Devon Life Magazine
Perfect Prawle
Perfect Prawle

It's 30 years this summer since we discovered Prawle Point. A friend had said there was a farm where you could camp, and it was safe for children; and in East Prawle, the village above the point, there was a reasonable pub called The Pig's Nose. It was one of those casual introductions that change your life: your first cigarette, your first aqualung dive, your first Thornton's chocolate...

We were hooked. For two weeks every summer and for long weekends in between, we camped there. It was the mid-'70s; flower power had wilted everywhere else, but down here in the laid-back South-west it lingered on. We had steady jobs and a mortgage and kids, but what we really wanted was to be hippies. At Prawle, in ‘our field', we could be.

There were no showers, and the only loos were on the village green. To wash your hair – not something that real hippies did very often – you dodged the sheep and stuck your head under the tap in a distant boggy corner. It required dedication.

There were other families as daft as us. The population of our field waxed and waned but always there was a nucleus of sort-of friends and a circular encampment of perhaps a dozen tents. In the centre stood a long trestle table, a former market stall owned by one of our number; it was the focal point for cooking and eating and sampling one another's home-made beer while the kids chased frisbees round the field and argued about whose turn it was to sleep in which tent.

They still enthuse about it now, those kids, at thirty-something. When I asked my son what his clearest memories were he reeled them off: collecting field mushrooms in a saucepan, playing cricket on the bumpy grass, tying the tents to the car on a night of wild winds, being seasick in somebody's crab boat... My daughter was just as graphic: “A gang of us sitting in the porch of The Pig's Nose,” she said, her eyes alight, “and parents bringing us Coke and crisps and telling us to behave, even though they were the ones making the noise!”

And the fire, they both remember that. The big old house below our field was a lost cause from the very first flame. We stood and watched, helpless. There wasn't enough water in the mains so the fire crews laid out half a mile of hosepipe to the village duck pond and sucked it dry in minutes, to no avail. Years later, long after an elegant replacement has filled the site, we still call it ‘the house which burnt down'.

A mile out of the village, just west of Prawle Point, was Maceley Cove. Walking there on the sunniest days we followed sunken tracks where the air was thick with the summer-heated scents of greenery and sap and wildflowers. Nobody else knew Maceley existed, we thought; its perfect sun- soaked beach and clear blue water were our secret. On other days we'd wander the coastal footpath, catch a supper of crabs and shrimps in the rockpools, or simply lounge around the campsite and send the children to buy ice cream from the rudimentary village shop.

We soon learned that Prawle had its own microclimate; weather forecasts meant nothing. So on a Friday night, whatever it was doing back home in Ashburton, we'd throw a few things in the car and pick up a fish supper in Kingsbridge and be settled into our camp before dark. And early on Saturday morning we'd open the tent flaps and lie there, watching the sun climb out of the sea.

Things change. We climbed promotion ladders and discovered France and Italy. Our kids became adults and bought tents of their own, and ours began to leak. Which was about the time Joan Bakewell intervened. The programme was called something like Britain's Best Kept Secrets, and there was Ms Bakewell telling the world about Prawle. It seemed profane, a violation. Maceley had become public property; cabin cruisers moored 50 yards offshore and clouds of exhaust fumes swarmed up the beach like foreign invaders. Raucous yachtsmen popped champagne corks and played loud music; women lay ostentatiously topless on cabin roofs and men kicked beach balls and each other into the water. We half expected to see Joan herself, perched on a stainless-steel stern rail, Lady Bountiful: “Look, see what I've given you! Enjoy the peace, the solitude!”

Which, of course, is completely unfair – the programme only reflected what was happening in the world. If the '80s had brought a spirit of adventure, then with the '90s came boldness and wealth; people were looking for quality time and intensive leisure to make up for the long hours behind their computer screens. And Prawle, a laid-back haven where bureaucrats rarely trod, offered everything they wanted.

This summer we've been back. Driving into the village it all looks familiar: the duck pond is healthily verdant, a small boat lies abandoned on the village green, The Pig's Nose customers sprawl good-naturedly on the grass. Everything seems as it was that very first time, 30 years back.

But there is something… Suddenly I spot it, the single factor which is symptomatic of what has happened to Prawle over the last three decades. It sounds ridiculous, but it's the cars.

This used to be the place where nobody drove anything posher than a 2CV or a 10-year-old Escort. But now there are new BMWs and Audis everywhere and giant 4x4s jostle for parking spaces. The Piglet Stores, which once sold only the rock-bottom basics, now stocks enough bottled water to fill a trendy hot tub. And the presence of a fresh pineapple among the more regular fruit and veg says a lot about the customers this tiny village shop is catering for.

It's not just on the green where Prawle has shifted up-market. Round every corner the cottages are resplendent in fresh Sandtex; some once-simple semis – ex-local authority houses perhaps – now have extensions and conservatories and parasoled patios. There's a new house or two, slotted between the old and trying to look as if it belongs, but in a casual way. And ‘casual' fits this place and the people too, except that often now it's ‘designer' casual, with accents to match. Prawle has become not exactly stylish, but fashionable in a city-meets-country way; not just nouveau riche but nouveau rustique.

And its appeal is growing stronger. Some former second-homers now live here permanently; others have found that with internet access they can work here almost as efficiently as they can in London or Bristol – any slight deficiencies are outweighed by the gain in quality of life. And there are determined efforts to retain Prawle's quirkiness: mobile phone reception is dreadful but BT's old-fashioned red box caters for e-mails and text; The Pig's Nose refuses to accept credit cards and still provides a coin-in-the-slot shower room for post-hippy campers. Parking fees are voluntary: ‘In aid of church, village green and play area'.

Down at sea level, Maceley Cove is perfect and pretty but crowded; dive boats swarm below Prawle Point itself where rusting chunks of the Demetrios, the ship famously wrecked here in 1992, reveal themselves as the tide recedes. Above, in the revamped look-out station, Coastwatch volunteers show endless visitors round with a patient courtesy. And the walk back through the lanes to the village is not the traffic-free stroll it once was.

The Pig's Nose Inn offers refuge. Peter and Lesley Webber bought the place on an impulse seven years ago after a London-based career in the music business. But Peter was born in these parts and Prawle has been a sort of homecoming; Lesley, a life-and-soul-of-the-party type, has obviously found her own niche here too. And they've brought the music with them – big-name bands now regularly play in the 200-seat hall next door.

Over dinner in the pub (chef Carlo's scallops in ginger cream are sensational) we slowly understand what it is that has happened to Prawle these last 30 years. And the answer is, truthfully, not much. We'd almost expected not to recognise the village, to find its spirit damaged by the influx of incomers and weekenders and money. But it feels no different, a wacky, happy-go-lucky little place, in countryside which is busier but as fabulous to look at as ever.

And then we wandered across the road to ‘our field'. Tents have gone all high-tech now but little else has changed. Even the farmer's name on the field gate was the same, and the hand-scrawled list of rules seemed familiar. Especially the last item: ‘If you wish to be noisy please camp on another site'. No, this one was fine. All we ever wanted was peace and we, the would-be hippies, found it here at Prawle. Others have found it too, but hey, that's cool, man.



AUTHOR: Ian Chamberlain