Saturday, 31 July 2021

Start Point, Hallsands and Slapton Sands

I find it an often remarkable aspect of familiarity with ones own local area that it is easy to overlook the interesting and noteworthy places of interests and beauty that are right on ones own doorstep, often travelling hundreds and even thousands of miles to explore a part of the world that has long been on the 'old bucket list' of must see places at the expense of seeing a place only a few miles from ones own doorstep.

The Nymphe vs Cléopâtre 18th June 1793, off Start Point - Donald MacLeaod
The header to my post looking at my French Revolutionary frigate and brig
All at Sea - Early Revolutionary War French Frigate & Brig

I had an occasion in the last week to notice such an omission on my own part whilst writing a post for this blog, concerning my current project focussed on my collection of 1:700th age of sail ships, and specifically my post looking at my recent additions of a French Revolutionary War frigate and brig; which as part of the post described an action from that early period of the war when French warships carried their white and tricolour cantonment ensigns, specifically the action between the frigates HMS Nymphe and the MNF Cléopâtre fought off Start Point on the 18th June 1793.

In the post, that can be read in the link above, I outlined the action, fought about eighteen miles off Start Point in Devon, its most southerly point, realising as I typed the sentence that I had in all my years living and working in Devon never been there and immediately thinking of an opportunity to make a visit.

Start Point is indeed the most southerly part of the county of Devon and its proximity particularly to Cherbourg and northern France, just across the Channel together with its location next to Start Bay links it to some very key moments in British and World military history 

I have visited the area lots of times, especially following up on my interest in Exercise Tiger, the US practice landings on Slapton Sands, prior to D-Day in April 1944, with the terrible loss of life from an E-boat attack originating out of, guess where, Cherbourg, the casualties suffered during the exercise from so called 'friendly fire' and the recovery of a US DD swimming tank, seen in the header to the post, in 1984 that now serves as a poignant memorial to the hundreds of young US servicemen that lost there lives here, many more than were lost on the Utah beach landing, for which these men were training.

Exercise Tiger

LST 289 seen in Dartmouth, close to Start Bay where we were walking and overlooking Slapton Sands, the training beach that the LST's were heading for the night they were attacked
Froward Point Walk - Brownstone Battery

I touched on Exercise Tiger in my post about our walk to Froward Point-Brownstone Battery above Dartmouth from where the US Landing ships originated and to where the survivors returned bearing the damage from their encounter in the dark waters of the English Channel.

A closer look at the area of Start Bay as we walked from the car park at the base of Start Point, out to the lighthouse at its very end then back along the coast to the destroyed village of Hallsands, before returning to the car to drive along Slapton Sands and home

However as interesting as Slapton and it surrounds are, historically, it was to Start Point Carolyn and I were headed, or more precisely the car park at the base of it, to walk out along the old lighthouse keepers path, to the lighthouse, built in 1836 and costing £5,892 over the two year build to construct its ninety-two foot high tower.

A panoramic view of Start Bay from the Start Point car-park 

A closer look from Start Point of Slapton Sands, with Slapton Ley, the fresh water lake behind the sea road. The beach was selected for US forces to train on due to its similarity to the beaches on the Utah sector, and the whole area which extended several miles inland was commandeered by the military, with the civilian population evacuated from their homes in Slapton, seen on the right among the trees, to allow live firing exercises from troops and warships  

Slapton Sands, centre-right and Beesands, nearer to camera

Start Point Lighthouse seen peaking above the headland from the carpark

Originally housing an oil lamp visible for some twenty-one nautical miles, the lighthouse was converted to electric in 1959 increasing its visibility to nearer twenty-five nautical miles, and was automated in 1993, with the lightkeepers accommodation now converted to a very unique holiday cottage let out to visitors.

As we set out on the path to the lighthouse we looked back to see the ghostly remains of the shattered village of Hallsands destroyed by the sea in 1917.

As we headed out to the lighthouse we were able to look back along the cliffs to see our next place to visit, the lost village of Hallsands, destroyed by the sea on the night of the 26th January 1917 after 660,000 tonnes of sand and ballast was dredged up from the nearby seabed over the previous eighteen years to be used to extend the naval dockyard in Plymouth, but ended up removing the natural protective barrier for Hallsands and nearby Beesands from the stormy winter seas that frequent the bay.

