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.