As I write this, I am looking out over a quiet estuary, dotted with small fishing boats and sail boats. The lush green hills on the opposite shore slope down to meet the water’s edge. Gulls are swooping and calling as the tide comes in.
We’ve come to Salcombe, in Devon, for a month of writing and walking. We’ve rented a house, inviting our friend Janet and Tim’s sister Jennifer to share in our retreat.
We have each staked our claim to a work area, and spend days working on different projects. But we make sure to take time for long rambles in the Devon countryside, challenging our thigh muscles on the hills.
The Salcombe and Kingsbridge Estuary is in the South Devon “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty”. It is also a “Site of Specific Scientific Interest”. The estuary is not, strictly speaking an estuary. It is a “ria”, a drowned river valley that is fed by the sea rather than by a large river. It is tidal all of the way up to Kingsbridge, 5 miles inland. As the tides go in and out, they leave long mud flats, shallow along the shoreline at low tide. These flats provide rare and important habitats to a host of marine species. It is a paradise for wading birds and otters, crabs, clams, seahorses and mussels.
Salcombe has been known for shipbuilding, smuggling and crab fishing. The estuary is treacherous with sandbars and jutting rocks that have caused a number of spectacular shipwrecks over the centuries. Recently they discovered a Bronze Age sea wreck off the coast. Henry VIII built a castle here to defend the estuary again the French and Spanish pirates.
Historically the town’s claim to fame is as the last stronghold of the Royalist forces during the English civil war. During the civil war, Sir Edward Fortesque held the castle, called Fort Charles, defending the Royalist town of Salcombe until it was clear that the rest of the country had conceded to Oliver Cromwell. Parliament ordered the castle destroyed, siting that it was “too dangerous” to leave it standing.
In the days of sailing vessels, Salcombe was an important shipping port, with the specially designed Salcombe Schooners sailing to Iberia, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the Azores and Newfoundland. They returned with exotic fruits, sugar, coconut, rum and wood for ship building. But with the advent of steam ships, shipping moved to deeper waters elsewhere along the coast.
During the Second World War, Salcombe became an “Advance Amphibian Base” for the US Navy. On June 4, 1944, 66 ships sailed from Salcombe to the DD invasion at Normandy. There is a plaque dedicated to the American men who lost their lives in that battle, and one of the docks has been named the Normandy Dock. Even in little Salcombe, the impact of war is a fact of life.
Now, however, the town is primarily known as a place for pleasure boating and holiday-making. The houses and cottages in the old part of town are immaculately kept.
The steep hills hold the village in, encouraging it to remain tiny and perfect. The main street is about 5 blocks long. The population is around 2,000, although our landlord says that increases 100 fold in the summer. Interestingly, the real estate prices are the second highest in England outside of London. The “townies” who were born here, or who have family property, would never be able to afford the prices that the people from away are willing to pay for this piece of paradise.
But we are here in the off-season. The village is just beginning to gear up for its busy summer. Some shops will remain closed until Easter, and the few that are open are painting trim and washing windows. We get to mix and mingle with the folks who actually live here.
From my writing window, I can see the tiny village of East Portlemouth across the harbour. We decide to make it our first “major” outing from Salcombe.
For £1.50 each, Jan and I took a ferry across, to see things from the other side. The ferry takes less than 5 minutes, and is simply an open boat with seats for about 10. There are other ferries in the high season connecting to other places on the estuary, but at this time of year there is just the one and it runs across every half hour.
East Portlemouth used to be a thriving port in the 14th century, but in the 19th century the Duke and Duchess of Cleveland, who owned all of the land, dispossessed the tenant farmers to amalgamate all of their lands. All of the cottages were destroyed. Today, there are probably on 20 people who live in East Portlemouth. That’s just a guess. It is known for its extreme beauty and isolation, and for having a few very wealthy second home-owners sparking an interesting political struggle. A local landowner who has lived in East Portlemouth all of her life wants to build some cottage homes for low-income families. She feels that it will keep the village alive if there are ordinary people can still afford to live there. However, the millionaire second home-owners are not in favour. A large excavation is taking place. I am not sure who is winning the battle.
We walked up to the ancient church on the hill, the church of St. Winwaloe. The church was built in the 12th century on the site of a 10th century church, under the reign of King Athelstan. King Athelstan (the great grandson of King Alfred) had come from Brittany, the birthplace of the Celt St. Winwaloe (462-532 AD). After St. Winwaloe’s death, monks travelled throughout Devon and Cornwall founding monasteries and churches.
St. Winwaloe’s was locked on the day that we were there, but we were treated to ravens calling from the tower.
The church graveyard includes 17th and 18th century tombstones of sailors and smugglers.
From the church we had a choice of several footpaths and decided that we’d head along the high path, so that we could take in a larger view. Salcombe is nestled into the hills, down by the water’s edge, and it has been hard to figure out exactly what the coast looks like. And this way, we can enjoy the million-pound view for free. We walked along the top of the hill toward High House Farm and the ocean opened out in front of us.
An area of outstanding beauty. Indeed. Thank goodness we have a month to explore. The walks are just beginning.