Only 18 miles from Totnes the village of Hallsands near Kingsbridge in south Devon is the village that fell into the sea. To say the village is still there would be bending the truth slightly, however the remains (which are now closed) can still be seen from the safety of a viewing platform over the cliffs.
No-one knows exactly when Hallsands was established although some say it was probably in about 1600 and growing in the 18th and 19th centuries. By 1891 it had 37 houses, the London Inn and a population of 159 with a very close community. Most residents owned their own homes and depended on fishing, mainly crab, for a living. It was a hazardous business with irregular earnings and frequent losses at sea. Everyone, including women and children, helped haul in the boats and nets.
Everything was fine until the 1890s when the Admiralty decided that the naval dockyard at Keyham near Plymouth should be expanded which required hundreds of thousands of tons of concrete. In January 1896 the construction company Sir John Jackson Ltd was granted permission to dredge shingle from the coast between Hallsands and neighbouring Beesands. Many fishermen at the time, who knew the area offshore intimately, opposed the plans saying the dredging would alter the seabed as well as the beach and what was taken would certainly not be replaced.
Despite the resident’s protestations dredging began in the spring of 1897 and during the next four years some 660,000 tonnes of material were removed. Activity was eventually paused when opposition from several fishing villages grew as they saw their shingle beaches being relentlessly carried away.
It took 18 years from the start of the dredging to the final destruction of Hallsands village. It had been assumed that the removal of any shingle would be replaced naturally but we now know that the same shingle which protects the nearby villages of Beesands and Torcross was deposited thousands of years ago during the ice ages, and is not being replaced.
An inquiry was established in response to protests from villagers who feared the dredging might threaten their beach and village, but dredging continued after it was decided that the activity was not likely to pose a significant threat. However by 1900 the level of the beach had started to fall and in the autumn storms that year, part of the sea wall was washed away. In November 1900, villagers petitioned their Member of Parliament, Frank Mildmay complaining of damage to their houses, and in March 1901 Kingsbridge Council wrote to the Board of Trade complaining of damage to the road.
The Liberal MP for the area was extremely supportive of the residents of Hallsands and on more than one occasion offered his own money to help out the residents.
In September 1901 a new Board of Trade inspector concluded that further severe storms could cause serious damage and recommended that dredging be stopped and on 8th January 1902 the dredging licence was revoked.
On 26th January 1917 a combination of easterly gales and exceptionally high tides breached Hallsands’ defences and the village fell into the sea! Miraculously no one was hurt but many families had to relocate to neighbouring villages having lost everything.
Only one house was left standing after the destruction. The owner Elizabeth Prettyjohn stubbornly refused to leave and lived there with her chickens until her death in 1964. She acted as a guide to the visitors who came over the years curious to see the remains of the village. Today her house is used as a summer holiday home.
Another famous Hallsands resident was Ella Trout together with her sisters Patience, Clara and Edith. When their fisherman father, William, became sick, Patience and then Ella gave up school and operated his boat which was the only source of income for the family. William died in 1910 when Ella was 15 years old. On 8th September 1917, after the Hallsands disaster, Ella was crab fishing with her 10 year old cousin William when they saw the SS Newholm struck by a naval mine one mile south of Start Point. With William Stone, another fisherman in the vicinity, they rowed to the scene and helped rescue nine men. In recognition of her bravery she received the Order of the British Empire.
The sisters, with compensation for the destruction of their cottage at Hallsands plus some earnings, built Trout’s Hotel on the cliff above the deserted village. The Trouts ran the hotel successfully until 1959. More recent owners moved down from London and attracted some of their well-known friends to stay including Danny La Rue and Larry Grayson, and for years their signed photographs hung on the walls of the dining room. The hotel has since been turned into apartments now called Prospect House.
In more recent years the story of Hallsands has been turned into an opera called ‘Whirlwind’ commissioned by acclaimed company Streetwise Opera and written by Will Todd, one of the country’s leading young opera composers, and Ben Duwell, and has also featured in a book by Steve Melia called “Hallsands; A Village Betrayed”.
You can walk to Hallsands from the villages of Beesands or Torcross following the South West Coast Path. Beesands, albeit a small village, has a café and toilets and free car parking. Torcross is bigger with a few cafes and a pub and more (charged) parking. Please note that you can no longer drive from Blackpool Sands to Slapton Sands and then on to Torcross because of the recent storms and road damage which in itself is somewhat ironic.
Hallsands and Beesands are both walkable with a moderate degree of accessibility from Torcross, which has ample (paid) parking. Beesands however has free parking. If driving from Totnes head for Dartmouth, then Slapton and finally Torcross.
If you want to travel by bus you can take the 164 to Kingsbridge or the X64 to Dartmouth and then catch the number 3 to Torcross. All routes joining the coastal villages are part of the South West Coast Path and therefore accessible at all times.