To Brixham for a Sailor’s Cap

Brixham, south Devon, our destination with its popular Pirate Ship attraction

I think we’ve just had our summer holiday this year – a day on the sea, sailing with Stuartline Cruises from Exmouth to Brixham. Like most other people, we’re not expecting to travel far afield this summer. But what could be better, on a warm sunny day, than to set sail along the beautiful Devon coast? We saw rocks and coves, beaches and waterfalls that we would never have known were there. We already knew many of the seaside towns individually, but had no idea how the coastline joins them together.

Stuartline is a delightful family firm that takes passengers up and down the River Exe, and along the Jurassic Coast all the way to Sidmouth in one direction, and the ‘English Riviera’ at Torbay in the other. In winter, there are highly-recommended birdwatching trips (booked out months in advance!) with a knowledgeable expert pointing out the extraordinary bird life that we have in the Exe Estuary, of migrants and waders, including the famous flocks of avocets.

Despite being veterans of these and other short cruises, this was the first time we’d been on a full day excursion. So I’ll be delighted to relive this journey, and to share both some snippets of history and some personal memories of this striking landscape too. Would you like to join us?

Our starting point, at Exmouth

We cast off from the little dock at Exmouth, and soon gain a panoramic view of the seafront. The elegant 18th and 19th century terraces show how it once aspired to be a fashionable bathing station for the monied classes. Like several of the other Devon coastal resorts, its very early days were spent in a humbler manner though: ‘Prior to the 1700’s Exmouth was a small fishing town, with a small harbour, from which Sir Walter Raleigh, born just a few miles away in East Budleigh in 1544, sailed on many of his voyages.’ (Visit Exmouth) In earlier centuries, it also acted as the point of entry into the River Exe, from whence trading ships sailed up to the bustling port of Topsham, (our current home), servicing the wool trade and other enterprises.

Exmouth’s new Marina, a highly sought-after spot to live. One of the other StuartLine boats is berthed just at the corner

Now it’s both a popular family holiday resort and a lively town, with a new Marina built in a handsome Norwegian style, to the lamentations of those who loved the ramshackle sheds and cabins that previously existed in the area at the start of the ‘back beach’ stretching up the mouth of the river.

Just across the water is the sand spit of Dawlish Warren nature reserve – oddly enough with a golf course in its midst. This fragile ecosystem is being preserved as best it can with groynes and techniques to bolster up the sandy banks, but it’s a tough fight against tides and storms.
Nearly high tide – we need the extra water level to sail over this way from Exmouth. The skipper says that there is only a metre of sea below the hull of the ship!
A puzzling warning sign, regarding the ongoing attempts to prevent sand erosion from the Warren

Dawlish Warren is a weird juxtaposition. If you come here by road or train you’ll start by passing under the railway bridge and stroll (or hasten) through a panoply of fairground rides, candy floss stalls, gaudy souvenirs and hot dog stalls. But once through this area, fringed with brightly painted beach huts, you’re in a wonderful, windswept area of nature which stretches for over a mile to the end of the spit. It has a bird hide at the far end, and it was here, about 30 years ago, that I saw my first ever white egret in the UK. The beach which borders it is also wonderful, and if you don’t mind hopping through the groynes you can enjoy a long walk on an unspoilt and usually uncrowded stretch of sand.

The ‘fun’ end of Dawlish Warren

After the Warren comes the town of Dawlish itself, with its famous stretch of railway line running along the edge of the sea. Famous because a) it’s officially listed as one of the great railway trips of the world – and at times the trains keep running while spray from the waves breaks over the carriages! But also b) because every now and then a bit of the track falls into the sea. See the tale of recent disaster and recovery here.

Caught on camera from our boat! The train running past the more modern seafront flats at Dawlish – it will then go right in front of the original terraces seen below.

Dawlish is also famous for its black swans, Australian natives which grace the brook that flows through the town centre. Sadly, their numbers have been decimated by bird flu in the last year or so, but not before two escapees found their way up the River Exe to Topsham. Here they are feted and fed by admiring townsfolk and tourists; these birds know a good thing when they see it.

The Topsham Two – a flyaway pair from Dawlish?

