
On our first day, we needed to drive to Totnes railway station to meet Sam, my grandson who had travelled up from his university in Cornwall. I’d also planned a visit for myself and two daughters close to Totnes. Their idea of a good day out is to walk in beautiful surroundings; mine is to visit historical buildings. So when we are away together, I endeavour to combine the two. After we’d met up with Sam at Totnes, I drove a few miles to Berry Pomeroy where I wanted to visit the Castle. Also, there just happens to be a listed walk starting from this castle to the castle at Totnes – my next port of call. So before I visited the castle and before the family set off on their walk, we sat out and enjoyed a packed lunch.
Although the area had been granted to a Norman knight by William the Conqueror, there’s no archaeological evidence that he had ever built a castle. Not until 1496 when the Pomeroy family acquired the land, was the castle built. But just fifty years later, when the Pomeroys had fallen on hard times, the castle was snapped up by Edward, Duke of Cornwall, of the powerful and wealthy Seymour family. It was the daughter, Jane who would eventually become Henry VIII’s third and favourite wife. The Seymours pulled down many of the internal buildings within the castle and built in their place an Elizabethan Manor House. These are the ruins that can be seen today.
In due course, I programmed my Tomtom for the carpark at Totnes Castle. GPS coordinates took me directly there. Castle building at Totnes started soon after the Conquest to enable the new Norman landowner to subdue the revolting Anglo-Saxons. His first castle, probably quickly erected in timber which was built on a high, man-made hill, or motte, a huge task which would be done by forced labour of the local population. Later the wooden structure gave way to the stone-built round keep which still stands on its hilltop. The only entrance is up a winding, stepped pathway wending its way around the hillside.
From the battlements, there are wonderful views across the town and down to the River Dart. I remember the views from my visit some ten years or so ago. Today, all I could do was look wistfully at that long flight of steps as I sat and rested on a picnic bench, awaiting the arrival of the family.
On another day I did the short drive from the Cottage to the small carpark at Start Point Lighthouse. A combination of Google maps, Street View and GPS coordinates took me to what seemed a familiar spot. The car park only contained a few cars, consequently, the pay attendant was absent. The family immediately set off along the Coastal Path to our pre-arranged meeting point further down the coast. Meanwhile, I ambled about on the headland.
From there, I had a view of the lighthouse, and all around the coastline as far as the Estuary at Dartmouth. Down below me, I could see the remnants of the seaside village of Hallsands, a village destroyed by man-created damage. In the late 1800s when the Admiralty wanted to enlarge Plymouth as a naval base, contractors decided that just offshore in Start Bay there was an unlimited supply of suitable gravel for the mixing of the concrete. Over many months, millions of tons were dredged from the sea-bed and barged along the coast to Plymouth. In spite of warnings of damage to the beach, several government enquiries permitted the dredging to continue. But during a violent winter storm in 1917, the huge waves washed away the beach. The shingle beach slipped out into the bay, filling the trench. With the beach gone, the 42 houses in the village all collapsed into the sea, leaving just two standing. Given that the collapse took place during the hours of darkness, amazingly, no one was killed.
In due course, I set my Tomtom for Beesands, a small village at sea level and where the coastal path drops down from its cliff-top route. Here we found some picnic benches set out on the green where we sat to enjoy a late lunch, overlooking a lovely beach.
We decided to visit Dartmouth. I was fortunate in being able to occupy the last empty bay in the small carpark. Whilst I went to visit the Castle, the family went off walking along the river bank towards the town.
A castle has stood at the mouth of the Dart Estuary for more than six hundred years to guard the town and harbour against invaders. Whenever there has been a state of emergency, the castle has been enlarged and improved. As guns have got bigger and more powerful, so have the gun towers in which to house them. A tower was built across on the other bank, with a heavy chain attached at one stage. The other end was positioned on a winding mechanism within the castle so that the chain would trap unwary vessels trying to enter the river, whilst being lowered to the sea bed to allow authorised shipping to enter freely. The Castle saw some of its busiest times during the reign of Henry VIII when most of the European Countries were intent on invasion. Then again, when the Spanish Armada sailed past Dartmouth on its way up the Channel. The Castle was still in use during WWII when the Estuary became a base from which merchant convoys could assemble.
Four years ago, the girls hired a house in Bigbury, whilst I took my caravan to a site just a couple of miles away. We thought it would be nice to revisit. The beach at Bigbury is unique and we decided to spend a day there. It was only a drive of about ten miles – a bit longer if the tide is in because part of the road goes under water at high tide. So it was the long way there and the quicker way back. At the centre of the beach is a causeway which becomes a sandy beach as the tide goes out, with the water’s edge at two sides.
Across the beach is Burgh Island with a hotel, a pub and a couple of cottages. In the early 1900s, the Island was bought by filmmaker Archibald Nettlefold and heir to the Guest, Keen and Nettlefold engineering firm. He built the hotel in the Art Deco style, and it became a popular destination in the 1930s. Novelist Agatha Christie was a frequent guest and used the hotel and Island as the setting of some of her stories. The Beatles are reputed to have stayed when performing in Plymouth, and Edward and Mrs Simpson were frequent visitors. Churchill and Eisenhower spent time here during the late preparations for D-day. It still maintains its exclusivity. During the low season, a room with dinner can be yours for as little as £750 per night! Once the tide comes in, the causeway is covered by several feet of water. Visitors to the Island need to use the sea tractor.
On another day, the girls wanted to visit Ivybridge, so I loaded my bike and drove down to Torcross – about four miles from our cottage. First I took a ride around the village ending up at Stokeley Farm Shop. Besides all manner of local produce, they have a butchery department selling locally sourced meat. Their sausages are some of the best I’ve ever tasted, containing just enough fat in which to cook them. From there, I rode down to the coast road and stopped at the car park where there is displayed a memorial which tells a sad story. Apparently in the last few weeks before D-day, secret rehearsals were taking place along this stretch of Devon coast.
The rehearsal involved both American and British forces of both the army and the navies. Unbeknown to the naval ships, a flotilla of German E-boats based in Cherbourg got curious about the activity and very soon got amongst the US landing craft. Two US landing craft were sunk with a huge loss of life. The memorial is in the form of a US tank dredged up from offshore along the beach. Several more tanks and vehicles still sit on the seabed a few hundred yards from the beach.
After a picnic lunch, I took a ride along the coast road which runs between the sea on one side and a fresh-water lake, Slapton Ley, noted for its wildlife on the other. On both sides, there is some beautiful scenery.
This is an account of just some of our days spent in Devon. The property is superb; every need is catered for; the surrounding area is peaceful and tranquil; a good range of shops is only a few miles away. It’s heaven on earth! ……………..What a pity James, the owner of the property became unpleasant and difficult in getting him to return our damage deposit.