At the end of a narrow country road and at the end of the River Avon is the village of Bigbury-on-Sea. The beach is popular with bathers and kite-surfers and there’s a large car park on a small headland overlooking the sea.
Immediately opposite the car park is a great draw for fans of modern literary history. Burgh Island and its art deco hotel, some 250 metres from the mainland, was popular with high society in the 1930s. It was such a desirable destination that King Edward VIII and his mistress Wallis Simpson stayed there, before he gave up his crown to be with her.
Arguably the most famous visitor was Agatha Christie, who set two of her stories – And Then There Were None and Evil Under The Sun – on the island. In the former story, a seemingly unsolvable series of murders in 1939 fells the residents one by one. Hercule Poirot sleuthed his way to solving a murder on the island two years later in a story which has since been made into both a television movie and a feature film.
Christie re-christened the village “Leathercombe Bay” in Evil Under The Sun, and the island became known as “Smugglers’ Island”. It is an ideal place to set a mysterious tale, as the island only becomes an island at high tide. When the waters recede, a wide stretch of beach connects the jetty next to the mainland car park with the jetty next to the small pub on the island.
I’d intended to visit only in order to take the photograph above, and not walk out to the island. The two stories inspired by the island are amongst my favourites and I didn’t want to spoil the images in my head. But once we were there, and the tide was receding, it seemed silly to miss the opportunity. Although we’d missed the chance to ride on the “sea tractor”, a huge piece of machinery which drives out through the sea to the island when the tide is in, we only had half-an-hour or so to wait until we could walk to the island.
The deepest channel on the beach is, perversely, right next to the island and so the final ten minutes or so on the beach were spent waiting for the last sliver of sea to retreat.
Once on the island, we passed the famous pub and entrance to the art deco hotel, both of which feature signs indicating that non-residents aren’t welcome. These signs have long been decried by other visitors, but I can understand their purpose entirely. The island is private, and has been a haven of solitude and privacy for nearly a century, so the fact that non-resident visitors are allowed to access the remainder of the island is a generous gift from the landowner.
Once past the hotel, a coastal path climbs to the top of the island, passing a precipitous cliff looking down to a tiny sliver of beach: what, presumably, must be the inspiration for Pixy Cove. The island is considerably smaller than the one in the stories, but it’s similar nevertheless: the southern side of the island is masked from the hotel and the mainland by the landscape, ensuring total privacy for visitors. The land here is just as beautiful as many other parts of the British coastline, with waving grasses and flowers, sandy soil, foot-trodden paths across rocky headlands and plenty of sea birds.
Page 1 of “Evil Under The Sun”, by Agatha Christie
When Captain Roger Angmering built himself a house in the year 1782 on the island off Leathercombe Bay, it was thought the height of eccentricity on his part. A man of good family such as he was should have had a decorous mansion set in wide meadows with, perhaps, a running stream and good pasture.
But Captain Roger Angmering had only one great love, the sea. So he built his house – a sturdy house too, as it needed to be, on the little windswept gull-haunted promontory – cut off from land at each high tide.
He did not marry, the sea was his first and last spouse, and at his death the house and island went to a distant cousin. That cousin and his descendants thought little of the bequest. Their own acres dwindled, and their heirs grew steadily poorer.
In 1922 when the great cult of the Seaside for Holidays was finally established and the coast of Devon and Cornwall was no longer thought too hot in the summer, Arthur Angmering found his vast inconvenient late Georgian house unsaleable, but he got a good price for the odd bit of property acquired by the seafaring Captain Roger.
The sturdy house was added to and embellished. A concrete causeway was laid down from the mainland to the island. ‘Walks’ and ‘Nooks’ were cut and devised all round the island. There were two tennis courts, sun-terraces leading down to a little bay embellished with rafts and diving boards. The Jolly Roger Hotel, Smugglers’ Island, Leathercombe Bay, came triumphantly into being. And from June till September (with a short season at Easter) the Jolly Roger Hotel was usually packed to the attics. It was enlarged and improved in 1934 by the addition of a cocktail bar, a bigger dining-room and some extra bathrooms. The prices went up.
‘Ever been to Leathercombe Bay? Awfully jolly hotel there, on a sort of island. Very comfortable and no trippers or charabancs. Good cooking and all that. You ought to go.’
And people did go.