In 1920, travelling down from Paddington to Kingswear by rail and crossing the river Dart on a small paddled ferry, our grandfather, Robert, found himself waiting for a bus outside the chocolate and cream Great Western Station in Dartmouth, bizarrely the only station in Britain without a train nor tracks, just a long wooden slated walkway leading to the covered floating pontoon on which he had precariously stepped minutes earlier .(Note: A bridge over the river Dart was meant to take the railway into Dartmouth but there were strong objections from the local landowners. A compromise was made and although the track was laid to the East side of the river to Kingswear, a station with ticket office, waiting room and porters was built in Dartmouth). Since the end of the 1914-18 war, Robert, had worked with the Lines Brothers as a designer and draftsman in their small toy factory in South East London. He was a restless, creative man and had served on the Northwest frontier during the war as a staff sergeant. In between fighting the Afghanis he had helped stage the entertainment for his fellow men in the Royal Garrison Artillery with amateur theatricals and music hall productions. It was here far away on the lonely outposts of the British Empire when he first heard about the South Hams, a picture colourfully painted by the reminiscing of a fellow soldier whom had become a friend. Although losing touch with his friend after the war, in those intervening years he had often thought about the vivid alluring descriptions and it was with a growing impatience to see this beautiful place that eventually spurred him down to the West Country. Waiting for the bus that sunny June day, little did he know his life was to change so dramatically.
His planned destination was Salcombe, via Kingsbridge. The first part of the journey along the coast road from Dartmouth to Torcross was through an undulating landscape with lush green patchwork fields, the road taking him along to the old cliff top village of Stoke Fleming, from where he travelled down the snaking road to Blackpool Sands, getting his first sight of Start Bay before entering a small pine wood, with flickering glimpses of sparkling blue sea and golden beach through the trees on his left. The road rising again wound sharply around the growing slate cliffs and looking back my grandfather thought the setting could easily have come from a Mediterranean postcard. On the descent from Strete, another clifftop village along this stretch of road, the expansive curve of Start Bay and its unique shoreline opened out in front of him, a two mile stretch of shingle bar, Slapton Sands, and a freshwater lake like a fragment of mirror lying to its landward side was Slapton Ley. Travelling along the sands road was such a unique experience to have the sea one side and a freshwater lake the other, by the time the bus stopped in the small fishing village of Torcross at the far end, he was completely mesmerised by such stunning natural beauty. The bus driver took a half hour break, this was a tradition carried on from the stage coaching days which had ceased only a few years earlier in 1917when the poor horses were taken for the front. Since the start of the coaching days from Kingsbridge to Dartmouth, Torcross had always been a staging post where the coachman would rest, feed and water his horses and then do the same for himself in the local Inn. It was obvious the machine age was not about to give up this time honoured routine despite having no horses. Still smitten from the scenic journey along the coast road, Robert wandered up the hill overlooking Torcross and near to the top, climbing over a gate into a barley field, his breath was taken again by another wonderful view of this unique landscape. He told us in later life that he knew he had stumbled on somewhere really special, and there and then he had decided to try and make this wonderful spot a home for his ambitions. He eventually made his way back down to the village and enquired who owned the barley field. Edward Hannaford, the local butcher and he struck a deal over the meat counter that afternoon and the field he stood in plus an adjoining one, six and a half acres in all, was purchased, pending finding a water supply which he did later with the help of a diviner. Needless to say he missed his bus but he did return to London a happy man, sold his small share in the toy business back to the Lines brothers and thus Greyhomes was born.(note: From that small factory beginning, the Lines brothers, many years later at their peak owned 40 companies world-wide, including the famous, Hornby, Meccano and Dinky brands).
