Slip away to Salcombe

Published 10:52 am Saturday, October 10, 2015

by James D. Howell

We’ve moved to Houston and adapted. Standing in line for rodeo tickets, my wife overhears a British accent and strikes up a conversation. The British couple accepts an invitation to our house for coffee and conversation; there is an immediate positive chemistry. They are in Houston visiting their daughter who is about our age. After a few visits while they are here, they invite us to visit with them in their cottage in Salcombe, Devonshire, as a part of our next planned England trip. We are somewhat hesitant, but do accept. We’re fairly independent and do not wish to impose on others.

We stay in touch with our new friends, and when the next trip comes, we plan to do a couple of days in London, then rent a van and drive to Salcombe.

Driving on British roads with British laws is a whole different experience. In London and towns and villages throughout the country, roundabouts are prevalent. Learning to look in a different direction for traffic is difficult, but must be mastered for safety. I try not to scare my passengers; my wife refuses to sit in the front passenger’s seat.

We manage the 200 miles without mishap.

Salcombe is a very popular recreational destination, mostly for summer boating. It’s nestled on a hillside on the western shore of the Kingsbridge estuary. The harbor is protected by firm headlands either side of the entry. A sand bar, deposited by currents and weather further protect the harbor, but it’s a mixed bag. Changing currents make it a little tricky to enter and exit. Some allege that Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” was written while on a yacht in this harbor. The metaphorical poem isn’t quoted by most in this village.

We find our way down the hillside, past the Holy Trinity Church, a little further down Church Street, to their cottage. Our friends’ cottage turns out to be a four story, common wall subsection of a very old row house. My wife and I are on the third floor and the kids are on the fourth. There’s a sitting area on the second with a superb view of the inner harbor. Just through the back garden is the beginning of boathouses and things nautical. The ground floor is kitchen and dining, and a lower floor is another bedroom. It’s quite a place; it’s been updated and refurbished.

Our friends, Maurice (pronounced Morris) and Jess, are active, animated hosts. Each day, Maurice and I walk out the back, down the short distance to the harbor shoreline. Here it’s active boat works. The tide change ranges to about sixteen feet. Maurice tells me that a marine company can prop a boat up on its keel and stands, clean the hull and apply a new anti-foul coating before the high tide returns. I see ample evidence that this is true. I’m impressed.

The long end of our walk stops at a doughnut shop, where we lay in a day’s supply, still warm from the oil. The walk back is filled with salt air and the smell of things growing and dying along the shore. It’s a heady experience.

Maurice and Jess tell me that their house and all the boat houses around it were used in World War II as billeting for sailors staging the Normandy Invasion. They say that graffiti remains on the wall of one of the close by boat houses. I indicate great interest and our hosts arrange for a local boatman, who has the proper keys, to meet us at the slip. We walk down back steps to the lower street and stop outside one of several closed, locked doors. Our erstwhile guide walks up from the opposite direction. We are introduced, he produces a key and unlocks history.

Light is dim beyond the door and it takes a little time to acclimate. There, on the cement block wall, is a link with the past. There’s “New Jersey, New York, and Cleveland, Ohio” scrawled on a sidewall. Other obvious stencils occupy another section. Young sailors, no doubt a little bored, maybe thinking of home, waiting for the big day, write their mementos. They were trained, provisioned, practiced, ready, and waiting to participate in the largest amphibian invasion in human history. I stare.

This is the sole remaining boathouse with intact graffiti. The rest have been painted over, refurbished or repurposed. Reluctantly, we leave the twilight of the boathouse and return to bright sun. It’s a slow climb back up the hill; I’m still in awe that I get to see that part of history firsthand.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at