When I was at primary school, we were asked to paint a picture of our summer holidays, and I was very puzzled when one of my classmates painted a seaside with red cliffs. Surely that couldn’t be right? I had spent my early years near the white cliffs of Dover. But I had to adjust my expectations when we moved down to East Devon and the Jurassic coast. I still find them a touch unnatural, but they are certainly dramatic. The rock stacks rise up out of the water in gnarled, looming shapes, like giant heads. But they are also shape-shifters, as sandstone erodes over time.

Below: some of the dramatic sandstone rocks near Teignmouth, and a local fisherman hauling in a lobster pot nearby

Now we’re arriving at Teignmouth – one of our favourite seaside towns. It has plenty of character, a place of different faces. The seafront terraces, as in Exmouth, speak of past grandeur. The pier, the cafes, the play park are from a different narrative, of jolly seaside family holidays. Once when we turned up in the town they were filming ‘The Mercy’, the story of the disastrous sailing challenge taken on by Donald Crowhurst, and the company had reconstructed a perfect 1950s holiday setting along the front, which gave an entertaining sense of time-slip.

A photo that I took in Teignmouth during the filming of ‘The Mercy’, a 1950s true-life tale of one man’s madness in an attempt to pretend he was winning the Golden Globe sailing challenge.

Behind the sea front, there’s a newly-labelled ‘artists’ quarter’ with quirky shops and a little theatre. And also just around the corner is the ‘back beach’, where the river Teign flows into the sea. It’s flanked by fishermen’s shacks, boats pulled up onto the sand, and the ferry which takes you over the water to the very cute village of Shaldon. In Victorian times, Teignmouth was eagerly sought after as a painter’s resort since the sunshine comes from two directions, off both beaches of sea and river, and bathes the town in glorious light. Oh, and by the way, it’s the River ‘Teen’ which flows through ‘Tinmouth’. (But if you’re on Dartmoor, then ‘Drewstaynton’ for Drewsteignton.) Got that?

We sail around the corner of the cliff, where just beyond is the hidden beach of The Ness. This is reached, surprisingly, by a foot tunnel on the Shaldon side. (Shaldon itself also has the surprise of a little zoo with a fine population of meerkats and lemurs, a conservation centre for endangered species. ) Descending the steep, dank set of stairs in near-darkness, you begin to hear the waves pounding below. Suddenly, you emerge into daylight and there is the little beach spread out before you. (Not possible, I warn you, at high tide.)

Ness Beach – only reached by a steep climb up the hill and down through a tunnel

The cliffs ascend steeply here; I know this from experience, as we once walked up the coast path from Shaldon and nearly collapsed before we finally got to the top. It felt as if crampons and a rope might have been sensible equipment to take. Perched a little way further along the clifftop is a modern white house, said to be the plaything of a Russian oligarch.

And now it’s a changing scene – we are in Agatha Christie country! The hills are rounder and more wooded. There are hidden coves, rocks to swim towards, steep tree-filled valleys to clamber up, and every now and then, a splendid house fit for a murder mystery.

Houses fit for an old-fashioned murder story perch proudly on the wooded hilltops

Agatha grew up in the area, and returned in later life to live at Greenway House, set high above the Dart River. You can discover her favourite haunts here and visit Greenway House (now National Trust). Strange to think that when I came to the area in my teens, my friends pointed out the house to me, and told me that Agatha was still in residence. Could I have tried to meet her? I’ll never know. She died in 1976.

The charm of Maidencombe Beach, with its very own waterfall

We pass the beach below Maidencombe. Robert and I have been to this quaint village once, in the autumn months, which is a snatch of old Devon (especially out of season), but didn’t follow the signed walking route to the beach, out of sight below. Now, from the boat, we can see what a charming spot it is, with its very own waterfall. Did Agatha come here too? I expect so.

The skipper points out a pile of debris on the cliff top nearby, and tells us the story of the woman who bought a house up there, sight unseen, for a bargain sum of £154,000. However, it wasn’t long before the house started toppling down the cliff. I looked up the story, and the argey-bargey she had with the auctioneers. Read it here. Buyer beware!

