There we were on an eight foot high platform with waves coming at us from either side. Mum and Dad, both 80, gripped the engine housing whilst I hung onto the outer rails. There were no seats – just a roof to keep the worst of the rain off (unless it’s horizontal), a driver (who used to be a sign writer and now has one of the most unusual jobs going) and, somewhere below the raging surf, enormous great wheels.
As a mode of transport, the Burgh Island sea tractor takes some beating. Capable of carrying about ten passengers, it trundles to and from the mainland in a rather jerky, unexpected way. When we rode it, strong winds had stirred up a dramatic seascape but, far from feeling nervous, we all felt excited. Much like Monsieur Poirot, no doubt, at the start of a murder mystery.
Linked to South Devon by a causeway that gets submerged by the tide twice a day, the Burgh Island Hotel literally is a place apart. Not only do you leave your car behind in a secure garage at Bigbury-on-Sea, you also say goodbye to much of modern day life. Which is why we wanted to go there. Mum and Dad were both born in 1931 and the hotel opened a year later. Whilst Dad spent his early years playing with bucket and spade on Bigbury Beach, the likes of Noel Coward, Agatha Christie and Edward VIII were enjoying the elegant, sophisticated surroundings of the hotel opposite. As he enjoyed sandwiches laced with sand, they sampled fine cuisine. And whilst he splashed around in the waves, they reclined on chaises longues and took dips in the stunning, naturally formed Mermaid’s Pool.
Now, nearly 80 years on, it was Dad’s turn to be ferried across the causeway and ushered into the Art Deco splendour that is The Burgh Island Hotel.
“Look, Lloyd Loom chairs,” said Mum, as she and Dad were shown into the Chirgwin room where they were staying. “We used to have those at home.”
Other blasts from the past followed – the shiny black Bakelite telephone, a radio you have to tune in with a dial, authentic 30s’ furniture and cast iron baths. Forget bedroom TVs, coffee-making facilities, mini bars and even a reliable mobile phone signal. There is free Wi-Fi and a wide-screen television in the basement library but otherwise it’s the best of yesteryear that presides here, not the present. And that, of course, is its appeal.
Exploring our adjoining rooms was fun (I was in ‘Fruity Metcalfe’ with one of the largest bathrooms I have ever seen) but the piece de resistance was walking out onto the balcony. Running the entire length of our two rooms, it afforded wonderful views of the surrounding sea and landscape. So much so that I spent a good half hour out there in the middle of the night just looking at the stars and listening to the waves.
The hotel organises two dinner dances a week, on Wednesday and Saturday, and dressing up for the occasion is de rigueur. We were there for the Wednesday night and, despite being winter and in the middle of a working week, there were plenty of other guests, all dressed to kill. Cocktails and canapés were served in The Peacock Bar with its impressive domed glass ceiling, its orchid pond and its irrepressible barman Gary who has worked on the island for 18 years. He’s something of a legend and a hotel feature in his own right. Warm, funny and with an innate ability to put guests at their ease within moments, he produced memorable Singapore Slings for Dad and I and, with a well-practised eye for detail, ensured everyone felt like a glamorous VIP.
Dinner in the ballroom was a gastronome’s delight. I enjoyed lobster and crab raviolo followed by roast monk fish and dark chocolate fondant whilst an excellent three piece band encouraged everyone to get up and dance – including Mum and Dad who proved you’re never too old to foxtrot, quick step or waltz.
Burgh Island is dramatic but tiny so after walking to its peak the following day and discovering the old, reputedly haunted Pilchard Inn with its candlelit interior, we boarded the sea tractor and headed for the mainland. A lot has happened in the last 80 years but, according to Dad, the roads around Bigbury are just as narrow and the villages just as quaint. As part of our nostalgia trip, we stopped at The Turtley Corn Mill in Avonwick for lunch. Completely renovated in 2005, the mill has six acres of grounds and an appetising menu that ranges from full-cooked meals to lighter snacks. Once owned by an uncle, Dad spent a month living there as a young boy during World War II so the family photos lining the walls held particular fascination.
South Devon has a lot to recommend it and we all enjoyed visiting Dartmouth with its beautiful harbour, Modbury with its steep hills and Slapton Sands with its long beach and tragic wartime past. Returning to the Burgh Island Hotel for one last night of unashamed indulgence, however, was the icing on the cake. We played snooker, laughed over proper pots of tea and again donned our glad rags to dine in Art Deco splendour.
2012 is the hotel’s 80th anniversary. As an octogenarian, it really has found the secret of eternal thirties’ youth.
The Burgh Island Hotel from £430 per standard double room per night, includes breakfast, dinner and VAT (01548 810514 www.burghisland.com ). Turtley Corn Mill, Avonwick (01364 646100 www.turtleycornmill.com )