Heart of the South Hams, Devon

Soar Mill Cove Beach
Meetings Reports 2011


Our meeting in February featured a talk by Roger Barrett on “Merchant Sailing Vessels of the Salcombe Estuary”. There was a record turn-out and the talk was very well received, thanks to Roger’s extremely well researched, interesting and vividly illustrated presentation. It was fascinating to learn how our locally built boats were so important to trades such as bringing fruit to England from far-flung places. We particularly liked the fact that, even then, St. Michael was supplying us with oranges – no, not Marks & Spencer but from the island of that name (well, Sao Miguel) in the Azores!


Our April meeting attracted a very good audience for our speaker, National Trust Ranger Andrew Marsh, who gave a fascinating talk entitled “History on the Cliff”. He covered a wide range of subjects and historical periods, from the prehistoric fort on Bolt Tail, to the WW2 airfield at Bolt Head, with stops along the way to discuss the different types of boundary markers, The Warren and the transatlantic cable.

Among a number of interesting anecdotes, Andrew told us that the revenue from the sale at Smithfield Market of the rabbits caught on The Warren was sufficient to pay the rent of all the farmers involved in the enterprise – perhaps you could call this “bunny money”!


Our June “out and about” meeting to the Devon Rural Archive at Shilstone, near Modbury, was fascinating. First, we were given an introduction to the archive, housed in a large purpose-built building and containing a growing collection of books, periodicals, journals, photos, plans, maps, prints and some manuscript archives. It specialises in “delving into the history of Devon buildings and landscapes” and the archive is open to the public for research at specified times. They also organise a number of interesting events including talks and guided walks in Devon – have a look at their website,

After poring over ancient maps and leafing through books from their comprehensive collection, we were lucky enough to have the owners’ permission for a tour of the historic grounds and part of the manor house itself, guided by Consultant Archaeologist Abi Grey, a past pupil of Malborough School. She filled us in with the remarkable history of the site, from its existence as a late Iron Age/Romano British enclosure, through its recording in 1086 as a manor house, Silfestana, and its various incarnations through the centuries. In the early 19th century, the old house was demolished and a new one built, reusing much of the material, including 16/17th century carved window frames, from earlier structures. Unfortunately, subsidence necessitated half the house being demolished after only 21 years and the surviving half became a farmhouse, which the present owner bought, in a dilapidated state, at the end of the 20th century.

In 2000 an archaeological historian was commissioned to remodel the house “in a way that was befitting to a site with such a remarkable history”. Now, ten years on, the house is nearing completion and Abi showed us round the wonderfully atmospheric ground floor, which includes some amazing 17th century carved oak panelling depicting sphinxes, sea monsters, Jacobean gentlemen and Green Men!

In the grounds, we were able to see traces of the original extensive terraced formal gardens and water gardens, including an eerie grotto with a stone frieze of dancing figures, believed to be Greek gods, still partially visible. Well worth a visit.


A large turn-out attended Brian Taylor’s talk about his experiences as a local Malborough boy doing his National Service with RAF Hope Cove at the bunker at Soar.

Some 18,500 sq. ft in size, the bunker was originally built in the 1950’s Cold War era, as part of the RAF’s Rotor air defence system. Brian gave us details of the construction and its attendant problems, such as the impenetrable layer of rock the excavators came up against, necessitating a change of plan from what should have been an underground facility to one that was a third above ground.

Archive photographs showed operators in a similar 2-storey Plotting Room moving “planes” around an enormous table with telescopic wands, following instructions from supervisors in upper level “cabins”. We saw pictures of the various types of radar equipment used and Brian peppered his account with anecdotes about ferocious guard dogs, paper-spewing teleprinters and cautionary tales about spending too long in close proximity to the radar towers.

The bunker was only used by the RAF for a couple of years, after which it was used by the Home Office as a Regional Seat of Government to be used in the event of a nuclear war. We heard that one trial run was boycotted by ministers when they were told they couldn’t take their wives!

A wonderful insight into life in the bunker and a chilling reminder of how close we actually came to Armageddon.