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Sights & Scenes of the British Isles

Photo Focus: Dawlish, Devon

by Peter Kessler, 2 September 2023

 

Dawlish, Devon
Photo © P L Kessler

The town of Dawlish in the county of Devon is a traditional seaside town, one which has a wonderful golden sand beach on its doorstep.

It lies just twenty-four kilometres from Exeter. The town offers a range of amusements and is centred around 'The Lawn' and 'The Brook', which is home to the famous black swans.

Dawlish, Devon
Photo © P L Kessler

The South Devon Railway line separates the town from the beach as part of the Great Western mainline which was built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

This is considered to be one of the most scenic railway lines in Britain.

Dawlish, Devon
Photo © P L Kessler

It runs along the coast between Exeter and Newton Abbot, providing wonderful views along the Exe Estuary and out to sea.

The line runs under the distinct red brown cliffs of South Devon and through a series of dramatic tunnels immediately to the west of Dawlish, literally metres from the shoreline the entire time.

Dawlish, Devon
Photo © P L Kessler

The line was first constructed as part of the 'Atmospheric Railway', a system which used atmospheric power to propel trains with the use of pumping stations, pipes, and flaps.

Victorian technology proved unequal to the task so it was abandoned in favour of a more typical design.

Dawlish, Devon
Photo © P L Kessler

Pumping stations and exhibits can be seen along the line and in local museums, while the railway, bridges, and tunnels which Brunel built can still be seen along the route today.

Dawlish, Devon
Photo © P L Kessler

The brook which runs through the centre of Dawlish is home to a range of birds and also the famous black swans which have been residents in Dawlish since at least the early 1900s.

This is lined on either side by 'The Lawn' which is bridged at various points. This provides a major tourist attraction and also many quiet spaces in the heart of this fairly busy seaside town.

Dawlish, Devon
Photo © P L Kessler

The first inhabitants of Dawlish were fisherman and salt-makers, ancestors of the Dumnonii tribe of Britons.

This Iron Age industry continued to be practiced throughout Roman occupation between AD 43-410 and perhaps afterwards within the kingdom of Dumnonia, while the town also benefited from farming in the surrounding countryside.

Dawlish, Devon
Photo © P L Kessler

In 1044 Edward the Confessor granted an estate at Dawlish to his chaplain, Leofric, who had been brought up and educated in Lorraine, an area which roughly corresponded with modern Belgium.

Dawlish, Devon
Photo © P L Kessler

It was in Lorraine that Leofric met the exiled Edward, and he returned to England with him in 1041, one year before Edward became king.

Three years later Edward appointed Leofric as bishop of Devon and Cornwall, based at Crediton before he moved the see to Exeter in 1050.

Dawlish, Devon
Photo © P L Kessler

Leofric retained his large Dawlish estate until his death in 1072, when he left it to the Catholic Church. The charter in which the gift was made survives.

During the Black Death of 1348 which killed perhaps a third of the entire country's population, no fewer than three Dawlish vicars succumbed to death by the disease.

Dawlish, Devon
Photo © P L Kessler

It was the railway which transformed the town, allowing many more visitors to enjoy its classic Regency and early Victorian styles.

Both Jane Austen and Charles Dickens stayed here, while Dickens chose Dawlish as the birthplace of Nicholas Nickleby.

Dawlish, Devon
Photo © P L Kessler

The pumping station at Dawlish was later demolished but remnants remain in the railway car park, used to add to a retaining wall. The first wooden station caught fire and was rebuilt in 1873.

In the late nineteenth century the broad gauge rails were changed to standard gauge (referred to by the sceptical GWR as 'narrow gauge') and the single-track line was doubled. The Victorian sea wall has very recently been fully refurbished and partially replaced following recent (severe) storm damage.

 

All photos by P L Kessler, taken in July 2021.

Main Sources

Visit South Devon

Dawlish Local History Group

 

Images and text copyright © P L Kessler except where stated. An original feature for the History Files.