On the South Devon Coast, a new walking tour reveals a forgotten history of piracy and smuggling in one of England’s most underrated beach towns. Learn about Exmouth’s fascinating past, then embrace the laidback Devon lifestyle with a cold pint and award-winning fish and chips!
By Richard Collett
‘Exmouth! Thy rugged, red-brown cliffs, a lovely spot to see. The winding silvery River Exe flows, with the briny sea.’A poem from a postcard printed during the First World War to remind British soldiers of home.
“You’ll be surprised at the characters from Exmouth who have shaped history,” said Claire Martin, the founder of Exmouth Tours as we trudged uphill to a viewpoint above the seaside town of Exmouth, on Devon’s southern coast. “There’s Lady Nelson, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Sir Fairfax Moresby to get us started.”
Lady Nelson lived here when she was estranged from her husband, who famously died after winning the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Sir Walter Raleigh was a notorious privateer who brought tobacco to England, and Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea is named after that last Exmouth local, who helped to put an to the Indian Ocean slave trade in the 19th century.
Ada Lovelace, who is credited with creating the world’s first computer programme, briefly lived here too, while a Wall Street Banker made a cool £55 million in the local pub (a Wetherspoons, no less, which serves the cheapest pints in England) after predicting the financial crash of 2008 (check out the film The Big Short, if you don’t believe it!).
Exmouthians have indeed shaped the world, and I was about to learn all about this small town’s big contribution to history on a brand new walking tour led by Martin. A Londoner-turned-Devonian, she was drawn to the town’s beaches during the lockdown, and now she wants tourists to dig a little deeper, as she tells tales of piracy and smuggling in Devon’s oldest beach resort.
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Exmouth: Devon’s oldest beach resort
“Exmouth has a huge range of attractions. There’s the towering cliffs of the Jurassic Coast and the hidden sights of the Exe Estuary.”Claire Martin, Founder of Exmouth Tours.
Exmouth’s old Victorian seafront rises steadily along the coast. The town’s marina, where new blocks of flat and smart gastro pubs have replaced old fishing cottages and wooden gangplanks, straddles the meeting point of the River Exe and the English Channel.
Martin had brought me uphill to ‘The Beacon’, where the grandest houses in Exmouth were built by the wealthiest residents in town. Blue plaques denoting places of historical interest are found outside the houses and hotels, while neat pleasure gardens offer striking views of the coast from their elevated position on the red, sandstone cliffs of South Devon.
“This was the most popular street in Exmouth,” she said. “At least, it was back in the 18th century.”
Exmouth’s claim to be Devon’s oldest beach town goes back to the 1760s when King George III’s personal physician gave it a stirring review. He particularly recommended the town’s mineral waters, which were said to possess certain healing qualities for those with ailments. He kick-started a seaside boom that was driven ever-onwards at a time when Brits weren’t able to visit traditionally popular continental haunts like the south of France, due to ongoing wars with the French.
Lady Nelson moved to this street in 1803 after separating from Lord Nelson in 1800, Sir Fairfax Moresby died here in 1877 after finally returning home from his naval exploits across the world, and another blue plaque notes that landscape painter Sir Francis Danby retired here in the 1840s, drawn to Exmouth by the unarguably beautiful scenery.
The 19th century was clearly Exmouth’s heyday, but the view from The Beacon would have been very different from the one you find today. All of the land below, where you a long esplanade lined with shops and cafes does a roaring trade of ice cream and fish and chips in summer, was all reclaimed in the last century or so. Before this, there was seawater and red sandstone, a lasting testament to the formation of this coastline some 250 million years ago during the Jurassic period of prehistory.
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A coastline rife with smuggling
South Devon’s red cliffs may have taken shape millions of years ago, but Exmouth’s human history doesn’t really begin until around the 10th century. Although there’s likely been a ferry crossing here over the River Exe for millennia, most of what you find today was underwater until the Victorian period, and the area was only populated by a few low-key fishing villages and farms.
For much of its human history, though, Exmouth and the South Devon coastline have always been synonymous with smuggling. “We’re closer than you might think to France,” said Martin as walked from the sandstone clifftops down to the Maer, an area once used by smuggling gangs to offload their contraband from ships. “Which meant this part of the country was ideal for this illicit trade.”
