Monday, 2 June 2014

A section of the Devon coast with a tragic history

Barbara and I have just returned from a few days spent walking the Start Bay coastal path between Dartmouth and Start Point in South Devon. This is a section of the 912 km South West Way, a beautiful part of which MEI Conference delegates will experience next week in Falmouth. The area has also been the scene of two tragic events over the past 100 years.

Hallsands near Start Point is a small village which has always been a fishing community. The old village was built on a narrow rock ledge overlooking the shingle beach, the villagers feeling safe in the lee of the prevailing SW wind, and the advent of the Royal Navy reducing the threat of piracy. In the late 19th century a decision was made to extend the Devonport Dockyard, and rather than use expensive crushed stone, shingle was dredged in the area of Start Bay around Hallsands. This affected the natural defences and a series of high seas began to erode the sea walls, the final disaster striking in 1917, when a combination of easterly gales and exceptionally high tides breached the defences. By the end of that year only one house remained habitable. The ruined village is still an extraordinary sight, although with each winter storm more of it disappears.

Hallsands with Start Point in the background
Walking northwards brought us to Torcross, situated by Devon's largest freshwater lake, Slapton Ley, which runs parallel to the long shingle beach known as Slapton Sands.

Torcross
Torcross between Slapton Ley and Slapton Sands
During World War 2 this steeply shelving beach was deemed to be an ideal site to practice the D-Day landings, and the nearby villagers were evacuated to make room for thousands of American servicemen who were destined for the Utah and Omaha beaches in Normandy.

Slapton Sands
Slapton Sands
Exercise Tiger proved to be a disaster however. German reconnaissance planes reported intense allied action in the area and a convoy positioning itself for the landing was attacked by nine E-boats of the German Navy on April 28th, 1944, resulting in the deaths of 946 American servicemen. The incident was under the strictest secrecy at the time due to the impending invasion, and was only nominally reported afterwards. A Sherman tank that was sunk in this action has been recovered and now stands on the road behind the beach at Torcross.


North of Slapton Sands a tough 6 mile hike took us to the estuary of the River Dart and into Dartmouth, a town with a long maritime tradition, and which was the departure point for the 2nd and 3rd Crusades.

Approaching the River Dart estuary
The River Dart, with Dartmouth on the left and Kingswear on the right
 

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