We had the most perfect day to enjoy our walk out to Start Point Lighthouse

As well as glancing back to Hallsands my gaze was inevitably drawn to the horizon beyond the many sailing yachts in the bay to approximately where I imagined the action fought between the British frigate Nymphe under Captain Sir Edward Pellew and the French frigate Cléopâtre under the defiant Captain Jean Mullon, also sailing out of Cherbourg.

Nicholas Pocock's interpretation of the action between Nymphe and Cléopâtre clearly shows Start Point jutting out in the background and gives a hint as to where to gaze out on the horizon to imagine the sound of gunfire echoing across Start Bay with the occasional flash amid white smoke as the two frigates battled away

My recent interpretation of MFN Cléopâtre

No fighting frigates today, just pleasure sailors enjoying perfect July summer weather for sailing, but if Pocock's interpretation above is right, Sir Edward Pellew and the Nymphe triumphed at the top centre of this picture. Let's hope Sir Edward was involved in the drawing of the depiction.

The South Hams, as this part of Devon is known, is a glorious picture at this time of the year and this coastline made us both feel very lucky to live in such a beautiful part of the country.

The Lightkeepers house below the tower now available as a holiday let.

Having checked out the lighthouse we retraced our steps to follow the South West Coastal Path along to Hallsands, a wrecked village Carolyn and I last visited before we were married, which, as it is our wedding anniversary this week, is over thirty-three years ago!

The magnificent vista of Start Bay from beside the lighthouse on the most southerly extent of the County of Devon

As we made our way back to the carpark we took note of the wildlife enjoying, it seemed, the locality just as much as us.

The path was frequented by a lot of Gatekeeper Butterflies, that seem to be extremely common this summer

There has over recent years been a concerted effort by farmers and local authorities to return wild meadows and roadside land to wild flowers and grasses in an effort to encourage more of the natural fauna to return to the Devon countryside and, if the number of butterflies and the wild flowers they need to feed on is anything to go by, it seems to be having an effect.

As a keen bird-watcher when out and about, it is easy to ignore what is commonly referred to as just another 'LBJ' or 'Little Brown Job', but that would be a mistake as my eye was drawn to a flock of these seemingly shy chaps or should I say 'chapesses' when I recognised what turned out to be Linnets or Carduelis cannabina, with this female posing long enough to get a long range shot with the telephoto at full extension, something I was rather proud of once I got these pictures home.

I like to keep my field guide to hand, often in the glove box of the car, for times like this just to confirm what I think I've seen and given how shy these birds were it was great fun identifying them later.

The best shot of the day as one of the female Linnet's perched perfectly against the rocks, if a very long way away for my camera, but I ended up with this almost perfect shot.

The walk along the cliff path above Hallsands was equally as stunning with the occasional Devon-Red cow on the path to keep things interesting, but also some amazingly shaped trees illustrating the power of the prevailing winds to shape nature.

A perfect arch, shaped by the wind

The path above Hallsands with Beesands and Slapton Sands seen on the curve of the bay

As we reached the end of the path above Hallsands we found a memorial to the tragedy that left 128 people homeless, but fortunately no loss of life, as the storm smashed and destroyed the twenty-nine houses, pub, stables and post office that made up this thriving little, turn of the century, Devon fishing village.

The centenary memorial to the destruction of Hallsands sits on the cliff path above the former fishing village

We were somewhat surprised to see that you can no longer access the ruins, but peering over the fence from the viewing platform above the former village the reason was obvious, with the path leading down to the few remaining inhabited buildings, next to the shells of those destroyed in 1917, completely undermined by the force of the sea, leaving what remains hanging precariously over the exposed rocks below.

Beyond the remaining inhabited cottages are the ruins of Hallsands as was

A picture of the villain responsible for the death of Hallsands, as identified in the 1924 public enquiry, Sir John Jackson, in charge of the dredging and construction work, shown here with a map of the village and the names of the families that were living in the houses taken by the sea.

These two before and after the dredging work pictures show its effects on the village to cause the beach in front of it to be eroded by the heavy seas, exposing underlying rock foundations and threatening the buildings such as this cottage to damage from a high storm driven sea which eventually happened in 1917.

