The Mysteries of Torcross

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

The village of Torcross is on Slapton Sands in Start Bay, a beautiful long, long pebbly beach, with gently crashing waves.

The long beach at Start Bay

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.

Slapton Ley. The largest freshwater lake in South West England

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.

The strip of land separating Slapton Ley on the right, from Slapton Sands on the left

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.

The tank from Exercise Tiger

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.

Tim choosing rocks on Slapton Sands

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 at the Start Bay Inn

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.

Looking down to the beach at Beesands

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.

Jennifer at Torcross

Devon Coastal Paths, Part Two

On a recent Saturday walk we decided that we had sufficiently built up our thigh muscles to face  a tougher walk. The Hope Cove to Salcombe walk is on the south west side of the peninsula and we were told it had some rugged paths, with some degree of difficulty. The gauntlet was thrown.

There are very few busses in or out of Salcombe, so we had to coordinate our time carefully, taking a bus to the tiny nearby town of Malborough and then transferring to a bus to take us to Hope Cove.

At the heart of Malborough is the parish church, founded around 1200 AD. With its 13thcentury stone vaulted roof and a perfectly preserved pointed spire sitting atop a hill, it can been seen throughout the countryside. We waited outside the post office beside the church for our bus.

Tim waiting outside the Post Office for the bus.

Hope Cove sits nestled between Inner Hope and Outer Hope. (I am not making these names up. We had quite a debate as to where one would rather live – in Inner Hope or in Outer Hope.) Hope Cove was a favourite among smuggles, and the tiny cob cottages with thatched roofs made us feel we were in the midst of a novel.

The cob cottages of Inner Hope
A cottage being re-thatched in Inner Hope

Just off the cove is Burgh Island where there is a complete Art Deco hotel. The site is associated with Agatha Christie’s book “And Then There Were None” as well as the Hercule Poirot mystery “Evil Under the Sun” and many celebrities have stayed in the hotel over the years. We could only view it through a telephoto lens, unfortunately.

The Art Deco Burgh Island Hotel, "The Great White Palace"

We made our way out of Inner Hope and headed up toward the cliff, only to discover a group of 25 hikers, most a bit older than us, on the path. We raced ahead, knowing that it would be best to be in front, rather than behind the pack. They were stopping from time to time for guided information, but they were keeping a fair clip. The nation of walkers was showing us some of their best.

We burned our thighs up toward Wolf Rock and Bolt Tail, high above the water, crossing an Iron Age Fort embankment.

Amanda and Jan on Bolt Tail

We passed by lines of pre-historic standing stones, stretching out into the distance.

Standing rocks stretching into the distance

The path took us through Bolberry Down, a beautiful grazed area filled with sheep and new spring lambs. In 1760 a Spanish ship went down off the coast of Bolberry Down, killing 700 men. Another wreck. More lost hopes.

We made a pit stop at the one habitation on our route, Port Light, which is a small collection of buildings formerly a part of RAF Hope Cove. Asking about the road ahead, we were told that it was rough in places, that we had a section coming up with a lot of highs and lows but that after that things got flat. “Should take you about 3 hours,” the proprietor of the Port Light restaurant told us, eying our greying hair. “I do it in about 2 ½”.

After a few bites of apple and lovely Devon cheese, we set out with will and determination. From the high cliffs, the path led us down to the tiny beach at Soar Mill. Isolated and perfectly proportioned, it is a place to come back and spend a day lazing.

The beach at Soar Mill Cove

The path led us up again. The way was very steep and Jan was glad of her walking poles.

Jan hiking up the cliff
Jan, a bit foot sore

The high path took us through a field of lovely, friendly Shetland ponies with whom we shared the last bit of our apple. (I think they may have been “Sharptor Shetlands”)

Tim making a new friend

We huffed and puffed our way up to Bolt Head, the most southerly point of Devon. I clamboured out as far as I could go, well beyond Jan and Tim’s comfort level. I managed to take a picture of myself, on the edge.

Amanda on Bolt Head, the edge of Devon

The rocks were right behind my head. There was nothing between me and the ocean far below. I turned around to realize that I was alone and mildly terrified of going back down. I slide down gingerly on my backside.

We rounded the corner, dodging sheep, to look down on the green blue waters of Starehole Bay and the dramatic rocks of Sharp Tor. These are “metamorphic rocks”, rocks that have changed their nature through pressure or heat. They are incredibly dramatic formations that look like they have been squeezed out of the earth and are ready to fall on unsuspecting hikers below.

The rocks of Sharp Tor

We continued on toward Salcombe, past the small luxury hotels in South Sands, the enthusiastic dog beach at North Sands, past the million pound homes and cottages along the coast.

It had been a good 9 mile walk, and yes, took us about 3 hours to complete from Port Light. We ended the adventure with a bowl of crab bisque and a pint, in front of the fire at our favourite Salcombe pub, The Victoria Inn. The perfect place to massage weary feet.

A sheep blocks our path to Starehole Bay