Cycling on a tight budget
I set off from Stoke Fleming determined to make it the fifty or so miles to Plymouth, and after last night’s extravagance, just as determined to survive on snacks from my panniers alone.
The early morning began with a freewheel downhill to Slapton, via Blackpool Sands. It’s a route I know very well, having camped nearby with the family many times. We first discovered Blackpool Sands in 2003, after I lost my temper on the beach at Dawlish, about thirty miles back towards Exeter. It had been a hot day, and the beach at Dawlish was packed, strewn with discarded beer cans, as well as throngs of teenagers playing loud music. I lasted about fifteen minutes before gathering up blankets, picnics and water bottles and bundling everyone back into the car. I announced that we would drive for as long as it took to find the beach of our dreams. It turned out that the beach of our dreams was Blackpool Sands. The approach by car from above this beautiful, sheltered cove is as stunning as the beach itself. Ask any child to draw a picture of their perfect beach, and it’s likely that Blackpool Sands is what they will draw.
After my experience at Dawlish, I knew I had arrived at the right place the moment we got out of the car. As we walked onto the sand, the first words I heard came from an elderly, grey haired man in an olive-green deckchair, who asked:
Do you think it’s too early for a gin and tonic?
My sort of beach.
After Blackpool Sands, the road to Torcross runs along a narrow strip of land, separating the freshwater lake of Slapton Ley from the beach at Start Bay. Torcross itself is a small, attractive seaside town with a harrowing history. It was evacuated in 1943, along with many other villages in the area, to make way for 15,000 allied troops who needed the area to practise for the D-Day landings.
In the early hours of 28 April 1944, nine German torpedo boats intercepted a three-mile-long convoy of vessels travelling from the Isle of Portland to Slapton Sands to undertake landing rehearsals for D-Day. Two tank landing ships were sunk, and 946 American servicemen died. Poor communications led to badly timed shelling on the beach, killing about 300 more men. Over 1,000 lives were lost over the course of the operation, most of them through US Army friendly fire.
A Sherman amphibious tank and several plaques stand at Torcross car park between Slapton Ley and the beach as memorials to the men who lost their lives.
I was dreading the route out of Torcross towards Start Point lighthouse, because I remember it being extremely hilly. I’m not sure whether I was getting fitter, or had simply been mistaken, but it didn’t seem quite as arduous as I remembered. And with the hill behind me, I found myself on the prettiest of fern-lined lanes, with the occasional glimpse of the sea to my left, and typical Devon pasture to my right.
Reaching the car park on the headland above Start Point, a mist had descended. By the time I had walked down to the lighthouse itself, I was in thick fog. I didn’t see the lighthouse at all until I was within fifty feet, and its foghorn punctuated the otherwise peaceful surroundings.
I’ve dragged my children around this lighthouse many times, but I will never tire of the view from the tower. You can see the entire length of Start Bay as far as Dartmouth in the distance. You also get a decent view of what remains of Hallsands, a small fishing harbour lost to the sea in 1917 following extensive dredging offshore for sand and gravel for the construction of the naval dockyard at Keyham, near Plymouth.
Start Point is one of the most exposed peninsulas on the English coast, with a sharp headland running almost a mile out to sea on the south side of Start Bay. The approach to the lighthouse is via a narrow track carved out of the rock face, barely wide enough for a vehicle.
The lighthouse, sited at the very end of the headland, was designed by James Walker in 1836. Constructed of granite, its tower is 92 feet tall and of gothic design, with a castellated balcony immediately below the lantern room. Originally, two white lights were exhibited, one revolving and one fixed to mark the Skerries Bank. A fixed red subsidiary light still marks this hazard today. Nowadays the lighthouse displays a group flashing light, three times every ten seconds, which is visible for eighteen miles.
An insight into the lighthouse and the life of its keepers in the nineteenth century is given in a travelogue by Walter White:
‘A substantial house, connected with the tall circular tower, in a walled enclosure, all nicely whitened, is the residence of the light-keepers. The buildings stand within a few yards of the verge of the cliff, the wall serving as a parapet, from which you look down on the craggy slope outside and the jutting rocks beyond – the outermost point. You may descend by the narrow path, protected also by a low white wall, and stride and scramble from rock to rock with but little risk of slipping, so rough are the surfaces with minute shells. A rude steep stair, chipped in the rock, leads down still lower to a little cove and a narrow strip of beach at the foot of the cliffs. It is the landing place for the lighthouse keepers when they go fishing, but can only be used in calm weather.’
Coastal erosion resulted in the collapse of the fog signal building in 1989, which was replaced with a free-standing fog signal stack. The lighthouse was automated in 1993, and nowadays the former keepers’ cottages are available as holiday lets.
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) May 24, 2015
Leaving Start Point, I knew that the thirty miles or so on to Plymouth were going to be tough, with as many as ten climbs of 300 feet or more. But time was on my side, for the moment at least. To make up for the previous evening’s indulgence, I was determined not to spend any money at all today. I’d avoided the fee at the Start Point car park by walking my bike alongside me. Lunch had comprised flapjacks and tea from my own supplies, and I reckoned on being able to do the same for supper. After an hour of excruciatingly slow progress, I got a text message from the Thompsons, lovely friends from Kent, who were themselves staying with farming friends near Yealmpton, just a few miles ahead of me. Jo had been following my progress avidly, and was proving to be a big fan.
As I reached the driveway to a lovely Devon farmhouse, I was met with colourful streams of bunting, balloons, Jo’s children Jessie and Edward, as well as Jo herself, beaming her infectious smile. This was a regular May half-term fixture for the Thompsons, and seeing handfuls of children running excitedly around the farm, I wondered for a moment whether I had somehow transported myself into the plot of an Enid Blyton children’s story. Jo’s farming friends (Stuart and Jo) were lovely, and insisted that I stayed for supper. Where just an hour earlier I had planned a supper of a cereal bar and a mug of tea, now I was sitting down to a substantial and wonderfully cooked roast dinner. It was nearly eight o’clock when we finished, and I got up, reluctantly, to leave. Stuart suggested I stayed overnight, but I was keen to press on. Kind as the offer was, I suddenly felt a wave of sadness come over me, together with guilt that I was enjoying time with two lovely families when perhaps I should be spending it with my own. I sobbed almost all the last ten miles into Plymouth, and I remember very little about my surroundings. Emily had phoned ahead and found me a cheap hotel. It was a little basic, but after the extravagance of the previous evening I didn’t mind a bit. Besides, I was right on the harbour, just a few hundred metres from the ferry to Brittany, and with dozens of fixed and flashing lights visible from my bedroom window.