Monday, 23 November 2009

Riddle of the sand

Straight Point, Devon: click to enlarge

Correlation of difference sources and media often produces intriguing stuff. I was just re-reading Notices of the Flowering Time and Localities of some Plants observed during an Excursion through a portion of South Devon, in June, 1851 (Edwin Lees, Esq. FLS, pp530-541, The Phytologist: a popular botanical miscellany, Volume 4, Part 2, J. Van Voorst, 1852). I'm not terribly bothered with botany. but the Worcester-based Lees (1800–1887) was staying in Exmouth, and so the paper includes nice accounts of excursions to areas I'm familiar with, such as the East Devon coastline between Exmouth and Budleigh. One of these is the promontory tipped by Straight Point, adjacent to Sandy Bay.
A long point of sandstone extends far into the sea between Budleigh Salterton and Exmouth, after passing the highest range of cliffs; and on either side of this were some singular, secluded, deep, gloomy dens, excavated by the sea, as if intended for the perpetration of deeds of darkness. On the western side of the point the sea had so broken down the sandstone rocks, that it seemed as if a huge quarry had been excavated there, such monstrous masses lay scattered about in all directions; the cliff itself shattered almost to fragments.
It's still recognisable - see the image above of the western side and Sandy Bay - even if the general environment makes it less amenable to investigation: an army firing range on the promontory itself, and the huge Devon Cliffs Holiday Park on the adjoining land. That said, it's not at all a bad place to visit, with the coastal path taking you rapidly out of the developed area in either direction.

View Larger Map

While browsing the excellent Old Maps site, however, I did notice an interesting thing about Sandy Bay: it appears the name is new, and so is the sand. On the 1890 Ordnance Survey map, the bay is unnamed and has sand only at the cliff foot, with rocky shelving exposed at low tide. By 1933, however, it's called Sandy Bay on the map, and virtually all the shore at low tide is sand, as it is nowadays. I've no idea why, though studies show beach profiles to be very dynamic in this general area of coastline (see Holcombe to Straight Point (including Exe estuary), SCOPAC, 2004). See the images below, reproduced from Old Maps with kind permission.

Sandy Bay in 1890 (above); 1933 (below). . Historic map data is (© and database right Crown copyright and Landmark Information Group Ltd. (All rights reserved 2009).

A look in older literature confirms the name change at least. Pre-1900 Devon guidebooks - for instance, John Murray's A handbook for travellers in Devon - repeatedly mention Straight Point as a landmark, with no sign of "Sandy Bay", and the poet Patricia Beer's autobiographical Mrs Beer's House, in which she writes about her Exmouth childhood in the 1920s, confirms that "Sandy Bay" appears to be an early 20th century neologism.
We had a family routine of our own, which was to spend the afternoon at Straight Point. This was a beach about a mile along from Orcombe Point towards Budleigh Salterton. Considering its nearness to Exmouth, it was amazingly deserted: sometimes we were the only family there. It was not too easy to reach, however, and the path down from the cliff-top needed a fair amount of agility: there were no ropes or steps, and it was both slippery and steep. We always called it Straight Point, which was the name of the headland, but many people referred to it as Sandy Bay. I felt very strongly about this, after the age of ten, on what I thought were grounds of literary taste. 'Sandy Bay' seemed to me banal and pretty-pretty and feeble, whereas I felt that 'Straight Point' was decently and austerely descriptive (I hear it is now universally called Sandy Bay and that there is a caravan site on the cliff-top.)
- Mrs Beer's House, Patricia Beer, Macmillan, 1968
Things have certainly changed, with access to the bay by a concrete ramp. Another geographical feature at this location is mentioned in RF Delderfield's historical novel Farewell the Tranquil (a.k.a. Farewell the Tranquil Mind) in which he refers to the stream that runs southward (now through the Holiday Park) and enters the sea through the waterfall at Sandy Bay.
The buildings stood on the crest of a gentle slope, about half a mile from the sea and the same distance from Littleham in the valley behind. To the east our land extended as far as a deep briar-grown streambed, (called a "goyle" in these parts) which carried all the springs and rivulets of the watershed to the sea, dropping some twenty feet over a low cliff to the beach at an outfall we called "Waterchute".
- Farewell the Tranquil Mind, RF Delderfield, 1950
Delderfield is evidently using a real local name, as it is confirmed in an account of lime burning in the district in Devon & Cornwall notes & queries ...
There was a second Lime-Kiln at Straight Point, close to Water Shute, the barges discharging limestone on the beach in the same way as at Maer Bay.
- Devon & Cornwall notes & queries, Volume 17, ed. John S. Amery, 1933
... and in a Trewman's Exeter Flying Post report (A sad drowning fatality at Littleham, Saturday, June 28, 1890) about the accidental drowning of a truanting child "between Straight Point and Water Shute". But unlike Sandy Bay, which has gained a name, the Water Shute appears to have lost its name entirely.

I am still, by the way, looking for the name (if any) of the chine above Littleham Cove, on the Sandy Bay side of West Down Beacon.

Addendum. Sand recommendations.
- Ray


  1. "... there is a caravan site on the cliff-top"


    The movie, The House of Sand is good, though definitely not kids.

  2. I'll see your House of Sand and raise you Woman in the Dunes.