South Devon in the early fifties

The area around Exeter has always been a favoured part of the country. Although the city had suffered some of the effects of the war, it had got off lightly compared to the rest of the country. There had been one or two daylight bombing raids but Devon, being in the West of England, had been furthest from the Luftwaffe  airfields in Northern France. Any attacks had mainly been concentrated on the naval port of Plymouth in the south west of the county.

Devon is a county of attractive countryside with areas of bleak moorland in the centre but with a beautiful coastline indented by a number of deep inlets. One of these is the estuary of the River Exe which is a broad strip of water approximately six miles long by a mile wide and leads to Exeter, the county town and seat of the bishopric and, in those days, the only university in the south west. The Exe has one fairly substantial tributary, the Clyst, which meanders through a shallow flat valley before the rivers meet at the head of the estuary (see photo). A few miles to the east of this confluence is an area of semi-moorland called Woodbury Common – an area about six miles square of rough heathland with some forest. The Common is surrounded by rich farmland and was blessed by several beautiful old semi-grand houses. This area is the main setting for Riversmeet.

In the years after the Second World War this part of the country was one of those less affected by the upheavals of the war and one of the slowest to wake up to the new Britain which was emerging. As a result of the low level of private car ownership and the fact that most heavy freight was still carried by the railways, the roads were fairly empty and one could walk or cycle with few problems from traffic. The exception was the few weekends during the summer holiday period when the Exeter By-pass became a massive traffic jam as tourists from the North and Midlands tried to reach the resorts along the Devon coast.

However in those days many people expected to travel by train. Exeter was particularly well served in this respect, being at the crossing point between two main lines from London (the Southern Railway line to Ilfracombe and Plymouth and the Great Western line through Plymouth to Cornwall). It also had direct links to the Midlands and the North through Bristol and Birmingham. I remember seeing holiday specials going down the branch line from Exeter to the beaches at Exmouth that were absolutely bursting with tourists and sunseekers.

I count myself very fortunate to have grown up in such a pleasant area at a time before all the crowding and restrictions which now exist throughout the South of England. We did not have a lot of material goods. There was no television, no transistor radios or other electrical luxuries in our house. But we had a freedom to move about the countryside, to walk the cliffs or explore the moors, to sail in the estuary and swim off the miles of sandy beaches – many of them deserted if you lived locally and knew the right places to go. I feel sorry for the modern youngsters who will never know that freedom.


Next week I will tell you some more about the towns and villages of the region in the early 1950’s.


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