150th Annual Conference, Torquay 2012

The Devonshire Association’s 150th anniversary conference and AGM was held from Thursday to Sunday, 24–27 May 2012 at the Torquay Museum. The social programme included a Reception with supper and musical entertainment at the Living Coast, and the Conference Dinner and a subterranean tour at Kents Cavern. The Reception took place in the presence of our patrons, the Earl and Countess of Devon, and the Mayor of Torbay and his partner.

Some highlights

Portrait of William Pengelly, Torquay Museum

Torquay was different from other Devonshire Association conferences. It was held there because the DA was conceived in Torquay (though born in Exeter in 1862) and it was (allowing perhaps for a little scientific, literary and artistic licence) bigger, better and filled with more highlights than any other. We were honoured by the presence of the Earl and Countess of Devon who had accepted an unprecedented invitation to become our patrons for the 150th anniversary year. By happy coincidence, some 150 members registered to attend the proceedings, mainly based in the Torquay Museum’s Pengelly Hall, built as a memorial to the Association’s founding father whose portrait presides over all who meet there. The numbers were augmented by friends and guests who attended for some of the events.

The Chairman’s Reception on Thursday 24 May featured a distinctive display of Devon folk-lore, including traditional songs and step-dancing, performed with skill and enthusiasm by members of the new Music Section who themselves were given a wholehearted reception by an appreciative audience. On Friday, Robin Wootton assessed William Pengelly’s contribution to scholarship and the DA, while Paul Rainbird pointed up the significance of Kents Cavern for our understanding of evolution. Pengelly’s work was the first example of modern scientific excavation, setting the standards for many years in the recording of evidence. These talks provided the context for a memorable visit to Kents Cavern in the evening. Strolling between the stalagmites with a glass of cold white wine was an experience to be treasured. We were reminded that the place was still at the forefront of research: its world-famous jawbone, discovered in 1927, has recently been re-dated and is 7,000 years older than previously thought. This makes the Cavern, it is claimed, the site of the earliest human settlement in north-west Europe, occupied for a little over 40,000 years.

Earlier on Friday, Malcolm Hart, Emeritus Professor at Plymouth University, brought alive the geodiversity of Torbay, putting together a jigsaw puzzle, including among its pieces continental drift, climatic change, the folding of rocks and Vostok ice-cores from Antarctica. This produced a geological portrait of the area, showing why Torbay had achieved World Heritage status and supplying a comprehensive briefing for Sunday’s visit. Pictures were at the heart of Tom Greeves presentation on the photographic record of Torquay in the 1860s, using the collection of an eminent photographer, Francis Bedford.

Members were entertained at the President’s Reception with a lively after-dinner speech by Simon Timms celebrating some of the Association’s achievements over 150 years. They even extended, he said, to a survey of Devon cream teas, documented in the centenary issue of the Transactions by the Recorder of Devonshire Verbal Provincialisms.(¹) This whimsical remark, evidence of his thorough homework, brought a surprise for speaker and audience – for among them was the author of the report which, she explained, charted the various terms used in Devon to describe the bun on which cream is spread.

(1) Moore (Gillian, F.) 1962 ‘Sixty-sixth report on Devonshire verbal provincialisms’, Rep. Trans. Loc. Advmt. sci., vol. XCIV, pp. 172-76.

On Saturday, Stephen Essex, from Plymouth University, and Elizabeth Raikes, Chief Executive of Torbay Council, focussed on the development of Torbay in the last century, particularly the demands of tourism. Their talks were illustrated with examples of the famous series of railway posters and pictures of the extent of the re-building needed to continue attracting tourists.

After a presentation to thank Nicholas Orme for his substantial contribution as president, his successor, Peter Beacham, was installed in office. The formal part of the Conference culminated in a distinguished Presidential Address on The inspiration of Devon: landscape, seascape and townscape – a big picture woven from strands such as the innovative influence of W. G. Hoskins on the appreciation of landscape; the role of planning; and the imprint of the built environment, including materials like thatch and cob. It was a landmark address on a historic occasion.

