We look across the Erme estuary and see the Mothecombe coastguard cottages that I last saw some 60 years ago. They are the only buildings in a beautiful landscape. Behind them the luxuriant green hills of Devon. To the right thick woods begin, running right down to the river. To the left rocky cliffs and eventually the open sea. The cottages, actually four houses in one long, low building, nestle on top of a reinforced bank above the river. When the tide is high the water stretches perhaps 300 metres from the beach where we are standing to the foot of the bank on which the cottages nestle; but when the tide is out it’s mostly sand with the river reduced to a narrow, shallow stream.
It’s possible when the tide is out to wade through the river. A notice board says the river can be crossed an hour either side of low tide. We think that low tide is at noon, so I wade across at 11am. The water is fast flowing and reaches my knees; I cross easily, but later we learn that low tide is at 1.15, so I’ve crossed two hours before low tide. I wade back, and then all three of us cross over to Mothecombe.
We are three brothers: me 65, Brian 62, and Nicholas 57. We stayed in the coastguard cottages some 60 years ago. When I say “we” I don’t think that Nicholas ever stayed here, and Brian doesn’t remember staying there. Probably I was four, five, or six. I don’t remember how often we stayed there, but I feel it was more than once. Mothecombe lives in my mind as a kind of paradise, but most of my memories are not specific; they are feelings of warmth, excitement, adventure, good food, and something far away from my usual city surroundings in Rotherhothe–another, more glorious world.
But some memories are specific. I remember the old man whose cottage we stayed in. His name, I know now, was Bill Bickford, and our connection with him was that he was related to Leon, my Aunt Olive’s husband. She, a kindly woman whose tanned face ringed with white hair I can see now, died in the 60s, given cervical cancer by her philandering husband. With Bill I remember not a face but a cap and a big bag like a bus conductor’s bag for taking money.
He had such a bag because he took money for the car park. My most vivid memory of Mothecombe is of his car park attendant’s hut–and it being lined with pictures of near naked women. Why should this be my memory? Could it be the excitement, or even relief, of finally arriving after what was probably an eight hour uncomfortable journey car journey from London. Or was it the pictures of the women? If it was, it can’t have been an early sexual thrill but just surprise that a man would fill a hut with such pictures. And is that an accurate memory or an amalgam of dreams, pictures seen, and other memories.
The Mothecombe cottages, I came to understand on this trip, are owned by the Flete Estate. The estate owns extensive lands, much of them wooded, on both sides of the river. There are other houses on the estate, most beautifully positioned, and there is a small village of thatched cottages around a large house. Bill, I surmise, must have worked on and for the estate. Probably he was born on the estate and is perhaps buried there. He was probably born in about 1890 and perhaps left the estate only to fight in the First World War. Did he have a wife? I don’ remember one. The pictures may have been a substitute. The car park job might have been a sinecure after a lifetime of work on the estate, and perhaps the cottage was an award for loyal service. This is all speculation based on little.
My most vivid memory of Devon, and I think probably from that time although it coulhave been later, is of the sea tractor that would take us to Burgh Island. The island is a true island only around high tide. Otherwise you can walk across about 200 metres of sand to the island, which boasts an Art Deco hotel and the 14th century Pilchard Inn. The island inspired Agatha Christie, who lived close by, to write And Then There Was One, which previously had a politically incorrect title.
The sea tractor transports you to the island when the tide is high, and it comprises a platform with seats on stilts high above the large wheels. We saw the tractor on the island, and it was almost exactly as I remembered it, although in my memory it was thinner and frailer. Perhaps it was thinner then. I remember being seated on the platform, looking down through the water that was only a foot below the platform. Brian didn’t remember it, which suggests that it probably was some 60 years ago that we encountered it. It’s surely not surprising that a small boy should remember such a remarkable machine. I’ve never seen anything like it in my subsequent 60 years until today.
Every one of the three days we were in Devon was bright with sunshine, just as I remember those distant summers. I found my childhood paradise and was not disappointed.