Friday, 17 September 2010


I have heard it said , I don’t know on what authority, that the name Starcross is a corruption of Stair Cross and that it is an ancient name dating from a time when passengers landing there climbed an actual stair to an actual cross where, on their knees, they devoutly gave thanks for a safe crossing, presumably from Exmouth.

This is not as fanciful as at first it might appear. The ferries from Exmouth were a salient fact of mediaeval life on the Estuary and for many years up until 1267 they were in the possession of the Abbot and monks of Sherborne who may well have demanded a little piety, as well as a little money, from the people who were carried across to Starcross.

I have lately dipped into a book called ‘The South Devon Coast’ by the ‘Historian of British Highways’ Charles G Harper. He too had heard the ‘Stair Cross’ story, though not the ‘giving thanks’ bit. Unlike many travel writers he does not hesitate to disparage where he thinks disparagement is due. I find that healthy. I like his irony and his style. His writing is refreshingly unaffected for the times. His book was published by Chapman and Hall in 1907. Here is a sample:

“Starcross itself has been described as ‘a melancholy attempt at a watering-place’, probably by some person who regards Exmouth as a cheerful and successful effort in that direction; but ‘there is no accounting for tastes’ as the old woman said when she kissed her cow. As sheer matter of fact, Starcross never attempted anything in that way, but just like Topsy – ‘grew’ and so became what it is; a large village of one long, single-sided street, looking once uninterruptedly upon the`shore and the water, but since the railway came, commanding first-class views of expresses, locals and goods-trains; and more or less identified by strangers with a singular Italianate tall red tower, sole relic of the atmospheric system with which the then South Devon Railway was opened in 1846. This survival of one of the old engine-houses completes a conspicuously beautiful view along the Exe, raised thereby to the likeness of an Italian lake. The one other remarkable feature of Starcross is the curious little steamship, modelled like a swan, that for fifty of more years past has been moored off Starcross jetty: to the huge amazement of travellers coming this way for the first time.”

Well, ‘The Swan of the Exe’ was never a steamship but it stands to reason that it must have been something amazing to look out for from the trains for all those little boys and girls bound for West Country holidays. In those days children gazed out at the world. Nowadays the little monsters are encouraged to gaze into electronic toys on their laps, missing so much and so much.

And what fun to have the Estuary compared to an Italian lake as well as to the Bosporous.

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