Budleigh Salterton

Budleigh Salterton seascape
"No seaside resort in the West of England is better suited for the recovery of the invalid, for the recreation of the casual visitor, or for prolonging the life of the resident." (T N Brushfield, local historian, 1902).

Red cliffs and pebbled beaches

Budleigh Salterton is an attractive town, with a variety of independently owned shops, about 15 miles to the south-east of Exeter nestling on a delightful stretch of the East Devon coastline. It is situated to the west of the mouth of the River Otter, and is the only town within the the East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

red cliffs and pebbles on the beach

The red cliffs form part of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, although much of the geology is Triassic. Its famous smooth bun-like pebbles (or cobbles) on the beach are unusually large for the East Devon area. It is said they were thrown up onto the beach by the Great Storm of 1824, partially blocking the Otter Estuary where they have remained ever since.

In the dry summer of 2006 the clear shallow waters of the Otter flowed gently past the pebble bed to the sea, reaching little more than knee height as I waded across to the foot of the cliffs. As I sat there basking in the heat of the early July sunshine, young children paddled their inflatable dinghies in the wider stretch of river behind the red cliffs.

From the sonnet To the River Otter by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
Dear native Brook! wild Streamlet of the West!
How many various-fated years have past,
What happy and what mournful hours, since last
I skimmed the smooth thin stone along thy breast,
Numbering its light leaps! ...

mouth of River Otter

A demographic downer

Budleigh Salterton was established as a seaside resort as long ago as the early 19th century, but today perhaps with some justification it is derided as a genteel backwater, a haven for the frail and elderly to while away their twilight years. In the early 1960s there were thirteen hotels. After the closure of the railway in 1967 many hotels were demolished and replaced by flats. Others became nursing or residential homes.

Now most incomers are pensioners, and in 2004 half the population was over 50 with a third being over 70. East Devon as a whole ranks third in the country in this respect with 30 percent of the population at pensionable age or older according to the 2001 census.

Architectural gems

The town is graced with several attractive early 19th century properties, the most well known of which is Fairlynch described in Cherry and Pevsner, The Buildings of England - Devon (1989) as

"a cottage orne´ with a neat symmetrical front, with arched windows with Gothick(sic) glazing flanking a pointed oval window above the thatched porch. A tiny thatched belvedere rises above the roof."

Fairlynch was opened as a museum in 1967. Today it houses displays of costumes, historical artifacts, and many other things besides.

Fairlynch Museum
Fairlynch Museum

Salty tales

In 1210 Budleigh Salterton was known as Saltre, which by 1405 had become Salterne, both names stemming from the saltpans used in the Otter estuary. This eventually became Salterton. The town was sometimes known as Ottermouth. Nowadays this refers to the undeveloped area to the east of the town where the River Otter flows into the sea. The reedbeds of the River Otter estuary can be seen behind the pebble bank. This area is a haven for migratory birds and has been accorded Site of Special Scientific Interest status.

River Otter Estuary
River Otter Estuary

The Boyhood of Raleigh
"The Boyhood of Raleigh"

Sir Walter Raleigh was born nearby at Hayes Barton, close to the village of East Budleigh. The iconic "The Boyhood of Raleigh" was painted in Budleigh Salterton by Sir John Everet Millais three hundred years after Raleigh's time. It now hangs in London's Tate Gallery (the scan shown is ©Mark Harden ). The second child is Raleigh's friend Humphrey Gilbert.

Literary allusions and delusions

Associations between Budleigh Salterton and notable literary figures abound, but on close scrutiny some of these links appear to be unfounded.

It is certainly true that in Noel Coward's comedy Blythe Spirit, Elvira Condomine the first wife of the main character Charles Condomine evokes the town's quintessential faded charm when she whinges:

"Nobody but a monumental bore would have thought of having a honeymoon in Budleigh Salterton. I was an eager young bride Charles, I wanted glamour and music and romance. What I got, was potted palms, seven hours of every day on a damp golf-course and a three piece orchestra playing 'Merry England' ".

There is also an allusion to the town in Anthony Trollope's novel He Knew He Was Right:

"Now there came to her one day at luncheon time, on the day succeeding that on which Miss French had promised to sacrifice her chignon, a certain Mrs Clifford from Budleigh Salterton, to whom she was much attached. Perhaps the distance of Budleigh Salterton from Exeter added somewhat to this affection, so that Mrs Clifford was almost closer to our friend's heart even than Mrs MacHugh, who lived just at the other end of the cathedral."

Travel by public transport to Exeter would have been a two-stage journey when the novel was written in 1868. The rail link from Exeter to Exmouth was opened in 1861, and according to Black's Guide to Devonshire (1882), trains from Exeter to Exmouth took 25-30 minutes, with horse-drawn omnibuses running 3 or 4 times a day from Exmouth to Budleigh Salterton taking 50 minutes. The journey time would have been much reduced after the railway link to Budleigh was opened in 1897.

D. St. Leger-Gordon, writing about Devon in 1950 recalls those pre-rail days:

".. Budleigh Salterton, within personal memory a tranquil little shingle-beached fishing town, to which a three-horse bus from Exmouth provided the sole means of transport."

Contrary to what we read in the online tourist guides, Arthur Mee's Devon (1938) tells us it was Anthony's less illustrious brother that lived in the town, though he spent most of his life in Florence:

"On a house in Cliff Terrace a tablet tells us that here lived Thomas Adolphus Trollope, brother of the famous Anthony. ... His writing was always interesting, but ephemeral, and though he wrote 60 books (20 about Italy) nothing he wrote is read today."

Many online tourist guides assert that P G Wodehouse is in some way connected to the town, though I cannot find anything to substantiate this: for example, there is no reference to it in the potted biography at the P G Wodehouse Society (UK), nor in the more comprehensive biography in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biographynote1

At the time this article was written, a curious attempt to forge the link was given here:

"Budleigh Salterton was also the setting for a book by P.G.Woodhouse called 'Nemesis' which was made into a film in 1986, starring Peter O'Toole and Richard Briers."

Unfortunately the author is wrong and so is the spelling of his name! The filming in 1986 at Budleigh Salterton was of Nemesis by Agatha Christie, a mystery in the Miss Marple series, according to IMDb. This source also shows that a film of the P G Wodehouse comedy Heavy Weather starring Peter O'Toole and Richard Briers was made in 1995 in Sudeley Castle, Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, famously the setting for the UK wedding of Elizabeth Hurley and Arun Nayar in March 2007. This later film appears to have no connection with Budleigh Salterton, nor was either book set in this townnote2.

A plausible explanation for the origins of the Budleigh-Wodehouse link is given in the Journal of a Southern Bookreader blog. It transpires that the title of Wodehouse's 1929 story, Unpleasantness at Bludleigh Court has been misnamed in various sources by the dropping of the first 'l'.


Iain Sproat, 'Wodehouse, Sir Pelham Grenville (1881-1975)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sept 2010 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/31851, accessed 10 Nov 2013] (Requires login credentials.) [return]
We due fairness I'm happy to report that www.westbay.co.uk has been updated at some point, and the corrected text says that it was Nemesis by Agatha Christie that was filmed in Budleigh Salterton. [return]


The Budleigh Salterton Town Design Statement from East Devon District Council was used as a source of historical and other information.
The thumbnail of Fairlynch is reproduced by kind permission of The Budleigh Diary whose new website appears to be under construction (as of November 2013).
I defer to the current copyright holders for the use of the very short extracts from these works:
The King's England, Devon, edited by Arthur Mee, Hodder and Stroughton, 4th Impression 1949.
Devonshire by D. St. Leger-Gordon, Robert Hale, 1950.