No fruit – but much else to enjoy on Wild Pear Beach
Continuing our Secret Seaside series Martin Hesp has been to a beach famed for its non-existent fruit, its silver... and its nudists.
Wild Pear Beach. The name alone is romantic and enigmatic enough to send a million adventurers scurrying out towards Exmoor's western coastal fringe, but alas – as is so often the case in this humdrum life – the explanation for the designation seems pedestrian to say the least.
"There are no wild pears there," shrugs Kester Webb, who is the great master of the Exmoor littoral, having climbed, traversed, hiked, crawled and scrambled along every single inch of it.
"We knew a woman who told us her family went on a boat trip there many years ago and they asked about the name Wild Pear and the boatman said it wasn't anything to do with fruit: 'Tis Mr Wilpur's beach', is what he told them."
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Kester, who with his wife Elizabeth wrote the seminal Hidden Edge of Exmoor book, is not the sort of man to let such a reference go lightly…
"I couldn't find a single trace of any Wilpurs in Combe Martin when I researched the records," he told me. "My theory is that if there was a Mr Wilpur he was someone involved with the mining that was carried on here in the 1880s.
"There was an iron mine which opened out right there on the side of the Little Hangman – if you look at old pictures of Wild Pear Beach you will see a mine building perched some 100 feet above the waves. I suspect this Mr Wilpur would have been connected with that."
Kester refers to the Little Hangman – and if you ever go to Wild Pear Beach you will too. You could argue that no seashore anywhere is quite so dominated by anything as Wild Pear is by this vast conical hill.
There is nothing little about Little Hangman. It's a great big chunk of a thing that lords it over Wild Pear Beach like a miniature Matterhorn. To be precise, its lofty top measures an impressive 716 feet (218 metres).
And that, let me tell you, is impressive when there's nothing between it and the waves that lap at the mighty, cavern-riddled, skirts below.
You will know all about this altitudinous aspect if you ever make up your mind to visit Wild Pear Beach: although the path down to it begins its descent far below the conical peak, you still have a 400 foot-plus drop to countenance – which of course means a 400 foot-plus climb back up.
I'd say it's worth every weary step of the way down the little zig-zagging footpath – because Wild Pear has all the parts necessary to make it a perfect beach, especially at low tide. By which I mean plenty of good quality sand, lots and lots of rockpools teeming with marine life, mighty cliffs punctuated by mighty sea caves and huge boulders, all backed by vertiginous heath and woodland.
By the way, in the interests of good research I examined those scrub woodlands to see if I could find a pear tree and, alas, could not.
I did find some sheep, though, and they were the oddest looking sheep I have ever seen. So odd, that my lurcher – who is trained to totally ignore the existence of sheep – could not stop looking at them as they grazed along the suicidally steep slopes. I know why he looked at them – because their strange grey coats and beige heads gave them a curious dog-like appearance. I believe they were Herdwicks – although what these Lake District creatures made of this vertiginous salty billet, I cannot imagine.
Neither can I imagine what the miners of yore must have made of the place. Mines dot this series because they dot this region's sea-cliffs – and every time I see one perched in some impossibly crazy place above the waves, a small tsunami of weariness overcomes me.
The idea that anyone, ever, had to tramp all the way down to one of these isolated beaches, only to ascend some scary cliff, then enter its rocky bosom to descend hundreds of claustrophobic feet into the bowels of the unforgiving hills to earn a pittance somehow knocks the breath out of me.
The miners who dragged an estimated 9,000 tons of iron ore out onto Wild Pear Beach in the 1880s would have lived in nearby Combe Martin – which would have meant they would have climbed the steep inland fields of 500-foot high Lester Cliff each morning before descending to the beach below.
I mention their walk to work because it gives you some idea of the strange geography that occurs in the region of England's longest village. Look down at Combe Martin from its upper inland end and the community appears to sit snug in a valley that issues out from the hills. But actually the left-hand slope is a sham, in that it's only half a hill.
Reach the top of this hill on the coast path and you will see what I mean, for there you will realise that the other half contains nothing but fresh air, under which lies Wild Pear Beach.
One day, a very long time from now, the sea will further erode this half-a-hill to the extent that Combe Martin will have a much, much longer seafront – one that will run half its entire length. I'm talking thousands of years here, so the denizens of that comely community need not worry about sea defences just yet.
What they may have worried about a century-and-a-half ago was the threat of seeing their pretty village turned into a mining town.
"It nearly happened," says Kester Webb. "There were silver mines on the beach between Wild Pear and Combe Martin – one was so near high water level they had to build a wall around it to protect it at high tide.
"Wild Pear Beach is at the junction of two types of rock – west there's Combe Martin shale, which had silver lead ore in it – to the east there's the Hangman grit.
"There was a lot of prospecting here in the 1880s when they were looking for manganese for making steel. They mixed it with iron to stop it rusting.
"But in the silver mines they came across a lot of zinc – and they didn't know what it was so they left it. When corrugated iron came along they were opened up again," said Kester, who once owned his own silver mine in these parts.
"That's another story," he told me, before adding: "I don't think anyone ever made any money out of the Combe Martin mines – but they certainly put the effort in."
Kester later phoned me with another thought about the strange and romantic name: "You know Wild Pear is a designated nudist beach don't you? For years locals have been telling visitors the name refers to topless women sunbathers – saying its actually spelled Wild Pair…"