Just in case they attack

AFTER WW2 MANY thousands of concrete bunkers were built all over Albania because the country’s paranoid and brutal dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled between 1944 and 1985, was concerned that the country would be invaded by its neighbours or others further afield. The invasion never happened. Likewise, the much-feared invasion of the UK during WW2 never occurred (except for the Channel Islands). However, in anticipation of a feared German invasion of the UK, the country, like Albania, was covered with concrete fortifications in many shapes and sizes. During a recent visit to Sidmouth in Devon, I spotted one of these, a small concrete ‘pill box’.

Located high on a cliff (overlooking Jacob’s Ladder Beach) next to Sidmouth’s Connaught Gardens, this small bunker was probably constructed as part of a coastal defence system in  1940-41. Later in WW2 when the risk of a German invasion was getting smaller, it was used during the training exercises that were performed prior to the Allied invasion of Normandy in early June 1940. It was from the south Devon coast that the invasion force set out for France.

Designed to resist destruction, bunkers such as the small one I saw in Sidmouth (and the multitude of mostly hemispherical bunkers I have seen in Albania), they are both difficult and expensive to remove when they are no longer needed. Interestingly, these concrete defences are no guarantee against successful invasion, as can be seen from the ineffectiveness of the Maginot Line in eastern France and the huge structures built by the Germans on the Atlantic coast of that country.  

On the wall

IT IS ODD how seeing a mundane object can stimulate less than mundane thoughts. Embedded into a wall in Salcombe (Devon), I saw an official post box for depositing mail. At first, I took little notice of it. Then, when I saw it a second time, I noticed that its red-painted front bears the letters “GR”. This refers to a King George. Because the first letter boxes were installed in the reign of Queen Victoria, the GR on the letter box in Salcombe must refer either to George V (reigned 1910-1936) or George VI (reigned 1936-1952) because the other King Georges all preceded Victoria.

Possibly the GR on the box in Salcombe refers to George V because he was the first George to follow Victoria, in whose reign the boxes bore the letters “VR” (Victoria Regina). Even though Edward VII was the first monarch to follow Victoria, boxes installed in his reign include the Roman numeral VII. Likewise, in the case of other monarchs who followed Victoria, their initials on post boxes include numerals identifying which king or queen they denoted (i.e., E VII R, G VI R and E II R). Not having ever looked out for it before, I am not sure whether any post boxes installed during the reign of George V bear the logo G V R or, as I saw in Salcombe, simply GR. A rapid search of the Internet revealed that most George V post boxes illustrated on websites dealing with post boxes bear the letters GR, as was the case with the example I noticed in Salcombe.

I suppose that when Charles or his son William come to the throne, letter boxes, if they still exist in the age of electronic mail, will bear the logos “C III R” and “W V R” respectively, rather than “CR” and “WR”. Why the V (meaning ‘5’) was not included on the post boxes issued during the reign of George V but the VII (meaning ‘7’) appears on those installed during his predecessor’s reign is not clear to me.

A ladder by the sea

GENESIS CHAPTER 28 describes a dream experienced by the biblical Jacob. In it, he dreamt that there was a ladder set on the earth that reached up to heaven. In his dream, he watched angels of God ascending and descending what is now called ‘Jacob’s Ladder’.

The small town of Sidmouth on the coast of Devon has its own Jacob’s Ladder. Unlike the one seen in the dream, it neither reaches heaven nor is it being used by angels. Often rebuilt, Sidmouth’s Jacob’s Ladder is made of wood and consists of three flights of stairs which connect Connaught Gardens with the magnificent stretch of sandy beach (at the western end of Sidmouth). This lovely, gently curving strand, known as Jacob’s Ladder Beach, is flanked by red stone cliffs and is about a mile in length. The views from the top of the Ladder and the café in the Connaught Gardens are spectacularly beautiful.

The Ladder was first constructed in 1853 on the instruction of Mr Lousada of nearby Peak House. It was rebuilt in the late 19th century, and then again following WW2. The Connaught Gardens on the clifftop overlooking the beach were first laid out in 1934 by the Gardens Department of Dartington Hall Ltd.

It is unusual features such as Sidmouth’s Jacob Ladder that give many British seaside towns great character and individuality, and makes them fun to visit.

