Thursday, November 20, 2014

South West Coast Path: Paignton To Brixham

The beach at Paignton, looking north to Torquay.

Everyone had told me to go to Brixham for fresh fish, and since I really wanted to take a long walk along the coast, I decided to follow the South West Coast Path along the edge of the inlet. There are 630 miles of path in all, starting at Poole, near Bournemouth. Ferries run between this port almost due south to Cherbourg, in France, which is on another hiking path, one of the many Grandes Randonnées that crisscross the country. This one is GR-223 (the "Tour de Cotentin"), which runs for 270 miles along the northwest jut of land from Isigny-sur-Mer to Cherbourg to Mont St-Michel, a place I still want to visit some day. Kingsbridge, where I go once a week for a session of manual lymph drainage and a new supply of discounted produce from the local Tesco, is twinned with Isigny-sur-Mer.

Or I suppose you could say the South West Coast Path starts on the other side of the peninsula here, beyond both Dartmoor and Exmoor National Parks, at Minehead on the Bristol Channel. The two end points meet up at Land's End, in Penzance, Cornwall, the westmost point of mainland Britain, full of sea cliffs and surfers and offshore wind turbines, meat pasties and kittiwakes and people dressed as pirates.

Paignton to Torquay northward is a shorter walk, but much less interesting, and you have to follow roads more than paths. Scenic views plus fresh seafood drew me towards the southern route instead, out along the seafront past the Victorian colonnaded splendor of the Paignton Club, built in 1881 and still very popular for weddings and events. They're offering a Christmas Day lunch this year including Stilton and broccoli soup, smoked mackerel mousse on toast, roast turkey or beef (or a "nut roast" for vegetarians), and a traditional Christmas pudding for afters. Roundham Road rises up over the headland that shelters the harbor, and I walked up and over to look out over the next beachy cove at Goodrington Sands. I could have jogged left just off Roundham Road above the harbor along Cliff Road for a better view and the official start of the South West Coast Path out of Paignton, but I had heard there were some slippy areas after all the rain. The road continues down for those who are driving, but there's also a zig-zaggy paved path running down the cliffs to the beach.

When the tide's out, you can walk along the beach from north to south, but there's also a nice promenade, undoubtedly crowded on sunny summer Sundays but nearly deserted that day, except for the forklift trucks moving the now-emptied storage cabanas from their long lines along the shore into close-packed ranks in a parking lot on the other side of the railroad tracks. The path starts up again at the end of the beach. I walked under the railway line and started up and over the next headland.

There were several little rocky coves along the way to my left, and I saw more adventurous people with dogs hiking back up from them, but I didn't go down to explore. I stayed on the path, which climbs up through clearings and down into wooded areas and then up again, with the railway line to the left and houses to the right, then no houses at all, just fields and a few golf courses. One of the coves I didn't explore is Saltern Cove, which Wikipedia now informs me contains "a greatly disturbed Devonian sequence" (geology humor, Mom?). Another website mentions its "slump bed" and "coarse Permian fluvial breccias resting unconformably on Devonian slates and sandstones" which I read as "resting uncomfortably," which makes sense if the bed is slumping. It's also a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and the only nature reserve in Britain that lies both above and below the water.

Once up and over the high ground, the path descends again down a long steep slippery staircased slope that first parallels and then crosses under the Broadsands viaduct where the trains run. This arched stone bridge was built in 1860. I can't find any information on who built the viaduct, but all agree that it was built according to a design by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a man the BBC History site describes as "one of the most versatile and audacious engineers of the 19th century." He designed all of the viaducts and tunnels for the Great Western Railway network; the Dartmouth Steam Railway runs along a now-unconnected spur of the larger line system, from Paignton to Kingswear.

Broadsands beach looks like a good family beach, and there were indeed families there, enjoying what had turned into a somewhat less overcast day by that point. There was even an open concessions stand at the south end of the promenade, selling sodas and ice cream. I walked to the end of the beach, and then up to the top of Churston Point, another fairly steep climb - though only a gentle incline by the standards of the hardy souls who hike les Pyrénées Béarnaises, n'est-ce pas, Florence? From the top of the cliffs, I could look over to the entrance to Brixham harbour. I noticed odd black lines in the water, and took a photo of what I believe are the ropes for the mussel farms run by Brixham Sea Farms.

