Clifftop memories of a Devon shipwreck

Bolt Head, South Devon This Finnish windjammer loaded with thousands of tons of grain had reached Falmouth from south Australia in just 86 days

Eighty years ago the cliff-land here was thronged with curious sightseers, including my grandfather and uncle who drove from St Dominic to view the wreck of the Herzogin Cecilie with its masts towering towards the spectators. This Finnish windjammer – a four-masted barque loaded with thousands of tons of grain – had reached Falmouth from the Boston Island anchorage in south Australia in just 86 days, but on the last lap towards Ipswich it foundered on the Ham Stone off Soar Mill Cove.

Hosegoods, the Plymouth grain merchants, salvaged damp wheat, and my grandfather bought some cheaply for delivery to Cotehele Mill via the river Tamar and his barge, the Myrtle. It was mixed with extra-dry Persian barley, made into pig and poultry meal, and sold to local farmers.

Later, in 1943, when Uncle Peter was in military hospital in South Africa he met the captain’s wife, Pamela Eriksson, who had been on board during that fateful voyage. I have a copy of her book The Duchess, published in 1958, describing that voyage and the way of life connected with those awesome merchant sailing ships based in the Åland islands.

Today, on a cloudy afternoon, the flattest fields are overlooked by the billowing air-sock of a private airfield. Large agricultural machinery is driven fast to cut and pick up grass in this rare dry interlude. A few swallows course low above patchy crops of ripening barley, and luxury bell tents await occupants at East Soar with its flowery meadows, ponds, twittering sparrows and hedgerows of bramble flowers.

Old slate gate-posts and pillars of a restored barn are miniature versions of the pinnacles and jagged rocks on the cliffs around Starehole Bay and on Bolt Head. Swirls of coastal mist seep upwards and across the cliff-tops where purple selfheal, yellow vetch and cream wood sage thrive among the intense greenness of gorse, bracken and sheep pasture.

Out to sea, a strip of bright sky encroaches from the south-west and casts a pink glow on cliffs beyond the entrance to Salcombe. Inland, the song of skylarks is heard again, louder than the swish of distant sea.

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Virginia Spiers

The GuardianTramp

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