Influenced by his time in India, Robert built five bungalows, each at different elevations on the hill over the next two years. One a dining room with kitchens at the back, three bungalows as accommodation with toilet and bath facilities adjacent to the bedrooms and at the very top of the hill, a glass fronted sitting room with easy chairs overlooking it all. Each had splendid outlooks and the guests would move around from one to another along the small paths laid out with planted borders and shrubs while rock gardens and terraced lawns gave more character to this colonial hill station inspired development. The name Greyhomes came from a ballad written in 1911 that had became extremely popular during WW1, “Little Greyhome in the West”, and remained so for many years, it evoked an ideal of life, love and place in the golden lighted West that held appeal particularly during the hard times of war.
Our grandfather completed the buildings in 1922 and was then joined by our grandmother, father and aunt. Opening that summer they all slept in the small gypsies caravan that grandpa had brought down with him to live in whilst building the bungalows. For our father who ran feral that first summer, it seemed a period of endless sunshine and freedom although in fact it was an indifferent summer weather-wise, cool and very changeable. We never knew how busy our grandparents were that first summer in Torcross, their sole source of advertising was through The British Railway timetable book and many of those guests would have arrived taking the same unforgettable route as my grandfather had two years previous or the Primrose line from South Brent following the picturesque river Avon to Kingsbridge. Arriving in Torcross they would be met by Robert or Florence, their luggage piled onto a cart pulled by pony up the hill to the Lichgate that marked the entrance to the little Greyhomes complex. Our Grandparents gradually built up the business over the coming years and in 1927 Robert dug the foundations out for the hotel building which he completed in late 1929, in the colonial style that defined Greyhomes. He designed the hotel with the view in mind, the public rooms were oak panelled, opened planned with large picture windows and Georgian arches. The hotel opened for business in 1930. Amongst the variety of guests that stayed at Greyhomes Hotel over the next decade there were several from the world of entertainment, actors ,actresses and theatrical agents. Dorothy Hyson spent January 1935 at Greyhomes, recuperating after an illness, she married Robert Douglas in the London spring, a glittering showbiz wedding attended by all the stars of the day including Douglas Fairbanks jnr and the reception was held at Lawrence Olivier’s house in Cheyne-Walk . Most entertainment in those days was created by the guests themselves organised by our grandfather. Each morning in reception, posted on the notice board would be the evening’s entertainment where guests would eagerly look, after their breakfast, to see whether it was charades, murder, piano recitals, or plays they would be participating in, there was a huge trunk of theatrical clothes to improvise with. Daytime there would be organised walks with picnics, tennis competitions and cricket matches on the beach against the Torcross Hotel. By now the bungalow accommodation had became annexes to the main hotel and early morning tea would be served 8am whatever the weather, to each bungalow.
The hotel had gained some success with the passing years and by the time of September 1939, when war was declared against Germany, Grandpa who had been drawing up plans to double the size of the hotel, had to suddenly curtail his ambitions. Although open throughout 1940, business was much reduced and at the beginning of June 1941 the hotel was requisitioned by the military. Our grandparents stayed on looking after the officers and troops billeted here but had to eventually leave in July 1943, going to Ashburton and never to return apart from family visits. The general evacuation for the whole area from Stoke Fleming to Beesands along the coast and as far inland as Blackawton, took place in November 1943. Not only the residents but farmers with all their livestock had to move out, as live munitions were going to be used and secrecy was paramount for the exercises. As the American G.I’s moved in, the whole area took on a completely new mantle. Over that winter and Spring of 1943/44 there have been many stories told and books written and the one overriding event was the disaster during an exercise, called “Exercise Tiger” in April 1944 that caused the deaths of 946 men, many more than the causalities during the actual landings on Utah beach (their ultimate destination). There were nearly two hundred killed by friendly fire on the first day of the practise assaults, due to a signal mix up and the remaining men died the following day, as their convoy came under attack from German E-boats. The Germans were able to inflict mayhem due to a guarding destroyer having to go back to port after a minor collision. In the confusion that followed many met their deaths drowning in the cold water. The exercise was under the strictest secrecy and although nominally reported after the war, remained largely forgotten until the Sherman tank was pulled from the Bay by Ken Small in 1984.
