A golden beach on Start Bay, and a historic port on the Dart
The panoramic sweep of Start Bay, with its shingle banks and sandy coves, contrasts with the more subtle beauty of the River Dart’s estuary which curls inland through rolling farmland. To the north, cliffs more than 400 ft high in places lead to Berry Head with its superb views over
Tor Bay. There are memories of the Pilgrim Fathers and of a Dartmouth man, Thomas Newcomen, whose steam- engine made him a giant of the Industrial Revolution.
Ruined cottages, perched on a narrow shelf of rock at the foot of a low cliff, are poignant reminders that this was once a small but thriving fishing village, the home of more than 100 people. At the end of the 19th century, 650,000 tons of shingle were taken away to make concrete for new docks at Devonport. The operation removed the village’s natural defences and left Hallsands exposed to the ever-hungry sea. Disaster struck on January 26, 1917, when an abnormally high tide coincided with an easterly gale. Villagers watched from the cliff as all but one of the 30 cottages were destroyed. Hallsands can still be an eerie place on a misty, out-of-season day when the foghorn on Start Point booms like the voice of doom.
A short walk over the crumbling cliff leads to North Hallsands, where a small hotel overlooks a beach of smooth, pale pink shingle. It was here that some of the villagers were rehoused in 1924. The area is popular with scuba divers, but there are dangerous currents off Start Point. There are boat trips, and a water-ski school.
Steep, narrow lanes run down to this old fishing village, which survived the disaster that overtook neighbouring Hallsands. Today the single row of cottages of Beesands is protected from storm-driven waves by a barrier of huge boulders. The beach is shingle and shelves steeply in places.
There is a large caravan site at the northern end of the village. Motor boats can be hired, and fishing trips’are available.
The great bank of shingle on which part of Torcross stands encloses Slapton Ley, a 270 acre freshwater lake leased to the Field Studies Council as part of a nature reserve. It is an important winter roost for wildfowl, and its placid waters are the haunt of coots, mallards and great crested grebes, which now breed there. Water-lilies and yellow irises bloom during the summer, and permit-holding anglers can fish for pike and perch. The lake is designated as a site of special scientific interest, and residential courses are held at the field studies centre in Slapton village.
Torcross’s shingle beach is backed by a sea-wall completed in 1980 after the village’s defences had been badly damaged by a storm in the winter of 1978-9.
The shingle beach is overlooked by a granite monument presented by the United States Army to local people who ‘generously left their homes and their lands to provide a battle practice area for the successful assault on Normandy in June 1944’. The inscription adds that training in the Start Bay area saved many lives during ‘Operation Overlord’, as the D-Day operation was code-named, ‘and contributed in no small measure’ to its success.
Unlike the southern part of Start Bay,
Blackpool is a sandy cove sheltered by high, wooded cliffs. Rhododendrons bloom near the beach in the summer months. Dogs are banned from the shore, which is part of a private estate. A force of Bretons, intent on attacking Dartmouth, was defeated at Blackpool in 1404.
There is a windsurfing school, and skiffs and floats can be hired.
Begun in 1481 and completed 12 years later, the castle was one of the first built to take cannon. Its battery of seven guns covered a 750 ft long chain, resting on six barges, which protected the approach to Dartmouth. The chain’s anchorage points on the far cliff are clearly visible. Records reveal that the castle was garrisoned by a captain, 11 musketeers and 28 gunners. Inside are displays of armour, naval pikes and other weapons, and there are fine views up the estuary from the tower.
The castle shares its headland with St Petrox Church, most of which dates from the 17th century. A wooded walk runs southwards to Compass Cove, a secluded spot with a shingle beach.
Dartmouth’s deep-rooted seafaring traditions are epitomised by the Britannia Royal Naval College where George V, George VI and other kings-to-be served as cadets. Prince Charles was a cadet there in 1971. Built in 1905 to replace the Britannia training ship which had been moored in the River Dart since 1863, the college dominates the hill above the town.
Crusaders sailed from Dartmouth in the 12th century; in Elizabethan times it was associated with such sea captains as Sir Walter Raleigh, and sent nine ships to fight the Spanish Armada. In 1620 the Pilgrim Fathers’ ships Mayflower and Speedwell put in at Dartmouth for repairs; and on June 4, 1944, more than 400 craft sailed to take part in the D-Day landings.
Fine old buildings which provide tangible links with the town’s history include the 17th-century Butterwalk, part of which houses one of Dartmouth’s two museums. It was originally a row of merchants’ houses, with the first floors supported on columns to form a covered trading area below.
The cobbled quay at Bayard’s Cove, where the Pilgrim Fathers’ visit is commemorated, has featured in the Onedin Line television series, and ends by Bearscove Castle, a small fort built in 1537 as part of Henry VIII’s coastal defences.
