Saturday, 23 January 2016

Starting at Start Point

I haven't mentioned a walk for a while. Not because we haven't walked, we have, but because those we have done have been wet, wet, wet and my camera stayed in its bag. Yesterday, however, we had a dry walk and the camera came out. We met our friends at Torcross in South Devon and then did an up and downy 5 miler circumnavigating Start Point. It seemed like ages since we'd walked along the coast and it also seemed like ages since we'd walked without the rain pelting down. Lots to see on this walk and a part of the region that we visit infrequently. We ought to try and get down that way more often as it's only 90 minutes from home. So close but so different to Cornwall in many ways.
Start Point is not quite the most southerly point in Devon, that accolade goes to nearby Prawle Point. The name "Start" comes from an Anglo-Saxon word steort, meaning a tail. Bird (and word) lovers will be interested to know that this root also appears in the names of birds with distinctive tails, like the redstart.
Just over the road from our meeting place (but not our starting point for the walk) lies the expanse of Slapton Sands. A great place for sun (?), swimming and fishing. Also a place with a lot of history. During the planning for the D-Day landings in WW2 someone noticed that Utah Beach in Normandy, the designated target for US troops, was very similar to Slapton Sands. This lead to Exercise Tiger in 1944, a full dress rehearsal for the actual landings. Unfortunately things did not go according to plan and this resulted in a tragedy that remained secret until well into the 1980s/1990s.
The Sherman Tank shown above forms the memorial to the almost 700 soldiers lost during Exercise Tiger. On the face of it, it was quite straightforward. All those involved would get on the appropriate Landing Ship Tanks (LSTs) and form one convoy in Lyme Bay. From there they would sail to Slapton Sands, the approximate time it would take to make the crossing to Utah Beach on D-Day, and then have a practice invasion. Unfortunately the convoy’s intended escort, HMS Scimitar, was kept in port for repairs.  The only other British ship with the convoy was the Royal Navy Corvette Azalea.  Also, unknown to the LSTs' communications room, a typographical error was made on the radio frequency for the ships to be informed of enemy activity in the English Channel.
    Suddenly, German E-Boats armed with torpedoes approached the convoy and began firing on the ships, sinking several of the troop-carrying LSTs. Soldiers carrying their heavy gear in backpacks did not receive instructions on the proper use of their life preservers and approximately 700 drowned.  Those who survived were taken to various established and temporary hospitals.  They were told never to speak of what happened under threat of court martial because of the secrecy required for D-Day and the secrecy was kept for many years after the war.
Looking up the coast northward across Start Bay. You may notice a couple of cottages on the cliffs at Hallsands and think "mmm, they are in a very precarious position". You'd be right but more of the story later on.
Start Point lighthouse, established in 1836, electrified in 1952 and automated in 1992. Just in case anyone is wondering, my book gives the following facts about the mechanics of the light:
It's a soulless person who gains no pleasure from sunlight shimmering on the sea.
The small beach at Mattiscombe Sands. A good place to swim but not easy to get to. 
I was not sure exactly how the box was reliant on the car parker's honesty. For its existence? If so, this had manifestly failed as there was so sign of any box.
Here we are looking down on the remains of the village of Hallsands, which has a uniquely interesting and tragic history. On the viewing platform, which is as close as you can get now, there is a very good set of information boards explaining what happened. In a nutshell: in 1894, the Royal Navy wanted to extend Devonport Dockyard, for which they needed vast quantities of shingle for concrete making. In 1897, they started dredging at Hallsand and so much was taken that the beach level dropped between 7 and 12 feet, undermining the cliffs. The winters of 1902/03 produced major storms which damaged the sea wall and houses and the pub collapsed (the rebuilding of which by the three Trout sisters is a fascinating story). By 1917, the village had been destroyed and virtually abandoned. To make matter worse, it seems that the Government cheated the villagers out of compensation due to them. Which is consistent with the way in which they were duped right from the start with promises that nothing deleterious would be caused by the dredging.
A photograph of one of the information boards shows Hallsands village before the problems started.
Every now and again on our walks along the Coastal Footpath we'll come across isolated stands of trees forming a tunnel. The twisted trucks always form fascinating patterns.
A rather spectacularly wind-sculpted tree, forming an arch over the path.
And back along the coast to our starting point just above the lighthouse.

1 comment:

Brian Champness said...

A remarkable story, told with feeling.