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The Old Boathouse, Bantham, Sth Devon

As the little boat gently navigated the receding waters of the Avon alongside the Bantham coast in South Devon, it carried me into nostalgia, that illusive distant land where precious memories meld with profound sadness for a time that will never return.

When I was growing up, our family annually holidayed in Devon and Cornwall where I spent long, hot days playing pirates in sand dunes with my brothers and cousins; sitting in the back seat of the car, urging Dad to go faster over bumps in the narrow lanes so our stomachs would momentarily float; and catching foot-passenger ferries to take us to the best beaches or Mum and Aunty Phil’s favourite mushroom picking fields.

Now, as Jack and I perched on the wooden seat behind the ferryman, all those sun-filled memories came flooding back. On the far side of the river, we could see two figures standing at a board above Cockleridge Beach, waving to us. The ferryman waved back and pointed ahead to a stretch of sand near a dilapidated jetty.
“That’s the safest place to moor in these conditions,” he said, the strong breeze buffeting the bow as we veered right, directly towards the beach.

Stopping just shy of the shore, we jumped over the final short stretch of water and onto the sand just as two girls carrying large rucksacks arrived breathless on the beach.

Our ears still ringing with the clear instructions we had been given for our return crossing, we headed up the steep hillside on the South West Coast Path, views opening up over the picturesque old boathouse whose pink façade graces canvas, photographs, and postcards on sale in villages and towns across the county, before descending to Bigbury-on-Sea.

The ferryman at Bantham

Time and Tide

Ahead, the shining white walls of the Burgh Island Hotel beckoned. Located on its eponymous tidal island off Bigbury-on-Sea, the hotel is a homage to Art Deco, and is considered one of the foremost places in Europe to see original and authentic Art Deco style. In its day, this ritzy South Devon hotel has played host to such luminaries as Sir Winston Churchill, Edward VIII & Mrs Simpson, The Beatles, Josephine Baker and not least, Agatha Christie who, during her time here, wrote two novels – And Then There Were None & Evil Under The Sun.

Apart from its style and pedigree, one of the most alluring aspects of the hotel is its exclusivity which is sealed by nature. We were just metres from the island, yet we couldn’t get there, our progress halted by the tide which cuts off Burgh Island from Bigbury-on-Sea.

Burgh Island

Ordinarily, the hotel provides a sea tractor to ferry guests and visitors across the short stretch of sea water but today, the high winds grounded the sea tractor. A sign on the harbour wall told us the tide would be out in an hour’s time. We sighed, heavily, and headed to the Venus café for a pasty and to wait.

50 minutes later we impatiently shuffled forward by the tide’s edge, waiting for it to creep back, the distance between us and Burgh Island diminishing painfully slowly, like a watched pot trying to boil. Finally, we walked across the last stretch and with wet, sand-clogged soles, headed past the 14th century pirate’s inn to the hotel.

Disappointingly, visitors are only allowed on Sunday lunch times or to attend formal events. Muttering about the evils of Britain’s Class system, we walked across and around the tiny island instead, before heading back for the ferry.

Reaching the wooden board above Cockleridge Beach, we looked out across the river towards the Bantham Boat Club where the ferry moors. Spotting the little boat about to weigh anchor, as instructed, we rang the ship’s bell and waved towards the ferryman. He waved back. Then we watched and waited until he had set sail. Sure enough, as he rounded the headland, he pointed to the same spot where he had dropped us off earlier. We walked onto the beach and headed briskly to meet him.

Summoning the ferryman

Once again, I stepped from the shore and into nostalgia, this time with a little less sadness. My childhood may long have disappeared in the mists of time, along with the love and support of my parents and one of my siblings, but it’s good to know that in South Devon, and probably in Cornwall too, you can still summon the ferryman to take you to the best beach or your favourite mushroom-picking field.


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