A cave underneath a seaside town in Devon

LONG, LONG AGO, the land where Torquay now stands was below the Equator in the southern hemisphere. Shifting of tectonic plates over the millennia has moved it to where it is now. Along with this migration, a series of caves has also reached this location but far beneath the town, about 1 mile northeast of the Torquay Harbour seafront. The cave network known collectively as Kents Cavern has been open to the public since 1952. What makes it fascinating is that archaeologists have found, amongst other things, the earliest known human remains in Britain. Three types of hominid have made, use of these caves: Homo heidelbergensis (thrived roughly 750,000 to 200,000 years ago), Homo neanderthalensis (thrived from 400.000 to 40,000 years ago), and Homo sapiens (that is us today: we have been around since about 300,000 years ago). The two earlier forms of hominid lived or sheltered in the caves. Now, we, the current edition of this type of primate, merely explore the caves as archaeologists, and visit them as tourists.

The earliest evidence of recent exploration of the caves is some inscriptions found within them. William Pete scratched his name on a stalagmite in 1571 and Robert Hedges did the same in 1688. Scientific exploration of the caves began in the early 19th century. In 1824, the geologist Thomas Northmore (1766-1851) made the first recorded excavation in 1824. Since then, others have made systematic archaeological excavations and discovered the remains of our early ancestors, their tools, and the remains of animals that sheltered in the caves. Two notable explorers of these underground passages and caverns are The Reverend John MacEnery (1796-1841) and William Pengelly (1812-1893). The latter established his reputation as an archaeologist by his discovery of the hominid remains in Kents Cavern. In addition, his discoveries helped in to prove that the biblical chronology of the earth was incorrect.

In 1903, the caves were acquired by a carpenter, Francis Powe, who used them as a workshop for constructing beach huts for the seafront in Torquay. His son, Leslie, converted them into a tourist attraction by installing electric lighting and laying down concrete paths. The caves are now run by a member of the family, Nick Powe.

At first sight, the visitor complex with its shop and café seems unexceptional and rather too ‘touristy’ for my liking. Visitors are escorted within the caves in groups led by a guide. The tourist facilities give little or no clue as to the wonders that await visitors after they step into the parts of the cave system that are on display. We were guided by a knowledgeable man, who was able to make geology and archaeology both palatable and extremely comprehensible to us. Even if you had had no interest in these subjects prior to going on the tour, he was able to sow seeds of interest in these subjects during the tour. Not only did he relate the facts clearly, but he was able to recreate in our minds the nature of life in the caves as it was when our ancestors illuminated them with lamps consisting of fat impregnated moss or other vegetable matter in scallop shells, and when enormous wild bears and other creatures hibernated or roamed about in these dark spaces. In addition, he pointed out interesting features of the geology of the caves including, stalagmites and stalactites in various stages of their continuing formation. Throughout the tour, our guide explained the difficulties that early explorers of the cave encountered.

To conclude, a visit to Kents Cavern is both visually spectacular and of great interest. Having seen the place, I would say that a visit to Devon must include a wander through these caves.

Point of departure

TORWOOD STREET RUNS downhill to the harbour of Torquay in Devon. This usually busy street is currently (March 2022) closed to vehicular traffic because it is undergoing repairs including resurfacing. During WW2, the street was resurfaced with concrete sufficiently strong to bear the weight of tanks and other heavy military vehicles that were making their way downhill to the harbour. One of our friends in Torquay told me that the current roadworks was partly to replace the concrete surface that was laid down in the 1940s. This US military equipment was on its way to the beaches of Normandy, where the invasion of German occupied France took place: the D Day Landings in 1944.

When these heavy vehicles reached the water’s edge, they had to be loaded onto boats. Concrete embarkation ramps were constructed in May 1943. They were used to load the equipment onto seagoing vessels in June 1944 to carry out Operation Overlord, which involved landing the US forces onto the Normandy coast. The concrete slipways, which have been preserved, were called ‘Embarkation Hards’. According to information displayed on a memorial close to the ‘hards’, the landing craft used in Operation Overlord operated a shuttle service between Torquay and the Normandy beaches. Soldiers of the 4th US Infantry Division, who embarked at Torquay, were amongst the 23000 troops who were landed at Utah Beach in Normandy. Along with them, 1700 tanks, guns, and trucks also arrived on that beach.

