Beach breach leaves dead man's land of shifting sands
In Brixham parlance, "To go round the Head" was once used as a term for dying. The surprisingly remote coastal region on the west side of Berry Head, on the other hand, has nothing to do with the Great Hereafter – but the area does have a mysterious, forgotten-world quality all of its own.
One of its beaches probably got its name because a dead man was found there.
Certainly if you walk down to lonely Man Sands you will feel far from life's modern merry-go-round – despite the massive conurbation of Torbay seen from the tops of the hills which loom behind this secret seaside.
The coastal corner between Brixham and Kingswear on the Dart is South Devon's forgotten land. A world of rock stacks and roosting ravens, shags, fulmars and gulls – a littoral zone of inaccessible coves and dreamy demesnes.
Holiday Home FOR SALE in Brixham, South Devon £2500 OFF any Regal...View details
Holiday Home FOR SALE IN BRIXHAM WITH SEA VIEWS over looking St. Mary's Bay beach. Come and take a look today. ONE WEEK ONLY. Facilities on site. Pools, Ents, Club, Shop. Quiet park with stunning area
Terms: Not to be used in conjunction with any other offer or with a P/X on park. Come and take a look today and own your own part of South Devon. For allot less than you can imagine!! Letting permitted
Contact: 01803 220485
Valid until: Sunday, May 26 2013
It is also a world of deep green valleys, and it is at the foot of a couple of these that you will find a brace of beaches. Glorious, sheltered, lonely beaches that fit the Secret Seaside bill to a tee.
I say sheltered, but in an easterly gale these shores take a beating – so much so that one of the beaches has become a cause celebre for people who study climate change.
We'll hear more about Man Sands in a bit – but first let's find out the best way to explore this little-known zone.
The National Trust property of Coleton Fishacre is well signposted from the main Brixham to Kingswear road, though you do have to make your way down a couple of miles of narrow country lanes.
Just before you round the final sharp right-hand bend on the way to the famous property you will see Scabbacombe Lane dead ahead. Half a mile down here there's a trust-owned car park which makes an ideal base from which to explore.
A path descends the grassy valley below the car park to reach the coast at Scabbacombe Sands. This is a small, intimate beach which is popular with naturists in summer. But if the tide is out you can walk around to the much bigger Long Sands and find a peaceful spot where no one, clothed or otherwise, will bother you – unless it is a coastguard organising your rescue after you've foolishly been cut off by the incoming sea.
North of Long Sands, beyond Crabrock Point, we come to Man Sands, either by boat or by climbing high above the cliffs on the coast path. There is no way you could scramble around the headland at wave level.
You could describe the deep valley which plays host to Man Sands as one of the most fascinating places in the region and it is certainly attracting the attentions of scientists and geographers. Why? Because it is a place where the trust is overseeing what scientists call "managed retreat".
Where farmers had for decades drained the low fields at the sea end of the valley as best they could for agricultural purposes, there is now a rapidly changing wetland area.
Some years ago the trust decided to allow Mother Nature to have her wicked way – partly because the charity began to question the wisdom of constantly bolstering up the beach to keep seawater out of the fields.
Half a dozen years later, experts are watching the ever-changing situation closely.
"Before the breach of the shingle we had a large lake down here," said the trust's local ranger, Tim Bumby. "But since the breach we have had the beach building up each summer, and a wetland area being created each winter.
"It is a constant cycle. The beach builds up, then it goes again because of the water flows. The cycle has been happening on and off but basically it builds up in summer and breaks down during winter. But last year the cycle was more regular – the beach breached about four times.
"In fact, on Christmas Eve we had a massive breach," said Tim, who added that the trust was attempting to manage the situation.
"We have planted a reed bed which hopefully will become a shelter belt for wintering birds – it is extending across the lower end of the wetland which is good because when we get an easterly wind there's no shelter. We've also created a couple of other scrapes up the valley which offer some shelter.
He added: "We're getting a mix of visiting birds. There are fewer wildfowl, like duck. Now we're seeing more interesting species like reed bunting and water-rails. We even had a bittern down there at one time and we still have nesting coots, moorhens and mallards.
"In fact, we have recently installed a bird hide and very soon there will be some interpretation material going up in there.
"Basically, what we now have instead of a large open area of water is more of a marshland, with a great variety of flora and fauna. The downside is that bird-watching is more difficult because everything is in the rushes rather than being out on open water – but this is very much an ongoing project.
"We have ideas about what may happen, but really we are letting nature take its course. We certainly saw that in 2012 – with so much water coming down, the area never got the chance to stabilise itself – so it will be interesting to see what will happen over the next couple of months."
Many people are studying managed retreat closely. If climate change means we'll be experiencing higher sea levels and more regular violent or freak weather conditions, then some of our coastal areas will be in the firing line.
"The Man Sands project has been taken as a case study in a nationwide publication the trust prepared called Shifting Shores," Tim said. "We are going to watch the area closely over the next ten years to see what happens. We've had a lot of interest."
I once asked Tim's predecessor at the trust where the name Man Sands came from, and he said: "We don't really know. All I can say is that several years ago a human skeleton was found in the shingle bar and it was thought it was a sailor from the time when ships buried the dead on the nearest part of shoreline."
So maybe there was truth in that old Brixham phrase about "going around the Head". And if the beach keeps breaching who knows what else will be discovered lying underneath the sands? In a century's time they might have to find another name for what will be a very different beach and valley.