Churston Court has been sitting comfortably back from the edge of the cliffs since the 12th century, and the manor house is now the clubhouse for the Churston Golf Course. Baron Churston and his family haven't been peers nearly as long as that, though; the title was only created in 1858 (or 1790, if you're talking about the earlier Baronets of Churston Court). Through the magnetic forces that bring rich people together, the current Baron is now first cousin to His Highness Prince Shah Karim Al Hussaini Aga Khan, who is unimaginably wealthy and is the religious head of the Nizari Shi'ites, all 15 million of them worldwide, being a direct descendant of Mohammed. Or so it is said - I don't want to add to the millenia-old conflict between Shi'a and Sunni on this blog, so please avoid bloodshed in any discussions about the validity of his claim.

Speaking of bloodshed, Agatha Christie used to spend time in this area, at Greenway House about two miles further inland, on the River Dart. Some of her stories are set in and around this property, including at pretty little woods-encircled Elberry Cove, which is where the path took me next. Lord Churston built a bathing-house in the cove, and Ms. Christie enjoyed the quiet waters there. In "The A.B.C. Murders" someone meets his end there, though I won't say who, in case you've just started the book. There was a family there when I walked around the edge over the flat stones of the shingle beach; the man had a Geiger counter, and was perhaps looking for clues. The woman and the child were searching for pretty stones and shells and bits of whatever it is that children are interested in, or that women who are hoping to keep children entertained while men play with machines that go 'ping' are having those children look for.

And up again, through another stretch of woodland that runs almost level along the edge of Churston Golf Course, across the top neck of Fishcombe Point, and down to Churston Cove. That would have been a nice place to stop and look for pretty stones (as another family of three was doing by the water line) or - if the weather had been warmer - paddle about in the shallows, but my water bottle was empty, as was my stomach, and I knew that Brixham Harbour was just around the bend.

"And here must be noticed, what is certainly a special feature in our sins this day. I do not say exclusively of this day, but certainly more than ordinarily apparent amongst us; - I mean, our making religion itself a matter of dissension; - our spending our zeal and our strength in disputes with each other, instead of in the great work of advancing God's kingdom, first in our own hearts, and then in the hearts of others. While we are disputing who is right and who is wrong; about this person or that; what is such an one's tendencies, and what he will do; souls are perishing around us, and our own are in imminent danger. Look at the fact as it is. Our religion, instead of binding us together, is the most fruitful source of our dissensions."

- from "National Sins and National Judgements" (1847) by William Dodsworth, a Church of England minister who converted to Catholicism but was not able to become a priest, being married to Elizabeth, sister of the first Baron Churston

The concrete steps added on the south end of the cove by which I went down turned into steps carved into the rocks themselves leading out again, up one last steep (truly steep this time) trail leading to the first houses of the town, and what used to be a large parking lot that was full of construction workers and what looked like half-built apartment blocks.

Brixham has always been a busy place. There are traces of settlements dating back to Celtic and Roman times, and it was probably one of the major trading posts along this stretch of coastline. Fishing has naturally been a large part of the economy, and up until 1870 it was the largest center of commercial fishing in Devon, until it was overtaken by Plymouth. Wagons and later trains took the some of the catch inland to Exeter and Bath, and hundreds of ships took the rest to Portsmouth, where boatloads of seafood were shipped up to London.

All of the people in the industries that supported the fishermen - boat builders, sailmakers, woodworkers and chandlers and ropemakers - made a good living directly or indirectly from the sea. Smugglers and pirates found less acceptable, if often easier, ways to bring in money.

On land, people worked in the limestone quarries and in mining ochre. Powdered ochre was used to waterproof the sails of fishing vessels, and in 1845 a local Brixham chemist discovered that adding ochre to paint made a rustproof coating for iron; production of that paint employed people for the next hundred years.