The ‘hards’, point of departure for Normandy, are not particularly attractive to look at, but they are an impressive souvenir of what was an important military operation, which in no little way helped to bring about the downfall of Hitler and the Nazi regime.

Docked in Dartmouth

MOSES AND HIS followers crossed the Red Sea without difficulty. However, things were not so simple when a group of people were trying to cross the Atlantic to enjoy freedom to worship as they wished without persecution in North America in 1620 during the reign of England’s King James I. These travellers. the Pilgrim Fathers, were English Protestants, Puritans who had been living in the Low Countries in Leiden but felt that conditions there had become unfavourable for them. As they did not expect to live safely in England, they bravely set forth to sail to the New World.

Bayards Cove

The Pilgrim Fathers and their families left Holland in the “Speedwell” (60 tons) and after crossing the North Sea, their ship was joined by the larger “Mayflower” (180 tons), which was carrying Puritans fleeing from London. While heading west, the boats headed into trouble. On about the 23rd of August 1620, the two ships slipped furtively into Dartmouth in Devon and lay at anchor near to the town’s Bayards Cove, close to where today a small ferry carries vehicles and pedestrians across the River Dart between Dartmouth and Kingswear. The secrecy was necessary because as Puritans, the passengers risked punishment in England.  They remained moored there until about the 31st of August while leaks on the “Speedwell” were being repaired.

After leaving Dartmouth to continue their voyage westwards, the “Speedwell” began leaking again. About 300 miles west-south-west of Lands’ End, the “Speedwell” had become almost unseaworthy. The boats returned to England, docking at Plymouth in Devon. There, the “Speedwell” was abandoned, and the “Mayflower” set sail for America with 102 passengers. The boat reached the harbour of Cape Cod in Massachusetts on the 21st of November 1620.

Although Plymouth is the place from which the Puritans finally left England, the point in the port from which they set off would now be unrecognisable to the Pilgrim Fathers were they able to see it. In contrast, although some of the buildings near Bayards Cove in Dartmouth have been built since the Pilgrim Fathers stopped there briefly, there remain sights that have not changed significantly since 1620.

397 Spanish prisoners held in in Torquay

FOR PERSONAL REASONS King Henry VIII dissolved all the monasteries and similar establishments in England during the 16th century. Many of their buildings were destroyed or left to disintegrate. Their lands were sold or given to new owners. Some of them incorporated the remains of the monastic structures that they had acquired into new buildings. A good example of this can be seen in Devon’s Torquay. It is the remains of Torre Abbey.

The abbey was founded by members of the Premonstratensian Order in 1196. By the time of the Dissolution in 1536, Torre Abbey was the wealthiest of the houses of the Order in Britain. In 1539, the monastery was given over to one of King Henry VIII’s commissioners. After that, the first leaseholder of the former abbey and its lands was the lawyer Sir Hugh Pollard (?1498-?1576). What was left of the monastic buildings was incorporated into a large house built for Thomas Ridgeway. After several others had owned the property, it came into the hands of the Cary family in 1662. In 1740, the residential building was remodelled in the Georgian style, which is what can be seen today. This family retained ownership of the abbey remains, the house, and its lands, until 1930, when a member of the family sold them to Torquay Borough Council. Since then, the house has been used for municipal administrative purposes and during WW2, it was occupied by the RAF.

Near to the main house, there is a large, intact tithe barn. This was constructed in about 1300. In the summer of 1588, the Spanish sent a large fleet, the Armada, to invade England with the intention of restoring the Roman Catholic religion in what had become a Protestant country. The Spanish failed miserably, and many of them became prisoners of war. Francis Drake (c1540-1596) forced one of the Spanish vessels to surrender and as a result captured 397 Spanish prisoners. They were held in the tithe barn for 23 days before they were transferred to Exeter. As a result of this, the barn is now known as The Spanish Barn. during WW2, the RAF used it as a gymnasium. Now, the barn is hired out for weddings and other special occasions.

The remains of the abbey, the barn, and the house built within the abbey ruins, overlook a park, a small golf course, and a few yards away, the waves in Tor Bay. The abbey grounds are a short walk from the commercialised harbour area in the centre of Torquay, and provide a pleasant contrast to the latter.