Text and photographs by Chloé Valerie Harmsworth
It’s a cold, wet day in November, and as I sit at my computer, I think back to a few weeks ago when – even though it was October and technically autumn – I enjoyed a sunny, blue-sky day by the sea.
Going to the seaside
Instead of the homemade stew I was about to have for lunch to warm me up, on that day I had nourished myself with a fresh dressed crab salad bought from a café just yards from where I sat to enjoy it, on the concrete slope overlooking the harbour. Around me were people who had taken the chance on what had started as grey drizzly morning in Devon, to come down here to the historic harbour village of Lynmouth. My companions and I had done the same, driving through tree tunnels of orange and gold and a gloomy Exmoor landscape populated by more bedraggled ponies than walkers, until we began our steep descent from England’s highest sea cliffs (800ft) down to the sea. The stunning view of the bay below, with its blue-green water meeting brown-gold shingle and sand, was accompanied by glorious sunshine as the clouds suddenly melted away behind us.
Lynmouth and its harbour
Lynmouth’s tragic past
Parking in the car park where the Lyndale Hotel had stood until it was damaged by the dramatic flood of 15th August 1952 (which rose to the third floor of the building), the first thing we noticed was the immense sound of the river Lyn below us. The tumultuous water foamed white as it rushed across large boulders in its race to the sea. Any thoughts of making our way down the steps to the river was quickly checked by our innate sense of avoiding danger. It wasn’t hard to see how the flood had happened back then, rising suddenly during a very wet summer, until it swept through the village carrying trees and boulders along with it, wrecking buildings and taking 28 lives.
The river Lyn
We headed to the harbour, walking past gift shops and food retailers that wafted their tempting scents of perfume and pasties onto the pavement. We passed the Flood Memorial Hall, home to more information on the flood, but unfortunately it was closed due to the volunteers who run it shielding from Covid-19. Still, we found plenty to do, and were able to pick up a little history about the Lynmouth Lifeboats from the displays within a charming shelter with a view. (You can find more information here. Famished after reading about times past, it was then time for a crab salad!
The Flood Memorial Hall
After lunch, my companions and I indulged in some beachcombing, picking up large pieces of wizened and silvered driftwood, as well as pebbles of variable sizes in a wide range of colours and conglomerates. One reminded me of the contents of a bag of liquorice allsorts mashed together: black with sizable white, pink and blue pieces. I even found what appeared to be a fossilised hazelnut – dark grey and solid as a rock. Ah, the mysteries of the sea!
The Exmoor National Park Centre
We then took the opportunity to visit the Exmoor National Park Centre, housed in a very attractive building, to see what else we could find out. From the displays at the entrance, we learnt that Lynmouth was a small port until the late 18th century, exporting oysters and woodland produce, and importing coal and limestone from South Wales. Although historically most of the flooding has come from the local rivers, the area is also at risk from the sea, since it has the second highest tidal range in the world. Without railways until the 19th century (Arthur Conan Doyle’s publisher, George Newnes, being one of local businessmen responsible for bringing it to Lynton in 1898), Lynmouth and Lynton’s inhabitants had to be largely self-sufficient. For centuries, local fisherman were able to bring in large hauls of herring, until the fish inexplicably deserted the Bristol Channel in 1797. The disappearance of this industry meant that Lynmouth then became a hotspot for smuggling.
Part of Lynmouth beach
So much to do!
The multitude of leaflets in the information centre proved to us that there were enough activities to have kept us busy for at least a week. Had we more time, we would have ticked off more from our list: a trip on the Victorian cliff railway into Lynton above us, a visit to the Lyn Valley Arts and Crafts Centre to see local artists’ work, an excursion to the Valley of Rocks to look for feral goats, a walk to the waterfalls and woodlands of Watersmeet (one of the UK’s deepest river gorges), and much, much more. We even determined that we could even return for a purely walking holiday, what with The Coleridge Way and many other stunning walks starting, beginning or passing through Lynmouth.
We’ll be back
After picking up a few locally made jams and marmalade, we reluctantly left this fascinating place. With the taste of salt on our lips and the fresh sea breeze in our souls, we promised to return one day.