Hazel and Paul Luscombe

Out and about – Torbay

On a fine Sunday afternoon, members and guests boarded their boat at Haldon Quay for a journey round the English Riviera’s Geopark with geologist, Malcolm Hart, and local historian, John Risdon.

We first headed east to Hope’s Nose, passing the 400 million year-old Devonian limestone cliffs of Dyers Quarry and Triangle Point, followed by Meadfoot Beach and Thatcher Rock, all formed when the area lay south of the Equator. Our boatman took us close to the shore at Hope’s Nose where we saw the raised beach, now 9 metres above sea-level, created 125,000 years ago during the Ipswichian inter-glacial and sitting on contorted limestone and volcanic rocks.

Next, we headed out to sea, travelling south towards Berry Head (see below), and then we passed close to the Brixham breakwater before reaching Elberry Cove where Lord Churston’s bathing house, surveyed by the Buildings Section in 1997 (see here), still stands. Cruising northwards along the coast, and passing the Upper Devonian formation at Saltern Cove, we came to Goodrington where the geology changes to Lower Permian red breccia, and the 19th century Naval Hospital (now a pub) can be seen, followed by Roundham Head with its cliffs formed of breccia layers interspersed with thin layers of blown sand.

The marine environments over which we passed, once a favourite anchorage of the 19th-century Channel fleet, are now home to important areas of sea grass meadows, with cuttle-fish and sea-horses – soon to be designated, it is hoped, as a Marine Conservation Zone.

As usual with Malcolm Hart’s excursions, we were given an excellent hand-out packed with information about what we were seeing – a fine memento of a grand day out.

Out and about – Sandridge Park

One of the last events of the conference was the visit to the home of Mrs Rosemary Yallop at Sandridge Park, a grade II* listed building near Stoke Gabriel. Members were divided into two parties, one taken on a guided tour of the ground floor, while the other examined the newly-landscaped grounds, including the extensive walled garden. The full story of the house was told by Mrs Yallop at the Dulverton Conference in 2009.(²)

(2) Yallop (Rosemary), 2009 ‘A history of Sandridge Park: An House More Worthy of the Situation’, Rep. Trans. Devon Assoc. Advmt. Sci., vol. 141, pp. 181-217.

John Dunning, a local boy from Ashburton, studied law and eventually became Solicitor-General, a Privy Councillor, an M.P. and, in 1782, Lord Ashburton. His marriage to wealthy heiress, Elizabeth Baring, in 1781 (and his astute property investments) enabled him to propose building a fine house at Sandridge, overlooking the Dart. However, he died in 1783, and his widow engaged the architect, John Nash, to design and build the present house around 1805, although she herself died in 1809, and it was let to a succession of tenants.

Requisitioned by the War Department in world war II, the house was left empty and derelict after the war, until it was purchased by Lord Cathcart who cleared away the war-time encampment and saved the house from demolition. It was bought by the present owners in 2006 and restored following the original design as closely as possible.

Brian Rolph

Out and about – Berry Head

Earlier showers had left fresher air and brilliant sunshine for the group that visited the Torbay Coast and Countryside Nature Reserve at Berry Head on the Sunday afternoon, enabling clear views northwards across Tor Bay and with Hay Tor prominent on the distant Dartmoor skyline.

Led by official guide Valda, members explored the limestone promontory’s heathland, whose many flowers in bloom at this time included yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor), white rockrose (Helianthemum apenninum) and black medick (Medicago lupulina). On a north-facing cliff-face, the tiers of nesting guillemots were viewed, with kittiwakes on the lower ledges. Not seen, however, on this day, were any razorbills or gannets – non-resident here but often seen offshore – but one group member saw a cirl bunting. There were glimpses of the grazing Soay sheep and Red Devon cattle.

A strategic point from Iron Age times, with signs of an early fortress and high ramparts, the headland also bears many remains of substantial coastal forts built as defences during the Napoleonic War, as well as remnants of gun positions and lookout posts from the first and second world wars.

Still vital for the safety of seafarers is the small lighthouse, just 15 ft tall and sited 191 ft above sea level. Instrumental in its placement here in 1906 was Devon-born Captain Robert Hoare, an Elder Brother of Trinity House, who hailed from Dean Prior.

Helen Harris