The house that fell down the hill

Then we sail under the cliffs below Babbacombe village, an outlier of Torquay now. I have been here several times, to visit the extraordinary, Stone-Age inhabited Kent’s Cavern (see my earlier post, Following the Female Line). Walk through a wooden door in a modern visitor’s centre, and you plunge into another era, of ancient man, and cave-dwelling bears as well. Taking my granddaughters round here was a delight.

At Hope Nose, the geology switches abruptly from sandstone to much older limestone, which is some 350 million years old.

And look, do I spy the Famous Five and Timmy having a naughty camp-out where they shouldn’t? We are in story book country, after all.

As for stories, the cruise ships moored around Torbay and Teignmouth have provided us with a ghostly presence during the pandemic. Sometimes they look like spectres from a haunted tale, half lost in the mist. Our skipper tells us how they seek out sheltered bays and drop anchor there, leaving a skeleton (ha!) crew on board, so as to avoid paying berthing charges. We’ve had various royally-named ships within these waters in the last year and a half, from the Queen Mary to the Queen Victoria who is currently here.

When we pass one later, crew members wave to us in excitement – or is it despair? At Christmas, the inhabitants of Teignmouth knitted gifts and sent out seasonal food parcel to the seamen who had to spend the holidays on board.

And it’s time for Torquay. Pine trees herald our arrival, a symbol of its title as ‘Queen of the English Riviera’. When I first came to Torquay in the 1960s, the promenade was dominated by palm trees, and I always thought of these as the iconic image of the town. But apparently these were decimated by a severe frost, and have never been replaced. Hmm – on searching for more about their demise, I discovered that Torquay is home to a number of dreadful environmental errors.

But I am fond of this town, remembering how I worked here in the Grand Hotel for a summer after leaving school. It was primarily for friends and folk clubs that I came down here from Birmingham – there have always been close links between Brum and Devon. (see my blog ‘Singing at the Holy Ground’ ) I was hired as a ‘still room’ maid, toiling under the supervision of Hungarian John, a kindly, middle-aged man, who fought our cause fiercely when we were bullied by arrogant chefs. I think I was paid around £8 a week, and my job was primarily to make toast using an eyebrow-singeing machine, make up sandwiches, and prepare trays of tea and coffee. Oh, and put cakes on plates. (John didn’t mind if we helped ourselves to a few.) It was a hazardous workplace, apart from the singed eyebrows. Italian waiters tried to grope us girls in the service lifts, and the manager swept down in a temper, saying that we had to pour any undrunk coffee out of the pots back into the coffee machine, stewed or not. I got my revenge by making up his afternoon tea tray with sandwiches composed of other people’s chicken leftovers.

The Grand Hotel, Torquay, framed up through our boat’s window. In my earlier times there, it was painted a drab gunmetal grey.

And the room I was given had been inhabited by an alcoholic woman, who had left piles of empty booze and meths bottles in every corner and cupboard. I was young and inexperienced, and I felt that because they had done me a favour by offering me a room, I shouldn’t complain, but simply grit my teeth and clear it out. I can still remember the stink, and sense of horror on confronting it. Having said that, it was nevertheless quite a happy time! I met up with my mates, sang in the folk clubs and learnt the joys of crab sandwiches.

Indeed, I retain a fondness for Torquay, and would like to get to know it better again.

Below: Modern Torquay contrasting with the 18th century, elegant Hesketh Crescent, now a hotel and apartments

Here we let the Torquay trippers off the boat to enjoy their three hours ashore. The rest of us travel on to the fishing ‘village’ of Brixham about eight miles further along the coast, past Paignton en route.

First, though, we pass a real storybook house, set in at least two acres of beautifully mown and diamond-patterned lawns. Oh, I wish that this were mine! I learnt later, through the ‘Devon Where Am I?’ Facebook group that it’s called Thatcher House. It’s the epitome of what we might think of as a 1930s English Riviera house, with unbroken views to the cliff tops and sea, all ready for a sunset gin and tonic on the terrace.

Paignton passes by without much comment – I worked here, too, as a chambermaid in a stuffy boarding house frequented by elderly spinsters, whose chamber pots I had to empty. That era has gone, and so has my interest in the town. Perhaps I am failing to see its charms.

