The secret coast: Don’t mention the Armada, Sybil...

Picture perfect Bucks Mills

Picture perfect Bucks Mills - Credit: Archant

Local writer, author and ‘campervan cook’ MARTIN DOREY heads off in search of a legendary family among the wooded valleys of Bideford Bay and finds that truth, as ever, is more interesting than fiction

Picture perfect cottages in Bucks Mills

Picture perfect cottages in Bucks Mills - Credit: Archant

Sometimes it’s difficult to separate myth from reality in Devon. And often, when you find out the truth, it’s disappointing. So when I went to talk to fisherman Chris Braund and historian Janet Few about Bucks Mills, I panicked a bit when they said: “Don’t mention the Armada.”

If the part of the tale where everyone in Bucks Mills is descended from Armada survivors is untrue, what about the rest of it? What would happen to the juiciest part of my story?

I needn’t have worried. The story of Bucks Mills is colourful enough – even without an Armada.

There’s a big estate, of course, with an unlikely name, the Pine-Coffins, who owned the land to the east. There is a village that shared a surname. There is a ruined folly. There are lives saved, and none lost. There is a Coffin Road, where the dead were taken to the church at Parkham. There are links to aristocratic London between the wars, a boarding house owner with raven hair and a flower in her hair. And in case you need celebrity, Prunella Scales, who was evacuated here in 1939, makes an appearance.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

It’s easy to imagine that the coastal combes of Bideford Bay have been neglected or forgotten. Despite being close to the main road, they remain silent and secretive. SSSI and AONB status, private ownership and the protective hand of the National Trust have enabled the area to stay undeveloped.

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Access isn’t easy. You can drive into Bucks Mills but the walk to the rocky beach is steep. The majority of the Portledge Estate, which was sold off in 1982 to pay death duties, remains in private hands, so there is no public access other than walking in along the coast path or from Horn’s Cross. From the (very friendly) Coach and Horses it’s ‘one mile down and two miles back’ through the dark and dank, National Trust-owned Peppercombe Valley to the lonely rocky beach and Portledge’s low tide sands. The valley’s houses, which once provided shelter for a small community of around ten families, are now picture-perfect Landmark Trust cottages, enjoying exclusivity and privacy at a price.

I say this like it’s a problem, but it isn’t. I love the fact that you can lose yourself here. It was the same in the late 19th century and early 20th century, when faces from London Society descended on Bucks Mills to enjoy anonymity among the private fishing folk of the Braund family.

They were quite taken with the place, and, in particular, the landlady of a local boarding house. Mamie, who was also the unofficial harbourmaster, had dark hair, blue eyes, a coastal tan and wore a flower in her hair. It was she who inspired the Armada story that first appeared in the London Standard in 1928. With her exotic looks it’s easy to believe that survivors had washed ashore and settled down here.

Despite the Armada story, most of the cottages in Bucks Mills date from no earlier than 1796. But there was a family, the Braunds, whose name was ubiquitous from the start of the 19th century.

Between 1840 and 1900 around 90% of the people living there shared the surname. They grew vegetables, went to sea and kept themselves to themselves, apart from when the time came for courtship. That was when they looked further afield. And woe betides any suitor looking for love with the pretty maids of Bucks. Even so, the coastal path to Peppercombe is well worn.

And yes, there was a King! This was Captain James Braund, the patriarch, who saved 12 lives throughout his life and piloted many ships safely across Bideford Bay’s treacherous Bar. His home, King’s Cottage, sits on the cliff edge and offers unrivalled views. It was he who inspired the ‘postman poet’ to write and publish a pamphlet The Braunds of Bucks, and it was sales of the tome that paid for Captain James’ lifeboat, the New Grace Darling.

Today, only eight of the 30 cottages in Bucks Mills – are occupied year round. The rest are holiday cottages or second homes. So whilst its changing fate follows the path of many of our other coastal communities, at least a new – albeit very different - generation is getting to enjoy this part of Devon’s secretive coast.

The Secretive Coast: truth is stranger than fiction

•The grand folly, Peppercombe Castle, was once the summer residence of the Pine-Coffin Family. It was abandoned but some of its remains can still be seen in the woods – along with the space where the tennis court was.

•The Pine Coffins got their name from marriage when a Pine, in a moment of beautiful irony, married a Coffin.

•The Coffin Road was not named because it was how the dead went to their final resting place in Parkham. It was because it led out of the village behind the Coffin Arms, a pub that closed in 1864.

•The river that dissects the village marks the estate and parish boundary. Those who lived on the east side went to Parkham to worship, those on the west, to Woolfardisworthy.

•There is a second castle at Peppercombe, an Iron Age fort with a lookout that offers incredible views of the coast.

•Bucks Mills developed around the time of the Napoleonic wars when Britain desperately needed to increase food production. The lime kilns here were built at this time to provide fertiliser for the land they began cultivating.

•In 1939 Prunella Scales lived in John’s Cottage when her father was posted to Somerset. It is said that her character Sybil Fawlty was based on a local landlady.

•Captain James Braund was a successful pilot because King’s Cottage enjoyed better views of the sea than his competitors in Clovelly. Thus he was able to get his gig to the ships first, so get the gig, so to speak.

•The coast here has a unique ownership status in that it is privately owned down to the low water mark because Colonel Coffin changed it in 1850 so he could claim the pebbles on the shoreline for himself. Elsewhere in the UK the Crown owns everything below the mean high water mark.

•Bucks Mills’ sandy ‘gut’ was blasted in the 1780s to allow boats to be dragged on to the shore.

•Somewhere in the woods between Peppercombe and Bucks Mills is a ruined cottage belonging to Zachary Found. He was so called because he was found under a hedge in Morwenstow.

•Mamie, the boarding house owner who sparked the Armada stories and who ran away with an actor in the 1920s, married a childhood sweetheart in her ’80s.

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