A colourful collection of yachts, cabin cruisers, ferries and bigger, seagoing ships throngs the Dart in summer, while stately swans mingle with gulls in the Boatfloat, a small inner harbour between The Quay and the river.
A small building in Royal Avenue Gardens shelters what is believed to be the oldest working steam-engine in the world. It was built in 1711 by Thomas Newcomen, a Dartmouth ironmonger whose inventions made him one of the power-providing pioneers of the Industrial Revolution. The engine worked in the Midlands for 200 years before being taken to Dartmouth in 1963 to mark the 300th anniversary of Newcomen’s birth. There is a plaque on the site of his house in Lower Street.
The village of Dittisham stands on high ground overlooking the broadest part of the River Dart. The view down the estuary is particularly attractive, with the sails and hulls of yachts and other craft making bold splashes of colour against a backcloth of steep, tree-clad slopes. Lanes run down to a beach of muddy shingle where a ferry for foot passengers crosses to the quay below Greenway House.
Local people dressed in Tudor costumes bring an unexpected and evocative dash of romance to Totnes every Tuesday from June to September. They complement the atmosphere of a town which has Saxon origins, the remains of a Norman castle and a wealth of architectural treasures. Many buildings date from the Middle Ages, when exports of tin and wool made Totnes one of the most flourishing ports in England. Ships laden with timber from Russia and Scandinavia still sail up the River Dart at high tide to unload at St Peter’s Quay. They share the waterway with private craft and boats from Dartmouth, packed with sightseers. Spanning the river is a three-arched bridge built in 1828. The foundations of the original 13th-century bridge can be seen at low water.
An old riverside warehouse on Steamer Quay, on the eastern bank, is the home of the Totnes Motor Museum, whose collection includes vintage Alfa Romeos, an Aston Martin DB3S which raced at Le Mans in 1954, and a 1965 Amphicar, which was equally at home on the road or in the water. There is also a motor-cycle gallery. There are markets every Tuesday and Friday. River trips are available, and motor boats can be hired.
Aston Martin DB3S
Lanes from Stoke Gabriel lead to an attractive creek whose upper reach has been dammed to form a tranquil mill pool partly framed by trees. Low tide reveals a muddy shore, carved by deep channels, but it is a popular spot among boating enthusiasts.
Herons and kingfishers dabble and dive for fish near this quay, where the wooded grounds of Greenway House slope down to a thatched cottage and a small jetty. From the jetty a ferry for foot passengers sails to Dittisham on the far side of the River Dart.
Greenway House, hidden from view and not open to visitors, was the birthplace in 1539 of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, the seafarer who claimed Newfoundland for Queen Elizabeth in 1583. It is also believed to be the place where Gilbert’s half-brother, Sir Walter Raleigh, was drenched with a bucket of water by a servant while he was enjoying a pipe of tobacco; the man thought his master’s guest was on fire. The house was the home of the novelist Agatha Christie from just before the Second World War until her death in 1976.
Motor boats may be hired at the quay.
UNCHANGING ELEGANCE AT BAYARD’S COVE
Dartmouth’s unspoiled stretch of waterfront retains all the charm and atmosphere of bygone days. In the V7th century tall-masted ships, including the vessels that carried the Pilgrim Fathers to America, moored at the quay, while merchants, sea-captains and ship-owners bargained in the doorways, and the cobbles echoed to the clatter of carriage wheels.
Ferries which take foot passengers and cars across the river to Dartmouth make Kings-wear a busy place in the holiday season. The ferries share the estuary with private craft and a fleet of small boats which land crabs worth more than £1 million a year. Kingswear Castle, now privately owned, could once be linked to Dartmouth Castle across the river by an iron chain to deter invaders.
Kingswear is also the southern terminus of the Dart Valley Railway Company’s steam-hauled Torbay and Dartmouth Line. The line was originally opened in 1864 as part of the Great Western Railway.
A rough track, signposted as unsuitable for cars, leads to this secluded beach of shingle and low-tide sand. It is flanked by the lofty face of Southdown Cliff, whose crest towers nearly 430 ft above the sea.
ST MARY’S BAY
An unsignposted footpath to the left of the entrance to Pontin’s holiday village leads to a beach of sand and shingle enclosed by steep, bracken-clad slopes. The path is narrow, with steps in places, and the walk from the road takes about 5 minutes.
Huge fortifications built in the 19th century, when Britain was at war with France, cross this high headland, a country park with commanding views of Tor Bay. About 800 sq. miles of sea are visible from the tip of the promontory, 190 ft above sea level, and the Bill of Portland, 46 miles away, can be seen on a clear day.
The lighthouse is said to be the highest and lowest in Britain. It is only 15 ft tall, but the light is 200 ft above sea level. Leaflets detailing the headland’s nature trail are sold at the cafe in the main fort.