Case Study Site 13 – Start Point to Salcombe, South Devon

Case Study Site 13 – Start Point to Salcombe, South Devon

1.         Location

The case study site extends from Hallsands to the north of Start Point and continues westwards, past Prawle Point, to Salcombe at the entrance to the Kingsbridge Estuary; the coastal frontage is a distance of approximately 13km.

2.         Why was the Case Study Site selected?

This part of the South Devon coast includes the abandoned community of Hallsands to the north of Start Point, field systems and associated later remains at Deckler’s Cliff to Gammon Head, between Prawle Point and Salcombe, together with Salcombe Castle and marine villas along the estuary. 

3.         Summary of the Geology, Geomorphology & Coastal Processes

This section of the coastline is composed of metamorphic schists of the Devonian Period.  These rocks create the rugged headlands of Start Point, Prawle Point and Bolt Head to the west.  This coastline is comprised of long sections of cliffed shorelines that are indented with numerous small coves and pocket beaches, together with estuaries that intersect the cliffs, which were formed as a result of rising sea levels c.10,000 years ago.  The rates of erosion of the clifflines are very slow and there is minimal sediment contributed to the overall system.  Most of the beach deposits are contained within their own bays and sheltered by adjacent headlands (Halcrow, 20111). 

4.         Risks to Heritage Assets along the Case Study Frontage

The village of Hallsands to the north of Start Point comprised a small fishing community, which was protected by a sand and shingle beach.  In 1897 a major dredging operation took place offshore, leading to a significant reduction in beach levels which allowed the exposed village to be impacted upon directly by high tides and easterly winds.  This led to the loss of some properties and, despite the construction of a seawall later, a major storm in 1917 caused further serious damage and the village was abandoned (MDV45491).  The coastline to the west near East Prawle is rich in prehistoric archaeological sites and finds, particularly from the Bronze Age.  Further evidence of occupation extends through the Roman, Medieval and post-Medieval periods.  A signalling station (HER7053), one of a chain along the south coast, was built at Signal House Point in the late eighteenth century and a civilian signal station (HER43349) was established at Prawle Point later.  The location had a strategic importance in both World Wars and on into the Cold War period when an RAF airfield and a radar station were established, together with gun emplacements. 

At Deckler’s Cliff to the north-west of Prawle Point, there is a coaxial field system and associated remains that form a Scheduled Ancient Monument (List Entry Number 1021253).  There is also evidence of nineteenth century iron mines at this location.  The Deckler’s Cliff site is affected slowly by coastal erosion. 

Salcombe is situated at the mouth of the Kingsbridge estuary.  On its west side the entrance was guarded by Salcombe Castle (MDV7025), which is also known as Fort Charles.  This ruin attracted the attention of some early engravers looking for picturesque views along the south Devon coast, but many artists passed it by.  Within this estuary and, indeed, in others along the south Devon coast, attractive marine residences and cottages ornés were built in beautiful locations on terraces bordering the waterway.  William Daniell, who travelled along the south-west coast in 1825, captured some of these in his fine aquatint engravings.  Between 1910 and 1930 the prolific watercolourist, Alfred Robert Quinton, who worked for the colour picture postcard manufacturers, J. & F. Salmon of Sevenoaks, painted numerous views including several of Salcombe from Portlemouth, which show the gradual development of Salcombe and the villas in the vicinity. 

5.         How can historical Imagery inform heritage risk management?

It has been explained that this part of the coastline is predominantly one of hard rock and, therefore, there is very limited coastal erosion or cliff instability.  This case study highlights the effects of intervention at Hallsands for the extraction of material for expansion of the Naval Dockyard at Keyham near Plymouth.  It illustrates the impact of such nearshore activity on development.  Only one art image was found of Hallsands, which was subsequently engraved and is illustrated as figure 13.1.  A number of photographs exist of the Hallsands community and a picture of life there can be gained from the photograph shown as figure 13.2.