The local evacuees were allowed back to the area in November 1944, but it was over a year before my parents managed to get back to Greyhomes in late 1945, to find buildings neglected and the garden completely overgrown with brambles and running with wild rabbits. It was during their first days back that a feral ginger cat appeared and turned out to be the hotel cat , Tips, that had been regrettably left behind, nowhere to be seen, when our grandparents had to leave in such a hurry. Fed by the troops until they left in June 1944 and living off the abundant wild rabbits and voles he had managed to survive, although never becoming domesticated again he did live to eighteen years old. Michael Morpurgo has written a story called “Adolphus Tips” about a cat in similar circumstances.
Greyhomes Hotel opened for business again in early summer 1946 after frantic months renovating and tidying up. Our Mother, Joan, laboured over the antiquated range bequeathed from her parents in law, with no experience apart from family cooking she found that first summer season extremely hard going, fainting numerous times in the kitchen. Our father, Peter, had served in the Royal Navy Reserve during the war and speaking fluent German had liaised for the Navy in Hamburg immediately after the war, he was now recalled as a translator for the forthcoming Ravensbruck trials. Joan realised she could never survive another season at Greyhomes without help and an improved cooking range. For the later, an opportunity arose and this effected her first meeting with the well known reputable characters of Ella and Patience Trout at their hotel in Hallsands. Larger than life these tough self made sisters had worked their fathers fishing boat from their early teens when sudden ill health had prevented him. Living in the old fishing village of Hallsands( note: Hallsands was destroyed by a storm in 1917) with their ailing father, overworked Mother and two younger sisters, their sheer resourcefulness and physical strength had enabled them to support their family in a tough man’s world. Now successful, self made, even having cast the blocks for the mason whom had built their hotel, they stood before my Mother, physically impressive, Ella with large hands on formidable hips eyeing my mother’s slight frame, bluntly exclaiming she had not the build for the rigours of running a hotel and would not last long. Our Mother purchased the Aga range they were selling and was proud to say in time that Ella’s prophecy was well wide of the mark as she not only outlived her by many decades but worked hard for fifty years running Greyhomes successfully.
Joan, 28 years old, with two young children and no previous experience in hotel and catering, set about building Greyhomes Hotel up to its pre war reputation, our grandfather looking on from Ashburton learnt to respect the energy, stoicism and single mindedness of his daughter in law as she went about this, entering into a world totally alien to her suburban upbringing and work in fashion. The winter of 46/47 was vicious and protracted, a harsh cold that froze all the pipes and kept her two daughters for long periods in bed to keep them warm. Coal and water brought up from the village by foot. Eventually the southerly spring winds brought the thaw and with them the first of the help that proved so vital to our Mother. The arrival of our grandmother, Vera Westall (Nonie) from London who then committed her life to the support and help for her daughter which thus helped her to succeed at Greyhomes over those many years. A month later came Mable Steer, a fisherman’s wife from Beesands, , the eldest of nineteen children, whom at the age of fourteen went into service at Powderham Castle starting as a scullery maid. Joan honed many of her cooking skills from this knowledgeable, tough and experienced women. Several years later another addition was Percy Thuel from Beeson, whom had been advised by his doctor after a heart scare to give up the hard work of farm labouring and take on something less arduous. Ironically, taking on the garden and growing vegetables at the hotel proved as equally taxing physically as farm work but at least he had the satisfaction of being his own boss in the garden, bringing his knowledge and experience of the land to bear fruit, well! vegetables.
Over the coming years many guests would return year after year to this ‘little Greyhome in the West’ after discovering this ‘corner of heaven’; ‘where no place can compare’. From then to now Greyhomes has continually traded and is indebted to the legacy left by its predecessors. Although now completely self-catering, the extensive renovation and modernization over the years has endeavoured to retain its essential character, so guests can feel a part of its history and atmosphere, a unique setting in a surrounding landscape little changed from our Grandfathers day.