Photograph: Loop Images Ltd / Alamy
At least once in your lifetime, descend from Strete to Torcross village and look down on the pebble ridge that separates the fresh water of Slapton Ley from the pebble beach of Slapton Sands.
Turn towards the sea and gaze out to sea at Start Bay where, in March 2017, a humpback whale hung around for nearly six weeks, causing awe in the crowds it drew day after day. It is there that every summer, for a week in August or July, shoals of mackerel flow across the bay and a frenzy of white lures, fleeing the terror of mackerel, choose certain death instead of life as prey and launch themselves out of the bay. water and on the shore.
Turning south, you can walk along the coast passing from Beesands to Hallsands where, in 1917, 24 houses fell into the sea: a lost village and a fall that still looms large in local memory, speaking of the unaccounted for ecological cost, or so the history goes, of pebbles dredged from the bay in the 1890s and 1900s to support the construction of shipyards in Devonport. The expensive long queue of empire and mining that now confronts surrounding settlements, increasingly exposed to erratic weather conditions and escalating coastal erosion.
When you reach the lighthouse at Start Point, observe which way the wind blows on the sea surface and look towards the Skerries, an underwater coral reef made of sand and shells that is a favorite haunt of sea bass and plaice and, with them, local fishermen who over the generations have honed their skills here before venturing farther across the Atlantic and to the cod-rich waters off the coast of Newfoundland.
Looking through this panorama, the whole great geopolitical history of who has had the opportunity to develop their economy and at the expense of who, and who has become the powerhouse of industry and who has become the debtor, is almost distinguishable from here.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, Devon wool would be traded in Portugal for Madeira wine, which would travel well across the ocean and get a high price in South America. This would have been exchanged for sugar and rum, produced on the backs of enslaved African labor plantations in the Caribbean, which would then be returned to England for a large profit or brought to North America for cod which, in turn, would be brought back here. .
My heart rate slows and my breathing gets deeper every time I see the view over this bay, and yours might too, as you plan the walk along the coastal path from the Slapton Middle parking lot to the lighthouse and back – a fantastic ride like another that i know to transcend a sense of self. A time to think about the planetary timeline that we too live in, between school runs and deadlines.
The rocks along the bay were formed about four hundred million years ago. There are wave-cut platforms at Start Point that date back to around 150,000 years ago, like when homo sapiens could have started talking. We arrived in Devon just over 40,000 years ago and in fact the oldest known human remnant in Britain – a prehistoric jaw – was found in a cave system in Torquay only about 20 miles higher than the it costs. It is now on display in the museum there.
That ridge of Lake Slapton Ley was created by the sea that retreated when the last ice age ended about 10,000 years ago. When the ice melted, the sea came back in, pushing the pebble to where it is now and has been for around 3,000 years. The ridge dammed the streams that flowed from the River Gara, creating the lake, which is now the largest stretch of freshwater in South West England.
In the 1830s, when compensatory payments made to slave owners following the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire drove the purchase of land and the worship of second homes throughout South Devon, it became more fashionable to go on vacation to the sea. An inn was built here which would be designed by its most famous host, the son and heir of Queen Victoria [later Edward VII], such as the Royal Sands Hotel, selling Slapton Ley’s exclusive fishing rights for rudd, roach and perch until World War II. In 1943, Start Bay’s 3,000 residents were evacuated and its 30,000 acres seized for subsequent evidence of the Normandy landings. A minefield was laid all around the hotel to make the evidence more realistic, only to be blown up by a stray dog. He left the building in ruins and the poor dog dead. The trials claimed the lives of 750 Allied soldiers here at Slapton Sands before anyone got close to the enemy.
My heartbeat slows down and my breathing gets deeper every time I see the view over this bay
I first washed here with my then girlfriend on a May bank holiday in 2015. We parked at what was once the site of the Royal Sands Hotel and walked up to the beach, climbing the Torcross steps before go around the cliff and go down again. We got into the water somewhere near the limp rocks and then continued (overland again) to Beesands where we had a pint at the Cricket Inn and takeaway chips from Britannia and then climbed up the rocks when the tide came in. in.
We enjoyed the day trip so much that when we returned to Devon the following February with a six month old, new team member, we did it all again. Even though there is a bite to the sea at that time of year, we have learned that if you walked in, you went out again, then came back in, out again, then back in – on that third attempt you could relax a little and put up with it. You may linger there and know that strong feeling of the ocean’s winter chill as it thins your blood.
Later, however, there would be the reward of seeing a rainbow drifting towards us over the open water and towards the sea wall as we stood outside the Cricket Inn and had a pint of beer. Only water and light and the movement of air, but we are in the presence of something that looks like a miracle.