At the beginning of the 19th century Brixham had about 3,500 inhabitants and was the largest town in Torbay. The fishing industry went into a decline entre-deux-guerres, and the population went with it. Tourism and fishing have both picked up since then, and at the beginning of the 21st century there were over 17,000 people living there. Much money is being put into redevelopment of the fisheries and into making Brixham the place for plaice, as it were. UK chef Mitch Tonks, who lives in Brixham, will be opening a branch of his Rockfish restaurant chain there next year. There are already several good places to eat fresh fish in town, as the Paigntonites know. The town is at the crossroads of several popular trails, including the South West Coast Path.

Note to Torbay Council PR team - I'm available for writing brochures and other publicity. Have your people call my people.

There is a replica of Sir Francis Drake's ship The Golden Hind moored in Brixham harbor. Or at least it's a replica of the original replica used to film the single-season 1961 TV series "The Adventures of Sir Francis Drake," which apparently aired in the US in the summer of 1962 while "Car 54, Where Are You?" was on a break. The TV prop was bashed up by a storm in 1987, but the current replica, one with a galley to make it more authentic, has been at Brixham ever since. This is not to be confused with the truly authentic and seaworthy replica called The Golden Hinde II, which can generally be found moored just off the Thames near London Bridge.

Drake's first cousin Sir John Hawkins went with him on many voyages, generally to raid and plunder and capture slaves, but he didn't go on the globe-trotting (-splashing?) one from 1577-1580, as he was too busy doing counterespionage against the Spanish, whom he had previously riled up by said raiding and plundering and slave-capturing from Africa to Venezuela, which the Spanish felt was their department. As many of the ships he raided and plundered were Spanish, that just cheesed them off more. Eventually all this led to the invasion of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and fortifications can still be seen on Berry Head, the headland just north of Brixham harbor.

The other famous figure associated with Brixham harbor is Prince William of Orange. He landed here on November 5, 1688 with 500 ships, a Protestant Dutch invasion force sponsored by the wealth of those members of the English church and state who did not want the Roman Catholic James II and his newborn son reestablishing the Papists on the throne. James II's oldest daughter Mary had married William 11 years earlier; William himself was the grandson of Charles I, who had married his daughter Mary at the age of 9 to William II of Orange, ruler of the Netherlands. After James II abdicated and fled to France, William and Mary co-ruled England, both having what William thought were equal claims to the throne - an enlightened attitude on his part, given the fact that the "boyz rule" order of succession laws wouldn't be changed for another 322 years.

There are a lot of good restaurants along the Quay, I was informed. Unfortunately they all close after lunch at 2:30pm and don't reopen until about 6:00pm for the dinner service. Guess when I arrived in Brixham? If you said "2:31pm" you would be correct. So I can't tell you about any of the fine dining, or any other dining, options in Brixham, after all.

I had hoped to take the steam train back to Paignton, but discovered that it swerves to the west after a stop at Churston, going on to Greenway (for the Christie fans) and then south to the end of the line at Kingswear, next to Dartmouth. There's an 1864 train station at Dartmouth that sells train tickets, but you can't get there by train - the railway line was never extended across the River Dart, and passengers still have to take a ferry across.

The steam train has as special cargo in July: a giant gooseberry pie. They may not hold the Galmpton Gooseberry Pie Fair every year, but they did in 2007, and I was there with friends from Totnes. The pie procession stops at the Churston station, and goes down the lane to the village green. I could have walked from Brixham harbor to get the train back at Churston, but it would have been another 2.5 miles and 50 minutes, and the bus stop was right there, with a #12 just getting ready to leave. I traded six dollars for a seat on the upper deck, right at the front so that I could see out over the landscape whose eastern edge I'd just spent 2.3 hours walking. After 23 minutes of driving by fields of sheep and cows and mangel-wurzel (actually I don't know what was growing in those fields, I just like saying mangel-wurzel) I arrived back in Paignton.

I ate a late lunch at the Shoreline, which does a very nice pot of moules-frites with Brixham mussels, I must say.

"There must be a beginning of any great matter, but the continuing unto the end until it be thoroughly finished yields the true glory." - Sir Francis Drake (1587)

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