Thatcher House – perhaps my dream home on the English Riviera?

And then it’s round into Brixham harbour. It’s a lovely entrance to the fishing port, with colourful houses stacked up in handfuls on the steep hillsides which surround it. The fishing fleet and industry here is apparently the third largest in the UK, and we often buy delicious fresh fish landed at Brixham. (You can read about the story of one Brixham trawler, now aground in Topsham, at Hidden Topsham Part One.) ) I used to come here too on my days off from being a still room or chamber maid. But there are two other Brixham associations for me.

Brixham Harbour, little changed in general appearance from when my great grandfather worked here in 1873

First of all, it’s where my great grandfather, David Owen arrived in 1873 at the age of 30 to be the town’s Baptist Minister. He’d come from the hills of mid-Wales, first to a post in Hemyock, Devon, where he met his future wife Mary Masey Walker, and then to try a pastorate in Brixham. After only six months, though, he upped sticks hastily for reasons unknown, (not thought to be scandalous!), married his sweetheart, and set sail for America. Here he joined his brother John in Ohio, and spent 15 years as a minister before he and Mary returned, settling in Northamptonshire, where their brood increased to twelve children. How I’d like to know more about his Brixham story! Family folklore says that he found the Devon mindset too constrained – which might sound strange for one who came from mid-Wales, but he’d had an astonishingly good education at the Baptist College in Haverfordwest, specialising in Hebrew and Ancient Greek. Or maybe it was the lure of the open seas? His grandfather had also left the Radnorshire hills, to set sail from Plymouth and subsequently fight at the Battle of Corunna in Wellington’s army.

Brixton has a sizeable fishing fleet, and all over our Devon area you can buy delicious fresh fish landed here.

The second reason for coming to Brixham is that it’s where I bought Robert his favourite seaman’s cap seven years ago, and which he has been welded to ever since. Time has taken its toll on the cap though, and now’s the chance to try and buy him a new one.

First, though, it’s the moment to find a crab sandwich – our favourite seafront fare. We serendipitously find a spare waterfront table in a delightful shady café, to do just that.

And then, can we find the right shop? Or another one selling the same merchandise? The chances look slim; many shops have changed hands since we were here last. I walk straight past a small shop front crowded with sea shells and souvenirs. But Robert looks more closely and spots one of these caps, lying dusty and folded flat at the bottom of a display basket. He tries it on. Alas, it’s too big. The stooped elderly man behind the counter tells us that he has been running this business for 60 years, and he’s sold Breton sailor’s caps (ah, so this is what they are!) for all this time. But now he can’t get hold of any more. ‘So this is the last one?,’ we ask. ‘I might just have another one,’ he says. And he does, and it’s the right size. Mission accomplished.

‘Twas a good day out on the English Riviera! Whether you come by train, as this poster suggests, or as we did, by boat.

What’s Coming Up

I usually leave the next blog post as a surprise – a nice one, I hope! But I think it’s worthwhile giving a heads up as to what’s on the menu for the next month, given that summer is a scattered kind of time, when we often ditch our usual routines and reading habits.

We’ll be staying in the South West, next time. On August 22nd, I’ll be inviting you to climb on Old Uncle Tom Cobleigh’s horse, and take a ride to Widecombe Fair. The Fair is a great joy, and one of Dartmoor’s finest traditions, but alas has been cancelled for this year. So I thought we could enjoy it virtually.

Then on September 5th, we move just a little over the border into Cornwall, to meet the Pixie of Bude – no, not a post about fairies, but about Pamela Colman Smith, nicknamed Pixie. Pamela is the artist who painted the world’s most famous Tarot pack, usually known as the Rider-Waite pack. And yet her own life and art is little known. She spent the final part of her life in Bude, where at last the Museum has recognised her work. It was a little info board in the museum which sparked my interest to look into her further – those of you who are regular readers will know that the Tarot is one of my themes.

I could tell you what will happen after that – but plans may change, so I’ll keep it under wraps for the time being!

You may also be interested in:

Seduction, Sin and Sidmouth: An Ancestor’s Scandal

Summer is a’Coming Today! May Day in Padstow

Refugee Ancestors: A Huguenot Family in Devon

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