Monday, 15 July 2013

Shaldon: sea, sand, and subterranea

The Ness and Shaldon, from Teignmouth Pier
It being another fine day (and Clare not being a fan of the heat) I took myself out this afternoon for a look at Shaldon, which I've never visited. Shaldon is the village on the other side of the mouth of the Teign estuary from Teignmouth, and is reached by a small ferry from the delightful Back Beach that adjoins the working section of Teignmouth Harbour (more on that later). I particularly wanted to check out so-named Smugglers' Tunnel that gives access through The Ness, the promontory of Permian breccia, to Ness Cove behind. It got into the news at the end of March when two people were trapped at Ness Cove by a landslip at the beach end of the tunnel. As you can see from the BBC account - Two women rescued from Ness Cove after landslip - it didn't actually block the tunnel, just the access steps. It's back in service now.

The tunnel is a short walk from the ferry landing, just a little uphill from the Ness House Hotel at the end of a short driveway behind the public car park. There's an old limekiln by the entrance.

It's not a scary tunnel; it's solidly-bricked and well-lit, wide enough for two people to walk side-by-side; it takes only a couple of minutes to reach the beach.

There's a first straight section (with a ventilation shaft on its right) descending gently, then a junction and bend of about 30° right followed by a similar slowly-descending section, then a bend of 30° left leading to a flight of steps, then finally a sharp bend left to the beach exit.

Looking back along main entrance section

Looking up the air shaft

The steps
And out at Ness Cove
Here's a YouTube video of the walk-through (not by me):  

And so to the puzzles. Firstly, what's the tunnel's origin? Various official websites call it "an original smuggler's tunnel" (see, Teignbridge District Council, and Shaldon Devon). But this reeks of the regional obsession with linking to alleged smugglers any small, obscure, picturesque or unusual way of reaching a beach. One more likely theory is that its purpose was carting limestone that had been shipped to Ness Cove:
... the so-called Smugglers' Tunnel ... A ruined limekiln at the entrance suggests the reason it was cut.
- Smuggling in Devon and Cornwall: 1700-1850, Mary Waugh, Countryside Books, 1991
Another is that its purpose was private beach access for Lord Clifford, whose marine villa was the house now occupied by the Ness House Hotel (see British Listed Buildings ID 461032). This is the purpose cited in a number of 19th century regional guides, of which this is the earliest I can find:
The Ness now forms a pleasant little lawn to the marine cottage of Lord Clifford, situated just under it. His lordship has cut a tunnel 210 feet long through the base of the cliff, large enough for a carriage drive, communicating with the beach outside.
- page 195, The route book of Devon, 1846
The courses of the various incarnations of this tunnel would make for a bit of interesting historical detection. As described in Mary Waugh's Smuggling in Devon and Cornwall: 1700-1850, the present tunnel is clearly diverted - there must be a further tunnel segment behind that green wall at the junction. Then there's the larger, but blocked, second tunnel entrance at the beach end, to the left of the current public one: presumably this was the original, "large enough for a carriage drive".

A peek through the barred entrance
Furthermore, this is intriguing: what appears to be another ventilation duct in the woods next to the South West Coastal Path round the Ness, just a few yards uphill to the east of the Ness House Hotel, and nowhere near the beach tunnel.


Addendum: Clare and I revisited on August 2nd, and I spotted an information board I somehow missed on the first visit. The Ness at Shaldon had considerable development as a WW2 defensive position, with various buildings and bunkers. I suspect that explains the pipe, and there is an outhouse in the pub garden backing on to the slope below it. See the sign (click to enlarge):

See also Teignmouth and Shaldon: revisit.

- Ray


  1. I remember in the 1960’s (when I was but a child, so these reminiscences are subject to the vagaries of memory) there were 2 entrances. We never, or almost never, used the higher one as there were no proper steps up to it – my father would lead us around the point at low tide, so we only ever went up the tunnel. The two tunnels met underground. I don’t remember the tunnel being wide or high, so I think the high tunnel we didn’t use was at the end of the tunnel behind the green door at the junction? In my memory the tunnels were much rougher than now – I was there today – and not as well lit, if at all. One of the cottages at the top sold teas, served in their front garden, but that was all there was, no car park etc.

  2. I also grew up there in the 60's and the higher entrance was blocked off inside the tunnel with an iron gate (where the green wall is now) and there was another iron gate a short distance straight ahead at the exit on the cliff face. This gated exit was clearly visible from the beach. Visiting there this year I could not make out this original exit from the beach anymore so assume it has been covered by landslides over the years.