I’m told that Start Bay has many stories old and new to fire the imagination. So I delved into the history behind that gentle sweeping curve to find tales of secret wartime exercises, piracy, the lost village of Hallsands, and proof of ancient geological formations and exotic animals.
Standing in the middle of the bay, on the golden shingle beach of Slapton Sands, I try to imagine the events that have shaped this beautiful area. Looking right I see the bold outline of Start Point Lighthouse sitting on its rugged peninsula. Exciting phrases like ‘white horses’ and ‘tidal race’ are used for the waters which meet at the tip of Start Point, The Skerries. These are dangerous waters for shipping, with many wrecks still lying under the churning waves. I think of the keepers of long ago tending their single warning light for ships at sea. Now the automated lights dutifully swing round three times every 10 seconds, and can even be seen from Dittiscombe valley on a clear night, 6 miles inland as the crow flies! Pirates too were a part of this landscape; folklore has it that many perished on the rocks below the lighthouse, lashed to them and left to drown as the tide advanced. Today these special waters protect delicate marine species such as the grandly named yellow staghorn sponge and more delicate pink sea fan. Quite rightly Skerries Bank is now a designated Marine Conservation Zone.
I look left and spot the distant Mewstone, the rocky throne of grey seals and the entrance to Dartmouth harbour. I think I can hear the sea birds calling from its top-most pinnacle. But can my imagination stretch back 10,000 years, to a time when this area would be grazed by Elephants, Hyenas and giant Deer? The interesting rock shapes that I now see, especially at Strete Gate at the Western end of the Bay, were created by glacial movements, a tropical sea, and the weathering of the land. Rocks were formed, compressed, folded and shaped over hundreds of millions of years. Today many Geology and Geography students from around Britain stay at the Slapton Field Study Centre to probe, dig, measure and discover the different types of rocks on view. Around the same time as the animals grazed, rising sea levels brought climate change (yes, that old nut!) so the shingle beach now stretches around the bay forming a very convenient ridge, and freshwater from the River Gara creates Slapton Ley, a National Nature Reserve and a fabulous habitat for feeding and breeding migrant and resident birds.
This area has not only given up its secrets to geologists, but to historians too. The shadow of war descended on Start Bay in 1943 when the area around Slapton was evacuated for top-secret D-Day landing practices, known as Exercise Tiger, but which ended in tragedy. Residents were given six weeks to move themselves, their possessions, their livestock and pets from the area. This was a turbulent time and many families, tradesmen and farmers did not return. Unsuspecting visitors may wonder why a Sherman Tank stands in Torcross village car park: it was dredged from the Bay some years ago to honour the servicemen who perished here, and marks the importance of Start Bay to the Allies’ preparations for D-Day.
Not only have world events shaped this Bay: the full force of winter storms and tides took two villages from the coastline – Strete Undercliffe at the end of the 18th Century and Hallsands more recently in 1917. The ghostly ruins of Hallsands, now stranded and teetering on the cliff face, has its own visitor board to share its story with passing walkers. This stormy relationship with the sea continues today as further strong currents drag large swathes of shingle both out to sea and back into shore, battering any small cottages, cafes and pubs in its wake – a stark reminder of the power of the sea.
Looking at the clear and deep blue-green water of the Bay it’s easy for me to imagine the large shoals of pilchards, grey mullet and sardines which were a regular catch in community nets at Beesands. Now crabs and lobsters are caught in pots, the empty ones stacked by the fishing sheds where the giant eel bait ominously hangs on the drying racks. Start Bay crabs are famously the best and biggest in Britain, a good crab can reach 8lbs(3.5 kilos), with the South Devon Crab Festival now a well established date in the foodies diary.You can crack a crab yourself at The Shack on the Beach then take the South West Coast Path to Start Point Lighthouse and find the ‘lost village of Hallsands’ along the way.
So much history, old and new, is crammed into this small but perfectly formed piece of coastline. It’s been shaken and stirred over millennia, but today I recommend you take a quiet moment by the water’s edge to feel the space, look out to sea and enjoy the natural beauty surrounding you.
Start Bay is about 3 miles from Dittiscombe so you don’t need to go far to experience this exotic and historic piece of local coastline. You can take the walk to Slapton Sands beach, around 1½ hours from your cottage door. This lovely walk includes historic Slapton village and Slapton Ley. Make a day of it! To book a holiday or short break, and to learn more about Start Bay, visit the Dittiscombe Holiday Cottages website.