Travelling without a car has given us very different sense of time and distance. We think nothing of walking for an hour to get somewhere that, back home, we would have hopped into a car to reach. When we decide to take a bus somewhere, it is a thrill. And if it is a double decker bus we race to the top.
The number and variety of beaches within walking distance of Salcombe is amazing. But there are also great beaches and walks that require a bit of extra travel. Jan had a couple of relatives visiting, and we all wanted to take an excursion to Torcross, in Start Bay. Six is too many for most cars, so Tim and I headed out on a local bus and we arranged to rendezvous for a pub lunch.
Getting to Torcross by bus was not difficult, but arriving there felt like stepping into an entirely different world.
The village of Torcross is on Slapton Sands in Start Bay, a beautiful long, long pebbly beach, with gently crashing waves.
The area is known for its unspoilt beauty, but also for a unique geographical oddity and an important historical mystery.
Directly beside Slapton Sands is Slapton Ley, the largest freshwater lake in South West England. There is an entirely different ecology on the lake, as freshwater fish inspire different flora and fauna.
The ocean and the lake are separated by a narrow strip of land, only wide enough for a small road and footpath. On one side there is crashing surf, on the other, gently paddling swans and ducks.
During WW2, this section of Devon coast was selected as a training ground for Allied Troops to practice for the D-Day invasion. Over 3,000 residents were evacuated and the area was redeveloped to recreate Utah Beach in Normandy. “Exercise Tiger” is credited for the major success of that invasion.
What is less known is that the training runs used live ammunition. As a result, 308 American soldiers were killed here, practicing for the real invasion. Friendly fire. Their numbers were counted among the dead in Normandy until recent information came to light to acknowledge that their deaths actually occurred in England.
The second part of this story took place on April 28, 1944. A convoy of ships was travelling from the Isle of Portland to Slapton Sands as part of the training exercise. They were unexpectedly intercepted by German E-boats, who bombed two Tank Landing Ships, killing 749 American servicemen. They were ill-prepared, as their focus was on practicing the invasion, not on meeting other ships at sea, and many of the servicemen drowned. The story was kept secret, either as a direct cover-up or just “conveniently forgotten” until an amphibious tank was found in the bay in the early 1970s, by Devon resident Ken Small. He spearheaded the creation of a memorial to honour those men killed in Exercise Tiger. In actual fact, many more men died in Devon, in Exercise Tiger, than in the actual D-Day invasion in Normandy.
The tank and memorial sit just beside Slapton Ley.
On the day that we were on Slapton Sands, there was a light Devon mist and peace in the air. The beach is filled with beautifully polished rocks, which made walking a bit more work than usual but allowed us to find some of the most exquisite rocks we have seen on our journey.
By the time we rendezvoused for lunch, our pockets were weighing us down with rock ballast.
The tourist area of Torcross is right on the beach. There are a few cottages, a post office and a couple of places to eat. It was surprisingly uncluttered and free of tourist marketing, although there was a hefty line up for Salcombe dairy ice cream cones. Local fish is the specialty of the Start Bay Inn, and we sat outside with full plates of crab, monkfish, plaice and cod. There were also sandwiches of exquisite local ham and cheese. And most importantly some very good local ales.
Lunch inspired a further walk. Tim and I headed up over the hill to the next bay and the village of Beesands. Beesands sits on a long shingle beach and has a small collection of cottages and, by the look of it, some good places to eat.
Beesands was a prominent fishing village in its day, but in 1979 it was almost wiped out by a violent storm. A large retaining wall was constructed in the late 1980s, separating the cottages from the view of the ocean. The wall clearly saves and protects the tiny village, but detracts from the beauty of the environment.
It was time to head back to catch our bus. We didn’t have enough time to travel any further on the coastal path. We had wanted to push on to the deserted village Hallsands, a village that was completely wiped out by a storm in 1917. Next time.
There are stories around ever corner. But there is never enough time to get to all of the corners.