With regard to Deckler’s Cliff, despite extensive searches, no paintings, watercolours or prints were found of this specific coastline, and certainly none which showed the field systems.  A photograph by Francis Frith (see figure 13.3) does show the field system, which is better illustrated in the recent photograph shown as figure 13.4. 

No accurate artworks could be found of Salcombe Castle, perhaps because of its ruinous state.  Its present day condition is illustrated in figure 13.5. 

William Daniell’s view of Salcombe (figure 13.6) shows a marine villa ‘Woodville’ perched on the side of the estuary.  In David Addey’s watercolour taken from the same spot in 1988, the castellated steps on the left hand side form part of those shown in Daniell’s view, but the present house called ‘Woodcot of Woodville’ bears no resemblance to the property depicted by Daniell.  The view by Alfred Robert Quinton (figure 14.8) shows Salcombe from Sunny Cove in about 1915.  The scattered villa development bordering the estuary is now more intensive. 

6.         Key Issues – What can be learnt from this site?

This site indicates the variable quantity and quality of images available for different heritage subjects.  At some of the smaller villages, such as Hallsands, artists did not tend to stop to paint, particularly if conditions at the time such as accommodation were not suitable for them.  As a result, it is necessary to rely on photographic evidence.  Similarly, the field systems at Deckler’s Cliff were not a subject for artists and, again, the photographic record provides the best evidence.  Salcombe Castle was engraved but in a picturesque and exaggerated manner and, therefore, cannot offer a worthwhile comparison in terms of the nature of the building and changes that may have taken place over time.  By contrast, William Daniell’s views, which were executed finely both from archaeological and topographical perspectives, do illustrate examples of marine villas and settlements along the South Devon estuaries and coasts.  Similarly, works by the prolific Alfred Robert Quinton also help us to understand patterns of development into the twentieth century. 

Figure 13.1: Lying just to the north of Start Point the fishing community of Hallsands occupied an exposed coastal location.  Following dredging for aggregates too close to shore the beach lowered significantly.  After a severe storm in 1917 the village was abandoned.  This engraving of Hallsands is from an oil painting by William Collins (1846).  No other paintings of the village have been found although there are a number of old photographs such as Figure 13.2.  Where no artworks exist early photographs describe the nature of such relatively unvisited locations although the views are not in colour. 

Image – Private Collection.

Figure 13.3: A view of the coast near East Portlemouth looking towards the Deckler’s Cliff heritage site taken in 1924; no paintings were found for this section of the South Devon coast. 

Image © 2005 Heritage Photographic Resources Ltd/Francis Frith Collection.

Figure 13.4: This recent photograph shows Deckler’s Cliff with the ancient field system clearly visible.  Although undefended the coastline has changed only slightly since the earlier Frith photograph.

Image courtesy of © Derek Harper/Creative Commons License.

Figure 13.5: A few romantic style engravings exist of the ruins of Salcombe Castle (Fort Charles) but they are of insufficient detail and clarity to inform this study.

Image courtesy of © Anthony Parkes/Creative Commons License.

Figure 13.6: This view of ‘Salcombe’ by William Daniell RA (1825) shows one of the many decorative marine villas that are situated overlooking the estuary.  As well as being a fine topographical artist, Daniell was an accurate architectural draughtsman, therefore the buildings in his engravings offer true images of their state at that time.

Figure 13.7: The architect and watercolour artist, David Addey, retraced Daniell’s journey around the British coast in the late 1980s; he reached Salcombe in 1988.  Whilst the villa depicted by Daniell had gone, part of the crenelated steps up to it still existed.

Image courtesy of David Addey.

Figure 13.8: This view of Salcombe from Sunny Cove by A.R. Quinton shows the typical villa development found on many South Devon estuaries in the early 20th century. 

Image courtesy of J. Salmon Limited of Sevenoaks.

Figure 13.9: shows the location today.  Image courtesy of © Chris Hart/Creative Commons License.

7.         References

  1. Halcrow, 2011. ‘Durlston Head to Rame Head SMP2’.