Smuggling was a response to the high tariffs imposed by the government on goods brought across the English Channel. Although classic items like whiskey and wine were no doubt smuggled, what’s really surprising is the mundane nature of much of the contraband, which included heavily taxed household items like tea, sugar and salt that we take for granted these days.
“To give you some figures, 1,300,000 lbs of tea were smuggled in 1743,”, Martin added. “And it’s estimated that £800,000 was lost each year due to smuggling activity.”
For Devon fishermen, running illicit goods was simpler and more lucrative than spending days out on the open sea hauling in nets. The rewards were high, and given that much of the coast guard and police were complicit in the trade, the risks of repercussions and even jail times were relatively low.
Smuggling across the English Channel has never really been stamped out, either. These days, though, the illicit trade is somewhat more nefarious than moving around salt and tea bags. In November 2022, for example, the Exmouth Journal reported that a luxury yacht in the town’s marina had actually been seized by police for carrying some two tonnes of cocaine. It was later auctioned off for a cut-price sum.
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A Pirate’s Life in Exmouth
“Walter Raleigh is one of my least favourite characters with a connection to Exmouth.”Claire Martin
As we walked along the seafront, and past the new beach bar and watersports centre that’s part of Exmouth’s ongoing revitalisation work, Martin explained how the town’s connection to the sea also brought with it piracy.
In the 15th century, a notorious pirate named William Kidd terrorised shipping lanes from his base in Exmouth. His crew would raid shipping along the French coast, and then sail their hauls back to the harbour for sale. As Kidd was operating during the Hundred Years’ War with France, his piracy was sanctioned by the King of England, although he stepped over the mark when he plundered ships from Jersey and Guernsey.
This form of state-sanctioned piracy (which became known as ‘privateering’) took off during the Elizabethan era when English ships wrought havoc amongst the Spanish ships bringing back gold from the Americas. One of English history’s most infamous privateers was Sir Walter Raleigh, who was born and raised in the nearby village of East Budleigh, where a statue of him stands to this day.
Raleigh completed journeys of ‘exploration’ to the Americas, where he was involved in acts of piracy and early English colonisation. Queen Elizabeth I awarded him a potentially lucrative charter, which allowed him to effectively conquer and plunder any “remote, heathen and barbarous lands, countries and territories, not actually possessed of any Christian Prince or inhabited by Christian people.” Eventually, though, Raleigh lost the favour of Queen Elizabeth I and was executed on spurious grounds of treason.
Martin would rather he didn’t have a statue in the area. “Walter Raleigh is one of my least favourite characters with a connection to Exmouth,” said Martin. “He has a lot of credit for things that he most likely didn’t actually do (like planting the first potato in Ireland), but he did get involved in slave trading and other nasty business.”
Lesser known is the fact that the people of South Devon also suffered from acts of piracy themselves. In the 16th century, places like Exmouth were often raided themselves by the Spanish or French, while Barbary Pirates pillaged the coastline in search of slaves. Many a Devonian was whisked off to the slave markets of North Africa, never to return home again.
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A walking tour along Devon’s oldest beachfront
Try Krispies, for Exmouth’s award winning fish and chips.Travel Tramp’s Travel Tips
On the surface, Exmouth looks like many a resort town in England, but dig a little deeper and there’s a fascinating past that you can’t learn by sitting on the beach.
That’s where Martin hopes to shake up the tourist scene in Exmouth with her new walking tour, and she’s particularly excited given that new projects -including the new beach bar we walked past, a revitalised seafront and even a coworking space for digital nomads – are reinvigorating this old seaside town.
How to explore Exmouth’s history
Exmouth is well connected to the UK’s southwestern rail network. Exeter is just a half-hour train ride away, from where you can catch trains to Bristol, London, and further west towards Plymouth and Cornwall. Check out National Rail for train services, or National Express for long-distance bus services. The town’s train station is just a two-minute walk from the town centre where Exmouth Tours begin their walks several times a week from outside the tourist information office.
Check the Exmouth Tours website for an up to date schedule.
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