Traffic gridlock, litter and 'mayhem' – a dispatch from the Devon resort of Salcombe

Anna Turns
·4-min read
salcombe - swns
salcombe - swns

“I’m on holiday – I don’t need to social distance,” said one visitor

Having lived in the Salcombe area for 16 years, I’m used to avoiding crowds along Fore Street and the most popular beaches during August, but this summer has been different.

The dynamics changed very dramatically after lockdown lifted; it went from being from a sleepy coastal town of 2,000 residents to a very lively staycation destination even before the school term officially finished. There was a sudden influx of visitors – car parks filled up, the boat slipway was chaos, and shops got busy.

On local Facebook groups, I’ve noticed increasingly frequent reports of troublesome behaviour; illegal drinking in public spaces, littering in the parks, even a smashed windscreen. 

Normally, the population swells to 22,000 during the Salcombe Regatta, which should have taken place this week. But the local council estimates that this figure could currently be closer to 25,000 because holiday accommodation has been at 100 per cent capacity since the industry reopened on July 4, and it’s due to stay that way until the end of October. 

Generally, locals understand that some degree of summer craziness comes with the territory – Salcombe comprises nearly 60 per cent second homes, according to the Salcombe Neighbourhood Development Plan.

Personally, I appreciate how very lucky I am to live by the sea and I realise that the livelihood of shop owners, fishermen and restaurateurs rely on tourism. I can also confirm that a lot of visitors have been wearing masks, queuing patiently and taking sensible measures to adhere to social distancing. Others, however, just don’t seem to think the rules apply to them.

A friend of mine has been shielding since March because her son is high-risk, and tells me she’s been made fun of for wearing a mask in public. Confoundingly, one visitor even told her: “I’m on holiday – I don’t need to social distance.”

A few weeks ago, the council installed clear signage and painted yellow footprints up and down the main streets to indicate that people should walk on the left. Still, large groups of people walk across the entire width of the road, seemingly oblivious. Small towns like this simply aren’t built for social distancing – some of the streets are extremely narrow. 

Queues outside a food shop - swns
Queues outside a food shop - swns

As the founder of the plastic pollution campaign called Plastic Clever Salcombe, the amount of PPE litter I’ve seen is just salt in the wound. I’ve spotted single-use masks floating on Salcombe estuary and strewn along Hope Cove beach. Normally I’d pick them up myself but the threat of contamination is just too high right now. It breaks my heart to witness PPE being discarded like this, destined to remain in the ocean for decades if not centuries to come.

My husband has volunteered for RNLI Salcombe for 26 years and tells me: “We haven’t necessarily had more shouts than normal this summer but it feels like it’s got busier sooner. July has felt like August and the pager has gone off a fair few times in recent weeks, day and night.” 

Traffic is also busy on South Hams roads. On Friday morning, I ventured to visit a friend who lives near the popular surfing beach at Bantham. Twice when I tried to leave, the lane was totally gridlocked. Just before 1pm, cars had their engines off and drivers told me they’d been stationary for an hour. A couple of hours later, nothing had changed. Eventually, I left at 4.30pm and got home five hours later than planned. These country lanes just can’t cope with the sheer volume of traffic.

But it’s not all bad. While outside it may be mayhem, Su Alexander, owner of The Tree House is finding that her toy shop remains a sanctuary. “I’m in the shop all day and people have been lovely to be honest,” she informs me, “masks on, sanitising hands and queuing if busy. Nobody has been rude. But the streets are completely different. Some people are kissing and hugging people they meet, there’s broken glass and cigarette butts everywhere. It’s a real shame and there’s no police presence.”

So for the next few weeks, like many locals, I plan to lie low. We love being on the water but when we take our little boat out in the evening, we head up the creeks in the opposite direction to everyone else. This year we go that little bit further to find a peaceful spot, and no, I’m not telling anyone where that is.