Tag Archives: dartmouth

Autumn in the Blackpool Valley

We perched on a stone wall overlooking the pebble beach and sea at Blackpool Sands to eat our sandwiches.  Across the water, the Start Point peninsula was a moody, dark bluish grey outline while mobile pools of bright light wandered about Start Bay as gashes in the cloud cover opened and closed. 

We had walked down the Blackpool Valley starting in bright autumn sunshine on the western edge of Dartmouth where a huge housebuilding project is now underway.  Narrow country lanes took us away from the commotion into quieter places.  Hedges were punctuated periodically with flushes of flowering ivy and the sun, following heavy rain, seemed to have brought the insects out.   An elegant ichneumon wasp, largely black but with a few white markings and with reddish legs was cleaning its antennae, and nearby we spotted a mating pair of hoverflies.  Their striped thorax reminded me of mid-20th century school blazers.  A beautiful male wall butterfly basked briefly in the sunshine, its wings, the colour of paprika and cinnamon held the essence of the season changing around us.  A few pollen-loaded female ivy bees joined the show while, on the road, two all black devil’s coach horse beetles wandered past giving us their scorpion-like, tale up, warning greeting.

The ichneumon wasp cleaning its antennae. Malcolm Storey on the British Ichneumonoidea Facebook site identified this as a male Vulgichneumon saturatorius.

Mating hoverflies, most likely Helophilus pendulus

Male wall butterfly (Lasiommata megera)

Devil’s coach-horse beetle (Ocypus olens)

At Venn Cross, we turned right along Blackpool Valley Road descending between dramatic hills and following the course of a stream in the valley bottom.  Lane side hedges had avoided a vicious flailing this season; hazel and sycamore had grown prolifically together with a few sprigs of rowan and dog rose, giving the lane an enclosed feeling.  Veteran beeches and oaks grew from the hedges and when the sun played across the beech leaves it accentuated their kaleidoscopic colour range of greens, yellows and browns.  The lower trunk of one of the old beeches had become an impromptu local notice board including a carved declaration of love. 

The declaration of love carved on a beech tree. I wonder who they were?

Blackpool Valley Road

The main stream passing over a weir, well down the Blackpool Valley

The water gathered force as we headed southwards with small streams joining the main flow from surrounding hills and, eventually we came to Riversbridge Farm, one of several old water mills situated along the valley.  Altogether we counted five former mills before we reached the sea, each set in this landscape of trees, pastures and steep hillsides.   Today it was a peaceful scene but I wondered how much it had changed over the years.  The artist Lucien Pissarro worked and lived here a century ago producing a charming set of images of the valley, a record of country life in the first part of the 20th century and apart from the arrival of the motor car the landscape and buildings look very similar (see picture below).  The mills, of course, are no longer used, they are mostly private dwellings but the buildings show signs of their former activity alongside 21st century incursions such as a small water driven hydro and a hot tub. 

We left Blackpool Sands to complete the circuit back to our car.  As we stopped to look back at the beach, as many as 30 house martins circled over the cove feeding, perhaps before leaving for warmer places. 

Blackpool Farm, formerly a mill

Blackpool Valley, Lucien Pissarro,1913, probably looking north towards Dartmouth ( City of Edinburgh Council; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/blackpool-valley-1913-93704)

We walked down the Blackpool Valley near Dartmouth in south Devon on October 8th 2020

A country walk, a clean beach and the fallacy of perpetual growth

The Christmas weather in south Devon was stormy and very wet so when we woke on December 27th to bright sunshine and clear, pale blue skies we had to get out for a walk.   We chose one combining countryside and sea, one we often walk after heavy rain as it mostly follows minor roads or paved paths.

We started at Townstal, a suburb on the edge of Dartmouth.  Townstal is noted for its leisure centre and two supermarkets but it does provide easy parking and quick access to open countryside.  Our route headed gradually southwards towards the sea along narrow roads edged by high grassy banks.   Volleys of gulls and crows rose from adjacent fields and the low sunshine created strongly contrasting areas of light and dark on the deep valleys and rolling countryside, emphasising even the slightest undulation.

Some steep ups and downs took us to Venn Cross where we turned to descend along the Blackpool Valley with its spirited stream, growing ever fuller as it gathered water from springs or from the sodden fields.  This part of the walk is tree lined and the minor road is cut into the hillside well above the stream.  Several former water mills are dotted along the valley; they are now rather grand private houses but one has installed a turbine to harness the power of the water once again.

