There are many measures of a good town, but I think my favourite might be this: whether it was on the Soviet Union’s list of nuclear targets for an attack on Britain. Salcombe, weirdly enough, is thought by the MoD to have been one of those targets because in the event of a decapitatory bombing of London it was going to be a regional seat of government. By that point, I guess, port towns would be doing a roaring trade in mutant three-eyed fish, so it’d be as good a local capital as any.
Enough to make you visit? If not, then get this: Salcombe has just seen off Weymouth, Whitby and St Ives to top a vote for the UK’s favourite seaside town.
What is it about a pretty port that can inspire such love from one quarter and such hatred from another? Salcombe gave us Jack Wills, the clothing line that declares itself “outfitters to the gentry”, the kind of branding that provokes pretty much equal quantities of rile (Soviets) and beguile (middle-class teenagers).
Maybe that’s how Salcombe ended up on both hit lists. Then again, Jack Wills was founded in 1999. The mystery remains unsolved, and this reporter’s final investigative option was to take a sunny Friday to visit Salcombe for himself.
The topography is very “Britain’s Favourite Seaside Town”: pastel-coloured houses snowball down the crook of two bosky hills until they hit the shoreline and make way for a crush of clothes shops, pubs and boats. It’s so crowded that walking up Fore Street is like trying to cram yourself into a swimming costume already accommodating three people. When a car tries to force its way up the road, the pedestrians exhale and press themselves into shopfronts. One of the cars I stood aside for was an Aston Martin, about as useful here as… a tractor in Chelsea. Hmm.
Salcombe’s population balloons from about 2,000 in winter to more than 10 times that in summer. Some of those holidaymakers will be the flash, Aston-Martin-owning City types; others include Mary Berry, who until recently had a house here. So from book-cookers to cookbookers, summer in Salcombe has them all, and that’s not even to mention the Land-Rover-loads of boarding-school sixth-formers who come here on their first non-parental holidays.
Like birds on their first unaccompanied migration, they alight on the beaches and the pub terraces, many of them destined to, one day, drop off progeny of their own here. Thus the circle of holidaymaking life continues, and at times it feels less Salcombe than Sloane-combe.
But who can blame the visitors? The pubs are good, the restaurants even better and, on late-summer afternoons, the yellow of the sand, the green of the hills and the blue of the estuary are Mediterranean-rich. Of course, the Communists would loathe this place, but for nothing: Salcombe, we can conclude, is a town that doesn’t need a bomb to be a blast.