19th century photos and the illustration above give an impression of Hallsands with its crab and lobster pots littering the beach to its front, now gone, also ripped away by the force of the sea, exposing the underlying rocks seen today

Working our way back to the car along the cliff path, I was keen to conclude our day with another visit to a now famous Devon War Memorial, namely the Sherman DD (Duplex-Drive) tank on Slapton Sands beach front, and an opportunity to put some coins in the memorial box before heading home.

I well remember back in 1984, watching the local television news coverage, as the long campaign by local resident Ken Small to rescue a sunken Sherman tank that was known to local fishermen to be lying on the seabed off Slapton Sands, came to fruition, in the dark and under TV floodlighting, as the massive tank was dragged from his resting place up on to the beach on which it had been intending to land on some forty years previously during the American pre D-Day practice run, Exercise Tiger.

Practice for the eventual landing at Utah Beach, but seeing more men lost at Slapton than in the real thing!

Ken Small had to buy the wreck off the US government for $50 before they would allow him to raise the vehicle and, through a combination of his efforts to contact US veterans and the international media attention, the US government finally acceded to popular demand to recognise the tank as an official US memorial to the servicemen lost during TIGER, and it stands today as a record of his perseverance to remember the sacrifice of the greatest generation.

This Sherman cast hull M4A1 displays the remains of its drive mechanism at the back that linked its drive sprockets via a gear arrangement to two small propellers that could be lowered once in the water to propel it along. The propellers are long gone along with its canvass floatation screen that would have been raised with pneumatic struts before entering the sea from its landing craft, however close examination here shows the remains of the metal skirt around the lower edge of the cast hull, that anchored the canvass screen.

In 2011, on a summer holiday to Normandy, Carolyn and I visited the fascinating Omaha Beach Museum of recovered tank and vehicle wrecks from the actual landing, during which American forces lost the majority of their DD Shermans, examples of which have been recovered and of which I took the four pictures seen below.

These tanks are exactly the same model as that recovered at Slapton and show similar effects from forty to fifty years under the sea and have more of the remains of their DD skirt still attached together with the propeller drive units seen at the back.

As you can see these Shermans are as they were the day they were abandoned on D-Day with the drivers and bow gunner hatches wide open as the drivers bailed out. The commander and the rest of the crew would have normally been stood on the engine deck before entering the tank just prior to landing.

This DD tank has a lot of the skirt still attached, with its bow deck practically intact if bent upwards as it crashed to the sea bed, and the attachments for the rubber tubes that raised the canvass screen still clearly visible along the side skirt. The gun is defiantly skyward as if about to loose off an HE shell before it sank.

The illustration below shows the rubber inner tubes that were pneumatically pumped up to raise the canvass screen when entering the water and swimming, with the simple release of pressure causing the screen to drop quickly to allow the tank to go into action on the waters edge.

Note the tiller bar behind the commander's turret hatch and poking above the screen, with a simple linkage to the two propellers to allow their direction to be adjusted to help steer the vehicle into the shore.

US troops practicing landing exercises on Slapton Sands in 1944

I find the memorial at Slapton very moving, every time I have visited it and always remember the accounts of the US troops abandoning their LST's during the E-boat attack, to dive into the sea with life belts on the wrong way, not having the time to familiarise themselves with their use; amid water on fire from burning fuel oil from the sinking ships and that many of the men were found later head down in the sea having been effectively drowned by their own life jackets, or with their helmets firmly strapped on but thus pulling their heads under the water, in their haste to abandon ship.

It is very hard today looking at the happy summer scene below, to imagine the events of nearly eighty years ago, and many of today's visitors to Slapton Sands will have no idea as to what happened here, and perhaps that is as it should be, and serves as the perfect memorial to the brave lads that died close to this beach, that indeed their sacrifice was not at all in vain.

Either way, later generations are able to enjoy days like this with a bit of carefree sun bathing on the beach and some of us to take notice of the events that put these places in the forefront of history, whilst doing so.


  1. Nice post, JJ. You DO live in a beautiful part of the world, and the Slapton Sands stories - loss of lives in the D-Day practice runs and the destruction of the village as a result of careless engineering are fascinating. Thanks for taking us on your walk.