Old Mill in the Blackpool Valley
Blackpool Mill, one of the old mills found along the Blackpool Valley. This hidden valley has changed very little over the years. Have a look at the painting below of a nearby farm to see how the area looked nearly a century ago.


Apple Blossom, Riversbridge Farm, Blackpool by Lucien Pissarro, 1921, from Royal Albert Memorial Museum Exeter


At this time of year, the trees are dark latticeworks of bare branches but pale brown immature catkins were showing well on some of the trees, readying themselves for the spring.  Patches of winter heliotrope spread along verges enclosing the ground with their fleshy, green, heart-shaped leaves.  Purple and white lollipop flowers struck through the leaves, broadcasting their characteristic almond odour.

Catkins and running water in the Blackpool Valley
Catkins above running water in the Blackpool Valley


Winter Heliotrope in the Blackpool Valley
Winter heliotrope in the Blackpool Valley


Eventually, we reached Blackpool Sands, a popular shingle beach and café, surrounded by pine trees and sheltered by steeply rising hills.    The low winter sun created strongly contrasting colours: the yellowish- brown shingle, the fringe of frothy white waves, the sea a rich dark blue tinged with turquoise highlights, and there were clear views across the bay to Start Point with its lighthouse.   Near the café, a hardy group of swimmers were struggling on their wet suits in readiness for a dip.  They passed me as they ventured in to the sea accompanied by audible yelps and shrieks.

View across Start Bay from Blackpool Sands to Start Point
View across Start Bay from Blackpool Sands to Start Point


Swimmers at Blackpool Sands
Swimmers at Blackpool Sands …… with friend.


I was keen to have a look at the shingle beach for two reasons.  There had been a very successful beach clean four days previously organised by Amanda Keetley of Less Plastic.  We hadn’t been able to be there owing to family commitments but there had also been storms since then and I wondered how much more plastic had washed up.  I didn’t find any, the beach was still clean which should have been good news.

To be honest, however, I was feeling disheartened about efforts to reduce the load of plastic in our seas after reading two articles in the Guardian over the Christmas period.  It seems that the US, along with financial support from Saudi Arabia, is planning a huge increase in plastic production, the driver being cheap shale gas.  If we are to reduce the amount of plastic in our seas we need to reduce the amount in circulation and this new plan runs directly counter to this.

Here are links to the two articles:

$180 billion investment in plastic factories feeds global packaging binge

World’s largest plastics plant rings alarm bells on Texas coast

I am not sure how this can be stopped but I am convinced that the drive for perpetual economic growth, espoused thoughtlessly by so many of our politicians, is ultimately very damaging for our planet.

Let’s hear it for Thomas Newcomen!

I feel a bit sorry for Thomas Newcomen.  In 1712 he designed the first workable steam-powered pump.  This revolutionised mining and got the Industrial Revolution going.  2012 is the tercentenary of this great event and so far the mainstream media have been almost silent about him.  To try to raise awareness, I have written an article about the Newcomen anniversary on another blogging network.  Here is the link: http://occamstypewriter.org/irregulars/2012/11/20/lets-hear-it-for-thomas-newcomen/

The greatest single advance in technology?

The picturesque town of Dartmouth in Devon is well known for its annual regatta and for the Royal Naval College where naval officers in the UK are trained.  Members of the British Royal Family have spent time there and Princess (now Queen) Elizabeth had one of her first meetings with her husband to be, Philip, when he was undergoing training there.


A few weeks ago, Dartmouth was honouring Thomas Newcomen, who has had, in some people’s eyes, a bigger impact on the world.  It was Newcomen who devised the first workable steam pump and 300 years ago established its first working prototype at a mine near Dudley Castle in Tipton, Staffordshire.  His pump enabled mining at greater depths by pumping away dangerous levels of water and made coal cheaper and more available.  His invention kick-started the Industrial Revolution in Britain and it has been said that “In the whole history of technology it would be difficult to find a greater single advance than this, nor one with a greater significance for all humanity”.  For a description of the Newcomen engine or atmospheric engine, as it sometimes known, see this site and scroll down to the second article .

New signs have been erected in Dartmouth celebrating Newcomen, there was a programme of lectures, a garden party and a beer (Newcomen Atmospheric Ale) has been brewed in his honour.  Newcomen was also honoured nationally by the issue of a postage stamp bearing his name.

