Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Slapton


Our village of Slapton is well known throughout Devonshire. Pleasure-seekers troop hither for the day. Excursion-steamers make trips to us. Numerous, and sometimes royal, visitors enjoy the hospitalities of the Sands Hotel. The coast-railway from Dartmouth to Plymouth will make Slapton a fashionable watering-place. At present, we are somewhat difficult of access. Totnes is our nearest railway-station. The place, however, is so justly celebrated throughout the county which contains it, and so deserving of a more extended fame, that a short account of it may not be uninteresting to the general reader. He may have read Flavel’s work, prefaced “from my study at Slapton.” He may have heard of Admiral Hawkins’ glory in his great house of Poole; yet, forgetful, it is ten to one that he will say, as my friends said when I settled here, “Where in the world is Slapton?”

The parish of Slapton is washed by the sea. On its left is Dartmouth Harbour. On its right is the Start. The village itself nestles some three-quarters of a mile inland, where no wind can touch it, and the one great breaker of the deep bay calls to it with a chastened sound. As the Start is the first land of the homeward-bounder, all the commerce of London and Southampton passes below the Slapton Hills, and ever and anon looks in the Channel Fleet, shows its white teeth, and away! but it is not for its marine interest only, shared with many other places, that Slapton is celebrated. I do not pretend that the most delightful thing in life, as a sick woman once said, is to lie in bed and see the Start Light go around, around, around! The two celebrities of Slapton are the Ley, and the Tower.

The Ley is a stream-fed lake, barred by a gravel bank from the sea. It exceeds two miles in length; its width ranges to half-a-mile; its waters have no channel into the sea, but percolate through the gravel. The brine cannot percolate to them. On the sea-side is the great fishing-ground of England. In shore numerous fishing companies draw the seine. The fish are sold by auction. In lieu of a hammer the auctioner holds a handful of sand, when the last grain has run out, the then highest bidder is the purchaser. Out at sea are the numberless trawlers of Brixham. That delicious little fish, the launce (ammodytes), is almost peculiar to Slapton. So also is the scallop. Besides these we boast nearly every fish that swims, especially “the woodcock of the sea,” the red mullet. On the rocks around Dartmouth, and on the Skerries below the Start, are towns of crab and lobster pots, which every week in the season disgorge into the London market many hundred basketsful of crustacea. In the winter these towns cease to be submarine, and bleach about the beach and the cottages, whilst their site is swept by the oyster-dredger.

The Ley rivals the sea in piscine glory. “Good fische in Slapton Pool,” we read in an old chronicle; and the pool still sustains its reputation. Perch may be caught as fast as the hook is baited. Boat-loads upon boat-loads are used every season for manure. Roach are as plentiful as perch, though they do not wear the perch’s armour against the relentless pike. Pike of twelve pounds’ weight and upwards are frequently captured, and one old fish, called the king of the pike, supposed to weigh upwards of thirty pounds, is often seen but never caught. The best spot for pike-fishing is beside the long beds of bulrushes. There are acres of these bulrushes in the Ley. They are very valuable for thatching, and plasterers use them instead of laths.

An enterprising gentleman, now dead, purposed to establish a manufactory for converting them into pens. They certainly, under his process, rivalled the best quills. Whether, in these days of steel, the project would have answered financially, is another question. It may be supposed that the Ley is the breeding-place of many aquatic birds, and the resort of many more in hard weather. A contest between a wild duck and a pike is worth seeing. The pike catches the duck’s leg in its serrated jaws. Then comes the old game of French and English. Pull pike—pull duck. Now the duck is submerged. Now grisly snout and fierce eye are drawn out of the water. This duel is generally terminated by the duck flying away minus a leg. Every year Sir Lydston Newman, to whom the property belongs, celebrates what is called a Ley day. He occupies with his friends about seven boats, which pull down the Ley in line of battle. Their fire consequently covers the whole width of the Ley. The wild-fowl would, under ordinary circumstances, take to the sea and escape. On this occasion hundreds of shooters occupy the banks, and direct a constant fusillade against elopers. Crowds of frightened birds, ducks, teal, widgeon, coots, et hoc genus omne, fly up and down the Ley, and fall in hecatombs.

A lively account of this scene appeared a few weeks since in the “Field,” and, some years ago, there was a capital picture in the “Illustrated London News.” Those of our readers who can refer to this picture will see the amusing battle over the dead birds. Every bird that falls has been shot at by some dozen guns, and there are possibly some dozen claimants. Years ago this annual battue used to be attended by an old prize-fighter. He carried a gun, but no ammunition. When a bird neared him, he pointed his gun. Probably the bird fell before the discharges of his neighbours. “My bird,” he used to cry; and where was the rash one who would pick up that gage of battle?

The other celebrity of Slapton is the Tower. It is ninety feet high, and still in fine preservation. It is the only part remaining of a famous chantry, built by Sir Guy de Brien, one of the first Knights of the Garter. Sir Guy de Brien was standard-bearer to King Edward the Third at the Battle of Calais, 1349, and was rewarded for his intrepidity by a yearly pension of 200 marks from the Exchequer. Sir Guy de Brien does not lie here. He married the widow of Hugh de le Spenser, and was buried with her in Tewkesbury Abbey. His splendid tomb is described in pages 151 and 152 of “Sepulchral Monuments,” and engraved in plate liii. of that work. They sang for the knight’s soul at Slapton till the year 1545, when the chantry was surrendered to King Henry the Eighth, and granted to Thomas Arundell. Where once mass was said and music resounded, is a garden, and on a simple board these lines:—

The knight’s bones are dust,
And his good sword rust,
His soul is with the saints we trust.

J . S. V.