Branscombe's recent history has been affected by two world wars, changes in farming methods, the migration of new residents, the rise of tourism, and the National Trust.
A photograph of Branscombe Mouth taken at the turn of the twentieth century, shows a small stone-walled enclosure where the Sea Shanty tearoom now stands. At this time, it was used to store coal that was brought from Wales by sea. Before that, it had been used to hold animals for shipment, or the burned lime from Branscombe's lime-kilns, to make fertilizer and mortar. In the 1850s, a Mr. Wheaton of Exeter built a mill here for the manufacture of Plaster of Paris, using the stream for power and water. The raw material was gypsum, found nearby. It failed because it relied on boats to get the product out, and Branscombe Beach is notoriously dangerous.
It's significant that the tea rooms have succeeded where these earlier attempts at diversifying Branscombe's economy beyond the traditional fishing and farming, have failed. The annual ebb-and-flow of tourists is now the life-blood of the community, and its chief employer.
By the turn of the century, a handful of summer visitors had discovered Branscombe, although they were of the hardier sort. Electricity, piped water and mains drainage were still thirty or forty years away. A couple of residents were letting rooms or serving cream teas in the season. Two small shops sold picture postcards. But this trickle of tourists had little impact on the life of the village. Right up to the First World War, the few private residences in Branscombe were occupied by people who were in some way related to each other. The Fords, Tuckers, Chicks, Coopers, and associated families, had lived in the parish for generations. Their names dominate the 1914-1918 roll of honour on the war memorial at the entrance to the church. Inevitably, one result of the war deaths was that the ownership of some land and houses in Branscombe was passed on to outsiders. This began a process of opening up the village which continues today. But the consequences of the Great War were not all tragic. The children of the village "adopted" a London school, Larkhall, in Clapham. Giant zeppelins were haunting the skies of London at this time, dropping bombs and incendiaries, so the Branscombe children sent letters of support. Later, they sent a consignment of sweet peas, to bring a breath of country air to their "adoptees".
This was followed by presents of blackberries, nuts, Christmas holly (perhaps gathered from the seven holly trees that used to grow near the school, and known to the children as the "Seven Sisters"), chestnuts, violet and primrose roots. Unfortunately, it's not known what the reaction of the Clapham children was, or whether any of them ever visited Branscombe as a result.
Twenty-five years later Britain was again at war, and Operation Pied Piper was in full swing. The Blitz was forcing the evacuation of London children to safety in country areas, and Branscombe played its part.
On September 1st 1939, 25 boys and girls from the Archbishop Tenison Primary School in Lambeth, boarded a train at Waterloo, with no idea of their destination. They alighted at Honiton and travelled by bus to Branscombe with their teacher, Miss Blackie. They assembled in the old village hall, from where they were collected by residents offering billets.
These children attended Branscombe School for 6 years, and must have become firmly attached to the community in that time. They were mostly taught by Miss Blackie, but the whole school regularly came together for gas-mask drill. The church was extensively photographed in case it was bombed. Fortunately, no bombs did fall on Branscombe, although squadrons of German bombers would regularly pass over, heading for the Midlands.
In 1944, another contingent of children, from Brixton, arrived, but by the end of the following year, all of them, including the original group from Lambeth, had returned to their homes and families in London. The one exception was their teacher, Miss Blackie, who married and settled in Sidmouth.
As early as 1932, a survey by the Council for the Preservation of Rural England had reached the conclusion that Branscombe was `well worthy of protection so that it may retain its unsophisticated charm.' The report recommended that the whole coastline from Beer to Sidmouth be preserved, and that's largely what's happened.In 1961, the National Trust bought most of the land formerly owned by the Ford family, including parts of the coastal strip along the southern boundary of the parish, and most of the village. This has now been preserved forever as a landscape of national importance, and there are strict rules governing development or building of any kind. Even the traditional field boundaries are maintained - which can be seen most clearly around and above the Mill Farm, itself owned by the Trust.
Many of Branscombe's summer visitors are regulars. The commonist conversation overheard in the pub on a warm evening is, "Oh, we've been coming here for years!" While residents of this `dear, queer little place, half as old as time' may occasionally wish the day-trippers would go away and not come back, it's worth a moment's reflection on why people come in their droves, often from far distant corners of the country or even the globe? After all, there are no funfairs, promenades, peep-shows, aquaria, video games, shopping centres, water slides, theme parks, mini-golf, or garish pubs with one-arm bandits. There's not even a fish and chip shop.
There's nothing to attract the visitor except fresh air, quiet, solitude, and history. Branscombe's value in the twenty-first century will be that it hasn't been developed. Here, it will still be possible to slip easily into the past. It's a rich legacy.