SHEDNOTES 136: COULD THE NEXT REVOLUTION START IN SOUTH DEVON?

The Shed has a new line, reviewing books with a West Country angle, and for the purposes of cross-references to this blog, needs to post the following.

Tom Fort

Tom Fort: Watch out Salcombe

The writer Tom Fort has just published Channel Shore, an enjoyable report on his exploration, by bicycle, of the coast between the white cliffs of Kent, where the North Sea becomes the Channel, and Lands End. The book is published by Simon & Schuster and is currently available in hardback at £14.99 and as an e-book at £9.49.

In the Devon section, Fort says:

** SIDMOUTH “has pursued a strategy of discreet exclusion of the lower orders, by the simple expedient of refusing to provide any of the amenities and amusements that the lower orders expect”.

** LADRAM BAY “unspoiled must have been extraordinary … until the great host of caravans spilled down towards the sea and across the flanking slopes. It is irredeemably blighted, yet it gives great pleasure to countless holidaymakers who would never have a place at one of Sidmouth’s plush hotels.”

** BUDLEIGH SALTERTON “is a seaside town … but in no sense a seaside resort, because there is almost nowhere to stay. As recently as the 1960s there as many as thirteen hotels on or near the seafront. Following the closure of the railway in 1967 they were all demolished to make way for flats, or were converted into flats, nursing homes or residential homes”.

** EXMOUTH blogger Wayland Wordsmith has unearthed a good story from a local interview, in 1918, with an Australian inventor called Thomas Mills, who was staying at the Imperial Hotel while working on his plan to train seagulls to find U-boats …

“To that end he had constructed a dummy submarine with an imitation periscope from which food congenial to seagulls was expelled at intervals. His plan was to get the association between periscope and nourishment lodged in their avian brains … and then to send them to locate the real things. The Admiralty gave Mr Mills some encouragement, but not much. Mr Mills vented his spleen in a book to which he gave the arresting title The Fateful Seagull.”

** Brunel’s railway along the DAWLISH coast was a mistake from the start …

“It cheated the town of its seafront and became a kind of psychic prison fence between it and its sea. The building of it displayed the contempt of Victorian entrepreneurs and their engineers for the interest of local people, and the preservation of landscape, at its most gross. Brunel dismissed any suggestion that the storm-driven seas beating at his embankment would cause trouble.”

** ODDICOMBE, the beach below BABBACOMBE, TORQUAY, was the inspiration for a series of books by Victorian naturalist Henry Gosse which kicked off a national interest in rock-pooling. Before he died in 1888, Gosse “came bitterly to regret his part in the invasion of the shore by ‘crinoline and collecting jar’. ‘You may search all the likely rocks within reach of Torquay,’ he wrote, ‘and come home with an empty jar and an aching heart’.”

** TORQUAY historian Kevin Dixon blames a 1964 film called The System, starring a young Oliver Reed, for two significant changes to Devon culture. The first was the “beatnik invasion” of the coast, which began with teenagers who liked the film. The second was the adoption of “grockles” as a derogatory term for tourists …

“Dixon records that a swimming pool attendant in Torquay referred to an elderly female swimmer as The Grockle, because she reminded him of a dragon so named in a cartoon in the Dandy comic. It caught on among locals and was picked up by the film’s scriptwriters.”

** Isadora Duncan was staying in PAIGNTON when she wrote:

“In an English summer it rains all day long. The English people do not seem to mind. They have an early breakfast of eggs and bacon and ham and kidneys and porridge. Then they don mackintoshes and go forth into the humid country until lunchtime, when they eat many courses ending with Devonshire cream.”

** It was a BRIXHAM invention, the beam trawl, which started industrial-scale fishing …

“In the 1830s a Brixham skipper, James Stubbs, fishing out of Hull, dropped his gear into the Silver Pit, a deep hole near the Dogger Bank, and took four thousand sole in a single trawl. In a classic illustration of the destructive potential of new technology, the Silver Pit was soon being fished night and day; the price of sole fell to five shillings a truckload and within three years the location was fished out. Brixham boats and skippers led the expansion into the fabulous cod grounds of Iceland.”

** SLAPTON LEY was once famous for an annual coot shoot, which killed up to 1700 birds in a day, and for fantastic catches of pike and perch, but …

“Alas there are no boats on the Ley any more, no fishermen, no fishing. The bird lobby, in the ascendant as usual, has decreed that the mating of great-crested grebes and other sensitive species would be disturbed. The birders with their ‘scopes and glasses and impregnable righteousness run the show. One consequence is that there is now no useful information about how the pike, perch, rudd, roach and eels are doing.”

** HALLSANDS, a village built into the cliffs of Start Bay, was ruined by reckless dredging of the seabed for construction materials for Devonport dockyard, starting in 1896 …

“By 1903 the fishermen’s slipway was three and a half feet above the beach; a year later, the drop was six feet. The sea wall had slipped forward, the road had collapsed and cottages nearest the sea were disintegrating. Thereafter each winter’s storms saw more of the village devoured, and in 1917 the decision was taken to abandon it altogether. Even as Hallsands was literally sliding to oblivion, Board of Trade officials were still insisting it was all due to ‘natural causes’.”

** SALCOMBE revives the author’s revolutionary urges …

“The town is occupied by Genus salcombii, blonde women in skinny jeans and £200 haircuts engaged in deep conversations about school fees and au-pair problems; blokes in pastel polo shirts, shorts and canvas shoes, nodding over their smartphones or discussing the preposterous cost of property … To encounter them swanning along the narrow streets with their intensely tutored offspring, filling the air with their Sloanese drawling, is to feel again for a moment the keen longing to change the world.”

The trek pauses at Bigbury for a reflection on the pilchard harvest, which was once a staple of survival from there to Penzance, then skips past Plymouth into Cornwall. Like many before him, the author finds Land’s End itself an anti-climax …

“I wondered how it could be that this famous place had been allowed to become and remain such a trashy dump.”

fort map

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