One of the big local events was a new play written by the local author Linda Churchill and performed by the local “am dram” group, the Dartmouth players.  It was entitled “From Floods Defend”.

The play allowed the Dartmouth community to come together to celebrate Newcomen.  The play is essentially a chronology of his life and made little attempt to imagine the psychology behind the man.  So, we heard about his birth in the town and his very religious family and upbringing.  His religion, Baptism, played a huge part in his life and surfaced regularly during the play.  He is shown training as a lay preacher under the puritan, John Flavel who had been brought to Dartmouth by a group that included Newcomen’s father.  Flavel is shown during the play having to flee Dartmouth presumably as a result of the passing of the Act of Uniformity in 1662 which effectively removed non-conformists from the established church.  The play suggests that Newcomen’s religion gave him a stoicism in response to life’s events and it is known that his religion also provided him with important business contacts.  These included his long term collaborator, the plumber John Calley and his London business contact, Edward Wallin in whose house he probably died in 1729.

Newcomen trained as an ironmonger and made tools for sale in mines.  The play shows him on a sales visit to a coal mine in Worcestershire where he is confronted by a woman whose husband was killed in a mining accident.  This makes him recognise, for the first time, the problems of flooding and he and Calley resolve to try to solve the problem.  Newcomen and Calley are shown spending long nights of experimentation, finally being rewarded with a chance discovery that gives them the prize of a working pump.  The two men, although not scientifically trained, are skilled craftsmen and this may have helped them achieve their aim.

Newcomen and Calley are then shown in despair when they discover that a patent already exists on a steam-driven  pump in the name of Thomas Savery, another Devon inventor who had developed a primitive water pump in 1698.  In the play, a meeting between Savery and the two Dartmouth men seems to resolve this amicably.   I find this very unlikely.  It is true that Newcomen’s  pump depended on some of Savery’s ideas but Newcomen was also influenced by the work of the Frenchman Denis Papin, another person who had tried to harness the power of steam.  Despite this, Newcomen’s  pump was different and it worked.   The problem was that Savery’s patent was broad so that Newcomen had to settle for working under the Savery patent.  I would guess this held him back and reduced his income and I find it hard to believe this was amicable.  Even the 1712 prototype bears the names of Newcomen and Savery and this must have been difficult for the inventor.

An early Newcomen Engine

Newcomen’s discovery was a critical step in the Industrial Revolution in this and other countries and I did not feel the play brought out the broader implications of his work.  Many people believe that the steam engine was invented by James Watt; indeed I overheard someone discussing this in the audience.  In fact, James Watt modified the Newcomen design to improve its efficiency.   Watt made huge progress in the development of steam power and many Watt engines were built but Newcomen was the inventor.  The next big step forward was to use high pressure steam.  This required improved engineering and was achieved by the Cornishman, Richard Trevithick.   His engines were small and light enough to be used to make steam locomotives. The age of steam railways beckoned but it wouldn’t have happened without Newcomen’s  great invention.

Steam Power

The young boy, perhaps 8 years old, stands in the garden.   He watches the embankment twenty feet above him at the end of the garden, and waits.  Here comes another.  Noise, belching smoke, fire.  Sometimes they shed burning coals that set alight the dry grass on the embankment.  If he waves, the driver may wave back, the people in the coaches too.  The engines carry ornate insignia and names he can still remember.  It was like seeing old friends when “Canadian Pacific”, “Holland-Afrika Line” , “Crewkerne” or “Ottery St Mary” thundered by.  Sometimes the whole train was named and the “Pines Express” promised an exotic coastal vision of Bournemouth for northern travellers.

I am still fascinated by steam trains and fortunate to live near two preserved steam railways.  The journeys from Totnes up the Dart Valley and from Paignton along the coast to Kingswear are wonderful for observing nature but also evoke a bygone era.  It is difficult for us to appreciate nowadays the liberating effect of the coming of the railways 150 years ago.  People became freer to travel, produce could be sent further afield and lives were irreversibly changed.   

Few realise that we owe the invention of steam power to Thomas Newcomen, from Dartmouth.   The steam power he invented lead to the development of the railways.  His story is told in my latest “Strange Science” article for Devon Life Magazine (https://philipstrange.wordpress.com/published-stuff/devon-life-magazine/).