Travellers’ tales about Sidmouth

From crumbling cliffs to house visits, Nostalgia delves into some travellers’ tales about Sidmouth over the centuries

OVER the years, Sidmouth has made a name for itself as somewhere to visit to enjoy sunshine, sea air and beautiful scenery.

Some of these visits are recorded in Todd Gray’s book East Devon, The Travellers’ Tales, which contains 45 travellers’ tales from the past five centuries.

Their accounts give a good insight into East Devon and well-known writers included in Todd’s book are John Lelend from London in 1542 and Daniel Defoe (1724) who travelled through Honiton and Ottery St Mary to Exeter.

Todd writes in his introduction: “Few visitors leave behind them written records of their impressions; one such traveller was the poet John Keats who passed through Honiton in May 1818, composed a letter to a friend and neglected to mention the town or any other place he saw in East Devon.”

But, after much research in national and county archives and libraries, Todd Gray’s book has produced some fine accounts, many from clergymen - including the Reverend Edmund Butcher from Sidmouth.

In 1803 John Evans of Islington, stayed with the Rev Butcher and says of Sidmouth: “At present, Sidmouth is only known as a place of resort for the valetudinary and the dissipated; and to each of these it presents attractions peculiarly inviting.

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“Seated on the base of the two lofty mountains which form its charming vale, and closed up on the north by the Honiton hills, it presents its bosom only to the southern ray, and to the southern zephyr, and fanned by the pure breeze of the ocean alone, must, of course, be well calculated to redress the injury which filthy cities, crowded rooms, and mephitic vapours, entail upon mankind.

“In this respect Sidmouth claims a decided superiority over all its competitors for public resort…”

In 1819 a Mrs Harriet Mundy from South Ormsby, Lincolnshire, accompanied by her husband Charles and their two children, Harriet and Sophy, began her travels from Weymouth along the south coast through Dorset, Devon and Cornwall to Lands End and back – a journey of some 730 miles.

In the journal she kept she remarks on her travels to Sidmouth.

“On getting near Sidmouth, we were obliged to leave the main road from its being under repair and mistaking the way found ourselves in some narrow lanes which were extremely awkward for the carriage and in one place dangerous.

“We however reached the London Inn without accident about 10 o’clock…

After a walk to the beach she writes: “The cliffs are fine and their red colour add much to the richness of the scenery. The shore is covered with pebbles, the sands bad for walking.

“The promenade above the beach and the houses fronting the sea appear good.”

She describes it as the most beautiful place she had visited so far.

Thomas Pougher Russell was a Gloucester banker who came to Sidmouth for a month in 1837.

He kept a daily account of his visit and writes of a trip to Knowle Cottage, owned by Mr Fish and “shown to strangers every Monday.”

He says: “It is quite in the Gothic style. You enter a long gallery and there are numerous rooms on each side, all fitted quite as much as convenience will admit with tables of all sizes and shapes covered with ornamental china, jewellery and knick-knacks of all description in the greatest profusion and beauty, a surprising collection of tasteful articles of all kinds arranged with the greatest art, china of every sort, clocks and watches on elegant stands – paintings and miniatures – in short everything that fancy can imagine is collected without regard to expense.”

Later, in September, he writes: “Went out in a boat this morning, sea rather rough so that the ladies were under some alarm and did not go far from the shore – the boatmen showed us sea kale growing on the rocks and said it was excellent eating in the spring.”

Walter White, who had been a cabinet maker in Reading and New York before 1850, was employed in the library of the Royal Society some 11 years before his Westcountry tour

In 1855 he writes of Sidmouth’s red cliffs: “…the cliff is washed into deep gullies, and lumps of all sizes come sliding down the saturated slopes, multiplying the heaps below, and running across the beach in red slimy streams.

“The process of waste is going on before your eyes, from small to great; but the greatest went the sea, dashing on the shore in is wrath, undermines the solid cliff, and with tongue of foam licks off the fallen masses by thousands of tons.”

*East Devon: The Travellers’ Tales, is available at Paragon Books, priced �13.99 or direct from Stevens Books, Taddyforde House South, Taddyforde Estate, New North Road, Exeter, EX4 4AT.