25 November 2014
It was, it turns out, an anomalous day. After the summer that lasted for ever, as memory recalls, the skies have been unrelentingly grey, the rains persistent, and the winds wearisome. Here at the tail end of November it feels like we are enmeshed in winter’s grasp (last night’s first frost a harbinger) even though the not-so-long-ago September was the driest on record and Torcross – this place – the second driest place in England. But despite an autumn of extraordinary colour (it almost always feels that way) the lack of sun in November has weighed on the psyche.
So yesterday, when the winter sun was out in its full warmth and glory, it was time to be outdoors. Torcross is a strange little town by the sea, the head of Slapton Sands, the two-mile long beach that ends at Strete Gate (or Strete Sands as it is sometimes known apparently, but not by the locals) which is purportedly the site of a vanished village that fell into the sea some centuries ago. Torcross is known for periods of destruction and near-destruction as the Atlantic vents its full force on the shore during particularly violent winter storms. Much of the village was very badly damaged in the mid 1970s, and in response a concrete seawall was constructed which for the past forty years has done its Canute-like job of turning back the sea. It does this literally by encouraging breakers that reach the edge of the short to turn back on themselves.
Last winter however the storms were too much even for this, and a number of the houses were once again quite badly damaged. Memory does not serve me well enough to know just how long it took to restore the village those forty years ago when many of the house lost their fronts, but this year a lot of the damage remains unrepaired as the insurance industry does its very best to deny the existence of a cruel sea, or a cruel god, or whoever or whatever is said to be blamed for the violence of last year’s storms.
This single strip of houses has the sea (and the sea wall) on one side, and the main road between market town Kingsbridge and naval town Dartmouth – known as the Slapton Line behind which is a remarkable fresh water lake known as Slapton Ley, the largest freshwater lake in South West England, some one and a half miles long. This thin ribbon of asphalt carries buses, vans and delivery vehicles, local traffic and a great deal of tourist traffic and forms the only viable connection between these two important towns and their hinterlands and communities. Last year, it too was breached, covered so deeply in shingle thrown up by the winter storms that it became completely impassable for a number of days. The political decision has since been made, in these days of the disassembling of the state, that should the road be breached to the point of needing to be rebuilt, that it will be abandoned, to be claimed by the sea forever more. This is of course empty posturing that will be belied by pragmatism next time the road is swamped to closure.
The other thing that marks this strip of beach is that it was one of the primary rehearsal sites for the Normandy Landings in the second world war. 3,000 locals were displaced – literally told simply to move elsewhere, many of them farmers with livestock and livelihoods – and 30,000 mostly American troops moved in, taking over whole settlements as they prepared for the mock landings. These were very much dress rehearsals, and included a live-firing exercise which went disastrously wrong, resulting in British troops at sea firing on their American allies on the beach, and an incident just further round the coast in Lyme Bay in which hundreds were slaughtered like sitting ducks by E-boats cleverly infiltrated reality into the mock battle. Extraordinarily, these episodes were kept secret for decades, finally becoming public knowledge when a local publican in Torcross fished a Sherman Tank from the water and, cannily, set it up as a war memorial just outside the centre of the village. The rest of the story is marketing history – Torcross remains a site of pilgrimage, and a curious magnet even to generations whose knowledge and memory of WW2 is sketchy. Every other year the village and the beach hum with imagined ardour and replica vehicles and uniforms and the ever-diminishing band of old men from Nebraska who come to remember. Last year there was no one left, all are dead or too ill to travel, but still the tourists flock here, stopping to gawp at the tank, some laying wreaths, and then on to fish and chips and a pint facing the benign summer sea.
This makes the little village of Torcross a bustling place for much of the year, with what feels like a very particular demographic, a regular smattering of old soldiers, blazers and berets, and the odd visible medal. Yesterday it basked with relative quietude in the warmth of its secret winter sun. I sat on the little pebble park (merely a couple of benches set near to the spillway where the Ley flows into the sea) alone for most of the time. This place seems to exist in a strange netherworld, sitting as it does on the corner of a busy main road next to the village car park and facing one of the most beautiful stretches of fresh water imaginable. It feels noisy and trafficsome, but when I play back the recording of the day, it seems that the microphone was more interested in the sounds of the ducks and other water fowl than it was in the background traffic. Less bothered by the road than I, the birds themselves seem to be basking. This is a landing spot for ducks and others, a place where they are well aware that grandparents bring their young children bearing food that requires no effort. There is always a collection of wild swans, a mixture of ducks (mostly mallards and muscovy, some of whom have clearly interbred) and coots, moorhen and seagulls. The Canada geese are gone to other climes, but are part of the roll call for much of the year, taking off in their vee-formation, wheeling and honking in a broad loop across the sea, landing with a ploosh back in the lake. Often all are crowding and jostling and fighting as bread and god-all knows what else is tossed in their direction, a rare interaction with the natural world. But today was quiet with only me and an elderly man, both armed with cameras but utterly lacking in food. So this was clearly a day for serious grooming and serious sleeping. The warmth of the sun and relatively light winds created the perfect time for a long luxurious if occasionally frantic bath. What often feels rather urban and shabby became a place of serene quiet industry.
On the seaward side, a relatively quiet sea was relatively unruffled by a steady easterly breeze that was overcoming the prevailing current. This pushed the surf from left to right, instead of the usual right to left. Although only mid-day, the light was sharp and the shadows deep. The low winter sun would soon be gone from this beach, and the shadows visibly lengthened in the relatively short time we were there. The clarity of the light was extraordinary, numinous, after these many days of drear, the sea not the blue of a warm summer’s day, but a deep slatey blue tinged with menace. The sea itself feels abandoned, now revelling in its own emptiness and almost crowing to have seen of another year. The constant assaults of the summer are now almost forgotten and nothing sullies the line out the horizon as the usual brazen attempts to conquer this world have been seen off for another year. Most of the mooring buoys have been removed, one odd one left that perhaps refused to let go. On days like this as the tide recedes, the skerries can often be seen breaking and perturbing that razor-like horizon line. Despite the relative calm of today’s sea, the sense that this is a dangerous place that has claimed many a prize is palpable, hanging in the cold air, sublime in confidence and superiority.