Mortehoe: the rocks remain

Our journey back from north Cornwall took us by way of Mortehoe which lies out on the north Devon coast beyond Ilfracombe.  While the village itself exhudes a contented, comfortable  charm, this is a wild place.  Mortehoe  is situated midway between two of the most treacherous headlands in Devon – the dangerous rocks of Morte Point (Death Point) to the west and Bull Point to the north.

Memories brought us here.  For Rita, this was the place she came every summer, staying in the Vicarage with her grandmother, who was housekeeper to her uncle, the vicar.  The walk down to Rockham beach was one traversed by the family innumerable times, laden down with baskets of food and beach gear.

Then, 40 years ago, shortly after we met, I was drawn into the circle and came to know the place when we called in on the way down to Cornwall.   But my most vivid memory is of one indescribably cold Christmas spent here in the rambling Victorian vicarage, that seemed to possess no means of heating apart from a feeble fire in the lounge and a grouchy Aga in the kitchen.

The Vicarage has now been coverted into holiday accommodation, and there’s a seafood restauarant opposite that wasn’t there before.

St Mary’s church, where Rita’s uncle was the last resident vicar, is another of Simon Jenkins’ best.  The historian WG Hoskins described it as ‘one of the most interesting in North Devon, a  Norman church largely spared by the restorer’. Beyond the lychgate is a small graveyard, including some of ship-wrecked sailors.  Inside there are fine carved bench ends, some featuring  grotesque sea monsters, while a 1905 mosaic over the chancel arch dominates the interior.

We walked out, past the old vicarage, to the north end of the village where, just opposite the footpath to Rockham Bay is North Morte Well,  restored in 1993.  We headed down to Rockham beach just as the overcast skies that drifted in as we drove into Devon finally lifted and the sun broke through.

We sat on the beach, looking out towards Lundy Island, and I recalled that one day, 40 years ago, we took photos of each other here on this beach surrounded by the fantastic rock formations, and that R’s vicar uncle, who painted in his spare time, made paintings from them. Sadly, after his death they were lost.

The rocks, with their distinctive jagged, razor-sharp edges, some in the shape of Stegosaurus dinosaur armour plates, are known as the Morte Slate. It’s a terrifying rock, which looks specially designed to rip ships apart. Which is exactly what did happen.  The currents here are treacherous and caused many ships to be wrecked on the rocks.

In fact, right before us there were the remains of a 19th century wreck (above); it was there 40 years ago and is there still. This stretch of coast was referred to by locals as ‘the place God made last and the devil will take first’. It has a rich history of smuggling and wrecking; the wreckers of Mortehoe were greatly feared by sailors.

Bull Point Lighthouse was built in 1879, partly in response to a plea by local ship-owners and merchants who complained about the ‘barbarous conduct of lawless wreckers’. Before the lighthouse was built, ships would be lured onto the rocks with deliberately misplaced lights; the wreckers would then plunder its cargo, killing any survivors in the process.

Back in the village, it seemed a gentler place now.  We got in the car and headed for Exmoor.

6 thoughts on “Mortehoe: the rocks remain

  1. What wonderful connections you and R have with this place; the memories must have come flooding back and the image of those childhood summer picnics being conveyed from the vicarage to the beach must be a treasured one. A real shipwreck to boot; all that’s missing are the lashings of ginger beer – or perhaps that was there, too, tucked into the hamper.

  2. Great blog, bring’s back many memories of my childhood in Mortehoe.
    I remember Mrs Holland and Rev Kingdon. The Rev had pekenese dogs, invariably names Chang. We village kids would attend”Chang’s” Christmas parties.

    1. Great to read your response, Pat. The ‘R’ I mention in the post, whose grandmother was the Rev Kingdon’s housekeeper is my wife, Rita. She would spend summer holidays at the vicarage and has photos of the different Changs. I met the last in the line when we got together after university – as bad-tempered as the rest, I gathered. I’ll always remember one Christmas visit to the house – I’ve never been so cold!

  3. I don’t remember much about inside the vicarage really, I would’ve only been about 5 or 6 when I went to my first party. I’ve got a photo of me dressed up and ready to go, as Annie Oakley. I do remember my Mum used to get a bit cross because the Rev always let Chang, no matter which iteration, do it’s business in our gateway when he took it for walks. lol.

    I would’ve been riding around the village on my trike in the late 1950s, early 60s, would Rita have been around then? I don’t remember her, to be honest, but may have seen her and not know who she was.

    You might be interested in this facebook page:

    It’s called Woolacombe and Mortehoe, Old Photos and people are invited to put up their photos of the villages. Some of us have put photos our ancient rellies as well.


  4. Rita was certainly around then. Each summer she would play with Caroline and Andrea who lived opposite the vicarage. The three of them would spend ages dressing up. Do you remember them? Thanks for the Facebook link.

  5. I do remember Caroline and Andrea, they were a bit older than me so I didn’t get to play with them really. They had a younger sister, too but I don’t recall her name right now. Still, the summer hols were lovely times.

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